Book Review: Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church by Gregg R. Allison

Allison cover Strangers and Sojourners This book by Gregg Allison was an incredibly helpful volume. It was enjoyable to read, informative, and creative in its approach. The book is conservative in its theology, solidly evangelical and baptistic, and creative in its presentation.

Summary

There are two chapters in “Part One: Foundational Issues.” In the first Chapter, Allison discusses his own personal history of involvement with the church and says that although his experiences have influenced his ecclesiology, he is consciously working to ground his ecclesiology in the Scriptures. He also gives an overview of the book and then deals with the question of the sufficiency of Scripture for ecclesiology, concluding with his methodology for developing an ecclesiology.

In the second chapter, “The Church of the New Covenant,” Allison situates his doctrine of the church in his broader understanding of how the Bible fits together. He does this by looking at how the concept of covenant unfolds in the Old Testament, culminating in the New Covenant which God established with the church at Pentecost. He also examines the relationship between the church and Israel, and the church and the kingdom of God. He covers all of these topics from a progressive dispensational perspective.

There are two chapters in “Part Two: The Biblical Vision – Characteristics of the Church.” Each chapter covers several of seven characteristics that Allison says constitutes the nature of the church. In these seven characteristics he is consciously moving away from the traditional formulation of the characteristics of the church (“one,” holy,” catholic” and “apostolic”) because he believes that the traditional formulation dealt with contextual concerns that are no longer the pressing issues today.

Chapter 3 deals with “Characteristics Regarding the Origin and Orientation of the Church” (103). According to Allison, the church is doxological, logocentric, and pneumadynamic. He says, “Because its very existence is due to the triune God and his salvific work through Jesus Christ the Son and in the Holy Spirit, the church directs itself to the glory of God while focusing on the Word of God, always empowered by the Spirit of God” (104).

Chapter 4 deals with four “Characteristics Regarding the Gathering and Sending of the Church” (123). Allison says that the church is covenantal, meaning that the church is related to God and one another by covenant. The church is confessional, meaning that the church is “united by both personal confession of faith in Christ and common confession of the historic Christian faith” (132). The church is missional, or sent by God on the mission of “proclaiming the gospel and advancing the kingdom of God” (140). Finally, the church is spatio-temporal/eschatological, meaning that it is “assembled as a historical reality (located in space and time)” while also experiencing a foretaste of, and hoping in, the coming kingdom (148, 153).

Part 3 is called “The Vision Actualized – The Growth of the Church.” Chapter five addresses “The Purity and Unity of the Church” (161). It leans heavily on Wayne Grudem’s discussion of the topic from his book Systematic Theology. Allison affirms that the growth of the church will require effort to maintain the unity of the church and strive for the purity of the church. Chapter six addresses the need for church discipline in the growth of the church. Allison sees church discipline as foreshadowing of the judgment of Christ at His second coming (181ff). Whether the person repents and is forgiven or refuses to repent and is excommunicated, it foreshadows the final judgment that Christ will make at His coming. Matt. 18:15-20 and 1 Cor. 5:1-13 are discussed in relation to church discipline in the latter half of the chapter.

Part four is called “The Government of the Church.” This section is divided into three chapters. Chapter seven deals with church offices, specifically the offices of apostle, elder and deacon. It includes a robust 17 page discussion on gender roles in the church with reference to eldership from a complimentarian position (insisting only men may be elders).

Chapter eight discusses various forms of church government (polity). A really nice touch in this book that seems to be often neglected in ecclesiologies is an explicit discussion of Christ’s headship as it pertains to church polity. At the very beginning of the chapter, Allison affirms that Christ did not abdicate His headship to human ministers at the ascension but rather exercises His headship through human instrumentality (252-253). He then discusses the three traditional forms of church government: Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, and congregationalism. For each he gives a description, illustrates it with a particular group that holds to it, addresses common misunderstandings of the view, and then provides a critique.

Chapter nine is a discussion of the actual model of church governance that Allison advocates. He argues for an elder-led congregationalism with strong cooperative connections to other churches. He has a section that shows how the government of the church comes together, and a really helpful aspect is that he starts with the headship of Christ that “is not a mere perfunctory nod to His sovereignty over the church. Rather, the reality is worked out as churches pray fervently and seek intensely the mind of Christ for them” (305). He concludes the chapter with a discussion of why he supports at least some forms of multi-site churches.

Part five of the book is a section on the ordinances of the church. It has two chapters, one on baptism and one on the Lord’s Supper. The chapter on baptism (chapter ten) begins with a general discussion on the history of the sacraments in general, and then a brief history of the development of the theology and practice of baptism. He goes on to give a somewhat detailed discussion on the debate between reformed infant baptism and believer’s baptism, and then concludes the chapter with a discussion on the actual practice of believer’s baptism (since that is his view).

In the next chapter (chapter eleven) Allison discusses the Lord’s Supper. He first gives an overview of the development of the church’s view of the Lord’s Supper through the early and medieval periods. He then elaborates on the main historical views of the Lord’s Supper (Catholic, Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinist, and Anabaptist). After that he examines the main biblical passages – the institution by Christ and Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians. He seems to come down closest to Calvin’s “spiritual presence” view by saying that in the Lord’s Supper Christ is especially present to bless obedience and judge unworthy participation. He has an interesting take on participating “worthily” – he defines it in terms of our relationship with other Christians in the body. As far as who participates, he advocates “close” communion.

The next section of the book, part 6, contains a chapter on the ministries of the church. Allison discusses spiritual gifts as the divine enablement for ministry first, and then the ministries of the church including worship, proclamation of the Word, evangelism, discipling its members, practical care for members and the poor and marginalized, and finally taking a stand “for and against the world” (459ff, italics his). This last item includes engaging the cultural mandate for the benefit of humanity, while being willing to be critical of sin and injustice in the world. The book concludes in part seven, where Allison reviews the content of each of the chapters. He describes the church as having many paradoxical qualities (for example, the church is local and universal, earthly and heavenly, comprised of sinners and “unleavened” in Christ.

Analysis

I very much enjoyed this book and recommend it for its many strengths. One of them is its thoroughness. Every topic that is covered is covered in about as much depth as it could be considering the size of the book. Also, Allison’s handling of controversial topics is well done. He handles them graciously without suffering from paralysis of opinion, and he consistently reasons from Scripture. One good example of this is his lengthy discussion on gender roles in relation to church elders, in which he thoroughly defends his position with really good argumentation, but then lists the best of the opposing view’s arguments with resources in the footnotes where the reader can find more information.

In addition to handling every topic thoroughly, he also is thorough in his choice of topics. Helpfully he even discusses foundational issues like methodology, including a survey of views about how much we should expect the Scripture to speak to ecclesiology. Speaking of methodology, I also appreciate his conscious appeal to church history as a secondary source for theology (p. 103; although along these lines, I wish he would have discussed the characteristics of the church under the traditional categories of one, holy, universal and apostolic).

Some other things that make this book excellent include a section for each of the traditional forms of church government that includes common misunderstandings that people often have about the views (250ff). This demonstrates to the reader that he is being fair with his opponents. Again he is really helpful when he discusses the ministry of caring for widows. He points out that the section on giving to widows is often neglected in our churches, and gives practical advice for obeying God in this area in light of historical and cultural differences between then and now.

Finally I cannot say enough about the section on the headship of Christ in relation to church government (both officers and congregation). As I have worked through the doctrine of the church in the past, I have always felt like there was a disconnect between Christ as the head of the church and human governmental structures in the church. Allison has really hit the nail on the head in the way that he ties Christ’s headship to human leadership that avoids the Quaker model of “letting the Holy Spirit lead” and the semi-Catholicism where the pastor, elders or congregation act as the de facto head of the church (see my post here for some great quotes from Allison’s book).

One of the weaknesses of the book was that since he was trying to cover so much ground, there was a sense that he was just giving a sketch of each area. From time to time I got the impression that he was almost trying to accomplish too much. In the same way that a pencil sketch lacks real detail, at times there are some stray lines (that is to say, places where things are not as tightly worded as they could be) and some places that I wish he would have either been more clear or addressed the issue more simply (as in his definition of church discipline).

One area that is both good and bad was his use of a wide variety of sources. I appreciate that he gets input from various sources, but I wonder how much of Barth, N. T. Wright and Moltmann can be appropriated? And since he is solidly conservative in his theology it leaves me wondering why he wants to? Is it because they have had great insights that less conservative people have not had, or is it to make the book sound more scholarly? In addition, I tend to wonder to myself (especially with Barth) when I read their quotes whether the words mean the same thing in their original context as they do when Allison uses them in his book.

Obviously, with any book there are going to be places where the reader disagrees with the author, and that was the case for me with this book, but for the critical reader who knows where they stand on the big issues of ecclesiology, this book can be a great help.

Allison, Gregg R. Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

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