Essential Church: A Wesleyan Ecclesiology, edited by Diane Leclerc and Mark Maddix (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2014), 254 pages.
REVIEWED BY TIMOTHY R. GAINES
Questions surrounding the being, mission, and nature of the church have often left Nazarene pastors, congregations, and other leaders in a bit of a quandary. When faced with a particular situation or decision, who and what the church is ought to matter. But what if who and what the church is isn’t entirely clear? From the time of the Church of the Nazarene’s inception, our ecclesiology has reflected the historical realities of bringing various groups together and accommodating their different understandings of what the church is called to be and how it is supposed to function. The beautiful charity of what came together at Pilot Point, Texas, in 1908, however, also contained some ecclesiological ambiguity. At times, that ambiguity has provided little pastoral guidance in terms of how the church might respond to various social, theological, and ministerial questions. The question, “What’s a pastor to do?” is difficult to answer if we have not first asked, “What is the church?” or more specifically, “What is the role of the pastor, the superintendent, the laity, the sacraments, and preaching in relation to the church?”
Diane Leclerc and Mark Maddix have drawn together a collection of highly readable and concise essays that address the most pressing ecclesiological questions facing the Church of the Nazarene today. Essential Church: A Wesleyan Ecclesiology does what I wasn’t sure could be done: It brings together a collection of essays that advance a coherent ecclesiology while staying faithful to the Wesleyan tradition, a theological vein not historically known for a robust ecclesiology. To be clear, the editors of this volume don’t claim that this book will answer all ecclesiological questions, but this collection most certainly speaks into the void in a way that is helpful for Nazarene pastors, congregations, and leaders.
It becomes even easier to appreciate this book when you consider the challenges it must overcome. One of the most daunting dynamics facing a project like this is that John Wesley himself offered a scant selection of ecclesiological reflection in his written works. Still, many of the essayists who have contributed to this volume appeal to Wesley’s writings in some delightfully surprising and nuanced ways. One particular example is James Fitzgerald’s wellresearched analysis of Wesley’s appropriation of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion as a means of showing the reader what Wesley believed to be essential (and non-essential) about the being and mission of the church.
Leclerc and Maddix suggest three categories for understanding the being and nature of the church: the church at its core, the church’s essential functions, and the organization of the church’s polity. The inherent method contained in these categories provides a helpful corrective to the ecclesiological pragmatism that often emerges in ministry when a theology of the church is absent. The first section of Essential Church provides a theological foundation on which a Wesleyan ecclesiology may be constructed. Mark Mann and Diane Leclerc each offer a theological reflection appealing to the Son and the Spirit to ground a Wesleyan ecclesiology, respectively. Henry Spaulding and Hank Spaulding also offer a Trinitarian account of the church’s mission. Coupled with Eric Severson’s inspired suggestion that the church is best understood as an event of the kingdom’s in-breaking, rather than a rote institution, a Wesleyan theology of the Three-One God becomes the ground out of which a vision of the church grows.
The second part of the book addresses the church’s worship, its proclamation of the gospel, its works of mercy, and its formational practices, offering the reader valuable insight for how those practices might be informed by a specifically Wesleyan vision of the Three-One God. True to Wesley’s soteriology, these essays argue that worship of the triune God forms worshipers into the kind of people who are capable of extending grace to the “least of these” and living in God’s shalom as the essence of Christian association.
In the final section of the book, the structure of the church is given attention. Specifically, Richard Thompson, Rebecca Laird, and Brent Peterson address questions of ordination and the vocation of the laity, offerings I found particularly helpful in giving pastors an understanding of their ministry in light of what it means to be ordained. Jeff Crosno’s delightful offering envisions the pastor not as a manager of ministerial technique but as one who “embodies absolute dependence upon God.”
Essential Church is a remarkable fusion of historical—even ancient—theological wisdom that is brought to bear on Christian life and ministry in a contemporary context. Those who give this collection of essays attention—especially pastors, superintendents, and leaders—will find that the Christian tradition speaks to ministers of the gospel and that the wisdom of our apostolic heritage contains the ability to propel the church into God’s mission and future, especially as it is rooted in God’s history of salvation. The practices of sacramental worship, the understanding of the church as something other than a voluntary organization, the vision of the pastoral calling alongside the vocation of the laity—all of these issue a renewing call to live and move as members of Christ’s body with a richer understanding of the nature and mission of that body.
For an edited volume, certain helpful themes run through several of the chapters, suggesting a consistency of thought that logically unifies many of the contributions in a holistic sense. The concept of participation in God’s triune life unto sanctification, for example, is one of the more promising contributions a specifically Wesleyan theology can make to ecclesiology, and it is readily detectable through several of the chapters.
While essay collections offer the benefit of including a myriad of voices, perspectives, and ideas on a particular subject, they also are sometimes limited in that all of those ideas are not able to inform or influence one another as much as a book written by a single author. At points, I found myself wishing that some of the earlier essays could have “rubbed off” a bit more on some of the later essays—that the excellent pneumatological, christological, and trinitarian work done at the beginning of the book could have flowed more deeply into essays on the practices of the church. This, though, is where Essential Church actually presents the reader with an alluring challenge: to engage the material at the synthetic level. It furtively challenges the reader, “If these authors do not make explicit connections between their essays, how will you make those connections in your life and ministry?” And in asking that very question, this book signals to us that the work of Wesleyan ecclesiology is far from being completed.
Indeed, Leclerc, Maddix, and the team of contributors have offered the church a significant resource as it seeks to do the ongoing work of corporately responding to the grace of God’s redemption, and in so doing, to be made capable of being a people of faithful witness. For all who seek to understand more fully the being and mission of the church, especially those who are charged with giving oversight and guidance to the body of Christ to the glory of the Father, Essential Church is a gift awaiting reception.
TIMOTHY R. Gaines serves as co-lead pastor of the Bakersfield (CA) First Church of the Nazarene and as affiliate faculty at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He has a PhD from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.