“I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” – Jesus
Jesus came to build his church. All Christians affirm this to be true. However, there are major differences concerning the nature and purpose of the church. What kind of church did Jesus intend to build? What should it look like? How should it be structured? Who is part of it? What is its purpose?
Catholic theologian, Avery Dulles, provides a helpful resource in sorting through all the possible ecclesiastical options. In his book, Models of the Church, he gives an overview of the five main models of church: church as (1) institution, (2) mystical communion, (3) sacrament, (4) herald, and (5) servant. He demonstrates the strengths and weakness of each model. He concludes by integrating each model’s positive contributions to form a more comprehensive model of church.
Church as Institution
The institutional view “defines the Church primarily in terms of its visible structures, especially the rights and powers of its officers” (34). Church government is not democratic or representative, but hierarchical. Power is concentrated in the ruling class –the church officers – whose jurisdiction is patterned after the secular state. As officers of God’s sacraments, the clergy open and shut the valves of grace. Because the institutional model maintains that its leadership structure is part of the original deposit of faith handed down by Christ’s disciples, the authority of the ruling class is understood as God-given, and should be unquestionably accepted by the faithful.
The strength of this model lies in its visible manifestation of unity. Unlike any of the following models, all tests of membership are clearly visible. However, the weaknesses of this model are manifold. In the final chapter of his book Dulles states that this is the institutional model is the only one that must not be paramount. “The institutional model, by itself, tends to become rigid, doctrinaire, and conformist” (194). This does not imply (as many are quick to assume) that there is absolutely no value in institutions.  It simply proves that the institution must serve other ends besides its own preservation.
Church as Mystical Communion
In this view, the church consists of people of faith who are united by their common participation in God’s Spirit through Christ. The ties that bind are not institutional but pneumatological, communal, and personal. “The Church, from this point of view, is not in the first instance an institution or a visibly organized society. Rather it is a communion of men, primarily interior but also expressed by external bonds of creed, worship, and ecclesiastical fellowship” (55). The experience of ecclesiastical community differs from any other community in that it has both a horizontal and vertical dimension.
Communion in the sense of sociological group would be simply horizontal; it would be a matter of friendly relationships between man and man. What is distinctive to the Church… is the vertical dimension – the divine life disclosed in the incarnate Christ and communicated to men through his Spirit. The outward and visible bonds of a brotherly society are an element in the reality of the Church, but they rest upon a deeper spiritual communion of grace or charity. The communion given by the Holy Spirit finds expression in a network of mutual interpersonal relationships of concern and assistance. (49-50)
The strength of this model lies in its emphasis on the shared life of mutual fellowship in loving community. However, focusing on this alone can lead to disillusion, since the church is more than a friendly family of like-minded believers. Thus, it is important to recognize that
there is built into these ecclesiologies [churches that make mystical communion their primary emphasis] a certain tension between the Church as a network of friendly interpersonal relationships and the Church as a mystical communion of grace. The term koinonia (communion) is used ambiguously to cover both, but it is not evident that the two necessarily go together. Is the Church more importantly a friendly fellowship among men or a mystical communion that has its basis in God? (60-61)
Obviously, friendly fellowship and mystical communion are not antithetical to one another, but neither are they the same. The appropriate metaphor for church relationships is not lovers within the same home, but travelers on the same journey. “Christians commonly experience the Church more as a companionship of fellow travelers on the same journey than as a union of lovers dwelling in the same home” (61).
Put starkly, friendship and fellowship are not identical. If these two expressions are muddled, then confusion about one’s experience of ecclesiastical community will certainly occur. A member will expect a level of intimacy with all other church members that is not possible or sustainable. Gregory Baum warns of the dangers of unrealistic expectations in regard to one’s experience of community.
Some people… are eagerly looking for the perfect human community. They long for a community which fulfills all their needs and in terms of which they are able to define themselves. This search is illusory, especially in our own day when to be human means to participate in several communities and to remain critical in regard to all of them. The longing desire for the warm and understanding total community is the search for the good mother, which is bound to end in disappointment and heartbreak. There are no good mothers and fathers, there is only the divine mystery summoning and freeing us to grow up. (61)
In spite of the valid insights of the communion model, the church is more than communion. For this reason, the communion model “can arouse an unhealthy spirit of enthusiasm; in its search for religious experiences or warm, familial relationships, it could lead to false expectations and impossible demands, considering the vastness of the Church, the many goals for which it must labor, and its remoteness from its eschatological goal” (195).
Church as Sacrament
In this model, the church is a sacrament, a sign and transmitter of God’s grace in the world. A sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” As such, it is an efficacious sign, meaning that “the sign itself produces or intensifies that of which it is a sign” (66). In other words, it is “a true embodiment of the grace that it signifies” (223). Put most simply, the church truly transmits grace – the favorable presence of God.
One other aspect of a sacrament underscores and affirms the church as sacrament. Sacraments are communal realities and not individual transactions:
As understood in the Christian tradition, sacraments are never merely individual transactions. Nobody baptizes, absolves, or anoints himself, and it is anomalous for the Eucharist to be celebrated in solitude. Here again the order of grace corresponds to the order of nature. Man comes into the world as a member of a family, a race, a people. He comes to maturity through encounter with his fellow men. Sacraments therefore have a dialogic structure. They take place in a mutual interaction that permits the people together to achieve a spiritual breakthrough that they could not achieve in isolation. A sacrament therefore is a socially constituted or communal symbol of the presence of grace coming to fulfillment. (67)
The strength of this model is that the church truly is a sign and instrument of grace to its members and to the world. Sacramental theology also holds together the outer (organizational/institutional) and inner (mystical communion) aspects of the church. Dulles states that its weakness lies in that it “could lead to a sterile aestheticism and to an almost narcissistic self-contemplation.” (195)
Church as Herald
The herald model “emphasizes faith and proclamation over interpersonal relations and mystical communion” (76). “This model is kerygmatic, for it looks upon the Church as a herald – one who receives an official message with the commission to pass it on… It sees the task of the Church primarily in terms of proclamation” (76). The heralding church constantly calls its members to renewal and reformation. The pure word of God passes judgment on a church that never quite measures up to God’s holy demands.
The strength of this model lies in its emphasis on the message of the gospel. It is limited in that it is often not incarnational enough. Sometimes the spoken word eclipses the true Word of God – the Word made flesh. This is especially obvious when “it focuses too exclusively on witness to the neglect of action. It is too pessimistic or quietistic with regard to the possibilities of human effort to establish a better human society in this life, and the duty of Christians to take part in this common effort” (87-88).
Church as Servant
The servant model “asserts that the Church should consider itself as part of the total human family, sharing the same concerns as the rest of men” (91). The ministry of Jesus, the suffering servant of God who was certainly “a man for others,” provides the template for this model: “just as Christ came into the world not to be served but to serve, so the Church, carrying on the mission of Christ, seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood of all men” (91-92). As “the Lord was the ‘man for others,’ so much the Church be ‘the community for others’” (93).
The strength of this model lies in its emphasis on serving others and not simply serving the church’s self-interests. However, its weaknesses are manifold, especially when this model is given preeminence over all other models.
First, authentic service includes the ministry of the word and sacrament. In the New Testament, the term diakonia “applies to all types of ministry – including the ministry of the word, of sacraments, and of temporal help. All offices in the Church are forms of diakonia, and thus the term, in biblical usage, cannot properly be used in opposition to preaching or worship” (99-100).
Second, the church’s service toward the world rarely bears much resemblance to that advocated by those who hold this model. “It would be surprising to find in the Bible any statement that the Church as such is called upon to perform diakonia toward the world. It would not have entered the mind of any New Testament writer to imagine that the Church has a mandate to transform the existing social institutions, such as slavery, war, or the Roman rule over Palestine” (100).
Finally, an emphasis on service alone “may tend to dissolve too much of what is distinctive to Christianity.”
Christians who are inclined to this theory have constantly to ask themselves whether they have any clear message, whether they stand for anything definite that they could not stand for without Christ. Is revelation really necessary for man to accept the value of peace, justice, brotherhood, and freedom? Could not a Feuerbachian atheist be as effectively dedicated to these things as a Christian? Is not the whole Christian teaching about preaching and sacraments rather a burden than a help in bringing about a community of the spirit that cuts across the barriers among the traditional religions? (187-188)
For this reason,
the concept of service must be carefully nuanced so as to keep alive the distinctive mission and identity of the Church… Interpreted in the light of the gospel, the Kingdom of God cannot be properly identified with abstract values such as peace, justice, reconciliation, and affluence. The New Testament personalizes the Kingdom. It identifies the Kingdom of God with the gospel, and both of them with Jesus… Not to know Jesus and not to put one’s faith in him is therefore a serious failure. It is not to know the Kingdom as it really should be known… The notion of the Kingdom of God, which is rightly used by secular theologians to point up the dimension of social responsibility, should not be separated from the preaching of Jesus as Lord. The servant notion of the Kingdom, therefore, goes astray if it seeks to set itself up in opposition to the kerygmatic. (102)
Integrating the Models
Each model offers helpful insights and positive contributions. At the same time, in many regards the models are incompatible. However, if the best insights are preserved from each model and integrated together, a stronger vision of the church is achieved. This is what Dulles sets out to do in the latter half of his book. By integrating the models in such a way that their respective strengths are preserved, Dulles provides us with a larger, broader vision of the church.
Each of them [the five models] in my opinion brings out certain important and necessary points. The institutional model makes it clear that the Church must be a structured community and that it must remain the kind of community Christ instituted. Such a community would have to include a pastoral office equipped with authority to preside over the worship of the community as such to prescribe the limits of tolerable dissent, and to represent the community in an official way. The community model makes it evident that the Church must be united to God by grace and that in the strength of that grace its members must be lovingly united to one another. The sacramental model brings home the idea that the Church must in its visible aspects – especially in its community prayer and worship – be a sign of the continuing vitality of the grace of Christ and of hope for the redemption that he promises. The kerygmatic model accentuates the necessity for the Church to continue to herald the gospel and to move men to put their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. The diaconal model points up the urgency of making the Church contribute to the transformation of the secular life of man, and of impregnating human society as a whole with the values of the Kingdom of God. (194)
If any model should rise to the top, Dulles recommends the sacramental model because of its ease in integrating all the best elements of the other four models.
For blending the values in the various models, the sacramental type of ecclesiology in my opinion has special merit. It preserves the value of the institutional elements because the official structures of the Church give it clear and visible outlines, so that it can be a vivid sign. It preserves the community value, for if the Church were not a communion of love it could not be an authentic sign of Christ. It preserves the dimension of proclamation, because only by reliance on Christ and by bearing witness to him, whether the message is welcomed or rejected, can the Church effectively point to Christ as the bearer of God’s redemptive grace. This model, finally, preserves the dimension of worldly service, because without this the Church would not be a sign of Christ the servant. (197-198)
Dulles affirms that every model except the institutional model could also serve as the primary model as long as the positive contributions of the other models were embraced.
One of the five models, I believe, cannot properly be taken as primary – and this is the institutional model. Of their very nature, I believe, institutions are subordinate to persons, structures are subordinate to life… Without calling into question the value and importance of institutions, one may feel that this value does not properly appear unless it can be seen that the structure effectively helps to make the Church a community of grace, a sacrament of Christ, a herald of salvation, and a servant of mankind. (197-198)
Because the “institutional model, by itself, tends to become rigid, doctrinaire, and conformist… the structures of the Church must be seen as subordinate to its communal life and mission” (194-195). This is particular important in our contemporary society where “large institutions are accepted as at best a necessary evil. They are felt to be oppressive and depersonalizing. People find the meaning of their lives not in terms of such institutions but in terms of the informal, the personal, the communal” (59).
As anemic as an institutional emphasis can be, institutions cannot be completely abandoned. Living things cannot exist without structure and organization. The church must experience the full rhythm of assembly and mission – coming together because of God’s call and going out for the sake of mission.
In the end, none of the models is sufficient to address the fullness of God’s call to the church. Each model truly highlights and underscores a vital aspect of the church.
By its very constitution, the Church is a communion of grace (Model 2) structured as a human society (Model 1). While sanctifying its own members, it offers praise and worship to God (Model 3). It is permanently charged with the responsibility of spreading the good news of the gospel (Model 4) and of healing and consolidating the human community (Model 5). (204)
The church is both a great mystery and a divine gift. As a mystery, we can only begin to understand it through analogy – through models. However, all models fall woefully short of the reality they represent. No matter what model – or combination of models – we choose, our models will fall short. Furthermore, the church is always incomplete and unfinished until the eschaton – a blemished bride until the fullness of God’s redemptive purpose is complete. As such, the church will never fully live up to any model, no matter how valid or comprehensive it is.
Addendum: Leadership in the Five Models
Despite our best attempts, the dominant culture has a major impact on the shape of leadership within the church. This occurs because the church adjusts “its structures and offices so as to operate more effectively in the social environment in which it finds itself.” For example,
In a class society, the Church tends to become more hierarchical and aristocratic; bishops appear as princes of the Church. In a professionally organized society, ecclesiastical leaders take on the attributes of professionals. Churchmen are compared with lawyers, doctors, and professors; they study Greek and receive, at least honoris causa, doctoral degrees. In a media-dominated society, such as is emerging in our time, Church leaders may be forced to assume a more personal and spontaneous style of leadership. They will be judged on the basis of whether they can create powerful religious experiences, compete with TV celebrities, and project the kind of image that evokes popular enthusiasm. (162)
Each model of church influences the role of its leadership. In the institutional church, the authority of the ruling officers is patterned after the secular state. In the community model “[t]he office of pastor is not confined to the care of the faithful as individuals, but is also properly extended to the formation of a genuinely Christian community” (164-165). In the sacramental model, “[t]he priest is seen as a cultic figure mediating between God and the rest of men” (167). In the kerygmatic model, “[t]he ordained minister will be seen especially as preacher, and any sacramental functions he has will be viewed as a kind of prolongation of the ministry of the word” (169). The service model “calls for a conception of priesthood that does not turn inward on the Church itself, but outward to the larger society of mankind” (173).
In the same way that Dulles integrates the five models of church, he also integrates the five expressions of church leadership to provide us with a larger, broader vision of church leadership.
The fullness of the priestly office, which very few individuals adequately encompass, would include the building of Christian community, presiding at worship, the proclamation of the word of God, and activity for the transformation of secular society in the light of the gospel. These functions do not exclude one another, but they stand in some mutual tension, so that a given priest will not be equally involved in all four. (175)
 All of the page numbers in parentheses refer to Dulles’ book.
 “On the very eve of Vatican II, Abbot B. C. Butler wrote a book contending that according to Roman Catholics the Church is essentially a single concrete historical society, having ‘a constitution, a set of rules, a governing body, and a set of actual members who accept this constitution and these rules as binding on them.’” (34)
 “A Christian believer may energetically oppose institutionalism [a system in which the institutional element is treated as primary] and still be very much committed to the Church as institution.” (35)
 This leaves open the real possibility that an institution may serve its purpose and “close up shop.” Conversely, an institution may become so “dead” that it should “close up shop,” whether it wants to or not!
 He continues: “it is not clear that outgoing friendliness in point of fact leads to the most intense experience of God. For some persons, perhaps, it does, but not for all.” (61)
 If the church is careful not to lose its distinctive teachings as its serves the human community, then it may truly offer something unique – not simply in its message of Christ, but in its hopeful vision of the world: “[I]t may be convincingly argued that the modern world very much needs something the Church alone can give: faith in Christ, hope in the ultimate coming of God's kingdom, and commitment to the values of peace, justice, and human brotherhood, all of which are dominant biblical themes” (98). “[T]he Christian has a special vision of the inherent dignity of every human person, a distinctive ideal of unity and peace among all men, a unique concern for freedom, a singular confidence in the value of suffering and sacrifice, and an unequaled hope that in the end God will establish his Kingdom in its fullness. The courage, hope, and readiness to risk and sacrifice that should follow from a living Christian faith are much needed by the world in our day.” (157)
 There is little value in critiquing models other than one’s own since one’s values – which are largely shaped by one’s present understanding – create self affirming criteria: “The critique and choice of models depends, or should depend, on criteria. But here lies the rub. On reflection it becomes apparent that most of the criteria presuppose or imply a choice of values. The values, in turn, presuppose a certain understanding of the realities of faith. If one stands committed to a given model it is relatively easy to establish criteria by which that model is to be preferred to others. Each theologian's criteria therefore tend to buttress his own preferred models. Communication is impeded by the fact that the arguments in favor of one's own preferred model are generally circular: They presuppose the very point at issue. Some examples will make this clearer. Persons drawn to the institutional model will show a particularly high regard for values such as conceptual clarity, respect for constituted authority, law and order. They reject other models, and perhaps especially the second, as being too vague, mystical, and subjective. Partisans of the communion model, on the other hand, find the institutional outlook too rationalistic, ecclesiocentric, and rigid. They label it triumphalist, juridicist, and clericalist. An analogous dispute arises between champions of the third and fourth models. Adherents of the sacramental ecclesiology, appealing to the principle of incarnation, find the kerygmatic theologies too exclusively centered on the word; whereas kerygmatic theologians find the sacramental model too complacent and insufficiently prophetic. Promoters of the servant model, in turn, denounce the other four as being too introspective and churchy.” (190-191)
 “Theology is concerned with the ultimate level of religious mystery, which is even less accessible than the mystery of the physical universe. Hence our religious language and symbols should be looked upon as models because, even more than the concepts of science, they only approximate the object they are reflecting.” (24)
 “We are therefore condemned to work with models that are inadequate to the reality to which they point” (196).
© Richard J. Vincent, 2005