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What is the Church? - Gregg Allison

Phoenix Seminary
March 9, 2021

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Allison about the doctrine of the church.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Six characteristics of a church.
  • How to structure a church in order to allow a congregation to contextualize the gospel and still remain biblically faithful.
  • Encouragement for pastors experiencing the pervasive lack of trust in the church today.
  • Resources for learning more about the doctrine of the church.

Dr. Gregg Allison is a professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has 18 years of ministry experience as a part of Campus Crusade (Cru), and has served as a missionary in Italy and Switzerland. Dr. Allison currently serves as a pastor of Sojourn Church East in Louisville, KY, where he is also a part of the Leadership Council. He is the author of many books, including Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, as well as Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. Dr. Allison holds a PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:16):

In 2012, I moved to Smithland, Kentucky to start my first job in ministry. I became the senior pastor—the only pastor—of the church. It was a fantastic church to pastor, and I really miss those saints dearly. I've always loved the church, but I came to love it even more as a pastor. I saw how the church can impact lives, mostly through evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism, bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, and then discipling them into maturity in their faith. But I see a lot of people today with a take it or leave it attitude about the church, and more leave than take. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but we must always come back to the centrality of the church in the Bible. God is saving a people, and these people are the church. And we desperately need to recover a biblical view of the church in our day.

Brian Arnold (01:02):

As culture drifts, we need a church that is one, holy, universal, apostolic church, and not fractured, corrupt, parochial, and untethered to tradition. To help us think about the church today, we have Dr. Gregg Allison, an authority on all things church-related, to give us a biblical grounding for our doctrine of the church. Dr. Allison is professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He spent 18 years of ministry experience as a staff member of Campus Crusade (now Cru), where he worked in campus ministry, as well as serving as a missionary in Italy and Switzerland. In terms of his own pastoral experience, Dr. Allison is a pastor of Sojourn Church East, where he serves on the Leadership Council. He's the author of numerous books, including Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, and for our purposes today, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. One big regret I have from my time at Southern Seminary is that I never had the privilege to have Dr. Allison as a professor, but I look forward to learning from him today. Dr. Allison, welcome to the podcast.

Gregg Allison (02:06):

Thank you so much. You're very kind for having me on.

Brian Arnold (02:10):

Well, let's talk about this big question we have before us today—what is the church? So let's dive right in. How would you define the church?

Gregg Allison (02:19):

Well, I'm going to actually pick up on a little bit of the phraseology that you used in the introduction. I define the church as the people of God, who have been saved through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Brian Arnold (02:39):

And so that would have kind of a universal and local reality to it as well. Right? So when we think of the universal church, anybody that God is saving is becoming part of that body of Christ. And then there's kind of more of a local expression as in, "let's go to church" and actually meeting, congregating with other believers.

Gregg Allison (02:58):

Absolutely. So the universal church would consist of all believers who have died in the Lord and are in heaven with him now. So the last 2000 years, all those who have followed Christ, who are now in heaven with him. And then all believers scattered across the entire globe who are living today, we would consider would compose the universal church. And those who are living today would express their commitment to Christ, and their association with this universal church, in terms of being part of and serving in a local church, a local congregation.

Brian Arnold (03:36):

That's right. So when I get to teach Systematic 3, which is not super often—that's a theology course—one of the topics we talk about, the big word for it is ecclesiology. That's just the doctrine of the church. And I have our students read your book as a text for that class. And you give six characteristics of the church that I would love to hear you unpack. So we'll use these words. I'll let you define them. But the church is doxological, logocentric, pneumadynamic, covenantal, confessional, missional, and spatio-temporal, or eschatological. So those are some big, big words—big ideas, big concepts. Can you start walking us through those?

Gregg Allison (04:15):

Sure. Yeah, those are the fancy words. But doxological, from the word doxa (glory). Doxological simply means that the church is oriented to the glory of God. Like everything that God has created—from angels, to the world, to human beings—we're all to be oriented to the glory of God. And so also is the church. The church is logocentric, word-centered, in two senses: it's centered on the Incarnate Word, who is Jesus Christ, and it is centered on the Inspired Word, which is Scripture. The church is pneumadynamic, that is, it's birthed by the Holy Spirit. It is sanctified and grown and gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is covenantal, that is, in two senses—it exists in a covenantal relationship with God (that's a new covenant relationship that we enjoy with the Lord.)

Gregg Allison (05:13):

And also, in a second sense, a covenantal relationship with other members of the church. So we covenant together to pray for one another and serve one another, give to the church, submit to the leaders of the church and so forth. The church is confessional—each member of the church is expected to have a personal confession of faith in the saving Lordship of Jesus Christ. And the church together confesses what it believes. The church is missional, that is, it's identified as the body of divinely-called and divinely-sent gospel-proclaimers. So we are on mission together as a church. And then the church is spatio-temporal, eschatological. That is, it's located—the local church is located—in a particular space and place in time and culture. But it also has this eschatological, this future hope. It's not the ultimate reality. We look forward to being with the triune God forever in the new heavens and the new earth. And so the church is a reality that is going to give way to that greater reality.

Brian Arnold (06:29):

So those are really helpful definitional pieces of the church. I hope people grabbed all of those because they're so important for thinking through what God has called the church to be. And in each of those pieces I see some churches that are strong in those, some churches that are weak in those. In your estimation—you spend a lot of time reflecting on the church—which of those characteristics do you see to be one of the problem areas in the church today?

Gregg Allison (07:02):

Oh, my. Different churches, like you said, would have different problems here. Since I just wrote a book on the Holy Spirit, let me focus on that third characteristic of pneumadynamicity. I really do think a lot of our evangelical churches really overlook the third person of the Trinity. They consider the Holy Spirit to be kind of like a junior God, or some kind of force, or energy field, some power that they can tap into to accomplish their own programs and their own agendas. I think many of our churches really do focus on worshiping God the Father and God the Son. And then the question is, what about that third dude over there? We don't often think in terms of properly worshiping the Holy Spirit. And then also I think a number of our churches are very programmatically-oriented.

Gregg Allison (08:03):

There's nothing wrong with programs and structures and all like that. But when those structures and programs begin to replace the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, I think our churches fall into trouble. I think also in our churches there's a lot of confusion about spiritual gifts. There's debates over whether all the gifts continue or not. And oftentimes, one of the points of fallout is that we just tend to neglect spiritual gifts, and the fact that each member has a gift—or several gifts—that are to be used for the building up of the church. If we overlook the Spirit's presence and power and gifting, we're going to short-circuit the power of God and what he wants to accomplish in and through our churches.

Brian Arnold (08:48):

That's fantastic. And if anybody's looking for a book idea out there, The Third Dude in the Room would be a great book title for the Holy Spirit. It does make me think of somebody like Francis Chan's book, Forgotten God. So it does seem like there's been some—in the last 20 to 30 years, even thinking through Third Wave charismatic movements, even thinking of one of my colleagues, Dr. Wayne Grudem, who has written a lot on the spiritual gifts—there has been some level of recovery of the Spirit's presence and power in the church, but you still think we have a long ways to go.

Gregg Allison (09:22):

I think we do on a practical level. I'm thrilled with the scholarly work that's being done on the Holy Spirit. Scores of books have been coming out, all of which are very, very helpful. But I don't...I'm not sure about the trickle-down effect from the scholarly discussion to actuality in the church. Again, there's fear of the Holy Spirit, there's confusion over the Holy Spirit. There's a reluctance to submit to the Holy Spirit. I mean, if the Spirit is God, right?And we are to honor him and worship him as we do the Father and the Son, if we're to obey him and trust him and submit to him, we are yielding the control of our life to the Holy Spirit. And we can be control freaks, right? And we may not want to yield ourselves to the Spirit, to be filled with the Spirit, walk by the Spirit, keep in step with the Spirit, because who knows what he's going to ask us to do? Like be a missionary in Uganda or in New Mexico.

Brian Arnold (10:23):

Right. That's a funny comparison being in the Southwest. God might even call you to a New Mexico. Amazing. I hope he calls more people to all those places. So thinking about my context, one of the things that was interesting to me is coming from—growing up in Ohio, spent 13 years in Kentucky, did all my seminary at Southern—the church is something that was thought about. It had deeper roots. The church I pastored was over a hundred years old. It's tied denominationally, so that there's even some confessional boundaries that exist over the course of centuries. And then I came to Phoenix, and Phoenix is an interesting church culture. So I like to call it like "the land of the mega-church." There's tons of big churches here. If you had a church of 300, that'd be considered a small church here. Back in Kentucky, that'd be a large church.

Brian Arnold (11:11):

Also the Bible church movement. So kind of coming up out of Dallas, and a lot of the churches here have that kind of connection—non-denominationally tied. It makes for an interesting church culture. So I'd be interested in your thoughts, particularly as it relates to some of the reflection you've done on multi-site kind of venues, because a lot of these churches kind of franchise out a bit. And I don't know if they've all done a lot of thinking about how to do that in the most biblical way. Because we're living in an obviously different era than the early church. Things are a lot different. So how can the church stay faithful to the Word of God, and yet do things that are still biblically faithful, but a bit more dynamic in our day?

Gregg Allison (11:54):

You mentioned it again in your introduction, talking about "tethered to tradition." So not only do we want our churches to be faithful to Scripture, but I think we also want our churches to stand in the traditions of the church. You mentioned "one, holy, catholic (or universal) and apostolic." Those are essential characteristics of the church that we would expect to be true of all of our churches. We've got denominational distinctives. And so churches that are part of denominations, I think, should really desire to be faithful to those traditions, to those denominational distinctives. While at the same time, let's use the word contextualize, themselves, contextualize the gospel and the church to different demographics, to different generations, right? To the different contexts, cultures in which the churches are expected to thrive. So there's got to be this tetheredness to tradition, as well as dynamicity to be able to contextualize, and that's a difficult balance to achieve. But I think we're called to do it as churches.

Brian Arnold (13:03):

So can we get into some particulars? So what does that look like—in a church of video venues or planting off one another, and they're looking for a larger structure? So we have a lot of Baptistic-types of churches that seem to have more of like an Episcopal or Presbyterian kind of model of church governance. So I think it could help some of our local listeners, even to flesh out some of what that can look like in some biblical ways.

Gregg Allison (13:30):

Yeah. That's a great question. So let's just use the example you just cited. So Baptistic. Baptistic is always tied to congregationalism, isn't it?

Brian Arnold (13:39):


Gregg Allison (13:40):

So if we're a Baptistic church, or a Baptistic church plant, or Baptistic church revitalization, we need to be congregational, right? Or we need to change the denominational tag. But if we're congregational, that doesn't mean, though, that every member has to make every decision. Like, are we going to spend $25 on this improvement in the sanctuary? Are we going to buy a microphone or do something like that? Scripture does present two offices for the church—the office of pastor or elder, who are to teach and lead and pray and shepherd. Elders, pastors, must have the authority to carry out their responsibilities. There's also the office of deacon. So in my understanding, both men and women, deacons and deaconesses, are to be leading servants in the church, and they must have the authority to carry out the responsibilities.

Gregg Allison (14:36):

And so the congregational membership and its authority can't usurp those realms, those spheres of authority. But in a church that has elders or pastors, and deacons and deaconesses—right—congregational members should have certain responsibilities and authority to carry out those responsibilities. Like budgetary matters, approving elders, accepting new members into fellowship, or excommunicating members when they go south. And so I think we need to have churches, even Baptistic ones that are congregational, that still recognize the importance of, and the authority accorded to, the office of elder and the office of deacon and deaconess.

Brian Arnold (15:20):

I think those are really helpful parameters. Some boundaries to say, these are things that the Bible definitely says the church has and kind of should be structured around. And then there's kind of that dynamic piece, where there's a little bit of opportunity to work within, you know, keeping those boundaries that you mentioned of what church offices look like, but know, in our day and age, that might look different than a church looked in, let's say, Virginia, in the 18th century.

Gregg Allison (15:47):

Absolutely. Yes. And so, just following in my example there, so if the congregation, if the members have the responsibility and the authority to approve the budget, even if the elders propose the budget, they have to bring the budget to the congregation for its approval. They can't just make up their mind—well, this is our budget, $500,000, whatever it is here, we're going to go ahead with it, and not involve the congregational members. That would be the elders usurping the congregational members' authority. And we can't do that. So in a sense, we have to stay in our lanes. We have to use our authority to carry out our responsibilities in each of those three spheres, in each of those three realms. But there's a dynamicity again, right? That it could look very different than, like you just said, a church centuries ago in Virginia, from what it might look like in Phoenix today.

Brian Arnold (16:40):

That's really helpful for understanding even the context that I'm in, and find our churches in, in Phoenix. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about this lack of trust in the church today. A lot of people just are lacking trust in institutions in general, and that is extended to the church. And cynics of the church—people who are religious, not spiritual, or spiritual, not religious rather—and who would say, you know, "I'm a Christian, but I'm not connected to the church." This seems to be an epidemic right now. What would you speak into this moment, as far as that goes, and maybe encouragement you'd give to pastors on how to talk to their churches about the centrality of the church?

Gregg Allison (17:23):

Yeah, it's a tough situation that we're in. Millions of so-called Christians say, "I'm part of the universal church, but I'm not going to be part of the local church." You know, "that church is really ugly. it's harmed me." It's a slap in the face though, right? To these local churches? And so I would say this—that the Bible has no category for Christians who are part of the universal church, but are not also part of a local church. That category doesn't exist. The universal church, at least when we're talking about living believers, always manifests itself, and is manifested by, a local church. Believers gathering together to worship, for discipleship, evangelism and missions, mercy, prayer, use of spiritual gifts, right? The universal church always manifests itself, and is manifested by, local churches.

Gregg Allison (18:26):

So to those who have been harmed by the church, who are cynical about the church and all like that, I would ask them to give the church another chance. To have dialogue, conversation with good churches in their areas. Seek to express their hurt and their concern, and listen to what the leaders of the church have to say. To get involved, then, in small groups where they can have fellowship with other believers, who can be...they can pray for one another, they can read the Bible together and disciple one another. And it may be that as they overcome their cynicism, and as their hurt is dealt with, then they become much more attuned with and comfortable with being part of a local church. That would be my hope, at least.

Brian Arnold (19:10):

Well, that's a great hope to have. To your initial point, the Bible doesn't know of anybody who's part of the universal church who's not part of the local church. That's as obvious as flipping open to the New Testament and recognizing that much of it is written specifically to local congregations—to the church of Rome, to the church of Galatia, to the Corinthian church, right? The church of Corinth. So you have all these, written to occasional—we call occasional letters, written for a specific reason to a local congregation—to talk about issues that they're having in the church.

Gregg Allison (19:40):

That's exactly right. And let's be frank—you know, as leaders in different churches, we recognize that our churches are loaded down with difficulties. There are relational problems, there are structural problems, there are leadership problems, but this is par for the course, because the church, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, right, consists of sinners saved by God's grace. But remaining, still, with this residual effect of their old nature, and expressed in—we want to get our way, we want to do our programs, we want to get our agendas up there. And it's recognizing that we're still sinful people, even though our primary identity is being redeemed image-bearers. But we need to work hard to maintain the unity of the church, to forbear with one another, to overlook the idiosyncrasies of others, really, to forgive one another when they sin against us. That's just par for the course. So there's not ever going to be this perfectly pure, this ideal church. So another piece of advice is—you've got to stop having this phantom idea of what the church should be like. There will never be a church like that until Jesus Christ comes again.

Brian Arnold (20:50):

That's right. But there are, like you said, there are healthier churches. And some of these healthy churches—you mentioned over and over all these benefits that people get from that, whether it's hearing the Word of God preached into their lives, they're being discipled and mentored, they're having small groups, even the discipline of the church is a forgotten thing in our day and age. But that's actually a great piece of accountability—to have brothers and sisters around you who see sin in your life, call it out, and call you back into reconciliation, both with God and the church itself. All these benefits, leading us to greater maturity and depth in our walks with Christ, that we could not have and experience outside of the local church.

Gregg Allison (21:26):

Absolutely. Just to give you a very recent example, a student here at Southern Seminary, who just became a member of our church, Sojourn Church East—he found out yesterday his dad was murdered by Boko Haram. And this is a Nigerian brother, dear brother, dear friend—just joined our church. And we have an outpouring of prayer on his behalf. And we want to support him in many ways. I've met with him, others have telephoned him, talked with him, supported him, prayed for him. And this is of great comfort to him. And then another recent example, again, church discipline working as it should, so execution of church discipline, application of that. Someone is removed from the church, comes to the end of himself, just realizes this unrepentant lifestyle, comes to the end of himself, cries out for repentance, comes back and engages with elders of our church, repents, confesses—and there's restoration that comes about. And he's restored, to the Lord and to the church. These are just two of the many benefits that are found in the local church,

Brian Arnold (22:39):

In both of those—such hard situations in a different way—and yet, the church being that unified body to actually bring people into this loving relationship with Christ. It's a beautiful...beautiful stories that you've told. Thank you. Thinking about resources that we could point some people to, what are some of your favorite, kind of go-to works on the church that would be pretty accessible for our audience?

Gregg Allison (23:05):

Well, if I can push my book, which you already mentioned, I have written extensively on the doctrine of the church. The book is called Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. If your hearers want to read more about it, that would be...I think it would be a good book, a helpful book. In March, I'm coming out with just a short little book called The Church: An Introduction. It's also published by Crossway. It's, I don't know, 150 pages or so. And it's a very simple introductory book about the church, and in it I do some of the same stuff I do with Sojourners and Strangers, but in other ways, I develop things like a spectrum of views of the continuation of spiritual gifts, a spectrum of views on complementarianism, and things like that.

Gregg Allison (23:59):

I talk a little bit more about the office of deacon. So that would be a book. One of my favorites is Michael Horton's People and Place. Michael Horton, coming from a Presbyterian background, does a really, really good job about the church as yes, the people of God, but also the people that gather together, assemble together in a place. That's one of my favorite books. You've...of course, I think many of your listeners will be familiar with the 9Marks resources. All of those are excellent things on matters like membership and church discipline and discipleship and all—those are also very, very helpful.

Brian Arnold (24:37):

Those are all helpful. And just so you know, and our listeners know, you are my go-to on the doctrine of the church. So thank you for all your reflection on that. Well, the church is the bride of Christ, it's God's plan for the world. As you've heard, all these great benefits that come through the church that God has for growing us in our relationship with Christ. Dr. Allison, thank you so much for leading us in this discussion. And I hope our listeners find a renewed love and passion for the church.

Gregg Allison (25:05):

I will pray to that end. Thank you so much for this interview.

Outro (25:08):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at

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