Definition and Methods (§ 1).

Ecclesiological Phenomena (§ 2).

Forms of Association (§ 3).

Types of Polity (§ 4).

Ecclesiastical Functions (§ 5).

Forces of Integration (§ 8).

Forces of Disintegration (§ 7).

Ecclesiastical Geography (§ 8).


1. Definition and Methods. Ecclesiology is the science dealing with the ecclesiastical institutions of human society. It is a social and not a theological science. If sociology be defined as the general science of human relations, ecclesiology is that branch of sociology which deals with so much of social phenomena as results directly from religious motives. The subject-matter of this science then embraces all ecclesiastical phenomena objective on the surface of society. It does not deal with theological dogma and creeds except in so far as religious faith and enthusiasm are seen to be the motives of ecclesiastical action. The science deals with non-Christian as well as Christian institutions among all races and nations. Ecclesiology being a distinctly social science, the methods of analysis, comparison, and generalization are those common to all the social sciences. As in the case of political science, the current institutions are analyzed, while the past is studied for origins and earlier forms. From the view-point of social science ecclesiastical history is the ecclesiology of past ages of human society.


2. Ecclesiological Phenomena. The primary social phenomena with which ecclesiology deals are individual speech and action for the purposes of religion. Such speech and action are possible on the surface of society only because ecclesiastical efforts have the sanction of the physically dominant institution of society, i.e., the State, and its representative, civil government. Without such sanction speech and action for the purposes of religion must of necessity be secret and beneath the surface of society. The observation of speech and action for the purposes of religion leads at once to the existing relation between Church and State, since the Church can not be one of the visible social institutions without the express or implied sanction of the State (see CHURCH AND STATE). Secondary ecclesiological phenomena found are association and cooperation for the purposes of religion. Such association may be temporary only, as is the case with assemblies or congregations,. or it may be permanent and take the form of organization. Such organization may assume the form of an artificial legal personality provided for by the State, viz., the civil corporation for the purposes of religion. A third division of ecclesiological phenomena embraces the existing relations which the ecclesiastical institutions of society bear to its other institutions, viz., the State and civil government, marriage, the family, education, and wealth. A fourth division of phenomena embraces the various functions of ecclesiastical organizations, while a fifth includes what may be defined as ecclesiastical concepts or ideals which serve as motives for action and association.


3. Forms of Association. The analysis of association and cooperation for the purposes of religion shows the following more or less permanent forms: the religious society, the Church proper or the body having the highest spiritual objects, the civil incorporation, whether aggregate or sole, which is often found in connection with the religious society or the Church, and finally the grouping of local religious bodies into organized general associations, usually styled denominations. Of the forms of local association it may be noted generally that they do not always coexist, but often occur separately. The temporary assembly or congregation occurs without other form of association. The religious society exists by itself in cases where there is no separate body of communicant members or those having higher privilege and no civil incorporation has been effected. A church body existing alone may be seen in the community of a convent or monastery. A religious corporation may be seen without connection with a local religious society or church when constituted of the trustees of a fund devoted to the purposes of religion. It may be further noted of the forms of ecclesiastical association that they are found as a rule in some combination among the peoples of Western civilization. All of these forms of association are at times constituent parts of a local religious body, while the civil corporation is most frequently lacking. Generally the local religious bodies of all denominations present these forms of association, although in varying proportions and with different functions. The Church proper or spiritual body is the form of association that is usually found within the congregation and also within the religious society. It is the only form of association for the purposes of religion for which a special divine sanction is claimed. From the standpoint of the State it is the body having the highest interests to be protected, to whose welfare the other ecclesiastical bodies are to contribute.


4. Types of Polity. The analysis of the forms of ecclesiastical association does not end with the limited and local forms of association, but extends to the combinations of these local bodies into groups scattered over large territories, some even coextensive with national domains. In this larger association for the purposes of religion the unit for combination among the several forms of local association is the Church or spiritual body, and the analysis proceeds from the local to the territorial association by ascertaining what relation, if any, exists between the local bodies and all other ecclesiastical bodies. The results of such a larger analysis may be summarized as follows: First, there are found local church bodies which, in the management of both their internal and external affairs, are autonomous and acknowledge and sustain no discernible relation with similar local church bodies other than that which may result from a general identity of purpose. Second, there are found other local church bodies that do sustain a common relation. Such bodies are associated by yielding to a varying extent obedience to the jurisdiction of more general bodies or series of bodies. There are found to be two divisions of this second class. First, among some local church bodies of this second class the general authority or series of authorities have as a dominant characteristic of their jurisdiction the right to act in a judicial capacity in cases to which the subordinate local bodies or individual members of such bodies are parties. Second, among others of this second class the general authorities or series of authorities have as a dominant characteristic of their jurisdiction the right to administer a body of law which has been accepted by the local organizations. There are, therefore, three general forms or types of ecclesiastical association in modern society, and these are known as polities. There are (1) the congregational polity, with local church bodies showing every degree of actual autonomy (See CONGREGATIONALISTS, IV.); (2) the synodical or presbyterial polity, in which church administration is lodged in a graded series of courts with both original and appellate jurisdiction (see PRESBYTERIANS); and (3) the episcopal polity, in which the function of administration is vested in an individual (see BISHOP; EPISCOPACY). While there are many variations of these general forms of ecclesiastical organization, there does not occur among civilized people any variation sufficiently radical to constitute a fourth type. Such an analysis is the only safe means of securing a scientific classification of existing denominations according to their type of polity. This classification rests upon the actual facts of organization and not upon titles, which are often misleading. The large number of religious denominations of Western civilization alone present almost every conceivable variety of ecclesiastical organization. Yet they are susceptible of scientific classification on the basis here outlined, and may, of course, be further subdivided and classified according to their peculiarities.


5. Ecclesiastical Functions. A fourth division of the subject-matter of ecclesiology deals with the functions which ecclesiastical bodies perform. As in the case of political institutions, the primary function is that of legislation, the making of the internal law of the organization. Such law is either organic, fundamental, or constitutional, or it is in the nature of statutes or by-laws and therefore more easily amended. The rule prevails throughout the countries of Western civilization that ecclesiastical bodies may not enact law containing provisions contrary to the law of the land, and that the fundamental principles of the civil law to the extent that they define and protect civil and property rights will by the civil courts be read into any body of church law. The second ecclesiastical function is that of administration. The problems that arise in the course of ecclesiastical administration call for the exercise of the third function, that of adjudication or the judicial application of law to specific cases. The normal supplement of the function of adjudication is that of discipline (see CHURCH DISCIPLINE), by which the penalty for the violation of ecclesiastical law is enforced. The exercise of this function of discipline seems to be weakening in many ecclesiastical bodies, but, on the other hand, it should be remembered that the sphere of ecclesiastical discipline has in modern civilization been greatly restricted by civil law. The two remaining functions of ecclesiastical organizations are those of propaganda and mission. Propaganda is the conscious and systematic spread of faith and principles, while the mission, which naturally supplements propaganda, is the function of reproducing the ecclesiastical organization from which emanated the particular propaganda. Ecclesiologists are inclined to look upon the rigor with which these functions are performed as being to a certain extent a measure of the vitality of the body. Different organizations vary greatly as to the relative values of these functions and as to the energy with which they are to be exercised. In the simplest and most completely autonomous bodies there is a concentration of these functions in a single organ, while among bodies having more complex polities there is a distribution of powers and frequently a highly developed machinery.


6. Forces of Integration. Up to this point has been outlined what may be called static ecclesiology. There is, however, a field which may be defined as that of dynamic ecclesiology. Here the subject matter comprises the social and economic environments of ecclesiastical bodies and the moral forces at work tending to change the spirit and the structure of such bodies. Ecclesiastical institutions are, from the standpoint of the social sciences, aggregations of living social organism and subject to a certain extent to the laws of social development. They are seen to have forces of original impetus, to have their periods of development, and frequently their periods of decay and dissolution. A natural division of such social and moral forces is into those working for the integration of ecclesiastical bodies, and those working for their disintegration. The same force under differing conditions works in opposite directions. The dominant forces working for the integration of ecclesiastical bodies are the influences of education and of material wealth, energy in propaganda and mission, and, perhaps more potent than these, certain ecclesiastical concepts or ideals such as those of the historical continuity of the Church and those of ecclesiastical adaptation. The dominant forces working for the disintegration of ecclesiastical bodies are the lack of education, the lack of missionary energy, the lack of material wealth, such ecclesiastical concepts or ideals as those of isolation and alienation, and the tendency to heresy and its normal result, schism. While the tendency to schism is the most obvious of all disintegrating forces, it is probably not as fundamental as certain concepts which require explanation in order to a due appreciation of their influence. Among the forces operating for continuous ecclesiastical integration are the concepts of adaptation and of the historical continuity of the Church. The ideal of ecclesiastical adaptation results from the desire on the part of members of religious bodies to have their organization keep in complete touch with all the normal features of its social environment. Under the influence of such a concept the form or type of ecclesiastical organization is regarded as more or less immaterial. What is sought is a perfect adaptation of ecclesiastical organization and functions to what are believed to be the needs of the time and the community. Closely allied to such an ideal is often found the belief that human society has the capacity for its own regeneration; consequently it is better to hold that religious institutions are to be regarded as the result of such efforts than that the Church is a unique organization among men, having a special divine sanction and charged with a supernatural mission. The integrating force of such a concept lies in its capacity for cooperation and in the emphasis which it places upon agreement in matters of faith while minimizing the differences. The concept of the historical continuity of the Church is based upon a belief that there is one normal organization, that this normal organization has been realized in part, and that if the right spirit prevails, preventing all heresy and schism, this normal organization is revealed. It is further believed by those holding this concept that a substantial continuity of all the essential features of this normal organization has been maintained in all the past ages and will be maintained until the end of human society. Such concepts are not confined to the members of what are commonly known as the historic churches, although there it is more common. Such concepts admit of successive changes in what are regarded as the non-essential features of polity due to the changing conditions of social and political environment. But such changes are regarded as incidental and as revealing in an ever-widening range those essential features which shall in the providence of God persist until the end of time. The Church with such an ideal would not antagonize the existing order of society, but it would perpetuate those features of its polity which it deems essential to its character as a true Church. Certain facts should be noted of these ecclesiastical ideals. First, that they are held with varying degrees of intelligence and devotion; second, they are widely distributed, no organization or denomination having a monopoly of any of them; third, all of these concepts serve as stimuli to the members of a single organization; and, fourth, the different ecclesiastical bodies vary greatly as to their consciousness of the operation of these concepts as motives of action.


7. Forces of Disintegration. Concepts or ideals of ecclesiastical isolation and alienation are found to be exercising a profound influence among certain organizations. Such concepts appear to develop from a religious conviction which frequently assumes the form of a belief that certain persons are called of God out of the mass of human society to be constituted and recognized as a peculiar people to lead a life apart from the life of the community in which they have their habitation. Such a concept provides for the least possible intercourse between the members of the religious body and those who differ with them in matters religious. Among certain of the Christian bodies this concept derives its inspiration from the history of the Hebrews and from a feeling that theirs is a similar case, they being called out of a corrupt society to lead a peculiarly religious life. Among other bodies ecclesiastical alienation develops from a desire on the part of a body of individuals to lead a certain mode of life and to practise such moral and economic effects as celibacy or community of goods, while the normal social environment is regarded as unfavorable for such a development. In many cases where such concepts prevail those holding them decline to recognize the normal obligations resting upon members of society for the maintenance of civil government and other social institutions. Such ecclesiastical alienation usually operates by restricting missionary effort. Deliberate alienation must not be confused with the physical isolation in which many religious bodies find themselves.


8. Ecclesiastical Geography. In addition to the qualitative analysis of ecclesiastical institutions here outlined, the science of ecclesiology provides also for a quantitative analysis for which the material is largely statistical. Denominational statistics are generally deficient, and only a few countries of Western civilization furnish reliable governmental statistics of ecclesiastical organizations. The use of such statistics has three objects: to determine the amount of ecclesiastical association among a given population; to determine the racial elements of church-membership; and to determine the territorial distribution of denominational strength. This may be called ecclesiastical geography. The racial simplicity or complexity of the membership of a religious body is often found to have a profound influence upon the development of the organization. As in bodies political, church racial elements are often the source of weakness and the cause of delayed integration, especially where diversity of language is a serious obstacle. Such a diversity, however, is a test, and affords a training in the capacity of assimilation. Religious bodies as a rule originate in a homogeneous people, but systematic missionary effort has brought into the membership of all the stronger and more active denominations the most diverse racial elements. Closely allied to this topic is that of the geography of the Church. The systematic charting of ecclesiastical organizations is of recent origin. It is now being developed on every scale, from the population of a single city to that of a continent. It has been brought to the aid of the churches in the planning of missionary enterprises of all dimensions. It has been found useful in revealing the physical and social environment of churches, and it throws much light on their history and state of development. See CHURCH, THE CHRISTIAN; CHURCH AND STATE; and POLITY, ECCLESIASTICAL.