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Models of the Church

April 4, 2005 | 20 Comments

Models of the Church

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.[1] He
demonstrates the strengths and weakness of each model. He concludes by integrating each models
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).[2] 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 Gods 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 Christs 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. [3] It
simply proves that the institution must serve other ends besides its own preservation.[4]

Church as Mystical Communion

In this view, the church consists of people of faith who are united by their common participation in Gods
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 termkoinonia (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)[5]

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 ones 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 ones 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 churchs 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 churchs 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

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 ones 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)[6]

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.[7] 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 Gods
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 Gods call and going out for the sake of mission.

In the end, none of the models is sufficient to address the fullness of Gods 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.[8] However, all models fall woefully short of the reality they
represent.[9] 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 Gods 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

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)

[1] All of the page numbers in parentheses refer to Dulles book.

[2] 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)

[3] 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)

[4] 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!

[5] 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)
[6] 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)

[7] There is little value in critiquing models other than ones own since ones values which are largely
shaped by ones 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.

[8] 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)

[9] We are therefore condemned to work with models that are inadequate to the reality to which they
point (196).

Richard J. Vincent, 2005


Church Life,


Models of the Church,

Mystical Communion,


Social Justice

Sivin | April 4, 2005 6:45 AM | Reply
here's another book I glanced through ... thanks again for your reflection and most of all posting it up for
Roger | April 5, 2005 11:45 PM | Reply
Thanks for the work! Very helpful! I might come to some different conclusions regarding the Church as
institution though. The fact is that the Church was not created as an institutional entity, man made it such
in order to keep it's members under control and the money flowing in. Check
out http://www.ptmin.org/thepastor.htm for a decent review of where the "offices" came from. . . Again,
thanks for the review! Peace!
RFK | April 26, 2005 8:11 AM | Reply
Thank you so much for sharing this material. I am teaching a module on leadership to a lay formation
group. This make a succint presentation on the dynamics of our church and creates a context for the lay
person and understanding their priest.

Paul Soupiset | May 9, 2005 12:22 PM | Reply

thanks for your time integrating this material. i'm not sure the material reduces perfectly into these five
categories, but they are certainly great handholds. i have passed this link on to a learning group i'm part
of. thanks. paul @ soupablog

meLissa | July 24, 2005 9:54 PM | Reply

where's the other modeL.. the church as peopLe of God..?

kat | July 27, 2005 3:42 PM | Reply

Ouch! There are so many of them... Dulles is making valid observations, but is he reaching any valid
conclusions? The biggest 'ouch' from him: "If any model should rise to the top, Dulles recommends ..."
Dulles *recommends*? Since when does a man make a recommendation about how Christ should build
His Church. Who's building this thing anyway? "Except the Lord build a house, they labor in vain that
Fred K | August 1, 2005 10:52 PM | Reply
Hmmm. MeLissa, both the "people of God" and "body of Christ" fall under the model of "mystical

elan b. lacaden | March 11, 2008 10:24 PM | Reply

this is helpful in my teaching sociology-religious sociology! Rich: Elan, glad to hear the summary is
helpful. Its a great book - well worth reading. And surprisingly, this article remains one of the most popular
articles at my site.

nikki | June 18, 2008 8:19 AM | Reply

Thanks: this helped me alot.

shannon maureen | November 2, 2008 12:05 PM | Reply

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS! I am a current eigth grader, and I could not understand this. I went
on www.google.com and went looking for help! Luckily, yours came up first, and i finally understand it!
The church thanks you for this! Rich: Shannon, I am so glad that this article was helpful to you. I often
summarize books in order to understand them better myself. I am really happy when my summaries are
helpful to others as well. Thanks for taking the time to send your encouraging words. May God richly
bless you!

azzee | December 1, 2008 10:17 PM | Reply

thanks for this info, I am doing a huge project and i really found this helpful.

Sarah | February 3, 2009 10:13 AM | Reply

Please could somebody tell me which edition these pages numbers refer to? Rich: It is Models of the
Church: Expanded Edition published by Image Books (Doubleday) in 1987. Hope this helps a little.
bosley | February 4, 2009 7:48 AM | Reply
Thanks for breaking down the information so simply. After having read the book, I was given this site
which cleared up so much. I wish I would have read your synopsis first before each model, I may have
gleaned more information from the book itself. This page was forwarded to an entire class of people(36
people)preparing for the Diaconate, by the way. Once again, thanks. Rich:Thanks for the kind words. I'm
grateful that my summary is helpful!
Sarah | February 10, 2009 7:13 AM | Reply
I am so grateful to you, Rich, both for this excellent summary of the book and for your reply about the
edition you used.
Janet | April 6, 2009 3:48 AM | Reply
Absolutely fantastic summary. Great job. What was probably easy and enjoyable for you has helped
many. Thanks. =D Rich: Thanks for your kind words! God bless you!

Joan Brummer | April 16, 2009 8:38 AM | Reply

Hi Thanks for this information. I needed to review this book for open book exam and was unable to get a
copy from local book store at the time. It is available now but I have not had tiome to read it. I am sure
this summary will be helpful. Thank you and ... God bless Joan BrummerRich: Thanks, Joan, for taking
the time to express your gratitude. I'm grateful you found the summary helpful. God bless you also!
alex | July 22, 2009 8:53 PM | Reply
Hi......thanks for the info......
ekpedeme alfred ekpe | September 11, 2009 11:17 AM | Reply
thanks for sharing your thoughts on Avery Dulles's model of the church with us. i am in my fourth year
theology at the nitional missionary seminary of st paul. abuja, nigeria. i am writing my theology project on
Dulles' kerygmatic model. i hope we can be sharing materials on his kerygmatic model. thanks. Rich: I'm
grateful that my summary was helpful to you. God bless you in your theological studies!

andy | June 5, 2010 11:38 AM | Reply

hi rich, being blind and doing a ma dissertation on missional communities, needed to balance them
agaisnt institutional church, dulles's book was recommended to me, being blind not able to read it
obviously, your site here has been hugely helpful. one quicky question, how much of the content on this
page is quoted form dulles's book, or how much of it is your own interpretation of his book. obviously
doing a ma dissertation i need to quote from the book, so need to ensure if i reference your site and stuff i
reference it properly. any clarification would be really helpful please mate, but thanks for the stuff on
here. Rich: Andy, the vast majority of the article is a summary of Dulle's material. There is a good amount
of quotations that are all identified by numbers in parenthesis. Glad the article is helpful. Good luck on the

papersmyth | September 21, 2010 10:10 AM | Reply