The work is divided into three books. The first book is composed of five visions. The second book of twelve commandments. And the third book is composed of ten similitudes. The parts that say something about the Church are found in books one and three.
In the first book Hermas says that God "by His own wisdom and providence has created His holy Church, which He has blessed" (1.1.3) Further on he writes that he was told in a vision, "You will tell, therefore, those who preside over the Church, to direct their ways in righteousness, that they may receive in full the promises with great glory." (1.2.2)
But in this vision he provides a metaphorical vision of the Church:
Now a revelation was given to me, my brethren, while I slept, by a young man of comely appearance, who said to me, Who do you think that old woman is from whom you received the book? And I said, The Sibyl. You are in a mistake, says he; it is not the Sibyl. Who is it then? say I. And he said, It is the Church. And I said to him, Why then is she an old woman? Because, said he, she was created first of all. On this account is she old. And for her sake was the world made. After that I saw a vision in my house, and that old woman came and asked me, if I had yet given the book to the presbyters. And I said that I had not. And then she said, You have done well, for I have some words to add. But when I finish all the words, all the elect will then become acquainted with them through you. You will write therefore two books, and you will send the one to Clemens and the other to Grapte. And Clemens will send his to foreign countries, for permission has been granted to him to do so. And Grapte will admonish the widows and the orphans. But you will read the words in this city, along with the presbyters who preside over the Church. (1.2.4)Notice that the Church is old, because it was created by God first. In what sense? Presumably, the Church, as the "household of faith" is God's purpose in creating angels and men. The end is present in the beginning, so to speak. See also that Hermas refers to "Clemens" as one who sends his book to foreign countries. This may be a reference to St. Clement, bishop of Rome (91 - 100 AD). We know that he sent out a letter to the church at Corinth; I already discussed that letter here.
In the third vision, Hermas provides a different metaphorical vision of the Church:
The tower which you see building is myself, the Church, who have appeared to you now and on the former occasion. Ask, then, whatever you like in regard to the tower, and I will reveal it to you, that you may rejoice with the saints. I said unto her, Lady, since you have vouchsafed to reveal all to me this once, reveal it. She said to me, Whatsoever ought to be revealed, will be revealed; only let your heart be with God, and doubt not whatsoever you shall see. I asked her, Why was the tower built upon the waters, O Lady? She answered, I told you before, and you still inquire carefully: therefore inquiring you shall find the truth. Hear then why the tower is built upon the waters. It is because your life has been, and will be, saved through water. (1.3.3)Here the Church is depicted as a tower built on water, to show that we enter the Church through baptism, by which our life is saved. Then Hermas discusses the various stones in the tower.
Hear now with regard to the stones which are in the building. Those square white stones which fitted exactly into each other, are apostles, bishops, teachers, and deacons, who have lived in godly purity, and have acted as bishops and teachers and deacons chastely and reverently to the elect of God. Some of them have fallen asleep, and some still remain alive. And they have always agreed with each other, and been at peace among themselves, and listened to each other. On account of this, they join exactly into the building of the tower. (1.3.5)Here we have a description of apostles, bishops, teachers and deacons. Apostle seems to be title limited to the first generation of persons, for the other three are also functions that apostles performed. But bishop, teacher and deacon are offices that continue, while that of apostle does not. The term 'teacher' here seems to be used to refer to the activity of the office described elsewhere (e.g. in St. Ignatius) as [mere] presbyter, though that is not definitive.
In the third book we find other references to the Church:
Listen, he said: they whose branches were found withered and moth-eaten are the apostates and traitors of the Church, who have blasphemed the Lord in their sins, and have, moreover, been ashamed of the name of the Lord by which they were called. (3.8.6)If the Church were "the number of the [decretally] elect", they could not be "traitors of the Church". The very idea of "traitors of the Church" shows that Hermas is using a concept of the Church as the visible Church. He continues:
In this way, then, will the Church of God be purified. For as you saw the stones rejected from the tower, and delivered to the evil spirits, and cast out thence, so [they also shall be cast out, and] there shall be one body of the purified; as the tower also became, as it were, of one stone after its purification. In like manner also shall it be with the Church of God, after it has been purified, and has rejected the wicked, and the hypocrites, and the blasphemers, and the waverers, and those who commit wickedness of different kinds. After these have been cast away, the Church of God shall be one body, of one mind, of one understanding, of one faith, of one love. And then the Son of God will be exceeding glad, and shall rejoice over them, because He has received His people pure. (3.9.18)This passage seems to be speaking of the purification of the Church that must take place at the Judgment and perhaps also in the end times. The point to note here is that clearly for Hermas, at the time he is writing, the Church contains tares along with the wheat. When he says "Church", what he is talking about is the visible Church. Toward the end of this third book Hermas writes:
And from the tenth mountain, where were trees which overshadowed certain sheep, they who believed were the following: bishops given to hospitality, who always gladly received into their houses the servants of God, without dissimulation. And the bishops never failed to protect, by their service, the widows, and those who were in want, and always maintained a holy conversation. All these, accordingly, shall be protected by the Lord for ever. (3.9.27)Here we see him describe good bishops of the Church, those given to hospitality and care for widows, and preserving holiness in their conversation.
Overall, while Hermas does not provide us with a substantive or complete ecclesiology, he shows a conceptual continuity with what was said before him with regard to his understanding of the universal nature of Church, as well as its present mixed composition (e.g. sinners and saints). He clearly recognizes an hierarchical authority structure in the Church. And shows (implicitly) an awareness of apostolic succession in his description of the continuity between the apostles on the one hand and the bishops, teachers, and deacons who continue the apostles's work.