The Bible and Culture


REIMAGINING CHURCH: by Frank Viola (David C. Cook Publishers).

Frank Viola is a creative guy. He writes well too. And in his latest book, he is free from the shackles of having to write things others insisted he include in the book Pagan Christianity, so if we want a close glimpse of the constructive project (rather than the deconstruction of the paradigm of what he calls the institutional church which was one of the main aims of Pagan Christianity), Reimagining Church is the right place to start. There are certain aspects of what I will call traditional churches that make Frank break out in a rash— hierarchial structures for example, with which he contrasts organic churches where any one can speak any time they feel led to do so, and there are no traditional leadership structures. The claim is that Christ is being the head of the gathering or meeting, and so human ‘heads’ are not required.

Frank left traditional churches in 1988 and set out on a journey to find, and help create more organic churches, free from the encumbrances of traditional leadership structures, free from liturgy (instead spontaneity is seen as a spiritual sign of being ‘organic’). He simply professed boredom with traditional worship, saw it as too leader dominated, and too often a performance. And so he set off on his quest seeking what he viewed as a more perfect representation of what he took to be the NT model of what church was supposed to look like. He describes very straightforwardly how he reimagines how the church ought to be– “organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form (aha! it has a form); Christocentric in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.” (p. 26). Now that’s a tall order. Let’s see how he develops these ideas and blueprints for the 21rst century church.

At this juncture, I want to make a disclaimer and lay some of my own cards on the table for all to see. I have no problems with what I would call ‘close fellowship’, really treating one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. I have no problems with people exercising their spiritual gifts, including in worship and in fellowship meetings. Joyful exuberant worship and fellowship is great. I have no desire to quench the Spirit. What I do have a problem with is how much of the NT ecclesiology one has to either ignore, deny, or reinterpret to come to the conclusion that ‘organic body life’ is THE model that the early church followed and that we ought to follow. I also have a problem with those who have a problem inherently with the notion of hierarchial leadership structures, because in fact such structures are Biblical not merely in the OT, but in the NT as well, as documents like the Pastoral Epistles and Acts make clear.

And so I want to say up front, small gatherings in homes like Frank describes are not in themselves a problem, though even in those kinds of meetings some Euthychus’s of this world can fall asleep, or even become crashing bores during them! All too often boredom you see is not caused by dead worship services but by a state of mind of a person who lacks imagination— including imagination about art, and liturgy, and stain glassed windows and robes, and crosses, and candles and organs and string instruments and people actually trained in what they are doing musically and otherwise as they help worship to happen in ‘authentic’ and traditional ways. But I digress.

What I am going to stress in what follows is that the body metaphor is only one of the many metaphors used to describe the church in the NT (the temple and the bride being two others), and it was not meant to be taken literally, or for that matter ‘organically’. Indeed, the function of the body metaphor in 1 Cor. 12 is not to uphold a vision of organic church, but to oppose the divisions and factions and fissures in the Corinthian congregation by stressing that all the body parts are crucial and essential, and no one can say to another member of the body ‘I have no need of you’. In other words, the metaphor doesn’t describe a mode of worship or a way of doing a fellowship meeting or an organic way of doing church, it describes a way of treating one’s fellow body members with love and respect whether you are meeting together or not. Nor does the metaphor itself describe at all what Christ’s role might or might not be when the meeting is held in a home. In fact, Christ is not even said to be the head of the body in 1 Cor.12! The issue there is the relationship between the members, not the relationship between Christ and the members. That comes later in Colossians and serves a very different purpose. More on this shortly.

On pp. 27-28 Frank gives us his paraphrase of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech. Basically it states his wish for a more ‘organic’ and spontaneous church where everyone is actively engaged and sharing their gifts. I am sure he meant no offense but I am equally sure that many African Americans would have problems with turning a speech about social justice and opposition to racism into an ode to a specific sort spiritual concept of church life, especially when what is envisioned is rather different from the black religious and black church experience in various ways.

On p. 31 we have an interesting quotation from one T. Austin Sparks, which reflects the usual exaggerations about how spontaneously pneumatic all early church life was and how all knowledge and understanding of the Bible comes from the Holy Spirit. Sparks is quoted as saying “We cannot obtain anything in our New Testament as the result of human study, research, or reason. It’s all the Holy Spirit’s revelation… Everything [in the early church] then was the free and spontaneous movement of the Holy Spirit.” I honestly don’t know why Frank would use such a quote when he knows perfectly well that at both ends it is false. Frank is a diligent student of the NT. He knows we need to use all the powers God has given us, and all diligence to understand the Word of God, and of course in addition to this we especially need the illumination of the Spirit, indeed the latter is the most essential thing. It is not however by any means the only essential thing.
Frank is not an anti-intellectual, but you would never know it from this quote.

It reminds me of the student who came up to class one day frustrated and said “I don’t know why I need to do all this research, and writing and studying of the NT. Why I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.” I rejoind: “Yes, you can do this, but it is a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with.” And on the second point—No, everything in the early church was not all the free and spontaneous movement of the Spirit. Often it involved the will, and hard work of ordinary mortals, such as Paul when he sought to make the collection for the poor in Jerusalem. Often it involved setting up a order of deacons or elders or even widows to perform certain tasks.

p. 32, Frank allows there are many images of the church, which he then claims are all ‘living entities’. This is not quite true. A field, for example, is not inherently a living entity. Dirt has no life without seeds and water. And while the temple imagery in 1 Peter does indeed refer to living stones, what Frank fails to note is that this is an hierarchial image of church. Buildings have structures, just as the church has organization and structures. It is quite impossible to make a hard and fast distinction between an organism and an organization, even when the subject is the church. And more to the point, the NT writers don’t want us to make that sort of mistake either.

On this same page, Frank makes a dramatic contrast between organic church life “naturally produced when a group has encountered Jesus Christ in reality (external ecclesiastical props being unnecessary) and the DNA of the church is free to work without hinderance.” He seems to think that by contrast “the modern institutional church operates on the same organizational principles that run corporate America.” (p. 32). This is a grotesque exaggeration of the facts. Frankly, most traditional churches would have been shut down long ago if they were businesses! And most are certainly not run purely on some sort of business model. I have pastored six traditional Methodist Churches, and served in numerous others, and not a one of them could be characterized in this way. Decisions are made after much prayer, often involving whole church meetings, discussions, long prayer sessions and then further reflections. I don’t know many businesses in America that make decisions that way. Are there some churches that have sold their souls to a business model? Perhaps so. But in the hundreds I have preached and taught in around the world, I have never found one that truly fits that caricature.
One of the foundational principles for Frank’s approach to church life is that the Trinity itself is a sort of blueprint or model of unity in the midst of relationships for church life (N.B. he seems to think Gen. 1.26 is a reference to the Trinity, but in fact most OT scholars would tell you that this is probably God discussing matters with his court—the angels. The Trinity does not show up as a concept until the NT era, and for a very good reason. The Son was not revealed before the Incarnation. The Hebrew who wrote Gen. 1.26 would have been stunned to discover that he was referring to the Trinity! No, he would reply, it refers to Yahweh and his retinue, his court see e.g. Isaiah 6).

Now part of the major premises of Frank about the Trinity, is that there is no hierarchy, even a functional hierarchy in the Godhead itself. So for example on p. 35 we hear about the mutual submission of all members of the Trinity to each other. But in fact this is not quite true. We hear a good deal about the submission of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Son and the Father, but nothing at all about the submission of the Father to either the Spirit or the Son. It is always the Father’s will about which Jesus prays, and teaches his disciples to pray, and it is the Father’s will to which he himself submits.

And actually this is not simply a temporary expedient during the life of Jesus on earth when he once walked amongst us. Indeed 1 Cor. 15 says quite clearly that when Christ returns, his task will be to subject all things to the Father. Listen carefully to what Paul then says about what happens at the end of the process of subjecting all things—“Now when it says that everything has been put under Him [i.e. Christ] it is clear that this does not include God [the Father] himself who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to God [the Father] who put everything under him, so that God [the Father] may be all in all.” That is, even at the eschaton, and the end of all human history, the Son will be submitting himself and all things back under the rule of the Father. Now this submission of the Son to the Father is not an ontological one, it is a functional hierarchy we are talking about here. If then we accept the premise of Frank and others that the Trinity provides the blueprint or pattern for how the church should be viewed, ordered, structured, then we would naturally expect the church to have a functional hierarchy. If its good enough for Jesus, it should be fine for us as church as well. But there is more.

Frank goes on to say “The church is the organic extension of the triune God. It was conceived in Christ before time (Ephes. 1.4-5) and born on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.1ff.).” (p. 35). There are several serious theological problems with this sort of assertion: 1) it violates the Creator creature distinction the Bible insists on from first to last. The church is not a natural or organic extension of God on earth! To the contrary the church is a distinct entity, like a bride, that God has chosen to unite himself to, through spiritual relationship and koinonia. This is a very different matter indeed. Any idea of church that suggests that any group of human beings is simply the natural extension of God on earth has badly misunderstood what Paul and others are talking about. 2), Ephes. 1.4-5 is not about the conception of the church pre-temporally. All of the Greek here is clear enough that what the author is talking about is happening to and ‘in Christ’ not to and in ‘us’ the church. It was Christ himself who was chosen before the foundations of the world to be our savior. We, as church didn’t existent then. These things are only true of believers by extension because NOW (not then) we are in Christ. You do have to exist before you can be ‘in Christ’, and no human being existed before Adam.

Frank goes on to say that the church possesses the very same life that God himself possesses. This also is not quite accurate. God has eternal life—he has always been and always will be. We however, through a process called the new birth obtain everlasting life— life that begins at a particular point in time, and goes on infinitely into the future. God has his eternal life quite naturally. We obtain everlasting life as a gift from God. There are then clear differences here. To this we must add that when God gives us everlasting life, had he truly given us exactly what he has, we would have had no need for either the Holy Spirit or anyone else to indwell us, fill us, revivify us again and again and so on. We would have been divinized, which we aren’t. It was the voice of the snake which promised ‘you shall be as gods”, not the voice of God. This is not Christian theology, but it certainly is Mormon theology. What being partakers of the divine nature means (2 Pet. 1.4) is that we are given spiritual union with the one who has such a nature, and it transforms us, not into God or gods, but into true and godly human beings. It doesn’t make us the natural extension of God on earth either, though I have met some church folk who think they are God’s gift to humanity.

Frank’s disconnect here appears to be between the notion of hierarchy and the notion of equality. He can’t seem to imagine the two going together either in the Godhead, or in proper church community. He states for example, that while Jesus was on earth he simply voluntarily submitted to the Father. While I grant that he certainly did do this, it wasn’t just pro tempore, or during the period of time while he was on earth. 1 Cor. 15 is equally clear that he will do so again once the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of God, and all evil and enemies are placed under his feet.

So here is where I stress that ontological equality, and functional subordination have always been and always will be compatible, and the blueprint Godhead provides us with a reason to expect that in the church there will be a hierarchial pattern of ordering things.
I would hasten to add that it does NOT lead us to expect that this pattern will involve a gender hierarchy. No, it will involve a leader and follower, shepherd and sheep, pastor and congregation, apostle and co-workers hierarchy— something Frank wants to avoid at all costs, seeing it as either inorganic or simply fallen human structures.

Alas, however, it is the divine design, mirroring the functional subordination that indeed has and does exist in the Trinity. When the Bible says ‘honor thy father (and mother)”, it never conceives of a day when somehow the son ever ceases to be a son, ceases to owe respect to the father, ceases to be ordered under the father in these ways. There will always be an ordering in that relation and so a hierarchy. Likewise, there never comes a day when the only begotten Son becomes the Father, or somehow the Father changes roles and becomes the only begotten Son. Equality and indeed mutual love and respect do not in any way necessarily rule out an ordering of relationships, or even functional subordination in such relationships either in the Godhead, or in Christian community. I am afraid that what has affected and infected this discussion is secular notions of equality that assume that equal must mean ‘the same’ in all respects, or ‘the same’ in all functions. But this is not what the Bible either says or suggests.


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