Saturday, September 06, 2008

Frank Viola's Reimagining Church-- Part Two

The hermeneutics of Frank Viola are interesting, and contra what some might think, Frank is not interested in playing first century Bible land. Listen to what he says: “But as I shall argue in this book, the New Testament contains no such blueprint for church practice. Neither does it contain a set of rules and regulations for Christians to follow.” (p. 37). I take it that he means normative rules about church praxis, I am sure he is not denying there are imperatives in the NT that Christians must follow. What Frank seeks to do then is sift the NT trying to decide which practices mentioned in the NT are merely descriptive (‘they used to do it that way’) and which are prescriptive (‘we all ought to keep doing that, and doing it that way’). He further explains that he means that some things we find in the NT are merely culturally relevant practices (headcoverings perhaps), some “reflect the unchanging nature and identity of the church” (p. 39). Now this is interesting. On the basis of what criteria does one decide that X is transcultural, but Y is culturally bound, X reflects the very DNA of the church in all generations, but Y, not so much?

Frank works through four models for doing church, three of which he sees as not really viable, the fourth of which he is a strong advocate. They are : 1) Biblical blueprintism; 2) cultural adaptability; 3) postchurch Christianity; 4) Organic expression. Frank is well aware that 1) does not work, not least because the first century church as depicted in the NT is full of flaws. Anyone want to pastor First Church Laodicea? I didn’t think so. He is also rightly wary of over-contextualization which results in becoming indistinguishable from the larger culture, accommodating to the values and intellectual climate d’jour. But Frank’s strongest and most pointed (and I would add, most telling) critique is of some of the emerging/emergent folks ideas about church. Listen to what he says:
After critiquing the notion that spontaneous social interaction or personal friendships are what being church means without the need to belong to an identifiable community that meets regularly for prayer, worship, fellowship etc. he adds

“Such a concept is disconnected with what we find in the NT. The first century churches were locatable, identifiable, visitable, communities that met regularly in a particular locale…” [about all of which he is right on target]. To this he adds “the postchurch paradigm appears to be an expression of the contemporary desire for intimacy without commitment.” (p. 40). I would say that the organic church model has arisen in part in response to the deep desire for intimacy in Christ with one’s fellow believers, especially in the wake of the decline and brokenness of the physical family and alienation from the larger culture’s forms of doing community. In this regard both the organic model and the postchurch model are responding to the same felt needs and serve in part as a form of compensation for inadequate family life or cultural life. T his is what the sociologists would say about the rise of this recent phenomenon, and they are surely partly right, though this is not the whole story. What I find rather amazing in the 4 paradigms listed here is nowhere is the traditional church model listed, which is neither 1) 2) 3) or 4). Perhaps Frank thought he critiqued that enough in his previous book.

Frank is not arguing that churches have no form or structure. Rather he maintains they should emerge from within the active life of the church community, not be imposed from without. Honestly I don’t think many of us would disagree with this. But this is how it works--- the Holy Spirit gifts different persons differently. Not all have the gift of prophecy, not all have the gift of teaching, not all have the gift of administration/steering/ leading, not all have the gift of preaching and so on. The hand of the body has a different function than the foot, to use the body analogy. What this means is, the body of Christ must discern who has which gifts, since all have one or more such gifts, and stimulate not stifle the use of these gifts. And it is true, too often the traditional church has not adequately done this. But it is quite false to suggest that the body of Christ is simply interchangeable parts with each person equally gifted to do all tasks. This is frankly a bad misreading of the Pauline letters.

On p. 41 Frank would have us believe that the headship of Christ replaces all human headship in the church. Never mind that this is not what the NT says or suggests, beginning with Jesus himself who appointed the twelve and then later commissioned all the apostles, both men and women, to lead the church of the resurrection. Never mind that Jesus told Peter that he would build his church on the properly confessing Peter, and give him the keys to the kingdom, as the representative of the community as a whole (cf. Mt. 16 and 18). Never mind that the Pastorals tell us that even in the 60s apostles were appointing their co-workers to appoint elders and deacons hither and yon in the local church, and there was not a distinction made between itinerant leaders (who could be paid) and local leaders (who according to Gal. 6 should also be paid). But we will say more of this in due course.

Also on p. 41, Frank says that the permanent DNA of the church involves: 1) expressing the headship of Christ in his church as opposed to expressing the headship of a human being. This however is a false contrast, since Jesus himself set up certain human beings to be heads over, and indeed even judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. Christ’s headship is expressed in the local church not apart from human leadership, but rather through it. 2) the true church will always encourage the every-member functioning of the body. This is true, but the question is how and when. There are times and places where it is appropriate to allow everyone to share. There are other times and places, for example during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, where it is not appropriate for all to share spontaneously. The bad guy in this discussion continues to be what Frank calls dead tradition or lifeless rituals. It is a shame that he hasn’t experienced lively rituals and living tradition which strengthens the faithful. He needs to come to worship in Estes Chapel at Asbury Seminary sometime.

3) The true church will always map to the theology that is contained in the NT, giving it visible expression on the earth; 4) It will always be grounded in the fellowship of the Triune God. Few would object in principle to these last two mandates, but the question is, what do they entail and imply. The rightness or wrongness of such dictates depend on their fleshing out. His model of church is “a loving, egalitarian, reciprocal, cooperative, nonhierarchical community” (p. 41). He right about most of that, but especially wrong about the last point, and I would add once more egalitarianism is not in any way at odds with functional hierarchy.
Obviously authentic Christian community involves familial love, devotion of members to one another, the centrality of Christ, the innate desire to gather together for worship and fellowship and the desire to form intimate relationships in Christ (see p. 45). To this Frank insists we must add—open participatory gatherings and the impulse to share Christ with a fallen world. These additions are unobjectionable, but open participatory gatherings is not how worship is described in the NT, except when it went wrong in Corinth and Paul had to correct it. There is a time and a place for such gatherings, but worship is not frankly the time for ‘everybody share now’. Worship is supposed to be theocentric, God-centered and should not be confused with fellowship and sharing with one another. We will deal with how Frank attempts to get around this distinction between koinonia and doxology in a bit. But let me be clear, in Frank’s paradigm the chief function of a normal ‘church’ meeting is edification, rather than worship and glorification of God (see pp. 49-53), this is certainly where I would most disagree, not because there isn’t a place for church meetings which have as their primary function edification. Of course there is—those are called fellowship meetings, not worship meetings. And of course the problem with inviting strangers to the kind of intimate fellowship meetings is precisely the problem Paul is correcting in Corinth in 1 Cor. 14. Strangers and the uninitiated will say Christians are out of their minds. Strangers cannot participate in that sort of meeting because they are not yet in Christ. And so, in an odd twist of things, ‘church meetings’ in Frank’s paradigm are not open and participatory at all, if by that we mean open to all comers, Christian or not.

Frank sets up a paradigm of four different types of meetings in the early church: 1) apostolic meetings “where apostles preached to an interactive audience. Their goal was to plant a church from scratch or to encourage an existing one” (pp. 49-50). Frank admits that in such a meeting the apostle does most of the ministry, but then quickly adds that these sorts of meetings are never permanent (p. 50). Now one has to say that this conclusion stands at odds with church history in various ways, including NT history. We have long standing historical traditions that James stayed put in Jerusalem permanently, and once Peter left, became the head of that church. Indeed, as the records from Papias and others show, the leadership was passed down within the holy family in the first century in this church (see the work by Richard Bauckham on Jude and the Relatives of Jesus). And it is a very odd thing to call Paul merely an itinerant when in fact Acts tells us he planted himself in Ephesus for two and half years, and stayed long after the church there was well established. Not only so, but he appointed people like Priscilla and Aquila his co-workers to be leaders there and elsewhere. O yes there was a leadership structure in Pauline churches, and yes, it was appointed top down, not bottom up.

2) Evangelistic meetings are the second category of meetings, and Frank would include preaching in the synagogue and the marketplace. “Evangelistic meetings were designed to plant a new church or…build an existing one.” (p. 50). Whatever Paul’s goals may have been, he never ever so far as we can tell, held an evangelistic meeting in a synagogue! What he did was participate in the synagogue worship services throughout the Roman empire! That is, he continued to take part in Jewish worship which involved prayers, preaching, reading of scripture and the like, just as the apostles continued to worship in the temple in Jerusalem as well. There is now a very fine book talking about how much the early church, especially in its Jewish Christian forms took over from the synagogue, including its elder structure. The reader wanting to see the overlap between Jewish and early Christian worship and structure should read From Synagogue to Church by James Burtchaell (Cambridge U. Press).

3) Decision making meetings. Here Frank sites Acts 15, the church council meeting. He stresses “the chief feature of this meeting is that everyone participated in the decision making process” (p. 50). That’s true. But its one thing to confer, another thing to conclude, and even Peter and Paul were only conferring in this meeting. The person who concluded and wrote up the Decree was James, in consultation with the other elders in the Jerusalem Church and in consultation with the Holy Spirit as well of course. The point is, we did not have a democratic vote at this meeting, and a decision was not taken by the body as a whole. Rather the leadership made a decision after conferring and hearing out one and all.

4) Church Meetings. Here Frank is arguing that these meetings did not involve preaching, based again on his reading especially of 1 Corinthians. What is totally missing in this analysis is the function that Paul’s letter was meant to have in such a meeting! The letter was not for private consumption of individual Christians one by one. It was to be dramatically read out in the church meeting as the apostolic voice preaching to the congregation through a surrogate appointed by Paul—a Timothy or a Titus. So, even in Corinth, there was proclamation of God’s Word in the church meeting by an apostolic delegate whenever possible. We could of course also point to the long standing church meeting in Troas where Paul goes and preaches, and Euthychus falls out of the window. Was this somehow a different kind of meeting than category 4)? Probably not. The Christians meetings, especially when a majority of those present were Jews and God-fearers were not purely pneumatic in structure. They looked more like a synagogue worship service in various regards.
What is entirely missing in the fourfold paradigm is a proper worship service in which the whole service, prayers, singing, offerings, etc. with the exception of the preaching, is theocentric in character, not anthropocentric. Now I am not suggesting that Frank’s church meetings do not involve elements and aspects of worship, of course they do. However, by not having worship meetings in addition to fellowship meetings doxology is inadequately focused on. This, perhaps more than anything else is my primary concern about the organic model Frank is advocating. It neglects worship and the proper task of preaching to Christians who so desperately need it in an age of Biblical illiteracy. It also ignores that we have creeds, and liturgies and hymn fragments already embedded in our NT which were used in Christian meetings in the first century. No one who has read the Didache could doubt that this is so, and for that matter the NT says so as well.

What about texts like Heb. 10.24-25? Don’t they suggest that the primary purpose of church meetings is edification? Well in fact no they don’t. Hebrews is a sermon, based on a string of OT texts. It is not a letter at all, except in the sense that it was sent from a distance, and the author expected in this oral culture for this letter to be rhetorically and aptly and dramatically read out as a sermon to the whole congregation. He mentions in passing at Heb, 10.24-25 that the audience ought also, in addition to listening to this sermon, to edify one another. He does not even say that it must be done in the church meeting when this sermon was dramatically performed. Edification is necessary, but Hebrews only mentions it in passing! Heb. 3.13-14 certainly does exhort us to exhort one another, but nothing is said about this happening in the church meeting and corporately, indeed the whole phrase ‘one another’ implies one person exhorting another person in its primary sense, not one exhorting everybody else. And we could debate how much private exhortation of a sinful Christian’s particular problems should happen in the corporate meeting. Jesus says that if a brother has something against you, one goes to them in private, and if they won’t listen then one takes others with you. This is not an action meant for corporate worship or even an every member fellowship meeting. My point is simple. You cannot assume that the ‘one anothering’ described here and elsewhere in the NT is all or mainly or usually to transpire in a church meeting. Indeed, there is good reason to think otherwise in various cases.
And I might add 1 John is likewise such a sermon that was meant to be read out dramatically, as is James. And James makes clear that Christian meetings should allow strangers to come and share in them, and that at least these Jewish Christian meetings functioned much like synagogue meetings. Notice that the Holy Spirit is hardly mentioned in James. 1 Corinthians is an example of correcting over-pneumatic approaches, not encouraging them. What Paul allows for a time, being a smart pastor (consider the issue of baptism for the dead), is not necessarily what he prefers. Indeed, he is in the process of steering the audience in a different direction from their preferred practice. It is a serious mistake to make what is said, especially what is said in passing and by way of correction, in 1 Corinthians the model for ‘organic church’.

On p. 55 Frank gets to the theological nub of the matter “the most startling characteristic of the early church meeting was the absence of any human officiation. Jesus Christ led the gatherings by the medium of the Holy Spirit through the believing community.” Somehow human leadership is seen as necessarily getting in the way of Christ leading the meeting. Now, I grant that sometimes human leadership can indeed get in God’s way. Of course that is true. But if one reads the whole drama of salvation history including in both the OT times, God was always setting apart particular persons for leading God’s people—a Moses, an Elijah, the apostles, the elders, the deacons and so on. It cannot then be true that the selection of some to be human leaders and others not to be is somehow an unbiblical or unchristian notion. And one must ask—What exactly is meant by Jesus Christ is leading the meeting? By this does one mean that the Spirit inspires some to speak words of wisdom or words of knowledge or prophetic words in some Christian meetings? If that is all that is meant, that is unobjectionable. If however what one means is that church members speak as Jesus, that is seriously problematic. Jesus speaks for himself, in the Gospels, and after the ascension he continues to speak for himself through visions. But what even the apostles never claimed is that they were speaking as Jesus. They claimed they were inspired by the Spirit to speak the truth for God. That is a very different matter. The danger of blurring the line between Christ speaking and a Christian speaking is always a serious one. The very reason Paul wants the prophetic words of prophets weighed and sifted, as he suggests in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, is because they may well be 80% Spirit inspired, but 20% human additives. They must be sifted and weighed, and in any case the Spirit is not Christ, and Christ is not the Spirit and the human Christian is neither, of course.

Here in Kentucky we have the last remnants of the 19th century Shakers, or shaking Quakers as they were earlier known. If you read their history, and in particular the history of their leader Mother Ann, one of the delusions she had was that she was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit on earth, and that she spoke as the Holy Spirit. This is rather like Rev. Moon when he claimed to speak as the second coming of Jesus. So, I must stress once more—it is human beings speaking in church, and we trust God is using them, inspiring them in what they say, but we are warned to sift their words with good reason. There can be no sifting if Jesus is speaking directly to us--- only obeying. Even Christian prophets speak even under the inspiration of the Spirit not as Jesus or as the Father or as the Spirit, but for them. There is a big difference.

On p. 59 we hear that the body of Christ, is “Christ in corporate expression”, and on p. 60 we are told that the divine function of church meetings is so Christ can manifest himself in his fullness. While this is interesting language it overlooks that the very point of the body metaphor is to make clear that the body is not the head, it is simply connected to the head. The body of Christ is not Christ, who happens to be bodily in heaven. The fact that Paul uses language somewhat loosely in this sermon to stress the connection between the head and the body should not be over-pressed. And what exactly does it mean for Christ to express himself in his fullness in a church meeting?

Beginning with p. 60ff. we get a clearer glimpse of what Frank means by Christ manifesting himself in his fullness, and we learn why it is such a urgent matter for him that everybody participate in such a meeting. If that doesn’t happen then Christ is not fully manifested, and the body is not fully edified. Here we are dealing with a profound confusion between Christ who is simply the head of the body, and the congregation who is the body. The body is not the head, and the body is frankly NOT Christ. Frank puts it this way “He is assembled in our midst.” (p. 60—some assembly required, apparently). Now this is most peculiar language. Christ is not in need of being assembled! His presence is no less present when it is not everyone who speaks in a church meeting. Nor is it true “that the only way that Christ can be properly expressed is if every member of a church freely supplies that aspect of the Lord that he or she received.” (p. 60). Again this is once more to confuse the head with the body. The body belongs to the Lord, but it is not the Lord. And perhaps we have forgotten Christ’s promise that “wherever two or more are gathered there I am also”. Notice the ALSO, in such a saying. Christ is not the body, he is coming to be with the body. I am all for lively body life, but not for delusions of grandeur. The other thing that concerns me about this is that it is too Christomonistic rather than properly Trinitarian. Jesus, more often than not, pointed away from himself and to the Father during his earthly ministry and through his teachings. He taught his disciples to pray to God as Abba, and we are told that one day the kingdom will be returned to the Father. Real Trinitarian worship involves coming to the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Spirit. It is not Christomonistic. On p. 61 Frank stresses that Christian church meetings centered on Christ and “every word shed light on Him”. Now from my reading of the NT, I would suggest this is false. I quite agree that Christ is the main subject of early Christian witness and focus. It’s not however all about him. It is often about other things. I can for example imagine a church meeting based on the homily of James. Jesus is barely mentioned at all in this sermon, and that is just fine. There were probably many early Christian meetings which were not specifically dwelling on Jesus especially the Jewish Christian ones. I suppose in a broad sense one could argue that even when Christ was not mentioned what did happen in such a meeting shed light on Him, but it would appear Frank means more than this.
Two of the undercurrents in this book are a dislike for what is called elitism, and the notion of a clergy class of religious authorities who speak for the Lord. There is a resistance to the notion that we need such specialists or especially trained persons in the body of Christ. I disagree, and actually it has nothing to do with elitism, it has to do with some being given more gifts and talents than others, just as in the parable of the talents, and what follows thereafter is the need for good stewardship of all that is given. While God can even speak to his people through Balaam’s donkey, there is a reason why we hear in the Scriptures that studying the Word of God (in the original languages) is important, and is a way to be found approved. Frank seems to have confidence that schooling and special training can be bypassed since Christ can speak directly through any member of his body.

I must say that when I have gone to such ‘charismatic’ meetings, what is more often than not expressed is not some new revelation from Jesus in person, but simply words of comfort or exhortation or spiritual insight which I would call words of knowledge etc. It’s not Jesus speaking personally, its spiritual insight into someone’s life prompted by the Holy Spirit, and very much ad hoc, and having an immediacy and a definite shelf life to it. And sometimes, as well it is of such a generic sort that one wonders why the Holy Spirit was being redundant. And sometimes one wonders in some cases whether it even came from the Holy Spirit at all, rather than some other spirit. This is why the NT writer said we must test the spirits, and the utterances claiming to be from God. In other words, I see no NT evidence at all that at any genuine church meeting we must allow or assume that everyone is or will be speaking, or that they should do so. Nor do I see any evidence that if everyone is not speaking, Christ is not properly or fully manifested. When Paul preached to the Christian Ephesian elders, he was basically the only person who did so on that occasion, but I would not want to be the person who suggests that Christ was not fully manifested then and there. The reaction of the elders suggests otherwise.

On p. 63 we have another of the exaggerations which a ‘prophetic’ figure is too often prone to. There were many more of these in Pagan Christianity, but they are not absent in its sequel. Frank says “the early Christians were clergyless [not if by that we mean without human leaders], liturgyless [this is false as many of the NT studies on the creedal and hymnal and the Lord’s Supper liturgy (see 1 Cor. 11) will attest], programless and ritualless.” Well, no on all four points in fact. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are indeed rituals and have always had liturgies. In the case of the earliest stages of the Lord’s Supper the liturgy was indebted to the Passover liturgy.

On pp. 67-68 Frank wants to make a distinction between Christ’s headship as in relationship to the corporate body of Christ, and Christ’s lordship as in relationship to the individual. This distinction does not work at either end of the equation, exegetically. On the one had we have the reference to Christ being the head of the man (or possibly the husband) in 1 Cor. 11, and on the other had we have the many references to Christ being Lord over all persons, all beings, all the church, and not just over individuals. He is right however to critique the rampant individualism of the modern church and its failure to see the necessity of corporate fellowship and worship and witness and authentic community. Here lies one of the real positive correctives in this book for Western Christian culture.

One of the more important portions of this book is the glimpses we actually get of what happens in an ‘organic’ meeting as described by Frank on pp. 69-71. I would encourage you to read this. I see nothing objectionable in this, and various things to praise. It is good for ordinary Christians to be empowered to speak and share and home meetings are a good place to do this, as they are less intimidating. Frank notes as well that planning was involved, and so it was not purely spontaneous after all. He speaks of people getting together two by two and praying and preparing. Those who spoke, spoke on the theme of spiritual water or rivers, one prompting the other, and hopefully the Spirit prompting them all. Frank freely admits that some meetings are far from glorious or even adequate. But what is beautiful about this is not that it is leaderless, for in fact whoever first stood up and spoke took the lead and others were prompted to leap in and share. What is good about this is that the saints shared openly and from their hearts. And here is where I say that home meetings in institutional churches often function identically to this. They are not substitutes for larger corporate gatherings for worship, but they are certainly necessary supplements thereto. The difference is, Frank’s movement thinks church must be small and intimate in all its fellowship and worship gatherings. I disagree. Indeed, as Francis Asbury once said, the larger the mass, the greater the tidal wave of Spirit movement, and the more it becomes visible and obvious to all present. This need not be confined to just evangelistic meetings. Big can be beautiful when it comes to church, but so is small, and both are often necessary for normal spiritual life.

The discussion of the Lord’s Supper begins well enough by describing some of the symbolism of the bread and wine and its theological overtones. I quite agree that the earliest Christians took the Lord’s Supper, at least in some of their meetings, in the context of a real meal. I don’t agree that every meal shared by a group of Christians included the Lord’s Supper and was limited to the breaking of one loaf of bread. The breaking of the single loaf is grounded in the Passover ritual practice and is a continuation of that practice. In other words, the context is a meal, but the sharing of the Lord’s Supper is a special portion or aspect of that meal. What Paul in fact says in 1 Cor. 11 is that the Lord’s Supper should be shared whenever they ‘all’ come together. But there were various house churches in Corinth and nearby Cenchreae and it is clear enough that not every church meeting involved this ritual. Some scholars would in fact say that the Lord’s Supper is not mentioned at all in the summaries about the earliest Christian meetings in Acts 2 and 4. The phrase through the breaking of the bread, may or may not be a sacramental allusion. Of course the other issue here is, is there something sacramental about the Lord’s Supper that would not be true of an ordinary meal, and the answer to this is yes. Paul does not give a warning in regard to an ordinary meal about partaking in an unworthy manner and being divinely judged for doing so. Paul gives that warning for not ‘discerning the body’ when one shares in the Lord’s Supper (see at length my book on the Lord’s Supper—Making a Meal of It). I quite agree with all the complaints in this chapter about the trivializing of this sacrament ( Frank humorously calls what usually happens the Savior’s sampler, the Nazarene Niblet, the Lord’s Appetizer—p. 76). What I don’t agree with is that there is no distinction between what is going on in the Lord’s Supper and what is going on in the larger context of the shared meal. The latter is just a fellowship meal. The former is more than that even when it is done in the context of the latter. And this brings up a key point. In the Passover, the Passover elements were distinguishable from a normal full meal and had special symbolic significance. The same is true of the Lord’s Supper, which in turn means that the size of the portion is not important. It is the meaning of the portion, as the Lord’s Supper can ‘satisfy’ even in small quantities. It is a means of grace, not a means of getting full!

Frank is quite right that the Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal. He is wrong however that what happened at the last supper was simply the inaugural Lord’s Supper (p. 77). No, the last supper had Passover dimensions not carried over into the Lord’s Supper (e.g. the bitter herbs Jesus dipped his bread in with Judas). As 1 Cor. 11 makes perfectly clear the Lord’s Supper involves the recitation of what happened to Jesus on the night of the last supper. This was not an original part of that last supper meal itself. In other words, when Paul recited “on the night when our Lord was betrayed, he took bread..”he is reciting the common liturgy which had developed in the early church to commemorate that covenant making moment. As Paul says, he is passing on the tradition which had been passed on to him ( 1 Cor. 11.23). When he says “for I received from the Lord…” he is using the technical Jewish language for passing on a tradition. He means it ultimately goes back to Jesus and what he said. He does not mean that he literally heard it from the horse’s mouth. This is Jewish traditioning language and we see it again in 1 Cor. 15 when Paul talks about the tradition in regard to the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus. In other words, Paul had no problems with passing along church traditions--- and neither should we.

Frank stresses the joyful aspect of the feast, and suggests it is not a time for focusing on sorrow for our sins. Not a single word is said here about Paul’s stern warning about what happens when we take the meal in a manner that is unworthy without discerning the body of Christ. And here is where I say that simply amalgamating the Lord’s Supper as the beginning and ending acts of an ordinary meal does the Lord’s Supper insufficient credit. I am happy that the meal context is being preserved. I am not happy that the sacramental character of the Lord’s Supper is not being honored with proper contrition for sin before partaking of the Lord’s Supper and a particular focusing on the death of Jesus himself. There is a place for having a more solemn portion of an otherwise joyful feast. The Lord’s Supper needs to be taken in a worthy manner, not merely as just another part of a fellowship meal. I agree with Frank that the Lord’s Supper is a spiritual reality (p. 79), indeed I would want to say that the Lord’s is especially spiritually present in the partaking of this meal. All the more reason to do it with respect and repentance.

There is an odd several paragraphs in this chapter about how the Lord’s Supper mirrors what is going on in the Trinity, as if the Son was consuming the Father and vice versa. This is yet another example of over-pressing the language of abiding and the like which describe metaphorically the spiritual connection between the Father and the Son. The Lord’s supper is not a picture of what is happening in the Trinity. It is a picture of a historical event, what happened on Golgotha, not what always happens in the Godhead. This is what comes of over relying on suggestions of Stan Grenz and others about how church life mirrors the life in the Trinity, which can be greatly exaggerated. God has no need of food of any kind and the Son while he may have been consumed with the work of the Lord, was not consumed by the Lord.
One of the major claims made in Pagan Christianity was that Christian meetings were always in homes for the first 300 years of church history. I am not going to belabor this, since I dealt with the faulty history in the posts on the former Viola book, but it needs to be said once more—this is false on several scores. First of all, Christians met in homes, synagogues, the Temple, down by the riverside, in caves and elsewhere in the first century. They met in buildings and outside of buildings. The exaltation of the home to the exclusion of all the other meeting places is a mistake, and historically false. Secondly, we have clear archaeological evidence now in regard to houses being altered into church buildings already in the second century in the house of Peter in Capernaum (indeed, this may have transpired beginning in the first century), and we have further evidence of church structures in Jordan, and in Rome, some in the catacombs from before the third century A.D. Purpose built buildings for church purposes are not some mandated against by the NT, nor is there anything particularly holy about meeting in homes, nor does the NT mandate that practice. When you are an illicit religion in the Roman Empire where such religions are suspect and often persecuted, it is not a surprise that meetings were in private places. The social context affects this whole matter and discussion.

Frank suggests that when the church got too big to meet in just one place, they then simply multiplied and met in multiple houses. This is partially true, but it hardly explains the Pauline exhortation to the several house churches in Corinth “whenever you all come together……” . That had to be possible, perhaps in yard of a Christian villa. I have looked at large villas excavated in Corinth, and there are various of them where one could meet on the grounds and have several hundred people present. The truth is, we have no idea how large early Christian gatherings could get and did get, and we have no right to assume that the limit would be the limits of the size of a villa dining area, or dining area plus atrium for example. But here we come to a major bump in the road for the Viola thesis. You can’t have ever member sharing if 300 show up, unless you are prepared to go on for hours and hours and hours. And yes, it is true, some of the ‘personalness’ and personality of a small group meeting is lost in a larger group. Some small group experts say 12 is the magic number beyond which true intimacy begins to get lost. I see no mandate of any kind in the NT suggesting we have to all meet always in such small groups or that that should be seen as the norm for a church meeting. Frankly there is nothing quite like hearing 300 hearty souls singing in unison “And Can it Be” in Estes Chapel, and yes the acoustics help. There is strength in numbers, and praise is multiplied exponentially in larger groups. Hooray for larger church worship services, for yeah verily they too comport with the NT witness. They are more obvious lights to the world and cities set on a hill.

Frank gives us the short list of the pluses of how churches in homes do a good job of being church: 1) the home testifies that God’s people are his house. This is a fair enough point. Frank is forgetting however that Judaism was a legal religion in the first century, and Christianity was not. It did not have permission to erect religious buildings, so it met in other people’s buildings—synagogues, the temple, the Hall of Tyrannus, and in homes, and out in the open of course. Meeting in homes was making a virtue of a necessity. And he is wrong in addition about the persecution in Jerusalem. The favor of the people was short-lived. Within a decade Peter and John and James Zebedee were incarcerated as church leaders. James was executed, and Peter ended up fleeing elsewhere. Indeed so great was the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem that Luke says this is what largely prompted the mission to Samaria and Galilee (see e.g. Acts 7-8).

2) The home is the natural setting for ‘one anothering’. Well actually it’s a good setting for that, but it can also be done almost anywhere, including out in the open, on the job during a meal break, and so on. 3) The home represents the humility of Christ. He has a point about the problems with the edifice complex amongst Christians and the cost of upkeep. However the down side of simply meeting in homes is that it suggests that nothing special, nothing holy, nothing exceptional is going on here. It suggests a casual attitude toward worship and fellowship. It suggests I don’t really need to make an effort to give God my best when we worship or fellowship—I’ll just sing a chorus of ‘just as I am” even if I am a slob, and go ahead and go to this meeting. It is one thing to go and eat with sinners and tax collectors in their domain. It is another to set up a place to meet the Lord in holiness, even if it is in homes. There is nothing casual or ordinary about meeting God in person. The venue and the vehicle can help suggest the specialness of the occasion. God isn’t interested in sinners simply ‘being themselves at home in church’. It expects them to become their best selves, giving their very best to God and his service, and the home setting honestly doesn’t encourage this as well as some other settings.

4) The home reflects the family nature of church. This is a good point, perhaps the best point and reason for meeting in homes. I do not think we can say here that the early Christians met in homes because it reflected the unique nature of the early church. We simply do not know there was any element of conscious choice about this matter, much less the elaborate theology that Frank is enunciating to justify this as the normative practice. And really there is no empirical data to support generalizations like “Most contemporary Christians attend church as remote spectators, not as active participants” (p. 91). My response be—How do we know this? Furthermore, this has not been my experience. It sounds like before 1988 Frank only attended dead traditional churches. It’s a great pity. 5) The home models spiritual authenticity. Well, it can do so, but since more Christian marriages end in divorce than endure, they more often model human brokenness, infidelity, rebellion of children, and a host of other sorts of family soap operas. Imagine what happens when a little church group meets in the home of a dying marriage, and is unable to stop the process, ending in taking sides with one spouse or the other. This is the other end of the spectrum of what is described in Acts 2 and 4, and this leads to another point. For whatever reason, small house churches seem more subject to schism (as they were in Corinth) than larger churches that meet outside of homes. This is not what Frank means when it talks about house churches multiplying. What I am talking about is not ‘multiplication’ but rather ungodly ‘division’. This is the curse of low church Protestantism in general, and house churches are not immune to it either. Ironically in part this is because of a lack of good local leadership, and also due to bad ecclesiology.

I agree with Frank entirely that where one meets affects how one meets, and how one feels about the meeting. The building shapes us, not merely vice versa. John Wesley understood perfectly well the value of small group meetings in homes. He called them class and band meetings. They were essential for accountability confession of sins, prayer and the like. He did not however make the mistake of thinking that such a venue is inherently the best place for all church activities to transpire, or that the NT Christians suggested that it was. It was rather a both/and matter, and my position would be we need both small and larger church meetings. Not an either/ or situation. The sociology of size helps the church at both ends of the spectrum. I am far more likely to feel that I am part of the body of Christ universal if I meet with a large group of diverse Christians, many of whom are not of my race, my nation, my class group, my education, and so on. Build the ark big enough and you can rescue all sorts of critters two by two, so they can come in from the judging rain. I frankly think that a sanctuary does a better job of conveying sanctuary as a spiritual and religious idea than a home which has no altar at all, indeed has no religious symbols to speak of.

Frank is utterly convinced that the normative meeting place for the early church was the home. (p. 94). Honestly that is mistaking description for prescription especially on the basis of Acts. I agree that Christians probably more often met in homes than not in the NT era. There were specific social reasons and practical necessities for this. I see no ecclesiology of ‘place’ attached to the home to the exclusion of other venues in the NT.


preacherman said...

Wonderful post and thoughts.
I think this is the longest post I have ever seen on a blog.
Way to go!
Keep up the great work you do.
God bless you in ways you have never thought or imagined.

Chris McMillan said...

Dr BW3,

Thanks for mentioning the cultural aspects of the Home Church Movement. I find that no one else is talking about the fact that the "Reimagining Church" crowd is overwhelmingly white and middle class. If this is a movement that is truly from God - a revolution no less as it has been called - then shouldn't African-Americans, Africans, Latinos and Asian Americans be flocking to house churches? You don't see that. I live and pastor in an overwhelmingly ethnic area and I can't name one house church in our entire area. My point is that it seems to be just a hip movement for bored white Christians. Also, I get sick and tired of hearing how the house church is flourishing in China as if that should be our model. Thank God for the work taking place in the underground church in China, but if you talk to any missionary they will tell you that there is all kind of heresy spreading like wildfire among the house churches in China because there aren't many biblically qualified leaders who are leading the house churches. The bottom line for me is that I don't think you can call something a revolution or even a genuine movement of God when it only affects a small portion of American church culture.

Bethel said...

Dear Dr Witherington,

As always, you home in with very incisive points.

I'm not at all ready to abandon the traditional church building although I do agree with you that small groups are an integral part of the believer's growth and edification.

I am somewhat wary, however, of mega churches with 5,000 to 10,000 in attendance every weekend. It's very easy to mistake numbers and grand building complexes as evidence of spiritual growth and real discipleship. Having said that, they typically have very strong small group focus, and that's where the group intimacy in fellowship and edification comes in.

Perhaps I'm too biased in viewing mega-churches coming from a 'traditional' small town Methodist church with about 500 in attendance. Admittedly, we were slower in realizing the benefits of small groups and moving in that ministry until fairly recently.

I haven't read Frank's book, but from your reviews he does rather seem to overstate the relationship within the Trinity and between Christ and the Church beyond what Scripture bears out.


Michael said...


In regards to how emotions and the Lord's Supper interact, I think there is often the assumption that somber = reverent. Of course if one is happy at a funeral then that is inappropriate. But likewise if one is somber at wedding then they truly aren't participating in the joy of the celebration. Reverence is shown by responding appropriately to the given situation. The Lord's supper is complex emotionally. True, we are saints that sin, and we need to be contrite. But we also are being presented with covenantal promises which should be cause celebration. Is there one emotion that is truly reverent? I question that.