Friday, September 12, 2008

Reimagining Church-- A Frank Response Part One

Frank Viola’s Response: Part One

Frank Viola’s Response: Part One


Okay, so in a moment of insanity, I accepted BW3's challenge to appear on his blog and respond to his review of my latest book, "Reimagining Church."

Just to prevent any confusion, I’m the Frank Viola who was the high school baseball pitcher, not the major league Cy-Young Award winner (painful sigh).

Truthfully, I'm both humbled and honored that BW3 would think enough of my books to (a) actually read them, (b) take time out of his grueling schedule to review them on his blog. And not just review them, but post a lengthy 4-part response to them. “Loquacious” has taken on brand new meaning for me (smile) (c) To receive Ben’s gracious invitation to let me respond, and (d) to give me "the last word" in Bill O'Reilly style. (What a guy!)

I'm impressed.

Most people who differ with each other on issues like this embed themselves in their own circle. What Ben has done, therefore, is not only needed, but it’s highly commendable. And I hope that those who are on both sides of the fence on this subject will learn from this exchange. Although I may disagree with what I call the “institutional church model/structure,” I have great respect and appreciation for the people who are in it, including its leaders. (I owe my conversion and baptism to them.) God has used many people who belong to the institutional church in my life, and that continues till this day. Some of the most godly, mature Christians I’ve ever met are members of it in fact.

By the same token, Ben is not attacking those of us who meet outside the institutional church structure/system. He’s addressing the ideas behind why I and others feel that we have a solid biblical basis for gathering the way we do. Too many times God’s people on either end of this discussion resort to personal attacks and the judgment of heart-motives of their own brethren in Christ. But we have not so learned Jesus Christ. I’m glad that Ben and I can have a substantive conversation on the issues and hope that similar conversations will continue in the Body of Christ.

Consequently, I’d like to begin by thanking Ben for this opportunity. (I reserve the right to retract that last sentence after I read Ben’s reply to my response. (smile))

Let me begin by listing my credentials.

I've never been to seminary (visiting seminary libraries doesn’t count). I've never been to Bible college. I don't speak Greek or Hebrew or Latin. (I don’t even remember Spanish, even though I took two classes in high school.) I don't part my hair down the middle or the side (it’s difficult to when you don’t have any). I still have a mustard-like fast ball, but I lost my wicked curve at age 27. And contrary to popular opinion, I wasn't born during the first century.

Oh, and Philippians 2:4-8 happens to be one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible.

I'm quite content with the above. There are the Pauls of this world (professionally schooled in Tarsus and Jerusalem). And then there are us Peters, who have no such credentials. (I love A.W. Tozer and G. Campbell Morgan for that reason, by the way. They were autodidacts.)

All told: another eminent scholar like Jon Zens or Robert Banks or Howard Snyder or Leonard Sweet or Miroslav Volf or Stanley Hauerwas should be engaging Ben on some of these subjects. Not an erstwhile baseball pitcher.

But then again ... what fun would that be? ‘Tis a lot more thrilling to see an erudite scholar unsheathe his sword on a poor, ignorant “layman” who can barely wield a plastic knife, right?

Three more points of introduction.

First, I’m keenly aware that I could be mistaken in many of my views. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but God has graciously taught me through them all. I have also changed my views over the years upon receiving further light, and I’m constantly open to new light. As I say in the book, I’m still learning, I’m still in school, and I’m still open to hear the Lord through all of His little ones – both scholars and new converts. I trust that this will always be the case. I’m so thankful for the many close friends that God has put in my life and taught me through. And I’m thankful for my relationship with Ben. Every day I thank the Lord for His mercy and grace in my life. I am nothing; Christ is everything. This will always remain true. What you will read in my response, therefore, is how the terrain looks from my hill right now. Albeit, I’m looking at the back of the rocks, while Ben may be seeing their front.

Second, I’m not a promoter of “house church.” Those who are familiar with my work know that I’m quite critical of much that goes on in the modern house church movement, and as I say in my book, I do not believe that “house church” is the only model of church. In fact, it’s a myth to believe that there is one “house church” model, as is commonly assumed. The house church movement is very, very diverse. There are elements of it that I agree with, some elements that I love, and other elements that horrify me. As I like to say, meeting in a home doesn’t make you a church anymore than eating a donut makes you a police officer. (smile) If interested, readers can listen to a recent message I delivered at a house church conference at for more details. If nothing else, it will give you my heart on the matter. More on this subject later.

Third, I wish you all could see the comical banter that Ben and I pass along in our private emails. It’s huge fun. I love the guy, and I’m deeply thankful for this opportunity to interact with him on this venue. (So if you happen to see me poke fun at Ben and vice-versa, don’t be alarmed. We do this often in our private emails.) The truth is, there’s a healthy respect there.

On that high note, I shall respond to Ben's 4-part eBook (ahem [cough] … “review,” sorry).

Actually, I’m not joking about the eBook. Ben’s complete review exceeds 26,000 words. Compare that to the average-sized review of the same book:
It took me awhile to wade through Ben’s 4-part review. Unlike his books, I found the writing style a bit tedious. I’d describe his style of writing on his blog as “an intellectual stream of consciousness.”

Consequently, I’m responding to Ben’s review in the order in which he wrote it. Therefore, it won’t be as organized as a chapter in a book might be. After all, this is just a blog post anyway. (grin)

This first post will be under 8,000 words.

[Deep breath]


General comment: I’m of the opinion that the bulk of Ben’s review is based on taking for granted a number of theological points of view, all of which are contested. Yet he believes these points to be self-evident. His theological construct is popular among conservative American evangelicals, but I believe it’s very hard to justify biblically. More on that later.

1) Ben opens his review asserting that he believes the vision of church that’s presented in my book denies, ignores, and reinterprets much of the NT ecclesiology. I would suggest the opposite. Namely, that the modern institutional paradigm for church that Ben embraces as biblical denies, ignores, and reinterprets much of the NT ecclesiology. I argue in my book very specifically how the churches in the NT fit the organic expression of body life that I describe. Many examples are cited from Scripture. Given Ben’s claim, I’d like to see one or two examples of a United Methodist church in the NT, for example. For instance: Show me in the NT the church building, show me the modern Methodist pastor, show me the order of worship, show me the weekly sermon delivered by the pastor to a passive audience every week/month/year, etc. In fact, I’d like to see just one example of a *modern* pastor in the NT.
2) Ben goes on to correct me, saying that the body metaphor is not the only metaphor of the church in the NT. I’m well aware of this and am in agreement. In fact, I dedicate an entire chapter to the family image – an image that dominates the NT.
3) I found Ben’s comment about my use of Dr. King’s speech to be curious at best. It’s hardly a paraphrase. I think I lifted 5 words from the speech in total and credited Dr. King with it. No doubt, Dr. King’s work is an area where African-American sensibilities vary widely. However, I have many African-American friends who are involved in ministry, and I’ve consulted with some of them about this. Their response to me was, “We don’t see how any African-American would be offended with the way you used the speech. We feel it actually honors Dr. King’s speech.” For that reason, I had no trouble using it. But Ben is very right in saying that I have no intention of offending anyone. That would include an institutionally-minded clergyman like Ben Witherington (smile Ben ;-)
4) Regarding the T. Austin-Sparks quote, Ben didn’t quote him entirely. The quote begins with, “The ministry of the Holy Spirit has ever been to reveal Jesus Christ, and revealing Him, to conform everything to Him.” He also left these parts out of the quote: “No human genius can do this. It is all the Holy Spirit’s revelation of Jesus Christ. Ours is to seek continually to see Him by the Spirit, and we shall know that He—not a paper-pattern—is the Pattern, the Order, the Form. It is all a Person who is the sum of all purpose and ways.” This quote opens up the “Reimagining the Church as an Organism” chapter. Sparks is speaking in the context of church formation. He’s reacting against what I call the “biblical blueprint” approach to church planting, which says, “study the bible, research, activate your frontal lobe, imitate, and presto, an instant church is born.” Sparks’ point is that the pattern for the church is a Person. And a revelation of Christ by the Spirit is necessary. T. Austin-Sparks was not an anti-intellectual. No more than I am. His books “The School of Christ” and the “The Stewardship of the Mystery” are without peer in their unveiling of Jesus Christ and the church in God’s eternal purpose. They show a depth of spiritual insight and scholarship that’s found in few writers today.
5) Ben opines that my assertion that the major images of the ekklesia as being living entities is “false.” (Note: Ben really likes using words like “false,” “error”, “wrong,” etc.) He offers Paul’s image of the church being a “field” as proof (see 1 Cor. 3). A field, to Ben’s mind, isn’t a living image. He believes that Paul has dirt in view here. My response: I seriously doubt that Paul was talking about an acre of dirt when he said to the Corinthians “you are God’s field.” I believe Paul had a wheat field in mind, or something similar. (Compare with other texts in the NT and in Paul himself; wheat is often an image of believers.) Ergo, a “field” is a living image. To confirm this, Paul uses the language of “planting” and “watering” in that same text. Images of life and growth. The point I was making is that the ekklesia is depicted as an organism in the NT over and over again. I don’t understand how this can be denied.
6) To my mind, Ben argues that “buildings” are a hierarchical image of the church because “buildings have structures.” Maybe I’m not very smart, folks, but where do I locate the hierarchical structure of a building? I understand that buildings have a ceiling and a roof (along with walls, etc.), but they’re built from the bottom up. Even so, is that what Paul and Peter are trying to convey when speaking of God’s house/ building? Or are they trying to convey that the church – which is comprised of God’s people – is the dwelling of God? And does not the NT teach that Jesus Christ Himself is the foundation, the cornerstone, the capstone, and the temple itself (as embodied in His people)? So where are we supposed to connect the dots of human hierarchical/ top-down/chain-of-command social structures within the image of the church as building/temple?
7) I’ve never denied that the church is without a particular expression or anatomy. I’m not a “post-church” Christian as I state in the book. The physical body – which is a living entity – has a distinct expression. An anatomy, if you will. So too does the ekklesia of God. (This is one of the main points that I make in “Reimagining”). However, to leap from “expression” to “hierarchy” is nonsensical in my opinion. A plant has an expression and an anatomy too. But there’s no hierarchy between the leaves of a plant or between the roots, stem, and branches. Each provides for and supports the other. So it is with the ekklesia of God.
8) Again, the house of God is made up of “living stones.” This is a living, breathing image.
9) The main point of all of this, of course, is my contention that the church is a spiritual organism and not a human organization. Ben appears to deny this – despite the fact that countless evangelical churches and organizations have in their mission’s statements, “The church is an organism.” And many of them add “and not an organization.” “Reimagining” affirms this but it seeks to draw out the practical implications. If the church is an organism, then what does that mean *practically*? That’s the question that the book seeks to answer.
10) One comment on the word “organization.” While the church has an expression, an anatomical structure, if you will, I wouldn’t call it an “organization.” No more than I’d call my physical body an organization, or a family an organization, or a bride an organization, or a wheat field an organization. Being a living organism doesn’t exclude the idea that organisms do have a certain anatomy or expression. Nor does it mean that it’s a chaotic, disorganized blob of life. (Although sometimes it can look that way!) Nor does it mean that it won’t have “habits.” One of the definitions of “nature” is that it includes innate tendencies, instincts, and habits. I talk about this in terms of the DNA of the church. Perhaps there may be better language for communicating all of this, but I haven’t found it yet.
11) If I believe that the church is a spiritual organism and Ben believes that it’s a human institution, then obviously our paradigms are hugely different and this will account for our differing interpretations of many NT texts. This emerges in the area of Christology and the believers’ unification with Christ also.
12) In the book, I quote one scholar who incisively observes, “When the Greeks got the gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got it, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business.” Ben denies that the church follows a business model. However, I believe he completely misunderstands my point about this. I am not claiming that the leaders of institutional churches think and act like business men, which is what he understands me to say. His justification was “in my church we pray before every decision, etc.” But that wasn’t my point. I’m not suggesting that the leaders of these churches are unspiritual or materialistic. I am speaking of the *structure* of such churches. My point is that the structure of the institutional church (which I define in the book) is one that imitates modern business patterns and methods. The typical American church, for example, has a structure that’s basically similar to that of a company that has stock-holders (the members of the church), a board of directors (the leadership staff or clergy), a hierarchical structure, a CFO (church treasurer), and a CEO (the pastor). So it’s organized very much like a business.
13) The constitutional scholar and historian Andrew C. McLaughlin in a book called “Foundations of American Constitutionalism” argued that the sort of covenantal thinking that we find in Puritanism – which is rife throughout American evangelicalism – is identical to the sort of thinking that led to the formation of the earlier business corporations of that day.
14) Now let’s get to Genesis 1. (Ben alludes to my references to Genesis 1 and 2 in Parts Two and Three also, so this will cover his critiques there as well.) The problem here is one of hermeneutics. Ben is assuming that the hermeneutical debate is over. And that a conservative version of the modern approach has totally won. But this isn’t true. The debate is not over. The question is not closed. There have been developments in theology that challenge the modern hermeneutical model. One of them is canonical criticism. Probably most associated with the late Brevard Childs of Yale. Canonical criticism basically says that every part of the Bible must be interpreted in its relationship to the entire Canon. Therefore, when the NT was created and the canon expanded, the meaning of the OT actually changed from our perspective. It became fuller. Why? Because now it could be completely interpreted from the standpoint of Christ. Recall how the resurrected Christ interpreted the Scriptures beginning from Moses through the Prophets to Cleopas and his companion on their walk to Emmaus. Post-resurrection interpretation goes beyond authorial intent. The modern hermeneutic rejects this. According to the modern hermeneutic, authorial intention *is* the meaning of a particular text, period. Christological interpretations of the OT that would be figurative or typological are rejected out of hand.
15) Now the subject of hermeneutics is a huge one. But it’s where many of our differences in interpretation lie. I’ll reference C.H. Dodd’s classic book, “According to the Scriptures,” as well as the work of Hans Frei, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Edmund Clowney, and James A. Sanders – all of whom held to this canonical approach to Scripture and believed that all Scripture must be interpreted in the light of Christ. I’ve discussed this issue in depth elsewhere, so if you want a more comprehensive understanding, take a look at In it, I give many examples of how the meaning of OT Scripture went beyond authorial intent and understanding. Therefore, I would pitch my tent with Hans Frei in his claim that we should understand the literal meaning of Scripture to be the story of Jesus Christ. The literal meaning shouldn’t be isolated in the authorial intention of the writer (if that can be discovered). Instead, the literal meaning of Scripture is about Jesus Christ.
16) Consequently, I am not asserting that the author of Genesis 1 had an understanding of the Trinitarian nature of God. However, to my mind, this is a moot point. And it touches on the limitations of Ben’s modern hermeneutics. Those who hold to canonical criticism would say that Genesis 1:26 can indeed be viewed as a Trinitarian reference. Dr. Michael L. Brown, who is a first-rate OT scholar, agrees with me here. See also D.J.A. Clines, et al. On another note, I find it hard to believe that the “our” in Gen. 1:26 is referring to God and his court of angels, as Ben suggests. For this would mean that humans were created in the image of God *and* in the image of angels. Perhaps Ben believes this, but I’m unconvinced. No, Gen. 1:26 is in keeping with the complex nature of the Godhead.
17) A related note: I agree with both Barth and Bonheoffer who stated that the interpretation of Scripture should not be limited to an academic context. When we talk about interpreting the Scriptures, we’re talking about unfolding their meaning in the life of the church. Not unfolding their meeting in an academic history course. The scholar, therefore, should submit himself to the life of the church as being the context in which biblical interpretation acquires its full meaning. This gets into John Howard Yoder’s “hermeneutics of peoplehood.” Stanley Hauerwas has written powerfully on this subject as well. Ben seems to assume that interpretations acquire their meaning by meeting certain academic and intellectual canons of interpretation.
18) To put a finer point on it, the problem I’m underscoring here is the assumption that the meaning of Scripture, and therefore, the ground for any legitimate theology, is simply one where any unregenerate exegete can figure out the meaning of the inspired text. It assumes that the meaning of Scripture is accessible to the unregenerate scholar simply because he can follow the secular canons of interpretation of historical documents. I believe, along with Barth, Bonheoffer, Yoder, Hauerwas, et al. that proper Scriptural interpretation requires the Holy Spirit working in the believing community. Academic tools can help, but they can’t take us there in and of themselves. We interpret Scripture together in the context of the church.
19) Now on to a fundamental point in BW’s theology. I disagree with Ben’s opinion on what the NT teaches regarding our union with Christ. In effect, he denies our participation in the divine life. I certainly do not agree with Mormon theology and flat-footedly deny that we become “gods” or divine beings. I’ve never taught or believed this. I believe that our union with Christ Jesus is actual, real, and even experiential. Ben’s whole perspective is quite “Zwinglian” on this issue. The absolute distinction between God and human beings requires that the church be in and of itself nothing but a human organization. A human organization in which Christians come together to build one another up and obey God together. It’s based on the classic American evangelical theology in which a relationship to Christ is seen as substitution. And we’re excluded from it. According to this view, so many texts that speak of our union with Christ (Christ IN us and we IN Christ) are taken as metaphorical instead of actual. I believe, along with many other theologians, that this idea is flawed. Christ is the Vine and we are the branches. This is one of scores of images that speak of the kind of union that we have with Jesus Christ.
20) Ben seems to think that God gives us a sort of separate kind of eternal life, rather than His own life. Peter says that we are partakers (sharers) of the divine nature. That’s not simply an abstract “positional” statement. It’s real. The same life that God lives by dwells in us. And we can live by that life. In the words of Jesus Himself, “As the Father has sent me and I live by the Father, so He who partakes of me shall live by me.” Christ is life. And He is *our* Life. Paul says “Christ lives in me.” Not in some positional, metaphorical, abstract way. But in an actual way. “Partakers” doesn’t convey the idea of two boards that are glued together as two completely separate things. Partaking involves an actual participation in something. We aren’t united to God in that we become God by nature. But the divine energy, the divine action, and the divine life is shared with us.
21) This moves us into the question of Christology. Ben’s language almost sounds Nestorian to me. While the divine nature doesn’t cease to be divine in Christ, the human nature does not cease to be human. (See the work of Jaroslav Pelikan and David Bentley Hart for a good discussion on this.) The divine and human do not, therefore, exclude one another. Christ is not on one side of the wall and the church on the other. Such an idea fundamentally misconceives the entire nature of the ekklesia. The church isn’t something that we create. It’s something that God has created.
22) Again, Ben seems to see the church as simply individual Christians coming together to build one another up and help one another in obeying Christ even while they continue to be essentially individual Christians with individual relations with God (the Puritan view). He conceives the church as simply an earthly, historical, non-divine institution. This is not the historic teaching of the church, however. The classic example is that of a fire poker plunged into a fire. The fire indwells the fire poker, yet the fire poker never ceases to be in and of itself iron. On the other hand, the fire never becomes a fire poker. But the poker glows like the fire does and it’s hot like the fire is. The attributes of the fire become communicated to the poker. The poker *partakes* of the fire. Go ahead and touch the poker and you’ll know right away if this union is metaphorical or not. The divine life is given to us at every moment as a gift. We do not possess it as if it’s ours separately. The gift of the divine life is a perennial gift. But it never becomes our possession (this is one of the great fallacies of Mormonism). Dietrich Bonheoffer did a good job distinguishing between the image of God (the imago dei) and being like God—possessing divinity as a possession of our own (the sicut deus). Bearing the image of God means being caught up in the life of the Trinity and expressing it. We humans were created to have God live His life in and through us. We aren’t fully realized human beings when we don’t experience this. In the words of one writer, “It takes God to be a human being.” Ben and I disagree on this.
23) For some great classic reads on the church’s union with Christ, I refer you to Watchman Nee’s classic, “The Normal Christian Life,” and his “The Secret of Christian Living” (a newer publication). His book “The Body of Christ: A Reality” is also worth reading. W. Ian Thomas’ “The Indwelling Life of Christ” is also recommended. (Warning: “The Normal Christian Life” can change your life. It completely wrecked me as a young man. I still haven’t recovered from it.”)
24) My basic response to Ben’s opinions on the Trinity is that I believe he misconceives it. And again, he does so in a very typical modern Western way. He honors the divine nature over the divine persons. In this framework, God becomes a box of attributes. The more biblical point of view, I would claim, is that which was taken by the Eastern Fathers who said that we must understand God in the first place in terms of the three divine persons, not in terms of the one divine nature. They certainly didn’t deny the one divine nature, but they started in a different place.
25) The Eastern Fathers, along with the Western Fathers before the middle ages, rightly understood that all the members of the Trinity were involved in an eternal relationship depicted by a great dance. A relationship in which the Father totally gives all and everything that He is to the Son as sheer gift. The Son, then, is the retainer of the fullness of the Godhead. The Son, in turn, gives Himself totally to the Father by glorifying Him. In that sense, the Son could be said to be subordinating Himself, but the problem is, if we stop there, we miss the fact that the Father’s act of filling the Son with His fullness and glorifying Him is also a kind of subordination. So in that sense, the Father and the Son each take turns subordinating themselves to one another.
26) Consequently, to take the moment of the Son’s subordination and treat it as something distinctively belonging to the Son is to fail to deal with the very dynamics of the Trinitiarian life. It fails to deal with the Father’s eternal dispossession of Himself in giving Himself to His Son eternally, and holding on to nothing of Himself. The Father is a Father because He has a Son; the Son is a Son because He has a Father. Each divine person doesn’t exist apart from the others. That’s one of the distinctions between the divine persons and the divine nature.
27) When Ben turns subordination into a distinctive trait of the Son, subordinationism actually becomes part of the Son’s *unique* nature. We then start to move toward the very confused point of view that makes each person of the Trinity a being that has an individual nature. For this reason, Ben’s opinion that there is a functional hierarchy in the Trinity is one that, according to Kevin Giles and Gilbert Bilezikian, does not reflect the teaching of the historic church. Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslov Volf, Kevin Giles, Gilbert Bilezikian, and Stanely Grenz are just some of the theologians who have written extensively on the non-hierarchical nature of the Trinity. (That’s no shabby bunch of theologians, by the way.) I cite them in “Reimagining,” and their specific works (which are referenced in the book also) take dead aim at Ben’s opinion of the functional subordination of the Son. They address every objection he makes, and then some.
28) So what’s going on in 1 Cor. 15:28ff? As Pannenberg observes in his Systematic Theology, the Father hands over the Lordship to the Son (see also Philippians 2:9-11). The Son in turn hands back the Lordship to the Father. Thus there is mutuality in their relationship. Even in the end, the Son does what He always does. He dispossesses Himself of what is His and gives it to the Father. But the Father does what He always does. He pours out everything that He is and has on the Son, including the glory of being Lord. To exegete hierarchy from that text, therefore, is quite a reach. A careful reading of the NT shows both the Father and Son engaging in a mutual exchange love, life, honor, glory, etc. I give examples of this in the book. The question I would like Ben to consider is this: Is it possible that you are wrong and Moltmann, Volf, Giles, Bilezikian, Grenz, et al. are all right? Is that a possibility in your mind?
29) Ben closes Part One with these words: “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.” I deny that equality makes Christians the same in gift, role, and spiritual maturity. My book underscores that point repeatedly. So this is a straw-man statement. I would instead say that what has affected and infected the discussion are secular leadership patterns that project hierarchy back into the NT and contradict the historic teaching of the church. As Kevin Giles put it, “Historic orthodoxy has never accepted hierarchical ordering in the Trinity.” We don’t deny subordination/subjection in the Christian life. We’re denying the need for a chain-of-command. We’re not calling for a gathering of equal figures who have the same rights. We’re calling for a gathering of people who willingly give up their rights out of love for one another that springs from encountering Jesus Christ. Another element that has affected and infected the conversation is the proclivity to embrace one kind of hermeneutic as being the only legitimate hermeneutic, when the fact is that this debate is far from over.
30) Footnote to interested readers: I recommend three books on this subject. Stanley Grenz’s “Theology of the Community of God.” Much of what’s in “Reimaging Church” can be supported theologically in Grenz’s work. While I’m not really a fan of systematic theology, Grenz’s book is exceptional. He really got it. He understood how the Trinitarian Community works out God’s purpose of bringing forth a community on earth that reflects His nature. I’m so glad he wrote this work before he left us. The other books are Kevin Giles’ "The Trinity & Subordinationism" and “Jesus and the Father.” Two essential texts on the topic.
31) I could go on with this, but my response is getting too lengthy for my tastes (and undoubtedly, for your eye-sight). So I’ll rush through Part Two.


1) Ben begins by bemoaning the fact that I don’t mention “the traditional church” in my four “ways of doing church” (as he puts it). He says he finds this amazing. The reason is simple. I’m not listing “four ways of doing church.” I’m listing four way of “restoring” the church, which is stated in the subtitle. So obviously I wouldn’t mention the traditional/institutional church, because it’s the very subject of the attempted reforms I mention. (I got the clear impression that because of his tight schedule, Ben was forced to skim-read my book.) Therefore, I’m amazed that Ben would be amazed that I didn’t add the traditional church as a reforming/restoring paradigm. (smile)
2) Ben seems to feel that gathering in an organic way is a recent occurrence dictated by cultural breakdowns. I don’t. If one reads books like the “Reformers and their Stepchildren,” “The Torch of the Testimony,” “The Pilgrim Church” (the latter two books were originally endorsed and forwarded by F.F. Bruce.), they’ll discover that there have always been Christians who left the institutional church to gather in simplicity under Christ. I believe the reason is because there are spiritual instincts at work that go beyond environmental factors. It almost sounds like Ben is saying that organic church life is only for those poor, befuddled souls who have broken families and no friends. (I hope that’s not what he’s saying or thinking, but it can easily be taken that way.) The fact is, I know scores of people who haven’t come from broken families whose spiritual instincts and desire for more of Christ has led them to organic churches. I’d also recommend George Barna’s “Revolution” that goes into the spiritual reasons why so many Christians are leaving the institutional church – 1 million adults a year in the U.S. and growing.
3) Straw man alert: I don’t believe nor do I teach that “the body of Christ is made up of interchangeable parts where everyone is equally gifted.” I actually discount this idea in the book. I affirm the diversity of gifts numerous times—even the shepherding gift. Though I believe it’s profoundly different from the conventional pastoral role.
4) Ben says I deny leadership in the church. On the contrary: I very much believe in leadership and dedicate numerous chapters to unfolding my understanding of leadership in the church. In fact, here’s a direct quote from the book: “Every church has leadership. Whether it’s explicit or implicit, leadership is always present. In the words of Hal Miller, ‘Leadership is. It may be good or bad. It may be recognized and assented to or not. But it always is.’ Depending on who is doing the leading, leadership can be the church’s worst nightmare or its greatest asset.” But to say that the church needs “human headship” is, I believe, completely false. (Yikes, I’m starting to sound like Ben now – “You’re wrong, that’s false, I’m right, etc. etc. etc.”) (smile) Okay, so let me restate it as a question: Where, pray tell, is anyone other than Jesus Christ called “the head” of a church?
5) Ben seems to think that OT officers are precedents for NT ministries. I give an entire section to this objection and answer it. NT scholar Robert Banks in his seminal book, “Paul’s Idea of Community,” excoriates the idea that the NT had “officers” as we understand them today.
6) One of the major points in my book is to distinguish between those leadership forms that subvert the headship of Jesus from those which don’t. Ben doesn’t mention this at all, but instead gives his readers the inaccurate impression that I ignore the fact that the church has leadership.
7) Ben makes it sound as if I deplore large gatherings of Christians. I have no problem with large gatherings of Christians who come together for teaching and worshipping in song. I’m sure many people find such meetings at Asbury Seminary enjoyable. Btw/ Ben, if you pay for my air-fare, I’ll accept your invitation to worship with you at Estes Chapel, and I’ll even buy you a happy meal afterwards! ;-) But I would not call such gatherings a “church meeting” unless each member of the body is free to share, minister, and display Jesus Christ. A church meeting, as I’ve defined it in the book, is a distinct type of gathering. Incidentally, I was part of the Vineyard once, and I don’t think anyone can trump their large worship services. Not back in the 90s anyway. They were majestic.
8) Jon Zens has adequately answered Ben’s opinion that the purpose of a church meeting is mainly for worship. See
9) I believe the “church meeting” should be Christocentric. I don’t see them as anthropocentric and am not sure why Ben would think that after reading my book. Neither do I see the meetings as detached from worship. Note that my definition of worship is much broader than Ben’s. I define it in the book. My views on the man-centered nature of the modern gospel as well as the church are addressed clearly in the chapter entitled, “Reimagining the Eternal Purpose.” Not sure how anyone can think I’m anthropocentric after reading that.
10) Ben denies that Paul was itinerant. He cites his long stay in Ephesus and Corinth as proof. But being itinerant doesn’t excluded lengthy, but temporary stays in various places. Trace Paul’s *entire ministry* and you will see that he’s consistently on the move. (I do this in “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church,” which is a narrative ecclesiology.)
11) Ben claims that James was the decision-maker in the Jerusalem council on Acts 15. I address this in the book, but I’ll summarize here. This interpretation reveals ignorance in how consensus decision-making is done. Consensus decision-making declares the sense of the meeting. In such meetings, votes aren’t taken. It’s not a democratic event, as Ben seems to think I’m suggesting. In consensual decision-making, there’s always some (usually those who are respected) who stand up and give the sense of the meeting. In Acts 15, James did this. In other such meetings it may have been one of the other overseers or apostles who were present. A close examination of the text makes clear that everyone was involved in the decision and there was “much discussion.” Luke doesn’t give us the details. If we assume all that happened is what’s in the text, than that was about a 5-minute meeting. Anyways, I lay this all out in the book step by step.
12) I’m surprised that Ben thinks that Paul enjoyed going to synagogues just to worship with his fellow unconverted Jews. I don’t believe this. It seems evident to me that Paul frequented the synagogue because had an open door to preach the gospel to the Jews there (“to the Jew first,” was his pattern. And he found them in the synagogue). Thus his purpose was “evangelistic.” Read carefully those accounts and notice that Paul would most often say at some point, “Okay, that’s it, I’m leaving. I’m turning to the Gentiles now.” If Paul went to a synagogue as an obligation to worship, he wouldn’t have made staying in it contingent upon their acceptance of the gospel. So as I say in the book, an evangelistic meeting can occur anywhere and in any context. Go to a bar and if you find yourself preaching to the crowd, that gathering just become an “evangelistic meeting.”
13) Ben utterly lost me on his reinterpretation of Hebrews 10:24-25. A rather bizarre way of making the text say the opposite of what it plainly says. The exhortation of the writer is an ongoing thing. Exhort one another when you assemble together – not once, but continually. This text carries the same spirit as 1 Cor. 14:26. The assembly or church meeting is marked by *mutual* exhortation and edification. I think it’s a few-mile stretch to say that this text is dealing with church discipline. Verse 24 is an appeal to exhort one another to good works. Church discipline is dealing with bad works. I see no indication of this in the text at all. Donald Guthrie and F.F. Bruce both exegete this text to envision a regular gathering where mutual encouragement takes place, as do other scholars.
14) Ben also suggests that “one another” is not an indicator of mutuality, but it involves a private setting. (?) I disagree with this completely and see no evidence for it. See Jon Zens’ superb article “Building Up the Body: One Man or One Another”
15) Here again Ben’s “Zwinglian” approach emerges. He denies that Jesus Christ can speak through His people. I find this “seriously problematic” (to use Ben’s phrase). This, I believe, is a reflection of Ben’s misconception of the Trinity and the indwelling Spirit. Is not the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Christ? Doesn’t God’s Spirit inspire Christians? Romans 8 makes clear that Christ dwells in us by the Spirit, not metaphorically, but in actuality. In 1 Cor. 12, Paul argues that the Corinthians no longer serve dumb (mute) idols (v.2). Instead, they serve a speaking God. Jesus Christ has the power of speech through His Spirit (v.3). And where does He speak? Through His Body (v.4ff.). By the way, while Ben denies that Christ speaks through the body, I get the impression from his review that he believers God speaks through the “preacher.” Why is it that God can speak through the “clergy” but not through the “laity”? Especially when the NT cannot sustain such a division.
16) Like Zwingli, Ben believes that Christ isn’t present on earth; He’s only present in heaven. Luther’s response to this was, “Does that mean that Christ is in heaven the way a stork is in a tree?” Christ is in heaven, but He’s also present on earth by the Spirit through the church. Acts 1:1 opens by saying that Luke’s Gospel was a record of all that Jesus *began* to do and teach. The implication is that the Book of Acts was a record of what Jesus *continued* to do and teach through His body, the church. (See also John 14-17.)
17) Ben’s view reduces the term “body of Christ” to a very poor and weak metaphor. Paul’s use of the phrase doesn’t map at all to this. The statements about the body being totally separate from the head are addressed above in my discussion on our union with Christ. The body and the head are distinct, but they are not separate. John A.T. Robinson, Dietrich Bonheoffer (scholars) as well as Watchman Nee and T. Austin-Sparks (more popular writers) have written extensively about the intimate union between the head and the body. This union is an actual, real, and living thing. It’s not metaphorical. Paul says so much in 1 Cor. 12:12. I recommend Bill Freeman’s excellent book, “The Church is Christ” and T. Austin-Sparks’ “God’s Spiritual House.” In effect, Ben sees our relationship to Christ as purely external. This is a monumental subject; but the fact that Ben and I differ so much on it reveals why our views of ecclesiology are so profoundly different.
18) We’ve dialogued about this in private emails, but when Ben reads my description of organic church meetings, he thinks of the small-group charismatic meetings that he’s witnessed. (Others conceive it as a Quaker meeting or a Plymouth Brethren meeting.) None of this is what I’m speaking about and this lends to some of the differences in our communication and understanding.
19) I don’t buy the idea that the Lord’s Supper is a static liturgical ritual. Rather, it can be celebrated in scores of different ways, still holding to the shape of a banquet that celebrates the Lord’s death and resurrection in a corporate context. There’s no evidence that the church had one fixed liturgy for the Supper throughout its life. And very early on it morphed into something very different from what Jesus gave us and the apostles practiced. (George Barna and I give an entire chapter to this in “Pagan Christianity.” I have a friend who is an Episcopalian scholar and he agrees.) There was also no set form of the Eucharistic words until very late.
20) I’ve never denied that the “church meeting” may include “preaching” as Ben suggests. What I’m saying is that it was never marked by one-man preaching a sermon to a passive audience. 1 Cor. 14:26 and 31 includes prophecy and instruction, for instance. I can see any gift inserted there. The hallmark, however, is mutuality. Note: apostolic and evangelistic meetings are different altogether. I expound this early in the book.
21) I agree that when someone shares in a meeting, at that moment they are leading. Again, I affirm leadership. The question is, what is leadership according to Jesus and how does it flesh itself out in the ekklesia? That’s what “Reimagining” seeks to grapple with.
22) Because apostles publicly endorsed overseers in some churches, Ben says that they were appointed from “the top down.” Notice how he assumes that apostles were at the top of some kind of chain-of-command hierarchy. Acts 20 says it’s the Holy Spirit who chooses overseers. Apostolic workers had the discernment, no doubt along with the input of a local church, to perceive who were already functioning as overseers. In the book, I give many more examples of this paradigm that’s consistent with the NT narrative. Yet some of us can’t seem to resist connecting the dots of hierarchy wherever we look.
23) Ben observes that I don’t say a single word about Paul’s stern warning about what happens when someone takes the Lord’s Supper unworthily. And on that point, he’s right. I mention this in “Pagan Christianity” on page 192 and 196. I disagree with Ben that Paul is saying that we should take the Supper after we mourn over our sins. (The self-examination there had to do with ruptures in the believing community.) Like other scholars, I believe that Paul doesn’t have in mind being unworthy while you partake, but partaking in an “unworthy manner.” Nonetheless, I should have added a bit about this to the chapter on the Lord’s Supper in “Reimagining.” My bad ;-( (Frank reaches out to give Ben a hug.)
24) I stand by my statement that the church met in homes for the first 300 years of its existence. I don’t ever recall saying nor do I believe that they met *exclusively* in homes, as Ben asserts that I said. I’ve stated in both “Pagan Christianity” and in “Reimagining Church” that the early Christians met in other places such as courtyards, cemeteries, rented halls, by rivers, along dusty roads, etc. I don’t decry buildings altogether. Not by any means. In fact, in the book, I discuss different ways in which organic churches have and can use them.
25) The so-called findings of early church buildings in the second century, etc. have been challenged by other archeologists and historians. Upon closer inspection, most of these “findings” turned out to be no more than a home in which a wall was knocked out to create a larger space. Some have been shown to be burial places, not “churches.” It’s a stretch, therefore, to call such adaptations religious buildings. We who gather in organic churches will often renovate a home to make it larger. We also knock out walls and revamp garages often. Imagine someone 1,500 years from now digging these renovated homes up and calling them, “church edifices.” Umm … okay. In short, these discoveries are being disputed. Just like the so-called ossuaries of Jesus that Ben himself has challenged. (Three cheers for BW3 for doing that for us! He da man. (smile))
26) I don’t understand how having a large church is a “major bump” in my thesis. As I say in the chapter in question, when the church becomes too large for open participatory meetings, it meets in several locations and comes together periodically for special events. This is what the Jerusalem church did. I’ve been in organic churches that did the same thing. No “bump” there. (smile)
27) One small observation for those who have a hard time understanding how I could cite people whose ecclesiologies and other theological views don’t line up with my own. I’m not a person who believes that someone has to be theologically correct in every point to glean truth from them. This, to my mind, is just plain silly if not narrow-minded. Therefore, I could read someone like Augustine and benefit from his theological insights in some areas, while disagreeing with him in others areas. I seek to root all my beliefs in Scripture; but countless scholars, theologians, and ministers of the Word – both past and present – have benefited the church by providing both language and insight into the Scriptures, regardless of their religious pedigree or denomination or belief system. I’ve always believed this and probably always will. Shucks, there were things I myself believed years ago that I disagree with today. I find nothing inconsistent about this at all. For that reason, I can *even* learn from a Ben Witherington! (grin)

Don’t fall asleep yet, folks. The next post will include my response to Parts Three and Four of Ben’s review.

Yours in His bonds,


Frank Viola, the second


Todd H said...

Good to hear back from the author. I think I need to actually read the book myself to sort through it all! Fascinating discussion.

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

I think i already stuck this somewhere in the middle of this conversation, but when I saw there were no comments yet, I think the 'scholar versus the layman debate' might have scared a few regular saints! God bless both you guys. John(814)OUR WE A BUFFET OR A PARK? I guess we need to do some more on ‘the house church movement’. First, the New Testament addresses ‘the church’ as the corporate people of God. The great mystery is that Christ is dwelling in our hearts by faith. That all believers are walking around as ‘the mobile dwelling place of God, THE HOUSE OF GOD!’ Now, from this standpoint we live and function as the people of God. As we learn and grow we realize that ‘along the way’ we have grasped on to limited ideas about who we are and what the church is. Many of these concepts are shared by both Catholic and Protestant believers. Some who have been helpful in showing us the limited perspective of ‘church at/as the building’ as being silly, seem to have grasped on to the idea that ‘church at the house’ is the basic organic nature of ‘church’. I disagree. In society today you have all sorts of family units. Kids are being born and leaving home and going out into this ‘brave new world’ and imprinting their name on the world. All over the earth you have parents who are writing and keeping in touch with their offspring as they learn and grow as people. These kids are doing all sorts of things [shopping, eating, going to movies, going to the buffet on Sunday]. Now say if you as a parent changed the way you wrote your letters; ‘Dear Johnnie and family’ turned into ‘dear kids who meet and eat every Sunday at the buffet’. The kids would be wondering ‘what’s up with dad, why does he see us only thru the lens of us eating on Sunday’ [or whatever day you eat]. The basic mistake that dad is making is he is seeing one of the functions of his kids [meeting for the purpose of eating] and mistaking that function for ‘the kids’. That is he is beginning to identify his kids in a limited way by viewing them only thru this lens. Now say if dad does some research and finds out that the first century ‘kids’ were having their meals in the park. It was only as time progressed that they built ‘buffets’ and places to go on Sunday to eat. And as time progressed all the kids from future generations starting viewing themselves thru the lens of ‘we are families, we are people who eat at buffets on Sunday’. Now say if the researcher who has discovered that the early families really never ate at buffets [met in buildings!] begins to teach that ‘true family’ are those who meet at parks. The fundamental mistake, in my mind, would be defining ‘the people’ [church] as the kids who eat/meet at the park. While in reality, these first century ‘kids’ were defined as being ‘real kids, who were living and ‘eating’ and functioning as real people as a result of really being born by real parents’. That is the real definition of ‘being kids’ is neither ‘meeting at the 4th century church building’ [or calling the actual building ‘the kids’!] nor is it ‘meeting at the first century park’ [home meetings]. The researcher, as helpful as he’s has been in showing us the limited model of 4th century ‘buffet eating’ has also been limited in his replacing of ‘the church’ as building based versus home based. Would you address your kids as ‘buffet based’ or ‘park based’? That is would you define them by using the measuring rod of ‘where they met to eat’? Of course not! They are ‘kids’ [children of God] because they have been born into human [spiritual] families. Their fundamental nature as ‘children of humans’ [of God] is what makes them ‘kids’. So today I wanted to re focus our attention on what the ‘church’ actually is. The church are all the people of God [both those in buildings, parks and any where else they happen to be] who are alive because they have been actually born from God the father. Our identity is not based on 4th or 1st century ‘ways of meeting’. Our identity is based on being ‘born from above’.

(813)I was going to do the parable [some say story! - I explain it later] of the rich man and Lazarus, but felt we should g

Spaceman Spiff said...

It seems to me Frank misses the nuance of Ben's critiques over and over... but what finally moved me to comment was Frank's appeal to Childs' canonical criticism.

It seems to me that this is a gross oversimplication of Childs's idea. Canonical criticism, properly used anyway, is not a blank excuse to completely ignore historical-critical exegesis. Rather, it is an attempt to ask how a set of texts functioned and function together as canonical, as opposed to asking its original intent.

I think canonical criticism is *best* used *alongside* historical-critical scholarship to understand how books came to function together for the people of God. It can be especially useful in cases where the meaning of passages for the people of God is expanded over time. It is problematic when the new reading is completely contradictory to the historical sense.

Unfortunately, in the hands of some, it becomes an excuse to simply ignore careful attention to historical issues for the passage and interpret it however they wish.

It seems to me that if Frank wants to use canonical criticism to justify this interpretation of Genesis 1, then he should explicitly say that his interpretation is contrary to the plain historical sense of the passage.

I suspect, however, that if he were honest about such a point, almost none of his readership would find it convincing.

Neil said...

Ben, I have to agree with Frank on your proclivity for a "rhetoric of absolute certainty." You make so many things sound like settled issues which are most certainly NOT settled by any means.

Issues like hierarchy within the Trinity fall into that category. I'd also have to throw in what it means to be "partakers of the divine nature" as well. Lots of great, well-read folks see things differently from you.

I for one would like to hear you share your exegetical basis for prescribing a worship service. On what NT model is your view based? Is it on the basis of one of the visions in the book of Revelation? If it is, then I fail to see how you are keeping "description" and "prescription" separate. At least in Frank's model, 1 Corinthians 14 is actually instructing a specific group of believers about their meeting. On what text(s) do you base your rather dogmatic separation of "worship services" from "fellowship meetings?"

J. Samuel Thomas said...

Not bad for a Peter.


Bill said...

Who has time to read this much in one day? I barely kept up with Ben's posts when they were one a day.

Gosh, Ben. What are you trying to do here? ;)

Sigh. By the time I have a chance to read through all this, assuming I can keep enough of it straight to reply to, who else will still be following this thread?

Still, equal time is an unrequired graciousness on Ben's part and I remain grateful for the conversation. So I *will* get through all these posts eventually.

Thanks Ben. Thanks Frank.

Timothy Ministries said...

As another Peter, in the sense that I've never been to seminary, I'd like to add my two cents. I think it is incredibly simple. Jesus said, "...The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:29-31 ESV) I don't think it makes one bit of difference where these things are done (church, home, even where other sinners go). What matters is that they these commands ARE followed. God will fill in the spaces. Let God fill in the spaces. He's much better at it than we are. I think it's that simple.

bestonline323 said...

This is very interesting Post. I'm glad Ben is not attacking those of us who meet outside the institutional church structure/system.
However, it seems as if Frank seems to be missing the nuance of Ben's critiques.

Brilliant read,