Tuesday, July 01, 2008



In the second main chapter of Barna and Viola’s book Pagan Christianity, we are given a brief history of some forms and orders of worship, with perhaps a special emphasis on low church Protestant worship. Missing is a discussion of Catholic worship, various forms of Orthodox worship and Anglican worship. I suppose it is just assumed that these forms of worship are so unBiblical, that don’t even warrant discussion.

Perhaps, to be fair, it is because Barna and Viola are mainly preaching to their own choir (except they don’t much favor choirs or worship leaders), or at least to low church Protestant churches in general. My concern in this post is less with the historical analysis, though there are some flaws in the argument and flies in the ointment there (e.g. Zwingli did not hold a purely memorial view of the Lord’s Supper—see the work of Dr. Steinmetz of Duke fame on this point), but with its theological underpinnings which are faulty in various ways.

My concern is especially with the supposed Biblical view of worship they assume, assert, and sometimes argue for. I realize that the positive constructive project, where they argue their positive case is coming in their subsequent book Reimagining Church, however there is more than enough here in this book to make my hair stand on end, so I will be responding here especially to pp. 74-83.

Let me ask at the outset-- Is there anything wrong with small group meetings with lots of sharing—absolutely not, and God bless them. Is it worship? Well maybe in part when it gets around to focusing on God and not on talking to each other or exhorting each other or laying hands on each other. Mutual participation and open sharing is the model Barna and Viola are uplifting. A time together without an order of worship, without a liturgy, without a worship leader. What should we think of this notion?

Let’s start with a general point. If we want to base our theology of worship on a particular reading of 1 Cor. 11-14, as Barna and Viola seem largely to do, then the least we could do is get the analysis of the Pauline material right. The beginning of the description of bad and good worship actually happens in 1Cor. 8—and continues on through 1 Cor. 14. I do not have the time or the patience to work through all these chapters here--- again one can read what is said in my Conflict and Community in Corinth.

Some general points need to be made. It is interesting to notice how Paul actually contrasts real pagan worship with Christian worship. Firstly, Paul is contrasting real ‘pagan worship’ with Christian worship, not what Barna and Viola call pagan Christianity in their book with what they see as true spiritual Christian worship. Secondly, Paul does not critique pagan worship because it involves purpose built buildings, nor because it involves worship led by priests, nor because it involves sacrifices, nor because there were fellowship meals involved of various sorts. None of those things come in for any criticism at all in 1 Corinthians, which is passing strange if Paul had problems with those aspects of truly pagan worship.

As I say, none of these factors come in for Paul ‘sturm und drang’ in his critique. What he critiques is the spiritual influence of false gods, which he calls ‘daimons’ -- the only time he uses such language in his letters. He assumes that what is behind paganism is not nothing, not no spiritual forces or beings, but rather false gods who are in fact unclean spirits, or demons who can bewitch, bother and bewilder Christians. And so he wants his Christians to stay away from their deleterious spiritual influence. No more going to pagan feasts or worship in pagan temples. And no causing one’s brother or sister to stumble by forcing them to violate their conscience by eating meat once sacrificed to an idol, if they have scruples against it.

Especially telling is when Paul says “you cannot drink in the cup of demons and the cup of the Lord too. You cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” Paul assumes that both the pagan and the Christian meals are sacramental in character that a spiritual transaction of some kind happens in them, and that the influence of the former leads to spiritual pollution and danger, whereas the influence of the Christian meal leads to spiritual renewal, communion with God and union with Christ’s body. To partake of it in an unworthy manner can lead to spiritual illness and even physical death.

Notice at the beginning of 1 Cor. 10.1-5 how very sacramental the language is that Paul uses to describe the Red Sea crossing and manna in the wilderness miracle. He draws an analogy with Christian baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Why? Paul knows perfectly well that the Red Sea crossing was not really a baptism, nor the manna miracle not really a communion meal.

There are two reasons he does this: 1) because he wants to warn his Corinthian converts that just because they had partaken of the Christian sacraments, this did not provide them with ‘eternal security’ from judgment or for that matter a spiritual protection from all spiritual harm if they went on participating in real pagan worship (not to be confused with current high church or institutional church worship); 2) equally importantly he does this because Paul believes there really is something going on in Baptism or the Lord’s Supper of a spiritual and even miraculous nature. The analogy breaks down if one admits miracle in the Red Sea Crossing and the manna, and then suggests that the Christian rites involve nothing more than potent symbols or memorial signs.

But this brings me to a further point. Why exactly had Paul referred to the Lord’s Supper using the term ‘the Lord’s table’? The term here is not ‘meal’ in the Greek, but ‘table’—trapedzēs. Could it be that there was actually a table involved, a piece of liturgical furniture, or something turned into a special table, in early Christian worship, even in homes? Well yes, this is not only possible but likely. The Lord’s Supper was not just a regular part of reclining and dining. It had its own table, and was a part of the regular Christian worship service in a home. This would be no surprise to a Gentile host who had his own altar, and indeed religious cabinet with the masks of his ancestors in it. My point is this-- even in homes there would have been religious items, religious altars, religious furniture. There is no reason Christian might not also have had such things in their homes, rededicated to Christ for example. And so let us analyze for a minute what Paul tells us in 1Cor. 10-14.

Firstly Paul talks about an occasion when all the Christians in Corinth come together, and he affirms that the Lord’s Supper ought to be shared whenever all of them meet. I have no idea how many people this would involve, since Roman villas could be spacious, and a meeting could involve the courtyard, the triclinium or dining room, and so on. In the Roman villas I have been in, in Pompeii and elsewhere, whereas only 18-20 could get in the dining room, if the meeting involved several parts of the house it could involve up to 100 people especially in the courtyard. In other words don't envision a small group Bible study necessarily.

In any case what Paul is trying to do is instill some order and organization into the otherwise chaotic Corinthian worship times—as is especially clear in 1 Cor. 14 where he tries to get them to take turns speaking, to listen when they should, and not to ask questions during the worship service. We actually have no evidence that all Christian worship services were like the one in Corinth, but even if they were, there was supposed to be an order to things—it was not supposed to be like a spontaneous Quaker or charismatic prayer meeting. Sorry but it just wasn’t. The spirit of prophets was in the control of prophets, as Paul says, and Paul as the apostle through this letter was interjecting major structure, including worship structure, into the chaos in Corinth.

And here we come to an important point--- Christ is not the leader of the worship service. This is not said or suggested anywhere in the NT. Christ is the object of worship, the one to whom our worship is directed. The Holy Spirit does indeed prompt and inspire us to share and speak in various ways in worship where there is time and opportunity and need, but this is a different matter.

There is nothing wrong with charismatic sharing as long as the God of peace and order is honored in whatever way worship is done. The leaders of the worship service were then and are now, human beings whom God has anointed and appointed for such tasks, whether they be prophets or preachers, or teachers or song leaders. This is not only clear from a close reading of the OT. It is equally clear from a reading of the NT. Jesus stands up in his hometown synagogue reads the Scripture and preaches while others listen. Should we not follow the example of Jesus? Well of course we should. Paul stands up in the meeting of a synagogue or a meeting with the Ephesian Christians and gives a sermon or exhortation. Others listen. In lieu of that he sends letters to be read as the apostolic voice in worship. Should we not do likewise-- well of course we should.

Worship is not the same thing as a Bible study or a spontaneous sing along at home or a reasonably spontaneous prayer meeting, and it never was intended to be, but it certainly does involve Scriptural sharing from some anointed leader of some sort.

And here is where I stress that Paul’s letters were meant to be read OUT LOUD as part of the worship. That would entail a very long monologue by one of Paul’s workers who read dramatically the whole thing to the congregation. In addition to that there would be prayers and prophecies as 1 Cor. 11 says. In addition to that there would be a meal, and whenever they all gathered, the Lord’s Supper as well. In addition to that, as Ephes. 5 says there would be psalms, which is to say liturgical singing of a rote text, and hymns, in this case probably Christological hymns like we find in Phil. 2.5-11, and spiritual songs, which may well be songs spontaneously prompted by the Spirit. Worship is intended to be theocentric, with the exception of when the Word of God is proclaimed to the people. It therefore involves interchange between God’s Word shared by someone or someones gifted and graced, anointed and appointed to do so, and the response of the congregation as God is worshipped by one and all.

One of the problems here is the fact that NT documents today keep getting treated as modern texts, when in fact they are oral texts. Some scholars, on the basis of the occasional reference to ‘readers’ in the NT have thought that this signaled that Christians were some of the first to self-consciously be trying to produce books, or even literature meant for reading. For example, sometimes Mark’s Gospel has been called the first Christian book, in large part based on the reference in Mk. 13.14 where we find the parenthetical remark, “let the reader understand”, on the assumption that the ‘reader’ in question is the audience. But let us examine this assumption for a moment. Both in Mk. 13.14 and in Rev. 1.3 the operative Greek word is ho anaginōskōn a clear reference to a single and singular reader, who in that latter text is distinguished from the audience who are dubbed the hearers (plural!) of John’s rhetoric. As Mark Wilson recently suggested in a public lecture at Ephesus, this surely is likely to mean that the singular reader is in fact a lector of sorts, someone who will be reading John’s apocalypse out loud to various hearers. We know for a fact that John is addressing various churches in Asia Minor (see Rev. 2-3), so it is quite impossible to argue that the reference to ‘the reader’ singular in Rev. 1.3 refers to the audience. It must refer to the rhetor or lector who will orally deliver this discourse to the audience of hearers. I would suggest that we must draw the same conclusion about the parenthetical remark in Mk. 13.14, which in turn means that not even Mark’s Gospel should be viewed as a text, meant for private reading, much less the first real modern ‘text’ or ‘book’ Rather Mark is reminding the lector, who will be orally delivering the Gospel in some or several venues near to the time when this ‘abomination’ would be or was already arising that they needed to help the audience understand the nature of what was happening when the temple in Jerusalem was being destroyed. Oral texts often include such reminders for the ones delivering the discourse in question.

Look closely at how Frank Viola describes the service he calls true Biblical worship on pp. 78-79. What he is describing is an in home sharing group, not corporate or public worship. Why is it important that there be corporate or ‘public’ worship? For the very good reason that Christianity is an evangelistic and missional religion. What Frank is describing is an in-home nurture or discipleship meeting with some worship elements. I’m glad that this edifies all those present, and I am happy that there is plenty of sharing, but Biblical worship this is not, in the main.

I must assume that in fact Frank would agree that his home meetings happen at a particular time in a particular place, otherwise no one knows to come. In other words, there is a structure and setting and time deemed appropriate. This is a matter of ritual and order.

While I understand the complaint about things done by rote, it all depends on the spirit in which such things are done. If they are simply done mindlessly, repeating words without thinking about what one is saying or without focusing on God—well that’s not a good thing. But frankly I’ve seen far too many people who find joy in the recitation of the liturgy, and meaning, and are drawn closer to God by doing so. And there is nothing unBiblical about ritual. Try reading the psalms for example, which as Ephes. 5 makes clear Christians recited and sang.

Here’s an important point When one rules out pre-set liturgies and orders of worship, that in itself becomes a ritual by default if one does it over and over again that way. You can see this for example in what happened with the Shakers here in middle Kentucky. Though they lauded spontaneity, it became clear soon enough that they needed some order and so in their singing and dancing building they built little upstairs peepholes where community leaders could observe and make sure there was no lascivious or loose dancing or singing.

Worship, real Christian worship that comports with the Great Commission as well as Peter’s Pentecost sermon however is intend to be open for one and for all, and all should be able to come as they are. Of course, when God works, no one will stay as they are. Worship is in fact the ultimate goal of human life. Salvation is merely a means to the end of worship.

Notice the very clear critique by Paul of purely spontaneous sharing in Corinthian worship. He says that speaking in tongues without interpretation will lead the uninitiated (the idoites--the visitor) to react by saying this is chaotic madness, this is ecstasy without structure. Paul doesn’t want pure spontaneity even in Corinthian worship.

A few points are in order about things in the fine print in the second major chapter: 1) spiritual gifting doesn’t make a person a priest. Training in priestly tasks does, or in the NT offering of self or spiritual praise does. Nowhere is the priesthood of all believers linked to spiritual gifting in the NT; 2) Christ being the head of the body has nothing to do with who is leading a worship service. Worship is an activity of human beings prompted by the Spirit and directed towards God. Christ in worship is not the subject or director of worship, he is the object of worship. 3) all Christians are both laity, and gifted and called to do something for the Lord. This does mean that there is no laity, clergy distinction in the NT, but there is certainly a leader-follower distinction in the NT, and not all are called to be apostles, elders, deacons, etc.

Consider for a moment the heavenly vision of worship in Rev. 4, or say in Isaiah 6. Any evidence here of a sharing group where the focus is on each other? Nope. The focus is entirely on the one who is on the throne, before whom we cast down our crowns. Pure spontaneity can be just as stifling of genuine worship as long and lugubrious liturgy.

And categorical statements like “Let’s face it. The Protestant order of worship is largely unscriptural, impractical, and unspiritual.” (p. 77), is not only an uncharitable remark. It’s Biblically inaccurate.

An actual study of worship in the Bible would recognize that there is indeed both order and space in worship, both liturgy and creativity, both leading and following. When Paul describes worship in 1 Cor. 8-14 he is largely critiquing the lack of order and structure in the service there, not baptizing it and calling it good. 1 Corinthians is a problem solving letter, and when one takes the problematic model and makes that a template for modern Christian worship—that in itself becomes a problem.

At the end of Heb. 12.18-28 our author is reflecting on a theophany, in fact two theophanies the old one at Sinai, and the final one at Christ’s return. He remembers the patterns and rituals of Jewish worship involved at that earlier theophany, and then he says “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken then let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” The image of acceptable worship he had left in their minds is an image of worship that involves thousands of joyful angels and the church of the first born who worship with them, and he says “see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks” referring to God speaking to them in worship, and in this case God probably speaking through some leader-- those who are particularly mentioned in Heb. 13.7 and 17 as worthy of remembrance and support.

The problem in Protestant worship is not the rituals or the pews or the pulpit or the preacher. The primary problem in worship is not that people often sit statically sitting staring at the heads of those in front of them, though that is a problem.

The primary problem is anthropocentric worship—looking at and to each other, when in fact in worship what all Christians are supposed to do is LOOK UP AND SEE THE GLORY OF THE LORD AND HIS HEAVENLY HOSTS, AND JOIN IN THE UNENDING SONGS, FOR AS THE BOOK OF REVELATION MAKES CLEAR—EVEN THE ANGELS HAVE A LITURGY, AND THEY SING IT EXUBERANTLY AND REGULARLY.

Small group gatherings are wonderful and can be very formative. But they are largely anthropocentric in character, they are largely about sharing with one another, and that frankly is mainly fellowship and koinonia and mutual upbuilding. It is the kind of thing that happened in Wesley’s society meetings and the classes and bands which met during the week, but as Wesley said—it is no substitute for public and corporate worship, because one day when the Lord returns all the world will be required to worship, with every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus is Lord.

What we are tuning up for is the final great theophany and its proper human response—worship. What we are not tuning up for in worship is simply more fellowship and Bible study and sharing with each other. What we are turning up for is turning our eyes on Jesus and looking full into his wonderful face, and all such earthly sharing which are “the things of this earth’ fades and becomes strangely dim in the light of his wonder and grace.


Kyle said...

Dr Witherington,

I have noticed that many Protestants have an anemic conception of worship. Coming from Roman Catholicism, I was at first joyful to cast off anything that smelt of empty or dead ritual. But after having been converted now myself, I find much protestant worship to be empty and lacking in that "wholly other" atmosphere. I'm a staunch protestant theologically, but I would like to have a richer theology and practice of worship in my life. Liturgy can be so solemn, so beautiful, and so worshipful.

I think we Americans are afraid of the numinous because we are so rationalistic. I also think Protestants fear liturgy generally. And why do we fear it? Because we can't control it. We don't like that here in the USA =)

Bill Heroman said...

@Kyle - I grew up Episcopalian and knew some Catholics who felt much like yourself. You might be looking for an Anglican service, some of which are high-liturgical. Beyond the service, I hope you find a worshipful congregation... which brings me back to Ben's post!

Ben, am I really to take it that you believe true worship, focused on Jesus, only happens corporately when people are seated in rows, following a highly detailed liturgy? While I cannot recommend a house church that isn't guilty of your criticisms (and I admit many of them are good ones) at times, I also must say that I for one have indeed sat looking AROUND and seen the Glory of the Lord, as you say. Open sharing doesn't always have to be anthropocentric "sharing". Sometimes we used the word sharing as opposed to the word speaking, but the goal was to "share" in a way that helped center each other on the Lord.

Btw - when you said looking "UP", I assume you meant looking to the heavenlies. But I can't help finding some connotation in the word "up" as referring to the stage, the steps, the altar, the homelitic platform, the stained glass windows and the deliberately high vaulted ceilings. Not that there's anything automatically wrong with those things. But protestant architecture, following the Catholics, definitely draws the eye to certain places, on purpose. And I do see that in two ways. Yes, the "rote" sunday service of my upbringing ministered to some who were truly lost in the Lord, and yet, evidently, many who were not. But I won't debate the mixed results.

By the way, when I was in "house church", I was FOR liturgy. And yes, liturgy can be as simple as "everybody speak, but take turns".

Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I have been in some open meetings when the focus, or hours, was purely on Jesus Christ. From your post, I must wonder - have you not? Well, truly, I wish it was easier to come by. But alas, for us, it didn't happen the same way every week.

Just some thoughts, while I look forward to the rest of this series.

Nick said...

As someone who is perpetually stuck between the high and low church, I can not thank you enough for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking review of this book. I have a bunch of Protestant pastors on my contact list who will be doing some serious reading tonight!

JLB said...

Wow. What you describe in the early Church sounds more and more like an Orthodox Divine Liturgy as I read further down the post.


C.P.O. said...

In the vacuousness of the internet, it's nice to find something substantive, which is what this series on Pagan Christianity is. Thank you! Very thought-provoking.

Alan S. said...

Dr. Witherington,

What about Hebrews comment about meeting together to encourage each other (10:25), and Paul's comment in 1 Cor. 12 & 14 about meeting together for common good, or for benefitting everyone? Wouldn't this mean a horizaontal emphasis as well as the vertical emphasis you emphasize?

Falantedios said...

What about the emphasis in Matt. 25 and in 1 Cor 3 & 6, that the God we worship dwells among us? In us?

He is not far away in some high point that we must gaze up and squint at, or maybe even need to buy a theological telescope in order to see.

When we assemble for worship, we should see God in and among us right there. It is not far away that we should look, but right there with us. WE are now the temple in which the Glory of the Lord dwells, as Isaiah teaches. WE are the house not built with hands in which God dwells.

Dr. Ben, I do not agree with PC's mutual edification emphasis, but I think your way of phrasing the problem seems to suggest that the solution is to be found in returning to dualism, and I must disagree with that as well.

"Christ in you, the hope of glory."
"I am again in the anguish of childbirth, til Christ be formed in you."

We must strive to remove anthropoCENTRism from our worship. We, our needs, our feelings, our desires, should not be the center. But the answer is not to look into some other realm, but to see that when we assemble and worship together, the veil between heaven and earth becomes so thin that, if the eyes of our hearts have been trained by Scripture, discipline, and love, we can see God in/among us.

in HIS love,

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

Belonging to a church very much akin to what Mr. Viola has written about in his books, I can say, without a doubt, that we do, in fact, corporately, privately and publicly worship God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The reason is that it is both public and private is because we do it in our own homes and yet visitors are free to come and participate if they would like.

Granted. This way of doing church has it's own kind of trappings and hang-ups, but what form doesn't?

As far as the I Cor. 14 meeting scenario goes, well, it's biblical and Paul wrote those dictates out for a reason....don't you think?

Perhaps one would be better off going to visit one such church, perhaps one that Frank ministers to, before forming too solid of an opinion about them, what do you say?

Brother Johnny

Jon Zens said...


Pagan Christianity (PC from henceforth) came out January 1st, and here we are six months later discussing it. I’m glad about this as these issues need to be addressed in our time.

Having read all four parts of your review, it seems to me that the major flaw throughout is that it’s loaded with anachronistic rationalizations for modern institutionalism.

In Part One of your review, you connected the “elders” mentioned in the NT with the “clergy” that came “later,” and the recognition of functions portrayed in the NT with the rite of “ordination” that crystallized in later history. I pointed out in my first response that this is not comparing apples with apples, and I explained why. Likewise, in Part Two you connect matters described in the NT with practices that emerged later on in time and read them back in the NT text. Doing this creates confusion and deserves a strong critique.

Again, I don’t have time to respond to every point you make in Part Two, but I’ll cover those that deserve immediate rebuttal.

1) Throughout the review, you never interact at all with the main point of the authors, which is: the Protestant Sunday Morning Order of Worship does not appear in the NT and emerged later as the result of absorbing Greco-Roman customs (e.g., the Roman imperial court), Jewish rituals, and human invented traditions in the post-apostolic period.

You simply make the unsubstantiated statement that there are errors in the historical facts. But then you only give one example, and sadly, that example is yet another case where you argue against a point that the authors never make. This is misleading.

You write, “e.g., Zwingli did not hold to a purely memorial view of the Lord’s Supper—see the work of Dr. Steinmetz.” The author’s never say that Zwingli held to a “purely memorial view.”

Here is what they said: “Zwingli is also credited with championing the ‘memorial’ view of the Supper.”

This is a fact that’s attested by hundreds of historians past and present. Zwingli is credited for the memorial view. Fact. I challenge your readers to investigate this for themselves if they doubt it. It won’t take them long to find many articles crediting Zwingli for that viewpoint. Perhaps this is because he used the very words that the Eucharist was a “memorial of the sacrifice.”

Even so, the majority of your review is not aimed at critiquing the key points in the chapter (see above), but instead, you attack what the authors deliberately and admittedly do not develop in their book, but which is treated in detail in the sequel, “Reimagining Church.”

2) The bulk of your review seeks to justify a clergy-led “worship service” that includes liturgical furniture out of the NT. However, you have not made your case and you are wrong on many counts, which I will explain in the following.

3) You suggest that the authors of PC “are mainly preaching to their own choir…or at least to low Protestant churches in general.” It would seem that the wide readership that this book has obtained would indicate otherwise. Thousands of people – Christian, non-Christian, those who are part of the institutional church and those who are outside of it – are reading PC. It is hardly limited to some small and loyal choir. (There are over 500 reviews on the book so far.)

Furthermore, numerous pastors are responding very differently than the clergyman who have praised you for your review on your blog. Frank has posted some of these responses from pastors on his blog: http://frankviola.wordpress.com/2008/07/03/pastors-weigh-in-on-pagan-christianity/

4) Your entire review is built on a huge but false assumption that you never support. This assumption is the linchpin for your entire argument. Here is the assumption: That the Christian meeting in the first century was a gathering for worship, i.e., a” worship service.”

This assumption cannot be substantiated anywhere from the NT. There is no place in all of Scripture that teaches that Christians are to gather for “worship.” Other scholars agree. For example, in chapter 9 of his seminal work, “Paul’s Idea of Community,” Dr. Robert Banks discusses Romans 12:1-2 which says that our whole life is to be a worship until the Lord. He then makes this crucial point, “since all place and times have now become the venue of worship (Rom. 12:1-2), Paul cannot speak of Christian assembly in church distinctively for this purpose.”

5) You begin the review with a six-paragraph bible study on 1 Cor. 8-14. I didn’t see anything in those six paragraphs a) where you contradicted anything the authors said in the book, or b) where the authors would disagree. So I fail to see why you spent so much time on that when, in fact, it had no bearing on the book’s argument.

What you seem to have missed in your discussion, however, is that 1 Cor. 12 opens up with a discussion of the difference between God in Christ and pagan idols. Since Frank has discussed this in another place, I will quote him directly as it sets the stage for Paul’s discussion of 1 Cor. 12-14:

1 Corinthians 12:1 says, Now concerning spiritual manifestations, brethren, I don’t want you to be ignorant. You know that when you used to be pagans, you were led astray to dumb idols and you were led by them.

What is a dumb idol? It is not an idol with a low IQ! A dumb idol is an idol that does not have the power of speech. It is a mute idol. Before they came to Christ, the Corinthians were following pagan gods that did not have the power of speech. These gods were mute. They were dumb. Paul goes on saying,

Remember how you served dumb idols? By contrast, I make known to you that if you speak by the Spirit of God . . .when you say something as simple as, “Jesus is Lord,” the Holy Spirit is speaking through you. And there are varieties of gifts, but it’s the same Spirit. There are varieties of ministries, but it’s the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but it’s the same God who’s working.

Notice that God communicates in a variety of ways, but it is the same God who is doing all the speaking. And He does that speaking through His Body! … Jesus Christ has the power of speech. He is not a dumb idol. He speaks. And when He speaks, He reveals His mind. But He does not reveal His whole mind through an individual. It takes the Body. It takes the brothers and the sisters in a church to make known His mind. It takes the Body to lay hold of His mind. This sets the stage for Paul’s discussion of a church meeting in 1 Cor. 14, a meeting where Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit speaks and reveals Himself through every functioning member of His Body (“Laying Hold of the Mind of Christ,” Frank Viola, 2001).

6) After you finished your six paragraph bible study, you put forth your key argument. You suggest that in 1 Cor. 10, the word “table” COULD refer to a piece of liturgical furniture. Your words, “Could it be that there was actually a table involved a piece of liturgical furniture?” This is quite a stretch and an extremely thin argument to refute the authors’ point that the early church meetings were simple and marked by open sharing centered on Jesus Christ Himself. The fact is that the word trapedzes is used for an ordinary table where one eats a meal (see Matt 15:27; Mark 7:28, Luke 22:21, etc.).

Many scholars have shown that the Lord’s Supper in the first century was taken as a full meal (see Robert Banks, I. Howard Marshall, et al. See also Eric Svendsen’s work in The Table of the Lord). Each argue that the Lord’s Supper would occur around the same table or tables that they ate from every day. In Acts 16:34 the word trapedzes is used synonymously with a “meal” – the jailer “set before them a table.” To transform a common table into a consecrated piece of religious furniture is to read yet-to-be sacramental practices back into the New Testament. Therefore, it’s highly UNLIKELY that the table mentioned in that text is anything more than a table that was used to hold a meal.

7) To say that nowhere in the NT do we find any statement that Jesus Christ is leading a meeting is simply false. 1 Cor. 14 depicts a meeting where God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is speaking through prophesy and other gifts and where God is being revealed as a result (see 1 Cor. 14:26-33. Paul’s very words “God is not the author of confusion” suggests that God is “authoring” [leading] the meeting, or should be).

8) You say “worship is not the same thing as bible study.” The authors wouldn’t’ disagree with that and they don’t. You seem to have missed the point that a) the authors do not believe that the first-century church meeting was a worship service or that worship was its primary goal, and b) the author’s don’t believe that the first-century church meeting was a bible study. In chapter 11, they discount the idea that the church meeting is a bible study. They state in one of their Q and A’s:

Is “organic church” a synonym for “house church”? If not, what is the distinction? No, it is not a synonym. Some house churches are organic, while others are not. A number of present-day house churches are glorified Bible studies. Many others are supper-fests (the meetings revolve around a shared meal and that is about it). Some house churches are just as institutionalized as traditional churches—with a living room pulpit and chairs arranged in rows so attendees can listen to a fortyfive-minute sermon.

They emphasize again and again that the first-century meeting was a gathering to express Jesus Christ through the every-member functioning of His body. It wasn’t a worship service or a bible study. While worship is included in this and the bible is no doubt used, studying the bible or worshipping God are not the central goals. Christ revealed and expressed is the goal which results in the edification of the body (1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 3:9-11; 4:16).

9) You argue in your review that the authors’ are opting for a meeting that includes no planning, which does not include worship to Jesus Christ, and which are out of order. These statements are simply not true. Here’s a direct quote from the book:

In organic church life, the meetings look different every week. While the brothers and sisters in an organic church may prayerfully plan the focus of their own meetings (for instance, they might set aside a month for the body to concentrate on Ephesians 1), they do not plan a specific order of worship. Instead, everyone is free to function, share, participate, and minister spiritually during gatherings, so the creativity expressed in them is endless. Participants do not know who will stand up and share next, nor what they will share. There might be skits; there might be poems read; there might be new songs introduced and sung; there might be exhortations, testimonies, short teachings, revelations, and prophetic words. Because everyone is involved and people contribute spontaneously, boredom is not a problem. The most meaningful meetings are generally those in which everyone participates and functions. Jesus Christ is the center of the meeting. He is glorified through the songs, the lyrics, the prayers, the ministry, and the sharing. The meeting is completely open for the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ through each member as He sees fit. In the words of 1 Corinthians 14:26, “every one of you” contributes something of Christ to the gathering. In organic church life, the corporate church meeting is an explosive outflow of what the Lord revealed of Himself to each member during the week. These features are virtually absent in the typical institutional church service.

10) In your lengthy discussion of worship you seem to incorrectly assume a few things, and pit one against another without warrant. You repeatedly share your conviction that small groups of believers major on focusing on each other and rarely bare the fruit of “worship.” Robert Morey purported in the title of his book that Worship Is All of Life. A special synergy emerges out of a gathering together as believers, as 1 cor.14:26 indicates. You contrast “focusing on God” with “talking to each other or exhorting each other or laying hands on each other.” Why? Isn’t caring for each other on the horizontal level just as much “worship” as singing or hearing Scripture read publicly?

Why must you imply that “a time together without an order of worship, without a liturgy, with a worship leader” is seriously defective? I trust you are aware that other competent scholars disagree with your assessment here.

“A time together without an order of worship, without a liturgy, without a worship leader” basically reflects what was occurring in Corinth with Paul’s approbation. There is no “up-front” leadership mentioned in the 1 Cor.14 meeting. Paul does not put the kibosh on an open, participatory meeting. He just desires that in such a gathering all the contributions build up the whole ekklesia and are understood by everyone. (This argument is developed in depth in “Reimagining Church.”)

11) I challenged the idea that it is proper to call the Lord’s Supper a “sacrament” in my response to Part One. In Part Two you use the word again and again. Calling Baptism and the Lord’s Supper “sacraments” was a tragic post-NT development. I’m not the only scholar who has argued this. One of the most famous is Emil Brunner:

Properly speaking, New Testament Christianity knows nothing of the word “sacrament,” which belongs essentially to the heathen world of the Graeco-Roman empire and which unfortunately some of the Reformers unthinkingly took over from ecclesiastical tradition. For this word, and still more the overtones which it conveys, is the starting point for those disastrous developments which began soon to transform the community of Jesus into the Church which is first and foremost a sacramental Church (The Misunderstanding of the Church, Lutterworth, 1952, pp.72-73).

12) “We actually have no evidence,” you submit, “that all Christian worship services were like the one in Corinth, but even if they were, there was supposed to be an order to things.” The point you seem to totally miss is that Paul has no desire to squelch their meetings where “each one” had something edifying to contribute. Paul’s response to their unedifying ways was not to impose a rigid church order upon them nor to set up a clergy. He simply introduced some broad guidelines to ensure that the meetings were edifying, and he was confident that they would adhere to them.

Furthermore, the spirit of this meeting is found in the book of Acts 2, Colossians 3, and Hebrews 10 all attest to the fact that the church gathering is one where the members of the body function and participate in ministry.

Just a quick example is Hebrews 10:24-25. This is the text that many pastors use to get people to “go to church.” “Forsake not the assembly together” the writer says. But look closely at the passage and what the author says happens in that assembly: “Exhorting ONE ANOTHER … provoking ONE ANOTHER to love and good deeds. The hallmark of this meeting is ONE ANTOHER . . . mutual participation and mutual exhortation.

13) The big question for me is why so many Christians are foot-loose with the revelation contained in 1 Cor.12-14 and Hebrews 10? These are descriptions of “the meeting” of the ekklesia. Why do we in our praxis consign these texts to oblivion? (The exception being the part in Hebrews 10 which stays not to forsake church services.) We have elevated and set in concrete that which there is absolutely no evidence in the NT – the pastor, the sermon and the pulpit – and in so doing lost the untold blessings of gatherings where Christ is exalted as all the parts bring forth uplifting contributions.

I find it fascinating that some commentators have found implied references to the informal meetings of the first-century church in James’ exhortation to be “slow to speak and quick to listen”:

There may be an allusion to the free and unstructured worship of early Christian assemblies (Curtis Vaughn, James: A Study Guide, Zondervan, 1960, p.35).

It is possible that contentious Christian babes were taking advantage of the informal style of worship in the early Christian church to produce wrangling (Earl Kelly, James: A Primer for Christian Living, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974, p.69).

We do not have a huge amount of NT information that specifically details how believers functioned in their assembling together. But the way most traditional church services are structured you would think 1 Cor.14 and Hebrews 10:24-25 didn’t exist, and if they did, have no relevance. Why do we discard what information we do possess from the NT, especially when what do have in the NT comports with NT teaching and doctrine of the body and the priesthood of all believers . . . and the alternative model violates both? I explore these themes in my articles “Building Up the Body: One Man or One Another?” and “Four Tragic Shifts in the Visible Church.”

14) You put down small gatherings as “largely anthropocentric,” as “looking at and to each other,” and rarely resulting in “worship.” But you admit that the Corinthians had 1 Cor.14-type meetings and Lord’s Supper in homes. Were these meetings people-centered and worship-less? I have to doubt that you would suggest that. Why were such meetings in the first century wonderful, but such in our day are suspect?

15) You write: “When Paul describes worship in 1 Cor. 8-14 he is largely critiquing the lack of order and structure in the service there, not baptizing it and calling it good.” The authors wouldn’t agree with this, but it misses the point. It suggests that everything in 1 Cor. 14, for example, is a description of how a church meeting should not operate. But this is false. 1 Cor. 14:26 is an encouragement and a "description of what should be happening" in Corinth's gatherings. See Gordon Fee, Robert Banks, and F.F. Bruce on this text as well as the work of Watchman Nee and G.H. Lang. And consider even your own words:

1 Cor. 14:26 gives us one form of early Christian worship. There is no mention of worship leaders or of reading the Torah. Rather each brings a song (perhaps sung in the Spirit), a teaching, a revelation. The impression is of a real act of the body, not merely the performance of a noted few. (Conflict in Corinth, p.285).

My question then is: “Why were smaller home gatherings workable and profitable in all ways in the first century, but now they are only problematic in your eyes?” So not only do your read later traditions back into the NT, but you are also hesitant to admit that what was Christ-centered in apostolic times can also come to expression in our day.

16) You say, “What Frank is describing is an in-home nurture or discipleship meeting with some worship elements.” This is flat-out wrong. As the authors state repeatedly in their book, the type of Christocentric “organic church” meetings that they see in the NT have been their experience in our day, and they are far different from your description of a small group meeting. On page 78-79, Frank describes what a NT church meeting looks like. (I suggest your readers take a look at it.) The kind of meetings he describes are very different from what you’ve portrayed. It seems to me, therefore, that you are confusing the meetings the authors are talking about with the kind of small group gatherings you’re familiar with. Read Frank’s description and then ask yourself if that’s anything close to “anthropomorphic.” Clearly it is not.

17) To try to tease out of Mark 13:14 and Rev. 2-3 a justification for a clergy because someone “read” epistles that were sent to a church to the believing community strains credulity. I’ve been in many church meetings (outside the institution) where someone read a letter to the church that was addressed to it. That didn’t make them clergy. The best explanation for this is simply that those who could read in the early churches read letters to the rest of the group (illiteracy was quite high in the first century, as you know). This is another example of having to stretch the biblical material to justify “clergy.”

18) You say that “salvation is merely means to the end of worship.” I, along with many other scholars, would disagree with you. While we believe that salvation is a means to an end. The end is something that goes well beyond worship. See Stanley Grenz, A Theology for the Community of God, where he discusses the phrase “the eternal purpose” as the reason why we exist. DeVern Fromke’s Ultimate Intention is also helpful on this question.

19) Let me add an observation, given your strong focus that the only reason why Christians should come together is for worship. I was once a pastor, and I’ve been in many institutional churches of all different denominations. I can tell you that in my observation, I’ve seen Christians worship more deeply and focus on Christ more strongly in meetings that were outside institutional lines than I have in any institutional church. Therefore, with all your justification of the institutional form of church by the litmus of “worship,” I found this highly ironic. The truth is, many folks in our day are absenting themselves from “worship services” for many reasons, one of which is that they are bored and feel that there must be “something more” to church.

20) You write, “There is more than enough here in this book to make my hair stand on end.” Part of the reason why this is happening to you is because you assume (quote wrongly I might add ) that ekklesia must have hierarchical leadership, religious furniture, a modern “pastor,” a pulpit, and a specially dedicated religious building. As PC demonstrates quite compellingly, the early church had none of these things. The book then raises the question: could it be that this is because Jesus died for something very different with respect to His church?

21) You end by quoting the lyrics to the song, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full into His wonderful place.” I believe that the authors have successfully pointed out that this happens best when the church is set free from a man-made institutional order of worship that has changed little over the past 500 years, and it is better experienced when Jesus Christ Himself is the object, center, and active head of the Christian gathering when His body is freely expressing Him by their gifts.

I plan to respond to Part 3 soon.

– Jon Zens

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jon:

Thank you for your long thoughtful posts. In this particular response I want to deal with a few assumptions that you have not justified, nor has Frank. Firstly, I see no evidence anywhere in the NT that it is Jesus who is doing the speaking when people speak pneumatically in a Christian meeting. You would need to demonstrate this since it is a novel interpretation. Jesus does indeed speak through specific visions to specific persons like John of Patmos who was a visionary, but you have provided no evidence at all that 'the mind of Christ', a phrase not used in the NT in connection with speaking, has anything to do with who should or should not speak in church, and in what connection.

It is the normal procedure when you are offering a novel interpretation not backed by the overwhelming majority of NT scholars to have to make your case fully. You have not done so.

Secondly, you need to understand that the all the earliest Christians were Jews. So far as we can tell, many of them continued to go to synagogue and Temple, while going to Christian meetings as well. When the parting of the ways came with Judaism, which was not early on in most places, various of the things that Christians formerly did in synagogues they did in Christian meetings.

It is certainly not anachronism in any way to say that the elders role found in Judaism was taken over and incorporated into the Christian structure of things. The notion that somehow Christian meetings and worship dramatically changed when there were more Gentiles in the church is false--- in fact its an argument from silence.

In the first place the Gentiles who first came into the church were already synagogue adherents. In the second place, all the original apostles, and most of their co-workers were Jews as well, which is to say that they quite naturally ordered things on the basis of Jewish practices and ways they had previously known.

Simply having the Holy Spirit didn't change all of that. And I want to stress that having the Holy Spirit is not the say as speaking as or for Jesus in the first person. This is why Paul insists that prophetic speech must be weighed and sifted, and why he stresses that a person should only prophesy in proportion to their faith.

If you want to talk about reasonable assumptions then you must realize that there was not all of a sudden a big gap between the apostolic and the post-apostolic era in which worship etc dramatically changed in a Christian context. We really have no evidence for that in the first or second century at all. One of the real problems with Pagan Christianity, is it assumes already in the first century something for which there is no evidence-- practices like the later medieval church. If you want to see what praxis looked like in the First Century besides looking at the NT, look at Didache, a Jewish Christian document. You will discover not only a full blown theology of the sacraments and an ordering of sacramental practice in a throroughly Jewish way, you will discover that early Christian congregations all had leaders who played specific roles. There is no evidence of everyone doing everything--- this is myth. One had to have the gifts and graces given to specific persons to do so.



Ben Witherington said...


One more thing. Prayer, and singing and teaching had long been a staple part of Jewish worship before there were any Christian household meetings. I have no problems with the idea that the Lord's Supper was also taken in the context of a meal, like a Seder Meal, but again the Jewish background is important.

When you see a discussion in 1 Cor. 11 about praying and prophesying in the congregational meeting you know perfectly well that worship is what is being talked about, not some other kind of meeting.

This is what any and all Jewish Christians like Paul would understand and assume. The same applies to a text like 1 Tim. 2 where Paul again talks about lifting up hold hands in prayer, teaching, dressing appropriately in the congregational meeting. Timothy would know perfectly well that Paul was talking about worship.

Or again when Paul uses sacrificial language to talk about us presenting ourselves as living sacrifices to God, and then calls this our reasonable or logical worship, any Jewish or God-fearing convert to Christianity would know Paul was talking about offering ourselves both as worship and in worship, not in isolation from the body's meeting either.

When Paul sayings that we should share with one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, he adds make music from your heart to the Lord". Of course this commandment comes straight out of OT worship-- the psalter more specifically. To whom do we direct this music ultimately-- to the Lord, and that friend is worship.

So the problem for you is, that you want to cut off Christian worship and meetings not merely from its Gentile, or supposedly pagan foreground, but also its Jewish background. This is an enormous mistake, and one that I trust you and Frank and others will correct.

As John Calvin and John Knox both said-- the chief end of humankind is that they love God and worship him forever. The NT is all about the worship of God, in various forms and practices.



David Z Anderson said...

Firstly, I see no evidence anywhere in the NT that it is Jesus who is doing the speaking when people speak pneumatically in a Christian meeting. You would need to demonstrate this since it is a novel interpretation.

Novel interpretation - such a polite way to put it, Ben. The original Brethren, you may recall, had their "real presence" meetings led by the "presidency of the Holy Spirit." Sounds sooo spiritual, does it not?

If Jesus was PERSONALLY directing the meetings in Corinth, why did Paul notice that they were coming together "not for the better but for the worse?" 1 Corinthians 11:17.

Here, I came to some of the same conclusions as did you. Obviously, the house church movement is quite diverse.