Sunday, September 07, 2008
Frank Viola's Reimagining Church-- Part Three
I must confess that Chapter Five is my favorite chapter of this book. I find myself both edified and helped by this chapter. Frank is right that the use of family language and house language dominates the discussion and the metaphorical language about the character of the early church. And like Frank, I think the NT writers are talking about a spiritual reality, not merely a sociological and social paradigm, such as fictive kinship. One caution needs to be interjected at this juncture, namely the ancient family looked very little like the modern one. It was an extended family to start with, and the household included slaves, hence their presence in the NT household codes. Thus, what ancients meant by family is not quite what we mean today.
Frank gives us six descriptors of what it means for the church to be a family and act appropriately like one: 1) members take care of each other. I quite agree this is important. I have seen this happen in large and small churches, and I have seen it not happen even in tiny churches. Size is not the issue here, compassion and motivation and conviction is. Frank complains that too many traditional churches use the business model to envision themselves. Honestly I don’t know many who do this at least consciously, but sometimes there is pressure from church members to run it more like a business. This needs to be resisted. 2) members spend time together and not just at church times and places. That’s a no brainer. 3) members show one another affection. This one is both a promise and problem. The good side is one may feel received and accepted. The problem side however is huge. Over 30% of all women in churches have been abused by men before they reached adulthood, many by their own parents or siblings. Many of these wounded women should not be subjected to unwanted touch, particularly by members of the opposite sex. The problem of sexual abuse, sexual harassment and the like in the church is a serious one. And encouraging no professional personal boundaries between members of a church is often dangerous in a world full of abused and dysfunctional people. Let me be clear. I am not saying one should give up on hugs or the like. But there needs to be a good deal more consciousness raising in the church about these sorts of things, and about the dangers of intimacy, whether spiritual in character or otherwise. One more word of warning. The boundary line between one’s sexuality and one’s spirituality is often a thin one and the two things can be confused. People who are passionate in category A tend to be the same in B, and one bleeds over into the other. In other words—a call for affection needs to be tempered with a call to guard one’s heart, analyze one’s motives and behavior, and the like. 4) Families Grow. Well yes they do, they also shrink when kids leave home and persons die. This analogy with the church can only be pressed so far. The point is that churches are supposed to be growing, and sheep shift is not church growth! 5) the members share responsibility. This can take a lot of forms, and need not include everyone speaking at every church meeting. There are a thousand tasks that the saints should be equipped to do. 6) the members reflect the Triune God in their relationships, abiding in one another and self-sacrificially loving and serving one another. The language of abiding in John’s Gospel is quite interesting. Literally what Jesus says is ‘keep on abiding in me and I will abide in you’. There is a matter of effort at abiding in Christ, and it comes with a promise. The analogy is drawn between Christ’s relationship with the Father and the disciples relationship with Christ. Of course this parallel is not a perfect or exhaustive one, but in regard to the giving and receiving of love and self-sacrificial service, there is an appropriate analogy. What is interesting however is that the parallel is not between how the Trinity relates to each other, but simply the Son and the Father, and the disciples and Christ. And both of these are in relationships of subordination to the one above them. The Son submits to the Father and his will, as the disciples to do Christ and his will. In other words, mutual sharing and loving neither rules out hierarchy nor necessarily implies it, but they are certainly compatible. A better family example would be parent and child. The child most certainly is in a hierarchial relationship with the parent and the household codes make clear this involves both submission and obedience. Does this make the child somehow less of a person than the parent? Of course not because the subordination is only functional, not ontological. Again, I must stress the functional subordination of the Son to the Father finds its analogy in similar relationships between human beings, parents and children. There is no evidence at all that the heavenly Father is in submission to the Son or ever in a subordinate role in relationship to the Son. The submission is not mutual in the Trinity.
Frank goes on to stress that the interactive and participatory model of church is what we are striving for. This would entail a stress on the group rather than the individual. In other words signs like ‘accent on the individual’ have no place in the church. The corporate identity as family comes first, and one’s physical family and individual identity come thereafter. Frank has a right to be outraged when a church does not take care of its own, and sees to all its members needs. Paul says the same thing in Gal. 6. And sadly seeing an uber-wealthy traditional church fail entirely to take care of its own poor members was the last straw for Frank with the traditional church. I would simply say that a church should not be evaluated on the basis of its worst behavior or worst member. That’s unfair. But I do understand Frank’s frustration.
Chapter Six beginning on p. 117 spells out in some detail what church unity ought to look like. Frank stresses that all Christians in a particular town are part of the household of God in that place, and presumably the body of Christ in that place. In my hometown of Charlotte that would mean close to 900,000 Christians in that one locale. That’s a big household to say the least. Frank also stresses that whomever God has accepted as his own, we should accept as our fellow Christians. I quite agree with this. Membership in a particular local church is not the same thing as being a member of the body of Christ. “People have been accepted by God because they have repented and trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 119). There are then some theological preconditions to membership in Christ’s body, and if a particular local church asks more in order to join its fellowship, Frank calls this sectarianism. In other words, Frank is in favor of minimal requirements for recognizing someone is a Christian and a part of the body of Christ. I think I am in basic agreement with this. He does not discuss whether young children are considered provisional members of the church or covenant community or not. In my view, Paul says they are in 1 Cor. 7—they are holy or set apart for God even without a profession of faith. I do agree as well that visitors are not part of the body of Christ, they are just visitors and as such they are welcome.
Frank offers an historical rationale for why today instead of their being a church in a locale, there are various different denominational and not-denominational churches. He believes that we should trace this splitting or division back to the imposition of a clergy laity distinction in the church in the third century and thereafter. The problem with this analysis is twofold. Firstly while there wasn’t a clergy/laity distinction in the earliest church there was a hierarchial leader/follower distinction throughout the whole period. This then cannot be the cause of the rupture. Secondly, it was the Protestant Reformation which spawned the rise of the modern notion of Denominationalism, and indeed it did not spawn it immediately, but it rose to prominence in the last 3 centuries. Before Luther, there were various churches who all saw themselves as the one and only true church (Catholics, various sorts of Orthodox Churches, and so on). Some of these churches still think that way. In my view they are certainly wrong, and sectarian in their approach to this matter. All true Christians everywhere are the church, and part of the worldwide body of Christ. And no denomination has a stranglehold on the truth either.
I find the Bob illustration (about a layman who has teaching gifts but is told must pursue clergy training to be allowed to do it) on pp. 122-23 very odd. I don’t know any traditional church that requires clerical training for someone to be allowed to teach in that church. This is simply false. Indeed, most of the teachers in the churches I have worked with were lay people. I was the only trained pastor of the bunch, and the fault line between teacher and non-teacher did not fall along the line clergy/laity. This is equally true in most Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, UCC, Episcopalian and other traditional churches. Clerical orders are not required to be a teacher. Even here at Asbury Seminary, many of our faculty are not ordained pastors. So the notion that ordination requirements prevents someone from teaching, or even preaching in church, is false at least within most contexts in mainline Protestantism. These churches would not need to be asked “What about Bob?”
Frank then critiques attempts at unity through better organization or ecumenical efforts at mergers etc. I would say that I am happy with whatever helps remove barriers to fellowship and shared service in Christ. Unity is not merely a spiritual connection. It has a social dimension as well. There can indeed be organizational impediments to unity, but there can also be organizational ways to help foster that unity as well. Even if Frank wants to call this holding hands over the fence without taking down the fence, he is able to see this as a good thing (p. 125). Frank then calls for the abolition of denominationalism.
I would like to inject a word of caution about this. Christians of course do not all agree on many, many things. What having different denominations does is actually allowing church growth to continue along various trajectories without spending all one’s time adjudicating disputes and differences. What denominations do is allow people to fellowship with other like minded believers and to live in peace. It is not perfect or ideal, but were we to abolish the various different denominations, short of the eschaton it would likely lead to more internecine warfare between Christians and an even more horrible witness to the world.
While ‘legal’ separation with some cooperation is not as good as marriage, it beats divorce or even worse fraternal war twenty ways to Christmas. I personally happen to be glad to fellowship and worship with any and all other true Christians around the world. I have participated in all kinds of worship and fellowship meetings. I’ve even preached in the one Baptist Church in Moscow which even Stahlin couldn’t close down, and saw the babooshkas (grannies) who placed their bodies on the line to keep that church open. They are my sisters in Christ who stood tall against atheistic communism. But it is good for me and for them that I am not a part of their denomination, otherwise I would be constantly arguing with them about allowing women to do ministry not merely become martyrs! My goal is to be a world Christian in love with the whole body of Christ, however short of the return of Christ, I am realistic enough to think that the fences are not all going to come down, nor likely should they since we all remain fallen persons with inadequate theologies and inadequate charity. Frank is right that using the litmus test of doctrinal ‘purity’ for creating unity in fact only leads to more sectarianism and church splits. It divides rather than adds to the unity. He adds “I can imagine all the Christians who specialized in perfect doctrine passing out after they discovered who made it into the kingdom. Angels will be running around all over the place with smelling salts to wake them up!” (p. 128). Ain’t it the truth!
On the other hand I am stunned by statements like “During the NT era, each church was completely unified. All the believers in a specific locale lived as members of one family.” (p. 129). Actually this is to paint to ideal a picture of the early church. It is perfectly clear that there are divisions in the Roman church between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians and they don’t all meet together, and they certainly were not all unified. Indeed, Romans is a discourse written to help unified that factious bunch, just as 1 Corinthians is, in a different sense. And it is telling that he never speaks of “the church in Rome’ in Romans. And further more, there were both Pauline and Johannine churches in Ephesus which were not unified (see Paul Trebilco’s fine work on Ephesus and the churches there). I enjoyed the remarkable story of overcoming denominational differences to form one fellowship meeting together on pp. 132-33, showing it is indeed possible. The lion can lie down by the lamb without thinking about lamb chops sometimes. And I think basically Frank is right unity in Christ comes by focusing on what we share in common in Christ. The word koinonia actually does not mean fellowship. Fellowship is the result of koinonia. What it means is a deliberate sharing or participating in common with someone in something. This indeed can create unity if we all are singing ‘In Christ Alone’ together.
In Chapter Seven Frank asks the tough question—What is God’s eternal purpose in creating human beings? Frank suggests that the answer to this question can most clearly be glimpsed in places like Ephesians and Colossians. Salvation was not the original reason God created human beings in the first place. I would add that healing and salvation are actually only the means, only a redemption and recovery program to the eternal end,which is the proper worship of God and fellowship in Christ. Frank suggests that we examine closely Gen. 1-2 and Rev. 21-22 if we want to see God’s eternal purposes for humankind quite apart from the Fall, both before it and after it. God’s purpose was to create a human community that lived in unity and acted unto God, and not unto and for themselves (p. 143). Frank also says that Gen. 1.26 refers to the deliberations within the Trinity, but this is quite unlikely. The Trinity had not yet been revealed to humankind when Genesis was written and early Jews were right to see this as a reference to God and his heavenly court. And what follows from this is that the reference to let us make God in our image involves not just the image of God, but also in the image of angels. This is why for example the Psalmist says we are but a little lower or less than angels, and why angels in Gen. 6 tried to mate with humans, and why Jesus says that in the eschaton we will be like angels. Unfortunately for Frank’s theologizing here, this is not a story about the replication of life in the Trinity in the life of a human community.
The communion in the Godhead, says Frank, should be mirrored in the koinonia in human community, and at least on this point, I think Frank is on the right track. But in fact image bearing for Christians does not look like the Trinity. It looks like bearing the image of Christ himself specifically. This is what Paul speaks of when he talks in Rom. 8 about being conformed to the image of the Son. This is why Christians are called to cross bearing, and to their own death and resurrection. Death and resurrection is not a pattern that reflects the inner life of the Trinity, it reflects the particular story of Christ, and indeed of Christ on earth. So again, we need to be careful to note over-read the Scriptural evidence. It isn’t the story of the inner life of the Trinity that is replicated in the pattern of the story of Christians, even of Christians in community. But I agree whole-heartedly that we were created for a love relationship with God and with each—that is why the great commandments involve loving God with whole heart and neighbor as self. The commandments reflect the eternal purpose and intent. And as for ruling the earth, and God’s desire to do that, that is a call for us to be stewards and lovers of God’s greater creation.
Sometimes poetry and poetic image can go too far. On p. 145 Frank draws an analogy saying that just as Eve was in Adam before God created her, so the church was in Christ before the foundations of the world. “The Father put his Son into a deep sleep on a hill at Calvary. Then in his resurrection, He released the woman onto the earth—and her name is ekklesia”. This is problematic on several fronts. Firstly, Eve was not some sort of incubus or fetus in Adam. No, Eve was constructed out of Adam’s parts and did not exist in Adam before then. Sorry, but this is too much of stretching of the story. Secondly, the bride did not exist before the foundations of the world in Christ. Only Christ existed, and the bride was not in Him in that sort of sense. And furthermore it was not the resurrection which caused the church to emerge. Technically speaking that did not and could not come about until Pentecost when the Spirit gave birth to the church. So the analogy doesn’t work on either end of the deal. Frank gets full marks for creative thinking, but in the end, its bad exegesis. Frank however is right on target in saying that God is not just interested in new persons, he is interested in a new heaven and a new earth, since the latter was also affected by the Fall. In short God wants a human family, a diversity in unity sort of like the Trinity, and his purpose was to have a love relationship with such a human family from before all time. Frank prefers to put it this way: “God wants a bride to marry, a house to dwell in, a family to enjoy, and a visible body through which to express Himself.” (p. 147). For some this will sound far too close to Mormon theology about God needing a body and a family etc. And there is the further problem that the church is not the bride of God the Father, but rather the bride of Christ, who after all was once a human being and then a glorified human being. It is Christ the glorified God-man whose bride we are, and not the Trinity’s or the Father’s. And for the record, God does not need us to have a physical extension. He has that in the Incarnate and then glorified Christ. It must be doubtful then that we should see the church as the extension of God on earth. Rather it is a community in spiritual union with Christ. This is a different paradigm.
I quite agree that a needs based approach to church (and preaching) misses the chief purpose of the church, which is to love God and enjoy and worship Him forever. This is why Revelation is the most worship focused book in the canon—that is where we are headed. Not caught up in small group ‘one anothering’, but in something even grander—caught up in love, wonder and praise of our God, looking not to the things which are seen, such as each other, but fixing our eyes on the things which are unseen, namely God about which we now have conviction and assurance (Heb. 11.1).
The church, when at its best, is only in a very limited sense mirroring the life within the Trinity. It is not chiefly supposed to be inwardly focused on itself. Besides its task to worship God, most often it is called to bear the image of Christ alone in the world. In other words after the doxological task and image, the missional image to the world is primary, the life in community image is secondary, if we are talking about the mission of the church. The Great Commission is about the mission. The true community is the product of the mission. The early church was a missionary movement which also did nurture. The church today is a nurture entity which has a mission function or committee. This is an analysis as applicable to the house church movement as it is to the mainline churches, sadly. It is not the goal and purpose of the community of Christ to simply enjoy each others company and focus inwardly on themselves and their koinonia.
Chapter 8 begins with the old canard that tries to make a hard and fast distinction between function and office, or between function and position. This is a false distinction in the church for the very good reason that functions regularly and continually exercised are de facto positions or offices in the church. And indeed the theology of gifting in the NT comes with a theology of charisma, by which I do not mean the modern notion of charismatic personality, but the idea of an ongoing grace gift, given to a particular person. I agree that ministries should be exercised on the basis of the grace and gifts given to a person. I also agree that God gives gifts to all persons in the Body, and calls all to some form of ministry. It is then correct to say that there is not a clergy/laity distinction in the NT. What there is however is a leader/follower, or teacher/disciple, or elder/children distinction in the NT, and yes this involve hierarchy. Not everyone is called and graced and gifted to be a teacher, and so on. I want to stress that these distinctions did not arise out of nowhere in the second century church or in succeeding generations. They existed at the very beginning of church history. What I am stressing is that passages like 1 Cor. 12 certainly do make clear that such roles are Spirit equipped and Spirit given and so in that sense, they are organic, to use Frank’s terms. The Spirit however decides who gets which gifts, and no one has them all, and no one is without some gift, and no the gifts do not simply rotate around in the church on a given day. In other words, the Spirit is concerned about our assuming our proper God-gifted roles, the Spirit is not simply interested in functions regardless of who performs them. One of the main flaws in the whole ‘organic’ non-hierarchial model is that it leave quite out of the picture the fact that the Bible is replete with examples of persons, both in the OT and in the NT, particular persons called and gifted for specific tasks or functions. From Abraham to Moses to Samuel to David to John the Baptist to Jesus to the apostles to their co-workers to elders and deacons, God doesn’t call functions, he calls specific persons to do specific tasks, and he equips them thereto.
Frank on p. 155 points to the fact that Jesus is making a distinction between his model of leadership and the world’s notions in Mt. 20.25-28/para. He is absolutely right about this. We are not however exchanging a hierarchial model of leadership for a non-hierarchial model. Servant leadership is still leadership. It is simply exercised differently than it is done in the world, or at least it should be. And of course in this same passage Jesus models servant leadership (see also Mk. 10.45). Domination and power plays from above are the world’s model. Service and sacrifice is Jesus’ model, and so Jesus rebukes James and John because they conceived of leadership in a worldly way. It should be notice however that Jesus was later to say to these same persons that they would at the eschaton sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel. This most certainly is a model of leadership from above that is hierarchial. What happens though when this model of leadership is faithfully carried out is that the pyramid is inverted—Christian leaders lead from below, they lift others up by getting beneath them in the pecking order of things and serving them. Like a weight lifter who, instead of trying to stand and clean and jerk the weight over his head, instead lies down and pushes the weight up from underneath, this is the way Christian leadership is supposed to work. The leader becomes like a servant, but this explains his model of leadership, his modus operandi, not whether he is leading by example or not. There is a difference between leading by the example of humble service and lording it over a group of people. This is the contrast Jesus makes in these sorts of passages. You will notice that this did not prevent Jesus from teaching, preaching, healing and sending out the 12 two by two to do the same, as leaders in training. Jesus did not train all of his disciples to be leaders, because all were not called by him to do so. And lest we think that power does not somehow work in a top down mode in the Kingdom, look at a text like John 20. Jesus breathes on his 12 and says receive the Spirit, in preparation for their doing what Jesus has called and now gifted them to do. They receive their power and authority from on high, not from a vote of a congregation, or a suggestion of a fellow church member or the like. The kingdom of God is indeed a hierarchial notion. It not only has a king, Jesus, it also has his agents, shaliach as they are called in Hebrew, apostles, prophets, teachers etc. So lets be clear—modern business or military models of leadership are not the source of the hierarchial models the church uses when it comes to leadership--- the Bible, including the NT is. Authority is not just based on godly character, meekness and a willingness to serve, though all those things are necessary. It is based on whom God has called, gifted, empowered to serve in a particular manner perhaps specific roles and functions. Function does not merely follow character. There are plenty of Christians of good character who are simply not called to leadership, or as Paul calls is, ‘steering’, administration, oversight. It is certainly true that Jesus strongly interjects some checks and balances so that arrogance and pride and self-serving behavior will not be allowed to be the impetus in Christian leadership. For one thing, he stresses that we should avoid encouraging people to call us by fancy titles. We need to take a more humble approach to leadership. Self-exaltation rather than self-sacrifice is not to be the manner in which we lead (see Mt. 23.8-12). But leadership by gifted and called persons we still need and require, not merely the leadership of Christ in heaven, but the leadership which he exercises through his anointed and appoint agents, both male and female, on earth.
If I were to probe the presuppositions Frank has about Christian leadership, one of the sine qua nons for him seems to be the idea that the concept of the priesthood of all believers implies a notion in which all Christians can assume all leadership functions at one time or another. The problem with this notion is severalfold. If we look at the places where the language of the priesthood of all believers appears in the NT (e.g. in 1 Peter, in Revelation) the author in question is not even talking about leadership in those passages. Two things are going: 1) a denial that we any longer have a need for a specific class of human beings called priests. Why? Because Jesus paid it all, and the role of the priest is to offer sacrifices for others to God. But Jesus, our high priest has accomplished this task once and for all as Hebrews says, and we need not have it repeated, replicated, or redramatized. We are done with temples, priests, and sacrifices on the earth in that sort of literal sense. This has not morphed into a notion that instead of just a few humans being priests, now every believer is a priest in this sense. That would simply be expanding the gene pool of human priesthoods to everyone. This we do not find in the NT. For example, when leaders are named, described, or their roles are mentioned the roles mentioned are things like apostle, prophet, elder, deacon, teacher, evangelist, BUT NEVER PRIEST. Why not? Because the priesthood of Christ has done away with that sort of human priesthood altogether. 2) What then are Peter and John and others referring to when they talk about the priesthood of all believers? The answer is simple. Every Christian has an obligation to offer themselves up as living sacrifices to God (see Rom. 12), and offer up the sacrifices of prayer, praise, thanksgiving so often referred to in the NT. That is, every Christian is his own priest in these matters, and no one else can perform those tasks for you. No one can worship God for you. No one can dedicate you to be totally sold out to God for you. YOU must do that yourself. This has nothing whatsoever to do with leadership functions, it has to do with our total dedication to and worship of God. All of use, especially when we gather together are called to offer up prayers and praise and thanksgiving to God. This is not supposed to be the performance of the few on behalf of the couch potatoes for Jesus. Nor when it comes to responding to God’s call to give yourself wholly to God should you ever say “here I am Lord, take my brother/sister”. Only you can present yourself as a living sacrifice. In short, the priesthood of all believers concept is used to reconfigure the way we look out our spiritual lives and duties and the call to worship God. It tells us nothing about who is or isn’t gifted to be an apostle or a prophet or a teacher, and the like.
Frank (pp. 160-65) wants to insist that the problem is not just with a few self-seeking pastors. The problem is inherent to the whole pastor/clergy system. So the solution is ditch the system. He is right that sometimes, egocentric and yet insecure pastors instead of enabling the congregations gifts, makes himself indispensible to the congregation’s lifestyle and in fact disables the congregations gifts. This however is an example of pastors behaving badly, not an inherent flaw with having pastors in the first place. Let me give an example.
I used to attend an 8 a.m. Missouri Synod Lutheran service in Charlotte N.C. Now one would be hard-pressed to find a more conservative and traditional, and indeed male dominated denomination in those days. And yet something remarkable happened during the charismatic renewal movement in the 60s and 70s. The pastor became a charismatic, and so did his congregation! Did they then jettison the rituals, liturgy and clergy system in order to let the Spirit flow and have all members in ministry? Not at all, but things did change. That 8 a.m. service became an hour and half long (or longer). The liturgy became a sung liturgy with folk instruments. A time in the middle of the worship service was set aside for anyone to give a word of witness, share an exhortation, share a spiritual gift or experience. There was speaking in tongues, and even more beautiful singing in tongues. And there would always also be a powerful expository sermon, and we would all take the eucharist together every Sunday with joy and gladness, leaving the building singing and ringing. Everyone participated. Indeed the A frame church was packed out every week because the Spirit was doing a mighty work amongst the 300 or so present. There was strength in numbers, there was beauty in liturgy, we were fed by the Word and by the sacrament. And Pastor Mirly was not the center of attention… everyone participated in some way in the service and it was far from clergy dominated. There was nothing lifeless, perfunctory, dull, dead about this worship time at all. We also had wonderful fellowship, made friends., and life was grand. I often went from there to a formal Methodist Church with my family and I felt like I had gone from the sauna to the first church of the Frigidaire. The difference wasn’t that one service was in a home and one in a church, one had liturgy and the other didn’t, one had preaching and the other didn’t, one had a pastor and the other didn’t. The difference was the openness to the Holy Spirit, who could hardly get a word in edgewise in the latter service. Pastor Mirly had carved out a time in the liturgy for pure spontaneity and it worked well. We didn’t need a whole service like that. Indeed we needed the teaching and preaching of a person deeply steeped in God’s Word in the original languages and we got it in spades.
And here is where I say that well trained, seminary educated ministers offer a congregation something they will not otherwise get, no matter how open to the Holy Spirit one or another person may be and no matter how well they may know their favorite English translation. What is it? It is the ability to interact with the living word of God in its original language form. The Holy Spirit works with the material we give the Spirit. Yes, sometimes the Spirit through a miracle gives a surprising insight to a person not so equipped. This does sometimes happen. But the better Biblically equipped the person, the more the Spirit can do with them. It’s just a fact. Education is not the enemy of inspiration. Indeed, it makes a person far more useful to the Lord in many ways.
More soon.... BW3