Monday, September 08, 2008
Reimagining Church--Part Four
N.B. FRANK VIOLA'S RESPONSE WILL BE THE NEXT POST ON THIS BLOG. STAY TUNED
Here first are some interesting statistics which Frank kindly provided me about house churches---
House church demographics and psychographics in the United States:
The average age of those involved in house churches ranges between 30 and 55.
55% are males.
45% are females.
65% have children under the age of 18.
45% are in the Southern part of the United States.
35% are in the Western part of the United States.
15% are in the Central part of United States.
5% are in the Northern part of the United States (excepting the NW).
States with the most house church activity: Florida, Georgia, California, Texas, Oregon, Washington.
55% are college educated.
40% are registered Republican.
30% are registered Democratic.
15% are registered Independent.
15% are not registered to vote.
66% are Caucasian.
24% are African-American.
7% are Hispanic.
2% are Asian.
1% are other.
41% home school their children.
Average income per household: $30,000 – $60,000
Religious Background – 46% Protestant: Charismatic/Pentecostal.
Religious Background – 34% Protestant: nonCharistmatic evangelical.
Religious Background – 12% Catholic.
Religious Background – 8% Other.
To me the most interesting bit here is that we have just the opposite male female breakdown that we find in the traditional church which is 55% or more female, and only 45% or less male. Notice that house churches are mainly strong in the south and the west and overwhelmingly they are of low church Protestant background.
p. 167. Chapters Nine and Ten (pp. 167-99) provide us with Frank’s vision of what leadership should look like. In his view it has but two main functions—oversight and decision making. While I would agree these are two of the functions of leaders, they are by no means the only functions of leaders. Notable by its absence is the ministry of the Word. But the Pauline gift lists are perfectly clear—some all called to be teachers, some are called to be pastor-teachers (Ephesians), some are called to be evangelists. And yes some are called to the task of prophesy. These are all leadership roles. The other striking thing is that only just over half are college educated. Finally, notice that there is about twice the number percentagewise of African Americans in this movement than are in the population as a whole, or in the Mainline Churches (which is about 11%).
In order to explain away the notion that elders held a regular position and role in the early church listen to how Frank evaluates the situation: “The term elder refers to their character [i.e. age and hopefully maturity]. The term overseer refers to their function. And the term shepherd refers to their gifting.” (p. 170). This explanation is wrong, right, and wrong, in that order. While it is certainly true that the term presbyteros can refer to an old person, in a Jewish, or for that matter Christian context it normally had primarily a religious context. This is not a surprise since this term came over into Jewish Christianity first from the synagogue (see e.g. Acts 15—the elders of the Jerusalem church). It is interesting that when Paul actually wants to characterize himself as an elderly person he uses a different form of this word presbytes (Philemon vs. 9). To be sure, in a text like 1 John 2, it is possible, perhaps even probable that the author is talking about older Christian as opposed to the children or youth in the Lord. But when for example Paul calls the elders of Ephesus (i.e. the leaders of that church) to come meet him at Miletus, he was not asking the senior citizens of that church to go on a long walk to meet him! More often than not the term ‘elder’ in the Pastorals and elsewhere refers to a church role, function, office, call it what you like. And this should not surprise us since there already were such folks in the synagogue who were not necessarily gray beards (see the discussion in James Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church). I agree with Frank however that the term overseer can indeed refer to a function that an elder has, as it seems to in Titus for example. It does not have the sense ‘bishop’ that it came to have later. Nevertheless, in Philippians it does seem to be referring to a particular role that particular persons were playing in that church (Phil. 1.1), which could be distinguished from the role of deacon. The term shepherd has a long history. It is applied for example to kings and priests in the OT (see e.g. David, and Ezekiel on religious leaders called shepherds). As used in the NT it refers to a specific pastoral role that some persons were gifted to undertake. Whether they were elders, teachers or someone else, they were certainly leaders. Not just anyone was called to be a shepherd.
Frank seems to know more than can be known about the quantity of teaching done by elders in the early church and the quantity done by others. He argued “While gifted elders had a large share in teaching, they did so on the same footing as all other members.” (p. 170). Actually this is false probably in two ways. First of all, the call for all Christians to exhort one another is never specifically linked to the worship or teaching service. It could be one on one, it could be private, but it is never linked to the time when the church gathered together for worship and fellowship. By contrast this is quite specifically when those who have been appointed elders are expected to do their teaching. Indeed, it is he who has been “entrusted with the trustworthy message so he can encourage others by sound doctrine” and is expected to teach it regularly (see Titus 1.9; 1 Tim. 3.1—“able to teach”, not apt to teach, because not all have the gift of this sort of teaching).
Frank is especially bothered by the concept of a single or a senior pastor leading a church. He thinks this has no basis in the Scriptures. However the Pastorals indicate this is exactly how churches were started—by appointing elders to each one of them. And who did the appointing—the apostolic co-worker of Paul, a Timothy or a Titus. In other words, it was top down. As for the concept of the senior or lead pastor, it probably comes from the notion of the pastor-teacher mentioned in Paul’s discussion of the matter. It is worth noting as well that we are told in Ephesians that the church is not simply based on our relationship with Christ our cornerstone. Ephes. 2.20 says it is also built on the foundation of human leadership of the apostles and prophets. Shepherding is in any case not just an occasional function done occasionally like a crisis intervention specialist. On the contrary it is a ongoing role that the leader needs to perform, because sheep can’t lead themselves anywhere, and need constant guidance and supervision. The image of God’s people as sheep both in the OT and the NT should have warned us that a casual rather than constant, ad hoc rather than appointed approach to leadership in the church will not suffice for sheep.
On p. 171 we are told that elders never made decisions for this or that church. This reflects an inadequate reading of Acts 15. It is indeed precisely James and the elders of that church who make a decision as to how to allow Gentiles to have full fellowship with Jewish Christians. Peter and Paul confer, but James and the elders conclude this matter, particularly James does. Frank’s vision of how the early church made decisions was “neither dictatorial nor democratic, but consensual”. This frankly is not always true. Paul often made executive decisions, like the way he handled the serious immorality mentioned in 1 Cor. 5-6. In fact I would be hard pressed to think of any evidence in the NT that a major decision was made consensually during a meeting of a whole church in which all had equal authority and decision making power. Where is the evidence for this? When Paul corrects the two women in Philippi in Phil. 4, does he say, call a church meeting and come to a consensual decision about this problem? No. He simply tells the women what to do. In the wake of the Onesimus mess does Paul ask Philemon to call a church meeting in his house and all those present work out an agreed upon approach to handling the return of the run away slave? No. Paul has his own authoritative letter read out in the church and expects Philemon to respond appropriately, with the eyes of the congregation watching him. I could go on, but here is an example, like with the issue of hierarchy where it is Frank, not the traditional church which has been infected with modern notions of what leadership and how decision making should be done in the church.
Frank likens the role of elders to the role of the liver (p. 172), an invisible entity which filters out the poisons in the system. This analogy hardly does elders any justice. Both Acts 20, and the Pastoral indicate they were to be visible, regularly functioning in the church meetings, not just behind the scenes. When Paul called the elders to Miletus, he did not call a meeting of the whole church, or ask them to work behind the scenes. He urged them to do all the things he had been doing with the church there. Their role was visible, vital, and people could regularly distinguish them from other members of those churches. Did the elders at Miletus share oversight with the other members of the congregation? No, or Paul would have asked them to come meet him as well and to protect the folk from wolves.
Frank then wants to insist that elders plural were always appointed to ever church, appealing to Acts 11.30, 14.23. 20.17, Phil. 1.1, James 5.14, Titus 1.5. (p. 173). It would be interesting to know how he could know this since there were multiple house churches in various of these places, not just one, especially in the case of Ephesus and Philippi. For example there were churches which met both in the house of Lydia and in the house of the jailor in Philippi, even from near the outset of things. We see this same pattern in 2-3 John. There are multiple house churches even in a small area and in the case of the problematic one, there seems to have been only one elder leading that church—Diotrophes. Frank is trying at almost any cost to avoid the notion of a church with one elder, but in fact there surely were some in the early church (see e.g. the Didache). There is simply no basis for a dogmatic statement like “No church in the first century had a single leader.” (p. 173). The evidence suggests otherwise.
The ultimate human authority over Paul’s churches was Paul himself. This is perfectly clear in his letters by the way he directs, corrects, commands, changes what goes on in these congregations. He quite rightly uses both the father and mother metaphor to explain his relationship with his converts. No one else played that role in their lives, and like an ancient parent he expected to be obeyed. While he preferred to persuade, he was perfectly willing to command, especially immature Christians like those in Corinth.
The idea that the Pauline churches as depicted in Acts or in Paul’s letters operated on the basis of consensual decision making is a gross exaggeration. Perhaps sometimes this happened. But often enough, as in 1 Cor. 5-6 it did not happen, and Paul would go into command mode. It is simply false to say that only Christ had the authority to command the church. No, in fact Christ bequeathed such authority on his apostles. The better question would be--- did they pass it on to other leaders who were under them, such as elders and deacons? It appears to me that the answer to this is yes. Paul passes the baton to Timothy and Titus in the Pastorals, they in turn appoint elders and overseers who surely were authorized to do various things by the apostolic co-workers. Indeed Paul gives both a character and a job description of these persons in 1 Timothy and Titus.
Frank seems confident as well (p. 176) that there were no elders sent to this or that locale by some authority figure. They were all indigenous. This also is false. Apollos was given a letter of reference and sent to the church in Corinth out of the church in Ephesus with the help of Aquila and Priscilla. Phoebe was sent with a letter of reference to work in the church in Rome by Paul, and he urged them to help her in her ministry (Rom. 16). The distinction between itinerant workers and local workers is an artificial and all too modern one, not grounded in the NT itself. Sometimes the itinerants went local. Paul lived and stayed in Ephesus for over two years and for over a year and a half in Corinth. This is hardly pure itinerancy. And when he came to Ephesus he worked with churches his cohorts Prisca and Aquila had been setting up. Equally false is the claim “elders always emerged long after a church was set up”. The reason for this dogmatic claim is obvious—Frank insists that all leadership must emerge organically from a local church. But often it did not work that way in the early church or now. Titus 1 is perfectly clear—Titus himself will appoint elders in every town. Titus is not a local church meeting and consensually deciding something. Titus is an apostolic co-worker, structuring local congregations. In fact one could read Titus 1.5 to mean “ordain elders for every town”. The Pauline work on Crete (not to be confused with Cyprus) was unfinished. Presumably Paul is referring to Titus’s earlier work there. In any case, it is Titus doing the appointing of elders over already existing churches and their job is to ‘manage’ God’s household. We do not know how soon after these churches were planted these elders were appointed to them. It could have been soon, it may not have been. We simply don’t know. But in any case it is a serious distortion of the truth to say “traveling apostolic workers acknowledged them after they emerged from within the congregation” (p. 176). Nope, Titus appointed them after he personally had evaluated their character and gifts and graces. What sadly becomes apparent is the need to preserve the local indigenous multiple leadership principle at all costs, and the cost is a fair exegesis of the Pastoral Epistles and other evidence. Listen to a literal reading of Acts 14.23—“Paul and Barnabas appointed (or ordained) elders for them in each church…and committed them to the Lord”. It does not say here the Holy Spirit did this. It says the apostolic workers did. Acts 20.28 says that those who are already elders have been made overseers of God’s people by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. It does not say the Holy Spirit appointed these men to be elders. No, the Spirit gifted and equipped them for their oversight function. In other words, there is no basis in these texts which Frank appeals to for the notion that elders emerge from the local congregation and are merely acknowledged by the apostolic delegates. Wrong. The apostles appointed and ordained these folks.
And here is where I issue a strong warning, speaking the truth in love as I see it, to all those who take this approach to reading the NT--- beware when you love your own vision of ministry more than what the NT actually says about leadership and ministry! Beware of misleading the church on these very matters in an age when the church is Biblically illiterate and desperately needs more and better leadership, better trained leadership, better educated leadership to cope with the increasing dysfunction in our culture and world. Whenever you love your own vision of ministry more than you love the Word of God which challenges all of our inadequate notions of ministry—beware. God will require of you that you sacrifice this vision of ministry on an altar. He will ask that it be put through a refiner’s fire. He will remind you of the dangers of becoming false prophets.
On p. 179 we see just how far Frank will go to deny the plain sense of a text in order to support his theories, in this case that local elders were not paid. While it is quite clear that Paul argues for his being paid for his ministerial work in 1 Cor. 9, Frank’s view seems to be that that sort of arrangement only applies to itinerant workers, not local ministers. The fly in that ointment is that we have several texts that disprove this theory. Firstly, there is Galatians 6.6—“those who receive instruction in the word (aha, there are local church teachers who are expected to teach the Word), should share all good things with their instructor.” Paul here is not referring to himself, he is talking about local teachers of the Galatians, and he is urging them to support them not only with hospitality but with ‘all good things’ which includes money. The context in the Greek is clear enough--- there are some five terms for monetary things here, including the word for financial burdens. Secondly, the reason in the Pastoral Epistles persons are not to be appointed as elders if they are money-grubbers is precisely because they were going to be paid and these tendencies should not be in play when the congregation is going to support them. Thirdly the exegesis of 1 Tim. 5.17-18 is distorted. The word time may or may not refer directly to money here, but the last verse, which is a quote from Jesus says “the workman is worthy of his wages”. The wages here are not honoring, they are money. This is clear enough from the original context of that saying of Jesus, which Paul himself repeats in 1 Cor. 9. In both those texts the wages are money. There is no reason to think it means anything else here. Both the larger Biblical context, and the references in the Pastorals we already have to elders and deacons needing to not be greedy folks, make clear the sense of this text. Local elders and teachers were to be paid, just like the apostles. Of course they could refuse such money, but the church had an obligation to pay them, not least because in this context we also here--- local elders do the teaching and preaching in the congregation—aha!
Furthermore, Acts 20.33-35 in no way under cuts what Paul says in 1 Cor. 9 about the right for a minister like himself to be paid. The key verb in Acts 20 there is ‘covet’. Paul is saying he was no money grubber, and yes he did chose on more than one occasion to refuse pay and work with his hands. He did not want to get caught up in the reciprocity system. (N.B. 1 Timothy 5 was not addressed to the elders in Ephesus. It was addressed to Timothy!—see my Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. One on all these Pastoral Epistle issues).
One of the fundamental mis-steps is the mistaken argument from silence. Frank assumes (see pp. 181-83), that Paul’s letters to churches reflect the only letters he wrote to individuals in those congregations. Now of course we know otherwise. Philemon and Colossians both involve the same audience, except Philemon is directed to only one part of that audience—Philemon and the church that meets in his house. What Frank has to assume is that because Paul is addressing everyone in most of his letters, then he assumes that everyone is going to deal with the problems in a given church. This assumption is unjustified. Look for example at Phil. 4. There Paul asks a ‘true yokefellow’ to intercede and help sort out the mess caused by two women ministerial co-workers—Euodia and Syntyche. There is then a local leader Paul appeals to, to sort out this mess. Furthermore, the Pastoral Epistles prove that Paul wrote to such leaders as Timothy or Titus (and Philemon) as well as writing to whole churches. Then too, Paul mentions at least two letters that went to Corinth in addition to 1-2 Corinthians. In short, it is far more likely that Paul addressed church leaders in a separate letter rather than in the letter that was to be read out to the whole congregation. Philippians seems to be something of an exception, perhaps because Paul was in chains and not able to write a separate letter to the true yokefellow (could this be Luke?). Group letters were for everyone in the group. Individual letters were for leaders. You can’t judge the character of the latter from the character of the former. Unfortunately it is an argument from silence to examine group documents and draw conclusions about things only normally discussed in private letters to leaders! The basic principle is this ‘absence of evidence in group letters does not provide you with evidence of absence’ since we also have the Pastorals, and Philemon and other evidence in the group letters like Philippians about the importance of local church leaders.
Let’s stress something positive about this chapter. On pp. 186-87 Frank gives a helpful list of all the sorts of things that a congregation should be doing for itself. He is quite right that there is no justification in the NT for the notion that the leaders should do all the ministry. No they are to equip all the saints for ministry. I agree with him that sometimes lay folk assume that since they are paying the ministers to minister, then they don’t have to do it. This is the result of insufficient or just bad teaching in a particular church. The fault does not lie with the paying of the minister, it lies with an inadequate teaching and equipping of everyone to minister, and probably that oversight should be laid at the door of the paid minister himself! It’s his own fault he has not enabled and encouraged the ministry of the whole body. The real plus of this book is that Frank rightly insists on the mobilization of the whole body to serve and love each other. This is a good and necessary thing.
One of the things I find rather amazing about Frank’s book is that he relies on liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff to help him articulate this theology of the relationships within the Trinity as a pattern for church relationships. Now Frank is a conservative charismatic Evangelical Christian, for whom the B-I-B-L-E is the true litmus test for everything. What I find amazing is that the sort of egalitarianism that is being articulated here in part comes from Marxist social analysis used as a filter to read the NT and reconfigure its theology and praxis. (see p. 189). At times what is said in this book sounds more like Boff or Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza than like Jesus or Paul, and it should be said that neither Boff nor Fiorenza have the high view of Scripture Frank does. Of course it is true that American Christians have radical notions about freedom, and they do often have a problem with authority figures and respecting authorities. The anti-institutionalism of this book places right into that ethos in our culture, and is partly derived from it. It is some of these American notions of what equality must look like, what really liberating leadership should look like that provide lens for reading the NT in certain ways. Now it needs to be said that these ideas just mentioned are not the same as democracy, though they are often found clustered together. Frank is clear that the church is not a democracy, even though he advocates various forms of these other ideas.
We need to return to Acts 15.22-25 (see p. 193) at this juncture. Let’s start however at the beginning of the chapter and see what it says—Paul and Barnabas were appointed by the Antioch Church to go up to Jerusalem “to see the apostles and elders about this question.” That is leaders from the Antioch Church went to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, specifically its apostles and elders! However many people who were going to attend the Jerusalem council meeting, the issue was going to be mainly discussed and decided by the leaders. When the meeting transpired, and after some from the more Pharisaic Jewish Christians had insisted on circumcision for Gentile Christians we then hear this at vs. 6--- “the apostles and elders met to consider this question.” Notice again who is doing the deliberating. It is not everyone, it is the leaders of the church. Who then speaks thereafter—the leaders! Peter, Paul and Barnabas, leaders in either the Jerusalem or Antioch churches. The whole assembly listens, but only the leaders speak. What happens next--- then James, the head of the Jerusalem Church by 50 A.D. (for Peter had become itinerant long before then), speaks. He gives a little expository sermon based on an OT text and then he says “it is my judgment therefore that we should not trouble the Gentiles….” He does not say, it is our judgment or Christ’s judgment. He says, it is my judgment--- period! He is the one who concludes the matter, and the Decree is drawn up to mirror exactly what he said and decreed! This was hardly an example of decision-making by consensus!! No way, Jose!
But that is not the end of the matter. Once James made his final and definitive decree, then the apostles and elders jump into action. Once again it is the leaders taking action here, they do this in concert with the whole church(notice that this passing reference to the whole church is in a subordinate prepositional phrase. The church is not the subject of the main verb or the action). How should we envision this? Presumably the leaders said that persons needed to be chosen to accompany the Decree letter and everyone agreed. Notice that the person chosen, Judas and Silas, “who were leaders (hegoumenoi) among the believers” presumably in Jerusalem. The emphasis throughout this passage is on leaders coming, leaders speaking leaders decreeing, and leaders being sent with the letter, chosen by apostles and elders in consultation with the others present.
Now we notice that the letter is from “the apostles and the elders”, not from the congregation as a whole (vs. 23). The apostles and elders say that some persons had gone out from the Jerusalem church to Antioch urging circumcision on Gentile believers. Notice what is said about this action--- without our authorization. Who is the ‘our’ here? The apostles and elders who wrote the letter, of course. And notice that this was inappropriate. They should have gotten permission to go and saying things from the apostles and elders, but failed to do so. This is what happens when people try to act in an important ecclesial matter without sanction from the church leaders. Vs. 23 then says “so we all agreed to choose some men….” Now the ‘we all’ here could be just the apostles and elders who are the authors of this document, but perhaps this refers to them plus the congregation who had been consulted. In any case it is perfectly clear that this is a leader led event, and the actions taken are based on the Decree of the leader James. The novel and interesting phrase “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” does not mean that the congregation had a séance until the Spirit spoke through someone and told them what to do. It simply means that these apostles and elders were confident that this was a Spirit led decision, one the Spirit would and did approve of. One final footnote. I sincerely doubt that the adamant Judaizers referred to at the beginning of Acts 15 were happy with this decision and decree. They would have seen it as a hopeless compromise. And in fact, they continued to bewitch Paul’s churches as a careful reading of Corinthians and perhaps Philippians shows. In sum, Frank’s interpretation of this passage is nearly entirely wrong, completely ignoring that this is a leader led even where a leader makes a decree which everyone must follow. This text is in no way an example of what he calls consensual decision making. The attempt to make this passage say something else on pp. 233-34 is weak and does not work.
One more thing. The body of Christ is often divided about important matters and often needs to take the advice of its leaders, even when there are some nay-sayers. Of course it is good to work for consensus, but it cannot always be had, and yet action is required. When Hurricane Katrina hit, some of my church wanted to go down there almost immediately and help. Others wanted to wait and let more time elapse. Those who wanted to go were authorized to go by the pastor, and the ministerial staff, and the vast majority of the congregation agreed, though there was no voting or Robert’s rules of order in play. It was absolutely the right thing to do, and indeed it was a spiritually transforming thing to do for our workers who were sent. God was in this action.
p. 194 tells us that when the Trinity is in consensus, then God acts, and this is the model for the church. One little problem. What happens when Jesus’ will was different in the Garden of Gethsemane than the Father’s will? Answer Jesus submits to the Father’s will. This is not an example of consensual decision making. Jesus’ will was not to go to the cross if it could be avoided. “Nevertheless not my will but thine…” is a statement about submission to someone else’s will. And guess what—that is perfectly acceptable to God and the Spirit. There will be times when consensus can’t be reached, but some members are willing to submit to the judgment of others, in particular to leaders who have more wisdom and experience about such hard choices. This is not manipulation, it is submission, and it is appropriate.
Also on p. 194 Frank tells us that Heb. 13.17 does not say “obey those who are over you”. He may be right. It may read “be persuaded by those who are over you”. But the important point about this is the “over you” part. There was a leadership hierarchy in the church. There were some who were over the others. This much is clear. And something else becomes clear, working for a consensus of everybody is sure easier if you limit your church size to 20 folks. The NT however requires no such limits, any more than it requires consensual decision making. However, I do think it is a good practice to try to achieve consensus first, even if actions have to be taken without it. I don’t think there is anywhere in the Bible that mandates such a practice. I tend to agree with what Frank says on p. 198—that how we treat each other in the process of making decisions is often as important as what we decide. We need to be Christians both about the process and the actions taken. But consensus is not required. When Paul and Barnabas could not agree about whether to bring Mark the second time around or not, they parted company, each went on to do good ministry with others. Apparently they did not think it necessary to struggle for a consensus, and it was more important to act than to go on butting heads. Sometimes that’s the way it must be in the church. One thing is clear--- leadership does not always come from the whole church in concert, nor should. Sometimes leaders actually have to lead and that’s exactly what we see in Acts 15.
Beginning about p. 200 Frank deals with the issue of ‘covering’ or to put it another way, accountability. His basic premise is that we are all accountable to God, and apparently only accountable to God. This however is not quite true. For example, when James (see James 5) says we should confess our sins to one another, this immediately places us in an accountability relationship with our fellow Christians. Yes, indeed we are accountable to the rest of the body of Christ of which we are a part, not least because our behavior reflects on that body of believers and bears good or bad witness to it. And of course there is plenty of discussion about Paul being accountable to God for his converts, there is the millstone teaching of Jesus about the disciple’s accountability for leading or misleading ‘the least of these’. Frank points out that the house church movement in the 70s rose and fell because of this issue of accountability or covering. It is easy to understand why. When you have such an incredibly low church polity that each congregation basically does what is right in their own eyes, rather like the period of the judges, it is easy to see why the accountability issue would become a problem. The solution however is not to suggest “we are only accountable to the Lord”, not only because it is not true ( I am also accountable to my parents, my wife, my children, to my school which I have promised to serve faithfully, my church and so on), it is also because the danger of their being almost no accountability at all when one denies all accountability to fellow believers or human beings is great. It is a funny thing, but people who are only accountable to God (or think they are), often behalf as if they are not accountable to anyone, because “no one’s watching over me”. God of course is invisible, and even Christians fall into the trap of thinking that if no human is minding me, then no one is watching, especially no one is watching what I do in private. This is of course foolishness. God sees all, but the psychology of accountability makes it far better for fallen human beings, even redeemed ones to recognize and own they are accountable to other human beings.
But Frank’s main concern is accountability in a hierarchial schema, which is anathema in his book if we are talking about spiritual realities. I like what he says however on p. 207—“My experience has been that when the fundamental aspects of love and servanthood are mastered in a church, the issues of authority and submission amazingly take care of themselves.” It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of teaching in the NT about authorities of various kinds and submission of various sorts, and Frank is wrong to suggest it is but a footnote in the discourse. On the contrary, the household codes alone take up huge chunks of space in Colossians, Ephesians and 1 Peter. But he is quite right that when people are sincerely serving the Lord and each other in love, these other issues fall more easily into place and line without anyone needing to pull rank, or the like.
The sad tale of the shepherding movement of the 70s which led to tyranny and manipulation is recounted on pp. 208-09, and I agree with much of this critique. However, part of the solution to this problem comes in ways Frank would not allow--- connectionalism between churches, and a recognized and responsible leadership structure within each church. Could the movement Frank is a part of be an over-reaction to things like the oppressive shepherding-disciple movement and the failures of the house church movement before? I think there is some real truth to this suggestion, and Frank as much as admits this when he says “the movement developed an aversion to words like authority, submission, and accountability” (p. 209), which is a great pity since the NT affirms all three of these ideas. In the haste to avoid becoming a cult run by tyrants like Jim Jones in the 70s, this movement has gone to the other end of the spectrum and denied all hierarchial leadership relationships within the church. What is odd about this is that this movement is quite different from the primitive Quakers who still are alive and well in our society, especially different from the Evangelical Friends.
Frank offers (p. 210) us a proper definition of submission, or being in subjection (hupotassso). He also rightly stresses that this is an attitude each person must voluntarily take upon themselves. That in no way means it is optional. Indeed it is commanded, but we do not have in the NT commandments like “parent subject your children”, husbands subordinate your wives, masters subject your slaves” and so on. Each person is treated with respect and as a person capable of making their own moral decisions, even in the case of children. It is quite remarkable how children are exhorted in Col.3-4 and par. Frank is equally right that we are corporately subject to Christ, to one another in the believing community, and “to those proven and trustworthy Christian workers who sacrificially serve our believing community” (p. 211). What is missing in this analysis at this point is the physical family relationships that also involve submission.
Frank makes as his theme verse Ephes. 5.21—submit to one another out of reverence to Christ. I agree this is a crucial verse and it means that we do not have a unilateral submission of women to men in the body of Christ. This verse however has nothing to do with the issue of leadership in the church. It has to do with the posture each Christian should take towards others—we should all be in service to one another, and preferring others to our own concerns. Paul puts it well in Phil. 2—“let each one look not to his own concerns, but rather to the concerns of others”. This is what it means to put others first, and so be in mutual submission with them. One of the real strengths of this book by Frank is the stress on ‘one -anothering’ as Frank calls it.
But nothing in regard to this principle rules out leadership structures, nor does it suggest that all sorts of authority is equally distributed to all members of the body. For example, a person who is not gifted to be a prophet, has no authority to go around pontificating in prophetic fashion. The same can be said about teaching, preaching, administering, and so on. Yes, of course this does not mean that the whole body can’t in some contexts exhort one another, and so on. That is just a basic Christian responsibility since we are our brother’s keeper and are responsible for each other. It is quite another matter however to be gifted and called to be a church teacher, something James warns not many of us should be. I always shudder when I read that verse.
Frank insists that only Christ possesses authority from God (p. 212). This is false on many levels, and so Frank quite rightly goes on to qualify this sort of absolute remark. Rom. 13 for example explains that God has give exousia to governing officials. It comes from God, to be sure, but it is dispensed to various particular human beings. Or if we want an ecclesial example look again at the Great Commission in Mt. 28--- all authority has been given to Jesus, but he is on that very occasion dispensing said authority to his disciples to go forth and baptize and teach people. Frank acknowledges “Christ has delegated his authority to men and women in this world for specific purposes” (p. 212). We then have delegated authority, but then so does the risen Jesus. He says it was delegated to him by the Father. He did not inherently have this authority before the resurrection, and indeed it was by the resurrection that he became our risen Lord (see Phil. 2.5-11), worthy to be called Lord. This is indeed the language of hierarchy—from the Father to the Son, from the Son to the disciples.
Frank (p. 213) makes a helpful distinction between submission and obedience, although the two Greek words are often used as synonyms or near synonyms. “Subjection is an attitude; obedience an action. Subjection is absolute; obedience is relative. Subjection is unconditional; obedience is conditional [i.e. we don’t obey when someone commands us to violate God’s will, whoever it may be]. Subjection is internal; obedience is external.” This is a truly helpful distinguishing summary, one of the best in the book.
The problem here is while Frank is right in what he affirms, he is wrong in what he denies. P. 214 says “the Bible never teaches that God grants believers authority over other believers.” Let’s take one example of how this is clearly false. Believing parents absolutely are given authority over their believing children. Indeed, the children are commanded to obey their believing parents. Now the parents are warned not to abuse this power, but the household codes are quite clear that they have it, and ought to do so. We also see quite clear authority relationships between Paul and his coworkers and converts. Even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles and analysis of Paul’s relationship with Timothy and Titus makes this very plain. But let me cite a text which is clear as a bell on this issue—1 Cor. 16.15-16 “You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. I urge you brothers and sisters to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it.” The verb in question is that selfsame hupotasso Frank was referring to. In sum, Paul urges the Corinthians to submit to their local church leaders. Why? Because they have been given authority over such a house church.
Frank tries (pp. 215-20) to make a hard and fast distinction between organic authority and official authority. He recognizes there is the latter in this world and that it is linked to a particular ongoing office (say, a governor), and he allows that God has set up such offices in the world, but in his view this is not at all how it ought to work in the church. What is interesting about this analysis is that he admits that both sorts or types of authority come from God (see e.g. Rom. 13.1ff.). It’s not as if the world’s authority structure then has simply come from the world. In regard to organic authority in the church Frank says it “is not intrinsic to a person or position. It does not reside in persons or an office…” (p. 216). He adds “Earned recognition and trust from the body is the only valid benchmark for one’s spiritual authority.” (p. 220). This latter remark is odd, for what it suggests is that the church, not Christ is the source of this authority actually, regardless of one’s rhetoric about it coming from Christ. Where would this criteria have left someone like Elijah, who was rejected by God’s people, or Paul when he was rejected rather than recognized by various of his converts? Did this leave him without authority? Of course not, because the recognition or failure of recognition by the body is not the source of that authority in any way--- the Lord is. The fact that a particular congregation may not recognize the gifts and graces of minister X may well be no comment at all as to whether he has them or should exercise them in regard to those very people. Of course it is better if the congregation does recognize and work with the minister. But the minister has authority if he has been called and anointed and graced by God whether or not that particular congregation recognizes him or her.
The second profound problem with this whole organic authority paradigm is that the NT is clear that God bestows authority on persons, particular persons. There is not merely a nebulous notion that if perchance someone should say or do something that the congregation deems in accord with God’s will, then it has authority. Listen to the following passages: “ Fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” (2 Tim. 1.6). This is of course Paul talking to Timothy and reminding him that he received these gifts through a ritual of laying on of hands performed by Paul, in which ritual the Holy Spirit was at work. Or consider what Lk. 24.48 says—the Eleven are commanded to stay in Jerusalem until they receive power from on high”. Notice that Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit here, not himself. Theologically speaking the power, the unction to function, comes to them from the Holy Spirit, not because of the connection of the body to the head. And there could hardly be a more top down way this works. They do not receive power from meeting together as a body, they receive it, each individually from the Holy Spirit. Look at what Acts 2.3 says---“ and they saw what appeared to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each one of them.” Aha—there was no body of Christ yet prior to this falling of the Spirit on the disciples, and yet there empowerment and authority and gifting came on each individual person there—not through a bodily connection with each other or through the body’s connection to the head. In other words, the notion of organic authority does not do justice to texts which actually tell us how individuals obtain power and authority from God to do ministry.
On p. 218 we see a false either or. Paul’s letters are full of persuasion (this is certainly true), and then Frank adds “appeals and pleas rather than commands”. This is false. There are plenty of commands as well. Paul would rather persuade than command, but he has the authority to command his converts especially when they get out of line, and he frequently does so.
Much of Chapter Twelve provides a very helpful analysis of how authority should be exercised, namely meekly, in love, with humility and the like. Despite the fact that Frank does not accept that the Bible says that God authorizes certain persons for certain leadership roles nor is he happy with the idea that authorization is a top down thing, even conveyed through one set of human hands to another, in the case of Paul and Timothy, there are many good warnings about the abuse of power in the traditional church, and the value of having all such authority normed by the principle of mutual submission to one another in love. More ministers in my tradition need to read this chapter.
On p. 231 I am afraid I do not recognize the denominational churches Frank keeps talking about, if one is characterizing them in general. He says “In the denominations, members unreservedly follow a single leader a board of lay-leaders, or an organization.” Frankly, this is just nonsense if the subject is a mainline denomination. Members in my denomination not only question authority, they are as likely to do their own thing as follow a single leader. And I have never been in a church where this wasn’t a healthy dynamic, because the ministers all recognized they were accountable to God and to their people and they would work for consensus on important matters. I guess my complaint is that while anyone can tell horror stories about this or that church or denomination, these sorts of remarks are not merely uncharitable as a characterization, they are caricatures and untrue in general. The notion of members in lockstep with ministers doesn’t at all fit the UMC. Indeed, remarks like this can only be called the demonizing of one’s fellow Christian churches.
On page 232 Frank perpetuates the myth that in the early church we have autonomous but fraternally related churches, while admitting that in the first 17 years of church history they all came out of the Jerusalem Church. If you look either at Acts 8 or Acts 14-15, or Galatians you know perfectly well this is not true. The Jerusalem Church sends emissaries to Samaria to inspect and correct if need be what was done by Philip in that place. They send no less than Peter and John for this crucial task. Paul in Galatians admits that “men who came from James” had caused trouble both in Antioch and in Galatia, but what he also says in that selfsame letter is that he went up to Jerusalem to get the right hand of fellowship and the imprimatur on his ministry from the pillar apostles “lest I be running in vain”. Now if even Paul can say this, it is perfectly clear that we are not talking about autonomous but fraternally related churches at all in the early church! The collection Paul took up for the mother church was required of him by the Jerusalem church, and he did his best to collect it and deliver it in tact. I can’t imagine a house church today acting like the Jerusalem church did in that matter. Notice as well that when Paul came with the collection, they had additional requirements for Paul himself, taking a Nazaritic vow and providing funds for others doing so. It’s perfectly clear the Jerusalem Church was the mother church during all this time from about A.D. 30-60 or so.
P. 232 tells us that Rev. 2-3 indicates autonomous churches in Asia who each get their own instructions from John. Three things need to be said: 1) John has authority over all these churches; 2) Revelation is an encyclical to all seven of those churches, which means they all read each other’s mail, and 3) what this suggests is they are all being held accountable to each other! That’s why John reveals their individual dirty laundry to all of them.
pp. 235-36 can only be called a rant against denominationalism, which is even called a heretical notion antithetical to orthodoxy and dividing the body of Christ. I find it truly ironic that Frank thinks the notion of individual autonomous house churches is somehow less divisive of the body of Christ, than having denominations. Wrong Frank, you’ve just divided it up into even smaller tiny autonomous pieces in this approach!
Chapter 14 is interesting as it provides us with Frank’s take on apostolic tradition. No he is not talking about a tradition out side of and in addition to the NT, but rather the one in the NT. He says it involves both precept and example, both commands and paradigms, and that we the contemporary church should live by both of these. I actually agree with this conclusion entirely. He is right that to keep the commands but ignore the praxis is not adequate. He is right that belief and behavior, head and heart, life and practice belong together. And I like his point that God’s blessing doesn’t necessarily indicate his approval. So true.
What then counts as the apostolic tradition and practice for Frank? It’s not the list in Acts 2 and 4, surprisingly enough but rather open participatory meetings, observing the Lord’s Supper as a communal meal, house church meetings, the practical expression of church bodily unity (in the autonomy of each house church). Let’s compare this to what the Scriptures actually say, and a historical point is crucial here. In the Roman Empire ‘superstitio’s were illegal, not merely persecuted sporadically but illegal, especially odd foreign eastern religions like Christianity. As long as Christianity seemed to be just another form of Judaism, there was a sort of protection against prosecution and persecution since Judaism was a religio licita by Roman standards, a legit religion. Once Christianity spread to places where the majority of the members were Gentiles in a given church, then there was trouble, big trouble. The church had to go private and underground. The house church was not a principle of early Christianity, much less an apostolic tradition, it was a necessity in a religiously hostile environment, and it is not an accident that it ceased to be a major practice once Constantine decreed that Christianity was a legitimate religion. Had the church simply forgotten its apostolic tradition? Well, no, because there was no apostolic mandate saying “thou shalt meet in homes and never build religious buildings.” This is simply a self-justifying myth to legitimate only the house church as Biblical style church. 2) lets examine briefly Acts 2.42-47. The first church devoted itself to the teaching of the apostles. Not just anyone teaching, but the teaching of the apostles. That was the final authority when it came to teaching. They devoted themselves to sharing in common (kononia). So much was this so they made sure no one went without the necessities in life. They devoted themselves to sharing meals together and praying. There were miracles performed by the apostles (where are those happening today, would be a good question to ask). All the believers were together and shared all things in common. Notice that when the church got bigger (see Acts 4.32-35) it no longer says they were all together, but it does say they continued to be of one heart and mind. Acts 2 adds that they shared ‘all things in common’. They sold possessions and gave to those in need. This social practice of the apostles is even more strongly emphasized in the Acts 4 summary. Then 2.46 says “daily they met together in the Temple courts”, and they broke bread in their homes praising God, and (for a time) enjoying the favor of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Now had there been some sort of apostolic decree that Christians should not or no longer go to the Temple or participate in its services then this summary would have read differently. We also would have nothing like Acts 21.24-25 where Paul is commanded to go to the Temple and perform purification rites there. Having a house church doesn’t rule out going to the religious building and performing religious functions and practices. There is no contradiction here at all. Nor is there today when people both meet in homes and also gather at a church building on Sunday. In other words, the apostolic tradition does not endorse or imply a house church only principle. And I find it very surprising that Frank says nothing about the strong stress of taking care of the poor and sharing all things in common as part of the apostolic tradition. Indeed, what Frank says is ministers should leave individuals and their finances alone as a private matter. This view is not in accord with the view of the original apostles (look at the story of Ananias and Sapphira contrasted with the practice of Barnabas). In other words, some of what Frank says is in the apostolic tradition, isn’t, and some of what he fails to mention is.
In the last main chapter of this book, Frank is an equal opportunity critiquer of the mega-church, the restoration movement, the cell church movement, and the Emerging Church phenomena. It’s not just the traditional church he has problems with. I will leave it to you to evaluate his critique of these renewal movements. His view is the traditional church can hardly be renewed, so we need to pull the plug on it, dismantle the clergy system and start over with a more Biblical model—the house church and organic body life of course. There is a useful summary of Franks rhetoric against the traditional church and in favor of the organic house church model on pp. 274-75.
Frank is not through though—there is an Appendix, and it should not be cut out, since it provides more of his rationale for his views. According to pp. 284-87 the listing of apostles, prophets, teachers in a particular order is because of their usefulness of gifts in church planting and building. But what does the Greek text actually say--- “God has placed in the church (en ekklesia), first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers…”( 1 Cor. 12.28). He does not say God placed first on the mission field apostles etc. He is talking about those who have authority in the already existing church. He is absolutely not talking about church planting here, unlike earlier in 1 Cor. 3. And notice that it is God who has placed these persons in the church for leadership. Not the congregation, not through a process of long maturing and development into an ‘elder’. No, God has put or placed them in the church to serve as authorities for God’s people. This text should be compared to Ephes. 4.11—“Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastor-teachers for the equipping of the saints for ministry”. Exactly, and where does this take place? In already existing churches of course. Apostles are not functions they are persons exercising gifts. The same can be said of the rest of the list. Now if God and Christ have put in the church such church leaders, who exactly are we to say--- No, No that’s too hierarchial for my taste. That’s appointment of particular individuals to particular ministries from the top down--- God forbid! That might spoil the organic soup.
More exegetical gymnastics follow. The Greek word proistemi in 1 Thess. 5.12 and Rom. 12.8 is translated ‘guards and cares for’. But in fact its primary sense in these texts is ‘superintends over’. A superintendent is some one who is over others and has the responsibility for looking out for them, just as we have in schools today. In this regard he is like a shepherd, which is also a hierarchial concept. And then we once more try to turn anointing, laying on of hands into a mere recognition or acknowledgement of someone by another. This is not what Titus 1.5 suggests, as we have already noticed. It is perfectly possible of course to be an authority without being authoritarian or strident or a tyrant, just as it is possible to uphold true doctrine without becoming doctrinaire. In the end the critique Frank offers of the institution church, while having many valid points, ends up being only valid in the critique of the excesses, mistakes, and problems of the church. And what Frank wishes to put in its place is in some ways even less Biblical, for it ignores the trans-local character of the church, undercuts the roles of persons called and gifted by God to be ministers and servants of the church, exalts a model of church life that is not merely anti-institutional but goes to the other extreme to avoid liturgy, the high arts, tradition in the fuller sense of the term, and much more.
But let us end by saying what is good, very good about this book. It stresses the need for face to face family of God koinonia and love and service, especially in a broken world. This is indeed a great need of the church, and I am thankful Frank has lifted it up. May all the church here this heart-cry for true Christian fellowship and one-anothering, and learn from it. AMEN