By Frank Viola
Frank Viola’s Reimagining the Church is a logical sequel to his book Pagan Christianity. Like the former book, this one is a meticulous, interesting, disturbing look at the New Testament understanding of the early church. What’s interesting is I agreed with much of Pagan Christianity but not with much of Reimagining the church.
In this book Viola makes his true feelings known- the only legitimate form of Christianity is the house church. Toward the end of his book he compares the renewal of the institutional church to trying to repair a house whose foundation is cracked.
Before giving my critique of his argument I need to say a couple of things. First, anyone who has followed my writings knows I have been a critic of most of the modern day forms of the institutional church for a long time. My books, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers and Growing Spiritual Redwoods both point up the need for a more organic approach to the church, but without abandoning the institutional setting. I just don’t feel as if Christianity can reach its potential in an institutional and concert driven society without assuming some form of institution and large venue worship.
Second, we should all be indebted to Viola for his diligent and provocative work. Like the Emergents, Viola has revealed the naked truth – the emperor has no clothes. Most of the practices of modern day Christianity, including our forms of church, are foreign to Scripture and are in many ways lethal to the development of the kingdom of God. We must hear his argument and apply the applicable implications without throwing the baby (institutional church) out with the bath water.
However, I find Viola’s basic conclusion about the institutional church to be flawed for several reasons:
• Viola sees the Trinity as the key to understanding the church (page 33 ff). But nowhere in the Scriptures is the church described as the reflection of the Trinity. In other words, he uses a man-made doctrine (the Trinity) rather than Scripture to provide the meaning of a biblical term and to repudiate other man made doctrines. I’m not denying the Trinity. I’m just saying it is poor scholarship to use one man made doctrine to denounce another man made doctrine and call it The biblical position on the subject.
• When comparing the institutional church to the organic church Viola always uses the best possible examples of the organic church and the worst possible examples of institutional church practices. Viola refers to the house church as if it is a panacea where everyone loves everyone. I’ve had enough experience with house churches to know they have as many problems and are as shallow as are most institutional churches.
• Throughout the book he totally ignores many of the new forms of church life emerging simply because it is institutional. And he encourages his readers to abandon the institutional church altogether. I think this is a very deadly game he is playing.
• Viola acknowledges the need for contextualization (pps. 37-39) when it comes to cultural things in the Scriptures but denies the need to contextualize the Gospel into our present culture. Its okay to rule out the need for women to cover their heads in public but it’s not okay to say that in an institutional and concert driven world an institutional church with a formalized worship service might be valid. To him that would be “over contextualizing,” but who is to say where the line should be drawn?
• When it suits him Viola uses a literal translation of the Greek; when it doesn’t he loosing interprets the text to fit his basic premise. Consider his treatment of oversight in the church (Chapter Nine) and authority and submission in Chapter 12. In both cases he either interprets a clear text into oblivion (pps. 168-176,) or he totally ignores texts (p. 211) that don’t fit his theme. One of the most flagrant attempts to make the Scriptures fit his thesis is on page 193 where he proof texts congregational consensus decision making by quoting from Acts 15:22 “with the whole church” and totally ignoring Acts 15:6-7 “The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them.”
• His use of the term, “family,” to be the basic metaphor for the church goes against most of Scripture where the church is described as the “body of Christ,” or the “bride of Christ” (Chapter Five).
If Christianity has to be contextualized to the world in which it finds itself to be effective, then what Viola is advocating will be the death of Christianity in the West. Without the institution and without large venue worship, the vast majority of people in this country will never experience Jesus. The house church movement has simply not shown itself to have long term sustainability. I have no problem with the house church movement. I pray it flourishes; but I also pray the institutional form of Christianity can take the legitimate violations of biblical principles Viola points out and put them into practice. And what would this look like?
• Church planting would be the number one mission of all of God’s people and Apostolic church overseers would emerge as the most important role in the church.
• The distinction between laity and clergy would be replaced by the priesthood of all believers and preaching and teaching would be based on affirmed gifts rather than on academic authority.
• Leadership would always be a shared leadership (Chapters Eight and Nine). But still there needs to be a “first among equals” for Christianity to reach its potential in our society. However, leadership must be earned, not taken. The primary roles of this leadership would be to servant (role model), motivate, and mold.
• Christians would understand that church is not something they “go to” but is something they are wherever two or three of them gather.
• Every believer would be a participant in a regular small group where all the pastoral care and edification would be received (Chapter Four).
• The large venue worship would be solely for evangelistic purposes rather than the care and feeding of a passive audience (p. 49).
• The Lord’s Supper would never be taken in public worship but would be experienced in the small group where there is complete unity and agreement and “friendship intimacy” (Chapter Three).
• All authority would have to be earned within the congregation so most of the pastors and staff would be raised up from within the congregation (Chapter Nine).
• Denominations would no longer be needed as people would understand that there is only one church in each city and our unity would be based on our acknowledgement of the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Chapter Six).
• The Church would understand that it is the Body and Bride of Christ and act accordingly which means unity, harmony, and a common purpose prevail (Chapter Five).
• Decision making would prerogative of the Elders (shared leadership team) of the church as is demonstrated in Acts 15 (you should note Viola interprets this text into oblivion with some strange story that brings the entire Jerusalem church into the decision making process p.193).
I find nothing in Viola’s writings that can’t be applied to the institutional church. Sure, it will cause much consternation in most congregations. But we still won’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water. Viola’s book would be far more appealing if he left room for contextualizing the church into our society and eliminating all of the bad baggage of established Christianity.