Reimagining Church (Chapter 1) (Frank Viola) – An Interaction (Part 2).

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You can find introductory material and the introductory/preface interaction here. Without further delay…

Chapter 1. Reimagining the Church as an Organism.

  • “The church we read about in the New Testament was ‘organic.’ By that I mean it was born from and sustained by spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions, controlled by human hierarchy, shaped by lifeless rituals, and held together by religious programs.”
    • The Christian church is most certainly organic, but the early church also shared many institutional aspects with the Jewish religion – particularly in its utilization of the temple and synagogue.
    • Rituals are meaningful or meaningless according to the assignment they receive from the individual. Communion and Baptism can be meaningless – unless they are imputed with meaning by remaining true to their inspiration in Scripture. While these rituals have a Scriptural mandate, other rituals are not necessarily evil – though they may become lifeless.
  • “To put it in a sentence, organic church life is not a theater with a script; it’s a gathered community that lives by divine life.”
    • Amen! Though I think the existence of a community that lives by divine life does not remove the possibility or even necessity of script within practice. A community is intentional and can be fostered or inhibited by a good script (especially if the script is flexible to the realities of life – which are not scripted).
  • “The biblical teaching of the Trinity is not an exposition about an abstract design of God. Instead, it teaches us about God’s nature and how it operates in Christian community.”
    • I do think that the Trinity is an archetype for human community, though this actually lends itself against Viola’s suggestion that church is non-hierarchical. While there is not a relationship of superiority/inferiority within the Trinity, there is a relationship of submission and roles.
  • “Properly conceived, the church is the gathered community that shares God’s life and expresses it in the earth. Put another way, the church is the earthly image of the triune God (Eph. 1:22-23).”
    • No disagreement from me here…nor do I think from most others I know?
  • “There’s an absence of passive spectatorship. There’s an absence of one-upmanship. And there’s an absence of religious rituals and programs.”
    • The spectator nature of traditional church and the politics of church are both disturbing realities of gathered community – they happen. We strive to live by grace in the Spirit, but we fail often, and this is the result. I agree with the removal (as far as is possible) of these elements from the church – but I do not see how the organic church has any stronger position in this battle.
    • I am hoping later on Viola will describe more of how one has an organic church without rituals and programs…and perhaps a more precise definition of what classifies something as a “ritual” or a “program.”
  • Viola highlights several different church philosophies:
    • “Biblical Blueprintism” – The Scriptures contained detailed instructions as to how the church should operate, we just have to correctly find these instructions and extract them. This is not the underlying concepts, but rather particular modes of expression, program, and ritual.
    • “Cultural Adaptability” – Suggests we must make the church relevant in the cultural in which the church exists in a specific time, place, and situation.
      • Viola wisely cautions, “Overcontextualization eats up the biblical text to where it disappears entirely. And we are left to create the church after our own image.”
      • I appreciate that while Viola thinks the church is not as it should be he also cautions that, “The early church was not perfect. If you doubt that, just read 1 Corinthians. So romanticizing the early Christians as if they were flawless is a mistake.”[1]
      • “The great difference between present-day Christianity and that of which we read in these [the New Testament letters] is that to us it is primarily a performance; to them it was a real experience. We are apt to reduce the Christian religion to a code, or at best a rule of heart and life. To these men it is quite plainly the invasion of their lives by a new life altogether.” – J.B. Phillips.
        • I want this invasion of new life altogether in my life!
    • “Postchurch Christianity” – The church as a formal entity ceases to exist, it is only spiritual and organic, it occurs over coffee in the grind of life.
      • Viola argues against this position on the basis that, “The first-century churches where locatable, identifiable, visitable communities that met regularly in a particular locale.”
    • “Organic Expression” – This is the philosophy Viola advocates.
  • Viola outlines four “DNA” elements to the true church:
    • “It will always express the headship of Jesus Christ in His church as opposed to the headship of a human being.”
    • “It will always allow for and encourage the every-member functioning of the body.”
    • “It will always map to the theology that’s contained in the New Testament, giving it visible expression on the earth.”
    • “It will always be grounded in the fellowship of the triune God.”
    • I don’t particularly see any of these being an issue for me, in fact they all seem to be in line with my heart – and with most other minister’s I know…again, the implementation appears to be where the difference lies.
  • “Yet despite the incredible power of God’s Word, there is one thing that can stop it dead in its tracks. That one thing is religious tradition.”
    • I could object to this, on the grounds that God is able to accomplish His will – there is nothing that can bar its advance, but this would be arguing for only one side of the coin. Better to live with the paradox of reality – God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • “Whenever we see the word pastor in the Bible, we typically think of a man who preaches on Sunday mornings. Whenever we see the word church, we typically think of a building or a Sunday-morning service. Whenever we see the world elder, we typically think of someone on a church board or committee.”
    • Yes, some of us think this way, but many of us do not…and our ability to think outside of “the box” is not dependent on our dedication to the particular implementation Viola proposes. Rather, I have seen “out of the box” definitions of all these terms operative within the “traditional church.”
    • The pastor is much more than a preacher, though preaching is an important responsibility of the pastor.
    • The church is certainly not the building, and while I’d love to move away from calling buildings “churches” and to something else (“meeting house” or “chapel” perhaps?) I think this is more a matter of semantics, and helping individuals with a limited view of church (as the building) understand the dual aspects of the word – as a cultural word we use to denote the building in which the organic body congregates.
  • Viola highlights the use of ‘proof-texting’ as a significant issue and suggests that it allows us to read back in our current cultural traditions and rituals into the New Testament. I don’t disagree. Proof-texting is a dangerous method of Scriptural interpretation when misused…though I do think it can be utilized properly.

Summary Thus Far:

In general, I find myself agreeing with Viola’s criticisms of the institutional/traditional church, but disagreeing as to the necessity of completing revamping the church in order to achieve a truer vision of the church. I think that most leaders and ministers are on the same page with Viola – cognizant of the issues Viola is raising. Viola has proposed good ideas in theory, but I always find my theories smash to pieces when they hit the pavement of real life…but I’m looking forward to hearing and exploring Viola’s practical application of these ideal visions.

  1. [1]Steve Brown has an interesting article fleshing out this concept called The Ugly Bride.

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