Reimagining Church: the debate continues

Last Saturday I posted some thoughts about the first part of Ben Witherington’s review of Frank Viola’s book Reimagining Church. Since then he has posted parts two, three and four, all long and making a total review of 26,000 words! He has graciously allowed Frank Viola to respond, this time in two parts, another 15,000 words. And he promises one more post from himself and a final word from Viola. I would have liked to comment further on this debate, but in a busy week it has been as much as I can manage to read it all.

For more about the book, see the Reimagining Church website and Frank Viola’s blog of the same name. I wish I had time to read these as well.

I do intend to write more about this in due course, but my life is getting busier at the moment so I can’t promise anything soon.

To keep you all going, an extract from part two of Frank’s response to Ben:

Subordination is mutual in the Godhead. The Father totally gives Himself in His fullness to the Son. That’s why the Son is the Logos, because He contains the Father in His fullness. The Son’s very essence is that of a gift from the Father. How, then, can that not imply some moment of mutual subordination in the Trinitarian dance of love? The Father isn’t saying to the Son, “Hey, I’m here to run your life.” That’s not the giving of a gift. The Father’s relationship to the Son is an act of love, and act of self-giving, of dispossessing Himself for the sake of the Son, who in turn, dispossesses Himself back toward the Father and surrenders Himself to the same Father who in effect surrendered Himself to Him. So there’s a mutual surrender involved. Ben’s rejection of this is at the heart of his view of the Trinity. Functional subordination, then, occurs among all the members of the Trinity, not just of the Son to the Father. It happens in a distinctive way in each case, nonetheless it really happens. The Spirit also subordinates Himself in that He comes to glorify Christ.

0 thoughts on “Reimagining Church: the debate continues

  1. Viola is right that a relationship of love by definition involves mutual submission.

    But mutual submission and a relationship of love are compatible with a hierarchical arrangement in which one party normally takes the lead from the other.

    That is how things work in a parent-child relationship, and in an employer-employee relationship. On occasion, the parent/employer will submit to a request or the will of the child/employee.

    It’s not for nothing that that we speak of Father and Son in the Trinity.

    That Viola misses this is beyond my understanding.

    BW3 is so right and Viola is so wrong.

  2. BW3 is so right and Viola is so wrong. Now there’s an intelligent argument! 😉

    Seriously, John, I wouldn’t jump into a Trinity debate to save my life. A catholic professor once assured my 18 year old self nobody since Augustine had ever successfully explained the Trinity and that was good enough for me to give up trying. So that’s to say I seriously question why Frank chose to base his whole book on arguments about the trinity. And I agree with his conclusions! In fact, if you hadn’t guessed, Frank’s even a friend of mine!

    But from all I can tell, John, your “hierarchy” argument seems both semantic and circular. To that extent, I’ll even accept it: If a paternal relationship counts as “hierarchy” then I’ll agree there absolutely is “hierarchy” in the Godhead. Furthermore, if that’s the only thing “hierarchy” means then I don’t have any problem with that AND, quite honestly, I find your nuances above to be touching and beautiful.

    However, it’s a pretty enormous stretch to go from the Paternal relationship of the Godhead to justifying the establishment of a permanent, paid positional, chain-of-command-style, official organizational structure and appealing to its authority for maintaining a degree of human control over God’s people, all so we can keep a tight rein on the natural chaos of human error. (That being what “hierarchy” had previously meant, in my mind.)

    So if I accept that “hierarchy” includes paternal relationships, then we’ve got two different definitions of the word. And your argument stops at the trinity. The clergy/laity system is far, far from simple surrogate parenthood. Yes, we might do very well to compare New Testament Elders with gentle patient fathers. But what we have instead, typically, is the Archons of Athens or the Magistrates of Rome. If you do the job differently, John, then kudos and more’s the credit to you, but your job was designed for domination and control. No matter how gentle and graciously you do it, that’s still what you’re there to do – to maintain control. The Roman Catholic Church was organized after the pattern of ancient Roman Government, and the Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist traditions followed the Catholics.

    It should not be so with us.

  3. It’s not for nothing that that we speak of Father and Son in the Trinity.

    Okay, I am lost. I remember somebody patiently explaining that there is a good reason to use the phrase “sons of God” instead of “children of God” and that is because sons are adults and not children. So, is Christ God’s son, or God’s immature child?

    And is there a hierarchical relationship between a father and an adult son? Even Aristotle balks at this one and says that the child will grow up and have an adult will, but the will of a wife is always without authority. So, the son must have a status with his father that the wife never achieves.

    Therefore, it appears as if the adult son is not in hierarchical relationship with his father.

    Now, I admit that this can be argued another way, that a son always is under his father. However, I would like to hear more about this. Does the phrase “son of God” really denote that Christ is under the authority of Father or that he is of the same nature as God.

  4. PS Yes, Augustine is clear on the trinity,

    He writes,

    For perhaps our meaning will be more plainly unfolded, if we ask in what manner God sent His Son. He commanded that He should come, and He, complying with the commandment, came. Did He then request, or did He only suggest? But whichever of these it was, certainly it was done by a word, and the Word of God is the Son of God Himself.

    Wherefore, since the Father sent Him by a word, His being sent was the work of both the Father and His Word; therefore the same Son was sent by the Father and the Son, because the Son Himself is the Word of the Father. For who would embrace so impious an opinion as to think the Father to have uttered a word in time, in order that the eternal Son might thereby be sent and might appear in the flesh in the fullness of time?

    But assuredly it was in that Word of God itself which was in the beginning with God and was God, namely, in the wisdom itself of God, apart from time, at what time that wisdom must needs appear in the flesh. Therefore, since without any commencement of time, the Word was in the beginning, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, it was in the Word itself without any time, at what time the Word was to be made flesh and dwell among us.

    For Augustine, Father and Son have an indivisible will,

    For the working of the Father and of the Son is indivisible. Otherwise, neither has the Father Himself put all things under Himself, but the Son has put all things under Him, who delivers the kingdom to Him, and puts down all rule and all authority and power. For these words are spoken of the Son: “When He shall have delivered up,” says the apostle, “the kingdom to God, even the Father; when He shall have put down all rule, and all authority, and all power.” For the same that puts down, also makes subject.

  5. John, does Viola miss this? Or is it just that he has written about this aspect, the distinction between the roles of Father and Son, elsewhere? It really isn’t fair to call someone “so wrong” on the basis of one paragraph which you in fact agree with but doesn’t say something else which you think the author should have said.

    It is interesting that Jesus quite explicitly said that the only One to whom Christians should have a son-Father relationship is God (Matthew 23:9), i.e. that we should not relate to one another in this way. So this is NOT a model for the relationship between a pastor and congregation members.

    Bill, thanks for your helpful comment, and for repeating it on your blog.

    Sue, you make a good point: the Son in the Trinity is of course a responsible adult Son.

  6. Bill and Peter,

    I’m glad you get a kick out of my rhetorical flourishes.

    There is no doubt that ‘hierarchy’ almost always has a pejorative connotation in the modern lexicon. But I’ve always thought the best tribute that could be paid to the mores of the Modern Age is to critique them and seek to transcend them without losing what good they contain. I don’t see this happening in Viola.

    Of course hierarchy is subject to abuse. The modern alternative, which consists of a generalized crisis of authority, is subject to abuse in its own way. Big time.

    For Peter, it is self-evident that a “democratic” procedure for making pastoral appointments is better. Frankly, I see no evidence for this at all.

    I haven’t read enough of Viola to know if he falls into this trap – I assume he does not – but many people simply overlook the positive contributions hierarchy and rules make to the quality of life.

    To be sure, without hierarchy, it is still possible to have agreed-upon rules, but then, one is left with self-enforcement and self-policing.

    Self-policing has a terrible track record. Even strict congregationalists show awareness of that on occasion. So they develop ad hoc “accountability” structures. Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that these ad hoc structures have a poor track record, worse, I would say, than the kind of hierarchical structures that characterize the ecclesial polity I work within.

    In my setting – it is no different, in a university setting – it is not permissible for an elder [= pastor) to date or court a member of his or her congregation, because of the power differential. Once upon a time, of course, this was the normal way for a young minister to find a wife.

    Not too long ago, one of my colleagues had to relinquish her ordination credentials because she chose to violate this rule. Without hierarchy – call it an accountability structure if that makes you happy – she would have just continued along the path she had chosen. With hierarchy exercised in a spirit of love, she was eased out with a minimum of hard feelings all around.

    Guess what principle her superiors appealed to? That of mutual submission. “These are the rules we have agreed on together. They are not perfect. Rules never are. But in submitting to them, we submit to each other.”

    The principle of mutual submission is compatible with the exercise of authority within a hierarchical arrangement.

    To me, the distinction between an adult and child ‘son’ gets us nowhere. Was Jesus already an adult son on his way to the cross? I would think so. Please consider John 17. What kind of relationship does the Son have with the Father as reflected in this prayer? It would falsify the text to say that Son speaks to the Father as if they were equals. (Equal in the sense of sharing the same divine nature, yes, but not in terms of authority).

    The Father delegates authority to the Son. Lines of authority are clear. The Son has been given authority over all people, but continues to ask the Father to act on behalf of those entrusted to his (the Son’s) care.

    What we see in John 17 is healthy hierarchy, not democracy. I would think this is obvious, but even obvious things can be overlooked if a thick enough ideological fog is allowed to settle over our eyes.

  7. For Peter, it is self-evident that a “democratic” procedure for making pastoral appointments is better.

    I’m sorry, where have I said this? I did say in a comment somewhere that I preferred the Church of England system, which gives a say to the local church and the candidate as well as the bishop, to the United Methodist Church one in which the decision is the bishop’s alone. But I did not say that anything about this being “self-evident”, nor that my preference is anything to do with one being more “democratic” than the other. I could give evidence for this which is nothing to do with democracy, which would start with the bishop, as a comparatively remote figure, not being the best person to judge which pastor is the best fit to which church, and the necessary unnecessary bureaucracy and cost burden of centralising all these decisions. You can preserve hierarchy, as the Church of England bishops certainly want to do, without imposing centralised micro-management.

    I am not opposed to accountability structures which are voluntary and mutual. But I am opposed to the kind of thing you seem to like. Now I see the dangers of pastors dating congregation members. But in the case you mention, assuming both were single and there was no hint of immorality, requiring one “to relinquish her ordination credentials” seems to be a case of authorities enforcing an arbitrary inflexible rule and throwing their weight about inappropriately, in fact potentially illegally – if the lady involved had chosen to test this in the US courts she might very well have won on the basis that this is an illegal intrusion into her private life. (I say this on the basis of what I heard about a counsel’s opinion in an analogous case.) Was this rule in fact a democratically agreed one? If not, there is nothing “mutual” about the enforced submission in this case. And there is nothing in the Bible about Christians forcing other Christians to submit to them, whether “mutual” or not – hupotasso in such contexts is always in the middle or passive “submit yourselves”.

    I accept that in some sense the Father is above the Son, as every father is above every son even when the latter is adult. But this is certainly not “hierarchy” in the modern more or less pejorative sense. And you have missed my point that Jesus explicitly disallows pastors etc from taking the father role relative to congregation members.

    Where do you get the idea from that I am in favour of democracy in the church? The word was not even mentioned in this thread before your comment. The model I would follow is certainly not voting and Roberts’ Rules of Order. Rather it is the true theocracy we see modelled for example in Acts 13:1-3: the church listening for what God has to say in a situation and obeying it.

  8. Okay, Peter. You say you prefer “true” theocracy to democracy, but then you ask if the “no-dating-within-a-power-differential” rule was decided upon democratically. I think you are of two minds here.

    Well, the rule is one among many one consents to upon becoming an ordained elder. Professors and teaching assistants in the universities here have to consent to a similar rule, and are sometimes fired when they violate it. In another context, Bill Clinton, a fairly well-known chap, had to surrender his law credentials over an inappropriate relationship with an intern. To be precise, it was lying about the relationship under oath that sank him, but you get the point.

    I think a bishop who, after consultation with others, appoints pastors to the parishes in his or her diocese is not micro-managing. But that’s just me. In my experience, the system works rather well.

    Of course the ideal is that the church listens for God has to say. My point: that can and does happen within traditional hierarchical structures no less than in what you call “voluntary and mutual” accountability structures.

    Not that I see a necessary difference. “Voluntary and mutual” accountability structures with some history behind them fall under the category of traditional hierarchical structures. But perhaps you agree with Henry Ford that history is bunk.

    Furthermore, hierarchical arrangements, chain-of-command structures, democratic mechanisms, and “true” theocracy are all compatible. Fancy that. It is amazing what God gets away with.

  9. John, I did not say that any rule in the church should be decided on democratically. I just said that in this case “mutual submission” would not be entirely a legal fiction if the rule had been decided democratically.

    I accept that to be ordained in your denomination you have to submit to certain institutionalised and inflexible rules, some of which go well beyond what is biblically justifiable. I presume that the lady in question voluntarily submitted to those rules (but not that the submission was in any way mutual) and so was bound by them and rightly disciplined under them – although there might be doubts about the legality of such rules. I do not accept that this is how the church should operate, by expecting anyone to submit in this way to formal rules.

    If a bishop really does appoint pastors “after consultation with others” and those others include the primary interested parties i.e. the candidate and the church, that is not a bad way of doing things and I can see that the results could be good. Nevertheless I object to the principle that anyone has the right to appoint without even the consent of the candidate and the church.

    Of course leaders can and often do listen to God within hierarchical structures. The problems come when they do not, but instead follow their own fallible ideas or prejudices, or when completely ungodly people get into leadership, as has so often happened throughout church history. Of course the same can happen in non-hierarchical structures, but at least the scale of the problem is likely to be smaller as no one has enough authority to do large scale damage.

  10. Peter,

    I understand your point of view better now. It is not just hierarchy you object to. You also have an inflexible rule against “inflexible rules.” I can agree with that, but somehow I get the impression that you don’t have much use for rules at all.

    It sounds as if the guidance of the Holy Spirit suffices from your point of view. Gone is the biblical concept that God writes the law into our hearts as part of the new covenant. A careful reading of the New Testament, I think, will demonstrate that law is one of God’s gifts to his people in both dispensations. James says it most clearly.

    In my church polity, it is not required and is indeed unusual to seek the opinion and consent of the interested parties before a match between candidate and church is proposed. It may surprise you, Peter, but it is a liberating experience for both candidate and church not to be co-deciders, but to place their trust in God working through an approach over which they have no direct input. The situation is a mirror of the experience of salvation by sola gratia.

    For the rest, the separation of church and state is stronger in the US than it is in many countries. Churches are allowed to set their own internal rules in areas in which the state in other countries believes it has a right to interfere.

  11. Furthermore, hierarchical arrangements, chain-of-command structures, democratic mechanisms, and “true” theocracy are all compatible. Fancy that. It is amazing what God gets away with.

    True enough, John. Praise the Lord, actually. Structure and anarchy are on a sliding scale and some moderation is preferable in most things. The major question about a group of people is not their structure but their involvement with God Himself. Amazing indeed.

    That said, we know Democracy is very Greek, Republicanism very Roman and Robert’s Rules are very British. But where is your familial sense of the Godhead’s “hierarchy” in all that structure? Sure there are good pastors out there, and I trust you’re one, but it’s not just hit and miss. The system actually creates an atmosphere which right-hearted ministers must mightily struggle against just to make normal what has become so business/corporate. (That isn’t just the fall you’ve felt yourself fighting against, John. It’s the system, too. Benevolent bishops and all…)

    The problem with hierarchy is it automatically encourages passive underlings. But worse yet is the problem with institution, which is that it eventually oulasts God Himself!

    For a congregation to live in the institution the way you have it requires that constant Renewal Howard Snyder talked about in reviewing Viola’s “Pagan Christianity”. But what happense when your benevolent overseers all die? So Renewal is an ideal that seems nearly as elusive to me than some vague hippie theocracy. (No offense, Peter! 😉

    Since human-religious-structure, effectively institutionalized, eventually outlives all else involved – including the Spirit – it will sooner or later _stand_ at serious risk of actually earning that hideously harsh critique of ‘Babylon the harlot’. Personally, I would rather it folded up and moved away. Like a Tent. Or like the Priscillianists. But I suspect the Waldensians were better off in the centuries before Waldo.

    There is something all too ego-centric about wanting to establish legal entities that will outlast us for our descendents’ sakes. But Jesus left behind a group of men and women who were barely learning to interact with his Spirit. They seemed to be His entire strategy!

    It is therefore dishonest for clergical apologists to claim that the NT’s awareness of our practical need for some measure of oversight justifies what the system has grown into.

    Go on and justify the need. Go on and do it. You can even say it’s based on Biblical principles if you believe that.

    Just don’t say it’s the New Testament model.

    Like some do…

  12. John, you are right that I don’t have much time for rules, beyond those given by God, although I am not inflexible in my rule against them! That doesn’t mean that I have anything against God’s law. What I oppose Jesus also opposed (Mark 7:6-13 etc), adding our own rules to the commands of God and thereby nullifying the word of God.

    John, I know that some slaves testify to the “liberating experience” of being freed from the responsibility of having to make their own decisions about their lives. No doubt the Galatians thought similarly, but instead Paul expected them to grow up and live in Christian freedom (Galatians 3:23-25, 5:1 etc). Yes, perhaps your church can get away with abusive practices which are rightly banned by law in other organisations, but I’m sure that even in the USA laws would not allow churches to own and trade in slaves – and your practices sound little different except that presumably you have the right to resign and leave.

    Bill, thanks for your comment. I’m no hippie! Yes, I accept that the problem is that a system that works is elusive. Do you have any positive practical suggestions for that?

  13. In this discussion, one of my frustrations is one BW3 notes as well: the idea that the NT model for the church is an “authority-free” zone is not one responsible exegesis in NT studies finds in the text. It is painfully obvious to someone trained in historical exegesis that Frank Viola over-reads some texts and under-reads others.

    I suggested in a post on my blog that this needs to be done up front by specifying what texts are considered to be the ones that orient our reading of the others. In that case, the grounds of the debate shift to one of more general theological considerations. No wonder, then, that we end up talking about the Trinity. Not that I find Frank convincing there, for reasons I’ve already stated.

    It seems to me that from Viola’s point of view, texts which express the importance of exercising authority along hierarchical lines as would the father of a household in Greco-Roman antiquity must be regarded as sub-Christian. Examples: 1 Tim 3:1-13; Titus 2:15. Let’s be honest, these passages describe structures of authority which are not exactly the same as what we find 50 years later across much of early Christianity, but move in that direction.

    I agree with Bill when he implies that more than one church organizational model is compatible with NT teaching. I for one do not think that the NT rules out either the house church model or the episcopal model.

    Peter’s claim that the episcopal model as practiced, for example, in the United Methodist Church, is abusive by definition is certainly bold and daring. If instead it is one means of grace in the life of the church, as I have suggested, that Peter nevertheless insists on describing it as an “abusive practice” amounts to sinning against the Holy Spirit.

    Peter, you might want to reconsider your statement.

  14. John, I will need to see what Viola has to say about the texts you mention. I now have his book, but little time to read it. I’m sure I could argue that basing a hierarchical model of the church on the NT is not “responsible exegesis” either, because of the way it privileges certain Pauline passages over the words of Jesus. I hope that there is a way of reconciling these passages, which will be neither a strongly hierarchical model nor a complete egalitarianism which probably goes beyond what Viola actually teaches.

    I didn’t quite say that any specific practices are abusive, but I was being deliberately provocative by suggesting that moving people from job to job without even consultation with them is “abusive” at least to the extent of going beyond the proper authority of denominational structures or biblical “overseers”. Nevertheless there are many improper and potentially abusive structures in churches which are in fact used by God as means of grace, not because they are good structures but because God is able to bring good out of evil.

  15. Ben’s epilogue is here, and Frank’s coda is here. More interesting reading. The whole debate has indeed been a good example of (in Frank’s words in his closing section)

    how two Christians can have a vigorous, robust discussion on issues with which they strongly disagree and do it in a respectful, Christ-honoring way void of personal attacks and ad hominems.

    I now have my own copy of the book, and will read and comment on it when I have time.

  16. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Reimagining Church: Review, part 1

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