A few weeks ago Ben Witherington III (BW3) posted a multi-part review of Frank Viola’s book Reimagining Church, which was followed by a conversation between Viola and BW3 about the issues raised. I offered my own response to part 1 of BW3’s review, and later reported on the ongoing debate. I was also sent my own copy of the book. I have now read part 1 of the book, “Community and Gatherings”, representing almost exactly half of the book. Here I am offering a review of this part, or perhaps more precisely my general reflections on it. I intend to continue reading part 2, “Leadership and Accountability”, which promises to be more controversial, and I will share my thoughts on that here in due course.
I must say that I was a little disappointed by the first half of this book. The strength of BW3’s criticism had led me to expect something far more novel and controversial! What in fact I found, at least in part 1, is mostly material to which I reacted “Well, of course! Doesn’t everyone believe this?” It turns out that most of the issues on which BW3 disagrees with Viola, apart from the one of hierarchy which I will come back to in another post, are peripheral matters in Viola’s argument, or places where he has allowed himself to be carried away by hyperbole. Sure, there are places where Viola’s exegesis is not as strong as it might be, but, for example, he is following a common evangelical understanding in seeing the “Let us make …” in Genesis 1:26 as reflecting the Trinity.
Now I wonder if my reaction is so different from BW3’s because of differences between the British and North American church scenes. I have heard it said that the North American church is five years ahead of the British, in every trend whether good or bad. But on this matter I can’t help wondering if the British church is ahead, and by about 25 years. Viola is basically promoting the vision of a house church movement which he has been involved in for 20 years but is presenting as something novel to his primarily North American audience. Maybe this really is new to most North American Christians, or maybe they just have short memories. But my memories, based on over 30 years as an evangelical Christian, go back to a British house church movement which probably started in the 1960s and was certainly influential into the 70s and 80s. I was never personally involved in such a group, but had close contacts with some who were, and heard a lot of teaching from that direction, mostly in the early 80s.
Specifically here in Chelmsford but relating also to national trends, that was a time when many Christians who had been touched by the charismatic movement were re-examining what it meant to be church, and contrasting what they found with their experience in rather traditional churches. Many, some of whom were and still are my friends, left to set up and join what started out as house churches. These churches soon outgrew the homes they met in and started to meet in hired halls, but they kept many if not all of their house church distinctives as well as a generally charismatic approach. And in practice these are many of the same things which Viola is now teaching in America, 25 years later.
In other ways some of these house churches took a very different direction from what Viola teaches in terms of leadership and authority. To a greater or lesser extent they became involved in the shepherding movement, of which one of the leaders was Derek Prince but from which, as I mentioned in passing recently, he later dissociated himself. One of the groups I had close contacts with in fact put themselves under the leadership of the infamous Bishop Michael Reid, whose teaching on authority must be the complete antithesis of Viola’s. But I will come back to this issue. At least one other Chelmsford house church group from that time is still in existence, as Chelmsford Community Church which identifies itself as
born out of the house-church movement, around 30 years ago.
Personally, in the 1980s I didn’t join one of these house churches, but in 1985 I did move from a traditional evangelical Anglican church to my current church which although officially Anglican was, and still is now, very much focused on church as community rather than institution. I can’t claim that we put into practice every part of Viola’s teaching, but, except concerning leadership, we acknowledge the principles Viola teaches while making allowances for the more traditional preferences of some of our members, and for what we are required to be and do as Anglicans.
But perhaps I am wrong to claim that the house church movement is a British invention. I just retrieved from my bookshelves a book which I have kept since the early 1980s, although mostly unopened: The Community of the King by Howard A. Snyder, published in 1977 by IVP in the USA. This book is referred to and quoted by Frank Viola, and indeed much of what he writes, at least in part 1 of Reimagining Church, is very similar to what Snyder was teaching 30 years ago – although perhaps Snyder is more cautious than Viola in recognising that even new forms of church are still institutions with structures. That Viola is dependent on Snyder and others of his generation doesn’t make his teaching wrong, but it does explain why there is little in it which is new to me.
It is also worth noting that Snyder’s book, which includes explicit positive teaching about the gifts of the Spirit, would probably have been accepted in its day only by charismatics; whereas Viola deliberately avoids suggesting that charismatic manifestations are of the essence of his house churches.
So, to return to Viola’s book: he starts by asking his readers to reimagine the church as an organism rather than an organisation, as a community modelled on the Trinity as a community of three. While he rejects “Biblical Blueprintism”, he is strongly opposed to the religious tradition which has shaped so many of our churches. He recognises that the “DNA” of the church will produce different forms in different environments, but accuses traditional churches of violating this “DNA” by forcing the church into unnatural forms.
Viola continues by reimagining church meetings. Here I think BW3 is right to criticise his classification of four kinds of church meetings, at least if he intends rigid distinctions between them rather than different emphases. But he is right to insist that regular gatherings of the church should primarily be for “Mutual Edification”, allowing every member participation. He notes how the Reformation embraced the principle of the priesthood of all believers but did not allow this to be worked out in practice in the church.
Perhaps the most revolutionary part of Viola’s teaching is on the Lord’s Supper. He rejects the idea of distributing token pieces of bread and drink in favour of sharing full meals, “The Lord’s Banquet”. It would be very hard for traditional churches to fully embrace this teaching. But in practice churches like mine have regular potluck style meals very much like what Viola proposes, as well as celebrating the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist in a more traditional way.
The next sacred cow Viola tries to slay is that of the church building. He makes a good point that the early church generally met in homes, although BW3 is surely right to object that there were exceptions to this. And Viola makes a good case for why this is right and proper, including pointing out (p.89) the scandal that in the USA alone
Christians give between $9 and $11 billion a year on church buildings. How much freer would their hands be to support the poor and needy as well as to spread the gospel if they didn’t have to bear such a heavy burden?
It would cost $5 billion to save six million children’s lives. World leaders could find 140 times that amount for the banking system in a week. How can they now tell us that action for the poorest on the planet is too expensive?
But if the church just in the USA can find twice that $5 billion for its own buildings, shouldn’t the Archbishop also be calling for some of that money to be spent instead on saving children’s lives?
But a problem Viola doesn’t address in detail is the one which the 1980’s house churches here in Britain quickly faced: what happens when a congregation grows too large for a home? Perhaps this is not such a problem in Viola’s central Florida. But here in Chelmsford there are few homes which can comfortably house meetings of more than about 20 people; gardens are often no larger and the weather can never be relied on. Viola writes (p.85):
What did the church do when it grew too large to assemble in a single home? It certainly didn’t erect a building. It simply multiplied and met in several other homes, following the “house to house” principle (Acts 2:46; 20:20).
But if a group of about 20 divides, or multiplies, because it has filled a home, it becomes two groups of only ten, each not really large enough to be a viable independent church or provide a broad base of fellowship for its members. In fact they become the spiritual equivalent of nuclear families, rather than the extended family model which is more appropriate for the church. Also if each group needs several leaders, it can be very hard to find an adequate number of people who have the necessary gifts and maturity to lead even a very small church.
It is for reasons like that that many churches like mine have adopted a home group or “cell church” model, offering a combination of small group meetings in homes with larger central meetings. But of course the central meetings require a building, owned or hired by what is then necessarily some kind of officially organised church. Viola does allow for large group gatherings but apparently only on special occasions, not regular ones which might encourage ordinary Christians to find their sense of belonging in a larger group.
Viola is right to point out that the chief New Testament model for the church is the family. But it is not the modern American or British nuclear family. It is really not at all clear what kind of size of church Viola has in mind, although his final example implies an “organic church” of more than a dozen or so. He is indeed right that many people today are looking for the kind of close community offered by this family model of the church. But churches like mine work very hard on offering community like this without going all the way with the house church model. And the very visibility of a church building at the geographical heart of a community draws into the family people who might never be reached through home based fellowships.
On church unity, Viola makes some good points, and a historically debatable link between sectarianism and the clergy/laity divide. He is right to look for unity primarily not through doctrine but through “organism”. But he goes too far, in my opinion, in expecting Christians from very different traditions to join together in the same house church. Indeed in his example he notes that “the sparks began to fly” and there was a messy split before a new consensus emerged among the survivors. In practice, and especially if we are talking about quite small groups, house churches of the kind he recommends will work best if the members take rather similar positions on basic issues which divide evangelicals. Each house church should of course also accept the validity of other positions, and not allow any barriers to fellowship with groups taking different positions. It is somewhat ironic that Viola comes on strong about things that fragment the body of Christ but doesn’t recognise that for house churches the walls of a house necessarily do this. He rightly considers inadequate the kind of ecumenism in which only church leaders meet together. But his readers are left in the dark about what unity should mean in practice, in a city where there are more Christians than can fit into one home.
Viola sums up this part of the book by studying how church practice links with God’s eternal purpose. Although some of the details are exegetically debatable, he certainly makes a good point that the mission of God is far more than to save individuals, it is to build a new community.
I can see why Viola’s book annoyed a good scholar like BW3. If I look at it as an academic monograph I can find significant weaknesses. There is exegesis which is not fully justified in the text, and perhaps not all of it is justifiable. There are generalisations and flights of hyperbole which would not be expected from a careful scholar. Contrary opinions are dismissed without proper analysis. And there are conclusions reached without being fully explained.
But Viola does not intend his book to be an academic monograph. I’m sure he would have written very differently if he had intended it as such. It is written not for scholars, not even for theologically educated church leaders, but “To every Christian who has reimagined church”. It is written to make ordinary Christians think, to react, and to discuss the issues raised. Indeed each chapter closes with questions for reflection and discussion. A judicious use of provocative hyperbole helps to make a book fit for such purposes.
Well, I have written over 2,000 words on this already, nothing like BW3’s 26,000 in four parts but still quite a lot. So I will leave this review here for now, and read on into the more controversial part about leadership and accountability.
Updated 1st October to add some links, also to clarify what Viola had to say about multiplying groups and to add the sentence starting “Viola does allow for large group gatherings …”