I realize that many people have reviewed Frank Viola’s latest book, Reimagining Church. Unfortunately, because of school responsibilities, I had not been able to finish reading it until the Thanksgiving break. However, I have managed to stay away from other reviews. So, this post will be my own thoughts concerning this book.
(If you’re interested I wrote about one particular part of Reimagining Church in a post called “A Quote from Reimagining Church“. I also wrote about Viola’s previous book, Pagan Christianity, in two posts: “Living in the Necessary” and “Yet another review of Pagan Christianity“.)
Viola’s purpose in writing Reimagining Church was to legitimize from Scripture the beliefs and practices of simple, organic churches. In reality, he does not attempt to “reimagine” the church as much as he attempts to “rediscover” the church as found in the pages of the New Testament. In doing so, he also calls into questions many of the beliefs and practices of “institutional churches”.
The book is divided into two parts: “Community and Gathering” and “Leadership and Accountability”. Since my area of research is the gathering of the church, I was especially interested in the first part. However, as I’ve found in my own research and life, it is impossible to separate ideas about the gathering of the church from ideas about leadership.
In part one, “Community and Gathering”, Viola describes the organic nature of the church as found in Scripture. He sets the tone and direction on the first page of the section:
The New Testament uses many images to depict the church. Significantly, all of these images are living entities: a body, a bride, a family, one new man, a living temple made up of living stones, a vineyard, a field, an army, a city, etc. (32)
Given the organic nature of the church, Viola next suggests that this nature should carry over into the meeting of the church, which should also be organic in nature instead of being institutional in nature. He also says that while Scripture does not define the church but describes it in metaphors, the chief metaphor for the church in the New Testament is the family.
Perhaps the most important chapter in part one is chapter 7: “Church Practice and God’s Eternal Purpose”. He says, “The church, then, is not only called to proclaim the gospel, but to embody it by its communitarian life”. (147) Viola suggests that while the church today does many good things, it is missing its purpose and mission as the community of God.
In part two (the longer of the two sections), Viola discusses leadership, authority, and submission. He points out that Scripture describes leadership among the church as service, not decision-making. However, he also says that leaders are to provide oversight, which is “watching out for the spiritual well-being of the church”. But, when it comes to decision-making, decisions should be made by a consensus of the entire church, not by the leaders.
Viola uncovers the fact that the idea of “spiritual covering” is not found in Scripture, and he discusses at length the difference between official authorities (such as kings, magistrates, and judges) who have authority based on their position, and organic authority which is “communicated authority”, that is “when a person communicates God’s life through word or deed”. Organic authority is not based on position but on function and service.
Finally, Viola tackles the unscriptural disunity and division caused by denominationalism. He says that the church should return to the apostolic tradition:
The tradition of the apostles is not a codified set of prescribed rules that the apostles created… Technical correctness and outward conformity to a prescribed form of church order has never been God’s desire… What, then, is the apostolic tradition? First, it contains the stories and teachings of Jesus. These are contained in the Gospels. Second, it includes the commands and practices of the apostles that were passed on to all the churches. The apostolic tradition, therefore, represents the normative beliefs and practices of the church of Jesus Christ. Beliefs and practices that were prescribed for each and every church (1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:16; 14:33-38). (italics in original) (243-245)
I think that most people who read this book will fall into one of two camps. The first camp includes that who are comfortable with the methods, practices, and beliefs of the institutional church. For people who fall into this camp, Viola will not persuade many. Why? Because they will chalk up Viola’s book to misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the Scriptures. There are entire hermeneutical traditions used to prop up the institutional church, and these props will not fall easily. However, some in this camp will thank Viola for pointing out that the institutional church needs to be tweaked. This was not Viola’s goal.
The second camp includes those who recognize that the institutional church and its methods, beliefs, and practices stand on shaky – or sandy – ground. For these people, Viola’s book will help them understand that the church is more than buildings, hierarchies, and programs. It will also help them to recognize the validity of their own associations with other believers outside of the institutional church.
And for me? Well, I find myself in the second camp. I agreed with almost everything that Viola said. For other parts of the book – those parts that I did not agree with right away – it was primarily because Viola presented something that I had not thought about.
Chapter 7, “Church Practice and God’s Eternal Purpose”, is one of those parts. The more I think about this chapter, the more I agree with Viola. I’ve talked with him about this some, and I’m excited that his next book will unwrap some of the concepts that he introduced in this book.
One point of disagreement that I had as I read the book concerns meeting location. Viola discusses the evidence from Scripture that the church primarily met in homes. I agree with this. However, Viola says that meetings in other locations (i.e. the temple in Acts 2:26, synagogues in various places in Acts, or in the School of Tyrannus in Acts 19:9-10), these meetings were not normal church meetings, but special evangelistic meetings or apostolic meetings. However, when we search Scripture, these meetings are not called “evangelistic meetings” or “apostolic meetings”. In fact, Scripture does not distinguish between any different types of meetings. The church should act the same wherever it meets and for whatever reason it meets.
After reading this chapter, I talked with Viola. He agreed that the meeting place is not as important as the life of the church. If the meeting place hinders life, then the church should meet in a different place. If the meeting place does not allow the church to meet in an organic fashion, then the church should meet elsewhere. I agree with this completely.
I hope many people continue to read Reimagining Church – I would recommend highly! While I do not think it will convince those who are content with the institutional church, I still think it would be valuable for them to read it.
If you have read this book, please let me know what you thought about it. If you plan to read it, let me know, and let me know why you plan to read it. If you do not plan to read Reimagining Church, please tell me why you’ve chosen not to read it also.