the weblog of Alan Knox

Reimagining Church

Posted by on Dec 2, 2008 in books, definition | 12 comments

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.


12 Comments

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  1. 12-2-2008

    Alan,
    I have not read the book. Yet, preliminarily speaking, upon the subject matter you referenced, I find there could be those who fall into both camps:

    “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.”

    I find that I might fall into both camps. Not because I canot make up my mind, but because I think the Church is always reforming and that we should always press on, yet, not to “reimagine”, reinvent, or redefine the people of God, but to refine the people of God.

    So, I am on middle ground here. If I must pick a camp, well, I will not go all the way with either. I guess I am not the majority, but the minority here.

    Anyway, I need to read the book before I can really make any definitive decision on the matter. My father-in-law peaked my interest in Viola when we dialogued concerning “Pagan Christianity”, now I think I will pick up a copy of this one myself, as it seems that a lot of folks are taken in by what Viola writes. I want to see for myself what the draw is.

  2. 12-2-2008

    Alan,
    I read a book once called “The Torch and the Testimony” by Kennedy. It espouses a view akin to “Landmarkism” for the brethren movement to a certain extent. It’s premise is that from the beginning, the church has gotten light in a certain area, life exploded, then it died and institutionalized. From the early church, to the reformers, to now. We camp out on a new revelation, become arrogant, then a few leave seeking life, and the process starts all over again. I’ve read Viola’s “Rethinking the Wineskins”, and most of his mentor Gene Edward’s books also. I keep thinking about one of your posts “the Church is missional” or something like that. When we worship “in Spirit and truth” we are outward, or missional, we “lose our lives to gain them”. It seems when the church dies is when it seeks to preserve itself, or maintain a safe place of abode. We are not called to worship anywhere, not in Jerusalem or on the mountain, but in the Spirit. We are the “mobile” church, if I may be heretical for a moment. I am not saying we should forsake assembly, but I think we should take our meeting places and methods a lot less seriously. Most leadership fails when the motive changes from leading people into maturity and autonomy, and morphs into driving people towards our version of the truth, or more nobly, our “vision for the church”. Leadership by suffocation.

  3. 12-2-2008

    Alan,

    “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 am with you on this. Our focus should be on how we meet, not where we meet. There are no doubt some very vibrant church bodies that meet in traditional churches and there are equally no doubt house churches that are rank heretics (I know of a few of those). Wherever we assemble, let us meet for the right reason and let those reasons be Scriptural lest we make idols of our meeting style.

    I plan to read Viola’s book in the very near future.

  4. 12-2-2008

    Alan,
    I am glad that you have been posting on this book. I have been wanting to get it myself. I to am in camp two. I also realize it is not the meeting place so much that matters, but what transpires when you meet. I am not for the way institutional church is operating. I have also wondered how leadership operates. That was a big concern when I left the institutional church. Now though as I have been meeting with two groups on different days I am seeing how that is transpiring. I meet with a house fellowship on Saturday nights and it is open and participatory. And yet there is no one person leading the whole meeting. Now on Sunday I am meeting with a group where I do local mission and it is more of a discipling meeting as the people there are new believers. So the leadership part of me has to exercise more authority all the while trying to train up new leaders. Because as Paul did he lead a group then left to start another outreach and that should be the goal of the church. Train up leaders to go out and be missional all the while having complete unity amongst all believers in a given group. I feel there is more freedom in a house church fellowship and it makes it easier to branch into new groups as the meeting grows. Then again I am more geared toward evangelism then teaching. Yet, right now I am doing both. Does Viola mention anything about evangelizing as part of the organic church? I hope we don’t forget the great commission while we reform.
    Steven

  5. 12-2-2008

    I want to say something about my comment: “I’m more geared toward evangelism than teaching.”
    I just want to clarify. That I am not a teacher. But more have more of an evangelistic heart. I just didn’t want to sound like I am against teaching. No, but as the Lord is using me right now I am doing the teaching until He raises someone within the new group of believers.
    Steven

  6. 12-2-2008

    Very good summary of an excellent book. I agree with your assertion that readers will fall in one of two camps. In our own attempt to address these issues with our fellow brethren in the established (IC) churches, we have found that established traditions carry more weight than Scripture itself. And tradtional interpretations of Scripture as currently practiced are embedded in stone.

    One of my dreams–and something I have talked with and written Viola about–is to get this work translated into Spanish. One of the barriers in our own work is simply that there are few voices speaking out on these issues. Therefore the predominant view remains intact on issues that need serious attention. Books like “Reimagining Church” would go a long way to open up the dialog that currently is non-existent in our context.

  7. 12-2-2008

    Paul,

    I’m glad to hear that you’ve going to be reading Reimagining Church. I look forward to reading your thought about it.

    I’m sure there will be some people, like you, who fall between the two camps that I mentioned. This is why I said “most” will fall into one of two camps. Actually, I think this book may be most helpful for people like you.

    Hal,

    Yes, I’m familiar with leadership by suffocation. I’m also finding that neither leaders nor other want to do away with “leadership by suffocation”. Its too comfortable and familiar.

    Arthur,

    Exactly! The focus should be on the purpose that we meet. Unfortunately, I think that most believers know they should meet, and assume that the act of meeting is enough.

    Steven,

    Since Viola focussed primarily on the meeting of the church and leadership for the church, he did not talk much about evangelism. (I don’t have the book with me right now to verify.) However, I think he would encourage you and other in evangelism.

    Guy,

    Most of the people around here have not given much thought to ecclesiology either – except what they’ve been taught. I hope you are able to get Reimagining Church translated into Spanish. Even more, I hope the Spirit helps people in Ecuador and the US look beyond their traditions to see what the Spirit is doing and wants to do.

    -Alan

  8. 12-2-2008

    Brother Alan,

    I am definitely a camp two person and will be purchasing this book ASAP! Thanks.

    Peace to you brother,
    From the Middle East

  9. 12-3-2008

    Great review. Thanks also Alan for checking out our blog. As for Viola’s work; F.F. Bruce wrote a chapter for a book called “In God’s Community”. In this chapter Bruce referenced a small paperback by G. H. Lang called “Departure”. Although Bruce did not agree with all of what Lang had to say, he did take away one thing which I think is relevant to your blog. This is Bruce writing:

    “What fascinated me chiefly
    was the use which he made of early church history. I realize now that he leaned too heavily on Edwin Hatch’s Bampton Lectures on The Organization of the Early Christian Churches (1880), with his theory that the bishop was in origin the principal financial officer. But one fact emerged quite unmistakably, above all others, from Mr Lang’s comparative study: when a modern movement starts out with the deliberate intention of reproducing the life and order of the apostolic age, it will before long reproduce the features of the post-apostolic age, such as standardization of worship, ministry and doctrine, formalizing of inter-church relations, and so forth.

    Bruce finished his chapter with this beginning paragraph; “The church is the dwelling-place of the Spirit, and ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (II Cor. 3:17). Structures of ministry, government and order are of value so long as they provide vehicles for the free moving of the Spirit; when they cease to do that, they should be replaced by more suitable ones.

    I find myself in Mr. Woods camp, not that I can’t make up my mind, but that I don’t see the need to burn the entire orchard because of few bad trees. Viola’s propaganda for home churches has yet to really sell me, (and footnoting your own work is one of my pet peaves which Viola does) although Viola does bring several issues to the forefront that should be addressed. Let us be clear though, a progressive movement should straighten what is already there, not abandon one for another.

  10. 12-3-2008

    From the Middle East,

    Thanks for the comment! I hope you enjoy the book.

    Rob,

    Welcome to my blog! I think that Viola would disagree that the problem with the orchard is “a few bad trees”. Which of the issues that Viola brings up do you think should be addressed, and which issues do you think can be ignored?

    -Alan

  11. 12-3-2008

    Organic: Great idea, yet without persecution, I don’t see it as a reality. Until the “fundamentalist” is fleeing for his life to the home of a “liberalist”, they probably won’t see each other as just a “brother”.

    Relational: “like birds flock together”…always have, always will.

    Scriptural: So we do have absolutes and some presence of form?

    Nonsectarian: So the kool-aid mix of just add Jesus?

    Corporate Religion? I have been to plenty of churches that I have never seen, felt or came off as selling me Jesus. Not that they are not out there.

    These are just some thoughts off the cuff…I am planning a new blog on the “apostolic age” which will cover a lot of this. I’ll let you know when its up.

  12. 12-3-2008

    Rob,

    Organic: I’ve seen it as a reality.

    Relational: God is relational and God’s Spirit draws his children into relationship with himself and other people.

    Scritpture: Yes, there are absolutes in practice and forms in Scripture.

    Nonsectarian: No kool-aid… just unity in Christ alone, nothing man-made.

    Corporate Religion: Not the same as “marketing Jesus”. Not the same as the church either.

    Just some of my off-the-cuff thoughts as well.

    -Alan