Saturday, October 02, 2010

Reading Viola

I started reading Pagan Christianity a few days ago, and found I couldn't put it down. I temporarily set aside my other reading in order to focus on PC. It's a powerful and important book, in my opinion.

Viola makes two fundamental arguments here. First, that much of what we routinely assume to be part and parcel of doing church--a special building, a paid pastor, the worship set, the sermon, the collection of the tithe, the rather odd practice of "communion"--is really a borrowing from the surrounding culture and not intrinsic to the NT conception of "church" at all.

But Viola's second point is more important by far. Not only are so many of these taken-for-granted practices not intrinsic to the NT church, but they actually hinder spiritual maturity and the full flowering of what Luther called "the priesthood of all believers." Church, Viola argues, church as we know it, stands in the way of spiritual growth.

I'm not going to replay Viola's arguments in detail here, but all I can say is that my own experience has shown me that he's right. Since I drew back from institutional church life in the past year, I've struggled to find expressions of "body-life" outside the institutional setting. Fact is, I struggled to find it inside the institutional setting as well. I've said often enough that the life of the Christian, in company with brothers and sisters in shared-life relationships. This is the picture drawn by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together. Bonhoeffer was forced by the deadly circumstances of his times to seek an understanding of church--of the communion of saints--apart from the traditional practices of the "institutional church," which in his day was sold out to the Nazis. He went back to the New Testament, back to the 50 or so "one another" passages scattered like gems throughout those pages, and then he sought to put this into practice with a band of brothers. Life Together is his manual for that life.

As I read Pagan Christianity, I kept thinking of Bonhoeffer and Life Together. These two authors would no doubt disagree on some things, but heartily agree that on the mutuality and interdependency of the life under Christ's headship. Sunday morning church gatherings are to true community as Sunday morning "communion" is to a true meal. Ritualized, lip-serviced, tragically attenuated and manipulated.

I'm looking for something better than this. I'm looking for something organic. I'm not sure how to go about this, but I'm confident that it is God's plan for his people, and he will guide me into it.

By the way, I've now begun reading Viola's Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity. Here's a quote from chapter 1 (p. 48):
The church is organic. If her natural growth is not tampered with, she will grow up to be a beautiful girl--a living witness to the glories of her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. She will not grow up to be an organization like General Motors or Microsoft. She will be something wholly different--completely unique to the planet. Just as unique as Jesus Christ was when he walked the earth. For after all, the church is His very body, and its nature is identical to God's.
In my experience, church people get very antsy when the church is criticized. But it must happen. Life together in the body of Christ, under His headship, has got to be something more than audience-like attendance at the high-ceilinged hall across town. I'm determined to find out for sure.


Dave Taylor said...

I don't know you, so I want to be careful what I say and not jump to conclusions, but what I've read here makes me think we've been struggling with some of the same issues. Most of the past three years I have had to deal with frustration over church-as-usual-is-just-fine attitudes.

Here are a couple of things that have been helpful for me:

1. I haven't read this Viola book, but I have read articles and excerpts by him. As I continue to see things in the church that are wrong and gain insight into why, I've had to remember that "knowledge puffs up" (1 Cor. 8:1). Apart from the deep deep love of God for what sometimes feels like a pretty lukewarm church, learning more about its faults just evolves into a more refined legalism.

I'm not saying or implying that I detect that kind of attitude in you, just pointing out that it's a definite pitfall.

I agree that the church needs to be criticized, in lots of ways, but on the Lord's terms and timetable. Which leads me to

2. In the past three years, I have especially struggled with the example of Jonah, who was actually angry with the Lord because he was gracious and merciful. Actually, I have been Jonah, nursing grievances with people to whom I should have been showing more mercy.

This has been a tough one to embrace, because I can see so clearly that those people and (former) churches
are in the wrong on things that God seems to just let slide.

Of course, God doesn't let things slide, he deals with them. But the conflict arises when I lose patience with his long-suffering and overly generous administration of "the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience" (Rom. 2:4). In fact, even after 34 years in the faith (I'm 53) I'm seeing I'd just as soon see people punished (like Jonah) rather than repent (like God). Hence the anger.

Again, I'm not saying this is you. But I think you can agree by looking around the Christian blogosphere that there should be a separate category for what could be called Jonahblogs: people who think they have a right to be angry over what they see in the church, an anger that can become so volatile and eventually controlling that they care more for a measly vine than the multitudes in need of God. When you start seeing things that way, you know a course correction is overdue.

Bob said...

Dave, I can't tell you how much I appreciate this response. It sounds like we're kind of in the same place (I'm 54, so I've got you beat there!). Seriously, I think your warnings here are very appropriate. Thank you.

I don't think I'm particularly angry about all this, at least not any more. Like Elvis Costello, I used to be disgusted, but now I'm just amused!

The other thing . . . I'm aware that my inability to find real relationship--real oommunity--has as much to do with me as with anyone else. That's why I'm not really angry. I'm messed up too.

God's tolerance is our mercy. Me, I'm going to find an expression of body-life one of these days, and sometimes I may even go to church!

Anyway, when I get back from my trip I'll address some of this further. I take your warning about anger very seriously, and I appreciate the reminder.

Dave Taylor said...


I'm glad it helped. And I just want to reiterate that I'm not implying anything about you pesonally. Anger is not what I sensed from your post. But I know a lot of chronic church critics who eventually become that way.

I recall some of your comments about church because I first noticed your blog through the PneumaSphere site, btw.

Over the last 30+ years as a Christian I have landed on nearly every spot on the theological spectrum. So I'll be watching to see the way God leads you. I hope you post some of the insights along the way as well. I'm starving for positive examples when people find them.

I might describe it differently but, yes, I think we're looking for similar things. To use an outdated phrase, I just want to find people who will "get real."
What bothers me more than anything is people settling for so much less than kingdom relationships and reality.