Frank Viola's "Pagan Christianity"

This book's appeal, sadly, is that it panders incessantly to the need many people feel to blame someone else for their own deficits. Let's sum this up with a few questions, then proceed to a chapter by chapter critique.

Is Viola right, that many modern church practices are rooted in paganism? If by "paganism," you mean, "pagan religious practices," the answer is no. If by "pagan" you mean, "it's something pagans happened to do also" then that's closer to the mark.

Under that rubric, Viola may or may not be right on some things having an origin in paganism; it's not really worth while to check, for reasons detailed below. I am also far from disagreeing with some aspects of the book, such as on tithing not being biblical [172f], and the impracticality of many sermons delivered today [99]. (But the answer to the latter is to make the sermons more useful, not do away with sermons altogether; more on this in a moment.)

That said, I do know Viola is just plain wrong on several issues within my purview, and his skills at contextualization are dismal. In dissing the practice of a sermon, for example, Viola objects to the use of rhetoric, or persuasive speaking (he calls it a "polluted stream") -- utterly oblivious to the fact that Greco-Roman rhetorical techniques were a staple of Paul's letters (see Witherington's Paul Quest). Paul did object to how rhetoric was being used to hide the truth or to distract from it (that is at the heart of the first part of 1 Corinthians) but he did not hesitate to use stylized, structured, persuasive forms of speech and writing himself.

Viola also is oblivious to the process of ancient letter collection; his analogy for explaining how Paul's letters were arranged, in a way that supposedly distorts their message [223f], misses the point that Paul himself, or perhaps Luke or Timothy (not just "someone" [226]), would have been the ones who would have arranged the collection in the order we now find it.

His understanding of the Trinity is deficient and fails to differentiate between functional and ontological subordination -- not surprising, since he uses Kevin Giles as his source. Viola's serious lack in these areas does not give me a lot of confidence in his skills as a researcher.

Is it really that big a deal?

Not in the least. Viola's incessant "doomsday talk" about "dilut[ing] the authority of God's word" [xviii] with practices like sermons and orders of service is merely misplaced rhetoric. He portrays himself as an advocate of "natural and spontaneous expression" that allegedly comes from "the divine life that indwelt the early Christians" [xix]. Really? Mormons call that a "burning in the bosom," and it is epistemically a disaster area.

"Natural and spontaneous expression" looks far too much like a rationalization to turn a church meeting into a widespread counseling and storytelling session in which it is only imagined that Jesus is the "functional head" [83] because everyone leaves feeling better about themselves and life. Claiming to have "divine life" in you, and to be expressing it when you reel off some poem or testimony, is one thing; actually doing that for real is another.

Where Viola goes constantly wrong is in that he unwittingly panders to selfish individualism again and again and again. It is because he does not understand the collectivist psychology of the ancient world that he fails to grasp that "natural and spontaneous expression" in our own social setting will end up doing more harm than good. That insulated little house church may think it is doing fine because everyone within feels good inside -- it isn't doing fine, not on that basis. Viola is caught in the individualist trap of speaking of God as your best buddy (e.g., he speaks of "personal relationships" with God, and of God "waiting" for people, of "intimacy and open participation" and so on).

This is the real problem we have -- and it is why Viola's reputed solutions would only make things worse, not better, while making many people think things are getting better. The early church was collectivist; expression was NOT "natural" or "spontaneous" but was closely controlled by innate social structures having to do with the prevalent code of honor, which we lack.

Oddly enough, Viola does recognize individualism as a serious problem, and even properly disses the phrase "personal Savior" [191] as reflecting a "highly individualistic" viewpoint versus a more corporate understanding of Christianity. But he fails to realize that he's stuck in the same trap, because he doesn't understand the difference between the social world of the NT and ours.

Viola is often particularly disingenuous in his claims, inasmuch as he admits (though usually in the end matter of each chapter) that there is nothing inherently wrong, or unscriptural, in many of the practices he criticizes. Thus for example: "...the Protestant order of worship did not originate with the Lord Jesus, the apostles, or the New Testament scriptures. This in itself does not make the order of worship misguided. It just means it has no biblical basis." [74]

Well, then why not find a real problem to address instead of objecting to accessories? Blaming things like an order of service for "not lead[ing] to the spiritual growth God intended" is just a rationalization that abrogates the concept of responsibility. Viola knows this, as he even admits at more than one point that his system works fine, "if God's people are properly equipped..."

If they're properly equipped, then they'll do just fine using an order of worship, too.

What's the point? The point is that Viola wants us all to return to house churches, which as far as I am concerned is like offering a cancer patient a dose of Robitussin and claiming it'll cure what ails them. I do think that the current trend of a typical service in mornings, and home study groups in the evenings, is a good idea, and would better enable a process of giving us the double benefit of close fellowship and sound teaching.

Even so the problem remains within, not without. Painting house churchers as "daring souls" [xviii], and depicting Viola's exposition as a "terrifying journey" filled with "frightening questions" [5-6] is just arrogant, hyperbolic contrivance. So likewise is the constant painting of churchgoers as hapless victims who have been turned into "spectators" by the practice of things the sermon. Claims like, "The pulpit elevates the clergy to a position of prominence....separating and placing [the preacher] high above God's people," and arguing that a pew is a "symbol of lethargy and passivity" that has "made corporate worship into a spectator sport" [34] is simply rationalization for one's own lack of responsiobility: Maybe there can be some "face to face interaction" in Sunday School? Or maybe in fellowships at other times? No: It's easier to pin blame on some object or practice than to point the finger at ourselves for not resolving to meet with one another once the service is over.

The don't-blame-me rhetoric here is so bad that Viola reads psychological messages into the use of stairs and a narthex [39], says the pratice of the sermon "freezes and imprisons the functioning of the body of Christ" [97] and claims that chapter and verse divisions make Paul's letters "lose their personal touch" so that "they take on the texture of a manual." [225] (Strange how it hasn't done that to the works of Josephus or Tacitus, for example.) I have to ask: Is anyone in Viola's world ever responsible for their own actions, or are they all hapless victims of even the smallest mote of dust smashing into their foreheads?

My biggest issue with Viola comes when he dismisses conceptions of professional clergy and says that this "fosters the pacifying illusion that the Word of God is classified (and dangerous) material that only card-carrying experts can handle." [181] Apparently lessons ranging from Waco to Salt Lake City don't alert him to any problem.

But wait please: I agree that there should be no clergy-laity distinction; in that, Viola IS right, but for the wrong reasons. Everyone should be equally advanced in their knowledge -- but that's not happening as long as misplaced advocates like Viola keep aiming their guns in the wrong direction. Right now we're at a stage where there's so much to relearn and redo that having specialized teachers broker the process is the only way we won't get lost entirely. The fact that Viola CAN pose himself as a lone voice in the wilderness should tell him this, but it doesn't.

So what's wrong with a trained clergy? The red herring is offered that the issue is that such ministers alone can "preach, teach, baptize, or administer the Lord's Supper" due to formal training. But one of these things is not like the other. Given the state of the matter, teaching does require special training to be done properly. Viola's dismissal of Bible colleges and seminaries as "human innovations," in favor of "hands-on" training and "apprenticeship, rather than of intellectual learning" merely creates an artificial, pedantic dichotomy; his indication that training in the early church was "aimed primarily at the spirit, rather than at the frontal lobe" [200] is merely a contrivance. It is also oblivious to the point that we have lost a great deal that the first century church could take for granted. "Apprenticeship" doesn't make for anything good if the apprentice is being taught by someone themselves in need of education. If Viola thinks "spiritual revelation" is a path to knowing God, the Mormons have a few words for him. (Actually, this says it all: "The intellect is not the gateway for knowing the Lord deeply." [206] It's that anachronistic idea of "God is my buddy" again, which would never have been recognized in the NT world. It should also disturb Viola deeply that his "signs of a healthy organic church" [241] can just as well describe a Mormon stake.)

Ironically again, from the other side of his mouth Viola later argues (correctly) for contextual study, and says that without "background matters" in mind, "we simply cannot understand the Bible clearly or properly." [231] Unfortunately, he's not yet informed enough to know just how incomplete his education in this regard is. And so it is that he ends up refuting his own arguments by his own example.

The sad fact is that we need a trained clergy these days (though most, sadly, are not, in places they need to be); we need the structure of a church service, because of widespread ignorance and irresponsibilty that is the result of modern individualism and selfishness.

"[M]utual subjection to one another under the headship of Christ" won't combat heresy or cultism if no one in the house church knows the difference between the Arian heresy and Sabellianism. Nor does a trained clergy require a premise of division, as Viola claims; it is a part of the Body of Christ doing what it does best, and claims of "division" and of clergy making other Christians "second-class" are little more than the put-upon giving expression to an inferiority complex and a cult of the individual. "[S]pontaneity, creativity, and freshness" [78] in a church service is the demand of the self-centered modern who thinks church should entertain them. I am not in favor of boring services by any means, but Viola needs to be aware that boredom is a modern fancy; there is no word for "boredom" in ancient languages. (I would be VERY "bored" in one of Viola's "spontaneous" meetings, by the way.)

John Adams reputedly said, "Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other." In other words, the Constitution assumes a certain amount of responsibility by citizens. The ekklesia does likewise. Taken over by people who think that "boredom" is the enemy, or that a narthex renders us helpless automatons, it becomes a "wholly inadequate" institution.

Now here are some more depth comments on the book.

Preface

Viola becomes almost hysterical in his condemnations: "...contemporary Christianity is guilty of the error of the Pharisees" because it has "added a raft of humanly devised traditions that have suppressed the living, breathing, functioning headship of Jesus Christ in His church." Those who oppose this are "daring souls who have taken the terrifying step of leaving the safe camp of institutional Christianity.": It is "harmful to dilute the authority of God's Word either by addition or subtraction."

This is just more of the same errors Viola makes throughout: Blaming the "institutions" instead of the people; failing to credential this alleged "functioning headship" of Christ (Mormons and others say they have it too). Viola's portrayal of himself and his ideological cohorts as some sort of heroes is far overplayed. Real heroes are being killed in places like the Sudan for their faith. For Viola to describe himself and others as "daring" just because, e.g., they got bored with church and left,is offensive.

ther on Viola speaks of the first century church as an "organic entity" where there was "natural and spontaneous expression." I have already noted the error in the latter and it applies to the former as well. The first century church was made up of collectivist persons; that is where their "organic entity"-ness came from. House church for Viola's purpose is idividuals trying to satisfy THEMSELVES.

anic unity can be achieved anywhere by people willing to give up themselves as a priority. A house church may seem to succeed in this regard (as may a Sunday School class or church sub-group) because you're gathering together a group of people who disagree on the same issues; and so the illusion of being an "organic entity" can be perpetrated. Viola will have to do a lot more to validate his claims that many practices are "contrary to" Biblical teachings (as opposed to being "non-Biblical").

Introduction

The co-writer Barna immediately starts with anachroniostic "relationship with the Lord" commentary. People are "tired of the institutions, denominations, and routines getting in the way of a resonant connection with [God]." "God is waiting for them," he also says.

"Institutions" is too vague to comment on. "Denominations" come of individualism. "Routines" are objected to due to boredom, which is an anachronism. "Resonant connection" and "God is waiting" is nothing but the "Jesus is my buddy" teaching in a milder form, and is also an anachronism. Barna obviously knows does not know about ancient personality or patronage.

I sense a persecution complex when Barna says people cry out "heretic" when suggestions are made to change practices. There is a telling admission that "just because a practice is picked up from culture does not make it wrong in and of itself, though we must be discerning." Of course we must, but it is not "discerning" to shift blame to objects when people are responsible. A few good words of caution too.

Chapter 1

The first part of this is a fictional account of a man named Winchester who is bored with church; it is an expression of Viola's "blame the object, not the person" argumentation. Winchester says church "bores me to tears." A trip on over to Sudan would resolve that boredom, and he wouldn't have to dress up either. Winchester objects to wearing a tie -- over in places like the Sudan, they have some much more uncomfortable neckwear for Christians.

Viola says that reading his book will set you on a "terrifying journey," "where you will be forced to ask questions that probably have never entered your conscious thoughts." "Tough questions, Nagging questions. Even frightening questions."

Really? To whom?

"Warning: If you are unwilling to have your Christianity seriously examined, do not read beyond this page. Give this book to Goodwill immediately! Spare yourself the trouble of having your Christian life turned upside down." "you will find this work to be disturbing, enlightening, and possibly life changing." "...what you are about to read may lead to a crisis of conscience."

I can only say in response to all of this: Viola needs to get over himself. His revelations do not warrant this sort of promotional commentary.

In the end notes, Viola says the Winchester story was just a "humorous way to illustrate" how so many Christians go through the motions on Sunday morning without knowing why. So what stops them from "going through the motions" when they go to the house church Viola recommends instead?

Chapter 2

This one is on the "church building". Viola makes much over how people have used "church" to describe a building rather than the people in it. Yes, this is a common error; it also happens when people refer to a "synagogue" in the NT. But this is pedantic. What's missing here is the collectivist understanding and what is hurting us is selfish individualism.

Regarding the Temple, priests, and sacrifices, Viola claims that Christ did away with these things. This is true, but has no bearing on the institution of buildings, officials, and ceremonies in the church. Viola has illicitly broadened the specific categories of "temple, priests, and sacrifices" into all buildings, all officials, all ceremonies.

He also makes much over people regarding a church building as a "sacred space." I understand how ritual purity works (http://www.tektonics.org/af/cleanman.html). How modern Americans regard church is nowhere near this. What we have is closer to this: Entering a church reminds people of their obligations to God, so they act differently. In this the real problem is again individualism gone wild, which supports a view that allows compartmentalization of belief from action.

Viola says he's not promoting for house churches, but right here he starts doing so. He quotes and notes favorably points that the early church met in homes, IN CONTRAST TO meeting in a special building. He may say, "But I didn't say that you should go to a house church." He doesn't have to. The juxtaposition of "meeting in a house" favorably verses the negative connotation he assigns to meeting in a special building says all that is necessary. If he denies arguining for house church, he's trying to have his cake and eat it too.

From here he repeatedly criticizes the concept of a "sacred building." Well, if we don't have that, where do we meet? The only option he ever mentions is a home. He's arguing for house church. If he wasn't, we'd have other options discussed too, such as outdoors or in a rented movie theater. And he never suggests simply correcting any people's false ideas aboput a church buinding being sacred space. Why not?

Of course, nothing stops people from turning their house into "sacred space" for short periods, or even an outdoor spot. So this is once again shifting blame rather than recognizing the real problem within.

He says also that the early church did not have a "special priestly caste that was set apart to serve God." This is a red herring; though it may reflect how some INDIVIDUALS have overtaken a specific fellowship. As noted, the reality is that we need specially trained individuals to handle specific functions in a fellowship -- this does not make them a "special priestly caste" save by the objections of those who feel put upon because they're not given leave to teach because they are not competent teachers.

He positively notes how people remodelled their homes to accommodate larger fellowships. He even disdains those who point out that one house was remodeled so extensively that they call it a church building. No, he insists; it was just a home that had been refurbished for larger assemblies. He dismisses an argument that Christians did not have special buildings because they were too poor to own property. He sidesteps this by pointing to how Christian "property" was seized. But it's more complex than that. There's also the question of whether Christians woukld be permitted (as a deviant group) to build a spoecial building.

Viola blames Constantine for starting church buildings. He lists several accusations against Constantine, and some are addressed in the Christian Crimeline feature here. Viola only tells part of the story on these points.

He also calls Constantine an "egomaniac" which is an anachronistic assessment to apply to an ancient personality. If he really did have his tomb set among monuments to the Apsotles, he did so not because he was an "egomaniac" but because he saw it as his responsibility to the corporate whole to be so recognized.

Finally, he objects that Constantine did not close pagan temples or destroy them. This would not have been a live option: Christians were badly outnumbered; to have simply closed or destroyed pagan temples would have been an invitation to have Christians slaughtered wholesale.

Further on, objection is made about how formalizing of services led to "loss of intimacy and open participation." As noted, this is Viola anachronistically reading individualist priorities into ancient pracitce. There was no concept of "intimacy" and no "open" participation; strict social controls governed participation.

There's a lot of commentary about how architectual features are an issue; e.g.:

"So with its use of light, color, and excessive height, the Gothic cathedral fostered a sense of mystery, transcendance, and awe. All of these features were borrowed from Plato and passed off as Christian." Gothic architecture sends a message that God is "transcendant and unreachable."

So once again, we're helpless victims of the buillding we're in? By the way, Do you think there might have been a sense of "mystery, transcendance, and awe" at Mt. Sinai, for example?

After this, every aspect of church architecture is brought in for criticism. For example, the steeple "contradicts the message of the New Testament. Christians do not have to reach into the heavens to find God. He is here!" This is comparable in creativity to the claim of some atheists that the steeple is a phallic symbol. No doubt there is SOME connection that can be made to heaven, but it hardly need be that "we're reaching for God".

No need to discuss further the specifics applied to the pulpit and the pew and the choir' it's all "blame the environment." He argues for house church again: "...the church building is far less warm, personal, and friendly than someone's home -- the organic meeting place of the early Christians." Then he goes on to object to the cost of maintaining a building, and compares it to "the overhead of a house church." Yes, too much is often spent on facilities, for unnecessary stuff; but facilities are often required for ministry. A house church can't run a food bank out of a house, for example. It would at least have to rent someplace or somehow get a place. You also can't run something like a pregnancy crsis center from a home.

More of this which speaks for itself:

"We have become victims of our past....We have been blinded by the Romans and Greeks who forced upon us their hierarchically structured basilicas...We have been hijacked by the Egyptians and Babylonians who gave us our sacred steeples. And we have been swindled by the Athenians who imposed on us their Doric columns."

Little needs to be said as these is merely rhetoric that pretends we are helpless victims. It is very shallow to say, further, "If every Christian on the planet would never call a building a church again, this alone would create a revolution in our faith." Hardly so. It is merely a symptom of a way of thinking.

In an answer to an objection to how the NT church used facilities, mention of Paul's use of the lecture hall of Tyrannus seems notably absent. He also once again argues for house church explaining specifically how a house church reacts when it grows too large to fit into a person's home. Why is he explaining this if he isn't offering house churches as THE solution?

Chapter 3

Here Viola takes on the use of an "order of service." He thinks that the early church meetings were "marked by every-member functioning, spontaniety, freedom, vibracy, and open participation" and was a "fluid gathering" which was "often unpredictable." How he gets all of that out of 1 Cor. 14 and Heb. 10:25 is a mystery, but as noted, it misses the point re the strict social controls that existed in an agonistic setting.

Not much else needs to be said on this. He traces the origins of the order of service in most of the chapter; some of what he says about the nature of modern revivals mirrors what I have said before. He eventually admits that the order of worship is not "misguided" but says it has "no biblical basis."

He notes that chairs and pile carepts were invented by pagans and have no biblical support, but asks whimsically, who would claim that these were wrong? It's not hard to say he would, if for some reason he didn't like them.

He'd contrive an objection, just like he has with everything else, including the order of worship, which he says "does not lead to the spiritual growth God intended." That's right, once again, we're not at fault if we don't grow spiritually; it's that order of worship that does it to us: "You are forced to be a muted, staid pewholder! You are prevented from being enriched by the other members of the body as well as being able to enrich them yourself."

So, once the service ends, you have no contact with any of them whatsoever? Each of you disappears down a black hole? It's the order of service that makes that hole, too; it says, "Black Hole Opens" right after it says, "Organ Postlude"?

We are told, the order of worship "strangles the headship of Jesus Christ." Doesn't that again beg the question that his "spontaenous" meetings really have Jesus at their head, and that Jesus can't operate via an ordered system? Is Jesus that lacking in power and influence?

For many Christians, "the Sunday morning service is shamefully boring. It is without variety or spontaneity." That's a modern problem again. The real "shame" is that Viola is making so much about this while Christians are being enslaved and persecuted around the world.

Viola goes on to describe in loving detail how wonderful it was to meet in a house church instead where they had "incredible variety" with "spontaniety, creativity, and freshness" and where one by one, everyone "stood up to tell us what they had experienced in their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that week. Exhortations, teaching, encouragements, poems, songs, and testimonies all followed one right after the other."

In reality, this describes a self-centered attention-grabbing meeting. Viola says it "was so rich, so glorious, and so edifying that it became evident to everyone that someone was indeed leading the meeting."

So how good it makes you feel is the barometer of whether Jesus is in charge?

A final threat is made: We need to get rid of order of worship, because otherwise, we are rejecting the commandments of God to keep our traditions. So do we go to hell if we keep an order of worship? In the Viola admits that an "organic church" can become a free for all, but won't if everyone is "properly equipped." So they can't be properly equipped anywhere else?

To the objection that someone may think their church does have Jesus as head in services, Viola creates these tests: "...suppose the Lord Jesus Christ puts something on our hearts to share with the rest of His body. Would we have the freedom to do so spontaneously?...If not, then we would question whether your church service is under Christ's headship."

So in short, Viola's measure for whether Jesus is in charge is whether he's allowed to interrupt proceedings any time he thinks Jesus is talking to him? Doesn't this beg the question of whether Viola is imagining such communications?

Chapter 4

This is the chapter on the sermon. Viola tries to explain why NT figures did not preach "sermons".

"Active participation and interruptions by the audience were common." Indeed? I remember where that guy interrupted the Sermon on the Mount and Paul's talk to the Areopagus, don't you? Actually, people were supposed to learn in silence -- interruptions were only made as honor challenges. This is simply false. Viola is mistaking an oral storytelling time (as might have been done during a reading of the Gospels) with a didactic teaching session.

Prophets and priests spoke extemporaneously and out of a present burden, rather than from a set script." I know that some sermons are scripted, but many aren't, and many do have to do with a current burden or problem. And I don't know what "extemporaneously" has to do with anything.

Jesus likely taught the same things repeatedly (scripted) and most likely the evangelists had set presentations too. Viola claims that Jesus did "not preach a regular sermon to the same audience." Well, no, that was because he was itinerant. So if we are rotating preachers among churches, are we all right?

"There is no indication that OT prophets or priests gave regular speeches to God's people."

They didn't have a weekly commemoration of the resurrection either. The point, therefore, is what? Viola then re-repeats the above, saying OT teaching was "sporadic, fluid, and open for participation." He also points out that Jesus' teaching took many forms. Criteria like these are merely artificial, like, "Jesus wore sandals while preaching." They do not negate the general practice of a sermon.

A long section is then spent on dissing the art of rhetoric, and is surely Viola's most erroenous section as he (as noted) is unaware that Paul made use of rhetorical practices.

More "blame the victim" argumentation follows: The sermon "freezes and imprisons the functioning of the body of Christ," etc. And it also "creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy." Viola also values his right to interrupt: "How can the church learn from the pastor when its members cannot ask him questions during his oration? How can the brothers and sisters learn from one another if they are prevented from speaking in the meetings?"

Is there anything wrong with being more civil and asking questions AFTER the sermon?

Some warranted objections are made about how useless many sermons are. True, I have said as much myself, but the answer is not to get rid of sermons but to improve their content. There is also more anachronistic "Jesus is my buddy" commentary: "We are transformed by regular encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ." The Mormons say they are too. Yes, we do need more "mutual exhortations and mutual ministry" -- and that's not mutually exclusive to a sermon.

Chapter 5

This one is on the pastor, and probably hits closest to the mark of all the chapters, which doesn't say much. Far too many pastors are either insufficiently educated, or take on too much work they should spread around, or both. But once again, Viola wants to jettison the whole. There's again victim rhetoric: the chapter is titled, "The Pastor: Obstacle to Every Member Functioning." And: "Remove the pastor, and most Protestant churches would be thrown into a panic. Remove the pastor, and Protestantism as we know it would die." Really? How many people have had a church without a pastor that went into a panic? My old one would have, if any would have -- and they didn't.

The people did not want to ascend Sinai because they "feared a personal relationship with the Almighty". No, the people feared God's power: "And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die." Reading a "personal relationship" into that is imaginative.

Viola offers a history of church hierarchies, which may be true and still not help his case. Then back to doomsday rhetoric: "The unscriptural clergy/laity distinction has done untold harm to the body of Christ. It has divided the believing community into first- and second-class Christians." It makes you a "mute spectator."

It never occurs to Viola that he's the one with the problem. Instead of bringing the pastor down, why not raise the people up? Viola admits that we call lawyers and doctors because they are experts, but says it is unfortunate that we see the pastor the same way. For once he is right, but for the wrong reason: It is unfortunate because many are NOT the experts they should be. Frank's "every believer is a priest" retort would just make matters worse in the state the average churchgoer is today.

Chapter 6

Viola here argues against the custom of dressing well for church. Now I hate neckties as much as the next guy, but it isn't a "burning issue" and Viola admits this, but for some reason Viola doesn't mind openly contradicting himself and spends a whole chapter on it anyway.

Victim rhetoric again: "A specially attirec clergy is an affront to the spiritual principles that govern the house of God. It strikes at the heart of the church by separating God's people into two classes: 'professional' and 'nonprofessional.' " At least Viola admits in the endnotes that if you can dress well with pure motives, you ought to do so. Which is no different than what would be said of it by any sensible Christian as is.

Chapter 7

This chapter is on the origins of choirs, and as much as I dislike music, I still find little rational in Viola's objections. Viola objects to a choir because he thinks everybody should be allowed to sing, not just a special group. He even wants everyone to be able to write their own songs and bring them in. He also talks about how in his favorite meetings people just sing and sing and sing and it's wonderful.

The metaphor of the Body suggests that we all do what we do best. Even though I dislike singing and music, that means without question that we should reserve music and singing mainly for those who have gifts in that area. Viola prefers the idea of a anarchist democracy, and so insults those whom God has specially gifted and who have WORKED to cultivate that gift.

Viola is aware of this, but to justify anarchisty his democracy, he appeals to 1 Cor. 14:26:

"What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church."

Viola thinks that this means that EVERY person was offering a hymn. It eludes him that this is rhetorical in nature. Lists like these were normal features of rhetorical discourse and were not intended literally. Besides, at this stage the church was not large and diversified enough to always have people with special gifts or talents, and musical ability would be exceptionally rare.

Reading it literally like Viola does doesn't work either on a practical level. Look at the next verses:

27If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.

If we read that verse so that everyone sings, then that means "everyone" has a tongue, and can ALSO interpret. So why do they need SOMEONE ELSE to interpret? Why isn't objecting to Paul "disallowing" other people interpreting ("if there is no interpreter") or people doing their own interpreting? Obviously, this is much better understood within the understanding of people with specific gifts doing what they do best.

The next chapter is in tithing, which I happen to agree is not Biblical. So next up will be Chapter 9.

Chapter 9

This chapter's on the sacraments, and there's not as much to take issue with here; though there's the irony of Viola objecting to the use of the phrase "personal Savior" as reinforcing a "highly individualistic Christianity" -- which is what Viola himself teaches. I don't doubt that the sacarments have become a shadow of what they once were. The Lord's Supper was undoubtedly a real meal, not just juice and crackers; we'd do well to have small group settings with real sacraments.

Chapter 10

The title of the chapter speaks for itself -- "Christian Education: Swelling the Cranium." I've already noted the red herring of connecting education to performance of sacraments, and referenced his claims re apprenticeship. Viola's on about how a high-powered intellect does not "automatically produce spiritual men and women who know Jesus" but is oblivious to the fact that there are plenty of "spiritual men and women who know Jesus" in the cults (so they say). Heart without head = dead.

Viola says God is "known by revelation (spiritual insight) to one's human spirit." He references John 4:23-24 and 1 Cor. 2:9-16 as prooftexts (what was that about prooftexting he said?):

John 4:23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for >they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.":

First of all, "revelation" is not "spiritual insight" -- it is the revealing of knowledge (fact). Also, what's Viola's version of anthropology here? How does he relate spirit and mind?

John 4:23-4 does not say anything about revelation, whether to the mind or the "spirit." It speaks of service and worship, and "spirit" here in the first and third instance does not refer to the inhabiting incorporeal part of us, but to "spirit" in the sense of an influence.

Now the other:

However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"[a]— 10but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.

Nothing here of the human spirit as the receiver of revelation.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.

Ditto. All we have here is the Holy Spirit as transmitter, not our spirit as receiver.

14The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: 16"For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?"[c] But we have the mind of Christ.

Again, nothing of the sort. Viola's exegesis is obviously contrived.

Sunday School is declared ineffective; I can hardly disagree, but once again, Viola's no-baby-or-bathwater answer is unnecessary. How about improving things instead?

More is said about creating another class of Christian with education. I wish we were ALL as highly educated; but I don't see that happening. Much is made of how seminary graduatess have no real-life experience to handle a church. Who's saying they do? As I have said, we need to have more people taking part in the administration process. But that doesn't mean we need everyone taking part.

In close, a telling point. Viola wishes to emphasize that many great Bible expositors were not trained in seminary -- one of the names he gives is Watchman Nee, whose writings warrant caution; see here. Viola also notes people like A. W. Pink and A. W. Tozer and C. H. Spurgeon who never had serious training -- but these are exactly the sort of people who have also made serious mistakes incontextual exegesis that have turned Western Christianity into the mess it is today.

All of this is even more ironic in that Viola's next chapter encourages readers to read the NT in context -- which requires a serious education.

Chapter 11

Viola here encourages people to do contextual study of the NT, which is fine, but his failure to do it sufficiently himself turns him into a hypocrite, especially since he dismissed education in the proior chapter. This is ironic also: "Seminarians and Bible college students alike are rarely if ever given a panoramic view of the free-flowing story of the early church with the New Testament books arranged in chronological order. " I doubt that, based on the seminarians I have spoken to.

At the end he denies that "organic church" is synonymous with "house church" and admits that some house churches don't use the approach he wants used. Well, then, all the commentary about buildings and pews is misdirected. The real problem is in our mirror, not the mirror itself. Viola also defines organic church life in these terms: "In its purest form, it is the fellowship of the triune God brought to earth and experienced by human beings." So: It's defined in terms of subjective experience and how good you feel, yet again. The Mormons can claim to have his "signs of a healthy organic church" too.

Chapter 12

This one seems almost out of place. It's about Jesus as a revolutionary, one who "didn't bow to the pressures of religious conformity." Presumably Viola wants us to believe that since he is a rebel against the institutional church, he's imitating Jesus. But anyway, the chapter otherwise sums up the conclusions of the prior chapters. This sum up is ironic, with regard to untrained people in Viola's "organic" churches teaching heresy:

"Like Paul, we should trust God's people enough that if someone does share something amiss in a meeting, the church will take this as an opportunity to highlight and magnify the truth."

That sure happened in Waco, didn't it? Viola lets the cat out of the bag when he adds, "The amazing thing is that when God's people are properly equipped, they do just that." So once again, a qualifier hidden in the end matter of the chapter gives lie to his entire premise.

Afterword, Final Thoughts

Nothing new here. I close with a note of an anecdotal experience he uses in which an unbeliever was brought to a meeting in a house church and was so overcome by all the sharing, etc that he fell to his knees right there and said, "I want to be saved! I have seen God here!"

So it is that we have another mile-wide, inch-deep convert. Send Richard Dawkins in there and see what happens.

-JPH