I was given the task of reading and reviewing this book as part of a project at my church. Frank Viola is aggressive in defending his perspective; if you want his view you can easily find one or more of his blogs. With that short introduction, here’s my lengthy review.
By Frank Viola and George Barna
Reviewed by Stuart L. Brogden
The thesis statement of this book is found in the Preface, written by Viola, on page xix: “we intend to show how that organism (the first century church) was devoid of so many things we embrace today” and on page xx: “We are seeking to remove a great deal of debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ to be the fully functioning head of His church.”
In the Preface, he repeatedly refers to “the contemporary church” as their foil – no doubt most reformed Christians would also take issue with many things done in that name. Reinforcing what I infer as a mystical view of God and Truth revealed in the thesis, Viola tells us, “the New Testament vision of church best represents the dream of God.” and “The normative practices of the first-century church were the natural and spontaneous expression of the divine life that indwelt the early Christians.” (page xix) Their mystical view of the body of Christ is fully spelled out later in the book. Also on page xix, the author’s beloved “organic church” is described thusly: “An organic church is simply a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic churches are characterized by Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership.” We will see that “Spirit-led” means “everyone doing what seems right in their own eyes”. In the delving Deeper section on page xxxi we are told that their “goal is not to develop a full description of the organic church but only touch on it when necessary.” See – we get explicit wrong-doings by the contemporary and institutional church but only vague and partial descriptions of the proposed answer to those evils.
Viola shows his misunderstanding of the work of the Holy Spirit of God, ascribing (page xix) His actions as “the natural and spontaneous expression of the divine life that indwelt the early Christians”. The Bible is clear that God is a God of order, not chaos; He is not a natural expression of what is in man (Psalms 50:21). He is not “spontaneous” – acting on whimsy; He has planned and has ordered all things to the fulfillment of His plans (Psalms 135:6 and Ephesians 1:11).
In Barna’s Introduction, we discover the authors see themselves – and the Lord Jesus – as Revolutionaries, working to correct the centuries-long trial of errors foisted upon us by religious men. He rightly identifies legitimate problems in many churches (mega-churches, satellite campuses, affinity and age segregated groups, etc.) on page xxvii – and then reveals that this book is our trustworthy guide to find out God’s will for the church. He concludes by telling us that he wants the reader “to think carefully and biblically about how you practice your faith with other Christians.” Barna concludes with, “We pray that this book will help you to do your part in straightening out the crooked path of the contemporary church.” We shall see.
The “Jesus” of the OC is manifested by “open sharing” in all church meetings – this is the normative method that “is completely scriptural”, especially if the only scripture one reads is 1 Corinthians 14:26 – 29. They have an unbiblical view of Jesus Christ and an unbiblical view of the church – which they consider (page xxviii) to be “Himself in a different form. This is the meaning of the phrase “the body of Christ”.” Deep in the appendix, on page 268, we read, “When each member of His body shares his or her portion of Christ, then Christ is assembled.”
Wayne Grudem sheds a better light on this concept on page 858 of his Systematic Theology: “In 1 Corinthians 12 the whole body is taken as a metaphor for the church, because Paul speaks of the “ear” and the “eye” and the “sense of smell” (1 Cor 12:16 – 17). In this metaphor, Christ is not viewed as the head joined to the body, because the individual members are themselves the individual parts of the head. Christ is in the metaphor the Lord who is “outside” of that body that represents the church and is the one whom the church serves and worships.” There are, as Grudem goes to point out, different uses of the word “body” as a metaphor for the church – the context in which each metaphor is used reveals its meaning. Barna and Viola appear to hold to the Roman Catholic view of the church as the “continuing incarnation” of Christ rather than properly viewing Christ as reigning in heaven in addition to dwelling among us. As for the biblical view of the church, one cannot comprehend that unless one studies the Pastoral Epistles – and there’s no indication the authors have even read them.
Consistently in this book, the method of “proving” their case builds on setting up a straw man they call the “institutional church” (IC) – a seemingly equivalent term for the “contemporary church” – and presenting an ill-defined “organic church” (OC) as the only Christ-honoring alternative. This IC straw man is constructed from mostly undocumented sources of history, which reflect the main line record of the Roman Catholic Church. There is no evidence that the remnant of God which did not follow Rome (as in Andrew Miller’s Church History) was ever considered by the authors – for therein one would find local churches without many of the errors that have crept into most churches since ~ 400AD. Too many reformed churches have forgotten “Semper Reformda!”, stagnating in partial reform that still has a lot in common with Rome. These present day vestiges of Rome ought to be critiqued and Protestants should repent and reform to the Biblical model. Some of this book’s critique rightly applies to some churches, but does not warrant the radical, semi-biblical approach advocated.
Chapter 1 – Have We Really Been Doing It by the Book? In their scenario about Winchester Spudchecker, they pose several questions that one might have in any given church, such as “Where in the Bible are we told to dress up for church?” There is a paragraph of similar questions on page 3, followed by the statement, “Interestingly, the question Winchester had that day are questions that never enter the conscious thinking of most Christians.” No reference to the research that must have taken place in order for this statement to be credibly made; no indication that this is anything more than an anecdotal observation. This is quickly followed up with another similarly broad statement on page 4: “almost everything that is done in our contemporary churches has no basis in the Bible.” The balance of the book tried to prove this point. On page 6, the sloppy use of history is displayed – as they try to demonstrate that it must be only the pagan culture we learned our religion from, they forgot that many Jewish Christians were dispersed all through the then known world – providing much biblical commentary about the problems their Jewish customs caused in the early churches. These Jewish Christians had a significant impact on life in the early church. Nobody reading any version of ancient church history would come away thinking all was well and there was no worldly influence therein. Such wasn’t the case while the New Testament was being written.
Chapter 2 – The Church Building. Here we see one characteristic of this book that makes it impossible to merely it write it off as worthless. Again, using the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) as their foil, the authors point out legitimate concerns about idolatry as it relates to the design, construction, and use of buildings. Constantine is hailed as the father of the church building with this summary: “Truly, a pagan magical mind was at work in Emperor Constantine – the father of the church building.” (page 21). Throughout this chapter, the influence of the RCC and its syncretistic mixture of spiritual and temporal is documented in many features common to modern church buildings. Christians ought to examine why we want architectural features in our churches – with an eye towards truly honoring the Lord.
Yet in their zeal to condemn everything in the IC, Viola and Barna are prone to over-reach and make unsupported assertions, such as their contention that sermons were not preached until the IC had its “bishop’s chair” and formal altars. Guess all those sermons recorded in the New Testament were “spontaneous expressions of the divine life”.
When they get down to the placement of furniture, we find interesting assumptions: it’s pagan unless the chairs can be moved around on the spur of the moment (page 38). The authors apparently believe the modern living room is the spiritual and physical equivalent to the ancient home and, therefore, the best – dare we say sacred – place to help “us understand the tremendous power of our social environment.” On page 40 we are told that one’s home is “the organic meeting place” while a church building “creates a sit-and-soak form of worship … emphasizes fellowship between God and His people via the pastor!” While Roman Catholics may be deceived into thinking their priests stand between them God, I know none among evangelical protestants who think their pastors do so. We do tend to comprehend what the Bible says about order and worship and teaching – something that seems to be missing from the authors’ organic church.
We then see a false comparison between the bad IC and good OC on the cost of buildings. It’s clear that ICs spend money on church buildings – and early Christians didn’t. So it’s bad to pay money for a building – as if the home providing comfort and shelter for the 30 or organic Christians costs nothing. In the IC, the many contribute for the common use building. In the OC, apparently only the homeowner pays. When it’s all said and done, “The building is an architectural denial of the priesthood of all believers.” And “If every Christian on the planet would never call a building a church again, this alone would create a revolution in our faith.” Wow. In all their haranguing people over the use of church buildings, they give no thought to the fact that every home has some of the same issues – a fixed location with operating expenses.
Chapter 3 – The Order of Worship. Early on in this chapter, page 50, we read, “The meetings of the early church were marked by every-member functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy, and open participation. … it was often unpredictable.” They offer up as examples 1 Cor 14 1 – 33 and Hebrews 10:25. Their use of intense adjectives is a tip-off that they are trying too hard. Pointing the reader to Hebrews 10:25 leads one to conclude that there are no Scriptures beyond 1 Cor 14 that can be interpreted to support their OC. I also wonder how they incorporate verse 33 (For God is not a God of confusion but of peace) and why they leave off verses 34 – 40, which includes restrictions on women speaking in church and ends with “But all things should be done decently and in order.” Are they following Thomas Jefferson’s example of ignoring those parts of the Bible they find offensive to their theology?
They trod through this chapter picking at the RCC, Martin Luther and other Magisterial Reformers – all of whom held onto to some of what Rome had taught them. They summarize, on page 59, “the most damaging feature of Calvin’s liturgy is that he led most of the service himself from the pulpit. … in stark contrast to the church meeting envisioned in Scripture. … In 1 Cor 12, Paul tells us that Christ speaks through His entire body … under His direct leadership … vital for the spiritual health of God’s people and the full expression of His Son on earth.” Missing in this diatribe is any cognitive recognition that not all the body parts in 1 Cor 12 speak: ears, hands, feet, etc. serve according to the gifting of the Holy Spirit and the offices of the church. The message of this chapter of Scripture is not a celebration of the individual’s participation in a worship service; it’s exhortation to live in unity for the glory of God and the good of His people even though we have differences. And what of the Pastoral Epistles – are they not in Viola’s Bible?
Not quite finished, the authors demonstrate their intent to smear as many people as possible through false association and vagary. Page 65 reports “The popular notion that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” became prominent after Whitefield.” I found no record of that phrase prior to the 1950s, some 180 years after Whitefield died. Why associate this phrase with Whitefield, other than to paint him as a fellow traveler of Charles Finney? To whom the authors give much grace, saying on page 67 “Perhaps the most lasting element that Finney unwittingly contributed to contemporary Christianity was pragmatism.” Unwittingly? What biographies do these two read? Viola and Barna then provide some observations on various religious movements that many would benefit from – but they again betray their false view of the Lord Jesus and His church on page 74: “… in placing the book at the center and head of their gatherings. Unfortunately, neither the Catholics nor the Protestants were successful in allowing Jesus Christ to be the center and head of their gatherings. Nor were they successful at liberating and unleashing the body of Christ to minister to one another.” In the minds of these mystics, Jesus is subject to humans and He is not fully revealed in the Scriptures, but in His people. Having the Word taught restricts rather than liberates and unleashes, which happens when people share expressions of Jesus. Strange world these authors inhabit.
The authors continue proclaiming their OC to be the best way to return to authentic Christianity, claiming (page 76) “open sharing in a church meeting is completely scriptural” and “the Protestant order of worship strangles the headship of Jesus Christ.” And again – “Jesus Christ has no freedom to express Himself through His body at His discretion. He too is rendered a passive spectator.” “The Lord is stifled from manifesting Himself through the other members of the body.” How pathetic is the god of the OC, He is stifled by Christians who do not speak at meetings.
On page 77, liturgy is declared unbiblical, supported by making grossly exaggerated comments as to how it “hinders spiritual transformation” (there’s another evidence of the power of man) by encouraging passivity and limiting “functioning”. In Viola’s mind, one cannot listen actively; being asked to read from the Bible is not adequately expressing his Jesus, who is properly expressed by spontaneity. Bryan Chapell’s book, Christ Centered Worship, defines liturgy as “the public way a church honors God in its times of gathered praise, prayer, instruction, and commitment” (page 18)”, leaving one to realize that even the OC has liturgy.
In the delving Deeper section of this chapter, the authors reveal more of their mystic view of Christ in the answer to question #6 (page 82), where men dictate the role of the Lord Jesus and each man determines if “the Lord Jesus Christ puts something on our hearts to share with the rest of His body.” This has more in common with Quakers than biblical Christianity.
Chapter 4 – The Sermon: Protestantism’s Most Sacred Cow. The authors’ view of this “sacred cow” is: “Every Sunday morning, the pastor steps up to his pulpit and delivers an inspirational oration to a passive, pew-warming audience.” (pages 85 – 86). In the middle of page 86, this assessment: “The sermon actually detracts from the very purpose for which God designed the church gathering. And it has very little to do with genuine spiritual growth.” Again – they build up a weak, unbiblical model as their foil, and then tear it down. A biblical sermon, as opposed to “an inspirational oration”, is front and center in the biblical gathering of God’s people and foundational to their spiritual growth.
On pages 87 – 88, Viola and Barna assert that modern sermons are regular, cultivated, monologues while Old Testament preaching was extemporaneous, characterized by interruptions from the audience, sporadic, and fluid. Nehemiah 9 shows structure, order, officers presiding, and solemn reading/confessing while the people stood and listened. The authors then point to Jesus – He “did not preach a regular sermon to the same audience”; His messages “were consistently spontaneous”. Jesus was not the pastor a church, and did not have a local assembly that we see later in the New Testament. And I do not even know what is meant by the phrase “consistently spontaneous”. But we do see some of His sermons as monologues preached to “pew-sitting, passive people” (Matthew 5 – 7 for example). They go on (page 89) to assert that the preaching of the disciples and Apostles was sporadic, for special occasions, extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure, “most often dialogical”, and impromptu. The theme continues to emerge – lack of structure in all aspects is the goal. Not until the second century, they declare (page 89), did any record emerge documenting “regular sermonizing”. (This subtle reliance on first century church fathers is evident throughout the book.) We do see, in Acts 8 for example, God’s people being scattered and preaching the Word as they went. This does not provide, however, any reasonable warrant to take this as the prescribed model for the New Testament church. We read in Acts 14 how Paul had regularly taught in the Jewish synagogues and city markets, both Jew and Gentile were saved, God was building His church – and Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in every church. And we see in Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor 16:2 that the early church regularly met on the Lord’s Day – not very sporadic.
Paid elders are thrown out (Pages 91 & 176), without paying attention to 1 Cor 11 or 1 Tim 5:17 – 18; and our authors continue to use the Roman Catholic Church as the example they respond to, pointing out the egregious errors of Rome in the deployment of church officers and worship practice and holding them up as normative.
The section entitled, “How Sermonizing Harms the Church” (beginning on page 97), describes 5 major points in support of this assertion. They begin with a stereotype of a “conventional sermon”, which focuses on the alleged hampering, freezing, imprisonment, suffocation, stalemating, smothering aspects therein. Our authors appear to think church members have no function when they are apart from the gathering and they also come across as having no confidence in the Word of God but much confidence in people. Pastors de-skill, repress, and deprive their people; whereas “New Testament-styled preaching and teaching equips the church so that it can function without the presence of a clergyman.” Their understanding this “New Testament-styled preaching and teaching” (described on top of page 99) once again reveals an open canon view of Scripture – God continues to reveal Himself beyond what He has preserved in His Word. Lastly, we see how modern sermons lack practicality – “preachers speak as experts on that which they have never experienced.” A pastor can study the Bible, become somewhat of an expert on the life of Jacob – know about the sin in his life, how he raised his children – without having experienced the polygamy, idol worship, and underhanded ways of Jacob. Being taught and having this lesson rightly applied to the Christian is not practical? Viola and Barna lust after experiential faith – anything else fails to satisfy.
Chapter 5 – The Pastor: Obstacle to Every-Member Functioning. The chapter titles are meant to be provocative, as is the entire book; in this they succeed. Right off, page 106, they declare, “There is not a single verse in the entire New Testament that supports the existence of the modern-day pastor!” They are hung up on the word “pastor” and they have in mind the undefined boogeyman of “the modern-day pastor”. This chapter shows a lack of understanding about the singularity of office described by the various words we see in Scripture – pastor, elder, bishop, overseer are one in the same. And while, on page 108, they declare “First century shepherds were the local elders (presbyters) and overseers of the church.” they then tell us on the next page, “Up until the second century, the church had no official leadership.” They quibble about “leaders” versus “official leadership”, as they launch into a review of the evolution of the Roman Catholic Church and its serious errors.
When they look at the practice of ordination of elders, their reaction against the practice of Rome prompts them to conclude that no ordination as valid, rather the “recognition of certain gifted members is something that is instinctive and organic.” (page 124) How “instinctive and organic” is Acts 20:7 or Titus 1:5? Men who were leaders appointed men who were qualified. The work of God to equip and nurture a man to serve in the church is not the work of man – if that’s what they are trying to describe, why not use biblical terms that reflect God’s sovereignty and care for His people instead of terms that reflect something natural and base? And as they do work their way up to The Reformation (beginning on page 127), they focus only on the Magisterial Reformation and completely ignore the Radical Reformation. In this section, on page 134, they seek to debunk what was “known as the “cure of souls”” and see nothing of merit in the Bible on this, as if Hebrews 13 is missing, especially verse 17. Did they choose this phrase “cure of souls” specifically to dismiss the entire notion of pastoral care of souls? A godly man knows it is God alone who can cure a soul, but this does not eliminate the biblical responsibility pastors have to care for souls – and for Christians to work to make this pastoral job less burdensome.
And we continue to see how the god of the OC is subject to man (page 136), as “the pastoral office has transformed us (people of God) into stones that do not breathe.” They do not understand the difference between the priesthood of the believer and the elder, nor do they understand the nature of God or the person of the Lord Jesus. On page 137: “By his office, the pastor displaces and supplants Christ’s headship by setting himself up as the church’s human head.” Remember Wayne Grudem’s discussion about this metaphor? Viola and Barna apparently cannot be bothered to read anything that does not agree with their presuppositions. Their use of extremes as the means to point out error is clearly manifested on page 138 – 141 as they embrace an unbiblical model for the pastor as a lone-ranger who carries too much and burns himself out; and then use that to “debunk” the office in toto! No comprehension of plurality of elders nor of biblical shepherding of God’s people. Displaying more of the self confidence revealed in the Introduction, on page 140, Viola and Barna recommend articles they have written as the prescription for this pastor problem. The problem is the lone-ranger pastor, the solution is to eliminate the role of pastor. God forbid we should see in His Word the biblical model of two or more elders in each church. They do favorably cite Watchman Nee in the delving Deeper section of this chapter – something that does not surprise at this point.
Chapters 6 – 8 discuss three aspects of church practice that I think most Christians – including elders – need to think more deeply about: clothes, music, and giving. The authors condemn clerical robes and the like – who would disagree? Too many pastors (using that term as loosely as possible) implicitly endorse a uniform – either suit & tie or very casual. To the degree that a pastor is trying to influence the people by his wardrobe, he is in the wrong. If a pastor enjoys fine clothes – fine, to a point; for the Bible does warn us about being to flashy in what we wear (1 Tim 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3 & 4) and the tendency we have to be misled by such (James 2). In the discussion about music, there is much to lament revealed in the high church history and in modern contemporary music. About which they rightly observe (page 165), “Typically, the focus of the songs if on individual spiritual experience. First person singular pronouns – I, me, my – dominate a good number of the songs.” Amen! Their prescription, again, reveals the same false view of Christ – waiting on humans to be allowed to do His part (page 166) – and a selective look into Scripture to support their “trained spontaneity” (They use this concept on page 167 and it aligns with their view of Christ’s preaching as “consistently spontaneous”. The tension is more than I bear!)
Lastly, in these chapters, they examine tithing and clergy salaries. I like how they address tithing, page 172: “yes, tithing is biblical. But it is not Christian. The tithe belongs to ancient Israel. It was essentially their income tax.” Many pastors teach tithing because they do not trust God to lead the people to give generously – and because they care not what the Bible says about tithing. The discussion of “clergy salaries” is not so clear or biblical. As noted above, they do not take into account 1 Cor 11 or 1 Tim 5:17 – 18; how can they present a biblical case of compensating elders otherwise? They maintain that the clergy salary was born during Constantine’s rule, when he amalgamated the church and state. Perhaps Viola and Barna are drawing a line between compensation and a full-time salary, it’s hard to say. But if they argue there’s no case for a pastor to be paid, what of 1 Cor 9:14, which seems to say a gospel preacher should be on salary? Their argument, again, lies on the response they imagine in the church (page 180) – “Since the pastor and his staff are compensated for ministry, they are paid professionals. The rest of the church lapses into a state of passive dependence.” His assertion is loaded – “pastor and his staff”; this reflects the all-too-common corporate view of church, rather than the biblical view. It’s easier to refute the extreme errors, much more difficult to refute the purer practices found in some churches.
Chapter 9 – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Diluting the Sacraments. While much of their critique of modern church practice in this chapter is pretty much on target, they continue to rely on mere assertion to build their case. On page 188, they write, “it is typical in most contemporary churches for baptism to be separated from conversion by great lengths of time.” Considering most churches have long held to infant baptism, how could baptism follow conversion by any amount of time? On page 189, we read, “unbelievers in the first century were led to Jesus Christ by being taken to the waters of baptism.” What we read in the Bible is people hearing the Word, believing on Christ, then being baptized. In discussing baptism and its implications, Viola and Barna provide some good insight into the importance of the church – in contrast to the individualistic perspective most westerners have. Yet they say (page 191), without a footnote, “According to New Testament teaching, what the Father was to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is to you and me.” This is at odds with their statements surrounding this comment, wherein they rightly understand our son-ship under God the Father because of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Further, God the Father’s relationship is the same eternally, so their use of a past tense verb is troubling.
The discussion about the Lord’s Supper starts off (page 192) with the familiar home church perspective that this ceremony is supposed to be a full meal – “essentially a Christian banquet.” Yet all the biblical accounts show the bread and cup being taken after the meal – not being part of it. They denigrate the warnings in 1 Cor 11 (page 193), rendering the unworthy taking of the Lord’s table to the act of “not waiting for their poor brethren to eat with them, as well as those who were getting drunk on the wine.” Further down this page, they allege pagan influence separated the bread and cup from the meal – “it is more likely that the growing influence of pagan religious ritual removed the Supper from the joyful, down-to-earth, nonreligious atmosphere of a meal in someone’s living room.” How can the Lord’s Supper be nonreligious? And which perspective is more biblical – a “down-to-earth, nonreligious” banquet or a joyful yet sober remembrance of why Christ died and what that means? Is 1 Cor 11:27-33 focused on the temporal or does it use the temporal to draw our focus to the eternal?
Chapter 10 – Christian Education: Swelling the Cranium. This chapter is an argument against Christian education institution, in which they also denigrate the intellectual aspect of learning. The authors view of first-century apprenticeship (page 200): “It was a matter of apprenticeship, rather than of intellectual learning. It was aimed primarily at the spirit, rather than at the frontal lobe.” Although we do not learn how one aims teaching at the spirit, our authors do clarify what they mean, in the next paragraph: “They learned the essential lessons of Christian ministry” – by which they mean having had “life experiences”. The Bible tells us to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 1:5 – 7 and 3:18). This growth is certainly to take place in the local church (which they advocate on page 200), but it is not devoid of intellectual growth. Their overview of institutional Christian education is interesting, revealing (page 206) the common yet mystical view that one learns different things with one’s heart than with one’s mind: Aquinas “preferred the intellect to the heart as the organ for arriving at truth.” Our authors disagree with this view, citing a quote from Blaise Pascal with approval: “It is the heart which perceives God, and not the reason.” If the point intended is to recognize that man cannot by human reason apprehend spiritual truth, we agree. But one’s heart cannot believe nor perceive truth – it can only rightly be used as a metaphor for the total man: mind, emotion, and soul. But they do not let us know what view of the human heart they hold – methinks it’s a mystical perspective – as this quote from page 216 puts it: “In the process, out theology rarely gets below the neck.”
Their assessment of Sunday School is well reasoned and agreeable Page 213): “As a whole, we don’t view the contemporary Sunday School as an effective institution.” They then cite a quote from David Norrington’s book To Preach or Not to Preach, emphasizing parental responsibility in training their children. But the motive for this is not as healthy as these quotes – their goal is to deconstruct elder ship, preaching, intellectual advancement, and order. This is clearly revealed in the last paragraph of this chapter, page 218: People who listen to sermons, “were the very same people who were struggling with self-esteem, beating their spouses, struggling as workaholics, succumbing to their addictions. There lives weren’t changing. … We were taught that if you just give people information, that’s enough!” No Christian rightly believes that people just need information – this is a false standard Viola and Barna all too easily attack. All people need the transforming work of God in their lives – and He has ordained the proclamation of Gospel and the teaching and preaching of His entire Word as the means we are to deploy to that end. Information is what too many “sermons” consist of – no wonder people are left in their sin!
Chapter 11 – Reapproaching the New Testament: The Bible is Not a Jigsaw Puzzle. This chapter is an expose of their faulty arguments throughout this book! They teach that a basic understanding of the biblical context is essential for proper understanding the New Testament (page 231). They have failed to do this very thing in the way they handle 1 Cor 14:26 – 29 and several other passages. But to demonstrate their acumen in New Testament comprehension (page 234), they warn would-be home church leaders, “Birthing a church that maps to New Testament principles takes a whole lot more work that opening up your house and having people sit on comfy couches to drink java, eat cookies, and talk about the Bible.” If it ain’t that, what is it? Next paragraph leads off asking that very question: “What do we mean by a New Testament-styled church? It is a group of people who know how to experience Jesus Christ and express Him in a meeting without any human officiation.” They see “church planters” as viable human officials, but only temporarily and sporadically. With their mystical Jesus-as-head, no regular human leadership is needed, nor can their Jesus perform in the presence of such. They tell us, on page 237, that “Unlike Christians today, the early Christians did not share Christ out of guilt, command, or duty. They shared Him because He was pouring out of them, and they could not help it! It was a spontaneous, organic thing – born out of life, not guilt.” We, once again, see a false contrast, one that denies human responsibility and leaves one thinking Paul, Peter, Stephen, James, John and the others simply “let go and let God” – while they were just carried along for the ride.
While they refute the biblical model of the church throughout the book, on page 238 they rebuke many home church folk. Their point is that no man build a church. Their conclusion is, “The church of Jesus Christ is a biological, living entity! It is organic; therefore, it must be born.” And this organic birthing takes place when “a traveling church-planter … preached only Christ. There are no exceptions. The church was raised up as a result of the apostolic presentation of Jesus Christ.” Seems to me, they are describing the work of God through His apostles and their elders: as they went preaching the Gospel (not as exciting as “presenting Jesus Christ” – nor as mystical), God saved people and called them together into local churches. And the apostles and elders appointed elders in each church. These authors take the body metaphor and warp it a new way, to present the church as if it were a person. True – the church is not a corporation, but not the same as a person, either. Their conclusion, that individual verses must be taken in context, is sound – even if their application of that maxim is faulty.
Chapter 12 – A Second Glance at The Savior: The Revolutionary. This term, revolutionary, is an unhelpful term; apparently designed to stir emotion. The current cultural context in which live brings to mind iconic men such as Caesar Chavez, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro – not admirable men. On page 246, the authors list several biblical actions and attributes of Christ that were and are certainly not culturally normal – then or now. The last of these: “He also came as Revolutionary, tearing apart the old wineskin with a view to bringing in the new. Behold your Lord, the Revolutionary!” The Bible does not say that Jesus tore apart the old wineskin – He cautioned against putting new wine into one. New wine must be put into a new wineskin – this is a parable about salvation: a person not regenerated cannot receive the Holy Spirit. One must be made new before he can receive the Spirit of the Living God and faith to believe in Christ. Yet Viola and Barna tell us this, about that parable: “It is simply an expression of our Lord’s revolutionary nature. The dominating aim of that nature is to put you and me at the center of the beating heart of God.” How hard they must work to come with unbiblical phrases that will vibrantly capture the attention of people not satisfied with the Bible.
On page 247, they emphasize – without references – the fact that the early church met daily, describing what sounds like a commune. And they contend that for the first 300 years, as the church met in homes, they were “void of ritual, clergy, and sacred buildings.” The church has never been without pastors and some ritual – the Bible reveals this. Biblical churches do not, today, have sacred buildings – cults tend to do this. In the delving Deeper section, page 252, the authors express much confidence in church planters – whose “job is to equip members to function in a coordinated way.” This seems to run contrary to their professed love and belief in the spontaneous and sporadic nature of their esteemed organic church.
In the “Final Thoughts” appendix, page 268, Viola describes a meeting of an organic church in which everyone “shared his or her experience with the Lord that week (what – a weekly meeting? How pagan!). … As the meeting was winding down, the unbeliever fell to his knees in the middle of the living room and cried out, “I want to be saved! I have seen God here!”” Nothing in his description reveal whether the gospel was proclaimed. The man may have had a spiritual experience, the question is the nature of that experience. He goes on to say, “This is one of the things that occurs organically when Jesus is made visible through His body.” citing 1 Cor 14:24 & 25. This Bible passage does not “make Jesus visible”; it mandates clear teaching of biblical truth. So once again, at the end of this book, these guys prove themselves to be mystics rather than satisfied with the Bible. Folks who seek experience are of the same mindset as those who seek after signs in Scripture, not well spoken of therein.
While this book does contain some thought provoking content, the main focus is off track. We must test all things in light of Scripture – so we can learn from all of this book, but most of the conclusions do not align with the Word of God and must be rejected. May God have mercy on anyone misled by the teaching in this book.