Frank Viola – entering the conversation?

As noted by Andrew Jones, it seems that Frank Viola has published a critique, of sorts of EC.

The height-endowed kiwi and Marc van der Woude view Viola’s criticisms as a positive thing, constructive instead as some of the some of the less charitable variety that has been coming out lately. I took a bit different view of it though, more along the lines of Alan Creech’s impression (in comments), when he said, “It sounds to me almost as if he is inviting “us” (whoever we are) to come the whole way on over to that part of the house church movement and we’ll be good.”

Here’s the disclosure. I skimmed through some of Viola’s material when preparing my article on spiritual covering. You know those debates where one side is clearly more well-prepared and has the goods to win the debate, has clearly made the stronger argument… but that side has so ungraciously decimated the opposition that you want to side with the opposition? That’s the feeling I got with Viola’s material. I agreed with the gist of what he was saying about the subject of spiritual covering, but found that even so, I couldn’t recommend his writing. In fact, there are many parts of his writings which are well thought-out and offer good insights into church life and practice… but it’s hard to get past the presentation sometimes. The tone seems to be that there are absolutes in the way to do church — he’s found the “right” way and if the rest of us can’t see it, that’s too bad for us, we’ll just be “wrong” until we fall in line. This is a subjective perspective though, it could be just me.

Viola’s present critique offers eight things he likes about EC, followed by seven concerns… but there’s a problem with most of these. Basically, his issues fall under the broad categories that the EC conversation isn’t taking up his particular issues (or not in the same way) and that EC doesn’t have a long track record of successes (since it’s a recent phenomenon). Oh, and there’s some confusion over how he views the EC discussion and centrality of Jesus, which appears on both lists. The support he offers for his criticisms is hardly convincing… he indicates that there’s a problem in EC with the centrality of Christ because during his reading, “In one article, which was quite lengthy, [the Lord] was mentioned once. In another, He was never mentioned at all!” This is contrasted with the writings of Paul, and naturally suffers by comparison.

A small word of advice to those participating in the conversation… don’t expect the consensus — if one arrives — to perfectly match the set of ideas you’ve developed. One primary characteristic about the conversation is diversity, and to be in the mix, we’ve got to be prepared to not only be at peace with, but also to delight in the diversity. Separate out your non-negotiable doctrinal positions and as much as is possible, be at peace with some degree of diversity in the rest of it.


  1. Bravo, Brother Maynard! You’ve hit on the very reasons why Frank makes me uneasy. I’ve just recently left a ministry where it was “my way or the highway”, and have no interest in the de-structured version of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

    Still, his work on “covering” is pretty good, and worth quoting from. I guess we all “see as through a glass darkly”, and “know in part and prophesy in part”, eh?

  2. Thanks for the critique. My biggest question when I read Andrew’s post was, “Frank who?” I actually know who Frank Viola is, but I always thought of him as more in tune with the conservative house church movement. To hear him writing about the emerging church seemed out of place. I suppose I will read him at some point, but, as you pointed out so well, he didn’t make the invitation very gracious.

  3. This is one of those tough areas where I don’t want to disagree, but I don’t agree entirely either. I don’t really want to engage each point in detail, because at the end of the day, him being right doesn’t make me wrong, and vice-versa. There’s so much of what he’s saying that I agree with, but being dogmatic on the final 10-20% devalues in my mind the underlying 80-90%.

    It’s a tough question, one I’m not completely sure how to grapple with.

  4. Eat the meat; spit out the bones.

  5. Chomp, chomp, phthooo-, chomp, chomp, phthooo-, chomp, chomp phthooo-…

    Exclellent, Arlen!

  6. Mike, thanks for posting this. I agree that much of what Frank is saying is good stuff – and I particularly agree with his take on spiritual covering. The problem is the overall tone… it’s nice to be right, but better to be gracious about it.

    If he’s serious about joining the conversation, it will be most helpful for him (or anyone else joining) to understand the nature and tone of it so far. Frank comes across as wanting to pull the conversation in his direction, but that’s not the way it works. To join, one simply joins in best without an agenda, and gives their input, dialoguing as we go along. Attempting to win someone over from the outset indicates neither of these characteristics (agenda-free, dialogue), but rather fosters debate.

    Maybe he just got off on the wrong foot, but when I read his other work it makes me wonder. My intent here is not to offer a thorough response to his critique, which is why my post is thin on quotes of his article… as noted by you and by me, Frank says some favorable things (I encourage people to read it, linked above), after which his criticisms fall into 3 categories. To respond to them as I categorized them:

    Lack of track record: no response necessary, you can’t start something new and already have a track record for the new thing. On the other hand, most participants have a wide variety of experience in ministry. Some level of experimentation is plainly admitted up front, and many people are joining on that basis.

    Discussion of Frank’s issues: not all of EC is house church, and it never will be. To participate in the conversation freely, you must make peace with diversity in practice. A lot of Frank’s issues are considered negotiables and therefore may never be discussed on the level he’s asking. We’re all at peace with that.

    Centrality of Jesus: if you read EC writings and testimony, you find a lot of people rediscovering Jesus in EC after having lost sight of him wherever they came from. Frank’s support of the criticism is bad… there are entire books of the Bible that don’t mention God, and I’m sure he’s written a chapter or two on other subjects than “The Lord” because in an overall sense, it’s all about him anyhow.

    Mike, as you know, there are a lot of house-church-ers in EC, but EC is bigger than just them. I think Frank’s critique may reflect his stance toward EC, but in general I wouldn’t expect it to spark much dialogue because it comes in a different tone and with different expectations than the already-ongoing conversation. otoh, it doesn’t come in the same tone as the criticism from D.A. Carson et al, so that kind of response wouldn’t be appropriate either.

    Probably all of this says little more than that he’s as welcome to join the conversation as the next guy, but shouldn’t expect to steer it (maybe he doesn’t, but it came off a bit that way)… the first stab is not a good opener, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s going to write him off if he sticks around. ;^)

    Gratia Vobis et Pax,

  7. I am brand spankin new here and to the whole emerging church thang (I’m just a lowly,out-of-date,’legalistic’, house churcher),so forgive me if being direct is against EC ettiquette, but, man you sound threatened, defensive and highly reactive. Your response doesn’t at all deal with the CONTENT of Frank’s article.What gives? And because Frank has ‘done it all the wrong way’ and ‘not been sweet and sugar-coated’his thoughts, you won’t consider the actual thoughts/content. Does that kind of oversensitivity distinguish the EC as a whole? If so, good luck! The ship’s already taking on water.
    Help me out here folks. I’m tryin’ to figure out what is the engine here.

  8. Huh? Sorry if I come across the wrong way. I don’t feel threatened by what Frank has written and didn’t think I was being that reactionary… I am intentionally not interacting with his article that much, as I outlined above, I really only wanted to give an overall response instead of a point-by-point one. I have urged people to read it; let them make up their own minds. I think if Frank wants to dialogue with EC, that’s significant because of his influence within the house church movement. I got the impression he was wanting EC to adopt his ideas on house-church-only etc. wholesale, which isn’t going to happen… but he comes across pretty strong on that stuff. As I noted, there are people within EC who are house-church-only types, but that’s only one facet of EC, and any one facet must accept that they aren’t the only version. I’m not declining to interact because of his tone, but probably just because I don’t feel strongly enough about it. If you review the comments, I think you’ll see that sentiment there, that I want to agree with a lot of what Frank says, but he seems quite dogmatic about some of the stuff that I consider negotiable; whether he’s right or wrong, it’s a bit off-putting.

    I don’t think this is being oversensitive, but if so, well, maybe I’m just more thin-skinned than I realize. If the boat’s going down, I guess I’m just going to have to learn to walk like Jesus when stranded in the middle of a lake without a boat. And yes, I do have a lot to learn on that score.

    Gratia vobis et pax,

  9. Hey, I’m new to all this. Can anyone please Recommend:

    1) 3 must read books on EC
    2) 3 names I should be familiar with re EC
    3) 3 sites/blogs
    4) a real, live place I can go see this! I live in north FL but can travel

  10. So here’s the thing. I started reading Reimagining Church at the same time as I had booked to fly to the Emergent Village Conf. in Albuquerque March 20-23. I was wowed by the conf. and stayed for the Post conf. conversation.

    The kick off was Phyllis Tickle who brought a sense of order yet excitement for the place in history that we find ourselves in. Then Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr and others shared. After each speaker, we chatted with others around the banquet tables–which is a great way to learn, grow, and become acquainted after a speaker. That was a highlight as well.

    I have been on this journey for awhile and have probably kept the Emerging Church stuff at a distance. I completed a doctoral dissertation on people leaving churches under dominating church leadership and tracked how people recovered from this distressing life situation. You can read it online at:

    So the Albq. conf. was again a huge EC adventure for me. It brought a huge sense of peace and a generosity of spirit among the almost 1000 who attended, ages 15-85, Protestant and Catholic. The sweet Spirit of Jesus was there and the Holy Spirit was orchestrating both personal and corporate connections.

    So when I got back to Viola’s book, I was delighted with so many insights, as Bro. Maynard has indicated, but I also felt uneasy and am finding that I am not alone in this regard. And as Bro. M. has stated, yes, I am finding that one of the values of the EC is to bless diversity and make room for one another. The theme of: ‘Have a Listening Heart’ was repeated and practiced and carried away by each participant.

    So critique is not wrong, but welcoming is crucial in our conversation about so much that is plus and minus in the Church and in the now ‘Emerging Christianity’ as Phyllis has termed it. I like this term as well since it is so much broader than I and many others had originally ‘imagined’. So there is room for Frank to grow and be stretched in some areas, and for us too.

    If anyone is further interested in my observations about the Albuquerque conf. just email me at: Anyone else who went there? Bye for now.


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