Last week’s “Pagan Week” has been held over in view of the extended conversation I’ve been having with Frank Viola, which began yesterday, talking about the book and the reactions to it, both the fair and unfair critiques plus the positive reactions. This all follows my own review of Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices ran all of last week. If you’re just tuning in you might want to catch up on part one of the interview; if you’ve been following along, you’ll recall that we’re all sitting around a table in your favorite independent local coffee shop, and have just poured coffee refills. As yesterday, Frank and I will converse for a bit an then you’ll get your comments in. Have another biscotti; try the chocolate-covered one, they’re delicious — perfect with coffee.
Bro.M. Getting into some of the specifics of the book, I of course had a number of questions as I read through it, and there are naturally many points we could clarify or discuss at length. To pick a starting-point though, must church planters be itinerant? The book suggests this is the model or “divine pattern”, but what about a couple of neighbors that want to start a house church? Would they need outside help or would they not be formally considered church planters unless they became itinerant? What does the ministry of an itinerant church planter look like today?
Frank: You really know how to ask questions, don’t you? Let me tell you, the book needs a lot of clarifying. We’re dealing with an extremely entrenched mindset. My friend who is an ex-pastor made an arresting statement recently. He said that some people are reading this book through the grid of their church experience and understanding. And for that reason they are missing some of the main points. Perhaps this is true. I think another part of it is that we just touch on some issues and don’t develop them. That’s one of the reasons why a series of books will follow “Pagan Christianity.” The other books will develop many of the issues we touch on.
Even so, I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my books. I cannot open up a book of mine without seeing all the shortcomings and flaws in it. What runs through my mind on virtually every page is, “I could have said that much better; I could have added this point; I could have changed this wording; this paragraph is horrible — what was I thinking?” It’s a curse.
Now with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I shall use my prophetic insight and anticipate that someone is going to lift the above statement out of context and say, “See, Viola doesn’t even agree with his own book. He admits it’s flawed. So to prevent confusion for the people reading this interview, I agree with the entire book. But I’m my own worst critic. In this regard, I’m very much like the novelist E.L. Doctorow who said that he would not read one of his books for an entire year after it was published because he would find every possible fault with it. (Three cheers for Mr. Doctorow.)
Bro.M. He’s not the only writer who does something similar — when I began freelance writing, I complained to a writer-friend about how an article I’d written came out after editing; she told me she never read her articles after submission! I think most of us who write will always want to make “just one more set” of revisions — a few more additions that we missed.
Frank: On the second reprint, we’re going to add some more Q&A to address some of the most common questions that people are asking. We have a preview of some of them online.
Back to your earlier question: I’m not sure I can answer it successfully in this short space. I’ll try to summarize, but this may raise more questions than it answers.
I believe the apostolic ministry in the NT is itinerant. Apostles sometimes stayed in cities for lengthy periods of time to lay the foundation for a new Christian community (the Twelve in Jerusalem for 4 years, Paul in Corinth for 18 months and in Ephesus for 3 years). But eventually they left and went to other places to preach Christ and establish new Christian communities.
Apostles are “sent ones.” They, like Jesus Christ (the first apostle), travel. NT scholar Robert Banks makes this point wonderfully in his book, “Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting” — a classic in its field. He draws a distinction between “the work” and “the church” in NT usage. The work is itinerant; the church is local. That doesn’t mean that non-apostles don’t or can’t play a role in establishing organic Christian communities. There is what I call the work of “site preparation” before a foundation is laid by an apostolic worker. Cornelius, Priscilla and Aquila, Philip the evangelist in Samaria, and “the man of peace” that Jesus spoke about in the Gospels are examples of those who prepared the site in the NT era. But the NT militates against the idea that all Christians are apostolic workers (1 Cor. 12:28ff.). And that’s a good thing to my mind. There are few ministries that a Christian can be called to that are as difficult and as demanding as that one.
Bro.M. Indeed. You mentioned in the book that the church does not exist for the purpose of evangelism, but for community. This might perhaps have been a side-issue to the book, but how would you describe the fundamental purpose of the church?
Frank: It’s a bit more involved than existing for community, I think. When I was a young Christian, I was taught that the only reason why I existed was to win souls. And that if it weren’t for that, God would strike me dead and take me to heaven after I received Jesus. That idea was expanded in several of the evangelical denominations I was a part of. The whole purpose of those churches was to save others from hell. That’s it. Historically, this theology can be traced to D.L. Moody who was an incredibly gifted evangelist and a great man.
I would agree with people like DeVern Fromke and T. Austin-Sparks as well as Gilbert Bilezikian and the late Stanley Grenz. God has an eternal purpose that finds its headwaters in the Trinity before creation. And that purpose is centered on His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and His Body, the church. That purpose goes beyond salvation. Note that God created human beings not in need of salvation. There was something else that He intended for humans and His creation — something beyond the Fall and redemption. (I love N.T. Wright’s emphasis on this as well and appreciate the work he’s doing immensely. We had a lot of time to talk at a recent conference where we both spoke, and we share a great deal of agreement on Paul’s ministry.)
Consequently, at the heart of the eternal purpose is the Divine impulse to expand the fellowship of the Trinitarian community on the earth and to display the glories, riches, and wonders of Jesus Christ through an every-member functioning Body — a Christ-centered and Christ-driven community that expresses the fullness of God visibly to all creation, including principalities and powers. The church, I believe, is called to bear God’s image in the earth (Christ), and to exercise His dominion (bring His Kingdom) on the earth. But all of this is from Him, through Him, by Him, and to Him. It’s for God, and not for us. We benefit of course; but what’s in it “for Him” is what should drive us. That’s a lot to unpack. I seek to develop this thought in my book “God’s Ultimate Passion.”
Evangelism is something she, the ekklesia, does naturally and organically when she’s been raised up properly. That is, when she’s given a steady diet of Christ. It’s part of her mission in the earth. But it’s not the whole mission. That’s not arm chair philosophy — I’ve watched it happen dozens of times. For me, there are few things more glorious than to watch a group of Christians who deeply love one another share Jesus Christ with others in deed and word without guilt, condemnation, or any obligation whatsoever. And to do it without being commanded or pressured to.
Bro.M. I remember being told it was all about “winning souls,” with the implication that I needed to be doing my part… it seemed a little narrow for me. Shifting gears a bit, There’s a great quote from Philip Hanson at the introduction to chapter 5 in the book, about reading back into earlier church practices and attaching theological explanations that didn’t exist at the time. In ascribing motives around the origins of some of the practices you highlight in the book, do you think you’ve done that at all not so much with the first century church, but with the church at later stages in history?
Frank: Our arguments are largely based on the findings of reputable scholars and historians of the past as well as our readings of first-hand source materials. I suppose that each reader will have to decide if we are painting an accurate picture of history or not. We just want them to interact with the actual arguments and the scholarship behind it, rather than dismissing it out of hand because they may not like the conclusions we reach. I personally covet constructive feedback that actually interacts with the points we’ve made. That’s what healthy discussion is all about, I think.
I’m not beyond correction and appreciate it when someone can show me based on hard evidence where I’ve missed something. It encourages me personally that some heavy weight scholars have endorsed the book. That’s no small thing in my eyes, and I regard it as confirmation that we haven’t lost our marbles. Not yet, anyway! :-)
Bro.M. Speaking of the source materials, I was curious that I didn’t see any mention of the Didache in the text or footnotes, but as a glimpse of second-century commentary on itinerant ministry and church practice, I would have expected to see it discussed. Was the omission deliberate, and if so, why?
Frank: The Didache is an interesting piece of literature. One of the striking things it shows us is that itinerant ministry was still going on during the second century. We didn’t use it for two reasons. First, we didn’t find anything in it that can be traced as a first-mention origin. “Pagan Christianity” seeks to trace the origins for church practices. So that pursuit is what mostly governs which sources we selected. Itinerant church planting is a topic we only touch upon; it’s not part of the book’s thesis so we don’t develop it. Second, I agree with most scholars that it was written during the first half of the second century. That said, it’s not something that we should hold up as canonical, inspired, or as embodying God’s will for the church. The same would be true for the epistles of Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, etc. Informative history; but not to be put on a par with the New Testament.
By the way, we don’t argue in the book that the church began going off the rails during the time of Constantine. We believe it was much earlier. We point out that the one-bishop rule began in a few places as early as the early second century. Greco-Roman influences were beginning to mix with the well of the Christian stream well before Constantine. Constantine, however, solidified, enhanced, and universalized much of it.
Here’s a pertinent quote by James D.G. Dunn:
Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism — when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change.
Bro.M. I was surprised at your inclusion of references to works by Watchman Nee to further explain some of your points. Although a strong influence for a cell church structure, he was also quite authoritarian or hierarchical in his conception of the authority of church leaders, and some of his thinking in this area later informed the shepherding movement and the doctrine of “covering.” I know you’ve written against some of these things, but how do you reconcile Watchman Nee? Are there specific works or areas with which you agree or disagree?
Frank: Like most Christian workers whom God raised up to begin a new work, Watchman Nee has been slandered, maligned, and misrepresented. The biography written by Angus Kinnear is one of the best treatments of his life. It’s entitled “Against the Tide.” I highly recommend it.
One of my mentors was a co-worker of Brother Nee, and I’ve spoken to many who knew him and his work in China. To my mind, he was one of the great Christians of the 20th century. He was an apostolic worker who was incredibly gifted. I suggest that anyone who aspires to church planting read his book “The Normal Christian Church Life.” To my mind, it’s a classic.
During the 1970s, some gifted charismatic leaders in South Florida took one of Nee’s books and used it to spawn an authoritarian movement. The book was misapplied and misinterpreted in my view. That particular book was a series of talks given by Nee to his church planting co-workers at a time when the Communists were about to take over China. If you remove the book from that context, the book becomes lethal. And that’s how it was used unfortunately. Juan Carlos Ortiz from South America warned these men not to run with it. His said it worked for them in South America; it may not work in America. His warning was… I won’t finish the sentence.
I believe that any Christian who reads “The Normal Christian Life,” “Sit, Walk, Stand,” “Changed Into His Likeness,” or “What Shall This Man Do?” will be greatly enriched by the ministry of Watchman Nee. I’d make them “required reading” for any person who has a burden to plant churches or be involved in God’s work. Or anyone who is seeking a deeper understanding of the Lord and His ultimate intention. I don’t agree with everything Nee taught; but much of it is right on.
Bro.M. So you would say the Fort Lauderdale Five misunderstood and misapplied Nee by removing his writing from its immediate context — certainly the effects were devastating, and it underscores the need to understand the context of the writing. I think this is on point with the whole discussion of looking at the origins of various practices in tehir original contexts. In the book, you use the example of a chair being of pagan origin to say that not everything is evil by origin. If Nee has both good and bad teaching such that we shouldn’t disqualify his work based on its source alone, isn’t it possible that some of the “pagan” origins you describe in the book are neutral and not evil as you often imply? How do you know which are evil and which are neutral?
Frank: Certainly, there are extra-biblical practices, some invented by pagans, that are neutral. No question about it. We mention some in the book. Readers should remember that the book seeks to trace the origin of all of our major Protestant church practices. Some of them we believe are neutral. Others, however, we feel suppress the church from functioning as God intended her to function. We make this distinction in the book at the end of each chapter. But there is something deeper that the book addresses that’s often missed. The book exposes the “pagan mind” that stands behind many of our contemporary church practices. And that mind is at odds with the mind of God.
For example, as we explore the origins of the church building, we show that there’s heavy pagan philosophy involved. The church building did not come into existence to accommodate more Christians for a gathering. It was built upon pagan thinking about “the sacred space” that emerged from the cult of the dead. The chapter on the clergy explores the pagan mind behind the professional religionist (which John H. Yoder waxed eloquent about) and the false dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual. The chapter on Christian education shows the influence of Greek philosophy on the Christian faith in creating systematic theology and equating head-knowledge with spiritual stature. The mind of Christ runs contrary to all of this. And that’s a major point that the book makes. Christianity is not a Western religion nor a Greek or Roman philosophy. It’s a new life form that emerges out of God Himself.
The pagan mind just didn’t seep into some of the periphery and neutral aspects of the Christian faith. It was brought straight into the very fabric of our entire church experience. So much so that “church” itself has been re-defined in terms of Greco-Roman thought and practice. Let’s be honest — most Christians have the idea that church means going into a sacred building called a “church” and hearing a sermon from an ordained clergyman once or twice a week. That’s church. “I’ve been to church today,” the thinking goes. We are suggesting that this concept has little points of contact with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
Just this weekend, one of my co-workers shared a story about his 4 year-old granddaughter. She was attending vacation Bible school for the first time. He asked her what she had learned that day. Her response was, “I learned that when we come into church and sit in the house of God, we have to be very quiet. We need to sit in the puke and not make any noise.” So at age 4, our children are taught that the church is a building. It’s the house of God. And we need to be very quiet when we sit in the puke. (Puke = pew by the way; I’m quoting her verbatim. Gotta love it! :-))
That’s not Christian thinking. Constantine still lives and breathes in our minds. I believe uncovering the pagan origins behind the church building is important because it shows us why Christians have been treating buildings as “sacred” and have called them “the house of God” for centuries. This influence did not come from the Old Testament, and we demonstrate this in the book.
How do we determine whether or not a pagan practice is neutral (or can be redeemed) from those that are harmful? For me, it’s by assessing it against these questions: Does it violate the organic nature of the church? Does it stand in contraction to the nature of God? Does it suppress or rival the headship of Jesus Christ? Is it in conflict with a NT principle, teaching, or doctrine? Is it in conflict with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles? Does it oppress God’s people? Does it suppress the Body of Christ from functioning? Does it steal her freedom in Christ?, etc.
Bro.M Love the “puke” story! Again, it feels like we’re just scratching the surface of this whole question of a practice’s orgins being good, bad, neutral, or redeemable. And as with Watchman Nee, other things can be lifted and twisted in the retelling, to great benefit or detriment. So to the rest of the table(s) around the coffee shop here, what observations would you make about Watchman Nee and pagan/secular origins? What about apostles? There’s a subject that can inflict a lot of damage if it’s paired with a wrong understanding of authority… We’ll pause a bit in case anyone else needs another coffee refill.
(Don’t miss tomorrow’s exciting conclusion to the interview, after we’ve refilled our coffee cups once more.)