This is the fourth part in my review of Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity? The previous reviews were:
1. Viola's Preface
2. Barna's Introduction
3. The Church Building
For today I read chapter 3: "The Order of Worship: Sunday Mornings Set in Concrete." As I did last time, I found Viola's final Q & A at the end of the chapter the best place to begin. I don't know but I suspect these final sections are additions to the revised expanded edition. They seem to raise the right questions given Viola's content in the chapters... and his answers don't always ring true. What I mean is, I've found those asking the questions usually to have found the weak points of the chapter.
Final Question: "Are you saying that just because the first-century church had open-participatory meetings, we should too-even though we live in the first century?"
Schenck: Hogwash. That's exactly what he's saying and it is exactly the tone of what he's said the entire chapter. As usual, I have no problem whatsoever with the kind of community Viola is trying to promote. But he's simply another tradition trying to foist his preferences and personality on everyone else.
Viola has not learned the lesson of the first week of seminary when you take a personality inventory--don't mistake your personality for everyone else's. This is also the first week of worship class--don't mistake your preferred worship style for the way everyone should worship. And, yes, the first week of leadership class--don't mistake your leadership style for the way everyone should lead.
What's good in the chapter?
In the question I mentioned above, Viola goes on to say that this chapter means to raise three key questions:
1. After exploring where the modern Protestant order of worship came from, is it really successful at transforming people and expressing Jesus Christ?
2. Is it possible that open-participatory church meetings are more in line with what God had in mind for His church than the Protestant order of worship?
3. Would it be worth our time to begin exploring new ways to gather and express Christ in our church life together?
Good questions, and have have little doubt but that the vast majority of churches around the United States need to think seriously about these sorts of things. It would be interesting to me to know Viola's church background, what he's reacting to. Yes, I think he's right that most Christians just come and sit like a bump on a log. Yes, this is a recipe for the death of the Church.
I just think there are more ways to do what he's doing than his way--and his trumpet is too loud to the contrary for his, "that's not really what I'm saying" to be credible.
Should all Christians be involved in a small group for accountability and full Christian engagement? Unlike Viola, I hesitate to take a "one size fits all" approach to discipleship and community. But I personally would be happy if every Christian were a part of an "open-participatory group." What he's urging is good. The way he goes about it is skybala.
Yes, I think it may very well be essential for every Christian community to take some time to consider whether they are truly a community and whether their body life does indeed reflect a church rather than a mindless habit. But it's absolutely not necessary to sell their church building and jettison traditions through which God has spoken to them their entire lives, just because it doesn't have to be done that way (and because Viola doesn't like not being able to share his great wisdom if he would deign fit to grace a Lutheran church with his presence).
"But I'm not saying that," saith the Viola. "Bull-hockey," saith the Schenck.
What I don't like...
The attitude, the arrogance. A thousand disclaimers at the end don't undo the clear tone of everything that precedes. If you're not in a house church, you're ignorant and blindly following stupid, deceived-by-paganism, out of touch intellectuals like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Whitefield, Moody, Pentecostals... well, everyone but me and those few of us that actually know what the New Testament says.
You see, you can't trust the people who've written stuff. The real church, the secret church, are those grass roots people who never actually wrote anything and so, whom we can't exactly prove existed, but the ones who really had the Spirit just weren't in power these last 2000 years, the people who were like me. Let's finish the Reformation and go with my understanding of the New Testament.
If I might just point out a really odd thing about this chapter, his section attempting to assassinate the Methodist tradition features Whitefield, who is hardly the person to pick as the poster child for Methodism (how about John Wesley as a better choice?). By the way, that's the offensive style of the book. He goes tradition by tradition, assassinating each one. He finds anything negative he can think of about each tradition, including not a little grasping at straws. Then he finally gets to his option, blessed be he, which just happens to be the way Paul and the early Christians did it.
He doesn't talk about Wesley because Wesley had small groups and was absolutely about moving from conversion to sanctification. Oops, he can't shoot at that so he just omits it. Whitefield was peripheral to the substance of Methodism.
And he assassinates Moody for being a pragmatist. Funny, this description of Moody reminds me a little of something Paul said: "I am all things to all people so that I might by all means save some."
Looking at the New Testament
All the things I've said thus far continue to apply. We remember, for example, that 1 Corinthians was written to ancient Corinthian Christians and the issues of that church. Does 1 Corinthians address a church of 300? No. Would Paul have given the instructions of 1 Corinthians 14 to a church of 300? We have no way of knowing--and even if we could guess, it didn't make it into Scripture and so wouldn't be authoritative! Paul is not authoritative. The Spirit-led appropriation in the church of texts God inspired through Paul is.
Would Paul tell a church of 300 to split up into smaller groups? We don't know--and even if we did it wouldn't be authoritative because it didn't make it into Scripture!
We have to make a distinction between the descriptions of the early church and the prescriptions of the early church. We have few prescriptions on how to worship in the New Testament. "Don't quench the Spirit." Ok, there's one, written to the Thessalonians.
On the other hand, Paul tries to lasso the "Spirit" a bit with the Corinthians, reel their wild and crazy random tongues speaking. For tongues, it's 2 or at the most 3, one at a time, and only with interpretation. The same goes for prophecy. In other words, he imposes order on the free for all happening there. By 1 Timothy and Titus, significant structure in leadership is beginning to take place to ensure proper teaching. Paul himself won't be around to do it.
You have to search for side-comments most of the time even to begin to build a case for how the early churches structured worship or structured leadership. There's hardly a clear voice in the New Testament on these issues. So it is dubious in the extreme, not only to presume this worship style was universal and monolithic--that you have it figured out. It is even more dubious to take such a hypothetical reconstructed description as prescriptive.
Viola's argument against any connection between Christian worship and synagogue worship is absolutely ridiculous. We should expect there to be significant overlap. For example, remember, James, Peter, and John did not compel Titus to be circumcised. That seems to imply that they thought it was preferable for him to be circumcised. Let that sink in a little, the apostle Peter and James the leader of the Jerusalem church thought it preferable for a Gentile convert to convert to Judaism.
Paul himself likely lost the debate at Antioch over table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. He tells us when people admit they were wrong. Complete silence here. Paul likely served on the periphery of the early church for much of his mission. He was right, because his side ended up in Scripture. But don't pretend for one second that the worship or ideology of the early church was monolithic.
The burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of anyone who would argue for significant discontinuity between Jewish worship and early Christian worship. The earliest Gentile converts were, what, God-fearers who had been worshipping in the synagogue. It is ludicrous to think that Jesus and Paul went to the synagogues because it was part of their mission, all the while seriously objecting to the idea of a synagogue itself because of its institutional nature.
There simply aren't broadly prescriptive passages in the New Testament on the form worship must take. It is massively dubious to think that all churches did it the same way descriptively. Even if they did, even if Paul had some thoughts Viola can read--they didn't make it into Scripture in a universally prescriptive form.
We know the elements of worship. The New Testament has no demand on how we package them. I'm okay with Viola's way and, yes, the church as a whole would probably do well to take on his core suggestions. But all the same, those of us in my worship venue are going to say the Apostle's Creed, take communion, and say some set prayers this Sunday the way we do every Sunday... and I suspect God will be with us every bit as much as whatever small group Viola is a part of.