Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pagan Christianity 9-10: Tithing and Sacraments

Two chapters from Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity today:

The previous posts were:

1. Viola's Preface
2. Barna's Introduction
3. The Church Building
4. The Order of Worship
5. The Sermon
6. The Pastor
7. Sunday Go to Meeting Clothes
8. Music in the Church

And now for the two chapters for today. Two more weeks and we'll be done, d.v.

Chapter 8: “Tithing and Clergy Salaries: Sore Spots on the Wallet”
As usual, Viola is half right and half extreme. The first part of this chapter has to do with tithing, the giving of a tenth of one’s income to the Lord. Underlying his position is of course the fact that he is concerned about giving one tenth to the church. He does not believe in “institutional” churches, so we would expect him to have a sharp distinction in his mind between giving to a church and giving to the Lord.

His bottom line is that “tithing, while biblical, is not Christian” (183). He is mostly right, but I think at least a quarter wrong. Is tithing biblical? Yes, he says, because we find it in the Old Testament. It is not Christian, he would say, because it is not required in the New Testament. He is right that the New Testament does not require a tithe of Gentile believers. Where he is wrong is to suggest that, for this reason, tithing is unchristian.

My problem with Viola’s interpretation is thus not that he is wrong on his read of the New Testament—for the most part at least. He is very much stuck in a naïve version of the “old perspective” on Paul, as most pop speakers like him are. Paul’s teaching on the Jewish Law is far more complex than the simple categories with which Viola operates, as our ongoing review of N. T. Wright’s book on justification shows.

So Viola is right that the Old Testament tithe was an agricultural rather than a monetary tithe. He is right that it was for Levites and the poor in general (I have serious questions about his 23.3% gig--there are probably layers of Old Testament tradition involved on these sorts of issues, where you have differing traditions about what the tithe was more than things to combine with each other). He is right that the New Testament never binds the tithe rule on Gentile believers. Jesus does affirm the Pharisees for tithing their spices in Matthew 23, but they were Jews.

The New Testament urges giving proportional to God’s blessing, but never sets an amount or a percent (e.g., 2 Cor. 9:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).

Where Viola is wrong, as always, is to jump from 1) the Bible does not require it to 2) it is wrong for a church to require it. Just as there were Nazirites who bound themselves to a different way of life, there is nothing wrong with denominations binding together into distinct identities. Paul’s principle with regard to the Sabbath was “one person considers one day above a day; another considers every day the same” (Rom. 14:5). Both need to get off the other’s back. Viola gives proportionately; Wesleyans tithe. I affirm you Viola. Get off our backs.

I might say, by the way, that I have serious doubts about statements like these, “Not a few poor Christians have been thrown into deeper poverty because they have felt obligated to give beyond their means” (179). If anything, churches struggle financially because people don’t tithe, not because everyone’s sending themselves to the poor house because they’re tithing.

The second half of the chapter is where Viola really jumps the shark. Viola’s attempt in the “delving DEEPER” section to dodge the clear implications of 1 Timothy 5:17-18 that assemblies should support their elders materially are completely unconvincing, “the worker is worth their reward.” The same in 1 Corinthians 9—a passage that Viola almost completely avoids. It is appropriate to support materially those who “tread the grain” for them.

The early church did come to have a ministry structure, and Paul admonishes churches to support these leaders materially. Indeed, Paul considers it an obligation. I'm not saying that institutional churches have a good record with money. But as usual Viola throws the baby out with the bath water.

I don't have a problem with the ministers in the house church movement who are supporting themselves. I respect and affirm them. But Viola is the one being unbiblical when he suggests they do not have a "right" to the material support of those to whom they minister, even if like Paul they do not use that right.

Paul, by the way, probably did so to avoid the strings of patronage. Viola mentions the occasional conflict of interests when you need to preach on a topic that steps on the toes of heavy contributors in the church. That situation does bear directly on Paul's practices.

Chapter 9: Baptism and the Lord's Supper: Diluting the Sacraments
The first half of this chapter is on baptism and found me wondering what Viola's background was before he went house church. I wonder if he was Disciples of Christ or Baptist because this chapter seemed to be on a slightly different traditional trajectory than some others, which have seemed much more straight Anabaptist.

First he dismisses infant baptism out of hand. I have come to prefer it. It is interesting because in some ways it would fit with Viola's community focus. In this chapter, for example, he really rejects the "sinner's prayer" (he really hates Moody for some reason). And he rejects the language of a personal relationship with Christ. There is a possible world in which Viola's emphasis on community and disdain for individualism would lead him to affirm infant baptism.

Since I'm on individualism, Viola is of course right that the sinner's prayer was invented to give people a path to becoming a Christian and is not exactly found in any one place in Scripture. And he's right that the emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ is a peculiarly contemporary American phenomenon. As usual, his delving DEEPER section (was this section in the first edition? I suspect he is answering real questions from people) is more balanced. Yes, "We certainly should make our own confessions of faith" (198).

The "diluting" of baptism for Viola is the thinking that the sinner's prayer is basically it. Interestingly--because it seems out of keeping with the trend of the rest of the book--Viola wants a person to be baptized ASAP after coming to faith. But I think he makes too much of the connection between baptism and being "saved" in the New Testament. Receiving the Spirit is the definitive marker of becoming a Christian in Acts, Paul, and Hebrews. Paul de-emphasizes the importance of the act in 1 Corinthians 1.

And again, Viola wrongly assumes that we have to do everything exactly the way the earliest Christians did. Yes, let's baptize soon after a person receives the Spirit. Immersion? Why not, I like the symbolism. Infants? I prefer it because 1) baptism does not save (1 Pet. is figurative), 2) I believe it fits the corporate formulation of identity reflected in the early church, and 3) it says our children are in the church and that we are guarding their souls until they are old enough to decide for themselves what faith path their own life will take. I will tolerate you holding our children out a three story window of faith until they are old enough to ask you to kindly let them come into the safety of the house if you will tolerate my affirmation of God's prevenient grace and predilection to save rather than to damn.

Then of course Viola gets to communion. Yes, it was originally a meal. Yes, I find the individual crackers and cups of juice highly perverse when one primary meaning of the meal is "because there is one bread, we are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17). Hard to see how individual cups and wafers convey the unity of the body at all but in an American context simply reinforces the false idea that we are only in a personal relationship with Christ. The corporate dimension is primary, the personal dimension secondary. Viola is right here.

I think Viola is part right and part wrong on examining ourselves. What the Corinthians were to examine is whether they rightly discerned the body of Christ as they ate, namely, the church. Were they in proper relationship to their brothers and sisters as they partook. So it was an examination of corporate sin Paul had in mind rather than individual sin.

Nevertheless, there is a power to the abbreviated "meal" we now take that I believe God has sanctioned. What could be wrong with taking this moment, indeed many moments to examine your own life in terms of sin and righteousness? There is a place for the "pot luck," but I can't remember any that were as powerful spiritually as some moments I've had in communion.

So the eucharistic service is a development from the New Testament in some ways, but it is so powerful that I have to believe it is a God ordained one. Viola's assemblies are losing something if they abandon the possibility of God ordained "sacred moments" (sacraments) like communion where ordinary bread and juice can become catalysts for the "real" presence of Christ. Yes, he's always there. Yes, you can experience his "real" presence anywhere.

But God seems to have given this particular place and time His approval, as with baptism. And God has the right to create a thousand other "sacred moments" on the spot whenever and wherever He chooses.


John Mark said...

I have really enjoyed this book review.
I have had three conversations about the "crisis" of conversion in the last few weeks. Viola does insist on a confession of faith, I presume along the lines of Romans 10. But do you think there is a growing danger that we have more people in our churches today who are simply acculturated or nominal Christians?
How would a more "corporate" understanding of salvation help us? My understanding may have more to do with sociology than theology, but I grew up with a suspicion of this; linked of course with an anti-Catholic, anti-liturgical bias.

David Anderson, Tennessee said...

I also have a problem with the compulsory form of tithing which has existed in previous days, particularly when administered by the state. I believe that the church has mostly gotten beyond it, though not entirely. Well, at least you do not have to pay to enter a church building like you would for most all Christian concerts and conferences.

Jesus did commend the woman who gave 100% so I doubt that he would get obsessed about 10% as long as one's motives were right and churches were not requiring it.

Times are truly getting tough and the church should again become a department of social services as in Acts 6 & 1 Tim 5. This will not be cheap but it can happen. Volunteerism must become the order of the day.

Am I to suppose that Barna and Viola do not regularly receive an "envelope" for their speech making? (During which time, the principal of "spontaneous, participatory gatherings" with the "full-functioning priesthood" will not be in effect. Ditto for any ban on those spirit-quenching, pre-arranged "orders of service.")

How about some leadership via example, George and Frank, rather than charging an ungodly 27 dollars for the audio version of your book. Last I checked, a CD could be had and duplicated for just a few dimes even with the fancy color labels. Better yet, just put the mp3 files out there for free access. Then, you can help rid the church of all the greed-driven pastors who "make merchandise out of the word of God."

Anonymous said...

we use one loaf and many cups. Many people now are germaphobes and through the winter they prefer the individual cups- until we go back to using real wine anyway :)

We do drink all at once, however- out of our many different cups.

Thanks for this series

Glenn Knepp

Tjago said...


Frank's point is that a serious divergence exists between the organization that calls itself the "church" in America and the living, breathing ekklesia of the New Testament. If the "church" was influencing culture, ministering to the poor and those broken in spirit, and demonstrating the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit in their lives this would be a different discussion.

However, the "church" is not influencing culture but being influenced by it. The "church" has relinquished the high calling of ministering to those cast off by society to government and non-profit organizations. Worse of all, the "church" appears to be "in the world" as well as "of the world" in most statistics measuring divorce, premarital sex, pornography, morality, and ethics.

Ken, we certainly have liberty and indeed it was freedom that Christ set us free; but perhaps we need to take a closer look at the spiritual principles underlying the methods of the first century church. As we do, I believe we will find that in our quest to be relevant and modern in our approach we have adopted "doing" Church for being the Church.

I love you brother and appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts.