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Particulars of Christianity:
312 The Church Ethic


Examining the Models

Introduction & 3 Models of Church Gatherings and Leadership
Examining the Models
Examining the Models Conclusions and Study Expectations
Examining Church Gatherings in the Gospels
The First Supper, Jesus' Specific Instructions, Conclusions
Survey of Post-Ascension Church Gatherings
Apostolic and Eldership Functions in Acts and the Epistles
1 Corinthians 1-10 & Introduction to 1 Corinthians 11-14
1 Corinthians 11-13
1 Corinthians 14
1 Timothy 2:12, Conclusions on Women in Church Gatherings
Conclusions: 1 Corinthians 14, Church Gatherings & Leadership




Examining the Models: Implications from the Trinity

 

Now that we have defined the various models for church gatherings, we can proceed to examining these models in light of the scripture. For the most part our examination will be based upon a thorough analysis of New Testament passages, which relate to the issue of church gatherings. However, before we begin that part of our investigation we can first assess some additional arguments made by Frank Viola on behalf of his model. As we will see, these additional arguments do not emerge from scriptural texts which specifically deal with church gatherings. Instead, Viola argues for his model on the basis of other scriptural truths that he asserts are equally vital for informing us how to conduct church gatherings and leadership.

 

The first proof that we will look at is Viola’s assertion that the triune nature of God itself establishes his model for church gatherings and leadership. As we examine these lines of evidence offered by Viola, we must keep in mind the essential features of his model, which he states are required by these scriptural truths. Here again are those defining characteristics of Viola’s model.

 

1. One, two, or three people should not dominate the leading or teaching at church meetings or take up the majority of the speaking.

2. Church meetings are not defined or dominated by leading and teaching from elders/pastors/bishops/overseers.

3. There are no long teaching components during a church gathering.

4. Every member, whether man or woman, has the right and the responsibility to share and speak at the church gathering by singing a song, reading a poem, acting out a skit, giving a short bible commentary on a passage they read that week, saying some encouraging words, giving a testimony of something good God has done, or praying.

 

For Frank Viola, the model comprised of these characteristics is inevitably dictated by the community of the three Persons of God. In the following quotes, Viola explains how the equality of the three Persons of God itself requires equality (rather than hierarchy) in the church and its gatherings.

 

As such, the DNA of the church will always reflect these four elements: 1. It will always express the headship of Jesus Christ in His church as opposed to the headship of a human being. (I’m using the term “headship” to refer to the idea that Christ is both the authority and the source of the church.) 2. It will always allow for and encourage the every-member functioning of the body. 3. It will always map to the theology that’s contained in the New Testament, giving it visible expression on the earth. 4. It will always be grounded in the fellowship of the triune God. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 1, Reimagining Church as an Organism, page 41

 

4. You said the Trinity is noted for its mutuality. Yet don’t John 14:28 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 teach that there is a hierarchy in the Godhead? No. These passages have in view the Son’s temporal relationship as a human being who voluntarily submitted Himself to His Father’s will. In the Godhead, the Son and the Father experience communality and mutual submission. It is for this reason that historic orthodoxy rejects the eternal subordination of the Son of God. It instead accepts the temporal subordination of the Son in His incarnation. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Final Thoughts, page 265

 

There is a unified God – a plural in oneness. God is one Being in three persons – all of whom are diverse, but not separate. The Greek word koinonia – which means fellowship – takes us to the heart of New Testament ecclesiology. Koinonia reflects the unified diversity inherent in the Trinity. And it is what characterized the first-century church. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 6, Reimagining Church Unity, page 131

 

Let’s return to our discussion of mutual subjection to the archetype of the church: the Godhead. Because mutual subjection is based in love, it’s rooted in the very nature of the triune God. God, by nature, is Community. The one God is made up of a Community of three persons who eternally share Their lives with one another. Within the Godhead, the Father pours Himself into the Son. In turn, the Son gives Himself unreservedly to the Father. And the Spirit, as the Holy Mediator, pours Their love from each to each. Within this divine dance of love, there exists no hierarchy. There exists no control. There exists no authoritarianism. There exists no conflict of interests. Instead, there is mutual love, mutual fellowship, and mutual subjection. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 12, Reimagining Authority and Submission, page 225

 

The church is the community of the King. As such, it’s called to mirror the reciprocal love relationship that eternally flows within the triune God. Thus within the fellowship of the church, there is mutual subjection governed by mutual love. There is no hierarchy, no control, and no authoritarianism. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 12, Reimagining Authority and Submission, page 226

 

Stated simply, the Trinitarian nature of God serves as both the source and the model for all human community. And it is within the love relationship of the Godhead that the principle of mutual subjection finds its true value. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 12, Reimagining Authority and Submission, page 227

 

Mutual subjection, therefore, isn’t a human concept. It instead stems from the communal and reciprocal nature of the eternal God. And it is that very nature that the ekklesia is called to bear. In this way, mutual subjection enables us to behold the face of Christ in the very fabric and texture of organic church life. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 12, Reimagining Authority and Submission, page 227

 

As reflected in the quotes above and as he explains in his book, Viola sees the eternal equality of the three Persons of God as a model that creates the “DNA of the church.” The essential point for Viola is that the subordination and hierarchy seen in the Godhead after the incarnation of the Word does not pertain to the eternal state of the Godhead prior to creation. In this respect, Viola is one hundred percent correct. The subordination of the Word of God to the Father is clearly a post-creation issue that is not biblically ascribed to the Godhead prior to creation.

 

For Viola, this eternal equality of the divine Persons provides the exact model that Jesus Christ established for his church. In Viola’s understanding, because the Persons of God are co-equal with shared authority prior to creation, in the same way the believers in the church are to be without hierarchy in their relationships with one another now. Since prior to creation submission within the Godhead was mutual rather than directional, there will be no hierarchical leadership structures in the church. This, at least, is Viola’s argument.

 

Now it is undeniably correct to ascribe co-equality to the Persons of the Trinity prior to creation. And it is absolutely clear that after creation the Word voluntarily takes a subordinated position to the Father, which culminates ultimately in the incarnation. Two things, however, are decisively less clear.

 

First, where does Viola get the notion that there is mutual subordination within the Godhead? While we can easily point to the incarnation of as an example of the Word subordinating Himself to the Father, what examples or indications to do we have that the Father subordinates Himself to the Son? In order for subordination to be mutual it has to be engaged in by both parties, but we have no instances or indications of the Father subordinating Himself to the Son at any point.

 

What we see in the scriptural depiction of the Godhead cannot accurately be categorized as mutual subordination. Instead, what we see in the bible is directional and hierarchical subordination wherein the Son voluntarily subordinates Himself to the Father, but the Father is never seen as subordinating Himself to the Son. If, as Viola suggests, church leadership is to be based on what we see exemplified in the Godhead, then we must conclude that church leadership is not characterized by mutual subordination. If the Trinity is our model for church leadership and the Trinity doesn’t exemplify mutual subordination then neither will church leadership.

 

Second, why does the pre-creation equality of the divine Trinity bear any weight on the nature of church leadership and gatherings?

 

In Viola’s mind, the connection is apparent. And yet neither of his books addresses or explains why this must be the case. From a purely hypothetical standpoint it is just as possible that the temporal subordination and hierarchical positioning of the Word under the Father provides an essential modeling for church gatherings and leadership. It is therefore equally possible that because the process of our salvation involves the temporary subordination and hierarchical structuring of the Godhead, so also the process of our salvation requires temporary subordination and hierarchical structuring of the church itself.

 

The relevant scriptural passages that would touch on this subject provide no indication that we must accept Viola’s position over the equally plausible alternative involving temporary subordination and hierarchy. Consider, for example, John 17:11 and 22-23 along with John 14:19-20 in which Jesus compares the community of his followers to the unity He shares with the Father.

 

John 17:11 And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.

 

John 17:22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.

 

John 14:19 Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. 20 At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.

 

In these passages, Jesus clearly relates our fellowship and unity to the unity He has with the Father. However, even as Jesus says these words He is himself in a position of hierarchical subordination to the Father for the purposes of accomplishing our salvation.

 

Notice also that in these same passages Jesus equally relates our being in Him and His being in us to His being in the Father and the Father being in him. However, in Jesus’ own words this concept of “being in” is directly tied to obedience. His being in the Father and the Father’s being in Him are due to His subordinating himself to the Father’s will through His obedience. The same is true of us. Our being in Christ and Christ’s being in us are inherently bound by our obedience to His commands and teachings. Below is some of the surrounding context for the statements from Jesus that we just quoted above.

 

John 10:17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. 18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

 

John 12:49 For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is life everlasting: whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak.

 

John 14:10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake.

 

John 14:15 If ye love me, keep my commandments….21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. 23 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. 24 He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me. 25 These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you.

 

John 14:31 But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence.

 

John 15:7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. 8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. 9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. 10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love….20 Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.

 

These passages make plain that whatever connection exists in Viola’s mind between the eternal equality of the Trinity and the church is not at all scripturally apparent. In fact, the very passages, which do relate the unity and fellowship of the Godhead to the unity and fellowship of the church do so in direct correlation to subordination, obedience, and hierarchy. It seems that, the only implications we would be able derive from the scripture itself on this subject is the opposite of what Viola proposes. Contrary to Viola’s view, the words of Jesus recorded for us in John 12, 14, 15, and 17 would lead us to expect that just as there is temporary submission and hierarchy in the Godhead since creation in order to accomplish salvation, there will also be temporary subordination and hierarchy within the church.

 

In short, concerning the model for church leadership and church gatherings, nothing necessarily follows from the Triune nature of God. If anything, the Word’s voluntary post-creation submission to the Father and the absence of any scriptures attesting to the Father submitting to the Word would argue equally in favor of the need for a temporary hierarchy and submission to it in the church.

 

 

 

Examining the Models: the Priesthood of All Believers

Another proof, which Viola offers for a non-hierarchical model of church leadership and gatherings, relates to comments that Peter makes in his first epistle.

 

1 Peter 2:5 Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.

 

1 Peter 2:9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:

 

In these two verses Peter states that the church is a priesthood and that we are all priests. The Book of Revelation speaks similarly.

 

Revelation 1:6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Revelation 5:10 And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.

 

Revelation 20:6 Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

 

From these scriptural statements Viola argues that since all Christians are priests, therefore there are no special functions reserved only for particular believers during times of corporate worship and fellowship. (Viola refers to Peter’s epistle throughout the quotes below. In the second quote Viola even references the “living stones” of 1 Peter 2:5.)

 

Footnote 138: “The priesthood of all believers refers not only to each person’s relation to God and to one’s priesthood to neighbors, as in Luther, it refers also to the equality of all people in the Christian community with respect to formal function.” John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity: Interpreted through Its Development (New York: Macmillan Company, 1988), 61. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 5, The Pastor: Obstacle to Every-Member Functioning, page 128

 

The unscriptural clergy/laity distinction has done untold harm to the body of Christ. It has divided the believing community into first and second-class Christians. The clergy/laity dichotomy perpetuates an awful falsehood – namely, that some Christians are more privileged than others to serve the Lord. The one-man ministry is entirely foreign to the New Testament, yet we embrace it while it suffocates our functioning. We are living stones, not dead ones. However, the pastoral office has transformed us into stones that do not breathe. Permit us to get personal. We believe the pastoral office has stolen your right to function as a full member of Christ’s body. It has distorted the reality of the body, making the pastor a giant mouth and transforming you into a tiny ear. It has rendered you a mute spectator who is proficient at taking sermon notes and passing an offering plate. But that is not all. The modern-day pastoral office has overthrown the main thrust of the letter to the Hebrews – the ending of the old priesthood. It has made ineffectual the teaching of 1 Corinthians 12-14, that every member has both the right and the privilege to minister in a church gathering. It has voided the message of 1 Peter 2 that every brother and sister is a functioning priest. Being a functioning priest does not mean that you may only perform highly restrictive forms of ministry like singing songs in your pew, raising your hands during worship, setting up the PowerPoint presentation, or teaching a Sunday school class. That is not the New Testament idea of ministry! – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 5, The Pastor: Obstacle to Every-Member Functioning, pages 136-137

 

The first-century church meeting is deeply rooted in biblical theology. It made real and practical the New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers – a doctrine that all Evangelicals affirm with their lips. And what is that doctrine? In the words of Peter, it is the doctrine that all believers in Christ are spiritual priests called to offer up “spiritual sacrifices” unto their Lord. In Paul’s language, it’s the idea that all Christians are functioning members of Christ’s body. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 2, Reimagining the Church Meeting, page 55-56

 

Open-participatory church meetings are solidly based on the well-established doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the every-member functioning of the body of Christ. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 14, Reimagining the Apostolic Tradition, page 248

 

As we read these passages from Viola’s books, he makes it clear that in his mind the equal, open-participatory meetings that he envisions directly result from the priesthood of all believers. What remains unclear is how the priesthood of all believers requires that all believers function in the same ways or participate equally during church gatherings.

 

Again, a look at the biblical texts themselves breaks down Viola’s deductions. In his epistle (which Viola himself references) Peter is applying an Old Testament statement about Israel to the New Testament church. Specifically, Peter is quoting Moses who, in Exodus 19, recorded God’s own words when the First Covenant was inaugurated between God and Israel.

 

Exodus 19:5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: 6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. 7 And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him.

 

Likewise, even Peter’s use of the phrase “a peculiar people” is a quote of Moses’ words about the Israelites in the Old Testament as recorded in Deuteronomy 7.

 

Deuteronomy 7:6 For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.

 

For comparison here again is 1 Peter 2:9.

 

1 Peter 2:9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:

 

So, in Viola’s view, the church is different than Old Testament Israel simply because in the church we are all priests. Since we are all priests he reasons that we all function equally in corporate worship and there is therefore no special function which is reserved for some but not all. Viola directly contrasts this concept with the Old Testament priesthood where various roles and functions of corporate worship were limited to particular persons and not available for any and all. And yet, the very passage that Viola quotes as the basis of his view has Peter describing the priesthood of the church with an Old Testament description of Israel.

 

In Exodus 19:5-6, the priesthood is applied to the whole nation of Israel, to all of God’s people. Within that nation of priests, out of twelve tribes only one particular tribe was given special responsibilities and functions in regard to the nation’s service to God. Within that tribe (the tribe of Levi), one particular family (the family of Aaron) was given special duties and responsibilities. And within that family, one particular man held the particular office of high priest along with all its sacred and special duties, which no one else could perform.

 

Since Peter is applying an Old Testament description of the nation of Israel to the church, it inevitably follows that whatever Peter is saying is true for the church was also true for Israel. If Peter uses Exodus 19:5-6 to say that everyone in the church is a priest, then he can only do so because Exodus 19 similarly says that all of God’s people are priests. The language of both passages is the same. Peter is referencing an Old Testament truth and applying it to the church of both Jewish and Gentile believers.

 

In light of this fact, Viola’s logic that the priesthood of all rules out hierarchy, inequality, or limitation of function fails miserably. The obvious reason for this failure is that the priesthood of the entire nation of Israel involved hierarchy, inequality, and limitation of function during corporate gatherings and the service of God in general. Consequently, the application of this Old Testament phrase to the priesthood of all New Testament believers cannot be taken to inherently rule out hierarchy, inequality, or limitation of function or participation among the priests. In the Old Testament they were all priests, too, just as we are in Christ. And yet they did not all function or participate equally in their priestly services. Therefore, we cannot conclude that because we are all priests in the New Covenant, that we should all have equal function and participation in our gatherings. In fact, Peter’s application of the priesthood of Israel to the New Testament church implies that just as the priestly nation of Israel had specialized and hierarchical function among its members, so will the church of Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

Examining the Models: One-Anothering and Mutual Ministry

 

One of the proofs that Frank Viola offers in his books in support of his model for church gatherings and leadership is the concept of what he calls “one-anothering.” For Viola, this term (“one-anothering”) is synonymous with the idea of mutual ministry where every believer present at a church gathering has the right and responsibility to participate, share, and function equally. As we have seen from his model, Viola believes that this notion of everyone participating or “one-anothering” was the chief characteristic of New Testament church meetings.

 

The early Christians gathered in open-participatory meetings where all believers shared their experience of Christ, exercised their gifts, and sought to edify one another. No one was a spectator. All were given the privilege and the responsibility to participate. The purpose of these church meetings was twofold. It was for the mutual edification of the body. It was also to make visible the Lord Jesus Christ through the every-member functioning of His body. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 12, A Second Glance at the Savior: Jesus, the Revolutionary, page 243

 

Again, “one-anothering” was the dominant ingredient of the early church gathering. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 2, Reimagining the Church Meeting, pages 52-53

 

As Paul pulls back the curtain of the first-century church gathering in 1 Corinthians 11-14, we see a meeting where every member is actively involved. Freedom, openness, and spontaneity are the chief marks of this meeting. “One another” is its dominant feature – mutual edification its primary goal. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 2, Reimagining the Church Meeting, pages 53

 

For Viola, proof that New Testament church meetings involved every member participating and functioning equally comes through the New Testament occurrences of the phrase “one another.”

 

The spirit of “one-anothering” pervaded the entire meeting. It’s no wonder that the New Testament uses the phrase one anothering nearly sixty times. Each member came to the meeting knowing that he or she had the privilege and the responsibility to contribute something of Christ. (Incidentally, women had both the right and the privilege to participate in the meetings of the church. See endnote for details.) 6 – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 2, Reimagining the Church Meeting, pages 55

 

On pages 186 and 187 of Reimagining Church, Viola provides a list of one-anothering passages. Here are the “one another” verses that Viola lists.


- be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10)

- honor one another (Rom. 12:10)

- live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16; 1 Peter 3:8)

- love one another (Romans 13:8; 1 Thess. 4:9;
  1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11)

- edify one another (Rom. 14:19; 1 Thess. 5:11b)

- accept one another (Rom. 15:7)

- admonish one another (Rom. 15:14)

- greet one another (Rom. 16:16)

- agree with one another (1 Cor. 1:10)

- care for one another (1 Cor. 14:31)

- serve one another (Gal. 5:13)

- bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)

- bear with one another (Eph. 4:2)

- be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32)

- speak to one another with psalms, hymns,
  and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19)

- submit to one another (Eph. 5:21)

- forgive one another (Col. 3:13)

- teach one another (Col. 3:16)

- admonish one another (Col. 3:16)

- encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11)

- exhort one another (Heb. 3:13; 10:25)

- incite one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24)

- pray for one another (James 5:16)

- confess sins to one another (James 5:16)

- offer hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)

- be humble toward one another (1 Peter 5:5)

- fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7)

 

After reading these references or perhaps even looking at the verses in context, one could easily ask, how do we know that these statements are referring to church gatherings? Being able to answer this question is absolutely critical to Viola’s argument. And yet, he doesn’t even seem to see it coming or recognize the need to prove that these verses are talking about church gatherings. In his book, Viola provides no further explanation of these passages. He simply lists them and then concludes with the following quote.

 

With dramatic clarity, all of these “one-another” exhortations incarnate the fact that every member of the church is to share the responsibility for pastoral care. Leadership is a corporate affair, not a solo one. It is to be shouldered by the entire body. Consequently, the idea that elders direct the affairs of the church, make decisions in all corporate matters, handle all of its problems, and supply all of its teaching is alien to New Testament thinking. Such an idea is pure fantasy and bereft of biblical support. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 9, Reimagining Oversight, page 187

 

But again, how do we know that these passages are instructions for what we are to do when we gather together for church? How does Viola know that these passages are referring to church gatherings?

 

First, this is a very weak argument that Viola offers here. It operates entirely on circular reasoning. It works like this. How do we know that church meetings are characterized by every member participating and sharing equally with one another? Well, the New Testament speaks repeatedly about our loving one another, caring for one another, forgiving one another, etc. But how do we know those instructions pertain to church gatherings? Well, we know these “one another” instructions pertain to church gatherings because “one-anothering” is a chief characteristic of New Testament church gatherings. But then the first question resurfaces. How do we know that the chief characteristic of New Testament church gatherings is every member ministering to one another by participating, sharing, and functioning equally? The passages containing “one another” instructions are first presented as proof for a particular model of church gatherings. But in the end, it becomes necessary to first presume a “one another” style of gathering in order to justify associating all these passages with church gatherings. In other words, only if we first assume that “one anothering” is a key feature of New Testament gatherings can we conclude that “one another” passages are referring to church gatherings.

 

Second, the context of these passages makes it clear that these “one another” instructions are general rules for Christian living, and do not referring to the much more specific topic of church gatherings at all. Consider Romans 12:10, which tells us to honor one another. Are we only to honor one another at church gatherings or is this an instruction to close-knit communities about living together with one another in general? Or what about Romans 13:8, which says “love one another?” Are we only to love one another at church gatherings? Or are we to live with love towards one another throughout our daily lives together? The same can be said of all of these “one another” references, which all seem to speak simply of Christians living in loving, supportive, caring, honoring relationships and behaving toward one another with kindness and compassion. There is nothing in any of these passages or their context, which indicates that the New Testament authors intended them as directions for how to conduct a church gathering. This remains nothing more than Viola’s assumption.

                                          

Again, it must be said that nowhere in his books does Viola attempt to provide an answer to these essential questions. The only answer he does provide is his own conclusion that church meetings are characterized by everyone participating and functioning equally. But again, how does he know that? Verses such as these don’t themselves lend any support to Viola’s conclusion unless one has already decided that his conclusion is valid. But if one has already decided that Viola’s conclusion is valid what need is there to support it with verses such as these? Without that conclusion in place we would likely conclude that these are simply instructions that Christians live with love and care for one another, not necessarily having any bearing on what structure a church gathering should have.

 

When we come to Viola’s mention of Hebrews 10:25, however, we find that there is, in fact, a specific reference to “gathering together.”

 

Hebrews 10:23 Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) 24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. 26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, 27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.

 

First, let us notice that these verses from Hebrews 10 is not a chapter discussing what happens in “church gatherings.” Verse 23 tells the readers to hold fast to their profession of faith. Is this an instruction for church gatherings? Not at all. Instead, it is a reference for Christians to remain faithful without doubting. Verse 26, is speaking about sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth. Is it only forbidding sinning during church gatherings? Obviously not. It is simply an instruction for Christian living in general and does not pertain to church meetings. It is clear then that verses 23 and 26 don’t pertain to church gatherings, but what about verse 24? Verse 24 simply instructs the Christians to consider one another and to encourage each other unto love and good works. So, there is nothing in verse 24 in and of itself that would lead us to conclude the author of Hebrews is instructing Christians regarding how to conduct church gatherings.

 

It isn’t until we get to the next statement, in verse 25 that we find mention of church gatherings. But so far this seems to be a series of instructions whose only connection to one another is that they all relate to staying part of the Christian community including holding to the faith, being considerate of one another, encouraging each other toward love and good works, not sinning after they’ve come to Christ, and not abandoning church gatherings. In short, rather than “considering one another” being a description of the “church gathering,” instead “considering one another” and the “gathering at church” are listed as separate items on a list of related items. The only comment made about the “church gatherings” in verse 25 is that Christians should not stop going to them. But nothing in this passage provides any information about the features of the church gathering itself.  

 

Second, it is important to note that while the English translation of verse 25 does include the words “one another” after the word “exhorting,” most Bible translations render the phrase “one another” in italics, which indicates that it doesn’t actually appear in the Greek text of the verse. The Greek merely says “but exhorting.” The word “exhorting” is rendered in the participle form, which is equivalent to having an “-ed” or “-ing” ending on an English verb. And it follows the Greek word “alla,” which means “but.” Because of this conjunction “but,” it might be assumed that the author’s intention is to contrast not gathering together with encouraging. And that is sound enough reasoning. However, a mere contrast between “gathering together” and “encouraging” alone would not necessarily have implications for the entire overall structure and format of the meetings. It could very well be the case that “encouraging” contrasts to “not gathering together” because Christians are encouraged merely by seeing each other at the meetings. This would not at all imply that the format of the meetings involves Christians vocally encouraging one another by every member ministering in an open-participatory manner. And even if we assume that the encouraging is vocal, this still does not necessitate that the encouraging dominates the very structure of the meetings. After all, even the monopolized Pseudo-traditional model of today often includes an interval for Christians to greet and encourage one another. So, even if we assume that the encouraging occurs during the gathering that would not necessarily overturn other passages describing a structure in which elders generally dominate the speaking and teaching.

 

But more importantly, it would appear that the phrase “but encouraging” does not necessarily relate to the structure of the gatherings at all. Once again we note that the phrase “one another” is not present in verse 25, but is an interpolation inserted by the translators. The Greek simply says “encouraging.” The phrase “but encouraging” should not be connected with the statements before it about gathering together. Instead, the context indicates that it is more accurate to connect “but encouraging” with the long statement that follows after it. Consider the content of verses 26-27. Here the author speaks of losing the atonement for sin and states that, in such a case, all that remains is a fearful waiting for judgment. Clearly the phrase “but encouraging” is meant as part of this lengthy statement. The author is not telling his audience that encouraging one another in general and diverse ways is part of the structure for church gatherings. Instead, he is telling his audience that as Christ’s return draws ever nearer, they should be giving the very specific exhortation that for those Christians who willfully turn away from Christ, nothing remains except condemnation. Instead of forsaking the church gatherings themselves in verse 25, in verse 26 they should be exhorting that forsaking Christ leads to eternal damnation. Consequently, neither the occurrence of the phrase, “exhorting one another,” nor the contrast of that phrase to “forsaking church gatherings” is intended as a statement about the type of general and diverse forms of encouragement that Viola asserts define the structure of church gatherings. It is simply a very specific exhortation to go to such gatherings contrasted to a prohibition against forsaking those gatherings.

 

Therefore, we can learn nothing more about the features and conduct of church gatherings from Hebrews 10:25 than we can from any of these other “one another” passages. All the passages provide are general instructions for Christian living. They do not provide indications or instructions that church meetings should involve every member participating and functioning equally. To force that conclusion from the text is an exercise of circular reasoning and a clear example of taking unrelated verses, lifting them from their contexts, and unjustifiably connecting them simply to support a presupposed conclusion or pet doctrine. Viola himself repudiates such interpretive practices, as we will see after the next section.

 

 

 

Examining the Models: The New Testament as a Guide

 

Another issue raised by Frank Viola in his books, which is relevant to the question of how we study the New Testament, is the question of how to interpret scripture. In both Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church, Viola explains that modern deviations from New Testament church gatherings and leadership are due to inadequate and faulty methods of interpreting the bible. Contrarily, he claims that correct methodology will result in the model that he has put forward in his books.

 

The first problem that Viola points to as one of the culprits for today’s false systems of church gatherings and leadership is what he calls “biblical blueprintism.” In the quote below, Viola explains what he means by this term and why he feels it is faulty.

 

As stated in chapter 1, some hold to the concept of “biblical blueprintism.” According to this paradigm, the New Testament is a detailed manual for church practice. We simply need to study the practices of the early church, imitate them, and presto, we’ll have a “New Testament church.” But this viewpoint is flawed on two counts. First, it turns the New Testament into a modern replica of ancient Judaic Law. Second, those who hold to the biblical blueprint model disagree with one another as to which practices ought to be followed to create a “New Testament church.” – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 14, Reimagining the Apostolic Tradition, page 243

 

Note the two reasons Viola identifies as the faults behind this view. We will cover these two arguments as we proceed into further examination of Viola’s quotes on this topic below.

 

According to Viola, “biblical blueprintism” is the view that the New Testament serves as a guide for church practice whose instructions are accessed by studying the practices of the early church and imitating them. In the next few quotes, Viola provides further explanation of what he views as the first flaw of “biblical blueprintism.” (We’ll repeat the first quote from above for emphasis.)

 

As stated in chapter 1, some hold to the concept of “biblical blueprintism.” According to this paradigm, the New Testament is a detailed manual for church practice. We simply need to study the practices of the early church, imitate them, and presto, we’ll have a “New Testament church.” But this viewpoint is flawed on two counts. First, it turns the New Testament into a modern replica of ancient Judaic Law. Second, those who hold to the biblical blueprint model disagree with one another as to which practices ought to be followed to create a “New Testament church.” – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 14, Reimagining the Apostolic Tradition, page 243

 

Long ago I learned an invaluable lesson: The New Testament should never be handled as a manual of floatable doctrines and isolated teachings. The New Testament is a whole. It’s essentially a story. What is written in the letters of Paul and others is part of that story. The New Testament story contains a consistent message. It’s the message of the New Covenant. This covenant is not an updating of the Old Covenant. It doesn’t include a new set of rules to replace the old set of rules. The Old Covenant contained a set of rules by which men and women were to live. – Frank Viola, Reimagining A Woman’s Role in the Church, An Open Letter, page 2

 

When Jesus Christ entered the scene, all of this radically changed. Our Lord inaugurated a New Covenant which made the old one obsolete. The New Covenant did away with rules. – Frank Viola, Reimagining A Woman’s Role in the Church, An Open Letter, page 3

 

For this reason, the New Testament doesn’t supply us with a detailed blueprint for church practice. It’s a gross mistake, therefore, to try to tease out of the apostolic letters an inflexible code of church order that’s as unalterable as the law of the Medes and Persians. Such a written code belongs to the other side of the cross. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the New Testament is silent when it comes to church practice. It certainly isn’t. But the New Testament isn’t a manual for church practice. It’s rather a record of how the living, breathing organism called the ekklesia expresses herself on earth. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 14, Reimagining the Apostolic Tradition, page 244

 

As Viola himself explains, the reason he feels that it is wrong to view the New Testament as a guide for church practice is because the New Testament doesn’t include rules that we must follow. This in essence is what Viola refers to as the first flaw of “biblical blueprintism.” Viola isn’t simply saying that the New Testament is much more than a detailed set of rules, he is objecting to the idea that the New Testament contains any set of rules at all.

 

There are several major problems with Viola’s statements here.

 

First, Viola’s view of the New Testament is utterly false. Surely, the New Testament contains rules by which Christian men and women are to live. To claim otherwise is to throw out the authority and purpose of the scriptures altogether. Is Viola claiming that “anything goes” after the cross? That’s what his comments indicate.

 

Consider that according to Viola, God did away with rules and teachings about how we are to live when He replaced the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. This means that for Viola, the New Testament didn’t update, modify, remove, suspend, replace, or add to Old Testament rules. Instead, according to Viola, the New Testament did away with rules altogether. Viola’s view on this isn’t merely inadequate, it’s completely wrong. In our studies titled “The Redemption” and “Liberty in Christ,” we show from the New Testament itself that Jesus did establish a new covenant that did contain laws and that the authors of the New Testament repeatedly described Jesus’ teaching in such terms.


Second, as we might guess, Viola is not only falsely depicting the New Testament, but he is also grossly misrepresenting his own view in contrast to “biblical blueprintism.” For instance, surely Frank Viola would agree that Jesus commanded us to love one another? Doesn’t that constitute a rule? Do Christians have to believe in the resurrection of Christ? If so, can’t we call that a rule?

 

Of course, unless he foolishly wishes to split hairs and argue semantics, Frank Viola would agree that these are rules. (And no doubt he would agree that there are other rules also.) But beyond that, how can someone write several books citing New Testament passages to build their case for what church gatherings and leadership should and should not be, if they don’t believe the New Testament contains an instructive model for church practice? Consider Viola’s next quote.

                                                           

Point: Technical correctness and outward conformity to a prescribed form of church has never been God’s desire. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 14, Reimagining the Apostolic Tradition, page 243

 

How can Viola say such things? Doesn’t Viola consider it a matter of technical correctness that church leadership is not hierarchical and authoritarian? Doesn’t Viola believe that it is technically incorrect for church meetings to be dominated week after week by one or two persons? Of course he does. The following quotes all show that Viola believes the New Testament clearly provides rules for church practice.

 

The truth is that there are numerous practices of the early church that are normative for us today. These practices are not culturally conditioned. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 14, Reimagining the Apostolic Tradition, page 248

 

Point: Normative apostolic commands are binding on the contemporary church. But normative apostolic practices are as well. By normative, I mean those practices that contain a spiritual subtext and are the outworking of the organic nature of the body of Christ. Such practices are not purely narrative. They carry prescriptive force. This means that they reflect the unchanging nature of God Himself. And they naturally emerge whenever God’s people live by divine life together – irrespective of culture or time. In that connection the Book of Acts and the Epistles are awash with references to the apostolic tradition. In 1 Corinthians 4:17, Paul declares how he taught his ways “everywhere in every church.” To Paul’s mind, doctrine and duty – belief and behavior, life and practice – are inseparable. In short, that which is included in the apostolic tradition is normative for all churches yesterday and today. The exhortations of Paul to “hold firmly to the traditions just as I delivered them to you” and to practice what “you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” are the considerations that should guide our church life. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 14, Reimagining the Apostolic Tradition, pages 247-248

 

According to Viola, apostolic commands and practices are binding and carry prescriptive force. He even quotes New Testament passages providing examples of commands, which are prescriptive “for all churches yesterday and today.” So, isn’t it obvious that the New Testament therefore contains “rules” for church practice? Of course it is.

 

In addition, as we have seen Viola himself argues that the modern, institutional system of church gatherings and leadership is a violation of the New Testament. How could Viola even make such a claim if he does not believe that the modern, institutional church system is breaking some of the rules laid down in the New Testament? It is clear that Viola himself believes that the New Testament offers rules for church practice. Otherwise he could not write several books and online articles citing New Testament passages to support his view of what the churches gatherings and leadership should and should not be.

 

Either Frank Viola is being intentionally dishonest about his own opinion or he is speaking foolishly without fully realizing what he is saying.

 

Third and finally, since Viola himself uses the New Testament as a manual of rules for Christian living and church practice, he is wrong to identify this as a point of distinction that separates his model from other models. In the first quote from Viola that we looked at on this issue, he listed two flaws with “biblical blueprintism.” The second flaw was that those who wish to use the New Testament as a guide for church practice “all disagree with one another as to which practices ought to be followed.”

 

As stated in chapter 1, some hold to the concept of “biblical blueprintism.” According to this paradigm, the New Testament is a detailed manual for church practice. We simply need to study the practices of the early church, imitate them, and presto, we’ll have a “New Testament church.” But this viewpoint is flawed on two counts. First, it turns the New Testament into a modern replica of ancient Judaic Law. Second, those who hold to the biblical blueprint model disagree with one another as to which practices ought to be followed to create a “New Testament church.” – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 14, Reimagining the Apostolic Tradition, page 243

 

Note that there are at least two serious problems with Viola’s identification of this second flaw. First, Viola makes a logical error. By saying that the second flaw of “biblical blueprintism” is that those who hold to it all have different models, Viola has committed a logical fallacy. Just because proponents of the “biblical blueprint” approach disagree with one another in their conclusions, it does not logically follow that therefore every individual model is wrong. It only logically follows that not all of them can be simultaneously correct. Logically speaking, it is entirely possible that one model is correct and the others are incorrect. Consequently, this is another instance where Viola is either being dishonest in his portrayal or is not himself exercising clear thinking.

 

Second, by unfairly and incorrectly portraying the problem in this way Viola leaves himself out of the very category he is critiquing. Viola’s argument is that all models based on the biblical blueprint approach to church practice are proven wrong by the fact that they disagree with one another. However, since Viola himself uses the New Testament as a guidebook of binding commands and prescriptions for church practice, he is just another “biblical blueprint” proponent offering yet another model for church practice, which he believes to be correct. Even more to the point, Viola is simply providing one more “biblical blueprint” model to disagree with the others. Consequently, that collective disagreement should in turn disprove his own model as well, that is, if Viola’s criticism was valid (which, of course, it is not).

 

Therefore, regardless of what Viola wishes to portray for his own advantage, the differences between the alternative models cannot simply be attributed to whether one believes that the New Testament provides binding commands and prescriptive practices. Instead, the real explanation must be found elsewhere. The real explanation behind the different models for church gatherings and leadership lies in how well, how effectively, how comprehensively, how consistently, and how reasonably any particular model is derived from studying the New Testament.  

 

So, while it serves Viola well to mischaracterize the cause of his differences with his opponents, it is not a valid explanation. It is merely an erroneous oversimplification made either by oversight or dishonestly. In either case, like the other models we have described above, Viola’s model will have to be evaluated on the merits of his biblical analysis and not some red-herring about how his opponents have erred by taking the New Testament as a prescriptive guide for church practice.

 

 

 

Examining the Models: Interpreting the New Testament

 

In addition to his faulty argument that the New Testament as a whole should not be viewed as a “blueprint” for church gatherings and leadership, Viola also argues that incorrect models result from applying a flawed interpretive method to particular passages. Viola calls this flawed interpretive method “proof-texting.” And according to Viola, proof-texting is the culprit that is to blame for his opponent’s mistaken views.

 

Not surprisingly, having changed the biblical model of the church, we have become adept at building support for our approaches through proof-texting. Proof-texting is the practice of taking disparate, unrelated verses of Scripture, often out of context, to “prove” that our position squares with the Bible. As you read this book, you may be stunned to discover how many of our esteemed practices are way off the mark biblically. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, preface, xxviii

 

First, it should be said that as you read Viola’s books, you indeed are stunned to discover how many of his esteemed practices are way off the mark. But, of course, Viola does not mean to include his own practices as resulting from proof-texting. It should be noted, however, that what concerns us is not Viola’s criticism that proof-texting is the cause of faulty models. Instead, what concerns us is Viola’s understanding of what proof-texting is. As we will see, Viola has again mischaracterized and misrepresented a key issue involved in this discussion.

 

In the above quote Viola defines proof-texting as “taking disparate, unrelated verses of Scripture, often out of context, to ‘prove’ that our position squares with the Bible.” As we continue we will first compile Viola’s descriptions of “proof-texting” into a composite definition. Then we will see whether Viola’s definition of “proof-texting” is an accurate one. And finally, we will take a look at examples from Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church where Viola interprets scripture in order to see how he himself fairs against his own definition of “proof-texting.” Sadly, the case is remarkably similar to Viola’s criticism of the “biblical blueprint” approach, which it turned out that he himself employed. (We have already seen one example above where Viola himself proof-texted 1 Peter 2 regarding the priesthood of all believers.) Below is another passage, where Viola explains for us how “proof-texting” works.

 

You look for verses that will prove your particular doctrine so that you can slice-and-dice your theological sparring partner into biblical ribbons. (Because of the proof-texting method, a vast wasteland of Christianity behaves as if the mere citation of some random, decontextualized verse of Scripture ends all discussion on virtually any subject.) You look for verses in the Bible to control and/or correct others… Each of these approaches is built on isolated proof-texting. Each treats the New Testament like a manual and blinds us to its real message.  – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 11, Reapproaching the New Testament: The Bible Is Not A Jigsaw Puzzle, page 230

 

(Notice that in the final sentence of the above quote, Viola ascribes proof-texting to those who “treat the New Testament like manual.” We have already seen how Viola himself treats the New Testament like a manual. Consequently, we should not be surprised that we will see Viola also using proof-texting.)

 

Throughout his books, Viola couples proof-texting to what he calls the “clipboard approach” of studying the New Testament.

 

You could call our method of studying the New Testament the “clipboard approach.” If you are familiar with computers, you are aware of the clipboard component. If you happen to be in a word processor, you may cut and paste a piece of text via the clipboard. The clipboard allows you to cut a sentence from one document and paste it into another. Pastors, seminarians, and laymen alike have been conditioned by the clipboard approach when studying the Bible. This is how we justify our man-made, encased traditions and pass them off as biblical. It is why we routinely miss what the early church was like whenever we open up our New Testaments. We see verses. We do not see the whole picture. This approach is still alive and well today, not only in institutional churches but in house churches as well. Let me use another illustration to show how easily anyone can fall into it – and the harmful effects it can have. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 11, Reapproaching the New Testament: The Bible Is Not A Jigsaw Puzzle, page 232

 

Scriptures that do not fit the shape of the institutional church are either chopped off (dismissed) or they are stretched to fit its mold. The cut-and-paste method of Bible study makes this rather easy to pull off (no pun intended). We lift various verses out of their chronological order and historical setting and then paste them together to create a doctrine or support a practice. By contrast the chronological narrative provides a control on our interpretation of Scripture. It prevents us from cutting and pasting verses together to make the Bible fit our preconceived ideas. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 1, Reimagining Church as an Organism, page 44

 

We can see how Viola’s idea of proof-texting and the “clipboard approach” go hand in hand. And in the second to last quote above, Viola promises an illustration of how proof-texting works. Below is an excerpt of the illustration that Viola provides.

 

Joe has made another, more subtle mistake while interpreting this passage. The verse says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. Joe takes this to mean that every genuine church has elders. Yet this text says no such thing. The verse is referring to an event in south Galatia during the first century. “Every church” means every church in south Galatia in AD 49! Luke is talking about four churches that Paul and Barnabas just planted. Do you see the problem that we run into when we blithely lift verses from their historical setting? The truth is Joe is totally outside biblical grounds. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 11, Reapproaching the New Testament: The Bible Is Not A Jigsaw Puzzle, page 235

 

In his book, Viola uses Joe, a hypothetical Christian who is studying the bible in order to learn about church gatherings and leadership. In this illustration, we see Viola explain that Joe has taken a single verse, Acts 14:23, and used it to make a broader conclusion than the text intends. Specifically, Joe has taken the statement of Acts 14:23 that “they had ordained them elders in every church” to mean that every church of the New Testament had elders. Viola is right and Joe is wrong. Acts 14:23 only informs us of the appointing of elders in the church communities of Galatia that Paul and Barnabas had just established on their missionary journey. The passage tells us nothing about whether elders were established in every church that existed in the New Testament period. This is indeed an example of proof-texting.

 

Now let’s take a look at the New Testament interpretations that Viola himself makes to see if he avoids the error that Joe makes or whether Viola himself commits the same errors. Before we proceed, let us compile Viola’s definition of proof-texting from the quotes above.

 

According to Frank Viola, proof-texting is or involves:

 

1. Taking disparate, unrelated verses of scripture, often out of context, to “prove” that our position squares with the Bible.

2. The mere citation of some random, decontextualized, isolated verse of Scripture as if it ends all discussion on virtually any subject.

3. Cutting and pasting verse from the New Testament by chopping out parts that don’t fit or stretching them beyond their original intent to fit our doctrine or practice.

 

We want to be clear that we do not disagree with the definition of proof-texting cited here. What we want to do is keep this definition of proof-texting in mind as we examine how Viola himself interprets the New Testament in his books. We will start with two examples from Pagan Christianity.

 

The early church met for the purpose of displaying Jesus Christ through the every-member functioning of Christ’s body. The goal was to make Christ visible and to edify the whole church in the process. Mutual edification through mutual sharing, mutual ministry, and mutual exhortation was the aim. To our thinking, what would make all the difference is if God’s people were equipped and then encouraged to have meetings where every member shared the Christ they had encountered that week, freely and openly, as 1 Corinthians 14:26, 31 and Hebrews 10:25 exhort. The result: God would be seen and thus glorified. Consider your physical body. When every member of you body functions, your personality is expressed. It is the same with Christ. When each member of His body shares his or her portion of Christ, then Christ is assembled (see 1 Corinthians 12-14). – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Afterword, page 268

 

In like manner, the New Testament letters show that the ministry of God’s Word came from the entire church in their regular gatherings. From Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 14:26, and Colossians 3:16, we see that it included teaching, exhortation, prophecy, singing, and admonishment. This “every-member” functioning was also conversational (1 Corinthians 14:29) and marked by interruptions (1 Corinthians 14:30). – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 4, The Sermon: Protestantism’s Most Sacred Cow, page 88

 

Now, our purpose at this point is not to assess the validity of Viola’s conclusions. Instead, we are only assessing Viola’s own approach to New Testament interpretation in light of his condemnation of proof-texting as he has defined it. Recall that one of the key features of proof-texting, according to Viola, is taking de-contextualized verses out of their context and citing them as if merely citing them proves your position. Now look again at the above quotes.

 

In the first quote, Viola clearly states his position “The early church met for the purpose of displaying Jesus Christ through the every-member functioning of Christ’s body.” He continues to expound on his view of early church gatherings and then cites three verses in two different passages 1 Corinthians 14:26, 31 and Hebrews 10:25. (The same is true for the second quote above.)

 

Does Viola actually provide the text of these verses? No. Does Viola provide the context of these passages? No. Does he remove the verses from their context? Yes. Does Viola provide the historical context of the verses or the passages they come from? No. Does Viola merely cite the verses without any exegesis giving the impression that merely citing the verses demonstrates the soundness of his position and refutes his opponents’ views? Yes.

 

So, we ask another question, is Viola using proof-texting? Without quoting the text of these verses at all, let alone their larger biblical or historical context, and without providing a discussion of the content of the verses, but instead merely listing their location in the scripture, Viola has absolutely proof-texted these verses, even according to his own definition of proof-texting.

 

However, perhaps it is the case that these are only rare exceptions in Viola’s books. Unfortunately, they are not exceptions. They are typical. In fact, they are the only type of biblical analysis that Viola provides in the 500 plus pages contained in both Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church. In order to prove the point, more examples are provided below.

 

As we read the New Testament with an eye for understanding how the early Christians gathered, it becomes clear that they had four main types of meetings. They were: Apostolic Meetings. These were special meetings where apostolic workers preached to an interactive audience. Their goal was either to plant a church from scratch or to encourage an existing one. The twelve apostles held such meetings in the temple courts in Jerusalem during the birth of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 5:40-42). Paul held the same kind of meetings in the hall of Tyrannus when he planted the church in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10, 20:27, 31). There are two chief characteristics of the apostolic meeting. One is that an apostolic worker does most of the ministry. The other is that such meetings are never permanent. They are temporary and have a long-range goal. Namely, to equip a local body of believers to function under the headship of Jesus Christ without the presence of a human head (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 14:26). For this reason, an apostle always ends up leaving the church on its own. Evangelistic Meetings. In the first century, evangelism commonly occurred outside the regular meetings of the church. The apostles preached the gospel in those places where unbelievers frequented. The synagogue (for the Jews) and the marketplace (for the Gentiles) were among their favorite places to evangelize (Acts 14:1; 17:1-33; 18:4, 19). Evangelistic meetings were designed to plant a new church or to numerically build an existing church. These meetings were done “in season.” They weren’t a permanent fixture of the church. Philip’s trip to Samaria is an example of this kind of meeting (Acts 8:5ff). Decision-Making Meetings. Sometimes a church needed to assemble together to make an important decision. The meeting in Jerusalem described in Acts 15 was such a meeting. The chief feature of this meeting is that everyone participated in the decision-making process, and the apostles and elders played a helpful role. (See chapter 10 for details.) Church Meetings. These were the regular gatherings of the church. They would be the first-century equivalent of our Sunday-morning “church service.” Yet they were radically different. The first-century church meeting was primarily a believers meeting. The context of 1 Corinthians 11-14 makes this plain. While unbelievers were sometimes present, they were not the focus of the meeting. (In 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, Paul fleetingly mentions the presence of unbelievers in gathering.) – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 2, Reimagining the Church Meeting, pages 49-51

 

In this long quote Viola lays out his position that there were four distinct types of meetings in the New Testament church. He lists each meeting and provides a description of each. But how does Viola demonstrate that his conclusion that there are four distinct meeting types is scripturally correct? Does he provide a thorough discussion of the larger historical narrative of the New Testament? No. Does Viola provide the text of passages which he feels are relevant to the topic he is discussing? No. Does Viola provide the actual text of the surrounding passage for the verses he feels are relevant to this topic? No. Does Viola cite these isolated, de-contextualized verses without exegetical discussion as if simply citing them proves his position? It would seem that he clearly does.

 

How are Viola’s readers to know if the verses he merely cites are at all relevant to the topic or if they indeed support the conclusion that Viola is drawing from them? How are they to know if these verses are related to each other or even if they are related to the topic at all? How are they to know if Viola is stretching these verses to fit his position or chopping out nearby verses which contradict his position? They don’t.

 

Again, Viola is himself using proof-texting. In order to support his view, Viola is removing these verses from their context. He is not providing the text of the verses or their surrounding context. And he does not discuss the verses in the context of the whole of the New Testament historical narrative. Instead he merely cites verse references as if doing so proves his position. The following quotes all continue to show Viola engaging in the same method of proof-texting that he condemns as the cause of faulty models for church gatherings and leadership.

 

In fact, one of the goals of New Testament-styled preaching and teaching is to get each of us to function (Ephesians 4:11-16). It is to encourage us to open our mouths in the church meeting (1 Corinthians 12-14). – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 4, The Sermon: Protestantism’s Most Sacred Cow, page 97

 

In the above quote, how do we know if Ephesians 4:11-16 is at all related to 1 Corinthians 12-14? How do we know that getting everyone to function means getting everyone to open their mouths, contribute, and participate equally in the church meeting? Viola provides no explanation or examination, only de-contextualized, isolated, disparate verse citations.

 

The regular meetings of the church envisioned in Scripture allowed for every member to participate in the building up of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:16). There was no “up-front” leadership. No one took center stage. Unlike today’s practice, the teaching in the church meeting was not delivered by the same person week after week. Instead, every member had the right, the privilege, and the responsibility to minister in the gathering. Mutual encouragement was the hallmark of this meeting. “Every one of you” was its outstanding characteristic. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 2, Reimagining the Church Meeting, page 52

 

In the above two quotes, how do we know that Ephesians 4:16 is speaking about function at church meetings rather than in the Christians community throughout the course of their weekly lives together? Moreover, how do we know that what Paul writes to the Ephesians is true for all churches? Maybe Viola is just assuming this applies to all churches, just like Joe did for Acts 14:23. Viola offers no explanation, just another unexplained citation.

 

But the gatherings of the church are especially designed for every believer to express Christ through his or her gift (1 Cor. 11-14, Hebrews 10:24-25). – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 2, Reimagining the Church Meeting, pages 57-58

 

In the above quote, how do we know that Hebrews 10:24-25 and 1 Corinthians 11-14 require every believer to express Christ in their church gatherings? How do we know that they are even related to the topic of church gatherings? Surrounding context might tell us, but Viola never provides it. In addition, don’t Christians in hierarchical, institutional churches have these passages in their New Testament? Does merely citing the existence of these verses prove the institutional model to be in error? Viola must think so. After all, that is all he does. He merely cites the verses, as though further explanation or exegesis is not even necessary. And yet this is proof-texting by his very own definition of it.

 

In the next quote we will see Viola continue to use proof-texting to support his position by merely citing verses without providing biblical context, historical context, or explanation.

 

While all elders were “apt to teach” and all had the gift of shepherding, not all who shepherded and taught were elders (Titus 2:3-4; Tim. 2:2, 24, Heb. 5:12). Teaching could come from any Christian who had a word of instruction for the church (1 Cor. 14:24-26). – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 9, Reimagining Oversight, page 169

 

Again, does his mere citation of these few verses without their biblical or historical context prove Viola’s point that shepherding and teaching were performed by persons other than elders? Of course not. In fact, based on Viola’s presentation we don’t even know if we can correctly associate these verses with one another or with the topic he’s speaking about. This is proof-texting.

                                                                                       

In the next quote, notice how Viola “proves” his point that elders only emerged in a church community after a long time.

 

Just as important, the elders always emerged long after a church was born. It took at least fourteen years after the birth of the Jerusalem church for elders to emerge within it (Acts 11:30). A good while after they planted the four churches in south Galatia, Paul and Barnabas acknowledged elders in each of them (Acts 14:23). Five years after Paul planted a church in Ephesus, he sent for the elders of the church to meet him in Miletus (Acts 20:17). When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, which was twelve years old, he greeted the overseers who were present (Phil. 1:1). Point: There’s no case anywhere in the New Testament where elders appear in a church immediately after it was planted. – Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, Chapter 9, Reimagining Oversight, page 176

 

This is a classic example of proof-texting. For comparison here is the text of Acts 11:30 with some of the surrounding verses for context.

 

Acts 11:27 And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. 28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. 29 Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: 30 Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. 12:1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. 2 And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.

 

The context of this verse describes the church community of Antioch sending relief to the church community in Jerusalem. Verse 30, which Viola cites as proof that elders emerged long after a church was born, only mentions that the relief from Antioch was sent to the elders in Jerusalem by Barnabas and Paul. With that chapter 11 ends and chapter 12 begins with the account of James’ death by Herod and the imprisonment of Peter.

 

How in the world does Acts 11:30 prove that elders only emerged a long time after a church community had begun? Note that Viola doesn’t provide the larger biblical context, the historical context, or even just the text of the verse for his reader. He simply cites Acts 11:30 as proof of his position. Now it’s true that this event took place around fourteen years after the church community began in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, but the mere mention of elders in this passage says nothing about when those elders “emerged” in that church community.

 

Similarly, Viola states that “a good while after they planted the four churches in south Galatia, Paul and Barnabas acknowledged elders in each of them.” Again, Viola merely cites Acts 14:23. But the verse itself says nothing about the amount of time which elapsed between the churches being planted and the “acknowledging” of elders in them. Here again is the actual text of that verse and some of its surrounding context.

 

Acts 14:11 And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. 12 And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. 13 Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people. 14 Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, 15 And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: 16 Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness. 18 And with these sayings scarce restrained they the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them. 19 And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead. 20 Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, 22 Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.

 

Verse 11 of Acts 14 continues the account of Paul and Barnabas in Lycaonia. After speaking to the Lycaonians, Paul is stoned at the instigation of persons who had come down from Antioch and Iconium. The next day, Paul and Barnabas depart to Derbe. Verse 21 informs us that after preaching in Derbe, Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. And in verse 23 we are told that they ordained elders in every church. Now it is true that the churches in which elders were ordained were those just mentioned here in the region of south Galatia. However, what is important is the time frame. How long was it between Paul and Barnabas’ initial visit to each of these cities and the establishing of elders as mentioned in verse 23?

 

Viola concludes and reports to his readers that it was “a good while.” What constitutes “a good while?” Moreover, there is no mention of the passing of many days, or months, or years, or even a few weeks between one city and the next. (For comparison, see Acts 11:25-26, Acts 18:8-11, Acts 19:1-10, Acts 20:1-3, Acts 20:17-31, Acts 28:1-14.) Instead,  the text itself presents a very close proximity of time between Paul and Barnabas’ departure from Lycaonia and then from Derbe to their returning to these cities to ordaining of elders in every city. Contrary to Viola’s contention it seems that there was only a short while between the establishment of these churches and the appointment of elders. In fact, the clues that point to a rather quick series of events, in turn, lead us to our next point.

 

The text does not tell us whether any gap between the establishing of the churches and the ordination of elders in them was intention on the part of Paul and Barnabas or whether it was forced upon them due to the mistreatment they suffered during their initial visits to these cities. The larger text seems to present that Paul and Barnabas were only in each city a short time before essentially being forced to leave, perhaps even only a matter of days. And consequently, since they revisited the cities and since their time in each city was short, this would imply that it was also a relatively short time, perhaps only a few weeks or months, before they returned to appoint elders. In addition, if the intervening gap was indeed a forced interruption due to mistreatment, then the passages would not demonstrate proof that the apostles intentionally waited a long time in order to allow for elders to naturally emerge on their own, as Viola contends. But all of these issues go completely unaddressed in Viola’s remarks, replaced instead by a citation of mere verse references.

 

What is our point here? Are we saying that Viola is necessarily wrong when he says that it took a long time before elders were appointed in these Galatian cities? No. At this point, we are not examining the validity of Viola’s conclusions. Our point is simply that Viola himself is relying upon proof-texting to support his point of view. In this case, he merely cites Acts 14:23 as if the mere citation of that verse proves that there was a “good while” before elders were ordained in these cities.

 

As Viola continues to support his point that elders “always emerged long after a church was born,” he continues to employ proof-texting. In his next sentence Viola states “Five years after Paul planted a church in Ephesus, he sent for the elders of the church to meet him in Miletus (Acts 20:17).” By quoting Acts 20:17, Viola has not proven that “elders always emerged long after a church was born.” The text only states that elders were present five years after the Ephesian church was born. Acts 20:17 says nothing about when those elders “emerged.” From all we know from Acts 20:17, the Ephesian elders could have been present from the beginning of that church community. All that Viola has proved here is that he himself resorts to proof-texting. And, of course, similar comments can be made of Viola’s use of Philippians 1:1 as support for his conclusion that “elders always emerged long after a church was born.”

 

More examples could be cited from Viola’s writings, but we will not belabor the point further. What we have seen in these above examples typifies the kind of approach to interpreting scripture that Viola uses throughout both Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church. In fact, cases where Viola employs actual scriptural, linguistic analysis in the context of larger biblical and historical context are very rare in these books. For the most part, Viola has simply provided his own series of proof-texted interpretations and left the thorough and legitimate study of the topic for his readers. However, Viola is not simply listing these verses as part of a suggestion to his readers to look into the matter and point them in the right direction. Instead, Viola has attempted to persuade them of his own view by offering these verses as his proof without context or analysis. Consequently, Viola is using the same faulty methodologies that he attributes to his opponents.

 

In conclusion, Viola is right to identify proof-texting as a cause behind wrong understandings of church gatherings and leadership. But Viola is wrong in his claim that proof-texting distinguishes his model from other models. Instead, Viola himself constantly engages in proof-texting to support his views. We will continue to see examples of this as we proceed through our investigation. As we do, our job will be to go beyond proof-texting into a full-fledged examination and exegesis of the New Testament teaching on this issue.

 

 

 

Examining the Models: The Value of Logical Assessment and Biblical Knowledge

 

There is one additional note we should address regarding Viola’s approach to scriptural understanding. In the following quotes Viola explains that extensive Biblical knowledge and sharp reasoning skills fall short in giving us spiritual understanding.

 

The teaching of the New Testament is that God is Spirit, and as such, He is known by revelation (spiritual insight), to one’s human spirit. Reason and intellect can cause us to know about God. And they help us to communicate what we know. But they fall short in giving us spiritual revelation. The intellect is not the gateway for knowing the Lord deeply. Neither are the emotions. – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 10, Education: Swelling of the Cranium, page 206

 

In short, extensive Biblical knowledge, a high-powered intellect, and razor-sharp reasoning skills do not automatically produce spiritual men and women who know Jesus Christ profoundly and who can impart a life-giving revelation of Him to others. (That, by the way, is the basis of spiritual ministry.) – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 10, Education: Swelling of the Cranium, page 206

 

According to Viola, understanding God comes through spiritual insight between God and our human spirit and not through studying the scripture and subjecting our study to reasonable analysis. There are several problems contained in Viola’s point of view on this issue.

 

First, the Bible itself is proof-positive that God reveals Himself to us chiefly through human reasoning and through knowledge of information. While it is certainly true that the prophets who wrote much of the Bible did received direct revelation, it is equally true that God inspired them to write down their revelations. Why would God have them write down their revelations, unless God intended us to come to a knowledge of him by reading their revelations? And if God’s preferred and main method of delivering spiritual insight to us was through direct spiritual revelation, why would we even have the Bible? Why would he inspire men to write the scripture for the rest of us to read? Wouldn’t God just communicate His truths to us via spiritual revelation directly? Furthermore, the idea that the Bible constitutes the sole authority in our lives as Christians can only be validly maintained so long as we allow rational and thorough biblical examination to be the judge of our beliefs and practices.

 

The moment we resist a logically superior, better informed biblical analysis in favor of an irrational conclusion, based in whole or in part on ignorance of the scripture, we can no longer claim that the bible is our authority. If we do, then we are authorizing the inexplicable, rationally-evasive, factually baseless intuitions of our own mind. We may wish to believe that such misguided intuitions are not our own human inventions, but that they are instead special revelation inspired by the Holy Spirit. But doesn’t it seem arrogant to make such claims? Would we not be “puffed-up” in our own minds just as the Corinthians who were rebuked by Paul?

 

The fact is if God used human language, human history, and human reason and logic to build and preserve His revelation to us through the pages of scripture and if we claim to hold those pages as our sole source of spiritual understanding then we must acknowledge the inherent contradiction that occurs when we prefer our own unsubstantiated or uninformed intuitions over a knowledgeable and reasonable assessment of God’s Word. To maintain such a preference would be a dangerous elevation of one’s own thoughts to the status of divine inspiration. Those who entertain such a concept make themselves, rather than God’s word, the authority in their lives. They may be quite comfortable with that choice, but the rest of us are on far more solid ground by continuing our commitment to the informed, analysis of scripture (even if we disagree with one another.) The only alternative would be to submit ourselves to the unsubstantiated notions of someone else’s personal imagination without reasonable inquiry thereby making them our authority instead of God and His word.

 

Whatever we think spiritual revelation and understanding is, we must certainly conclude that it should at least logically be sound and consistent with scriptural facts. It absolutely cannot be anything less. It cannot be the case that divine revelation from the Holy Spirit will, when examined, be found to be logically flawed and contradictory of biblical facts. We can through sound reasoning and a thorough knowledge of scripture acquire or even confirm sound biblical understanding. But we certainly cannot claim sound understanding is gained from logical error and the contradiction of biblical facts. We can be sure that the Holy Spirit is not logically challenged or factually mistaken.

 

Regardless of whether it is currently the case that some people receive direct, special revelation from the Holy Spirit, the fact is that the rest of us must test or examine the claims of such persons. And when we test them we are to use a reasoned and informed analysis of the scripture.

 

For these reasons, we must conclude that Viola’s notions of spiritual understanding are, for all real purposes, devoid of any real value for his readers. If Viola truly believed what he writes in these paragraphs he would not author over 500 pages of what he certainly feels are logically sound and scripturally informed arguments in favor of his position. If direct spiritual insight held the supreme value he attributes to it and scriptural knowledge and logical analysis were as insufficient as he says, wouldn’t Viola simply tell us about what God directly communicated to his spirit and expect that God would tell our spirits the same? Wouldn’t he leave the bible and logic out of it since, according to his own arguments, they might not adequately communicate his truly valid spiritual understanding?

 

From the fact that Viola has downplayed the value of logical analysis and thorough biblical knowledge, we might expect that the arguments he offers in his books will not exhibit a high regard for logical soundness or a thorough consideration of biblical information. Whatever we find in his arguments, the bottom line is that by attempting to use reasonable argument, scriptural knowledge, and even human language to convey spiritual truth, Viola affirms the necessity and usefulness of biblical knowledge and human reason at least for the purposes of assessing spiritual claims made by himself and others. And truly this is what we need logic and biblical knowledge for anyway, to evaluate the spiritual understandings offered by others. Logic and biblical information make us all equal players with God’s Word acting as our referee. Special revelation divorced from informed and logical analysis of the scripture leads to accepting and following mistaken notions about God’s teaching. Since, in any case, we need to apply logic coupled with thorough biblical examination, what use is there in supposing some other kind of mystical, personal wisdom from God that circumvents and is unavailable to both?