Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Reimagining Church


Ben Witherington has posted a robust critique of Frank Viola's Reimagining Church on his blog, and it is voluminous to say the least. Seminary professors astound me with their ability to write quickly and substantively. The same goes for professors at other levels, like Scot McKnight. Four blog posts a day is really impressive, Scot.

Despite feeling in way over my head, I'm going to wade into the pool and post a few responses to Witherington's blog. I do this because Frank's basic premises and mine are essentially the same on more things than I can enumerate. Critiques of his views are critiques of my own. And Witherington (henceforth BW3) has levelled some strong points in that direction. So here goes.

1. Anti-intellectualism. For obvious reasons, BW3 holds to a high view of education. It comes as no surprise to hear him say "the better Biblically equipped the person, the more the Spirit can do with them... it makes a person far more useful to the Lord..." Sadly, my experience tells me that intellect and education often displace that simplicity in Christ which characterized His earliest followers. It was the well-educated, religious professionals who found it the most difficult to receive Jesus' instruction. As a seminary grad myself, I see the dilemma we're in: We need to see beyond our own contexts into the contexts that birthed the Scriptures. But we must then work all the more to combat the subtle influence of pride that seeps into us after we have gained all our knowledge. I'm not much for anti-intellectualism myself. But there's a balance that needs to be found here.

2. Arguments from Silence. BW3 concedes, sort of, that Paul's letters to churches don't explicitly spell out how local leaders are to deal with the problems that they are facing. Many would argue that this shows that entire churches, not merely special individuals, dealt with crises as they came up. But BW3 asserts:"It is far more likely that Paul addressed church leaders in a separate letter." Can you name a single one? The inappropriately named "pastorals" don't count, because Timothy and Titus were not pastors (i.e. they weren't local leadership). They were apostolic workers responsible for the oversight of local leaders. And the letter to Philemon related to a specific issue in Philemon's hosehold, not to a churchwide issue. What do we have left, then? Only letters to churches. The evidence we actually have (rather than the evidence we may have expected to find) demonstrates Paul appealing to whole churches in order to deal with their issues.

3. Description vs. Prescription. BW3 warns of "mistaking description for prescription especially on the basis of Acts." He then does that very thing by citing the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 in order to model NT leadership by apostles and elders rather than the congregation as a whole. Apparently the church in Jerusalem was pretty comfortable with decision making by decree. But should that be normative for us? Couldn't we just as easily argue that a Jewish church born into a Second Temple context came by heavy-handed eldership naturally? Must we today adopt such a culturally-conditioned methodology for our own time and place?

Did even Paul agree with that? After reading Galatians 1-2, I'd say his posture towards Jerusalem's authority was far less accommodating than we might be led to believe after reading Acts. Even if you hold to the view that the letter to the Galatians predates the council meeting, Paul's atittude towards Jeusalem is clear. After clarifying how infrequently he felt the need to consult with "those who were of high reputation," he asserts that they "contributed nothing to me" (2:6) Does that sound like someone who likes top-down authority? I would argue that Paul and James represent two very different approaches to authority. That very diversity prefigures the confict of viewpoints represented by Witherington and Viola.

BW3 frequently argues that the early church met in homes strictly because of widespread persecution. (Incidentally, my reading of history has not validated the claim that Roman persecution was universal across the empire. There were periods of time and large pockets of peace which could have given early believers opportunity to build special buildings, but they didn't.) He asserts that we must not lift what was normal for their context and drop it into our own in an uncritical manner. I would argue the same thing about the hierarchical nature of the Jewish churches in the first (and perhaps even) second centuries.

Two more things for now:

4. Everybody's not the Same. BW3 reads into Frank's viewpoint the presupposition that "all Christians can assume all leadership functions at one time or another." I don't think this accurately reflects Frank's actual view. This is essentially a straw man, right Frank?

5. It's the System, Stupid. Another straw man is the assumption that "pastors behaving badly" are primarily to blame for people like us holding our viewpoints. But the problem is the system itself. Like Frank says on his blog, "it's the system, stupid" (I'm sure he's not impugning Witherington, of course. It's just a Clintonism).

I didn't leave because the system was being operated by the wrong people. I left because it occurred to me that the system itself actually discourages the kind of inverted pyramid that BW3 so eloquently champions. In my experience, when good people with good hearts weekly ascend the pulpit, they don't realize how inevitably they are perpetuating a passivity in their congregations.

6 Comments:

Blogger Molly Aley said...

I didn't leave because the system was being operated by the wrong people. I left because it occurred to me that the system itself actually discourages the kind of inverted pyramid that BW3 so eloquently champions. In my experience, when good people with good hearts weekly ascend the pulpit, they don't realize how inevitably they are perpetuating a passivity in their congregations.

Yes. Yes! YES!

12:31 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Far be it from any of us to impugn somebody. Whatever impugn means. ;)

I keep waiting to see your blogroll, and wondering if I'll be on it...

11:18 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

wtg, neil.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Dude, I'm not even sure how to create a blogroll on this thing. Guess I'll have to figure that out.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Scratch that. I got skills. HTML skills. Lucky!

9:52 AM  
OpenID brotherjohnny said...

Dude.
You got ROBUST skills!

:-P

4:15 PM  

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