Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Last I Should Need to Say About Pagan Christianity

Page 129: "Luther held to the [unbiblical] idea that those who preach needed to be specially trained."

Oh Viola, don't you need to read your own book? Not only is Luther's belief correct; it extends beyond his personal understanding of the statement he himself expressed. You see, there is a great irony in the way Viola asserts Luther's error: a restoration of organic, first-century church is impossible without the spread of awareness, i.e. training. If institutional church promotes and maintains passivity among the Body of Christ, the people need to be educated on the subject. Viola gets a little closer to the truth when he tackles the fact that, unfortunately, the "pastorate" is the portion of believers entrusted with imparting this revelation, and that the revelation itself is in stark contradiction with their "callings." Hence, there is a profound need for education among God's people, starting on the administrative level.

While I agree with 1 John, in which John says we shouldn't need teachers, that God pours wisdom into us, that the entire breadth of this training is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit--while I agree with all those points, we face an obstacle that Paul et al. didn't have to deal with in the first century, and one which necessitates "special training": we have hundreds of years of dumbing down of the Christian message to correct. Pagan Christianity, though it illuminates the need for this mandatory correction, is only the beginning. It only expounds on selective verses of the Bible, using a form that is ironically similar to the proof-texting method widely condemned by modern biblical scholars. Therefore, simply making the reader aware of these gross bastardizations of the gospel message does far too little to equip the average Christian to properly interpret the Bible or to function as a member of Paul's church plants would have. We need to be made intimately aware of just how deep-rooted our pagan thinking is, and we must make a deliberate effort to filter out inherited beliefs, holding them in direct opposition to centuries of false teaching--which I don't deny has transpired. The ultimate goal, of course, is to extract the original Christian lifestyle from the muddied doctrines and rites we collectively dub "Christianity." Hence, more training than ever is needed--not in homiletics, but in linguistics and historicity, thus yielding a proper exegesis of the Bible.

Sadly, Viola is so opposed to the false rite of ordination that he gravitates too far to one extreme, criticizing Luther's statement too much. I would agree with Viola that Luther probably didn't understand the real truth of his statement, but this does not mean that the truth buried therein should be condemned along Luther's failure to abolish to the clergy-laity divide. This extremist, reactionary scholarship is epidemic throughout Pagan Christianity and is my greatest criticism of the book. Yes, I will soon read Reimagining Church, but Viola does great harm by saving all his "alleged" solutions for another book, leaving the reader of this one with a sense of futility. If the necessary remedies are "beyond the scope" of Pagan Christianity, then it should never have been released as a single volume. This reeks of commercialism, with all due respect to the authors.

Now then, although I haven't finished it, I feel absolutely no inclination to offer any further critical analyses of Pagan Christianity. All I have been doing is restating the same observations. I hope that, if I have encouraged anyone to read it, they will do so with the cautionary message of this post. It is neither the pastors' nor the spectators' fault that so few of us take up our crosses daily and follow the Lord. It is the fault of tradition and the influence of Satan that has resulted in so much doctrine and so little action in the church. Once again, I commend Viola for bringing this to light. But let's all examine ourselves before we hurl lightning bolts at the institution, because the entire thrust of the book condemns a few hours a week. Regardless of how church is done, there is an entire way of life that is far more important. I would argue that, in spite of the entertainment nature of church, those who follow Christ's example seven days a week ought not be condemned for warming a pew and worshipping God in a way that surpasses other forms of entertainment. This might not be sufficient in God's eyes, but I can't help but notice that Viola writes so proudly of his recent participation in organic church, then refers the reader to verses in acts that clearly indicate it should be practiced daily (Acts 2:46). So, Viola, if you want to lead a revolution, maybe your habits should reflect your extreme conservative interpretation of the Bible.

Do institutional churches function as Paul's did? No. Do we approach the idea of organic church with apprehension? Sadly, yes. In conversation with a few people, it was asserted that if I were to start my own church plant, that it would eventually result in dominant personalities with stronger giftings taking on leadership roles. This appeased my unrest on those moments. I've since returned to church. But if I could go back in time, I might have answered that charge a little differently. I would argue that a dominant Person is indeed supposed to begin directing traffic: Jesus Christ. On this point, Luther condemnation of the Anabaptists exhibitis the full measure of his faith: where is it? While I grant that every-member functioning churches are populated with faulty, broken humans, it doesn't necessarily mean that a non-liturgical setting would lend itself to chaos. Anarchy certainly seems like the only fruit human nature could bear, and one would have to live in utter denial to suggest otherwise. But where is the faith? Where is the implicit trust that every word and gesture would be under the direction of the Holy Spirit? "It couldn't happen." Statements such as that are the war cry of the clergy. Paul would disagree. So would Christ.

In truth, I don't think that I have personally reached a strong enough faith that would enable God to honour any attempt at organic church on my part. I pray every day for God to purge me of unbelief and to conquer the sins that still rule my flesh. But I am realistic in acknowledging that it hasn't happened yet. If I branched away from mainline Christianity, it seems unlikely that I would surrender enough to Christ such that He could filter out the personal motivations from the Spirit-led ones. Yet. But I am forced also to conclude that my own limitations and unbelief don't disprove Viola's interpretation of the New Testament. Much as it pains me, and much as it forces me to examine myself, our fear of Pauline Christianity hinges entirely on the fact that so many of us lock our faith in the cerebellum, not the heart.

Do I even need to read Frank Viola's new book? Doesn't the solution to our ineffectiveness begin and end with throwing ourselves at the feet of Christ and praying for Him to work on us? Paul didn't have a New Testament to hand out to new believers. I'm starting to regret that we do. If he had known that his letters would produce more divisive arguments than thankful hearts, I have to believe he would have done a lot more walking and a lot less writing. But then, how else would we know just how damning the centuries have been to the story of Jesus? On page 99, Viola notes that the apostolic fathers didn't have any need for moral or ethical messages, that everything they presented to nonbelievers centred on the person of Jesus. I've heard some wonderful sermons in my short walk with God, but some of them kind of focussed on the "supplementary" info in the Bible. So, on the one hand, we need tonnes of training; on the other, we just need to drown out the preachers and listen to the Teacher.

Anyway. May God bless you all.


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