Obsessions with buildings. Churches run like corporations. Command and control hierarchies with professional Christians dispensing services to passive spectators. Are these endemic to our contemporary church culture? Frank Viola thinks so and he believes they are without biblical warrant.
Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity is Frank Viola’s follow up to Pagan Christianity. The earlier book highlighted how many of our cherished traditions in the church have little to do with the Bible or early Christianity. Viola explores in this work how we might move from an institutional church model to a more organic form of Christianity communities.
I’m not fully persuaded by all of Viola’s reasoning. Other scholars I’ve read suggest that there were already some formal structures of church leadership emerging by the beginning of the second century. Scholars like Rodney Stark estimate that there were only a few thousand Christians at most scattered across the empire by the 100 C.E. Elaborate institutional structures simply were not needed at this early stage. That would not preclude their emergence later as sociological dynamics changed.
However, Viola’s larger point about the co-option of the church by Greco-Roman structures as the church moved into the fourth century is, I believe, an important discussion that needs more of our reflection. He correctly points out that the Reformation reformed our soteriology but for all practical purposes left our ecclesiology unphased. We still have a ubiquitous Christian caste system with clergy in a higher caste and laity in a lower (and Viola correctly notes that this not entirely, or even primarly, because pastors desire it to be so.) Former president of Princeton Seminary Tom Gillespie (and a colleague I serve with on the General Assembly Council of the PCUSA) tells me that the terms “clergy” and “laity” have no place in Reformed theology. Karl Barth said that laity was one of the most destructive words in the Christian lexicon. And yet, we still persist in the language in our PCUSA world and the baggage these conceptualizations entail.
Viola is clearly an important leader within the growing American house church movement. He doesn’t speak for everyone in this diverse movement but if you want to have a good appreciation for what is developing among a number of Christians in America, Viola gives you considerable insight into the thinking and practice of many who have become disaffected with the traditional church milieu. So whether you agree with all he has to say, the book will likely push you to reflect more closely on beliefs and practices you hold concerning God’s mission and the nature of the Church. The book is well written and I appreciate the window it is into this important emerging movement in American Christianity.