The title of this book is somewhat misleading. The subject is not Christianity in general but two aspects of the church: its structure and the form of its services. The authors are against both: any hierarchical structure, and any order within services.
Although this book bears two names as authors (Frank Viola and George Barna), frequently the author writes in the first person singular, usually putting "I (Frank) ..." (e.g., p. 234, 263, 266, 268 - I only started noting these down when I got near the end of the book.)
The book gives some interesting historical information and makes some valid points about the customs and practices of Christianity. Unfortunately, the author vastly undermines the credibility of his arguments by two most regrettable techniques:
1. He exaggerates his point.
Thus, for example, he describes the practice in some churches of having special garments for choir members as "dehumanizing" (pp 148-149) - whereas in reality in many cultures such garments are worn with pride.
2. He does not present balanced Biblical teaching.
He frequently totally ignores Bible verses that contradict what he says, and on other occasions relegates such verses to footnotes which are printed in a truly minute font size, listing the reference but not quoting the content, or he refers to such verses only in the appendices to chapters, which are also in a smaller font size and will inevitably be skipped by many readers, especially given the section title, "delving deeper", which implies that this is additional material for those who have the time to investigate the concepts more fully.
Although with my reading glasses I have normal vision, I had a to keep a powerful magnifying glass by the book for the purpose of reading the footnotes. However, even with this aid they are so tiny that I frequently gave up and skipped them. I am sure that many readers will have done the same.
Viola also shows a lack of basic awareness of first century conditions, such as when he says, "The first-century Christians ... met in ... living rooms" (p. 149). He is similarly unaware of the nature and style of churches in the 21st century outside the United States of America. (In fact, the end of the book clarifies that this book has been written with Americans in mind (p. 258).)
The basic assumption of the authors is that if they can demonstrate that a practice had what they term "pagan" origins, it has no place in Christianity. Thus, for instance, they state that the rhetorical principles used in sermons were invented by "pagan Greeks and Romans" and therefore must not be used. This is to ignore the abundant evidence in the New Testament of the use of these very "pagan" rhetorical techniques both by the New Testament writers and even by Christ himself. The frequent use of alliteration and plays on words in the original Greek text will not be obvious to those who read the New Testament in translation, but other rhetorical principles used by Christ are frequently clearly evident, for instance, in his teaching known as "The Beatitudes" (Matt 5:3-11). (A good starting-point for a study of this topic might be Bailey's "Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes" or Witherington's "New Testament Rhetoric".)
In this review there is only space to give a few examples of the style and claims:
p 37 "all Protestant architecture produces the same sterile effects that were present in the Constantinian basilicas. ... they encourage the congregation to assume a spectator role. The arrangement and mood of the building conditions the congregation toward passivity."
My comment: "all Protestant architecture"? Has the author seen "all Protestant architecture"?
In many, many churches, the members of the congregation are not spectators and are far from passive. See, for example, Kingsgate Community Church, Peterborough, HTB, St Andrew the Great, Cambridge, Reigate Baptist Church, Bunyan Baptist Church, Stevenage, to mention just some that I personally am familiar with.
The author's descriptions are inaccurate and his vocabulary seems to have been chosen to cause maximum offence to as many Christians as possible. For instance, p 76: "the Protestant order of worship strangles the headship of Jesus Christ. ... Jesus Christ has no freedom to express Himself through His body at His discretion. He too is rendered a passive spectator"
Statements such as "the Sunday morning service ... has remained frozen for five centuries" (p 76) are factually inaccurate.
His language is inflammatory in the extreme. Here is an example from page 77:
"Let's face it. The Protestant order of worship is largely unscriptural, impractical, and unspiritual. It has no analog in the New Testament. Rather, it finds its roots in the culture of fallen man. It rips at the heart of primitive Christianity."
Viola frequently makes statements that are non sequiturs. i.e., the conclusion does not logically follow from what has preceded it. For example, (pp 82-83) "if you were to attend an organic church gathering that met in New Testament fashion, you would have both the right and the privilege to share whatever the Lord laid on your heart in the manner in which the Spirit led you. Not only that, but you would be expected to." And here comes the non sequitur: "In other words, Jesus Christ would be the functional head of that gathering." This conclusion does not follow from the statements that preceded it.
p 83 question 8. The author re-defines "church meetings" to exclude Paul's discourses to churches, since he has claimed that such discourses should not occur in "church meetings" and are "unbiblical". He then invents the (unbiblical!) term "apostolic meeting" and says that it was in this type of meeting that discourses took place. (repeated on p 103)
p 100 "Teaching is to come from all the believers". Again, the Bible references given (1 Cor 14:26,31) do not support the assertion made, as they do not talk about teaching. On the contrary, in 1 Cor 12:29 we read the rhetorical (!) question, "Are all teachers?", to which the only answer allowed by the structure of the Greek words used is "No". (This is not my interpretation; it is the undisputed meaning of the original text.) On p 103, Viola repeats his assertion that "All are free to teach, preach, prophesy, pray and lead a song". Again, 1 Cor 12:29 asks, "Are all prophets?", to which the only possible answer is "no".
After a chapter in which the preaching of sermons is condemned as "pagan", in small print at the very end of the appendix to the chapter, Viola concedes that "We strongly believe in preaching" (p 104). He does not explain how it is possible to preach without delivering "a sermon".
Chapter 8 condemns the payment of salaries to ministers. However, the author then writes "Paul was an itinerant apostolic worker. Therefore, he had a legitimate right to receive full financial support from the Lord's people." (p 185) I gather from the main author, Frank Viola's, comments elsewhere in this book that he views himself as "an itinerant apostolic worker" and I conclude that he therefore considers that he has "a legitimate right to receive full financial support from the Lord's people". It is interesting how people can re-define terms so that they are not affected by the new rules that they wish to impose on others.
There is no discussion of any of the New Testament passages on this, for instance Mt 10:10, Lk 10:7, 1 Cor 9:9, 1 Tim 5:18 (referring to Dt 25:4), 2 Tim 2:6, Gal 6:6, 3 Jn 5-8.
p. 261 "In organic church life, the meetings look different each week. While the brothers and sisters in an organic church may prayerfully plan the focus of their own meetings, ... they do not plan a specific order of worship."
It is difficult to see how one type of planning ("the focus of ... meetings") is OK, while the other type of planning ("a specific order of worship") is wrong. The authors do not even try to present any "Scriptural" support to justify the criteria for different types of planning.
p. 263: "The DNA of the church produces certain identifiable features. Some of them are: the experience of authentic community, a familial love and devotion of its members to one another, the centrality of Jesus Christ [TRA: why didn't this one come first?!], the native instinct to gather together without ritual, ... the innate desire to form deep-seated relationships that are centered on Christ, and the internal drive for open-participatory gatherings. We believe that any church practice that obstructs these innate characteristics is unsound, and therefore, unbiblical."
An appeal to "native instinct", "innate desire" and "internal drive" to justify the style of church favoured by the authors sounds "innately weak", with no support by reference to Scripture or to the traditions recommended on the previous page.
p 263. "Healthy organic churches never produce a clergy system, a single pastor, a hierarchical leadership structure, or an order of worship that renders the majority passive. To our minds, such things rupture the church's genetic code and violate her native expression. They also run contrary to New Testament principles."
The language is colourful, even vitriolic and malicious. It also ignores verses such as Ephesians 2:19-20: "You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone." A discussion of the meaning of "built on the foundation of apostles and prophets" would surely help us to clarify what "New Testament principles" there are with regard to "leadership structure". Read more ›