by Douglas Jacoby
Frank Viola's books and lessons raise some important questions: What did a church meeting look like in the first century? What is the extent of elders' authority? What about compensation for church leaders? What does freedom in Christ look like? And yet, despite the many excellent points he makes, in his eagerness to find answers, he seems to have embraced several positions that are not warranted by the evidence.
1) I have frequently spoken against the clergy/laity division, writing about this problem and calling it an insidious doctrine. It is certainly true that "the ground is level at the foot of the cross." But as Viola speaks about authority and church leadership, it seems he would have us eradicate all distinctions: the church is one grand democracy. He cannot really believe this, of course.
2) No doubt house churches (the small group expression of corporate Christian faith) are integral, and Viola is right to highlight small groups. Without the face-to-face interactions, and accountability, afforded by small groups, it is all too easy to "hide" in the assembly as a member-at-large.
3) Yet I believe Viola is in reactionary mode, and this has affected his interpretation of God's word. In fact, he offers more eisegesis than exegesis, and his logical errors and interpretive faux pas are jarring to the reader, especially a reader who has studied the ancient languages, logic, or theology.
The following is my response to his 2006 address STRAIGHT TALK TO PASTORS (now available with various options at this site: http://frankviola.org/rethinkingseries/). The page numbers related to these comments appear in parentheses.
1. Viola routinely confuses terms the shepherds and pastors (5, 7, 14, etc -- and in the title itself). Does Viola know that pastor is simply the Latin word for shepherd, and appears nowhere in the N.T.? The term is a concession to Christian tradition, a hold-over from the Latin Vulgate, and quite simply baseless.
2. Based on Matthew 28:18 (all authority has been given to Jesus), Viola reasons that there is no authority left for church leaders (9)! Rather than the Lord empowering the church, or its leaders, he has removed all power to a safe place (heaven). This is a most odd interpretation, unknown to the early church. It is neither required grammatically nor obvious to a read of the Bible, whatever his level of biblical training.
3. In the early church, there were no other designated leaders than the apostles (10)! How do we know this? Reading one of today's British newspapers, one might conclude that the nation is led only by a queen and a prime minister. (There cannot be a Chancellor of the Exchequer, since such is not mentioned in today's paper.) This is an example of Viola's favorite, the argument from silence. Besides, if all authority was take away from men, how could even the apostles be in a true leadership position?
4. He assumes there were no elders in Jerusalem for fourteen years (11), simply because they are not mentioned until Acts 15. Again, this is argumentum ex silentio, which is invalid. That is, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. He uses the same line of reasoning as he goes through all the epistles, always reaching the same conclusion: elders did not lead the churches.
5. Elders only processed donated monies (11). No comment!
6. The appointment (of elders) is actually only a "recognition" (12). This is really a moot point. Whether Titus recognized the elders or inducted them into a higher order of leadership has nothing to do with whether they had authority to lead the churches. At this point it should be acknowledged that among genuine Christians there are a variety of interpretations on the appointment of elders, and we must admit that the New Testament gives us fairly little to go on. We do not know how the communities of Crete selected elders, nor do we know whether Titus simply ratified their decisions or actively assisted in the selection process. We must resist the temptation to gain greater clarity by going beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6).
7. Viola frequently relies on the argument from silence to suggest that elders played no significant role in the early churches. Why does Paul not specifically address the elders in the Galatian churches (14ff)? Perhaps the elders were the problem! More likely, since there was no clergy -- this development coming to fuller fruition in the third century -- Paul wanted the entire congregation to hear his inspired words. Philippians 1:1 is one exception. There is a lesson here for us -- but it is not the lesson Viola would have us learn!
8. The fact is, every church has leadership. Even if none is appointed or recognized, leadership evolves; it emerges. The point is not whether there is a hierarchy or leadership structure, but whether the leadership is righteous or unrighteous.
9. It is true that oversight is more a function than an office (26), but that does not mean there's no authority or structure. The two issues are separate. Does not the specific leadership structure a local church adopts fall into the category of opinion matters?
10. Viola says that elders in the early church were not paid -- that time in 1 Timothy 5 refers exclusively to honor. But this word can mean honor or pay (29). Although in Part II (51) Viola returns to this word, he never concedes the ambiguity. That is, in 1 Timothy 5 certain widows are worthy of honor, because of their godly characters and influence as well as their financial need. How are they honored? By receiving money from the church!
11. It is not likely that Paul died before Peter (30)! This of course is a minor point.
12. If people are afraid of their leaders, yes, there may be a problem (32). But of course they may also feel fear or guilt because they are doing wrong. Not all neuroses are caused by church leadership dysfunction; most are imported into the fellowship from our families of origin, life issues, and our patterns of dealing with everyday stress.
13. Viola claims that Hebrews 13:17 entails no submission to the elders' authority at all. The word obey is from the Greek peitho, which can mean persuade. And yet this is the same verb used in James 3, where we "persuade" horses to obey us through bit and bridle. His analysis is wrong. Not that the passage implies heavy-handed authority, but neither does it rule out all authority.
14. Viola points out that there were no paid clergy until Constantine (41). This is not quite fair. True enough, clergy began receiving salaries from the imperial purse in the fourth century. And true again, in the first century or two, there were no "clergy," in the common sense of the word. But "a worker is worth his wages," as the Lord himself insisted that preachers deserved compensation. At the very least, workers received room and board.
15. FV states that there was no tithing for 700 years. I agree that there was no strict tithe in the early church, as giving 10% is a demand of Judaism, not Christianity. And yet there is evidence even in the New Testament that the church supported its workers (1 Corinthians 9, Matthew 10, 1 Timothy 5). See my further comments here.
16. Elders were appointed in only three N.T. passages (48). So? In how many passages must an apostolic practice or doctrine appear in order for God's word to speak to us? We read in only one gospel that Lazarus was raised from the dead (John 11). Does this make the event less likely -- or important -- than the feeding of the 5000, which appears in all four gospels?
17. Alien notions of official authority were brought into the church from the imperial Roman world, through such figures as Cyprian and Gregory of Nyssa (53). True. But that does not remove authority from leadership. Something may be abused -- for example, fatherhood, or automobiles. But that hardly means that fathers have no place in the world, or we should all stick to walking from place to place.
We must be careful lest we read into its silences the doctrines we want to see. None of us is objective, and that means (among other things) that we should seriously consider voices like Frank Viola's. Some closing thoughts:
* Reading alternative viewpoints can be helpful, and it is a trap to forbid the reading of literature we disagree with. I myself read writers from a wide spectrum of sects, religions, and philosophies. If I learn anything from the them, the investment was time well worth spent. I say this because some leaders would have us read only the writers of whom they approve. This strategy will backfire in the end.
* Small groups were how the earliest church met -- what choice did they have? -- and remain essential to congregational health. Yet the N.T. is less than clear on where Christians are to assemble. Homes may constitute a "pattern," yet why should this preclude larger gatherings? Despite my sympathy for the house-church approach, plus my antipathy towards the clergy-laity division fostered in most forms of Christianity, I admit there is more than one way to interpret the relevant texts. Though house churches are not the subject of Viola's 2006 Santiago address, his views on this matter are nonetheless in the background of the discussion.
* Leaders in particular have a responsibility to protect the flock from errant ideas. (No, not to protect their jobs, as Viola might cynically retort, although their jobs are at stake if Viola's doctrine is embraced.) Errors must be pointed out. Christians must be taught how to think. The canons of interpretation are vital if we are to resist error and follow the narrow road.
* The natural fruit of Viola's teaching, if not weighed critically, may well be chaos, not maturity. On the other hand, he is right. The more spiritual the group, the less of a need there is for the wielding of authority. And in a group of mature Christians, even in the absence of leadership, order may emerge and God's will may be done. Yet this observation hardly obviates the need for direction in a congregation, especially where there are young or immature members.