By Hal Miller
In a recent dialogue about the issue of leadership, authority and organization, Frank Viola, author of Rethinking the Wineskin and Who is Your Covering? [NOTE: these two volumes are out of print, but they have been revised and combined in the newer book, “Reimagining Church“]. observed, “I know a number of groups that have ‘tried’ to employ the New Testament model of leadership, especially in the 1970’s when this sort of thing was quite popular among charismatics, and many of them have found that it didn’t work. Consequently, today, when New Testament church principles are brought to their attention, their response is usually: ‘Oh yea, we’ve already been through all that and it just doesn’t work.’”
In a related conversation, Robert Banks, recognized authority on home based churches, said, “It does trouble me that, proportionally, [organization] comes up so often when, biblically speaking, it is not as central as certain other issues. For example, how often [do we discuss] what Paul says is the most central, enduring obligation we have in church, that is to ‘love’ one another?”
Keeping the Focus
I have concluded that these two comments are closely related to each other. Like Robert Banks, I’ve come increasingly to think that our penchant for wanting to get the organizational problem “right” represents a missed focus. The apostles’ admonition to the churches is, in general, “figure out how to love each other,” not “figure out how to get your organization right.”
Getting your organization right (and I would include here discussions of spiritual authority, church government, apostolic succession, papal infallibility, and a raft of other topics which depend on your denominational heritage) simply isn’t that important compared with figuring out how to love each other.
More importantly, those get-the-organization-right concerns end up sapping the energy that should go into worrying how to concretely love, and blurring the focus that we should give to learning to serve each other. That’s not a necessary thing, but it is a reality.
I suspect that this is one of the underlying reasons for the failures Frank Viola and others observe. Many champions of so-called “New Testament models” have been so focused on getting the organization right that they have missed the fact that a church unfocused on loving simply isn’t one. It isn’t one even if it exactly replicates some putative “New Testament model” of government or church organization. And churches that aren’t [focused on loving] don’t usually work for long.
In considering issues of organization, I believe two things need to be considered at the outset:
#1: What actual “cash value” will any conclusions have for the core business of the church, that is, loving? In other words, if we happen to get the organizational problem right, what good does it do us in our core mission?
#2: What do we lose if we fail to get the organizational problem right? This is more than just the same question flipped ’round. Here, the issue is: if I worry myself thoroughly about loving, and continue in the same pathetic, unbiblical, corrupt church government that I always have, what have I lost? Not in abstract terms, but concretely and specifically, as I’m walking with these others in my home church.
I resonate with Robert Banks. Discussions of organization are often discussions misplaced. I wonder whether that misplacement is one of the core reasons behind Viola’s observation that many (or most) of those who tried to get the organizational problem right in previous decades flopped. In my view, we’re better off trying to figure out how to love God and one another. That’s certainly a harder problem. But if we keep getting drawn, like bugs to a light bulb, into other issues like getting the organization right, we’ll be able to give our children a completely untouched field of exploration—learning how to love.
A Practical Example
When our family was in England earlier this month, we spent some time with a church in the East End of London. Organizationally, they’re quite a mish-mash— lots of home-church values; a paid guy who does some pastor stuff; no elders exactly but a set of leadership teams; nominal charismatic worship; age integrated church life . . . you get the idea? In other words, in a simple-minded way, they’ve tried to learn whatever they could from whomever they could. And they ended up with an organization that would make any good purist retch and run away.
But they’re quite wonderful people having the time of their lives trying to love God and each other. What were they learning? They were working through Ephesians trying to figure out what it meant for them that God’s purpose in the church was shown in Jews and Gentiles being one Body.
Now the East End is the underbelly of London. It’s largely immigrant which in their case means Pakistani, Indian, and sub-Saharan African. In that polyglot kind of world, being one body, Jew and Gentile, translated pretty directly into learning to love a collection of people very different from yourself.
And their opinion was that in the East End, church labels had come to mean nothing. Pentecostal and Evangelical and (even!) Anglican churches were walking more or less happily along with their little mongrel band learning to be one body, Jew and Gentile. God’s purpose — one body—loving—was pretty evident both between the people of this church and between them and the other churches around them. It was pretty exciting. Those of us in the US are at least a generation away from that. We have that sense of walking together, often, at the grassroots level, from one Christian to another, but it seldom extends to whole churches. Here in America, churches are still too worried about getting something or other right to give their energy and focus to loving. End of story. The relevance is pretty clear to me, but you should draw your own conclusions.
At the time of this article, Hal Miller was a part of Salem Community Church in Salem, Massachusetts <http://www.home-church.org/>. These remarks were excerpted from comments made in an online discussion taken from the House Church Discussion List (HCDL).