1. What has the reaction to your book Pagan Christianity by you and George Barna been like so far?
To our encouragement, it’s been incredibly positive. Since the book was released in January (seven months ago), I’ve received over 10,000 emails from readers. I’d say that 95% of them have been extremely positive about the book. This includes pastors, some of whom claim that their lives have been changed by it.
The interest in the book hasn’t waned much either. When it hit #11 on Amazon.com, we were stunned. The seven month average has been around #500. We are very thankful to the Lord for the response. It’s been amazing to be honest. Something we didn’t expect. Especially given that this is such a controversial book.
2. Although your teachings tend to be generally well-received among those in the house church segment of Christianity, there is one teaching that remains rather controversial among them — that of the need of the specially trained house church planter. Although this pattern can be clearly seen in the NT, wasn’t the necessity of the house church planter due to the fact that Christianity was new to the world? Does not today’s society, particularly in the West, with its abundant number of Christians and access to Christian resources, negate the need for a specially trained house church planter? Doesn’t your claim that there are only a small number of well-trained house church planters in the world today create a clergy/laity class, where there are an elite class who are equipped to do the ministry and others who cannot?
I don’t think this subject is as controversial today as it may have been in the past. The idea that the apostolic ministry (i.e., church planting/equipping) is viewed as a valuable gift in the body of Christ in our time is held by most of the influential voices who are writing and speaking on the subject today. Some examples are Wolfgang Simpson, Jon Zens, Alan Hirsch, John White, Tony & Felicity Dale, Tony Fitzgerald, Neil Cole, Lance Ford, and influential writers like Robert Banks and Watchman Nee. I realize that there are those who believe that the apostolic ministry faded out with the close of the NT canon, but I don’t hold to that concept. And I don’t know many people who do.
To my mind, the objection you state in your question rests on a false assumption. Namely, that the only thing apostolic workers (church planters) do is bring people to Christ. They do a whole lot more than that.
For example, one of the main characteristics of apostolic ministry is to “equip the saints” to function as a community of believers that meets under the headship of Jesus Christ corporately (Eph. 4:11, etc.). The last twenty years of meeting with organic churches leads me to believe that this ministry is just as valuable today as it was in the first century.
Forming living stones into a building, equipping the saints to function under Christ, to know Him deeply, and to express Him corporately is very much needed today. According to the mail I receive, many house churches (and “missional” churches for that matter) have little community life and many are not centered on Christ. Many of them do not know His headship in their gatherings.
Neither I, nor the people I have listed above, view church planters as being any sort of “clergy” class. The same is true for evangelists, teachers, prophets or any other gift in the body. None are part of a “clergy” class. The New Testament doesn’t teach a clergy/laity dichotomy; it instead teaches that within the one body there are many different ministries and gifts. And all of them are valuable.
In Pagan Christianity, George Barna and I are very vocal against the clergy/laity dichotomy. Unfortunately, almost 200 years ago, some Christians created a doctrine that made “the five-fold ministry” (as they called it) a new kind of clergy. That doctrine is still with us today, unfortunately. I’ve critiqued it elsewhere in detail (see Rethinking the Five-Fold Ministry).
Paul warned the Corinthians about the danger of one part of the body saying to another “we have no need of you.” So refusing any ministry or gift that God has set in the body is a mistake that we make to our own loss. By the same token, I’m probably one of the strongest critics of a sectarian and elitist attitude. Consequently, if a person purports to be a church planter or an apostle and they believe that only their work is “the real deal,” and they have no interest in what others are doing for the Kingdom of God, then my advice is to head for the door. Such an attitude reveals egomania (if not psychosis). It doesn’t have the marks of the cross of Christ upon it nor does it have any points of contact with reality.
In short, I believe in apostolic ministry today for three reasons: 1) it’s a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament and an ongoing ministry of the body of Christ, 2) it’s in the DNA of the church and it will organically emerge from it if churches are planted properly, and 3) my experience and observation over the last twenty years testifies to its helpfulness.
I’ve written on this subject in some detail in Finding Organic Church.
The first part of the article seeks to bridge the gap between those who teach that an organic church is as simple as baking a cake and anyone can do it versus those of us who say that it requires a bit more than that for it to be healthy and sustained. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten so far, this article has brought a great deal of common thinking and unity on this issue.
Having said that, there is no panacea for keeping organic church life pure. And there are plenty of self-proclaimed apostles who are fixated on their own importance and who are sectarian and elitist. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that apostolic ministry – when it’s functioning as it should – is certainly a help, as are all the ministries in the body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 12:1ff.)
As I’ve said in another place, Christians should be cognizant of their need for apostolic ministry, generous in their support of apostolic workers, yet cautious of those claiming to have apostolic status.
3. In your study of church history, have you encountered groups of people, whether considered Christians or heretics, who also recognized the Jewish and pagan origins of church traditions, thus renouncing them as do many house churches today? Can you tell us of such groups and their impact on Christianity?
Yes, the work of Watchman Nee in China is, to my mind, the most recent example that comes to mind. One of his disciples, Stephen Kaung, has had a profound influence on my life and ministry.
In the beginning, the work of God under Nee was very pure. God used it to contribute a great deal to the body of Christ. Nee’s books have added greatly to the body of Christ today. For those of us who are holding the torch outside the institutional church system, Watchman Nee is one of the men whose shoulders we humbly stand on.
4. What is your opinion of the following church traditions embraced by many Christians: Christmas, liturgy, and the church calendar?
If a tradition doesn’t violate the organic nature of the church, if it doesn’t subvert the headship of Jesus, and if it doesn’t suppress the functioning of the Body of Christ, then in my opinion it can be used for God’s glory. I stand with Paul: Let every person judge within themselves.
5. One reviewer of your book (Pagan Christianity) on Amazon states, “What is dangerous about this work is that it states clearly that it is restoring the Christian church back to its first century moorings, which it then seeks to revolve almost totally, if the reader follows their reasoning, almost completely on 1 Corinthians 14:26, that this be not centered around one person, but all participate with Biblical teaching, hymn leading, etc. In this same Scriptural text they exhibit poor exegetical skills by concluding that everyone ministers when assembling together (ecclesia) however this text denies women to speak in these assemblies. This is but one example of inaccurate Biblical exegesis (which they exhibit none of in this work, other than reference Viola’s other writings) but do the proof-texting in the footnotes which they seriously deride their opponents of.” What would be your response to these statements?
This touches one of the frustrations that authors face. It’s impossible to cover every single objection in a single book for the simple reason that the book would be too long for any publisher to print or any reader to abide That means that in any book, publishers and authors must decide what goes in the book and what stays out. Those who have carefully read “Pagan Christianity” know that it’s the first book in a series. So it never pretends to answer every objection or fully develop every point.
For that reason, some of my and George’s other works are referenced when we couldn’t fully develop a thought in a particular chapter. We wanted readers to know where they could go to see where we developed them. (I learned to do this from N.T. Wright and F.F. Bruce by the way.)
That said, I address the whole question of women speaking in the church at www.ptmin.org/role.pdf
6. It is a common claim that the early Christians avoided building churches due to rampant persecution as well as the poverty of most early Christians. What does history does us about the accuracy of such a claim?
History shows that it’s a common myth. I address this very point in detail in my new book Reimagining Church. How’s that for referencing other works? J
7. Many of your critics accuse Pagan Christianity of lacking scholarly merit and you of twisting scholarly works out of context to suit your own agenda. What is your response to these accusations? Have any well-known and well-respected scholars endorsed the accuracy of your presentation of the early Christian church in Pagan Christianity?
To the first question: That accusation sounds an awful lot like, “The authors wrote this because they were hurt by some pastor and are now sucking on bitter lemons.” It’s sweeping conjecture without substance. The obvious question that I and other readers would have is: “how exactly does it lack scholarly merit and where specifically do George and I twist a scholarly work?”
It’s my understanding that only a few people have made this conjecture; but in every case, another scholar who is supportive of the book has refuted it.
To the second question, yes, the book has been endorsed by reputable New Testament scholars, historians, and authors as well as church practitioners.
8. Can you tell us a little about the sequel, Remagining Church, which just came out.
I think that Leonard Sweet put it best when he described it as a “theology of church as organism rather than as institution.” The book takes the Trinity as the model for the church, and then seeks to present a compelling picture of what first-century church life was like, and how it can operate with the same freedom, vibrancy, and spiritual reality today.
I’ve been working on this book for nearly twelve years. I wrote it so that God’s people can understand what a church that comports with NT principles can look like in our day. I also wrote it to hand to those who ask me and others like me, “So why do you meet without a pastor, without a religious building, and without fixed rituals?” and “So if you don’t have a pastor, who is your covering?”
This book addresses these questions are more. Your readers can read some sample chapters and endorsements at www.ReimaginingChurch.org
9. Since the description of the early church in the NT was not prescriptive for us today, why do you feel Christians today should not have the liberty to deviate from their example? Are not we not free today to conduct our churches today however we’d like?
I would challenge the statement “the early church wasn’t at all prescriptive.” I’d ask: What basis does one have for saying this? To me, that’s like saying the earthly life of Jesus is not prescriptive but only descriptive.
I believe that some of what we read about the church has prescriptive force while some of it doesn’t. And one can distinguish between the two by reading the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
In “Reimagining Church,” I address this very question in great detail. The arguments are built on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles as well as the nature of God Himself.
10. George Barna joined with you in this reprinting of Pagan Christianity by Tyndale House. What interests do Barna and Tyndale have in promoting this book?
Barna is a church reformer who wants to see God’s will established now and in the future. Your readers can hear him talk passionately about this at here.
Tyndale felt the message of the book was important enough to publish so that Christians would hear and interact with it. I’d say that our interest is the recovery of God’s will for His church. And that is something that touches every Christian.
11. Wayne Jacobsen, an author widely read and admired by many house church adherents, is not a necessarily a fan of house churches over other types of churches. He points out that just because we follow the example of the apostles by modeling our church structure on theirs doesn’t mean we will experience the life they shared or that imitating the fruit will bring fruit. He believes that the life of Christ precedes the church, that the life must be present and that life will naturally result in a local assembly of Christians. What is your response to Jacobsen’s stance? How should this viewpoint affect church planting efforts, if it should affect them at all?
Those who have read all of my work and have heard me speak know that I’m not a proponent of “house church” per say. In fact, I delivered a message in last year’s National House Church Conference where I shared many of my concerns with the modern house church movement. I’ve also made the statement that if I had to choose between some house churches and some institutional churches, I’d run toward the institutional church with break-neck speed!
I’m also not a proponent of what I call “the biblical blueprint” approach to church, which you seem to be speaking of here. Biblical blueprintism is the idea that says that all we must do is find the correct “pattern” of meeting in the New Testament, mimic it, and presto, we’ll have the church. I personally believe that this is a flawed approach.
At the same time, I believe that the idea of a phantom, nebulous church also misses the mark. This is the notion of church that says that if you and I have coffee at Starbucks, we just had “church.” To my mind, not only is this concept of church unscriptural, but if we peel it back to its core, it is rooted in the desire to have relationships without commitment.
The NT notion of the local church is a visible, locatable, visit-able, touchable, seeable, authentic, face-to-face community in a local area that meets together regularly, takes care of one another consistently, and shares its life together.
Anything less is not a local ekklesia in the NT sense of the word. Virtually every NT scholar would agree with me here.
When it comes to this thing called the church, my heart beats in one direction. My passion is the Lord Jesus Christ — His Lordship, His centrality, His headship, His supremacy, His all-sufficiency, His reality. I only speak on the church as it’s incidental to knowing Him, loving Him, and expressing Him in the earth with others, according to God’s eternal purpose. The church flows out of Christ, just as Eve came out of Adam. She is a part of Him.
To my mind, church planting (i.e., apostolic ministry or Christian “work”) — whatever you wish to call it — is simply the presentation of the Lord Jesus Christ spiritually and practically to a group of people, whether non-Christians or Christians. By presenting Christ spiritually, I mean presenting Jesus Christ in life and in depth. (In my observation, we don’t hear Christ presented like this too often in our time. I didn’t for many years while I was a Christian.)
When Christ is presented in life and depth, our breath is taken away and we fall in love with Him and with one another. By presenting Christ practically, I mean people are given practical handles on how to know this incredible Christ individually and corporately — in reality and in depth. When Christ is presented in this way, the church — real, authentic, life-changing organic church life — issues out of that.
Organic church life can happen spontaneously without any direct preaching, if people encounter the living Christ together. But it typically doesn’t last long. When I was in college, I touched a spontaneous burst of church life. But it died pretty quickly. (I also touched organic church life spontaneously later on. But that’s another story.)
Those who are called to apostolic ministry have a two-fold responsibility, I believe. One is to keep foreign elements out that would seek to choke the life of a church. The other is to breathe new life into a believing community once its spiritual life gets low. If you study the ministry of Paul carefully, you’ll find that he consistently did this with the churches he worked with. To put it in a few sentences:
If we preach Christ to a group of people, but they aren’t given practical handles on how to know Him corporately, we won’t get the experience of the church.
If we preach the church, we’ll get a man-made movement and lots of divisions afterwards.
If we preach that we’re the only ones preaching Christ correctly, we’ll end up with an elitist sect that lives in its own self-enclosed universe.
If we preach Christ spiritually and practically and exhibit Him in our attitudes, we’ll get the church – living, breathing, and centered on Jesus.
July 2008 by Wendy Scoggins