In this book, Frank Viola examines the origins of common traditions and practices of modern Christian churches. He traces the development of nine general areas of tradition such as liturgy, clergy salaries, and ordination, and attempts to determine legitimacy of them based on the New Testament.
In his own words, Viola’s desire is to “remove a great deal of debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ to be the fully functioning head of His church.” While the majority of this book is devoted to explaining why he believes so many current practices are wrong, he does give occasional glimpses of what he calls the ideal “organic” church assembly. The use of scripture is sparse, but may be expected in a work like this, with the overall focus on “what’s wrong” rather than “what’s right.”
After a brief introduction, the first of Viola’s targets is the church building. He attacks the common practice of referring to the local church building as the “house of God” or the “sanctuary of the Lord.” He argues that we err when we use such statements, since the New Testament clearly identifies the individual believer as the temple of God. It is true that we habitually reference the building itself when speaking of the “church,” which is not at all what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the “church (ekklesia).” It would do us well to correct this misuse of terms. One of the more valid arguments in this book occurs in this chapter and has to do with the incredible financial overhead that a church building introduces, and the resulting inability for an assembly to deliver “real services, like ministry, mission, and outreach to the world.”
Another target is the order of worship in modern churches. According to Viola, the idea of an order of service (liturgy) originated with the Catholic Church and is “based partly on the Judaic Temple service, partly on Greek mystery rituals of purification, vicarious sacrifice, and participation.” In what I believe is one of the most flawed logical conclusions in the book, Viola determines that if a Christian gathering has a predetermined order that includes singing, prayer, a sermon, the Lord’s Supper, and a benediction, it is based on this heinous Catholic concept of a liturgy and is therefore unbiblical.
Viola devotes seven more chapters to examining other general areas of tradition and practice. There are many footnotes and external references. At the end of each chapter, he closes with a few questions that relate to the chapter’s topic, as well as his responses. The main content of the book closes with a chapter on “Jesus, the Revolutionary,” and is followed by a few chapters that include questions and answers, a summary of each of the book’s chapters, and an extensive list of notable individuals from church history with one-line descriptions of each.
Overall, Viola raises some good questions about things such as the “altar call” (originating from the Methodists in the 1700’s), the concept of a recited “sinner’s prayer” (introduced by Moody in the late 1800’s and updated by Graham recently), and tithing as a command to Christians (“Never do you find first-century Christians tithing in the New Testament.”). He points out the prevalence of an observational mindset in churches as opposed to a participatory approach, and it would be beneficial for each of us to consider how we can “do” instead of just “watch.”
Perhaps my most significant concern with the book is the assumption that the New Testament provides a comprehensive pattern for the proper way to “do church,” and anything not explicitly identified should be not be a part of our practices. There is no attempt to establish the reasons this is a valid foundational premise. This is surely not true; the purpose of the New Testament is not ultimately to serve as a church manual. We can find some specific directives (do observe the ordinances, do not tolerate heresy), but we have latitude in most areas. For example, the New Testament doesn’t address a start time for gatherings, instruments to be used with singing, attire, and many other things.
I was also frustrated by Viola’s logic in many places. One example is this statement, in the chapter on the church building: “The use of chairs and pile carpets in Christian gatherings has no biblical support either. And both were invented by pagans.”
In summary, I believe Viola introduces some good questions and points out some valid errors in the church today. We do certainly err by placing too much value on extra-biblical traditions. But his approach is significantly lacking, both in logic and ultimate usefulness. And finally, if you’re going to attempt to dismember the modern church like this, you should include more than a single band-aid chapter for the resulting wounds.