August 3, 2009
Frank Viola on the Postchurch Perspective
Is "where two or more are gathered" a church?
There is a growing phenomenon in the body of Christ today. Alongside of the missional church movement, the emerging church movement, and the house church movement, there is a mode of thinking that I call "postchurch Christianity."
The postchurch brand of Christianity is built on the premise that institutional forms of church are ineffective, unbiblical, unworkable, and in some cases, dangerous. Institutionalization is not compatible with ekklesia. So say postchurch advocates.
But the postchurch view goes further saying, "any semblance of organization whatsoever . . . any semblance of leadership...is wrong and oppressive. Church is simply when two or three believers gather together in any format. Whenever this happens, church occurs."
Here are some examples of what you might hear a postchurch advocate say:
"Sally and I had coffee at Starbucks last week. That was church."
"I get together with two other men once a month at Sonny's BBQ. That's church for us."
"I travel a great deal and whenever I visit Christians in other cities, we're having church together."
"I live in Dallas, TX. Last week, I talked to my friend on the phone for an hour. He lives in Miami, FL. The week before I talked with a friend who lives in Portland, OR. We were having church on the phone. I belong to the same church that they do."
"I don't attend any Christian meetings. I have church on the Internet. I belong to several Christian discussion groups and social networks, and that's church for me."
"I don't understand how people can talk about church planting? How can a church be planted when we are already the church? I'm the church. You're the church. So just be the church."
To my mind, all of the above reflects a redefinition of ekklesia as it is found, used, and understood in the New Testament. No first-century Christian would have used "church" in this way. While there's certainly nothing wrong with fellowshipping with Christians at Starbucks, on the phone, or through the Internet, the biblical meaning of ekklesia is something quite different.
The biblical text that postchurch advocates hang a great deal of their doctrine on is Matthew 18: 20:"For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
But it's important to read this verse in context:
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:15-20)
Here, Jesus is speaking of a local ekklesia, a community of Christ-followers who live in the same locale. The people in this ekklesia know one another. And what this passage has in view is an excommunication meeting. Therefore, it's a horrifying text--a text that no Christian should ever want to use. It has to do with a person who is acting in a wayward manner and refuses to stop.
When this happens, the injured person must go to the offending person in private. If the offending person refuses to reconcile, two or three others from the local ekklesia must talk to him. If the offending person still refuses to stop his wayward conduct, he must be dis-fellowshipped from the ekklesia.
Note that Jesus says that the two or three should "tell it to the church" if the offending person doesn't repent. Now think: If the two or three people are the church, then this text becomes incoherent. Consequently, the two or three cannot be the church. They are simply a part of it. The implication is that the two or three who went to the unrepentant person should be praying for him. And the Lord will be with them in a special way as they do. He will stand with them.
This context indicates that the ekklesia is an organic entity where a group of committed believers in a locality "bind and loose," using the keys of the kingdom that Jesus has given to them. Consequently, Matthew 18 is not a text in which Jesus is trying to define the church for us. Rather it's a text describing the awful process of excommunication.
Because this is the primary passage the postchurch viewpoint is founded on, I'm of the opinion that the position cannot stand up against the light of the New Testament. I'll say more on that in my second post.