Monday, January 17, 2011

One Man’s Journey into a Deep Ecclesiology by Frank Viola

What follows is the afterword in From Eternity to Here. To my mind, it’s one of the most important parts of the book. So I’m publishing it here.

. . . the summing up of all things in Christ. (Ephesians 1:10, NASB)

My friends Andrew Jones and Brian McLaren have written about something they call “deep ecclesiology.” This phrase appears to be derived from Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory of deep semantics.” Chomsky said that underlying the “surface structures” of the statements we make is a deeper and simpler structure that’s ingrained in the human capacity for language.

Andrew and Brian have said that in a similar way there lies underneath our varying models of church a basic underlying reality that’s manifested in our historical and social settings. This notion has been coined “deep ecclesiology.”

I resonate wholeheartedly with the concept that there is a reality of the church that is higher and deeper than what typically occurs in many modern church structures. To wit, a “deeper” ecclesiology.

At the time of this writing, the phrase “deep ecclesiology” is still being shaped. I have shared my thoughts on this subject with both Brian and Andrew, along with some others in the emerging church conversation. So this chapter can be considered a stab at furthering that shaping in the public arena.

I strongly believe that the underlying reality of the church is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. Not as a doctrine. Nor as a system of belief. Nor as a set of moral teachings. Not as a moral philosopher or social activist. But as a living Person who has thoughts, feelings, and volition. A living Person who dwells within our spirits and who can be known.

To my mind, any ecclesiology that does not make Christ absolutely central in its life, mission, and expression cannot be rightly called “deep.”

The church is the indwelling of Christ in a group of local people by the Holy Spirit. Those models and forms of church which best enact this reality, giving it visible expression, are adequate toward fulfilling a deep ecclesiology. Those models and forms which do not should be discarded for those which better enact it.

Here I will attempt to explain how I arrived at this conclusion and what it means (at least for me) in concrete terms.

Revivalist Theology

Shortly after I began following the Lord at age sixteen, I was introduced to something called “revivalist theology.” If you are an evangelical Christian, then you may be familiar with this theology. Revivalist theology was founded during the days of the English revivalist George Whitefield. It was later picked up and popularized by Dwight L. Moody.

D.L. Moody was an American revivalist who lived in the 19th century. Historians estimate that Moody preached the gospel to 100 million people in his lifetime. Moody didn’t have televisions, the Internet, radios, cable TV, fax machines, mp3 players, email, nor did he put out a national magazine. He did most of his preaching on foot and preached in the open air. It has been said that Moody brought one million people to Christ.

During the years of 1870 to 1900, revivalist theology was born. And it largely came through the womb of D.L. Moody’s ministry. What is revivalist theology? Revivalist theology hangs on two unshakable precepts: 1) If you are lost, you must be saved. 2) If you are saved, you must win the lost. According to revivalist theology, every word in the Bible — both Old and New Testaments — hangs on these two precepts. Everything in the Bible can be juiced down to those two things.

To unravel it further, revivalist theology teaches that the only reason why you are alive today is so that you can get other people’s papers in order for heaven. In fact, that is the only reason why God didn’t strike you deader-than-a-hammer after you became a Christian.

Because I had never been taught anything else, I embraced this theology hook, line, and sinker. I later came to realize that revivalist theology is untenable. It dutifully ignores 99.7% of the Bible. (I can only think of two occasions in the New Testament where Christians who were not apostles preached the gospel to the lost. Additionally, I cannot think of any verse in any letter in the New Testament penned by Paul, Peter, John, James or Jude where Christians are exhorted to preach the gospel to the lost.)

Am I against revival? No. Am I against sharing the gospel with the lost? Not at all. What I am against is the penchant to take the New Testament and stretch it to the point where it fits revivalist theology. The vast bulk of the New Testament is not about winning the lost. As we have seen in the previous pages, there is something else that Scripture is preoccupied with.

The Power of God

After I was thoroughly schooled in revivalist theology (this included knocking on doors, “Four-Lawing” strangers, and taking sinners down “the Romans road”), I was introduced to “the power of God.” I drank deeply from the wells of a movement that obsessed over God’s power. I heard sermon after sermon on the gifts of the Spirit, the recovery of the gifts, miracles, healings, signs and wonders. I also had my share of experiences with God’s power.

Today, I am a firm believer that the power of God is real and operative in our time. However, when I stood back from that season in my life, I made a few telling observations. First, most of the people that I ran around with who incessantly talked about “the power of God” were the same people who were most lacking in God’s power. I saw this countless times. So much so that it became a predictable pattern.

Second, I met a few King Sauls, a few Balaams, and a few Samsons in this camp. Explanation: These men had tre­mendous outward power. King Saul prophesied accurately, Balaam had an incredible gift of the word of knowledge and the word of wisdom, and Samson was unstoppable in his display of physical strength.

But there was one other thing that these three men shared. They all had defective characters in some arena of their lives. And their flesh was very much alive in those arenas. Outwardly, they had impressive gifts of spiritual power. But inwardly, they lacked something fundamental.

In one of his letters, Paul carries on rather loudly about the peril of possessing gifts of great spiritual power, including spiritual insight into the deep mysteries of God, and yet lacking some of the basic features of love, like honesty, humility, and kindness (see 1 Cor. 13:1-3). Character, therefore, and not gifting, is the only reliable sign of God’s work in a person’s life (Matt. 7:22-23).

I made another puzzling observation on this score. I noticed that so many of my fellow brethren who talked about the power of God seemed to be incredibly self-absorbed. They had an uncommon knack for talking about themselves and how God was using them with His power. Whenever they would testify, 10% of it seemed to be about what God was doing. The other 90% was how God was using them and what they were doing.

Paul of Tarsus, a man who had tremendous spiritual gifts, hardly uttered a whisper about how God used him. And the one time that he described his spiritual experiences, he was backed into a corner to testify about them. In so doing, he did two notable things. One, he used the third person to describe his revelation of the Lord. Two, he said he was speaking as a fool in detailing God’s power in his life (see 2 Corinthians 12:1ff.).

I’ve since learned that those who have genuine power with God do not talk much about it. And they certainly don’t talk about themselves a whole lot either. I learned that it’s profoundly easy to become drunk on God’s power — to become obsessed with the miraculous — to become fixated with spiritual gifting — and lose sight of Jesus Christ in the process.

It’s a perilous thing when men try to harness God. I’m a firm believer that the church of Jesus Christ has been granted enormous spiritual power. But that power is upon the church, not a set of special individuals.

I have sadly watched the power of God be reduced to something quite common and cheap. The result: The power becomes diluted. Within the confines of the body of Christ, the power of God is safe. That’s because the church is the steward of God’s power. Outside of her, it becomes easily corrupted.

Am I against the power of God? Not at all. I appreciate the power of God. I even awe at it. But I am against putting power on the throne. For that reason, I cast a cautious eye upon those who claim to have God’s power.

The power of God is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:24). And the Holy Spirit has come to reveal, honor, and glorify Him (John 15:26; 16:13-14). It’s a fitting irony, therefore, that one of the things which will derail you and me from encountering what the Holy Spirit came to do is to seek the power of God. To put it in prescription form: Seek the power of God, and you will undoubtedly miss the Christ who embodies that power.

Eschatology and Doctrine

After that season in my life, I was sold a different bag of Christian goods. I ended up on the eschatology train. Eschatology is the study of things to come — the study of end times. When is Jesus Christ going to return? When is Russia going to invade Jerusalem? What is the meaning of the ninth toe on the foot of the beast in the book of Revelation? When does Daniel’s 70 weeks” begin? Who is the false prophet? And of course, who is the antichrist and exactly what is the mark of the beast?

Open admission: I caught eschatology fever. I was bitten by the rapture bug. I began studying the visions of Daniel and Revelation, making charts, plotting graphs, mapping out the movements of the antichrist, the false prophet, God and Magog, etc.

Attention young Christians: You can get ridiculously obsessed with rapture fever. I was taught, “This is important. We have to know prophecy. We must study prophecy. 90% of the Bible is prophecy. We have a duty to understand it.”

Let me confess. I was pathetically into eschatology. So much so that I could discuss it for hours with wild-eyed fascination.

But I made a discovery. That all of those hours I spent pouring over Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, trying to put the end-time puzzle together, did not help me one iota to come to know my Lord better. It was largely an academic, intellectual exercise. And a sterile one at that.

The result: I stopped studying end-time prophecy.

After I got off the eschatology bandwagon, I was introduced to something called “Christian theology” and “Christian doctrine.” I was taught that the most important thing that God wants for His people is that they know and embrace “sound doctrine.” So I rigorously studied the Scriptures, along with the views of Calvin, Arminius, Luther, and many contemporary theologians and scholars.

In my early 20s, I was attending various Bible studies — each sponsored by different denominations and movements. There I would engage in the usual shrill disputes over doctrine with my Christian brothers. I will shamelessly admit that I enjoyed the mental stimulation of sharpening my doctrinal sword on the side of someone else’s head.

But during that season, I made another discovery. Namely, that Christian doctrine can make a person downright mean. I observed that the men who were the most schooled in Christian doctrine and the most concerned about “sound theology” did not resemble Jesus Christ at all in their behavior. Instead, they seemed to center their lives on making the unimportant critical.

The spirit of the Lamb was altogether missing. They were harsh personalities who appeared to almost hate those with whom they disagreed. Granted, there is a doctrine in the New Testament. But majoring on Christian doctrine and theology can turn Christians into in quisitors. The words of Thomas Aquinas are fitting: “Lord, in my zeal for love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love.”

Am I against doctrine? No sir. Am I against theology? No ma’am. But I do not advocate an overemphasis on it. Con­sequently, I came to the place where I was compelled to lay down my doctrinal sword, for like Peter, I had been cutting people’s ears off with it!

I recommend that you study church history. It will make you cry. Our forefathers drew their swords against one another, spilling their blood over doctrines. Peripheral doctrines at that. They crossed swords over their private interpretations of Scripture, and it often ended in bloodshed. Again, majoring in doctrine can make a Christian vicious. History bears this out.

After I dropped pursuing doctrine and theology, I became involved in a lot of other Christian “things.” I majored in holiness, believing that it was the central theme of the Bible. I then majored in faith and learned the principles of “walking in” and “living by” faith. I became deeply involved in “worship and praise”, deeming both to be the central desire of God. Then it was ministry to the poor. Then personal prophecy.

After that it was Christian apologetics. My venture into apologetics led me to debate with the president of the American Atheist Association in the city where I lived. I was 23 years old at the time. I studied the apparent contradictions of the Bible and resolved many of them. (Today, I am perfectly content to leave them unresolved.)

While it was great fun watching my atheist opponent squirm, the thrill soon wore off. While he didn’t convert to Christ, he had to rethink his understanding of what a Christian was. Even so, I suspect there was little eternal value that came of it.

The Embodiment of All Spiritual Things

Enough of the historical narrative. Here’s my point. In the first eight years of my Christian experience, I learned to major in a slew of “Christian” things. And that is my point — they were things.

All of the churches and movements I was involved in had effectively preached to me an it. Evangelism is an it. The power of God is an it. Eschatology is an it. Christian theology is an it. Christian doctrine is an it. Faith is an it. Apologetics is an it.

I made the striking discovery that I don’t need an it. I have never needed an it. And I will never need an it. Christian its, no matter how good or true, eventually wear out, run dry, and become tiresome.

I don’t need an it, I need a Him.

And so do you.

We do not need things. We need Jesus Christ.

Everything in Scripture — every book, every story, every teaching, every theme, every letter, every verse, all of the arrows point to Him.

You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! (John 5:39, NLT)

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself . . . Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him. (Luke 24:27, 31)

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)

To be truly scriptural is to be Christological, for Jesus Christ is the subject of all Scripture. This discovery changed my life.

My journey didn’t end there, however. Around the same time, I made another life-altering discovery. It was this: That Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all Divine things. My eyes were opened to see that Jesus Christ is Salvation. Jesus Christ is the Power of God. Jesus Christ is Holiness. Jesus Christ is Doctrine. Jesus Christ is the living incarnation of everything that is spiritual.

You can chase spiritual things until you are blue in the face. And there will always be some Christian who is peddling a new “it” or a “thing” upon which to center your life. Warning: If you buy into it, you will most certainly miss Him.

When I realized that Christ was everything in the Christian life and that the Father had put all spiritual things into Him, it radically changed my life. Gone were the days where I sought “things.” Gone were the days where I chased after Christian truths, doctrines, and theologies. A new chapter had opened where I began to seek Christ Himself. I sought to be drowned in the face of the knowledge of my Lord. For I discovered that in Him exists everything that I needed.

God’s object from first to last is His Son. It is Christ — and Christ alone — that God the Father desires for His people. I had grossly confused spiritual growth with acquiring spiritual things. So I went about pursuing spiritual knowledge, spiritual virtues, spiritual graces, spiritual gifts and spiritual power. I later discovered that spiritual growth is nothing more than having Christ formed within (Gal. 4:19).

When we are saved, Jesus Christ is begotten in us. He then grows in us. Spiritual growth, then, is nothing more than knowing Him and allowing Him to grow in us.

Upon reflection, it seems that many Christians regard salvation, evangelism, peace, power, holiness, joy, service, church practice, ministry, and doctrine as simply Divine “things”, all detached from the living Person of Christ and made something in and of themselves.

But God never gives us spiritual things. He never gives us virtues, gifts, graces, and truths to acquire. Instead, He only gives us His Son. He gives us Christ to be all things for us.

Consequently, Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all spiritual things. He is the substance of all Divine realities. He is the incarnation of all spiritual virtues, graces, gifts, and truths. In short, God has vested all of His fullness into His Son.

In other words, Jesus Christ not only reveals the way to His people, He is the Way. Jesus Christ not only reveals the truth to His people, He is the Truth. Jesus Christ is not only the giver of life, He is the Life (John 14:6). Put another way, Christ is the incarnation of all that He gives. He is All and All. That is, He is everything to everyone who has received His life.

*   Jesus Christ is Hope (1 Tim. 1:1).

*   Jesus Christ is Peace (Eph. 2:14).

*   Jesus Christ is Wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30).

*   Jesus Christ is Redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).

*   Jesus Christ is Holiness (1 Cor. 1:30).

*   Jesus Christ is Righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30).

Hope is not a thing to be sought after, it’s a Person. Peace is not a virtue to be obtained, it’s Christ. Righteousness is not a grace to be asked for, it’s Christ, and on and on. One is a spiritual “thing.” The other is the Lord Himself. To put it in a sentence, Jesus Christ is not simply the giver of gifts, He Himself is the Gift.

Spiritual progress, therefore, is tied up in knowing Christ as our All. It takes place when we take Christ as our Portion to be all things for us. Greater Bible knowledge will not do this for you. Increased religious activity or spiritual service will not do this for you. Neither will spending more time praying. Only a revelation of the vastness of Christ can meet the bill.

As I survey the landscape of modern Christianity, it seems to me that spiritual things and objects have replaced the Person of Christ. The doctrines, gifts, graces, virtues, and duties that we so earnestly seek have substituted for Jesus Himself. We look to this gift and that gift, we study this truth and that truth, we seek to appropriate this virtue, we try to fulfill this duty, but all along we fail to find Him.

When the Father gives us something, it’s always His Son. When the Son gives us something, it’s always Himself. This insight greatly simplifies the Christian life. Instead of seeking many spiritual things, we only seek Him. Our single occupation is the Lord Jesus Christ. He becomes our only pursuit. We do not seek Divine things, we seek a Divine Person. We do not seek gifts; we seek the giver who embodies all the gifts. We do not seek truth; we seek the incarnation of all truth.

God has given us all spiritual things in His Son. He has made Him to be our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption, our peace, our hope, etc. Recognizing that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of all spiritual things will change your prayer life. It will change your vocabulary and the way you think and talk about spiritual things. And it will ultimately change your practice of the church.

Toward the Reality of the Church

To put it candidly, you will never have an authentic experience of the body of Christ unless your foundation is blindly and singularly Jesus Christ. Authentic church life is born when a group of people are intoxicated with a glorious unveiling of their Lord.

The chief task of a Christian leader, therefore, is to present a Christ to God’s people that they have never known, dreamed, or imagined. A breathtaking Christ whom they can know intimately and love passionately. The calling of every Christian servant is to build the ekklesia upon an overmastering revelation of the Son of God. A revelation that burns in the fiber of their being and leaves God’s people breathless, overwhelmed, and awash in the glories of Jesus.

From God’s standpoint, the church’s center of gravity is Jesus Christ.

To the bride, He’s the bridegroom.

To the house, He’s the foundation, the cornerstone, and the capstone.

To the body, Christ is the head.

To the family, He’s the Firstborn.

When a church is centered on the ultimacy of Christ, it no longer chases Christian “things” or “its.” Knowing Christ, exploring Him, encountering Him, honoring Him, and loving Him becomes the church’s governing pursuit.

Rightly conceived, the church is a local group of people who have been immersed and saturated with a magnificent vision of Jesus Christ and who are discovering how to take Him as their All together. This discovery lies at the heart of a deep ecclesiology.

I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ . . . That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings . . . (Philippians 3:8, 10, KJV)

I will close with the fitting words of A.B. Simpson:

Once it was the blessing, Now it is the Lord;

Once it was the feeling, Now it is His Word.

Once His gifts I wanted, Now the Giver own;

Once I sought for healing, Now Himself alone.

Once twas painful trying, Now tis perfect trust;

Once a half salvation, Now the uttermost.

Once twas ceaseless holding, Now He holds me fast;

Once twas constant drifting, Now my anchor’s cast.

Once twas busy planning, Now tis trustful prayer;

Once twas anxious caring, Now He has the care.

Once twas what I wanted, Now what Jesus says;

Once twas constant asking, Now tis ceaseless praise.

Once it was my working, His it hence shall be;

Once I tried to use Him, Now He uses me.

Once the power I wanted, Now the Mighty One;

Once for self I labored, Now for Him alone

Once I hoped in Jesus, Now I know He’s mine;

Once my lamps were dying, Now they brightly shine.

Once for death I waited, Now His coming hail;

And my hopes are anchored, Safe within the veil.

Taken from From Eternity to Here (Frank Viola), pp. 291-305.

NOTE TO READERS: This article was posted with the author's permission. If you wish to republish this article on your blog or website, you may do so, but you must add this note at the bottom. This article is an excerpt or modification from one of Frank's books. To view Frank's books, go to To view his blog, go to Also see his 62 must-have-in-your-library book list at

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