“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins” — Jesus in Mark 2:22, NKJV
Frank Viola takes these words of Jesus and applies them to church structures. While many are hoping the new wine of the Holy Spirit can revitalize the traditional churches they grew up in, Viola and others are saying the very structures are an obstacle to manifesting Christ. No mere theoretician, Viola’s books stem from living out church in a different way in his Florida town. He has discovered that hope for the church’s future lies in the New Testament past where buildings and titles were unimportant and Christ was allowed to be head of the church.
Again and again throughout Rethinking the Wineskin Viola reminds us that the concept of church that most Western Christians embrace today is a phenomenon of our culture and history. “Many evangelicals have embraced the benighted idea that only those things that are ‘explicitly commanded’ in Scripture are binding. Everything else is safely ignored. …Equally problematic is the notion that only the ‘principles’ of the early church are to be heeded while its ‘practices’ are irrelevant and antiquated. This idea has deluded many Christians into embracing humanly-devised practices that violate spiritual principles.” Viola takes aim at these practices which he says include salaried clergy, single pastors (as opposed to plural leadership) and pulpit-styled services. “At bottom, the tendency to reject first-century styled church meeting unearths a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit.”
Viola advocates house church. His idea is not a slavish devotion to patterns, which would be another form of legalism, but a corporate sensitivity to the Spirit. “Perhaps the Holy Spirit has led and will lead some to assemble in a building from time to time. But the Spirit will only do so if it truly suits the Lord’s purposes. And let it be clear that if God leads a church in this direction, it will not be driven by human zeal, energy, and advertising machinery….” Viola distinguishes between ministry meetings, which may be evangelistic and involve large numbers of people, and church meetings which are for the edification of believers. “Should not the house church meetings be more the rule than the exception due to the benefits that are bound up with them?” He gives a compact list of advantages:
· The home testifies that the people comprise God’s house.
· The home is the natural setting for One-Anothering
· The home represents the simplicity of Christ.
· The home reflects the family nature of the church.
· The home models spiritual authenticity.
It is possible for a house church to be a traditional church in miniature. That is not what Viola is after. His vision is of the priesthood of all believers. There are no big names. If the church has elders, they provide oversight but do not make decisions on behalf of the church nor monopolize the teaching, prophesying and exhorting. They lead by example, not by office. “The startling reality is that Paul’s favorite word for describing leadership is the opposite of what natural minds would suspect. It is diakonos, which means a servant.” Jesus is the real head and wants to express Himself through each member of His body. Viola goes into detail explaining leadership by consensus involving all the brothers and sisters.
Scripture often makes a point through riveting pictures. One such picture, almost universally recognized by Bible scholars, is the young woman in the Song of Solomon, symbolizing the bride of Christ. Viola borrows from this imagery in the initial pages of Rethinking the Wineskin:
“This book is dedicated to a beautiful girl .... This corporate woman embodies the truths found in this book. By her life, she proves them to be heavenly realities and not the theories of men.”
Read Steve Eastman's interview with Frank Viola