Stripping Down to Christ Alone

An edited version of this article is found in the book, Revise Us Again by Frank Viola.

      It was the summer of 1992. Our church was ripe to understand the obscenely high cost of maintaining the oneness of the Body of Christ. We were also ripe to learn the meaning of stripping down to Christ alone.

      Before I tell you the story, a little background is necessary. All of us who began meeting since 1988 had a Pentecostal/charismatic orientation. We moved freely in spiritual gifts. We prayed for the sick, we operated in prophetic utterances, we readily believed in and expected God to move in supernatural ways, we believed in visions, dreams, and that the Holy Spirit still speaks to His people today. (Our practice of the gifts, though charismatic, were void of the emotive hokum that marks many post-war charismatic churches today.)

      Some of us became friends with a group of people who also left the traditional church. They lived in the same city, and they also met in homes. Their background, however, was not Pentecostal/charismatic. It was the exact opposite. They came out of the Church of Christ denomination. (Church of Christ folk not only disbelieve in spiritual gifts, they are highly allergic to them.)

      Someone in our group got the bright idea that we should have a few joint meetings. We were of the strong conviction that God never authorized denominations. “I am Church of Christ,” “I am Pentecostal,” “I am of Calvin,” “I am of Luther” were just as frowned upon by the Lord as “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos,” and “I am of Peter.” En. 1 Corinthians 1:12-13: 3:4-5.

                  So we sought to flesh out our common oneness in Christ with this other group. The lessons I learned from that experience were priceless. The first thing I discovered is that the Lord Jesus Christ is the most unifying Person in the universe.

      In the last recorded prayer to His Father, the passion of Christ’s heart was revealed. It was that His people be one just as He and His Father are one. En. John 17. That’s not some abstract “positional truth” for which the Lord was petitioning His Father. The Body of Christ can never express the fullness of Christ unless there is a heart of openness and mutual fellowship toward all the members of His Body.

      Only Jesus Christ could bring together the two most polarized groups in human history—the Jew and the Gentile. The deep hatred and naked hostility between those two groups has been unspeakable, but Jesus Christ alone was able to break down the wall of partition that separated them, making them into one new humanity within Himself. En. Ephesians 2:14-18. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to push away another member of the Body of Christ because they’re different from you . . . which is a natural tendency that we all have.

      In addition, Jesus Christ will one day reconcile all things into Himself, both in heaven and on earth. Indeed, your Lord is the most unifying Person in the universe.

      Whether we realize it or not, we cut ourselves off from the infinite riches of Christ whenever we close ourselves off from fellowshipping with others who belong to Him. Every authentic Christian tradition has something valuable to offer. The reason is simple. Because His people are part of those traditions.

      The Body of Christ would be so much richer if every Christian learned to receive what was of Christ from their fellow brethren, regardless of their religious pedigree.

      So after a few edifying joint meetings with the ex-Church of Christ group, we decided to do what was humanly impossible. We resolved to meet together as one church. Not long after that decision was made, the sparks began to fly.

      Each meeting was like walking through a mine field. The environment was emotionally laden and highly flammable. The tenseness of coming to a gathering where half the group was used to functioning one way, and the other half another way, was almost intolerable.

      I could rant on about the war-story details, but I’ll spare you. Let me just say that a few months after we merged into one fellowship, we witnessed a church split. And our strained efforts at preemptive peacemaking and spiritual finessing couldn’t prevent it.

      There were some very intense discussions over our differences. But none of them brought a resolution. Most of those discussions degraded into noise. The only thing they increased was the blood pressure.

      Consequently, some left the group. But with our garments still smoking, those of us who remained received light from the Lord. A proposal was presented and all agreed upon it. To my mind, our decision turned out to be worth its weight in gold.

      We decided that all of us would lay down our view of spiritual gifts at the foot of the cross. We all agreed to drop whatever we thought or experienced about the working of the Holy Spirit. We died to it completely. We gave it up. And we asked the Lord to teach us all over again as new born babes.

      Our entire focus shifted from what we thought we knew about the Spirit to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. We resolved to strip down to Christ alone.

      I don’t know how to explain this, but I’m going to tell you what happened. We started getting our eyes on Him. And in about a year’s time, something miraculous occurred. There rose up . . . out of death . . . out of the grave . . . in resurrection, the moving of the Holy Spirit. But it didn’t look anything like what we saw in the Pentecostal/charismatic movement.

      Those of us who remained and committed to toughing out the storm were genuinely built together. And I experienced something I had only read about in the Bible—I saw two very diverse groups of Christians love one another through their differences. The result was what Paul declared to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

      At the end of a year, after going to the cross a thousand times, both groups had come to the same judgment and belief about spiritual gifts. 

      This experience, although bloody at first, proved to me in living color that the unity of the faith is more than a pious ideal. If Christians refuse to divide from one another over doctrinal differences, God will be faithful to knit their hearts and minds together. Ephesians 4:1-3 took on new life for me after that episode.

      For me, the discovery that the Holy Spirit could operate without charismatic packages and Pentecostal wrappings was revolutionary. It is for this reason that I consider myself to be neither a cessasionist (those who believe that spiritual gifts have ceased) nor a charismatic. Instead, I consider myself to be a post-charismatic. En. I believe John Wimber was the first to use this term. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, estimated that in 1990 there were as many as 92 million people who described themselves as post-charismatic. In more recent times, Rob McAlpine has been writing thoughtfully on the subject.

      By post-charismatic (or neo-charismatic), I mean the following:

      I believe that the authentic gifts of the Holy Spirit are still operative in the church today. However, I also believe that the artificial wrappings that have been attached to them should be discarded.

      I believe that being “Spirit-filled” cannot be narrowly defined to refer exclusively to those people who have demonstrated one particular spiritual gift at some particular point in their life. (On that score, I had a particular experience with the Holy Spirit in 1983. Some would say that I was “filled with the Spirit” because of it. However, I would argue that I was filled with the Spirit before then as well as many times afterward. En. Acts 2:4, 8, 4:31; Acts 9:17; 13:9, 52; Ephesians 5:18-20.

      I’ve grown tired of the excesses and abuses that many modern charismatics have fallen prey to (in both practice and teaching).

      I’m against human engineered hype and pulpit showmanship and calling it “the moving of the Spirit.” (Perhaps you’ve seen this before. You pour in the right prayers, sing the right songs with the right fervor, turn the crank, and “the Spirit’s moving” comes out of the bottom.)

      I’m leery of “personal prophecies” that justify ridiculous practices, ludicrous decisions, and fly in the face of Spirit-inspired wisdom.

      I’ve grown tired of the exaggerated and sometimes fabricated stories of the miraculous. That includes the puffing up of numbers when healings or saved souls are calculated.

      I’m against any elitist attitude among those who purport to possess spiritual gifts.

      I’m against forcing the exercise of spiritual gifts among God’s people.

      I’m against those doctrines that promote seeking wealth and material prosperity from God at the expense of caring for the poor and relieving the sufferings of the oppressed.

      I’m opposed to the idea that spiritual transformation normally takes place in one-time miraculous encounters rather than by a long-term process of being conformed to Christ’s image by the instrument of His cross.

      I’m against using the Holy Spirit and His gifts to make human beings the center of the universe.

      I’m against promoting an intoxication with the restoration of the gifts of the Spirit. (The only thing worth being intoxicated with is Jesus Christ.)

      I’m critical of the legalism that was born into the DNA of the Pentecostal movement and later infiltrated the charismatic mind.

      I’m skeptical of any activity, natural or supernatural, that claims to be a work of the Holy Spirit if it doesn’t bring attention to the Lord Jesus.

      I believe that the real fruit of prayer is not spiritual insight, spiritual revelation, or spiritual encounter, but the transformation of character. To my mind, the product of real prayer is what Ignatius of Loyola called the instrumentum conjunctum cum Deo (an instrument shaped to the contours of the hand of God).

      I believe that spiritual maturity is not the ability to see the extraordinary, but the ability to see the ordinary through God’s eyes. Consequently, no matter how wonderful our experience or encounter is with God, the test of it’s worth is the fruit it bears in the lives of others.

      In short, I believe in the operation of the Holy Spirit, but without the classic charismatic packages and Pentecostal wrappings. I’ve been stripped of them. The reason is simple. To my mind, they are artificial, learned by imitation, and detract from the reality and centrality of Jesus Christ. So while I’m post-charismatic, I’m certainly not post-Holy Spirit.

      If we need a restoration of the Holy Spirit today, it’s a restoration of His pure and undefiled working.

      The Holy Spirit has but one job. Do you know what it is? It’s to reveal, to make known, to magnify, to glorify, to make central and supreme the Lord Jesus Christ.

      The following is a direct quote from Frank Bartleman. Bartleman was part of the Azusa street revival that gave birth to the modern Pentecostal/charismatic movement in the early 1900s. His words are prophetic and ahead of their time. He foresaw the dangers of co-opting Jesus Christ by putting the Holy Spirit on the throne. He wrote,

 

“In the beginning of the Pentecostal work, I became very much exercised in the Spirit that Jesus should not be slighted, ‘lost in the temple,’ by the exaltation of the Holy Ghost and of the gifts of the Spirit. There seemed to be a great danger of losing sight of the fact that Jesus was ‘all in all.’ I endeavored to keep Him as the central theme and figure before His people. Jesus will always be the center of our preaching. All comes through and in Him. The Holy Spirit was given to “show the things of Christ.” The work of Calvary, the atonement, must be the center for our consideration. The Holy Ghost will never draw our attention from Christ to Himself, but rather reveal Christ in a fuller way. We are in the same danger today.

There is nothing deeper nor higher than to know Christ. Everything is given by God to that end. The ‘one Spirit’ is given to that end. Christ is our salvation and our all. That we might know ‘the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the love of Christ’ (Ephesians 3:18-19), ‘having a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him’ (Ephesians 1:17). It was ‘to know Him (Christ),’ for which Paul strove . . . We may not even hold a doctrine, or seek an experience, except in Christ. Many are willing to seek power from every battery they can lay their hands on in order to perform miracles, draw attention and adoration of the people to themselves, thus robbing Christ of His glory and making a fair showing in the flesh . . . Religious enthusiasm easily goes to seed. The human spirit so predominates the show-off, religious spirit. But we must stick to our text—Christ. He alone can save. The attention of the people must first of all, and always, be held to Him . . . Any work that exalts the Holy Ghost or the gifts of the Spirit above Jesus will finally end up in fanaticism. Whatever causes us to exalt and love Jesus is well and safe. The reverse will ruin all. The Holy Ghost is a great light, but will always be focused on Jesus for His revealing.”

 

En- Frank Bartleman, Another Wave of Revival (Springdale: Whitaker House, 1982), pp. 94-96.

 

      One of the first churches I planted taught me a great lesson on this score. Their meetings were completely open, participatory, and indelibly centered on Jesus Christ. Each member would share their experience and insight into Christ as a result of seeking Him the week beforehand. That church had a steady flux of visitors. And they would often remark, “All they talk about is Christ. They seem to have a deep experience of the indwelling of Jesus.”

      One particular Sunday, a couple of Pentecostals visited the church. When the meeting was over, they sat with some of the brothers and asked, “How come you guys don’t ever talk about the Holy Spirit? All you talk about is Christ.”

      One of the young men who was in his early 20’s answered with wisdom that exceeded his years. He said, “Well, maybe it’s because the Holy Spirit only speaks about one thing—Jesus Christ.”

      I was not present for that meeting; the story was rehearsed to me. But it is one I shall never forget.

      If you wish to determine if a person is full of the Holy Spirit, listen to his words and watch his life. As far as his words go, he will have but one obsession. It will be Christ. And his life will match his words. He won’t be perfect by any means. Nor will he be above making mistakes. But he will exhibit a spirit of kindness, gentleness, humility, and an inclusive openness to all of God’s children . . . the outstanding marks of Christ’s character.

      Let me pass on a word of advice. If you ever hit a fork in the road with the people with whom you church, there’s one sure way that the Lord will get what He wants. Drop whatever is causing the problem, and let it go into death.

      There is nothing that we must cling to except for the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing. So let that other thing that you are dividing over go into death. Give it up, and watch what the Lord can do.

      This is the principle of death and resurrection. Whenever we place something into death, if it was born of Christ to begin with, it will return again. It will come forth out of the ground. But when it comes forth, it will always look different from what it looked like before it went into death.

      Everything looks different in resurrection.

      So we survived the ordeal. And we found our Lord in a new way in the process. We also found the Holy Spirit in a new way. The gifts of the Spirit operated in a very natural, unassuming way. There was no grandstanding or bluster. It was truly organic—out of life.

      The other lesson I learned was that the Lord Jesus Christ could unify a group of people who were poles apart theologically. So long as they were willing to die a thousands deaths and let everything else go to the cross except for Christ.

      During this same period of time, there was another discovery I made. In years past, I was part of a movement that taught that every individual Christian was a “little Christ.” That is, every believer could wield the same authority that Jesus wielded. Despite the fact that I never saw this fleshed out in real life, I believed it because it’s fairly easy to prove by using the “proof-text” method of Bible study.

      But as the years passed, I realized that there was a dramatic flaw in this teaching. All of those “proof-texts” that seemed to teach that every individual Christian had the same authority that Christ had were not addressed to individual Christians. They were addressed to the Body of Christ. They were all addressed to local communities of believers who lived a shared life together.

      Consequently, I discovered that the church—the community of believers that gathers under the Lord’s Headship—has the authority of Christ at its disposal. And the church, not the individual Christian, is the corporate Christ in the earth. En. 1 Corinthians 12:12.

      There is one other thing that happened to me in 1992—something quite positive. And it changed my life forever. It’s the subject of our next chapter.

A First Taste of Body Life

      For us humans, the family is genetic to our species. There will always be a father, a mother, and children. That cannot be broken. It’s written in the arteries of creation.

      In the same way, Body life . . . the experience of the Body of Christ . . . is instinctive to our species as Christians. It’s woven into the bloodstream of God’s universe. Provided that certain bare ingredients are in place, Body life will organically and spontaneously break forth in the midst of a group of believers.

      The problem we have is in getting all the baggage out of the way so that Body life can arise naturally. This puts us on a collision course with the principle of church planting.

      The great challenge for those who plant churches is to provide the necessary ingredients for organic church life to be born. But it’s also to prevent foreign elements from entering into the church. Elements that will choke church life.

      An admirer once asked Michelangelo how he sculpted the famous statue of David that now sits in Florence, Italy. Michelangelo responded by offering this simple explanation: “I first fixed my attention on the slab of raw marble. I studied it, and then I chipped away all that wasn’t David.”

      Michaelangelo’s description can be applied to the task of planting organic churches. The goal of those who plant churches is to remove everything that isn’t Jesus Christ.

      My introduction to this principle began in 1988 when I left the traditional church and found myself in the midst of a spontaneous burst of church life. There were about six of us. We all loved the Lord and spontaneously gravitated toward one another. No one organized it. No one promoted it. It just happened. It was organic . . . primitive even.

      We began meeting rotationally in our homes. Starting with six adults, we grew rapidly. Throughout the course of eight years, we fluctuated between twenty adults and fifty adults (and a few thousand children.). We went through two very bloody church splits. We multiplied into two separate groups. And we became involved in many different ministry endeavors. It was an intense experience to say the least. I’ve often told people that we crammed sixteen years into eight.

 

      Our meetings were simple. They were void of the presence of clergy and the (artificial) “covering” of the traditional church. We encouraged one another to participate in Spirit-endowed gifts. And we sought to put ourselves under the exclusive Headship of Jesus. As a result, the Lord honored our efforts. The Holy Spirit revealed a different aspect of Christ in virtually every meeting.

      The freshness of relational Christianity and mutual ministry thrived among us. Without fully realizing it, we were tasting the culture of first-century church life. In many respects, we lived as a family. (Later, I learned that the New Testament is packed to the gills with the language and imagery of family when describing the church. But at the time, we were just living it.)

      We knew full well that we had much to learn. Yet we were keenly aware that despite our ignorance, God was with us in a special way. Admittedly, in our naivety, we mistakenly assumed that we were the only ones meeting in such simplicity. But it didn’t take long for the Lord to shatter that notion.

      During our first two years, we wrestled with the searching question of who we were and what we were doing. We knew that God had called us to meet around Christ in the beauty of New Testament simplicity, but we were all green. With no one to lead us, no model to follow, and no friends who were doing something similar, we found ourselves walking through a forest not clearly blazed.

      We were living on the raw, bleeding edge of a limited but profound vision. So rather than seeking to adhere to some putative New Testament model of church organization, we forged onward to follow faithfully the present leading of the Holy Spirit through Scripture.

      Note that because we refused to capitulate to the traditional church system, we received our fair share of opposition, relational tensions, apathetic dismissal, misunderstanding, and raised eyebrows. No one was beating a path to our door in those days. Some of our friends looked at us as if we had come from Planet 10 when they learned what we were doing.

      But since I’m not looking at our story with an eye to emphasizing the hardships right now, I’ll spare the maudlin side. So bracketing the times where we had a rough go of it, those days were precious. As we sought fidelity to New Testament practice, God began to teach us many precious lessons.

      What is more, the Lord sovereignly chose to pour out His Spirit upon us in great power. We had many occasions where people would visit our fellowship with severe problems—bondages to specific sins, mental illnesses, depression, etc. Oftentimes, we prayed with these individuals and saw them melt in the presence of the Lord’s love. We witnessed firsthand a few extraordinary cases of deliverance. Those encounters served to increase our belief that the path we had taken was indeed carved out by God.

For more:

http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/96732.Frank_Viola

http://www.amazon.com/Frank-Viola/e/B001IGSJX0

http://authorfrankviola.com

https://twitter.com/FrankViola

http://violafrank.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/rethinking-frank-viola

http://frankviolaauthor.com

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/frankviolaauthor

http://frankviola.me/2013/10/09/frankviolarumors/