Viola on Leaving & Finding Church

Viola on Leaving and Finding Church

Frank Viola Author

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Diversity is a Sign of Fullness

      Many Christians fear diversity. We all love unity, but we tend toward uniformity. This tendency is most clearly seen in denominationalism. But it exists vibrantly outside of denominational lines as well.

      Diversity, however, is part of the nature of the Body of Christ. It’s also woven into this universe. Look at creation. Look at your physical body. Look at the unseen Trinity who brought both into existence. What do you find? Particularity with unity. Diversity with harmony.

      Point: Diversity is a sign of fullness. Therefore, diversity should be embraced and not feared or rejected.

      Yet few things so test the human heart as much as diversity.

Clinging to the Jesus of Yesterday

      One of the Lord’s most faithful disciples teaches us this principle well. Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the resurrected Christ. Do you remember what she did as soon as she recognized Him? She grabbed Him, and she wouldn’t stop clinging to Him.

      Jesus responded saying, “Stop clinging to me.” En. This is what the Greek text says. See The Gospel According to John (Revised), by Leon Morris (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 741-743.

       Why did Jesus tell Mary to stop clinging to Him? Because He had somewhere He had to go. He was on the move. Jesus was poised to go to Galilee to see the other disciples and then to ascend to His Father. He was moving forward, but she was clinging to Him.

      Jesus was in effect saying to her: “Mary, stop holding on to me. There’s a new way to know me that’s different from what you’ve experienced thus far. Let me go for I must move on.”

      Do you remember the disciples who walked on the road of Emmaus? Their hopes were shattered by the Lord’s horrible death. Suddenly, the Resurrected Christ began walking beside them, yet their eyes were blinded from recognizing Him.

      When He engaged in the very simple gesture of breaking bread, something He had done frequently before them, their eyes were opened.

      Then He quickly disappeared from their sight.

      These stories hold a critical insight. You cannot cling to the Christ that you know today. He will vanish from your midst. Jesus Christ is an elusive Lover. Seeking Him is a progressive engagement that never ends. He does not dance to our music. He does not sing to our tune.

Learning Christ

Here’s something worth remembering. To know Christ is to learn Christ. Jesus Christ is someone we learn. In the letter of Ephesians, Paul lists certain character traits that clash with the character of Jesus. He then adds this pregnant phrase: “And you have not so learned Christ” Ephesians 4:20.

      This statement should cause us to pause and raise an important question. How could the believers in Asia Minor who received Paul’s letter “learn Christ”? Jesus had ascended into heaven thirty years before Ephesians was written. And the believers in and around Ephesus were hundreds of miles away from Palestine. Therefore, the recipients of this letter never met Christ when He was on the earth. Yet they “learned” Him. But how?

      Very simply. They learned Him because He dwelt inside of them. They learned Him from one another, as they were part of a Christ-indwelt community. And they learned Him from Epaphras (the man who planted the churches in Asia Minor to whom Ephesians was written).

      Learning Christ is learning His glorious Person and work as well as learning His character. And the two should never be separated.

      For this reason, I’m greatly underwhelmed with those who can talk a good game about “the deep things” of Christ when their characters fail to emit His love, His graciousness, His kindness, His inclusiveness of others, and His compassion for everyone, not just those in their particular movement.

      Never forget: The measure of one’s knowledge of the Lord does not rest in their ability to wax eloquent about Him. It lies in whether or not their character reflects Him.

      I’m not speaking of perfection, for everyone of us has flaws, even the most seasoned Christians. I’m rather speaking of the basic traits of Christ’s life. Are they kind-hearted or mean-spirited? Are they truthful or do they deceive? Are they boastful and braggadocios or do they point attention to the Lord and to others? Do they enjoy offending people or do they seek to encourage them? Do they insult and speak ill of those they don’t like or do they speak well of them? Are they sectarian or do they receive all of God’s children? Only by one’s character can you determine if they really know the Lord well.

Preparation for Ministry

      During the ages of sixteen and twenty-three, I got to know two pastors rather well. One was a Pentecostal pastor; the other was a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor. I would visit their homes and watch them during “off” hours, when they weren’t behind the pulpit. I got involved with various ministry programs in the church as well, and I watched them like a hawk in those settings.

      Watching these men taught me something about the underbelly of the religious system. I intuitively picked up the inherent dualism that marks the modern clergy. These men were under tremendous pressure to always “be on” and to meet a certain expectation.

      This troubled me quite a bit. But it didn’t appear to bother anyone else. The long of it is that I’m thankful for the eight years I spent in the traditional church. And I’m grateful for my time with those pastors. The reason is quite simple. There is no way that I could have written some of the books I’ve penned if I didn’t get a first-hand look at the religious system and understand some of its inner-workings.

      This leads me to a valuable lesson. Namely, God sometimes leads His servants into arenas that He doesn’t endorse or approve. But He does it so that they may learn and be prepared for future ministry.

      As I write these words, I can think of ten men that I know personally who left the professional ministry after concluding that it didn’t reflect God’s will. Yet all of these men felt “called” to enter into that ministry at one time.

      Paul of Tarsus could speak with authority to his fellow Jews who were bound to the system of organized religion in his day because he himself was once a part of that system.

      While I felt called of the Lord to work for Him at a young age, I never became part of the clergy. But I did get to work very closely with a number of clergymen, and I learned more than I wanted to know about the system that they served.

      Please understand that I had respect for all the pastors in my life. Including the youth ministers who I came to know. That said, I want to pass on to you an observation I’ve made over the years. If you are one of those brave souls who has cut the cord on the traditional church and you now gather with Christians in a non-traditional setting, I think you will appreciate what I’m about to write.

      One of the most effective ways to dismiss anyone who challenges the traditional church structure is to utter this one simple sentence: “This person was hurt by some pastor. They are bitter, and that’s why they’re challenging the status quo.”

      Very effective, indeed. Except there’s one problem with it. To make that statement is to play God and judge the inner motives of a person’s heart. The last time I read the New Testament, Jesus Christ made a very chilling assessment about this practice En. (Matthew 7:1-4).