Questions with Jon Zens
By Nick Mackison, Scotland
I recently sent Jon Zens a list of questions related to organic/house church issues. He kindly responded and I have his permission to print his answers here (in bold throughout).
Over the last year or so, I’ve become convinced of the biblical basis of the organic church espoused in much of your writings (along with those of Frank Viola and Steve Atkerson).
JZ: The phrase “organic church” itself needs some important clarification and qualification. First, authentic organic church is not a “movement.” Secondly, the phrase “organic church” originated with T. Austin Sparks and then had a very specific meaning. In a nutshell, it meant a group of believers in a locale whose birth and continuance flowed out of the Life of Christ – “an organic church is one that is naturally produced when a group of people have encountered Jesus in reality . . . and the DNA of the church is free to work without hindrance . . . . It’s a gathered community that lives by divine life” (Frank Viola, Reimagining Church, p. 32). In recent years “organic church” has become a buzz phrase used by many, with various definitions resulting. It has become a wax nose that can be shaped into numerous notions, even contradictory ones. Thus, as I see it, an organic church is not “started,” it is birthed by the Living Christ.
I am very interested in being a part of such a church but I do have questions. By way of introduction, (I’ve corresponded with you in the past) my name is Nick Mackison and I am 36 years old. I live in Glasgow, Scotland with my wife Sharon and I have three small children. My questions are as follows:
1. How do organic churches fit into the historic stream of confessional Christianity?
JZ: Of course, there will always be a few that are “way-out,” but for the most part the confession of Christ by non-institutional ekklesias would be in line with the general statements of faith found in most evangelical para-church organizations.
Could the council of Nicea, for instance, have been called within an organic church context?
JZ: Absolutely not. The major church councils were carried out in settings where church and state were joined together. Emperor Constantine called for the council of Nicea. There was a lot of politics, threats, bribes and duplicity occurring in these councils. A good read in this regard is Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (HarperOne, 2010, 328pp.).
The organic-church biblicist impulse (I do not use the term biblicist negatively) would seem to militate against any complex formulation of historical doctrines like the Trinity, the Two Natures of Christ, etc. How should house churches view their place within the history of orthodox Christianity?
JZ: Groups that pursued Christ outside the visible church (which was in bed with the state) were basically killed off by the religious-secular forces until the printing press was invented. The Anabaptist movement in the 1500’s refused to be a part of a state-controlled church. They were chased and murdered by the Catholics and the Reformers, but they could not be snuffed out. Thus, today’s ekklesias would identify with those in the past who functioned outside the established religious institutions.
From AD 300 – 1700 the mainline visible churches were wedded to the state. It must be asked, How “orthodox” is a Christianity that for 1,400 years used the threat of the sword to keep its adherents under their thumbs? As J.C. Ryle astutely observed, any religion that depends on the sword has the stamp of apostasy on it, not the fragrance of Christ.
Had the ekklesia Christ initiated continued to be about Him, and not other things, it is doubtful that the doctrinal formulations of institutionalized church councils would have occurred. I believe it must be underscored that in the period of AD 250 – 1700, Christianity became all about believing the right doctrines, and not about knowing and following a person, Jesus. Today, we are still seeing the negative outworkings of this momentous shift in an evangelicalism that is often obsessed with right doctrine, instead of the Living Christ.
2. I do have another question for you, particularly pertaining to evangelicalism’s obsession with right doctrine. I think I’ve grown up a soft-fundamentalist, yet I always seemed to struggle with this deeply ingrained mindset in one way or another. My question would be, what are, if any at all, the doctrinal boundaries for fellowship?
JZ: Nick, a response to this area of concern is difficult to articulate, so please bear with me. Picture a group of believers coming together around Jesus Christ in a loving atmosphere. There is no agenda; they desire for Jesus to express Himself through them in whatever way He pleases. The Lord has been working in them and revealing Himself to each person every day. When they gather, He begins to bring forth Himself from the brothers and sisters in numerous ways. When everything is about the presence of Christ, something wonderful happens in the room – all the “doctrinal differences” that exist are put into perspective and recede into the background. The people of God increasingly understand that it is not edifying to bring their personal doctrinal bents to the meeting as an agenda.
If Christ is everything, then everything else can be put on a shelf. Can false doctrine be brought up in a gathering like this? Surely, it can. But I think you can see that in the Christ-suffused gathering I’ve described, unsound words are probably going to be met with, “What does that have to do with our life in Christ?”
Now here is a sticky point. I think what has happened in evangelicalism is that we have tended to meet around the Bible instead of Christ. There is nothing wrong with the Bible, but it would seem that 95% of how it is used has little to do with Jesus (cf. Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Brazos Press, 2011, 220pp.). One can see that if people are meeting around a Book, there is the real possibility they will end up wrangling with one another over its contents. I would suggest that this accounts for why since the Protestant Reformation we have 25,000 denominations and so many systems of theology. This is why it is so vital for us to realize, as Paul did, that believers can come together for the worse, instead of for the better. If Christ is in us, and Christ’s presence among two or three is not our end-all-be-all, then we might as well fold up our cards and leave the table. It sounds so basic, but many subtle shifts over the years have brought us to miss this crucial point – we meet around our Living Lord, not a Book (cf. my session #1 in Auburn WA, 03/12)
As I see it, all our inordinate concern with “correct doctrine” has come to us through the grid of a Greek-influenced Christianity that has virtually snuffed out the simplicity of Christ. In saying these things, I am not denying the concerns found in the NT, but I am suggesting that our traditional fixation on doctrine has functionally displaced Jesus as our focus.
3. I know that you have egalitarian views on the role of sisters in the assembly. At the moment, I disagree with egalitarianism, at least on an emotional level (I was raised in and continue to meet with the Plymouth Brethren). I read your book “What’s With Paul and Women?” and your article “Were Women Silent at Pentecost“. I’m currently reading How I Changed about Women in Leadership by Alan F. Johnson and Finally Feminist by John G. Stackhouse Jr.
Part of my problem with egalitarianism is that it seems to overlook the patriarchy that seems to be affirmed in the NT. For instance, God reckoned us sinners in Adam and not Eve, Jesus chose 12 men, Paul’s descriptions of elders’ qualifications are always masculine, etc.
JZ: Patriarchy, as generally defined, is not affirmed in the NT. For example, in 1 Cor. 7:1-5 – the only place in the NT where the word “authority” is used concerning marriage – Paul speaks of the mutual authority the husband-wife have over each other’s body. They are not to separate physically without “symphony,” mutual consent. An excellent book in this regard is Del Birkey, The Fall of Patriarchy: Its Broken Legacy Judged by Jesus & the Apostolic House Church Communities (Fenestra Books, 2005, 392pp.).
I find it interesting that those who defend patriarchy blame Eve for the fall. The truth is, both are implicated in sin entering the earth.
Jesus did not choose twelve males because that function was inherently limited to men, but because He was a New Jacob, and Jacob had twelve sons. Jesus came to extend the believing remnant in Israel to the nations – a New Israel. In Romans 16:7, Paul mentioned Andronicus and Junia, who were “outstanding among the apostles.” Junia was an apostle in the sense that Barnabas and others were so designated.
The word for older men, presbutas, is also complemented by a feminine form for older women, presbutidas. In a family, it is natural for the more mature to help the younger. In a family, you do not think in terms of offices and titles, but in terms of abundant caring for all, from the youngest to the oldest.
I’m also finding it hard to navigate a way around the silence injunction in 1 Cor. 14:33b-35. I’ve read the various egalitarian proposals and have yet to be convinced by any of them, except a straight reading of the text.
JZ: If a “straight reading” flies in the face of the fact that Paul had already approved the public speaking/praying of women in 1 Cor. 11, isn’t that cause for your eyebrows to be raised? There is no reason under the sun to suspect that Paul would designate the speaking of the sisters as “lewd” and “vile.” As I said in Appendix Two of What’s With Paul & Women? –
The English translation of the Greek word, aiskron, as “shameful” or “improper”hardly conveys the strength of what the word encompasses. The affirmation in v.35 is that a woman’s speaking is “lewd, vile, filthy, indecent, foul, dirty and morally degraded.”
The matter is greatly cleared up with the realization that Paul did not write the negative words about women in vv.34-35. Instead, those basing their view of women on the oral law did. Paul never required women to be silent and never called female speaking “lewd and filthy.” The Talmud was guilty of advocating both.
This is further confirmed in v.36 when Paul exclaims “What! Did the Word of God originate with you?” The “What!” indicates that Paul is not in harmony with what was stated by others from the Talmud in vv.34-35. Thayer’s Lexicon notes that the “What” is a disjunctive conjunction “before a sentence contrary to the one just preceding, to indicate that if one be denied or refuted the other must stand.”
A “straight reading” of any text is one that is faithful to the total context, the immediate context, and the language of the text itself. It would seem that my interpretation of this difficult text meets the criteria for a “straight reading.”
Brother, I would suggest that the preponderance of evidence in the NT indicates that women fully participated. To use 1 Cor. 14:34-35 as sweeping grounds to silence the sisters seems to be a very dubious way to handle the Scriptures. It creates an apostle who gave to the women in one hand, and then took away with the other.
This issue means a lot to me for various reasons. Firstly, my mother was the spiritual leader in my home. She taught me faithfulness to Christ and was the most amazing witness I’ve ever known (she went to be with the Lord 23 years ago now). Secondly, I have two small daughters. One is nearly 4 years old and the other is nearly 4 weeks old. I’m asking myself whether I want them growing up in the assembly and having their gifts stifled. Thirdly, I’d like to be involved in an organic church plant and I want to make sure that the sisters in any new plant were being nurtured along biblical lines.
JZ: Given the fact that the “new humanity” Jesus died to create is a setting in which there is neither male nor female, shouldn’t we be skeptical of a view that effectively muzzles half the priesthood? The full embodiment and expression of humanness involves the presence of both male and female. As Donald Joy noted, “We are always impoverished when a single sex group meets, discusses, and makes decisions, since only part of the full-spectrum personhood seems to be present. So where urgent decisions are being made, we surely want both sexes speaking.”
4. As I’ve mentioned, I’d love to be involved in a church plant. Should I just leave my institutional church and endeavor to plant an organic church?
JZ: There’s a lot more involved in seeing an organic ekklesia emerge than leaving an institutional setting. I know nothing of your total situation, but it looks to me like you should stay where you are until you have the Lord’s guidance to leave.
The arguments for organic house-church seem compelling. Yet I still attend the Brethren assembly in which I grew up, and to leave would seem schismatic.
JZ: Leaving an institutional church is not inherently schismatic. Remember, not everything that calls itself “church” is ekklesia. Many people leave “churches” that are businesses, not ekklesias. How much “church” would be left, if we define it as “assemblies of believers where Christ is the functional Leader and the whole body is expressing Him”? Being “schismatic” would relate to how you left a group; leaving a group is not automatically “divisive.”
There are many positive aspects to my assembly — the preaching is good, they have an open-participatory communion service each week and they have a lot of young people.
JZ: The problem is, “preaching” is not a part of authentic ekklesia. It is a Greek 3rdand 4th Century practice imported into the visible church (cf. David Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach? Paternoster, 1996). Is it really an open-participatory time if only the men can speak? Doesn’t it really boil down to a men’s meeting?
5. If I were, by God’s grace, to help plant an organic church, would it be better if I did some form of seminary training? I am currently a mathematics teacher in a secondary school with no knowledge of the original languages. (BTW, my theological commitments can be summed up in the London Baptist Confession of 1644/46). Would it help me facilitate such a plant with seminary level education?
JZ: Absolutely not. Most seminary training would set you back, and possibly ruin you. You need to pursue Christ with others, not education. Down the pike, there is nothing wrong with learning Greek and Hebrew on-line, if you feel so led – but such things are not a priority now. Along these lines, I would see as a priority that you read Frank Viola’s Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities.
6. If such a church plant were to happen, would it be possible to align it with other groups across the world? I think a loose connection with doctrinal accountability would be desirable. The situation here in the UK, and Glasgow as a city, is desperate from a spiritual point of view. I really believe that house churches are uniquely placed to make a huge difference.
JZ: When the Lord brings organic assemblies to life, of course myself and others can help you be in contact with Christ-centered ekklesias. But it looks like you have a ways to go before this would be an issue.
Meeting around Christ in informal atmospheres is a wonderful experience, and it can come to expression anywhere in the world – without cumbersome expense and bureaucracy.
7. I’m an avid reader. Are there any commentaries and systematic theological works that you could recommend as particularly helpful?
JZ: Recently, Jamal Jivanjee interviewed me, and asked what books have impacted me over the years. The interview is here. Here is the list of books:
Leonard Verduin, The Reformers & Their Step-Children (Eerdmans, 1964). This book turned my world up-side down when I read it in 1977. [Nick started reading it and said, “Verduin book is mind blowing”].
Howard Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age (IVP, 1975). I read this one soon after Step-Children. It further rocked my status quo.
F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Eerdmans, 1980).
Richard Longenecker, Paul: Apostle of Liberty (Baker, 1980).
Oscar Cullmann, Christ & Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History (Westminster Press, 1964).
C.H. Dodd, Gospel & Law: The Relation of Faith & Ethics in early Christianity (Cambridge, 1951).
Bruce Larson, No Longer Strangers: An Introduction to Relational Theology (Word, 1971).
Thomas Dubay, Caring: A Biblical Theology of Community (Dimension, 1973). This is the most profound, practical & challenging book I’ve ever read.
Carl Hoch Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology (Baker, 1995).
Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting (Eerdmans, 1988).
Ray Abrams, Preachers Present Arms: The Role of the American Churches & Clergy in World Wars I & II, Round Table, 1933; Herald Press, 1968. Shows how easily the church succumbs to government propaganda and becomes a tool of the state. The chapter on “The Church Contributes to War-Time Hysteria” is chilling.
Mark Strom, Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community (IVP, 2000). I don’t say this lightly: Reframing Paul is one of the most significant works since the Reformation.
Willard Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald, 1983).
Chuck Swindoll, The Grace Awakening (Word, 1990). A popular treatment worth its weight in gold.
Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (Eerdmans, 1986).
Richard Gaffin, The Centrality of the Resurrection: A Study of Paul’s Soteriology (P & R, 1987).
Donald Joy, Bonding: Relationships in the Image of God (Evangel, 1996).
Keener, Craig. The IVP Background Commentary, New Testament. (IVP).
Bruce Malina & Richard Rorhbaugh, A Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Westminster Press, 1992).
Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church (Lutterworth, 1952).
Frank Viola, From Eternity to Here (David Cook, 2009).
Jon, I just want to express a heartfelt thanks to you for all that the Lord is teaching me through your ministry. I’ve been listening to your audio sermons on searchingtogether.org and am absolutely blown away by just how Christ-saturated your words are. I’ve honestly never heard anything like it and I’ve been telling all my friends about your talks. I’m trying to give them as much publicity as I can!
JZ: Thank you, Nick, for those very kind words! My heart-cry would be for Jesus to be lifted up.
Jon, you have a greater impact than you realize.
Nick Mackison, Scotland
Some responses to Questions with Jon Zens:
Arthur Sido: I generally agree with Jon on most issues but I think he is off the mark on egalitarianism. To try to argue that 1 Cor 11 overrides 1 Cor 14 misses several points: 1) 1 Corinthians 11, in the first half regarding the covering, is not obviously speaking of the meeting of the church (see Paul’s transition statement in v. 17 “when you come together”), 2) Paul’s focus here is not on women prophesying in the church meeting or elsewhere but that wives should cover their heads. In doing so he uses some of the most patriarchal language in the Bible, 3) Those who claim that 1 Cor 11 is license for sisters to teach almost never say that those same sisters should cover their heads which strikes me as awfully selective and 4) Worst of all this line of argument runs contrary to most of what Jon teaches in that it assumes the institutional model where only the person teaching is of value. Women are not to teach or lead in the church or home but that hardly means that they do not function in the priesthood of believers. There are ample examples and commands to the sister in how they are to minister within the church and family that are every bit as important as the brothers who teach and lead and only by assuming an institutional mindset do we miss that.
njmackison: Thanks for stopping by Arthur. At the moment, I generally agree with your take on 1 Cor. 11, but I don’t think your point 4 is fair. I think, rather than elevating the teacher as the only thing of value, Jon is seeking to be faithful to texts which describe all of God’s people as prophets. Thanks for sharing.
Jon Zens: Arthur, thanks for your comments. I would suggest that your points need further reflection. 1) To say that Paul does not have a gathering of believers in view is a view not held by any exegete I have consulted — not one. Calvin, etc., all see what they would call a “worship service” in the early verses of 1 Cor. 11. So the idea you are suggesting is not held by any commentator that I know of. Paul’s words imply a mixed group of men and women. So where would the prophesying Paul mentions take place, if it is not in a gathering of saints, especially since in context, Paul emphatically wants prophecy to be central in the meeting of the saints? 2) For you to suggest that Paul uses intense patriarchal language is simply not verified by looking closely at the apostle’s flow of thought. Where does Paul end up with special emphasis? Not in hierarchy, but in mutual interdependence — “Nevertheless, in the Lord, neither wife without husband, or husband without wife, for as the wife out of the husband, so also the husband through the wife.” 3) The really strange thing is, I think, that people who require women to wear a head-covering, usually also require them to be silent. But that is the opposite conclusion of Paul — he wants them to be covered while they are functioning in prophecy. There are many good reasons for seeing the head-covering as a cultural matter, especially since Paul very soon says that the wife’s hair is given to her as a covering (cf. Ralph Woodrow, Woman’s Adornment). It would appear, too, that this passage is relevant only to married people, for Paul is talking about husbands and wives, not single men and women. Of course, in Judaism men prayed with their heads covered; this also may point to something cultural being in view. 4) As Nick noted, I don’t think your last point carries any weight. 1 Cor. 14 portrays a gathering where “all” are prophesying, and “each one” has something to share for edification. “Teaching” is only one aspect of many. Of course, I do not think your opinion that women are not to teach will hold up under NT scrutiny, but that is too large of a topic for here! Thank you for considering my input!
Jim McLatchie: Hi Nick I am alarmed by most of what is written in your exchange. Christ is inseparable from doctrine, scriptures and His church. For example, throughout Corinthians, Paul emphasizes all behaviour, doctrine and church practice in relation to the person of Christ. Essentially, Jon Zens is inferring that Christ is distinct from these things. Doing so, seems to make the person of Christ ethereal. A bit like separating the trunk of a tree from its roots and branches.
I am not sure what things we should “leave on the shelf”? In what “various ways” does “Christ bring forth Himself from the brothers and sisters”?
I had not heard of Jon Zens before but if his contrived reasoning on the role of women is a sample, I think that his influence is unprofitable and dangerous. It comes into the “hollow and deceptive” variety and will be a snare.
It is good that you are seeking victorious Christian living. There is so much good material out there from sound and inspiring writers that would transform and dynamise your walk. I recommend focus on them, rather than trying to sift through the chaff of what seems so obviously questionable, for something positive.
Your brother in Christ Jesus
Jon Zens: Jim, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think because you are looking at what I said through a particular way of seeing and doing things, you didn’t understand what was beneath my points. You are familiar with your model, and it is difficult for you to look at things from the stand point of another paradigm. When I spoke about leaving things on the shelf, I simply was noting that in a meeting focused on Christ, it would not be edifying to “push” my particular view of “last things,” for example, when various perspectives on that subject were present in the room.
Your points deserve more attention, but I must leave for the airport now. I would suggest that if you were to read Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church, you would gain a much better picture of where I am coming from.
It’s interesting how people respond to “evidence.” You basically dismissed what I said about women, but another brother felt that it was “persuasive.” As Vernard Eller noted, more important that knowing the truth, is being in a open position to receive further truth.
Jon Zens: Thanks for the comments, some extended, by several brothers. My sense is that, as I mentioned to Jim, that you are speaking out of what you know. I would appeal to you to consider the possibility that there may be other ways of functioning that you have not experienced. Again, in this regard, I would encourage you to read and digest Frank Viola’s “Reimagining Church,” which fills out some of the seminal remarks I have made.
Recently, Jamal Jivanjee interviewed me (jamaljivanjee.com). Mike Kesselring shared a comment in which he made these remarks: “I get really confused and conflicted about all of this organic vs. institutional stuff. The doctrine, theology, rules, and truths that have been perverted, twisted, mis-interpreted, and used against me can all just go to hell. I had a peace come over me this evening while reading Jamal’s most recent interview with Jon Zens.” I think my response to him gets to the heart of where I am coming from, and I hope it will help you understand what I am trying so feebly to get across.
Mike, I can feel your pain and frustration. Be comforted in knowing that Jesus is building His ekklesia, even though what we see around us looks very iffy.
As I see it, it isn’t really organic vs. institutional. Jesus simply cannot be institutionalized. He said the Spirit is like wind. You can’t put wind in a box and make it happen. Inherent in wind is freedom. The only image that really captures reality is Vine-branches, organic relationships.
I think this highlights a lot of the tensions we experience. Institutional Christianity dominates the landscape. So well-meaning people are attempting to put Jesus in structures that do not foster the expression of His life in the saints. I believe that in the innumerable church buildings we have every 1/2 mile in America, Christ’s life is still coming forth in varying degrees. That’s because even human structures and rules can’t stop Him from showing up. But the disheartening tragedy is that His life appears in spite of the religious structures that He is confined in. Wouldn’t it be glorious if the way believers functioned and came together welcomed and encouraged Christ to be present and expressed!
Visible Christianity is trying to serve an organic Jesus in non-organic structures. Is it any wonder that things work out like they say in the commercials –”your results may vary” — “some assembly required” — “batteries not included.”