Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Book Review: “The Church That Flies” (Nov-Dec 2001)

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By F. LaGard Smith
November-December 2001

THE CHURCH THAT FLIES

A New Call to Restoration in the Churches of Christ

Tim Woodroof

New Leaf Books, 2000, 208 pgs.

Reviewed by F. LaGard Smith

Scholar in Residence for Christian Studies

Lipscomb University

In his groundbreaking book, The Church That Flies, Tim Woodroof uses the analogy of flight as his central theme in positing a thesis that the churches of Christ today no longer “soar” as did the church in the first century, because the forms which gave “flight” to primitive Christians cannot be precisely replicated in contemporary culture. While birds and airplanes both “fly,” they are of different, if similar, forms. What matters, then, is not the particular forms we employ in reaching out to God, but the functions themselves which God intended for us to achieve. In short, form follows function, and therefore any form which is conducive to a higher flying church will not only satisfy God but also bring renewal to a spiritually lethargic people.

Woodroof sees our history of division, stagnation, cultural marginalization, loss of identity, and the high incidence of spiritual death among our members as proof that our slavish imitation of first-century forms has been an abject failure. “Our focus on the details of early church life,” says Woodroof, “has dulled us to ‘the weightier matters’ that animated the spiritual walk of our first-century counterparts.” What’s more, “our movement is no longer able to capture the imagination of a new generation.”

The remedy, as Woodroof sees it, comes in being less concerned about first-century patterns of form, and more concerned “to build a church that is sensitive to the same ‘aerodynamic principles’ that lifted the church in the first-century world, whether we end up looking like that church or not.” Recognizing that such an approach will be problematic to some, Woodroof urges that “central to this endeavor is a willingness to disconnect form from function, to assert that function is primary, and to suggest it is possible to build a contemporary church that pleases God even if it does not look exactly like the church of the first or the nineteenth-century.” The bottom line for Woodroof is clear: “In the end, we believe it is a functioning church that is important to God–whatever forms that church adopts.”

Taking a significant step away from traditional thinking, Woodroof asserts that “Jesus exercises his influence over the church today not primarily by ancient precedent but through his Spirit and by the magnetic attraction of his personality and priorities.” As for the role of biblical text itself, Woodroof observes that “ecclesiology arises principally from the pages of the Gospels in such a church, rather from Acts or the Epistles.” In other words, “If Churches of Christ are to survive with any kind of vigor and effectiveness in the twenty-first century, we must consciously choose to stop being a moon revolving around the planet of the ancient church.”

While Woodroof acknowledges that “some ancient forms (notably baptism and the Supper) are so enmeshed with the core gospel as to be irreplaceable,” he maintains that “Jesus Christ, not the early church, is the gravitational center of the church. Our task is to incarnate him, not it. Our task is to become him, not them.”

As for function, Woodroof sets forth the following seven functions which he believes are eternal, immutable, and fixed: Worship. Holiness. Community. Maturation. Service. Witness. Influence. Attention to these, he argues in language consistent with his analogy of flight, will keep us focused on the shape of the wing, not on individual rivets. When form and function are properly prioritized, “precedents are fine, but ministry is better.”

While the subtitle (A New Call to Restoration in the Churches of Christ) appears to be consistent with the Restoration heritage of the churches of Christ, Woodroof’s rejection of the precedent of first-century form is actually a repudiation of the central thesis of the classic Restoration premise. By that premise, first-century, apostolic practice (form) should be replicated as closely as possible in order to achieve the purest expression of Christian faith and worship (function) in our own day. Or, to put it another way that actually affirms Woodroof’s premise that form follows function, classic Restoration thought asserts that God himself has given us in the pattern of first-century faith and practice the very forms which best will achieve the functions of faith and practice which he has purposed for his people.

Striking at the very heart of Restoration thinking, the book contends that, far from being intended as pattern and precedent for all time, first-century Christian practices were primarily a reflection of first-century culture. What worked then is unlikely to work now. Consequently, our duty is to keep “the seven eternal, immutable functions” of Scripture fresh and alive, even if it means abandoning archaic biblical forms in favor of new, more-vibrant forms. Nor need we worry about divine reaction to such innovation, because God has always embraced whatever changes have been necessary to keep faith pulsating in the hearts of true believers.

Without ever explicitly specifying which changes in form are desirable today, Woodroof repeatedly hints at two innovations which have become the subject of current controversy in the church: a wider role for women, and the introduction of musical instruments, each of which raises concerns about Woodroof’s analytical approach. To whatever extent the book is aimed at rationalizing our acceptance of those two particular innovations, it thereby shortcuts the discussion which they deserve. Instead of developing a head-on challenge to time-honored doctrinal understandings, the book does an end-run and makes no attempt to closely examine the Scriptures pertaining to either subject. By focusing on form and function, the argument is won by sheer premise and conclusion. Assuming (premise) that the higher priority of biblical function makes form merely pragmatic, then (conclusion) what the first Christians happened to think about how to sing and practice church leadership is automatically irrelevant.

A second form of argument used extensively in the book appeals to our uneasy sense that not all is well in the church today. Citing any number of abuses and evils easily enough observed within the church, the book urges us to abandon our accumulated traditions and replace them with contemporary forms of “doing church” which are more in keeping with the heart of the Gospel. Just when one is about to say “Preach, brother, preach!” we suddenly see included among the many embarrassing examples of silliness, pettiness, and sheer human tradition in the church other issues which, if not central to the Gospel, are nevertheless important doctrinal questions deserving deeper discussion. In that regard, among the disappointing aspects of the book is its frequent use of false dichotomies, “straw men,” mixed issues, and other logical fallacies–all blended together in aid of a well-warranted appeal for a greater sense of purity, commitment, and service. Nor does there seem to be sufficient safeguards offered for the worrisome pragmatism inherent in the paradigm shift being called for.

Despite those failings, the importance of Woodroof’s book is found in his warning that the church today is not soaring as it ought, and that serious thought needs to be given toward understanding why. Above all, if one wants to know where a significant segment of the younger generation in the Restoration movement is flying these days, it is Woodroof’s book that best charts their flight plan.

 


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