Some radicals are unbalanced. Others help us regain our balance.

Howard Snyder—whose prior books include The Problem of Wineskins (1975) and the Radical Wesley (1980)—helps us maintain theological equilibrium by constantly testing the state of the church against the teaching of the Bible. He sounds radical because he thinks that somehow, in the power of the Spirit, we can live out that teaching.

Snyder's latest book, Decoding the Church (Baker, 208 pages, $14.99), elaborates the familiar biblical metaphor of the church as a body using contemporary concepts: DNA and ecological systems.

When the apostle Paul writes about the church as a body, his main messages are diversity of gifts and interdependence of members. He secondarily draws out the related notions of unity, growth and maturation, and reconciliation.

In Paul's thought the body is not a simile for the church. The church is not merely like a body. The church does not merely resemble a body in its diversity, unity, and interdependence. It is the body of Christ, who is its head. Every member of the body is, in a mystical sense, a part of Christ.

For 50 years, we have known scientifically what Paul presumably didn't (though it extends his thought nicely). We know that every cell in the body shares the same genetic code. The DNA in the head is the same as the DNA in the toes and the elbows.

Snyder wants to join the DNA metaphor to Paul's body metaphor as a way of saying that the reality of the church's relation to Christ is deeper and more complex than we might think.

DNA is, as Watson and Crick announced in 1953, a double helix. Snyder asks whether our churches have been operating with only half their DNA. He takes the creed's four classic marks of the church (one, holy, universal, and apostolic) and asks whether there isn't a second scriptural strand that intertwines those attributes (diverse, charismatically gifted, locally contextualized, and prophetic).

Any careful reader of the New Testament recognizes those factors as characteristics of the church. Snyder claims, however, that the first strand of DNA tends toward the institutional and hierarchical. That may be natural, since they were historically codified during a time when the church was having to define itself in response to heresies. And since heresies tend to arise in independent, prophetic, charismatic, local contexts, arguments from universality and apostolicity came in handy. One, holy, universal, and apostolic do not need to be instruments of institutionalization, but diverse, gifted, contextualized, and prophetic are good reminders of the organic (body-like) nature of the church.

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(Snyder seems to love lists of four. After devoting one chapter to diverse, gifted, contextualized, and prophetic, he spends an additional chapter on missional, alternative, covenantal, and Trinitarian. Did the church's DNA just become a triple helix?)

Snyder offers an even bigger challenge to most churches when he urges the claim of Benjamin T. Roberts (principal founder of the Free Methodist Church) that preaching the gospel to the poor is a mark of the church. Here, historically, are Wesley and Whitefield. Here, historically, are William and Catherine Booth and Francis of Assisi. Here today are Howard Snyder and Ron Sider and a host of faithful urban congregations.

So if it doesn't seem obvious that ministry to the poor is an indispensable mark of the church, think again about the church's universality. Is universality merely a geographic and ethnic concept? Or is it socioeconomic as well? If the gospel is truly for all, we must consider the geography of social class and power as well as the geography of countries and cultures.

Functional structures

Snyder is convinced that church structures either help or hinder the mission of the church. ("Structures, though purely functional, do reinforce values and worldview assumptions.") Churches may successfully carry out God's mission in spite of bad structures, but why not lay aside every weight to run with patience the race?

None of Snyder's DNA factors automatically yield better ways of structuring churches. That takes godly experimentation in community. Thus Snyder's coauthor Daniel Runyon strings a running narrative through Decoding the Church: a tale about "Heartland Church," its pastor, and key lay leaders. The storytelling is neither Salinger nor Steinbeck, but it effectively portrays the necessarily serpentine process of self-discovery. In these narratives, the pastor does not go to a megachurch conference and come back with a winning formula. Instead, the parties work their way through life crises while listening to Scripture. Ultimately, the people and their church are transformed.

Snyder lists three places not to look for helpful structures—megachurches, microchurches (house churches), and business models. He calls them "dead ends, or worse." Yet even at his most negative, Snyder is not a thundering Savanarola, but a Saint Paul showing a more excellent way. And he shows his balance by pointing to exceptions and possibilities. For example, Snyder says, large urban African American churches often do not share the typical problems of other large churches. And, Snyder admits, " 'dead' structures" have historically been "the incubators of fresh forms of renewal."

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Hierarchy phobia

Snyder reserves his strongest antipathy for hierarchical thinking about the church. Hierarchy "seeped into biblical interpretation and ecclesiastical practice and overwhelmed the more radical, subversive New Testament teaching," he writes. Snyder makes Aquinas the heavy, citing Colin Gunton: "Aquinas implies … that the hierarchy of the church—[consisting of] an ontological grading of persons—is modeled on that of heaven." Then he calls hierarchy "an instrument of oppression," which supported "social inequality and privileged interest." The Bible, he says, "gives many examples of hierarchy, but it never teaches that hierarchy is normative for society or church."

Before readers can reach for their Bibles to prooftext him into a corner, Snyder makes several defensive moves. First, he defines hierarchy narrowly in ontological terms (hierarchy implies inherent degrees of value and perfection). Second, he distinguishes such hierarchies of being from the functional and relational authority proper to family, church, and other social groupings. Parents' authority over their children is a matter of responsible loving, not of higher value. Third, in discussing the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being (an "inadequate principle of coherence"), he allows that it is "attractive," primarily for its "instinct of connectedness" and because it guards the truth of "ordered relatedness."

Everything is connected

For Snyder, "ordered relatedness" finds better expression in ecological thinking, in seeing the natural world, the church, the family, and society as interdependent systems of complex organisms. The philosophical intuition that follows on the empirical observation of such systems is: "Everything is significant simply because it connects with everything else— even if we don't yet understand the connection."

It's not hard to see where this leads. Thinking about church in an ecological way prepares us to minister to those who cannot reward us in return and to listen to those without specialized knowledge or social position.

Jesus pointed to the child as the model of faith. Paul said his message was "not in plausible words of wisdom" but "in weakness." God chose "what is weak in the world to shame the strong … what is low and despised in the world … to bring to nothing things that are." Jesus taught us to serve "the least of these, my brethren" in prison, poverty, hunger, or thirst. The poor are not always right or righteous (that is the error of some liberationists), but they are always important to God (that is the truth taught by John Wesley).

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The ecological impulse helps us regard all of these as significant. It goads us to value interdependence over institutions. It leads us to treat authority as functional rather than a matter of inherent value. All of this is for the health of the church.

Nobody's perfect

So what are the book's weaknesses?

First, the book's final leg is a disappointing attempt to grapple with issues of globalization. Snyder rightly insists that the church must deal with this economic, cultural, and technological phenomenon. But he stumbles, for example, when he announces that "digitization reinforces the tendency of contemporary culture to value quantity over quality." Say what? Digitization is all about quality. What every digital technology, from DVDs and HDTV to digitized facsimiles of ancient manuscripts, aims at is to ensure faithful reproduction of the original.

Second, many readers (most pastors are intuitives) will wish that Howard Snyder would just get them started on thinking about an idea and let them run with it. Snyder references the DNA idea throughout Decoding the Church, and the entire second half is an episodic reflection on ecological systems. Readers can easily become impatient, either running ahead of the authors down obvious paths, or feeling irritated at yet another application of DNA that doesn't especially illumine.

Third, for all its savvy about the church, the book lacks any reference to baptism (by which believers are incorporated into Christ) and the Lord's Supper (by which they are spiritually nourished). The themes expounded in Snyder's treatment of the church as an organic system rather than an institution potentially say much about how we profit from these sacraments/ordinances and how they strengthen our relationship to God and our fitness for his mission in the world.

Fourth, because Snyder has immersed himself in these contemporary symbols of DNA, ecology, and globalization, he occasionally lapses into jargon. It is remarkable, I suppose, that he doesn't become completely mired in jargon. Yet the following paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:31 seems stylistically almost unforgivable: "Synergize the many things you do in the one direction of the kingdom of God."

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But what are those flaws next to this book's power to provoke discussion and action? Buy this book, and give it to your pastor. If you are the pastor, give it to your lay leadership—or to the officers of your denominational judicatory.

Make them all stop promoting programs or seeking quick fixes and start thinking organically and ecologically. This is the truest sentence in the book: "Think of the church organically, and it focuses on what makes for healthy life."

Related Elsewhere

Decoding the Church: Mapping the DNA of Christ's Body, by Howard A Snyder with Daniel V. Runyon, is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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