Is Frank Viola just like Gene Edwards?
I was part of an Organic Church:
I moved to be part of an Organic Church (OC) started by Frank Viola (FV) and Milt Rodriguez (MR) a while ago, and ever since I did, it was almost pure misery, nearly every single day. I was greatly disappointed. In my opinion it was one of the worst experiences of my life. Being there in this group (in my opinion) was not much better than the Institutional Church (IC).
I left this group in 2012.
It is with much sadness that I feel I must share these things, because I liked most of what Frank Viola would write in his books, and blog. I liked to check out alternative views of people that were outside of the IC.
I write this article, NOT in any attempt to verbally assault Frank Viola, but to warn others that there may be some big problems in these groups that they may want to avoid entirely.
Now that I am out of the group, I have tried to do some research into the situation and why it seemed like such a bad experience. The following is based on my research and first hand observations.
First of all I would have to say that a lot of the bad things I saw at first were bad behaviors, but I would say the true problems were much deeper than people being flawed people. I will give more details on the deeper problems through this whole article.
A plea to Frank Viola:
Unfortunately I must make a plea to Frank Viola (FV) and his associates to please stop trying to plant churches in the style that they have been doing, due to the deeper problems that I have seen, which are the following:
- FV and his assoc’s seem to use many similar techniques and problems as Gene Edwards’s groups (since FV was in one of his groups). FV seemed to have had a falling out with Gene Edwards (or GE) a few years ago, but yet FV still seems to be using the same problematic ideology and techniques. See also the internet article – Gene Edwards: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (or as I call it – GBU) at the following links: http://www.ntrf.org/articles/article_detail.php?PRKey=7 http://www.searchingtogether.org/edwards.htm
- The ideology that a church planter is indispensible is nearly cultic and dangerous (GBU – subhead Guru paragraph 3-4).
I do not think FV has sinister motives, but I think it is similar to how many people leave the Institutional Church (IC), but still hold to many IC practices and ideologies unless told or taught otherwise, and in the same way, I believe that FV learned many bad practices and types of ideology from Gene Edwards (GE), and follows it because it’s all he knows. So he may be trying to do what he thinks is the right thing.
Please do not get me wrong, I love these folks and want what’s best for FV,his associates (MR and JZ), and all the people in their groups.
I plea for FV and MR to search your hearts and take this to Jesus in prayer.
I also plea to FV to please also stop acting like whistle blowers, that warn others about problems they see in your groups, are gossipping, sinning, having a bad attitude, or are destroying the eternal purpose of God, or are merely being mean to you personally etc.
I say these things here because (in my opinion) Frank does not seem to like it when people ask tough questions. It seems that he stops talking to people when they ask tough questions. I am also making this public because nearly all of this information is public anyway, FV’s books are public, and most of what he does is public already anyways. Since it’s public, I think it should be dealt with publicly. I believe that public sins should be dealt with publicly, and private sins should be dealt with privately.
FV’s similarities to Gene Edwards (GE):
Though FV and Gene Edwards (GE’s) seem to have had a falling out, in my opinion, I do not think FV changed for the better, nor has he dropped GE’s problematic ideology, techniques, and practices. I have seen people hurt by these practices.
In the following points I will list the points, then where it is found in the open letter to GE, and then list my comments in blue lettering underneath.
Here are some ways that FV is similar to GE:
1. Making the church planter indispensiblefor church life – See GBU subheading “Guruism” paragraphs 3 & 4:
The great problem is that Gene Edwards and his associates make the church planter indispensable for church life.While we also acknowledge the great worth of the church planter, we would nevertheless urge the notion that having Jesus with you, and going with what the Scripture reveals, is enough.
The need for experts is part of what’s wrong with the institutional church today, and we are keen for people to get away from that. Any thinking that locks believers up to the ministry of particular individuals borders on the cultic and is dangerous.We believe in the centrality of Jesus Christ, not the centrality of the church planter.Rather than proclaim that a church needs a church planter, otherwise it should disband, as do Gene Edwards and company, we rather proclaim to believers the words of Paul the apostle: “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” (Rom 15:14).
- Most folks in house churches, simple churches, organic churches and missional churches would likely already see problems with people thinking there is a need for experts in church spiritual matters such as authoritarian church leadership which most Institutional Churches (IC’s) already have a problem with such as the senior pastor, priests, and various forms of authoritarian church leadership. So why would we need another person of this status.
- From my personal experince, I can say that many in our group, including myself at the time I was there, were really big into thinking of these church planters as much more highly exalted than any other human on earth. I can now see that it was just as bad as people in the IC upholding their church leadership to a much too highly exalted place.
- In FV’s book “Finding Organic Church” you can see the ideology of the indispensible church planter and how he still holds to this ideology (especially see chapters 1 – 3).
2. Keeping control over groups: GBU – subheading “Do they practice what they preach” – see paragraph 10.
Gene Edwards and his workers say they “leave.” But do they really? Aren’t they constantly present in the form of email, phone calls, visits, books, tapes? Ask yourselves when you examine Gene Edwards’ churches: Are the people free to operate only within worker-prescribed boundaries? Are they knitted together tightly into a system which brooks no deviance from the will of the church planter? Are they free to question the authority of the church planter? Are the members usually younger than average and thus more likely to follow and less willing to challenge excessive authority?Are the believers ever told “not to talk about” certain things? Are all the believers given all the facts concerning important issues, so the brothers can make an informed decision, or are they merely given diktats from on high? Would any of Gene Edwards’ churches ever be given the freedom, for instance, not to have separate Brothers and Sisters meetings?
- I personally have seen the constant adding of emails, phone calls, visits, books, tape/recordings etc. So clearly these church planters presence always looms over head through these types of mediums. I liked to listen to the recordings, to read the blogs, and read the books, but I still had a lot of questions about different things and some questions I could not seem to get anyone to give me good answers to.
- I have also seen angst toward people who question the church planters. I saw some people that questioned the planters ideas that were suggested for the group, and some folks didn’t like that and acted as if it was as bad as slapping Jesus Christ in the face.
- As to the complaint about most people being young, I have also noticed that most in these groups are young people in their 20’s and a few in their 30’s, but most older people are absent or leave because they can see the problems, and the questionable ways of doing things. It seems as if the older more experienced people could see the problems quicker (due to their life experiences) or they could see the warning signs of potential problems and thus they would leave or refuse to be part of it.
- I have seen people told not to talk about certain things (and if they do, they are considered gossipers and as if they are fighting against God’s ultimate purpose). Sometimes people in the group are told not to share the recorded teachings that FV puts on recordings. Some are told not to share the recorded teachings because the general public simply would not understand or would misunderstand them or misinterpret them.
- I would also wonder, that, if a church planter is needed to return every year, does that also mean that the people in the group are not able to rely on the Holy Spirits guidance for themselves, or are they simply following a mere mortal human leader instead of the Holy Spirit, or is the Almighty God so impotent that He cannot lead his followers?
3. Making cookie cutter clones: GBU, subheading “Do they practice what they preach”, paragraph 11.
When God made girls, he didn’t make them all five feet two inches tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. He created a girl structure, but he allowed a certain amount of freedom within the form.It is ironic that Gene Edwards and friends trumpet freedom for the Girl in their books, but in practice create churches that are mere clones and are virtually indistinguishable from each other, with no freedom to deviate from Edwards’ pattern.The Edwards churches all start the same way: no Bible study, no singing, the brethren eat together, give testimonies, read Gene Edwards’ books and listen to Gene Edwards’ tapes, and then begin Brother’s and Sister’s meetings. After the churches are up and running they all write their own songs and then stand around in a football huddle singing them. May we be forgiven for asking the Edwardsians to please take their hands off the Girl?
- Most groups set up by FV and MR are told to generally try their best to follow FV’s and MR’s ways of doing things, and so it seems like the groups are not really free to develop on their own due to the need to follow these teachings and through the constant revisiting, emails, phone calls, books, and recorded teachings etc.
- From my experience, most people coming to be part of the group are told to follow either the recorded teachings from the church planters or try to read and follow FV’s book “Finding Organic Church” and / or “Reimagining Church”. Thus the group does not develop into what it wants or feels necessary but into FV & assoc.’s vision of what the group should be.
- A while ago FV and his associates had a conference for their groups (and only their groups), and many of the groups seemed similar, and seemed to have similar problems.
4. Church planter gurus and techniques: GBU – Is the Church Planter Absolutely Necessary for a Church’s Existence? Paragraph 1 – 3.
There are several things as well that are troubling about Gene Edwards’ conception of the church planter. The church planter is said to be part of the scriptural pattern, and yet we must question just how closely Edwards and his associates conform to that scriptural pattern. For example, in the New Testament we see church planters evangelizing the lost, and then organizing the infant churches from those converts.However, a church planter in Gene Edwards’ camp rather works with people who already know the Lord. Another example: a biblical church planter never asked people to move to a specific location,unnaturally uprooting their lives, for the sake of an artificially-created community that probably won’t last. A third example: a New Testament church planter always traveled in mutually-accountable teams, but quite to the contrary, Gene Edwards and his crew apparently travel solo. But the most egregious way the self-styled radicals deviate from the scriptural practice of church planting is their elevation of the church planter to godlike, guru status.
The Gene Edwards literature is replete with exhortations for the reestablishment of the authority of the church planter. Representative quotations may be found in Rethinking Elders by Gene Edwards. “‘But if elders don’t deal with a crisis who does?’ The man most needed, but the man nobody wants: the church planter” (p. 49). “The church planter and elders are inseparably linked… True eldership exists only in the presence of the itinerant church planter” (pp. 73-74). “the itinerant church planters, and they alone, are the one consistent influence in the decision of who elders will be and when elders will be. They are the ones who lay hands on these men. No itinerant church planters, no elders” [emphasis Edwards] (pp. 35-36).
Now we hold no brief for the extinction of the church planter. Apostles exist today, and we need more of them. However, there are several problems with Edwards’ approach. First, such heavy-handed emphasis on the function of the church planter derogates from the authority of the entire church. Edwards does a great job in his book Rethinking Elders in pointing out that the New Testament is utterly silent about the authority of the elder. He also correctly points out that ecclesiastical authority is rather in the hands of the brethren collectively.However, his left hand takes away what his right hand has granted. When he says that “itinerant church planters, and they alone, are the one consistent influence in the decision of who elders will be, and when elders will be,” what has Edwards thereby done to the authority of the brethren collectively? Shouldn’t they have a say in who and when elders are to be? We ask our readers to examine for themselves the practice of Edwardsian churches to ask if Edwards’ erroneous theory of apostolic preeminence has not indeed played out in practice. In a Gene Edwards church plant where is the real authority, in the brethren collectively, or in the church planter?
- In the New Testament of the Bible, the church planters never demanded that people move away from their homes in order to be part of their groups.
- I have seen crisis’ where these church planters stepped in, and the problems that resulted from how they did so (and how people were hurt). I will discuss this further in another article.
- Heavy-handed church planters that keep returning, takes away from the autonomy and self-governing status of the local church, and this also leads to the group not being able to think for themselves, decide for themselves, follow the Holy Spirit for themselves, and they learn to not do things for themselves. The church planters constantly lead by constantly returned by having more phone calls, e-mails, recorded teachings, books, visits, etc.
- Church authority should be in the hands of the local church folks collectively, and not in the hands of one person or church planter, nor should the planter be able to suddenly come in and demand that certain things should be specifically done in a certain way simply because they said so.
- This type of church planter ideology clearly does lead to elitism, and arrogance as I saw with my own eyes. It leads to both the church planter thinking they are indispensable, and it leads the people in these groups to think that they are indispensable.
5. Church planter ideology, gag orders, and spin – GBU Subheading “Conclusion”, paragraph number 2.
The sobering truth is that the terrain of the house church movement is strewn with the wounded bodies of those left bleeding in the road as Gene Edwards’ troops have marched through with their church-planter-centered ideology. Over the years precious saints in assemblies under Edwards’ control have been left bewildered, confused, and deeply hurt by the orchestrated manipulation of events, by the intimidating gag orders, and by the slanted spin given to issues and problems that arise. Problems are handled in terms of how Gene Edwards and friends can be protected and preserved, not in terms of any objective attempt to find Christ’s mind. It is time for such spiritual carnage to stop.
- FV still uses the church planter centered ideology.
- I have seen the attempts at gag order by doing things such as telling people not to share certain materials and recorded messages for reasons such as – the general public just would not understand or they would misinterpret what was said, or if you share it and it makes them look bad then they say that you are merely gossiping, slandering Christian brothers, or that you will cause damage to God’s ultimate purpose and thus God’s ultimate purpose simply cannot be accomplished. They also try to use gag orders to get people to not talk about their disciplinary actions.
6. Jon Zens (JZ) addition to the GBU letter -
In JZ’s addition to the GBU letter (which can be found at the following link – http://www.searchingtogether.org/edwards.htm) he writes that GE had many of the same problems as Witness Lee since he was mentored by Lee (and from what this author understands, even Watchman Nee warned people about the problems with Witness Lee). Witness Lee’s group kicked out GE for being too extreme, and this is the man who’s ideology FV is following. This is an extremist getting kicked out of an extremist group for being too extreme. That is excessively bad if even the extremists consider you to be far too extreme.
Mr. Zens also goes on to say that another problem with GE is that he had no peers to help correct him from any missteps he might make.
It appears that Mr. Zens now thinks FV is okay since he has peers like Milt Rodriguez and Jon Zens himself. The problem seems to be that (in my opinion) FV is still operating similarly as GE and seems to have many of the same or similar problems, yet no one seems to be trying to stop him or write a similar letter to him. I do not understand why Mr. Zens cannot seem to see these problems since he helped to write this letter to GE. He also later on seems to feel okay about FV (see the following link) – http://factnet.org/vbforum/showthread.php?9213-Gene-Edwards
I guess maybe JZ also thinks FV is okay, because FV does not speak so bombastically and does not directly insult people by saying their books are worthless, as GE did. JZ gets to speak to FV’s groups about his books, and sell them to people in those groups, which (in my opinion) are more possible reasons why he finds FV acceptable.
I would also like to plea with Jon Zens, to open his eyes to see the problems that are starting to occur. FV may have peers with you and Milt Rodriguez, but what good are peers if those peers allow the same problematic techniques and practices to take place, and these activities are creating situations where people are being hurt?
I also offer this paragraph from the addition to the GBU article JZ titled “Devastation to Christians”written about GE that is aplicable to FV and his groups:
Devastation to Christians. At one time, Edwards had over 20 churches in his network. Today, we can count only five and most of them are extremely small. Each of the former groups have their own sad story of disintegration, but the pattern is the same. Edwards is said to be the source of the dissolution in every case. People felt betrayed, lied to, manipulated, controlled, used, and even pitted against one another by Edwards.
- I personally have already begun to see FV’s groups have severe problems and that they are falling apart. People are being hurt, and as JZ stated – they feel “betrayed, lied to, manipulated, controlled, used, and even pitted against one another.”
- I would also say that these problems that I have listed seem to be systemic, because a while ago I went to a conference for all of FV’s groups and at that conference MR admitted that all the groups he tried to set up by himself in the past, have nearly all collapsed and failed. I also noticed that many groups at this conference had a lot of big problems and the different groups also had a lot of similar problems.
Is FV a lot like Gene Edwards? I leave that for you to decide for yourself. I am only trying to give the facts. However, it is my opinion that FV is using a lot of the same techniques, ideology, and practices as GE, and they produce many similar problems also.
You should also check the nature of the fruit produced by FV and his groups, and see that some folks are now coming forward and saying that they were hurt and their lives were devastated by their experiences in these groups. If you don’t believe this, you can check with one man who claims to have encountered many of these people (his name is Jim Wright of the blog Crossroad junction – crossroadjunction.com/). I do not necessarily agree with everything Jim Wright states, but he has clearly encountered many of these people, he has seen the problems, and has noticed some of the danger signs and pointed them out.
You should also check to see if the fruit of the Holy Spirit is present in these groups, and check to see if the fruit can be seen over the long haul, to which I would say, that, in my opinion, it is not there over the long haul.
I strongly suggest you do your homework before you move to be part of one of these groups. Be prepared to think critically, and closely examine everything. If anything does NOT seem right in these groups, I suggest you scrutinize it carefully, and you might want to run away from these group’s as quick as possible.
I would strongly suggest avoiding FV, his associates, and the groups that they have planted, due to the many problems that I have seen, and experienced, and all that I have listed here.
Could FV have pure motives and actually be trying to do what he thinks is right? Possibly. However, anyone trying to do the right thing should take an honest look at these facts, lay aside their pride, and be willing to stop doing these problematic things, and should be willing to make some big changes for the better.
If any of this comes across as harsh, I apologize, because I do not wish to be unkind, but instead I want to hopefully give FV, his associates, and those in his groups a chance at something better, and give the chance to meet the true Jesus Christ who is full of love and grace. I also want to warn other people, and help them avoid these difficulties in their own lives, like I experienced when I was in one of FV’s groups.
There is more to come in this article series.
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