Click for a review by John Oakes of the book Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna


Pagan Christianity

by Viola and Barna

A Review

Those who follow trends in Christianity will soon notice that ideas on how to do church come and go much like the fickle fads of fashion.  In the late nineties and the first few years of the present decade, the fashion was the seeker-sensitive mega-church. Of course, not all mega churches were seeker-friendly and not all seeker-friendly churches were mega, but this was a notable trend, nevertheless.  The message from some was that the best way to spread the gospel of Jesus was to have large, fun, entertaining services designed to be seeker-friendly.  Leaders of this movement such as Rick Warren also suggested that the church find ways for each member to use his or her gifts in service to God.  Making Christianity relevant to the needs of attendees, using the latest trends in music and multimedia entertainment and other positive suggestions are emphasized by this movement.  Minimizing the perceived "negative" aspects of Christianity which might drive away uncommitted attendees, such as the call to repent and to righteous living was another important aspect of this church movement.  Clearly, some of the advice for how to reach out to the unchurched by Warren and others was very useful, but some of the theological implications are disturbing.  Mega churches popped up all over the country, seeming to compete for the title fastest-growing church.  What has become rather obvious about this movement is that it tends to draw large crowds from other churches, attracted to the entertainment at the "God show."  Whether or not this movement has been very effective at fostering true Christ-likeness on a deep level for those who join these churches is questionable.

A more recent trend in mainly evangelical churches appears to be a 180 degree pendulum swing away from the mega-church concept.  It is variously known as the "organic church" movement or the Emergent Church movement.  These two movements are not identical, but they do have a number of characteristics in common.  Perhaps best known publication from among the advocates of this Christian movement is the book Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna.[1]  A common theme of writers in these movements is that Christianity ought to return to the simple, spontaneous, individually focused worship in the kind of small house churches which characterized the primitive church.  To quote from Gene Edwards, author of The Organic Church, "In the first century, the organic church was the only kind of church there was."  Large meetings in which the attendees take little direct part leading or participating in the worship are unbiblical and un-Christian according to the advocates of this view.

When I first read Pagan Christianity my initial reaction was to appreciate its call to primitive, biblical Christianity and its challenge for Christians to radically turn away from worldly influences which have so thoroughly infiltrated the church.  However, as I read farther my appreciation of the call to return to the basics of Christian living was changed to disappointment.  I felt I was being manipulated.  Let me explain why I felt, and to some extent still feel this way.

The thesis of Pagan Christianity is based on a false premise.  Its authors create a false dilemma.  They rely on straw-man arguments which do a disservice to their purposes.  The premise of Viola and Barna is that any or virtually any practice which we know was part of what was done in the primitive church, under the influence of the apostles, is binding on Christians today.  Any innovations to primitive Christianity which occurred in the subsequent centuries as the church evolved into Roman Catholicism are, by definition, pagan, wrong, sinful or at the very least unspiritual.  The same can be said for nearly any innovations which have been added by Reformation churches, Evangelical churches in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries or by advocates from the mega church movement. The practices of the primitive church are to be urged on all Christians, regardless of whether these practices are found in the New Testament or are evident in the writings of the Church Fathers.  The false dilemma of Pagan Christianity is that we must choose between worship which is modeled after primitive practices or we become a pagan and un-Christian people.

For example, Viola and Barna point out that the early church did not meet in specially-designed "church" buildings.  They claim (falsely, I might add)[2] that there is no evidence before the time of Constantine that Christians met in what we would call churches.[3]  They claim that meetings in large buildings, known as basilicas, were borrowed directly from pagan forms of worship.  Two questions arise.  First, is it indeed true that the only form of worship of the primitive church was in small house churches?  Second, is this mode of worship binding on the church today?  The answer to both questions is no.  Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to meet in small house churches.  It is reasonable to ask why the primitive church chose this as their principle mode of worship.  Might it have been for practical reasons because of fear of intense persecution?  The evidence from Eusebius is that during periods of lighter persecution in the second and third centuries, the church tended to meet in larger groups, but when the persecution intensified and their meeting places were even destroyed, the church moved toward smaller meetings.  Is it a good idea for the church to meet in house churches for Sunday worship?  Perhaps so.  Maybe this is a good or even the best way to do church in certain places and cultures.  However, to make this a binding teaching and to label those who meet in larger groups as pagan and worldly seems to be unjustified by biblical teaching, church history or even common sense.

The authors of Pagan Christianity point to a number of practices adopted by the Christian church from pagan practices in the fourth and fifth centuries and in some cases even earlier.  Some of these are truly disturbing departures from biblical practice.  Fairly early on, the church began to meet in graveyards and to venerate martyrs.  They even began to pray to God through such "saints."  Viola and Barna point out, correctly, that worship in the Catacombs was not to escape persecution, as some have believed, but in order to do homage to the departed saints.  The Christian "priesthood" took on many of the trappings, including the titles and clothing of the Pagan priesthood.  The church adapted its teaching about Mary in a way which seemed to accommodate pagan ideas about the Mother Goddess.  The veneration of "relics" of the apostles and other "saints" was common by the fourth century.  Eventually, the church declared it anathema to teach that worship with icons is wrong.  The Christian remembrance of the Lord’s Supper became a pagan-like sacrificial offering, made by a separate priestly class.  Active participation in this supper by non-ordained members was strictly prohibited. The authors rightly point out that by the fourth century Christian righteousness and separation from the world, including pacifism and non-involvement in public entertainment had evolved into worldly behavior and accommodation with the Roman political system.  Christian worship had become an almost totally passive experience for the vast majority of members of the church.

That being said, Viola and Barna imply that for all practical purposes, any practice adopted by the church, no matter the context, from their neighbors is, by definition pagan and unchristian.  This is an unwarranted extrapolation.  It gives the authors freedom to vent their displeasure about any modern Christian practice with which they disagree by simply labeling that practice "pagan."   The authors do not like strong leadership or hierarchical organization, so they label it pagan.  Once it has this label, the need to prove these practices unchristian from the Bible is not required.  Clearly these authors do not like pulpit preaching.  They call sermons "Protestantism’s most sacred cow,"[4] not without justification.  How to argue against this practice?  Label it as pagan and prove that pagans did things like this.  The authors make the unfortunate claim that the early church did not have preaching.  This seems to be proved wrong by Galatians 2:7, 1 Timothy 4:13 and 5:17.  Viola and Barna tell us that "Greek" sermons entered the church as spontaneous convictions left and mutual ministry faded.[5]  What they fail to do is show a cause and effect relationship between the two.  In the third century, Cyprian mentioned preaching from a Pagan "pulpitum" or stage.  Therefore preaching is pagan. Bottom line, this is not a good argument.  Perhaps having a preacher speak and the crowd remain silent during this speech is worldly and perhaps it can "harm the church" and "stalemates spiritual growth."[6]  but simply labeling it pagan is not a good argument.  Nearly everything ever done by the primitive church can find its parallel somewhere in the "pagan" Greek or Roman world.  An action is worldly if it draws us away from God.  Preaching is unbiblical if it violates a Christian principle or if it for some reason distracts Christians from growing in knowledge of Jesus.  The authors may have a legitimate point.  It is entirely possible that our worship might be more glorifying to God if we shift our emphasis on "sermonizing" to some extent.  Is the radical and complete rejection of formal preaching the best practice?  We need some evidence to support this claim.  Such evidence seems lacking.

Viola and Barna are very strong advocates of an informal "Love Feast," shared by a small group in a home, as part of the weekly church meeting.  We know, both from the New Testament and from early church writers that this was a common practice in the primitive church.  I am sure that if we did enough research, we could find that some pagans somewhere had events somewhat like the Love Feast.  The Greek Bacchanalia might provide such an example.  Does this make the practice pagan and worldly?  No it does not.  Perhaps the local church might be strongly encouraged by such Love Feasts.  Perhaps churches ought to consider adopting this as part of their regular practice.  It might help the church to grow in its unity and to accomplish the work of God.  However, to imply that this is a required part of worship or that those who do not include this practice are somehow behaving like a pagan is not a good argument.

We know that the majority of early church leaders tended to rather strongly advocate what might seem to us a fairly radical pacifism.  They strongly advised against Christians serving in the military or even in the equivalent of police at that time.  Does this, by definition, make pacifism the correct Christian doctrine?  Might the context and the historical setting (intense, public, anti-Christian persecution) mitigate our view of this question?  In the end, the only way to really settle this question is to look to biblical teaching.  It is my opinion that it is a good idea to consider the pacifism of the primitive church, clearly advocated at least to some extent by the apostles and to allow it to influence our thinking on this subject.  Such examples are useful, perhaps encouraging, and maybe even strongly instructive, but they are not binding.  It seems that Viola and Barna want to make such things binding.

Viola and Barna seem to have an overly rosy view of the church in the first century.  For example, they claim that "Believers in the early church were completely Christ-focused.[7]  There is no doubt that the picture of the church in Acts chapters 2-4 is intended by God to serve as an example of the ideal for Christian lifestyle and worship.  However, to describe the church in Corinth as "completely Christ-focused" seems over the top.  Is God’s goal for the church to restore "New Testament Christianity?"  I believe that as a principle, restoring many or even most aspects of the Christianity we find in the New Testament writings and even in the writings of Church Fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Polycarp is a good goal.  However, it is a false premise to say that the goal of the church is to restore every aspect of what the primitive church did.  Is it possible that some of their practices were particularly appropriate to their social and political situation, but not necessarily to our own?  Is it possible that some of their practices were not even ideal in their own times?  Which of these traditions are binding?  To study and learn from the primitive church is an excellent idea.  To make things like worship in house churches, love feasts, or spontaneous forms of worship binding and label other practices as unchristian or unspiritual is not justified. 

Viola and Barna advocate meetings of the church which are highly individualistic.  The urge a free-form style of worship they find in 1 Corinthians 14-organic worship-as the only true Christian way to do church.  Never mind that they seem to take what was happening in Corinth out of context and that they do not seem to notice that Paul wrote to urge caution about such free-wheeling worship.  Might our worship give more honor to God if we allowed for more spontaneous, individual-focused worship?  Absolutely.  Are the authors right to point out the potential failings and weakness of the mega-church approach?  No doubt.  Does this mean that traditional worship with three songs lead by a song leader, including a sermon by a (heaven forbid!) theologically trained preacher is worldly and pagan?  This is a huge stretch.  The argument for this position is not given.  The authors simply label this practice as pagan and unbiblical.  What they fail to do is prove that their advised form of worship is more God-pleasing in every possible context than kinds of worship they label with such a broad brush as worldly.

The authors of Pagan Christianity spend a lot of time developing the argument that the idea of a Christian "clergy" is not biblical.  They do so with a lot of success.  I find myself strongly agreeing that all Christians are priests and saints-that there are no essential distinctions between Christian leaders and followers.  The authors ask good, probing questions about the role Evangelicalism has assigned to the "pastor."  However, I have to question their conclusion that paid ministry, in all its forms, are harmful to Christian spirituality.  I would need some evidence to support this contention-hopefully some biblical evidence or even empirical evidence.  The authors claim that there was no paid ministry in the primitive church.  This claim does not stand up to scrutiny.[8]  Even if it were true, that does not mean that it is by definition an ungodly practice.  Bottom line, if in hiring a full or part-time worker to aid the ministry of the church Christian growth and spirituality is supported, then it is a good thing. 

Has an over-emphasis on using church donations to support paid ministry ever proved harmful to the mission of the church?  Yes it has in some cases.  Does this make the practice unspiritual, by definition? No it does not.  It seems that perhaps the biggest beef of the authors of Pagan Christianity is with strong Christian leadership in general.  They advocate full autonomy for the individual Christian, without interference from any kind of leadership structure.  Their emphasis is on the individual and his or her personal feelings.  Any kind of leadership which tramples on the individual rights of each Christian is harmful.  In the guise of advocating a close-knit fellowship based on the Love Feast, they seem to advocate instead for a rugged individualism.  This sounds suspiciously like Americanism.

In the end, the Christian Church will always need to struggle with finding a balance between the need for organization and the need for individual initiative of every member.  Our need to steer a middle ground here is part of a never-ending story.  To what extent do we need to "become like a Pagan to win the Pagan" on the one hand and on the other hand, to what extent do we need to not become involved with civilian affairs?  This is a delicate balance which the church as a whole and every single member of the church must continually fight for.  Viola and Barna raise many of these issues and I applaud them for challenging our thinking.  I find myself agreeing with a good percentage of their criticism of modern, evangelical Christianity.  No doubt, some of these criticisms may legitimately be raised against the particular flavor of Christianity of which I am presently a part.  However, to create a straw-man version of the worst case scenario of the washed-out mega-church movement and use this as an argument against nearly all Christian tradition is not an acceptable argument.  To conveniently label any practice we happen to not agree with as "pagan" and therefore to dismiss it as unspiritual is not a logical or a convincing argument, at least as far as I am concerned.  This is why I felt as I read this book that the authors were attempting to manipulate my thinking.

Having said quite a bit which is negative about the book Pagan Christianity, my overall analysis of the book is that it deserves a read.  Even if we do not accept the premise of the book, the authors will challenge in a healthy way many of the assumptions we have about how to do church together.  The research by the authors is fairly limited because most of their references are not to primary sources, but even these secondary resources can be a helpful introduction to the writers from the organic church movement.  My suggestion is to give it a read, keep a shaker of salt at hand, and see what you can learn from these provocative authors.

John Oakes, PhD

[1] Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity (Tyndale House Publishers, 2002).  Other books in the genre include Frank Viola, Reimagining Church and David Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. Gene Edwards, The Organic Church.

[2] The authors referenced by Viola and Barna say that there is no extant evidence for such church buildings in this period, pointing to the church building excavated in Dura-Euphrates in present-day Syria.  This is true, at least so far.  However, Eusebius reports in his Ecclesiastical History that during the persecutions of the church in the third century by Diocletian, many church buildings were destroyed.  Eusebius was a contemprory and eye-witness to these events.

[3] Pagan Christianity, p. 12

[4] Pagan Christianity, p. 85

[5] Pagan Christianity, p. 91

[6] Pagan Christianity, p 97

[7] Pagan Christianity, p. 70.

[8] 1 Corinthians 9:9, 1 Timothy 5:18.

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