Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
By Frank Viola and George Barna, BarnaBooks/Tyndale, 2008
This book examines a variety of common church practices. I have chosen to review it chapter by chapter. It needs this fine-grained approach for two reasons. First, the topics in the various chapters differ from each other in kind. Some of the chapters are mostly right; others deserve nothing but a lampooning. Second, even within each chapter there is an intricate mix of valid points and spurious reasoning. This calls for a fine-grained approach to disentangle the two.
However, there are three themes that run throughout the book which I would like to treat at the beginning. Three assumptions of the authors seem to be:
1/ The church as it existed in the New Testament provides the (only) Biblical pattern for how Christians should meet and worship today.
2/ Democracy is good; heirarchy is bad.
3/ Anything that started out as a pagan practice is unlawful for Christians.
New Testament Church as the only valid model
The authors state, numerous times, that the New Testament church was doing things the way God wanted, but within in a few hundred years (certainly after Constantine), things began to go wrong, and they have been wrong – drastically wrong – ever since. The answer to this argument was well put by a review posted on House Church Unplugged (http://housechurch.org/blog/2008/02/pagan-christianity-real-hope-or-shrill-hype/) :
The book’s perspective is that Jesus, rather than making good on his promise to build and guide his church despite the gates of Hell, somehow long ago lost control, became dependent upon humans, is now lonely, hands tied, looking for freedom, romance, and a place to go.
There is a certain arrogance in the authors’ assertion that all of Christendom has been pretty much completely wrong for almost 2000 years, but now they, the authors, plus a small group of enlightened others, are finally getting back to the Biblical way.
Granted, this is not a complete argument in itself. This was also the objection brought to Martin Luther when he defended his view of the Gospel. “Are you alone right?” Of course, in Luther’s case, he was.
But there are other reasons to question this assumption. Quoting from the same review:
Viola in the original edition of PC, page 294, writes: “Take note, the NT is not a manual for church PRACTICE.” George Barna, in like manner, wrote in Revolution: “The Bible does not rigidly define the corporate PRACTICES, rituals, or structures that must be embraced in order to have a proper church.” page 37
So the authors have elsewhere denied their own premise in principle, but when pressed to explain why they hate institutional Christianity, they take back those “methods and structures” detail by detail. For example, they contend that early churches met in homes not because they were new, small congregations with little social power, but because that was the Biblical way and because it was democratic.
Which brings me to my second theme.
Democracy Good, Hierarchy Bad
This principle is never stated explicitly in the book, but it is relied on heavily. It is the reason the authors give for unBiblicality of having both pastors and sermons, for example (both of which they hate – but more on that later). They assert that Jesus can only speak to His people if the meeting is a free-form, egalitarian one where any person present has the freedom at any time to speak up, interrupt, ask a question, or start a song. They also hate clothing that implies hierarchy (that is, any kind other than casual clothing).
I am not arguing that democracy is bad as a political system, but the authors seem to hate hierarchy in any form, anywhere in life. I will deal with this more fully later, but for now let me point out that this strong value of theirs is a characteristically modern and American one rather than necessarily a Biblical one.
Pagan Roots Are Dirty
Yeah, but so are all roots.
I will treat this theme at a little more length because I think it is misunderstood by many Christians, as well as by the authors, and this book is a shameless attempt to manipulate that misunderstanding. Look at the cover of the book. Red background, the word PAGAN in big, black letters, tipped on its side to resemble a tree and sprouting sinister-looking roots. (The authors’ names, and the word Christianity, are in white and are configured to resemble a cross.)
In the acknowledgements, Frank Viola tells us the origin of this book: “I left the institutional church … I sought to understand how the Christian church ended up in its present state. For years I tried to get my hands on a documented book that traced the origin of every nonbiblical practice we Christians observe every week.” (xiii) Notice, Viola had already decided that institutional Christianity was thoroughly broken. He “knew” that most things most churches were doing, were unBiblical (they may be too, but not in the way Voila thinks). If these practices did not originate in the Bible, they must have come from somewhere else. Since Viola could not find the book he was looking for, he researched and wrote it himself. To his credit, he acknowledges the limits of his research and hopes that true scholars will pick up where he left off.
Viola’s experience is recreated within each chapter. First, we are told that whatever practice the chapter is treating (church buildings, sermons, etc.) is unbiblical. Then, there follows a brief historical survey of how such a practice developed from paganism. Then, we are given the real reasons the authors dislike the practice: arguments that it is undemocractic, unbiblical, or both. These later arguments are real arguments and deserve to be answered. But they are irrelevant to whether a given practice is pagan. If Jesus commands us to do something that the pagans also do (e.g., be wise in dealing with people – Luke 16:8 – 9), then that practice is Biblical, right?
A practice should stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of what it resembles or what it developed from. But in the authors’ minds, if they can show that something developed from a similar thing that was pagan, they have got at least halfway to proving it is unBiblical. And I fear that many American Christians would agree with them.
Interestingly, pagans share this assumption. They delight in pointing out the similarities between Christian and pagan practices, and especially the borrowings. They assume that by pointing these out, they have proved that Christianity is not unique.
G.K. Chesterton, in his book The Everlasting Man, has blown this argument apart. He argues that human beings were created by God to do certain things. Human beings, wherever they live and whatever their religion, will do these things. They will have festivals and parties at certain times. They will pray. They will make beautiful clothes and dress up sometimes. When circumstances permit, they will bake cakes. This is part of the creation order and the cultural mandate, in addition to being lots of fun.
When they are pagan, the tragedy is that people do not really have anything or anyone to do these things to or about. They are forever in search of an entity and an event that matches their huge capacity for celebration and worship. Eventually, it all falls through and degenerates into violence, or superstitious fear, or a sexual free for all.
But God does not expect us to stop doing these legitimate and lawful things when we leave the pagan gods to worship Christ. He redeems these things! For the first time, we do them for a good reason. So once, we baked hot cross buns unto the Spring Equinox. Now, we bake them unto Christ, and eat with even more joy in our hearts. Once we sang songs and made art unto our pagan gods. Now we sing and make them unto Christ!
Let me hasten to add that of course some pagan practices cannot be carried over into the Christian life. Worshipping other gods is out. So is temple prostitution, consulting the dead, divination, practicing magic, and making images to be worshipped. All of these are explicitly forbidden in the Bible, so we do not need to discuss their origins to see that they are unbiblical.
But there are a host of human activities that are not unlawful in themselves, are not condemned in Scripture, yet were certainly done by pagans before they were done by Christians (or even Jews). Pagans are human beings, and they do all the things human beings do. So, art, formal clothing, dancing, and yes, sacred buildings, priests, and sermons are not necessarily forbidden to us just because pagans do them. We will have to find stronger arguments if we want to get rid of these things. What we cannot do is strengthen a weak argument against a practice by tacking the word “pagan” on it. This is dishonest, and frankly it is unfair to pagans. Why blame them for the fact that you don’t like liturgical robes? We need to remember that although their gods are false gods, pagans are real people.