Pagan Christianity?

Book Review

Frank VIola and George Barna say the post-apostolic Church Fathers, Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley and others like them were desperately wrong. They were wrong, not in their doctrines, but in their church practice, which was far off track–and very harmfully so. That’s quite a serious list of leaders to stand against. “Quite so,” the authors might say; “but we are standing with Jesus Christ and the New Testament authors.”

Pagan Christianity? Book CoverWithout a doubt they would vigorously resist being compared to the above-named church leaders. Still, Viola and Barna are no lightweights on the present-day Christian scene. Frank Viola has authored numerous books on the house church movement and on church history, and George Barna is the founder of the highly respected Barna Research Group.

Their view of church practice is encapsulated in the title of their co-authored book, due to be released in January, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. When they say “Pagan,” they really mean it. With numerous footnoted citations, they explain that our church buildings, our churches’ orders of worship, our emphasis on preaching, our distinctions between laity and clergy, and much more–all of this is derived primarily from pagan Greek and Roman religious and cultural practices, not from the Bible. It’s a strong and sweeping indictment not just of modern churches, but of church practice through the centuries.

Their critical tone comes through clearly in statements like this, on page 61:

To put it another way, the church fathers of this period [the 3rd through 6th centuries] represent nascent (early) Catholicism. And that is what Calvin took as his main model for establishing a new order of worship. It is no wonder that the so-called Reformation brought very little reform in the way of church practice. As with the case with Luther’s order of worship, the liturgy of the Reformed church “did not try to change the structures of the official [Catholic] liturgy but rather it tried to maintain the old liturgy while cultivating extra-liturgical devotions.”

(The embedded quotation is from Hughes Oliphant Old, 1970, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship). Again I would emphasize that this is about church practice; Viola and Barna have little beef with doctrines coming out of “the so-called Reformation.” But they are unafraid to attack that practice at its strongest points.

Consider preaching, for example, which they essay to dismantle in a chapter subtitled “Protestantism’s Most Sacred Cow.” It is their thesis (see also here) that preaching in the New Testament is sporadic, delivered on special occasions to deal with special problems, extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure, and most often dialogical rather than monological–it was two-way, not one-way. What we think of as the “Christian” sermon came out of Greek Sophist practice. Its entry into the church was “the arrival of a polluted stream.”

(Perhaps ironically, my first encounter with this view of New Testament preaching practice came less than a week before I read it in this book, on links from this page at Facing the Challenge blog.)

Viola and Barna think sermonizing positively harms the church; for example:

  • It makes the preacher the “virtuoso performer,” so that congregational participation is “hampered at best and precluded at worst.”
  • It often stalemates spiritual growth; because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity.
  • It preserves an unbiblical “clergy mentality,” discussed in a prior chapter.
  • Rather than equipping the saints, it de-skills them.
  • It is often impractical: “Countless preachers speak as experts on that which they have never experienced…. In this regard, the sermon mirrors its true father–Greco-Roman rhetoric…. bathed in abstraction.”

It would not do to react with a knee-jerk to this. Viola has elsewhere in the book described the sheer life, joy, beauty, and growth of free and spontaneous house-church worship. Taken from the perspective of learning theory, sermons follow a weak educational model. Adults and children both learn through participation, through interaction, even through evaluation. Sermons really do run a strong risk of fostering passivity. I have said this in churches for years; and I have on occasion (with little success) advocated follow-up discussion groups to let church members work through the meaning of sermons together.

In our church, in fact, we practice this in a men’s Tuesday morning Bible study. We gather for breakfast and a couple of songs, there is a short message presented from the Word, and then we discuss it around tables. I have no way of measuring this, but I would be willing to guess more actual growth happens in that relational, interactive setting than on Sunday mornings. (Many church Sunday Schools follow a similar, quite effective model.)

For all my questions about its educational validity, I’ve concluded that preaching remains vital for communicating the centrality (and even the authority) of God’s word to God’s people. Still, the more interactive learning that churches practice, the happier I will be about it.

So I think the authors may be onto something valid here, and in many other parts of the book. That is, we might disagree with many things they say, yet there are still important things to learn from this book. I would not rush to judge everything Viola and Barna have said here (or in other chapters) as wrong. This is hardly a full endorsement of their theses, however. Throughout the book I kept asking myself questions like these:

  • If some of our architectural (or other) preferences came from the Greeks or Romans instead of the New Testament, is that necessarily bad?
  • If some practice is not found in the New Testament, but is also not proscribed (prohibited) there, even in principle, should we judge it as harmful? What is our basis for that judgment?
  • The authors acknowledge that it is not unbiblical to sit on chairs that were built by non-Christians, using extra-biblical designs and methods. Yet they seem to think it’s unbiblical to use proven, effective rhetorical methods that were fashioned by non-Christians. Why? Is not all truth God’s truth?
  • Their book uses a definite rhetorical structure that could quite feasibly be traced to Aristotle. Is writing different from preaching? Why?
  • Church historians point to the Pax Romana and the Roman highway system as having had a strong positive effect on the early spread of the gospel–so positive, in fact, that many see them as having been providentially prepared by God partly for that purpose. Could Greco-Roman rhetoric also have been providentially prepared by God, from outside the church, for God’s purposes?
  • To rely on music’s emotion-inducing effect is criticized in the chapter on worship. But was not music prominent throughout the Bible? Should we (could we?) assume it had no emotional impact in those Biblical settings? To strip music of heart impact would violate its very character.
  • Viola and Barna advocate a complete de-layering of distinctions between clergy and laity, preacher and preached-to. They must know, though, that every grouping of people eventually generates leadership from its midst; and the larger and more complex the grouping, the more important that leadership becomes. God absolutely, definitely worked through leaders throughout Scripture. What do they propose for the development of leaders and what should their roles be?

The changes proposed in this book would rock Christianity as much as Luther and Calvin rocked it some 500 years ago. So my final question for the authors is, do they have it in mind, in a sense, to complete what was left unfinished in the “so-called Reformation”?

I expect this book’s effect will be to strongly encourage the growing house church movement in the Western world, and to stimulate some thought and perhaps some minor changes in traditionally established churches. My fear is that it will also promote house-church judgmentalism toward traditionally established churches.

There’s a fine line between that and constructive, loving criticism. I was not convinced the authors always remained on the healthy side of that line. That’s a shame, because even though we might disagree with many of the book’s conclusions, there is nevertheless a lot of good we could glean from it. Pagan Christianity’s critical tone, unfortunately, may prevent many Christians from looking.