Pagan Christianity (book review) by Frank Viola and George Barna. 2002 / 2008. Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices
I skimmed this book in a few hours (Sun August 16, 2009) – and so I have not done the book the service of a thorough scrutiny of all the content. My observations are based on what I did see in the book and what its case presented itself to be to a reader picking up the highlights.
Overview of the Book
Barna & Viola argue, from the perspective of historical review that much of what we take for granted in Church life, including church buildings, denominations, sermons, individual leading pastors, purposes for the offerings and modern forms of worship, have developed from pagan concepts. They further assert that those things stand in the way of the expression of Christianity as it was intended, but which only operated widely for the first century or so.
They support their contentions by describing fellowship groups which operate today which they see as superior to modern churches.
Barna and Viola’s principal case against the modern church is that it is “pagan” in origins, and thus, by implication, not what God wants in the church. They assume in their minds that “pagan” means wrong and offensive to God’s purposes. Therefore they suggest that modern churches are wrong, ‘guilty’ by association with the pagan roots of their practices. Their principal non-historical argument is that most modern church meetings are directed and controlled by people and programming (liturgy) which preclude the ordinary member from taking any leadership. They see the pastor/leader model as counter to the expression of the priesthood of all believers. The modern examples they commend involve a relatively un-structured format where no one person is leading the meeting. By this open format all the participants can contribute by sharing something or leading out in a song. The particular quality they extol about this model is that the meetings are “led by Jesus Christ”, not led by a person or by a programmed ritual.
By implication, then, they see that planned meetings, or ones led by only selected people, are likely to exclude Christ from the place of leadership in the church.
Their argument, then, is both historical and perceptual. History provides the incriminating link between modern church practice and ancient pagan practice. Their perception is that modern church services obstruct the personal expression of ordinary members in a way that blocks Jesus Christ from taking leadership moment by moment in the church meetings.
It is good to review and challenge our practices and to be open to correction and direction. Barna and Viola offer various criticisms of modern church life. Those criticisms are not new. Thoughtful people have addressed these issues and there are many variations of church service and types of church meetings, providing redress to some of the concerns raised. The challenge should remain open and godly wisdom should be prayerfully sought.
Barna and Viola have principally resorted to inspection of the “roots”, not inspection of the “fruits” (although they do point out various outcomes). I suspect that both of these men were able to achieve much of their personal spiritual development in the grip of the very church processes which they now challenge. Multitudes of churches and millions of Christians across the globe, from jungles to cities, are successfully bringing people to salvation, discipleship, maturity, and effective ministry, using the very methods and models which Barna and Viola seem set against.
This observation does not negate Barna and Viola’s case, but it reveals that their autopsy on the “roots” generates a different sense for the thing than Christ’s instruction to inspect the “fruits”.
While Barna and Viola include a huge amount of evidence for pagan influence into the church model as we know it, they fail to recognise that those elements are not the intellectual property of pagans. Their case is akin to saying “terrorists use public transport, so public transport is evil”.
Origins of Preachers
While Greek orators can be accused of seeding the modern concept of a preacher, that does not make preaching suspect. Moses preached and taught, as the exclusive voice to his audience. The prophets spoke, instructed, elaborated on their insights and taught followers and the public. Ezra organised preachers who would expound the truth. John the Baptist was a preacher. So too was Jesus Christ.
So to lambaste preaching, because of the connection that can be made to Greek public speaking, belies the issue. Preaching was never the exclusive preserve of Greek orators. Preaching is a form of communication which God commends.
“For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” 1Corinthians 1:21
“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” Romans 10:14
We also find that, while there is place for all believers to contribute, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, there are those who are given more specific responsibility. We see Paul on his missionary journeys not holding open “go with the flow” meetings, but specific, long-winded times of serious didactic input from him. He saw himself as one who would ‘impart’ something. He exhorted Timothy to be diligent in such things as preaching, rebuke and exhortation.
“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” 2Timothy 4:2
This instruction was not to all the members, but to those selected, by Paul the Apostle (not some later generation of bishops), and charged with a more central responsibility.
Along with that Paul expected Timothy to raise up other specialist speakers who would make specific contribution into the life of the church.
“And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” 2Timothy 2:2
Barna and Viola could be guilty of creating the kind of distortion which they accuse pagan influences of imposing into the church. Barna and Viola seem to be denigrating a Biblical reality (the place of preaching), tarring it with the brush of paganism, and promoting their personally preferred church service model that seems to reduce the place of the preaching which God gave to the church and which the Apostle Paul elevated.
The same doubts about their case could be raised with regard to church buildings, organisational structure, hierarchical leadership, financial administration and so on.
Does the fact that pagan temples influenced early church buildings mean that God does not want churches to have dedicated buildings? Barma and Viola imply that God is opposed to church buildings, especially since they can be linked to pagan meeting places. Yet in old testament history the Jews developed a new building called the Synagogue. It was not prescribed by God, but developed during the captivity and continued thereafter. Although this building concept was not instigated by God it was used by Christ and the Apostle Paul. There is no sense that it was to be rejected because of its origins. So, I contend, Barma and Viola’s criticism of modern church buildings is of little if any consequence, despite the connection to ancient architecture.
The feast of Purim, which the Jewish leaders instituted in honour of the events recorded in the book of Esther, was not ordained by God. Yet there is no suggestion by Christ or the Apostles that it was to be condemned or rejected because of its origins.
With regard to church hierarchy and supervision we have the examples from Moses of seventy elders selected to share his leadership burden. We have the appointment of captains over tens and captains over thousands. These various leadership appointments were not always ordained by God, but that did not make them bogus or worthy of rejection. Indeed, the heathen nations doubtless had similar leadership hierarchies to administrate the social, military and religious process of their culture. Any similarity between one administrative set and another does not negate the institution. Yet, to Barma and Viola it seems that such similarities render church leadership as suspect.
My conclusion is that, despite the well researched and scholarly complexity of historical information garnered for their treatise, Barna and Viola have erred in their essential premise. They seem convinced that guilt by association renders the modern church to be little more than a pagan religion, masquerading as true Christianity. The effective practice of modern Christianity, under the weight of this pagan heritage, challenges their most basic assertion.
Their work errs toward the irrelevant, despite its eloquence and the conviction with which they press it upon their readers.
I am concerned that some readers will be beguiled by the scholarly quality of the work, giving it credence as relevant for its sheer weight of detail. I am also concerned that some weak souls will become infected with an allergy toward the modern church, avoiding fellowshipping with the saints or listening to preaching of the Word of God. It is possible that the arguments put forward by Barna and Viola will subvert the soul of some who would otherwise meet with the saints and hear the Word of God. Should that occur, then their contribution is decidedly toxic and not beneficial.
Yet I am sensitive to their concern. They wish to advance discussion on a matter that concerns them. They seek to liberate Christians from slavish servitude to human structures, empty liturgy, man-made agendas, and the like. I fear that they will muddy the waters, by taking such a negative position, on such unworthy grounds for their case.
They Should Promote their Model
I suggest that they could do better by discarding their interest in the pagan roots they perceive in modern church models, and uplifting their alternative model of worship. Christ said that “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to myself”. I suggest that, if the Barna/Viola model is worthy of Christ, then simply lifting it up will produce a drawing effect upon all who see it.
Rather than go down that path Barna and Viola have taken the popular road of attack upon the status quo. They hope to draw followers to their preferred worship model by attacking the current model. I, for one, believe they have damaged their own credibility, by the spiritual murkiness of taking the offensive. Rather than perceive the good, many of their readers will be distracted in the defence of what they have attacked.