Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices

Frank Viola and George Barna Tyndale Momentum, Carol Stream, IL February 14, 2012
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Viola and Barna argue that a large number of church practices today are unbiblical, for they were unwittingly borrowed from pagan culture and rituals. They say this has been occurring ever since the fourth century. Those who have propagated these practices include many church fathers (Ignatius, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria), Constantine, and many modern-day leaders (e.g., Billy Sunday, D. L. Moody, and Billy Graham). According to the authors, practices promulgated by these leaders fail to emulate first-century church practices recorded in the New Testament, much of what is practiced in local churches today developed in several centuries after the apostles, and first-century practices are the only truly biblical ones for the church.

Barna is known for his research on American religious trends, and Viola’s expertise is in church strategies. Both men exhibit a passion for a clear, biblical perspective on the church. They seek to be faithful to the Scriptures and to make Christ central in church practices. They spare no effort in exploring numerous historical, theological, and biblical resources. Clearly they have a love for Christ and the church.

The pagan practices they cite include the use of church buildings, the physical arrangement of sanctuaries, the Sophist-like sermonizing by pastors, passive congregations, a misplaced emphasis on Christian education, an incorrect understanding of tithing, and more. Viola and Barna claim “that much of what we do for ‘church’ was lifted directly out of pagan culture in the postapostolic period. . . . Contemporary Christianity has fallen into the errors of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (p. vii). Only the early church and churches of their ilk have it right.

Viola and Barna maintain that the first-century church was a “living, breathing organism that expressed itself far differently than the institutional church today” (p. xix). “The practices of the first-century church were the natural and spontaneous expression of the divine life that indwelt the early Christians. And those practices were solidly grounded in timeless principles and teachings of the New Testament. By contrast, a great number of the practices in many contemporary churches are in conflict with those biblical principles and teachings” (ibid.).

Of course current churches are not beyond legitimate criticism and biblical rebuke. But the authors often exaggerate their points, utilize non sequitur arguments, commit hermeneutical errors, and stretch some arguments to the point of incredulity. For example they say that “double honor” in 1 Timothy 5:17 (“The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor [diplh'" timh'"], especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching”) refers to respect, not wages. In other words church leaders should not be salaried. However, this overlooks the fact that the word mivsqo" (“wages”) occurs in verse 18, which cites the Old Testament principle of not muzzling an ox while it is treading grain, obviously a reference to financial support. As George Knight observes, the charge that elders be considered worthy of double honor should be taken “more particularly in the sense of ‘honorarium’ or ‘compensation’ ” (The Pastoral Epistles [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], 232).

Viola and Barna often elevate descriptive aspects of early-church patterns to prescriptive levels. And they say that the absence of something in Scripture, such as Bible schools or seminaries, means that their existence is unbiblical and pagan. This reasoning applies to the use of music, pulpits, the clergy, and others (pp. 246–49). Also they wrongly impugn some church practices because of the influence of a questionable historical figure. For example they say the use of church buildings is wrong because Constantine ordered the construction of church buildings in order to “promote the popularity and acceptance of Christianity” (p. 18).  And rhetoric, according to the authors, has poisoned the church through the use of sermons. This practice, they say, was borrowed from Greek culture. “The Greeks and Romans were addicted to the pagan sermon—just as many contemporary Christians are addicted to the ‘Christian’ sermon” (p. 91).

Another fallacy in the book is confusing form with function. Certain church functions are clearly delineated in the Scriptures, including worship, teaching, fellowship, prayer, evangelism, and service. And these functions can be carried out by different forms. For example the function of evangelism can take a ministry form such as Evangelism Explosion or a men’s breakfast. Or the function of evangelizing children may be carried out by means of a form such as Child Evangelism Fellowship or vacation Bible school. However, Viola and Barna make no allowance for a variety of forms. They argue that churches should carry out their functions with only the forms used by the early church.

The following are some examples of overstatements. First, the prominence of the sermon so elevates the pastor that it makes him the main focus and separates him from and elevates him above God’s people (p. 34). Second, church services are said to be a “sit-and-soak” form of worship that turns Christians into “pew potatoes” (p. 40). Third, the authors claim that seminaries set themselves up as independent arbiters of ministry requirements (p. 217). This is simply incorrect, because seminaries, especially accredited ones, must assess themselves with evaluations by alumni, board members, faculty, staff, and students.

In addition the book presents many prominent historical figures in an unduly negative light. Early church leaders were liturgical; the Reformers were “unwittingly conditioned by the thought patterns of medieval Catholicism”; D. L. Moody failed to realize that God’s eternal purpose involves more than redemption; and Billy Graham simply upgraded Moody’s strategy.

The authors’ negative assessment of seventeen centuries of church ministry and practice seems wrongheaded theologically speaking. Does not God superintend historical developments to build and strengthen the church? Has He not provided many godly leaders who have influenced the church in spiritually positive ways?

In addressing the so-called pervasiveness of pagan practices in the church, Viola and Barna call into question or malign many persons and practices in a broad, all-encompassing sweep that involves errors of reasoning that lead to faulty and sometimes contradictory conclusions. A more accurate assessment of the church is needed, one that recognizes both strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.

—Linden D. McLaughlin

April 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2009 vol. 166 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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