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Pagan Christianity?

No, that isn't the title for this entry. It's the name of a book that I want to review. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola and George Barna has made quite an impact as evidenced by the activity and discussion in the blogosphere. When I read some of the reviews and comments, I feel like a lightweight in the ring punching with some heavyweights. The size and scope of the some of the comments are impressive, and are both indepth and insightful. There isn't much I can add to the discussion, but I thought I would write about it anyway.

The basic premise of the book is that there is little biblical precedent or justification for most modern church activity. The book addresses the issue of church buildings, vestments, the order of worship service, the role of the pastor, the sermon, the youth pastor and tithing. It is a fair to conclude that the authors are against all those practices and traditions in their present form.

I have few problems with the premise of the book -- that all our church practices and assumptions need to be evaluated in the light of Scripture. What I do have a problem with is that the authors have a bias as they approach the material. Brother Viola is an advocate of and leader in what is called the home church movement. He believes that churches should convene in smaller home settings, as the believers met in the first century, and anything beyond that is flawed if not wrong.

I could accept the research but when the authors feel the need to interpret the research to mean that house churches are "right" and church as we know it is "wrong," then I have my problem. Why? When you approach Scripture to prove a point, one almost automatically becomes blind to anything that the Bible may say that is contrary to your preconceived belief. It is akin to the world of quantum physics. When the experiment is set to determine if matter is a particle, then matter always shows up in those experiments as a particle. When the experiments seek to determine if it is a wave, then matter appears as a wave. The nature of the experiment actually determines the outcome of the findings. I believe this is what happened to the authors in this case. They were set on proving their point, and I felt like I had a firm hand in my book that was forcing me to accept their conclusions.

I think much of the debate in books and movements such as the house church movement is whether or not Acts provides the model or spirit for church practice. If Acts provides the model for church practice, then we should all indeed meet in homes to worship. If Acts provides the spirit for our practice, then the early believers creatively addressed what they could do at that time and we should do the same. Did the early believers meet in homes because that was the model or did they meet in homes because there was no other venue in which they were permitted or was available to meet? They tried to meet in the Temple, in synagogues, in training centers and eventually were limited to homes. Does that limit us to meet in homes?

I have led about 800 home church meetings in my adult life. At one time, I was part of a church who met weekly in homes and once a month as a congregation. I know the power of a house church and the frustration of one, too. DId you ever try to launch a missions project to the 10/40 Window from a house church? It can't be done, in my opinion -- not without networking with a larger group, which leads to one of the benefits of meeting with a larger group of believers.

The authors purport that the sermon is an invention of the reformers, but didn't Jesus preach in synagogues? I think Paul did, too. When the synagogue was open to believers, did they not speak there regularly? (Come to think of it, the synagogue was a cultural adaptation that the Jews made during their Babylonian captivity. I wonder why Jesus didn't condemn such sabbath meetings as non-biblical and heretical?).

The authors condemn tithing and I do as well in much of its current heavy-handed presentation. Yet could there be no mention of tithing in the New Testament because it was so well covered in the Old and so well established in Jesus' time? While Jesus did not condone tithing per se, He did not condemn it either. And the authors attribute choirs in mass settings to the Greeks. Weren't there Old Testament choirs and didn't angels appear every once in a while to sing for special occasions? If you are fearing for your life in the first century, I don't think you will be motivated to assemble any choirs to sing for the Lord. Does that make it wrong if it's done in the 21st century? The authors believe it does.

The authors present solid research to document the historicity of modern church practice, but their conclusions are suspect at best. There is no doubt that the celebration of Christmas is a "mixed bag" of pagan influences and questionable traditions. Does that make Christmas and those who celebrate pagans? How far do we follow the model provided in Acts if it is to be interpreted strictly? Should we sell our buildings and buses? What about publishing and media? They aren't in Acts. Are the authors unbiblical for publishing? Of course they are not.

I still maintain that Acts is our model for the spirit of how early believers responded to their culture and world. When the first deacons were elected in Acts 6, it represented a creative solution to a pressing problem. That election wasn't meant to make deacons what we have made them today; it was a simple solution to the problems of the growing body of Christ. Would the early church have used buildings if they had been available to them? I think they would have in the spirit of Acts, but then again, that's my opinion. I am not trying to force you to accept it; I just want to present it for you to consider.

I hope I am not being too hard on the authors, whom I believe love the Lord and His church. I have done what they have done many times -- approach Scripture trying to prove something and to get others to accept it as well. It is my dilemma as I teach on purpose and I must ask myself all the time: Is this what Scripture is saying or what I am trying to make it say? I would recommend their book as good reading that will stimulate your thoughts and discussion. I am not ready, however, to abandon church as we know it in the 21st century for a form that existed and thrived 2,000 years ago.

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I support your response/approach - indeed, the example of the early church was to be spirit led and relevant to the local culture, so if anything the missional church is more on track than the home church.

But as a very minor side point, I don't believe there is any mention of angels singing in the Bible (I think they do, but it isn't said :-)

Shawn M. Panosian

Job 38:7 tells us that during the creation of the world, "the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy." Revelation 5:11-13 declares, “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels . . . They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” Luke 2:13-14 informs us, "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.'"

The above Scriptures appear at first glance to give clear evidence to the idea that angels sing. However, in each instance, the words that are translated "sing" or "sang" could also be referring to speaking. At the same time, the fact that the angels are worshipping and praising God seems to argue for singing as the meaning, not just speaking.


Based upon my reading of "Pagan", I felt that the authors concluded that an organic expression of church life was biblical AFTER a careful study of the scriptures-not that they viewed the scriptures with "house church" lenses.

Also, you can read answers to questions and debates with scholars at http://www.ptmin.org/answers.htm .

The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at http://www.ReimaginingChurch.org . It’s also available on Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://frankviola.wordpress.com/ .

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