Pagan Christianity? … Really?

paganWell, I’ve just finished this book and would like to share a few thoughts …

Overall, I appreciated the questions that Viola and Barna raise in this work.  I am always open to questioning the way we’ve always done things.  I disagree with their conclusion that individuals should leave the “Institutional Church” for a more biblical “New Testament model” church.  I guess my greatest concerns with the book are these:

  1. Viola and Barna assume that the New Testament is prescriptive in its details on how the early Christians lived life together.  Certainly there are some things that are prescriptive, but perhaps much is simply descriptive and we “next generation Christians” are left to listen to the Holy Spirit in knowing how to live as faithful followers of Jesus in different times and different places.  Principles or laws?
  2. It seems to me that while Viola and Barna have an extremely high view of Scripture they have a low view of the Holy Spirit.  Is it absolutely possible that men and women filled with the Holy Spirit were in no way, shape, or form moved by the Holy Spirit to live out their faith in their particular culture?  I agree that humans are fallen, but do we have to say all inventions, models, understandings, etc. that are not mentioned in the New Testament are not of Christ?  Sure, Christ is the final revelation of God and God’s purpose for creation, but can the Holy Spirit not inspire God’s people after the 1st century?
  3. I’m not sure that I agree with Viola’s and Barna’s theological conclusions on the Old Testament.  They repeatedly suggest that Jesus dissolved or abolished (perhaps that language is too strong, but they suggest at the least that all things “Old Testament” are not binding on New Testament Christians) the Old Testament.  My understanding, and I think I am in good company here, is that Jesus “fulfilled” the law and the prophets.  I don’t pretend to understand what all that entails, but I think it means more than simply asking, “What does the New Testament say about such and such?”

I admit, I benefit from the Institutional Church.  I am a pastor of a local congregation in the Free Methodist Church.  I attended Asbury Theological Seminary.  I receive a salary for my vocation as clergy.  These things may make it difficult to agree fully with Viola and Barna.  That being said, here are my thoughts on each chapter.

Chapter 2 – The Church Building … I don’t see anything wrong with Christians gathering in purpose built buildings for worship, fellowship, etc.  I agree with John Wesley who warned his followers of the dangers of building fancy buildings, “If you do, you will be indebted to the rich for the upkeep of the building.” (a rough quote)  Surely we should not invest the majority of our money into buildings.  Also, I agree that the common set-up is entertainment based, anti-community, and prohibitive of Christian worship.  However, there are ways around this – how you set the chancel, how you seat the people, etc.  Many local expressions of Christ’s body are making the necessary changes.  As far as the building being pagan, I’m pretty sure the concept of “house” was thought up by a pagan.

Chapter 3 – The Order of Worship … Absolutely, some Christian worship is too rigid and void of the headship of Christ.  Likewise, some freer flowing gatherings are equally void of the headship of Christ.  I do not believe that structure or order is the issue.  Again, I agree that most gatherings are not indicative of 1 Corinthians 14.  I believe there are faithful ways for even “Institutional Churches” to worship according to 1 Corinthians 14.

Chapter 4 – The Sermon … I agree that the present Protestant emphasis on the sermon is not healthy.  Lecture, which is what the sermon is in form, is the worst way to teach people.  Also, the modern sermon is often lacking in proclamation of good news, is often topical (see Chapter 11), and tends to be left-brained to the exclusion of all other means and modes of learning.  In our ministry context our sermons (at least mine) are often dialogical and interactive.  They may last 10 minutes or they may last 30 minutes.  This largely depends on how much participation there is from the body.  In the end, I believe that the reading of Scripture and the proclamation of Scripture are definite means of grace.

Chapter 5 – The Pastor … Certainly there are pastors who have burned out, some who have burned up and others who have burned the people.  I imagine this will be the case regardless of the model of church one follows.  Perhaps the early church did not have pastors as we understand them today but they certainly had leaders and overseers who were set apart – at least by having public recognition of their position and by having hands laid on them.  If you don’t throw out the entire Levitical code then there is room to argue for clergy to some degree.  Some practical reasons for the development of clergy may have been: geographical enlargement of the church (more culture to deal with); increased number of Christians (more individuals to deal with); heresy (more doctrine to defend and understand); etc.  I think we have damaged the body by allowing the pastor to be the body.  No pastor should attempt to be the body of Christ.

Chapter 6 – Sunday Morning Costumes … Who really wants to wear a tie?  Of course I agree with this chapter!  We do try and hide our real selves from each other by dressing our lives up, which often includes “church clothes.”  Definitely this thinking betrays a biblical understanding of church, but I don’t think every local church is forcing their congregants to dress up.  I know I wear jeans, slacks, khakis, dress shirts, t-shirts, etc. when I gather for worship; just as I would  throughout the week as I worship.  Now, I’m not certain that Jesus didn’t wear rabbinical clothing.  There are times where people do not recognize Jesus in scripture and then other times where they shouldn’t recognize him but they call him rabbi.  (If you’re interested I’ve done a little more research on this and can share it later.)  If we accept the role of pastor then I don’t see any problem with dressing like a pastor, necessarily.  Personally, I wear a clerical collar when I go to the hospital.  I have had more opportunities to pray with people I didn’t know simply because I was wearing that collar.

Chapter 7 – Ministers of Music … I like ours.  He is a godly, competent follower of Christ who loves worshipping the Lord.  If you don’t throw out the Old Testament then you have a model for hiring Levitical music ministers.  If you do throw it out, why is it so bad to have some who can teach us how to sing, how to compose songs that put words to our experience, to introduce us to songs that already do that, etc.?

Chapter 8 – Tithing and Clergy Salaries … I agree that the New Testament calls us to something much greater than a mere percentage.  The rich should give much more to the kingdom and the poor should give what they can.  I believe 2 Cor 8 talks about an equality amongst the believers.  You’ll note that those who are poor are abundant in joy.  Paul tells the Corinthians, who are rich, to supply their brothers’ (and sisters’) needs and in return they will supply their needs.  What needs?  Joy!  I think we do need to reevaluate how we spend our money as Christians, repent, and begin being faithful stewards.  As far as a clergy salary I’m torn here.  I’m not convinced that the practice is good or bad at this point.  I am really wrestling with this one.  On a practical level, Viola and Barna are right that most pastors have unemployable skills.  I think there is room within scripture to justify the salary of a pastor.

Chapter 9 – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper … I agree that baptism should not be replaced as a sign of initaition into the community of God’s people.  I’ve never liked the sinners prayer.  However, since I don’t completely throw out the Old Testament I view baptism as an outward sign of belonging to the community, which means I practice infant baptism (covenant theology).  I’m pretty sure Viola and Barna would disagree with that, but so do my Anabaptist friends.  The Lord’s Supper has become rigid in many churches, but not because it is practiced wrongly.  I think it is because it is practiced so infrequently.  Read John Wesley’s Sermon 101: The Duty of Constant Communion and then ask yourself, How does our local expression of Christ’s body practice communion and why?

Chapter 10 – Christian Education … Certainly I am in favor of learning more about the scriptures, about the historical context of scripture (which, is very important to Viola and Barna although they are opposed to Christian Education), and about God.  I realize that knowing about something or someone does not mean that I know that thing or person.  My experience with Christian education has never been with the understanding that knowledge replaces revelation.  We can only know Christ through revelation.  But why divorce reason and intellect from faith?  Let’s be faithful to love God with all of the faculties that has given us.  I do agree with the authors that more discipling needs to be taking place in the church.  In fact, I’m convinced that you cannot call yourself a believer if you are not discipling someone else.

Chapter 11 – Reapproaching the New Testament … I love the idea of reading the narrative as a whole.  I’m all for understanding the letters of Paul within the context of Acts.  In fact, the authors have inspired me to sit down with Acts in one hand the letters in another and have fun reading!  Your average believer though is going to need a little Christian education in order to understand why the Bible is the way it is though.

Chapter 12 – A Second Glance at the Savior … Jesus was and is a revolutionary!  There is no doubt about that.  However, that does not mean that Jesus hates all things ritual.  If we conceive of ritual as being things that have the potential to increase our understanding and experience of Christ – communion, baptism, prayer, fellowship, etc. – then surely not all rituals are bad.  Still, I agree that much of what we do is not how Jesus would do it, but not every thing.

Final Thoughts – Because a practice or invention is not found in the New Testament does not mean we should avoid it.  The Bible, compiled and collected, is not mentioned in the New Testament.  Your average Jew and Christian did not have access to their own personal scrolls, letters from religious leaders, etc.  They would not have sat around and analyzed and scrutinized the letters.  In fact, it is doubtful that the 1st century Christians even had access to all of the documents in the New Testament.  Our use of the New Testament then, as we have it, has, in a weird way, no biblical basis.  I believe the Holy Spirit can inspire each generation to be faithful to the way of Jesus Christ and that that faithfulness will be the same in substance but may differ in form.

What are your thoughts?


7 thoughts on “Pagan Christianity? … Really?

  1. Hi! I’m going to come back to your post when I finish the book; I’ve read about half of it, and I’m posting as I read. I’m much wordier than you are, I admit!, but I’m sure thrilled to have seen your post. Sounds like we have similar views on the book. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  2. Way to go… Just about everything that you said I agree with (minus infant baptism… yeah, I’m a baptist! 😉

    I am about half-way through this book, and I am glad to have read your post to see what is coming up… saw your blog link on your facebook review of the book, and came on over! It’s definitely going into my RSS feeder!

    I agree that the Holy Spirit can guide us to worship best in our culture. What I’m trying to process as I read this book is whether what we are doing presently is the best way to reach our culture, or if we were to scrap, or at least alter, some of these things, would our culture be better served?

    I have noticed that that two or three times in the book so far, they have said something to the effect of “the Christians adapted to the culture in which they were in, and they started doing (fill in the blank).” Every time I read that I think, “And is that a bad thing, or was it the Holy Spirit doing what only He can do?”

  3. “I have noticed that that two or three times in the book so far, they have said something to the effect of ‘the Christians adapted to the culture in which they were in, and they started doing (fill in the blank).’ Every time I read that I think, ‘And is that a bad thing, or was it the Holy Spirit doing what only He can do?'”

    I feel the same way! I know not all cultural influence is good, but we are called to be “all things to all people”. How can we do that without engaging the culture?

  4. In Viola’s new book, “Reimagining Church”, he goes into great detail about these issues. “Pagan Christianity?” was the deconstructive side of the argument; “Reimagining Church” seeks to reconstruct. I think you’ll find that Viola places a huge emphasis on the ability of the Holy Spirit to guide His church. That’s precisely why organic church, with Christ as the Head leading through His Spirit, is the biblical model, rather than a top-down hierarchy that puts layers between Christ and His people. And yes, the Spirit does cause us to engage our culture, but He never violates the eternal purpose for His church in doing so. Although the church will have a cultural flavor depending on where it is located, it will always look like a fully functioning priesthood of believers operating as family under the headship of Christ-not a corporation. 🙂

    “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at It’s also available on Frank is also blogging now at . Also, have you seen the spoof video for “Pagan”? Very funny. Check it out at

  5. I haven’t read “Reimagining Church” yet. It very well could be that in this sequel his view of the Holy Spirit is portrayed in a better light.

    Still, I won’t be able to read this new book without wondering whether or not Viola and Barna understand the difference between history and command. I believe Acts is a book of history. We can draw principles from history but we should not make prescriptive what is descriptive. Nowhere in the New Testament are we told that we must follow a certain model or form for “church.” We can look at how the first Christians worshiped and lived life and learn, but that doesn’t mean we do not have freedom in form.

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