To Be or Not To Be

2 Weeks of Pagan Christianity

Beginning in the preface, Frank says:

“We are also making an outrageous proposal: that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to exist.”

Also:

“In short, this book demonstrates beyond dispute that those who have left the fold of institutional Christianity to become part of an organic church have a historical right to exist.”

To be honest, I find myself wishing the first statement was less outrageous because I believe it will close the ears and minds of many people who would benefit from the overall message of this book.

The second statement I find more understandable. Believers pursuing alternative expressions of gathering have had to fight for legitimacy. They are continually critiqued according to other people’s standards about minimal practices required to qualify or be considered a church.

None of us like to hear that what we are doing isn’t “real church.”

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16 thoughts on “To Be or Not To Be

  1. I read recently about the early Congregational Church and how they shunned observing the Christmas Holiday because of it’s pagan roots, or the Pilgrims not bringing the KJV to the New World because it was too modern and promoted King James. My brother in law is convinced the rapture is going to fix all his woes. I have met some interesting lovers of Jesus who are also lesbian clergy.

    Despite how we have messed things up over the years, I like “church”. Organic christianity should not be other then or instead of, but rather include all parts, broken and not so. We lovers of Jesus must be known by what we are for.

    It will be fun to see what you and others think about this book, I like his other writing.

  2. I did not know about this book, but I am excited!! I am starting an online video show twice a month and a major part of it is going to be talking about the major things this book addresses. Wow. I have come to these same conclusions you have quoted in the preface. How exciting… Love the journey…

  3. Indeed, I did not celebrate Christmas this year, and of course my Christian friends wanted to know why now. I told plainly, “we hijacked a pagan ritual, and for all I care, they can have it back”. I don’t know why I am heading in this direction, but clearly I am far from the only one.

  4. I read the first version of this book but not yet the revised version with Barna. I hope that Barna has helped to ameliorate the polemics that Viola included instead of just letting the information speak for itself.

    “We are also making an outrageous proposal: that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to exist.”

    This quote may be precisely what the authors wished to say but I think the words “right to exist” are a bit too much. I am not really sure what a “biblical right to exist” means unless they mean this is not the form/structure disclosed in the New Testament. If so, then, this would only indicate a lack of following the early church pattern of structure, or lack thereof. As to a historical right to exist this is even more puzzling since it is the events of history that lead to the existence of the institutional church. Even so, I am not sure I grasp how history grants rights or not.

    More than anything to me this is a confusing statement. And, as you correctly suggest it likely will mean some people will forego the book because of this statement.

  5. I also read the first version of this book several years ago. From yours and other reviews, it doesn’t sound like enough has changed to warrant another purchase. It sounds to me like they should still have gone a step or 2 farther towards tempering their words.

  6. As a person who depends on the institutional church to feed his family, I pray that I’m not violating biblical or historical standards by serving it. I’d hate to think I’m selling my soul to the devil (though some days it feels that way).

  7. >We are also making an outrageous proposal: that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to exist.

    That language is certainly loaded, if not polemical, but if you take it at face value, it isn’t really outrageous (admittedly I’m just looking at the one sentence outside of its context). All it really is saying is “There is no textual source in the bible nor historical precedent in the early community for our modern day institutional church forms.”

    I shouldn’t think this would come as a surprise to anyone who has read the New Testament, particularly the gospels, and most especially the synoptic gospels. There is virtually nothing in the stories of Jesus that reflects typical modern Christian practices. The Jesus who is actually portrayed in the words on the page is radically anti-institutional, anti-formalism. He hangs out with businessmen, prostitutes, drunks. He’s forever embarrassing and insulting pious folk. Can you imagine this guy passing the collection plate in Sunday morning service?

    In my book Only Begotten I tried to bring this aspect of the good old story back to the foreground. That’s the side of the story that I have always found the most compelling, and I wanted to share that inspiration.

  8. Sounds kind of historically arrogant to say there wasn’t a right to exist. I certainly have my issues with much of the institutional church but a student of church history doesn’t encounter nefarious plans for world domination and corruption of some supposed idyllic community.

    Instead what has gone into building the various version of the institutional churches have been problems, and heresies, and power struggles, and other clear and present challenges that sought to overcome negative influences. Over centuries the answers each generation came up with built on the previous generation and so the solutions lingered long past the question they were answering.

    The importance of realizing this is because emerging/missional churches encounter many of the same problems. And anyone who has been around the ‘organic’ churches long enough begins to see the same kinds of mistakes being made and the same kind of leadership oriented solutions that increasingly negate whole participation.

    Those that dismiss history repeat it. And I’ve seen it again and again. By rejecting it all we don’t free ourselves, instead in our pride we fall into the exact same traps, that maybe future generations will have to fix and defame us for.

  9. A couple of problems with the basic premise of the book as you describe it.

    1. Just because something has pagan roots does not mean that it is valueless or evil. Scripture describes our “adoption” into the body of Christ, we are not naturally part of the body of Christ without God’s action. Christianity’s adoption of practices can be understood as a similar process … making holy that which is unholy.

    2. The criteria in scripture for faithfulness is not *origin* but fruitfulness. It is clear that God has blessed Christian churches as evidenced by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If we want to be scriptural, let’s go there.

    I’ll be anxiously awaiting your reflections.

    Pondering Pastor

  10. I am intrigued, and will read this book now. I think people outside the “church” have been treated like an illegitimate child, but I don’t know how to take the first statement from Frank Viola.

  11. I think what is being minimized or conveniently overlooked is the scope of the implication that tradition & current church structure is in fact, wrong…

    The Holy Spirit simply has been ignored. No devout saint of any of the apostolic traditions (Catholic+Orthodox) or institutional Protestant camps got it right. In fact, most of what they have taught, preserved, patterned & claimed as valid really a big dog-and-pony show…

    The Holy Spirit & I would think Jesus Himself very jealous about how they were to be represented upon the earth. After several generations & 2 millennia to get it right I would think the trend would be toward health & vibrancy within the church expressions we are most familiar with. Can man & his egregious theological machinations so effectively thwart the plan & purposes of God on such a grand scale? If so, then the only conclusion I can draw is this: even greater caution & skepticism is warranted since anyone coming up with a new & improved version of what they believe the original expression was supposed to be then has the greater burden of proof…

    If the Head is Jesus & the Holy Spirit the Teacher, where has their attention been the past 2,000 years? It does not seem the concerns of the emergent dynamic those that Jesus has been highlighting throughout the hallowed halls of cathedral & seminary the past few centuries. But then it could be the cacophony of voices clamoring for the purest of faith & practice have in fact drowned out the whispers of the Holy Spirit all these decades…

    Now I want to think the desire of God is to preserve the essence of what Jesus instituted back at the genesis of what we call The Church. But according to the historical re-review of what went wrong we suddenly have the clearer picture now from our 2,000 year look back than those, say, 100-1000 years after Jesus ascended? And then the continual institutionalization of church structure & hierarchy blindly accepted by the movers-and-shakers of The Church throughout its evolution is concluded? So much so that like the parlor game ‘telephone’ the message so garbled now it results in structures built entirely of wood, hay, stubble?

    Hmmm…

    I think we may have valid concerns about what we think the church should or should not be like, but it is quite another to discount what the Holy Spirit has actually been saying & doing all these years. Quieter then but louder now? Unconcerned then but suddenly clearing things up now? Permitted men & their egos to thwart the pristine arrangement of church expression early in its infancy & only now making sure there is a remnant sensitive enough to actually discern what the real way of being The Church should actually look like?

    Hmmm…

    You must make some grand claims about what has come before & make plain what it is that screwed it up before claiming the way it should be. And then you must point out how the Holy Spirit in each of these areas simply abandoned the headstrong leaders of said institutions throughout the ages. Could be secular or temporal power & influence so tempting all such divine nudges fell upon deaf ears. No John the Baptist types arising each generation to cry out in the wilderness. No real conviction to keep the direction of The Church moving in the direction it was originally intended?

    Hmmm…

    If they got it all wrong how can we be convinced who has it right? Those that claim unrestricted spiritual discernment? Those that acknowledge spiritual giftings which collaborate the truer intent of Holy Spirit expressions? Those that peer more intently into specific scriptural passages that find nuggets of truth undiscovered all these centuries?

    Okay, I am being facetious, but these & other concerns will continue to plague any conceptual deconstruction of what has come before. And of course replacing it with less cluttered models meant to be more accurate reflections of the earliest church expressions. Seems to be quite the hurdle still…

  12. Surely none of us have a “biblical right” to exist? I mean haven’t we all “fallen short” as it were.

    I hope the author is making a cheeky reference to this and not simply stating that the church in it’s present form is wrong.

    I like church buildings, they are warm, shield me from the rain, provide function and some are very awesome and artistic.

    The church is the people, for sure, and I know we didn’t start off with cathederals and spires but this is just providing function as long as it’s seen as providing a function and a space.

    It would be really ignorant if the author is going to launch an attack on the church as it stands simply because we do some things that are influenced by culture or just make sense from a western point of view.

    (church buildings in England make sense because we get about 3 days of sunshine per year and the rest of the time it’s raining).

  13. Grace,

    I commend you for jumping into the fray. I read the original book a couple of years ago. I was hoping that Viola and Barna would tone down the rhetoric in the new edition, but apparently they chose not to do so. I think this will hamper their message.

    From my reading of the original edition, Viola’s intent was to demonstrate that certain practices were added to the church based on cultural norms insead of scriptural norms. As such, these practices are not necessary, and in some cases are detrimental, to the proper functioning of the church. If this was his intent, then I agree with him.

    Of course, both the modern and the postmodern church are intimately connected to many of these practices. So, it seems readers either love it or hate it. I wish people would attempt to read beyond the rhetoric and think carefully about the information that is presented. That seems to be what you are trying to do, and I appreciate that very much.

    -Alan

  14. Joseph, what some of us are finding is that it’s not a case of 2,000 years of silence from the Holy Spirit. It is very important to note that the institutional church has hardly been the only thread of history in Christian expression.

    Throughout history, there have been pockets of believers outside the institution. The Holy Spirit has always moved outside the walls of the traditional, conventional church.

    And what does history reveal about those people? That quite often, they were persecuted, tortured, and brutally murdered by the institutional church.

    As you would say: Hmmmmm…..

    The ecclesiology that Viola and Barna (and others like them) are calling to the carpet has been fiercely defended to the point of silencing anyone who would dare to question it.

    So, you are presenting quite a skewed view of history when you ask your questions as if no one has ever put forth what Viola and Barna are saying prior to this generation.

    Even just in the last 500 years, there are many who have chosen to speak out against the church who have been silenced in the worst ways. John Hus. William Tyndale. Any number of the so-called Radical Reformers and Anabaptists. And it continues today, even though the tactics don’t necessarily include wood and fire.

    In many ways, the work of Viola and Barna follows right along in the same thread of thinking as what motivated Martin Luther and the Reformers of his day to speak out against the structures they saw as hindering the priesthood.

    Your criticisms are probably very similar to those leveled against Luther during that time. “For 1500 years we have got it wrong? We are operating under the authority of St. Peter himself. How dare you imply that we are not honoring God?!”

    I may not agree with the rhetoric of Viola at times, but it would be much more interesting to see you actually interact with the substance of the book rather than the straw man that you have erected.

  15. Steve: as you stated, Your criticisms are probably very similar to those leveled against Luther during that time. “For 1500 years we have got it wrong? We are operating under the authority of St. Peter himself. How dare you imply that we are not honoring God?!”

    Well, yes. That is the crux of my consideration. More a consideration than a criticism however. Even more than that really. It is the grand implication of what God has really been up to. Certainly if there have been pockets of believers outside the boundaries of institutionalized church organization it should cause one to wonder why God is bringing inspiration to one camp & not conviction to the other? God is constantly blazing new direction down the road less traveled for the privileged few while leaving the majority of Christian saint & sinner alike trapped in man-made configurations of ecclesiastical hierarchy & non-biblical traditions all these centuries?

    Let’s consider the scope of such a conclusion. I may not be an eloquent writer, but I think I made the point that to infer God is directing the fringe elite to constantly chafe against the syncretic elements of apostolic or institutional church traditions means that the Holy Spirit has left those other church expressions/traditions to their own devices. Sorta like a New Testament version of Ichabod…

    We may like the idea that God has preserved a remnant of our preference. We like the idea that being labeled heretic or being martyred by religious fanatics of different stripe actually confirms the accuracy of one’s conviction. After all, one is either in tune with the way God intended His children to live out faith & practice or those acting unChristlike spawns of the devil.

    Well then, we must make allowance for all those devout, pious, sensitive, loving, passionate saints from the Catholic & Orthodox camps as well as the conventional Protestant ones throughout history. What Holy Spirit were they in tune with? Seems they had no problem with the idea of say, women not allowed to be clergy. Or ecclesiastical hierarchy/authority. Or sacramental rituals. Or whatever it is that seems to be so contrary to the real manner Jesus meant The Church to be expressed. Seems most of what concerns those of emergent stripe is the rather recent history of say the past 100-200 years of American Protestant evangelical institutional church (apologies to our Canadian brethren). What is that, barely 1/10 of ongoing Church history throughout the entire world?

    Now I would not think that anybody posting here willing to make the claim that the Holy Spirit has indeed departed from any of the Big 3 Church Traditions. Is that the case? Is the Holy Spirit alive & well in the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant churches today? You may be one that says, “Imma no likka da pope!” Hey, whatever you feel is the bane of the institutional church! But you will have to actually observe Pope Benedict XVI’s life as well as that of The Patriarch of Alexandria & all current leaders of the various Protestant denominations to see what it is they are claiming to be their guide & inspiration…

    Maybe Leo X was demon possessed when he excommunicated Martin Luther. Totally depraved. Godless. A tool of the evil one. And then those pesky Protestants. Learned quite a bit from the Catholics about harassing & persecuting those of different doctrinal stripes. Yup. Did the same unChristlike stuff often attributed only to Catholic atrocities. Equal opportunity types when it came to religious conviction & staunch defense of doctrinal purity. It is easier to derive solace from the sincerity of groups we happen to identify with. Quite another to peer deeper into the heart of perceived blind guides to discern what their convictions actually represented.

    My rambling really not straw manish at all. It is rather pointed even though I can be accused of being wordy. It is a simple consideration really. Either God & His workings in The Church have been hamstrung by the deliberate deviousness of men or He is alive & well in each church expression today. I do not believe any current historical church expression has a corner on the Holy Spirit, truth, or the most pristine manner of living out faith in practice. Just my own personal bias. Yet that means the same Holy Spirit is teaching, convicting, directing & inspiring dear saints in each of those expressions. Now I may be a rookie at interpreting current church dynamics, but I sense no mass defection or migration from one camp to another. Is there anything that hints at a Holy Spirit whisper throughout all church expressions today to abandon one for another? Any major shifts in creedal confession? Anything at all on a grand scale attributed to the true direction Jesus intended from the beginning? If there is but one Lord, one faith & one baptism, does that infer only one Holy Spirit speaking to The Church today? If so, the implication is of greater magnitude than a simpler us vs. them perspective may permit.

  16. Joseph, I’m not sure you really understood my comment. Let me try again in a different way, using some of the things you said in your latest epic…

    Certainly if there have been pockets of believers outside the boundaries of institutionalized church organization it should cause one to wonder why God is bringing inspiration to one camp & not conviction to the other?

    Jesus basically put it this way: He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying.

    Why does it appear that God brings inspiration to one and not conviction to the other? It’s not a problem with God’s ability to communicate, Joseph. I think scripture speaks adequately to this issue. It is man’s ability and/or desire to listen to what God is saying.

    I said it would be nice to see you actually interact with the substance of the arguments. Instead, you seem bent on reframing the issue in a rather “false dichotomy”-ish way.

    Either God & His workings in The Church have been hamstrung by the deliberate deviousness of men or He is alive & well in each church expression today.

    This is a false dichotomy, plain and simple. There’s nothing more I can say about that statement.

    I think I made the point that to infer God is directing the fringe elite to constantly chafe against the syncretic elements of apostolic or institutional church traditions means that the Holy Spirit has left those other church expressions/traditions to their own devices.

    Who said anything about “fringe elite”? And as I pointed out above, it is not a foregone conclusion that the Holy Spirit has left anywhere. If (and I’m speaking hypothetically for the sake of discussion) the Holy Spirit indeed is speaking a word of rebuke to the institutional system of Christendom, and if people choose not to hear that, is that so hard to fathom? It has happened all the way through the history of God’s interaction with man!

    When Jesus came to this earth, did he not preach to all types of people? Yet many did not want to hear what he preached. Specifically (and this is a very important point to remember), it was the religious leaders and institution of his day who screamed the loudest and sought to silence him.

    Does that mean that the ones who listened were some “fringe elite”? Is that the only alternative? I think not. Jesus himself said that the way was narrow and few would find it. That doesn’t make anyone “elite”. Simply faithful and obedient in response to the voice of Jesus.

    So, Joseph, let’s get right to the meat of it. What arguments in Pagan Christianity are you refuting? You can’t simply refute their premise without handling the support that they give for said premise. They didn’t merely publish two sentences containing their premise and then stop. They state their premise, and then proceed to attempt to defend it.

    Have they failed in their defense? Perhaps. If so, demonstrate how. Otherwise, you are, despite your assertions, attacking straw men.

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