Pagan Christianity: A Proper Review

It is not an overstatement to say that the words church and worship are widely misused and misunderstood by christians today. Worship typically refers to a Sunday morning service consisting of singing and a sermon. You will rarely hear the word worship used outside the context of music. Church typically refers to a building, an organization, a denomination, and again, an hour-long Sunday morning service.

When prodded, some people will expand their explanation of worship to include worship as a lifestyle and their explanation of church to a broader scope to signify the people of God. Yet often, in their next breath, they will default to the more commonly understood and accepted usage of these words.

There is a movement to recapture the understanding of who we are as the people of God and what it means to be the people of God in our world today. A part of remembering the “forgotten ways” is to examine the traditions, practices, and methods that we have adopted over the years in order to determine if they contribute to or detract from our apostolic imagination and movement ethos.

The book, Pagan Christianity, by Frank Viola and George Barna, is a helpful tool in this process. Subtitled “exploring the roots of our church practices,” the book asks “are we really doing church by the book?” The book documents the origins of many modern church practices, challenging whether the practices contribute to the church being an organic and dynamic expression of the body 0f Christ.

Pagan Christianity is effective in its function of dissecting church practices. While it describes principles found in the early church, it does not suggest a particular model of church as prescriptive for the church today. The value and strength of this book is in the historical examination and deconstruction of tradition. It is a helpful addition to resources which study early-church history and practices.

People involved as leaders and members of existing expressions of church can benefit from this book by using the information presented as a lens through which to examine traditions and practices in order to determine if they are producing effective results in their communities. The intent is not to jettison every tradition or practice, but rather to view them with an objective eye toward their value in enhancing or hindering the fellowship.

People who have already experienced some deconstruction in their practices will find the historical information helpful in supporting and permitting the process of adapting religious traditions for their current cultural context rather than remaining bound to traditional practices as though they are sacred and inviolable.

Those who have become involved in simple and house church models of church will find the book supportive and encouraging of loosely structured models of church.

The book will be most dangerous in the hands of those who will use it as a hammer to denounce every model of church except those they deem the most pure and ideal.

The authors themselves do not promote a specific model of church nor a complete return to new testament methods of gathering. Do they have an ideal in mind? Perhaps. While they are careful to not suggest a model, their subjectivity does leak through in tone and attitude. This has been the biggest complaint by critics of the book.

The book could have benefited from greater objectivity. However, it is helpful to remember that none of us are as purely objective as we might like to believe ourselves to be. Complete agreement with the authors’ conclusions is not necessary to appreciate the valuable information presented in the book and to realize the importance of examining the topics the book addresses.

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18 thoughts on “Pagan Christianity: A Proper Review

  1. Grace wrote …the book asks “are we really doing church by the book?”

    Hmmm … I wonder if that’s really a good question to be asking? I wish someone would ask this question … “are we really being church by the book?” and then write a collaborative (with several authors of more than one gender and ethnic/socio-economic background) book which answers it.

  2. sonja,
    I think that it is the right question for this book. Personally, I’m glad that this book mostly stayed in the realm of deconstruction.

    There will be more than one book (and millions of blog posts) written with the thesis you suggest, some good and some not so good.

  3. interesting… this week our pastor (who had never heard of the book) announced that we would be starting an experiment for the next four weeks. no music. no sermon. no videos, drams or other church props. our gathering was going to be based strictly on what we as individuals brought to it. our homework was to go out… listen for god… live the lives we were intended… and when we come together next week, bring something that reflected your week.

  4. the problem about the idea of “church by the book” (or ‘The Book’), is that there is no clear model of church in the NT.
    You can argue a whole host of models from the scant verses that speak of how the fellowships were organised, and its reasonable to say that it actually varied from location to location, even within the 50 or so years covered between Acts and Revelation…

  5. Even better than the wrap-up, you have done a spectacular job of SWOT analysis, Grace (my old management hat just popped on): you looked at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats presented in this book…and there are some of each.

    I am grateful that you consistently chose to look through the lens intended by the authors — as that is not only the most helpful to your readers, it is the only way to get what they meant and avoid attacking the book for what it isn’t.

    I am grateful to be alive in this time when so many are seeking diligently to remember those “forgotten ways” — and trust that the Holy Spirit will help us understand better and better that the church, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, is defined by covenant relationships of attitudes based on love, grace and mercy…fleshed out in the actions of submission, service and initiation of that which is in the best interest of our Lord and our brothers and sisters.

    The models matter little if the relationships, attitudes and actions are right.

    Thanks, again.

  6. Thanks Grace for such a fair and balanced review on this important book. It’s so refreshing to read your thoughts as they cleared up a lot of confusion over what this book is about. Your readers may be interested to know that they can continue the dialogue over at http://www.ptmin.org/answers.htm where Frank is interacting with those who have questions. There are some new reviews posted there and some interviews too. You are right that Frank and George didn’t write the book as objective scholars. They are very passionate about Jesus and His church and that comes through in their writing. Many blessings to you. Your blog is great!

  7. Grace, this book sounds interesting. From Barna’s recent words, I got the strong impression that he was an advocate for house churches. so perhaps his emphasis has shifted, or my perception was mistaken regarding his previous stance.

    I love the idea that your pastor is trying, Ed. How incredibly refreshing.

    Yeah, andym, the NT was just as dysfunctional as our contemporary Church. so many people romanticize the early church.

    thanks, Grace, for sharing about this book.

  8. George & Frank are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The two biggest criticisms I have heard are: 1. They don’t provide a solution-model to “replace” the institutional church. 2. They seem to suggest that the “house” or organic church model should replace the institutional church.

    Perhaps there is not model. I was (many years ago) swept into the Kingdom of God in a mighty revival and move of the spirit. Soon all of our friends and family also accepted Christ and were “born again” by the spirit. Instantly there was a bond and and a desire to be together and share our faith together. We were almost constantly together meeting from house to house. It was a loving family. Perhaps this coming together is just a natural outgrowth of truly being a loving family.
    In our dysfunctional society with our dysfunctional families it is hard for many to understand this great bond of love that used to bind families together.

    iEach of us could make a list of traits of “lvonign and close” families, the things successful families do; like eat together, spend time togeter etc and try to do those things. However that would not make us a family. It is by blood and by adoption that we become joined together into the family of God.

    What we need is not worship, accountablility, new forms, but new hearts filled with the love of God.

  9. 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/

  10. I am so glad, a year later, to find some place where I might talk with others about some points from “Pagan Christianity” I really enjoyed this book, and consider it an important precursor to “Reimagining CHurch.” I think of it this way. God sent the Romans to totally erase the temple and its practices. It was an awful time that I have nothing in my own personal experience to help me imagine. But the result was there was no more temple. So all those who had become Christians could no longer be tempted to go back to the old law. No more sacrifices could be made, no more temple practices could be done.

    In the same way, God sent earthquakes to topple the Greek temples. The Christians moved in pretty quickly to claim those marble blocks and used them to make new structures, this time dedicated to the Lord.

    So “Pagan Christianity” is an earthquake, it’s a Roman army, that is tearing down what we might otherwise always have kept because it is so big, so grand, so….deeply entrenched in our whole identity as Christians.

    Still, I have these points:

    1) An oil lamp dating from the first century after Jesus ascended into heaven, very plain, non-glazed, very simple, except for a distinct cross on the top, with notches on each of its ends. I viewed this lamp in an old stone church in London which had in its “basement” stonework and catacombs from the time London was originally a Roman outpost. The church’s pastor told me there were lots of these lamps, made by first century Christians. I wondered over that, at the time (1987), because I had heard that crosses were not considered symbols of our faith until much later. “Clearly not true” said a voice in my head as I looked at this plain little oil lamp. “Clearly believers knew the power of the cross in Jesus’ time and considered an object honored that bore its symbol.”

    2) Greece in 2000, looking at marble structures with crosses carved on most of the blocks. The tour guide (not a Christian) explained to us that in the first centuries after Christianity came into being Christians would come to these temple sites after an earthquake and claim all the toppled marble blocks by carving crosses into them. After despoiling the blocks in this way nonChristians would not want to use them, so the Christians would use these blocks to build their own meeting halls. Happened very, very early after the birth of the church

    3) One bishop rule began also very early in the church’s life – a mere one hundred years. Why? That is the big, big question. What was more attractive about one bishop rule than the more organic (to use your word, and I like the word too) life of the church up until then? As my husband and I talked about it, we remembered together the doctrinal battles the apostles faced from the very first day, practically. Paul battled the Judaizers (and poor Peter got caught in the middle), the pagan-influenced antinomianists and the pagan-influenced ecstatic worshippers. John battled the Gnostics. Once these mighty men of faith had died, their protégés were the go-to guys for these issues. One bishop rule must have been inevitable after that.

    4) The sheer growth of the church must have presented meeting-together issues. Once they were banned from synagogues and the temple, where would they go? In real life wealthy people opened their homes, and medium wealthy people had their homes remodeled to handle the size of the congregations. Christians were building meeting halls long before Constantine.

    I warmed to the ideas in this book, but began to feel nervous about the research in it because though I am not a scholar, and only an armchair archeologist at best, my own personal experience seemed to contradict what the book purported as true. Has anyone else verified the research in this book?

    Also, I feel that there were two premises that were stated as though uncontrovertible and I am wondering how firm the foundation is under them — were the first wroshipers truly intentional in their choosing to meet in each other’s homes, or were they, as I think, just doing what came next?

    And the other was that one bishop rule happened purely from the top down, somehow, and was the precursor to ordination; that the laying on of hands and supporting the elders had nothing at all to do with ordination. I am willing to believe that, if I could see some more explanation of why, exactly, one bishop rul showed up so early in church history — practically right after John the Apostle died….??

  11. Today Chrustianity has Pagan DNA Wot we see in christian churches and messianic judeism is manifestation of baals,baalzebubs spirit We are to wait on true god of abraham and israel to send eliah to prepare the way for messiahs return true god will pour out his spirit in that time and establish comunity of his true folovers

  12. This book brutalized me.

    I am a mature fundamentalist, relatively conservative by relative standards…

    I have been in church since 1993, the same flavors, the same styles.

    Now I am faced with the monumental shift of just considering “organic” church-ing.

    People… such a task, such a request, such a challenge. I am not a coward and am able to consider that maybe I am doing something wrong… but… I have a family that sits at altar every night of every week for the past 14 years… and they need me to know what I am doing.

    I need somebody to speak to about this subject and can find no “organic” church listings anywhere on the web.

    Do you have a suggestion for me?

    -Matt

  13. Matt,
    Just my opinion, but I wouldn’t make a drastic move based on the reading of one book. Hopefully you learned from the book that many of the things that we know about church are traditions we have learned and not necessarily sacred commands of how church must be. However, that doesn’t mean you must immediately reject all traditions or that they are always harmful. Are you and your family experiencing the life of Christ at the church you attend?

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t check out an organic church, but the form and structure isn’t really the issue. Are you experiencing life and peace in your relationship with the Father? As you pursue Him, He can lead you into whatever type of gathering works. There is no harm in checking out different flavors and styles. But don’t pursue the “one true way to do church.” Press into your relationship with God and rest in His leading.

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