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Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna (Barna Books, 2008) is sure to ruffle some feathers. In the authors’ attempt to “explore the roots of our church practices,” they aim their guns at nearly every aspect of the institutional church.

Books that critique the current worship practices of the Church come and go. But rarely does one come across a book that so vehemently opposes everything about the institutional Church. Viola and Barna are convinced that the housechurch/organic church movement is the way of the future because it is the only authentic reproduction of the past.

Viola and Barna believe that for almost 2000 years, the Church has been seriously misguided. Layers of tradition have stifled the true Christian experience. In order to recover the early church of the apostles, we must see the church as an “organic entity.”

An organic church is simply a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic churches are characterized by Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership. This is in stark contrast to a clergy-led institution-driven church.

Pagan Christianity takes the readers through the history of many of our church practices. The authors argue the following:

  1. The church should not contain any hierarchy at all.
  2. The senior pastor is actually an obstacle to the fully-functioning body of Christ.
  3. The idea of a sermon in a church gathering is pagan (after all, that brings about a clergy/laity distinction).
  4. Church buildings take away from the biblical teaching that the Church is a people. 
  5. Any routine in worship is wrong. All liturgy, whether Protestant, Catholic or free church is misguided and stifling to the Holy Spirit.
  6. Dressing up for church is a leftover from paganism and hypocritical for Christians.
  7. No one should lead in singing. To have a worship leader picking songs is an affront to freedom in Christ.
  8. Tithing is completely unbiblical and now serves to prop up the unbiblical institutionalized church and the salaries of unbiblical clergy.
  9. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been coopted by pagan mysticism.
  10. Christian education doesn’t work because everything is mind-focused. Discipleship should be an apprentice-ship, not just filling the head with information.
  11. The Bible needs to be read in context, not as a jigsaw puzzle.
  12. We need to be like Jesus – revolutionaries who are ready to turn aside all tradition.

A few areas of agreement (and I do mean a few):

  • It’s good to question why we do things a certain way in worship. I do not find fault with the authors for posing good questions.
  • We do need to recover the celebratory aspect of the Lord’s Supper, and I think that placing the Supper within the context of a community meal might help.
  • The Bible does, indeed, need to be read as a narrative, and not merely as a list of selective verses.
  • We need to be willing to throw out traditions that are unbiblical.

Some areas of disagreement:

1. First off, I disagree with the underlying premise of the entire book – a premise that says the early church was untainted and uncorrupted by human tradition. I often ask this question to those who want to get back to the early church: Which early church do you want to be like?

Corinth? (Do you really want incestuous church members and no-rules-at-all worship gatherings?)

Galatia? (Is it good to model a church that has so quickly abandoned the gospel?)

Thessalonica? (Do you want to be the church that has lost the eschatological hope of the new heavens and new earth? A church drowning in grief?)

Sure, we can learn from the earliest churches. But I disagree that there is some pristine, uncorrupted, untainted early church that we must aspire to be.

2. I dislike the way Viola and Barna put forward their argument. They leave no room for discussion on the issue. If you disagree with them, you must love the traditions of man more than God. It becomes impossible to enter into honest dialogue because of the way they have set up the predicament.

3. Pagan Christianity is a historical book that hates history. That might sound like an oxymoron; after all, the book is filled with historical dates and references. But the authors are convinced that all Christianity from the second-century on has been wrong, unbiblical, and harmful to the gospel. In other words, church history is the story of a church that does not at all resemble what Jesus intended.

Let me give a quick example. When discussing the liturgy, the authors seek to show how the order of worship of medieval Catholicism is still visible in Protestant churches. There should be no order of worship, no routine, no liturgy whatsoever. The authors compare and contrast the liturgies of varying denominations to show how they are all unbiblical. But nowhere do the authors entertain the notion that perhaps the similarities in liturgy point to the value in structuring our worship a certain way. Have the greatest thinkers of the past 2000 years been blinded by tradition? Or have the great Christian thinkers seen value in the way Christian worship has developed?

4. Pagan Christianity will drive more evangelicals to the Roman Catholic Church. Just watching an author like George Barna go from one fad to another in the past twenty years is enough to exhaust anyone who tires of the evangelical merry-go-round. Even though Pagan Christianity condemns Roman Catholic tradition, its equating of Roman Catholicism with Protestantism in areas of church practice will undermine this book’s argument. Many disenchanted evangelicals will try out the “organic” churches that Barna recommends, only to discover the same fallenness in this expression of the “church” that they saw in the institutional church they left. Burned, confused, and disappointed, many will turn to Rome for the stability they long for.

5. Pagan Christianity will give ammunition to those who already dislike the churches they have encountered. I do not believe the book will launch a new organic-church movement. I believe the book will give justification to those who have already removed themselves from their local bodies of Christ. Pagan Christianity, if taken seriously by many Christians, will not lead to a renewal of the church, but to ecclesial amputation – as more and more disenchanted church members abandon their church families in order to seek after the “pure church” of the first century. They will keep chasing the pot at the end of the rainbow, only to find it eludes them because it doesn’t exist.

written by Trevin Wax. © 2008 Kingdom People Blog


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58 thoughts on “Book Review: Pagan Christianity”

  1. Darryl says:

    Excellent review, Trevin. I thought the book brought up some important issues but proposed all the wrong solutions.

    By the way, I’m absolutely loving your blog.

  2. iMonk says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Jesus was an observant Jew and the early church was the child of its Jewish mother. To suggest otherwise borders on some kind of gnostic anti-semitism.

    1. John Campbell says:

      ‘The New Covenant in my Blood” fulfills the old covenant Torah of 613 %100. Anything less is a sin against God and a sin against the shed blood of Christ. Christ IN us our hope of glory and “mystery……” of the gospel…

  3. Zach Nielsen says:

    There is an interesting discussion over at Brant’s blog on similar matters:

    http://www.branthansen.typepad.com

  4. Zach Nielsen says:

    Here is the direct link:

    http://branthansen.typepad.com/letters_from_kamp_krusty/2007/12/we-quit-going-t.html

    I would encouage people in this discussion to ask lots of questions and seek understanding before lobbing critiques. Critiques are good, but being well informed before you give them is better. Humility is something I think I read about in the Bible…

  5. The church should not contain any hierarchy at all.

    I’ve yet to read this book but I just finished Organic Community. I think organic community is a great idea in the fact it is supposed to be verb-centric instead of noun-centric meaning we are stepping outside of the walls and becoming the church instead of being known as the church (There is a doing verses being factor). However, I fear that in removing hierarchical leadership and suggesting the use of revolving power instead that there will be no direction in organic community. I agree that hierarchical leadership can corrupt and thats why we need leadership development. I love the heart and idea of organic community but I fear it will leave people wondering where they are and there will still be this exclusiveness that we see in the institutionalized church.

  6. John L says:

    Ecclesial amputation? Not sure I see that resulting from home / simple churches. As for chasing the “pure church” at the end of the rainbow, not sure I see this occurring, either. Perhaps just the opposite is occurring in both cases: not of Paul, not of Appolos, just plain folk gathering out of shared love for the man Jesus.

    Following Christ isn’t about clerical experts with all the answers (as Jesus often reminded the religious hierarchy of his day), it’s about Christ, his body, and his Kingdom. All-body participation is a hallmark of simple church, as it seems to be in the churches of Acts.

    I say “bravo” for George having the courage to bring these issues into ecclesial prominence.

  7. amtog says:

    I come from a Campbell-Stone Restoration Movement background and I agree with Trevin: the premise of attempting to re-create the 1st century church is seriously flawed…and I can tell you from experience that it does not ultimately end up where it hopes to go. It sounds to me that Barna is destined to repeat several of the mistakes that my non-denominational denomination committed. It makes me very very sad.

  8. Very good review of a very weird book (which I haven’t read). The book seems to smack of the “Hang Loose Brethren” book from back in the early 80’s. But I wonder, in light of Barna’s understanding of the nearly immediate demise of the Church, what does he do with the Canon of Scripture, solidified by such an ungodly and corrupt gang of bishops-who-shouldn’t-be?

  9. Charles says:

    Excellent post Trevin.

    When you read 1 Corinthian 14:26 as a prescription for “worship” instead of an apostole aghast at the confusion of a Gentile church, what do you expect?

    The liturgies of the early church are drawn from the Book of Revelation’s “new covenantalization” of the Jerusalem Temple liturgy and Viola’s reductionism is too simple minded to bother with that possibility or the fact that the “New Testament” church kept the liturgical hours of the Temple and that as early as Justin Martyr the congregations had a “president”.

    Again, good job!

  10. Charles says:

    Forgive my misspelling of “apostle” above. I also suggest reading Schaff’s “The Principle of Protestantism” in response to this silliness. You are right. This is a history book that hates history.Viola is just a sectarian Pope who wants to draw people away from other churches and give them his “covering”.

  11. Frank says:

    By all means, let’s engage Frank Viola in a debate, but let’s address what he really says and not what we assume he means. Viola and Barna explicitly disown such restorationist notions as the positing of a mythical perfect church in the first century. They also say that they are not saying that it’s got to be in the Bible to be legitimate. They do refute the notion that exists in some conservative evangelical circles that everything these churches do comes straight out of the Bible. Their claim is that many traditional ways of doing things will not bear close theological examination. They’re right about many things. I’d disagree about some others. But this discussion can’t even begin if we read into their book some coventional primitivist and reconstructionist ideas that they in fact reject.

  12. Caine says:

    I have started the book and one factor just kept making me smile ironically as I read it. Viola keeps decrying the fact that the church kept accumulating the trappings of the Government in terms of dress, actions, etc. Implicitly, Viola is making a church/state split that is all of the Enlightenment and nothing of first century Christianity (or Judaism for that matter). Just what does Viola think ekklesia is? It was the term for assembly of citizens of a city to make governmental choices. The ekklesia or church is ALL ABOUT GOVERNMENT. Since they were subject to King Jesus who had received all authority on heaven and earth it was perfectly natural to think that the church was the TRUE ekklesia in their respective cities. They took on the symbols of government precisely BECAUSE they believed they were government.

    Also, the church under Constantine gets the Dan Brown treatment. I agree with N. T. Wright. Just what was the church under Constantine to do anyway; let the entire country fall into chaos and revolution? The unifying nature of the church was needed in that time to keep the empire from splitting and falling prey to the many deaths that continued warfare would have produced. They may have not gotten everything right, but they probably saved a lot more lives than the powerless, disjointed bodies that following Viola’s ideas would produce.

    Yet, he still had a quote in the book worth the price of admission. He defined the mission of the church (and I paraphrase) “the mutual building up of believers to communally display Christ to the powers and principalities of the world.” I think all ministries of the church should be evaluated by that standard, and not its theoretical origin.

  13. Jon Zens says:

    Brethren – In looking over the comments made about Pagan Christianity, it would seem that the book needs to be read first by some who are offering criticisms prematurely, and those who have read it need to pay more attention to what is actually being said. Frank has responded to many concerns about the book at http://www.ptmin.org/pcobjections.htm.

    Pagan Christianity nowhere states that the early church was a pristine community with no problems. Of course, the early church had serious problems. The point being missed is that apostolic teachings (“traditions”) were brought to bear on those issues. Is it safe to say that we are bound to listen to those apostolic traditions too? These apostolic traditions are not tainted; they are from Christ. The patterns of the New Testament for church life have relevance for us, don’t they? Are we free to do as we please in the way we practice ekklesia? If the early church met for the purpose of “breaking bread” (infinitive of purpose, Acts 20:7), are we at liberty to substitute the “centrality of the pulpit”? If the early church had a communal meal together, are we missing something if we turn it into a snack tacked on to a preaching service?

    How on earth can you say that the authors of PC “leave no room for discussion”? In many books the author sets forth his/her convictions with vigor based on hopefully a high level of research, but that in no way implies that the discussion has ended. At the end of each chapter in PC there is a “Delving Deeper” section with questions for further reflection. Readers are encouraged to weigh the evidence and discern what the truth may be and where it will take them. To me, the tone of the book is dialogical, not “our way or the highway.” I can appreciate how some of the statements in the book might come across to some as too strong, because the authors are challenging ecclesiastical apple pie and motherhood. However, such remarks are not made without having established historical documentation. The reader must weigh the evidence and the merits of the authors’ conclusions.

    It is asserted that according to PC “church history is the story of a church that does not resemble what Jesus intended.” This criticism is overstated, but does express an important historical reality. As I see it, it isn’t too hard to conclude that most of what called itself church strayed far away from what Jesus intended. When you consider the one angle of the far-reaching impact and implications of Constantinianism infecting the visible church, it is no wonder things went so far astray. From 325AD until relatively recently is was assumed by Roman Catholicism and later Protestantism that church and state would be joined together. Political intrigue became embedded in ecclesiastical proceedings. As Lewis Berkof observed regarding the Council of Nicea in 325AD:

    “A settlement forced upon the Church by the strong hand of the emperor could not satisfy and was also of uncertain duration. It made the determination of the Christian faith dependent upon imperial caprice and even on court intriques . . . . The sequel clearly proved that, as it was, a change in emperor, an altered mood, or even a bribe, might alter the whole aspect of the controversy. The party in the ascendancy might all at once suffer elcipse. This is exactly what happened repeatedly in subsequent history” (The History of Christian Doctrines, Banner of Truth, 1978, p.87).

    How would it be possible for church to be as Jesus intended when Caesar’s sword backed ecclesiastical powers? Is anyone prepared to defend the idea that the dominating religion from 325 – 1700AD resembled what Jesus intended? Is it any surprise that for the most part the visible church “got it wrong”?

    “Have the greatest thinkers of the past 2000 years been blinded by traditions?” Absolutely, in certain areas of practice. Pagan Christianity shows how this happened. A crucial question for everyone is, “How do we discern between apostolic traditions and human traditions?” We all know what Jesus said about human traditions. They multiply, they annul God’s Word so they can be kept, and religious leaders persecute those who question and violate such “teachings of men.”

    I think it is sort of a low blow to discredit George B. because you’ve watched him “go from one fad to another in the past 20 years.” In the Christianity Today interview with him several years ago, I could see that he was reaching a high frustration level with evangelical church leaders. I sensed he was on the verge of a paradigm shift. Don’t we have to allow room for a person to grow in his/her understanding of things?

    To suggest that Frank is a “sectarian Pope who wants to draw people away from other churches and give them his ‘covering’” is very unkind and untrue. Frank wrote a book, Who Is Your Covering?, which refutes and rejects the whole notion of people needing some type of human “covering.” If you knew him, you would know that he has a heart full of passion for the spiritual prosperity of the Body of Christ. Any form of sectarianism is repugnant to him.

    For another perspective on PC, I would refer you to Alan Hirsch’s review, http://www.theforgottenways.org/blog/2008/01/07/pagan-christianity/htm

    Jon Zens

    1. John White says:

      Thank you Jon for a well thought out overview. I have read the book X2. What come to mind is the church leadership of the day and Is.9.16 ‘for the leades of this people cause them to err…!. Wood Allen said, I took a sped reading course and read War& Peace in 20 mins. Its about Russia! Perhaps the title of the book is unfortunate, but for those who dare, and with an open mind, to read it can be enlightened! Eyes need to be opened, in those lands where persecution is rife, where there is no church [ie building] and often no ‘minister, and where their only hope [as in NT sense ie. positive], the church flurishes and shames us in the West.Have we not learned the lesson.Tithing, Mr. Wax, was clearly discussed as for the need to support the poor/widows/homeless etc. not build ornate buildings that cost to build & maintain. The so called church i.e. people, have for too long greaved the Spirit, perhaps, just perhaps, we who have any sense of love for G-d and The Lord Jesus, and it is after all HIS church, we being the bride being made ready for His coming, instead of debating at length. should do as Habakkuk ch.2 vs.1! “2Tim.3vs.13 no, not 16, a cautionary vs. for the church!

  14. Charles says:

    Jon,

    If “any form of sectarianism is repugnant to Frank”, perhaps starting off with a title accusing anyone who doesn’t see things the way he does as “Pagan” might have been a good start?

    Charles

  15. Jon Zens says:

    Charles — The title of the book is Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. It is a question, not a dogmatic conclusion. The book is an invitation to look at historical evidence to see if many things we do as “church” actualy have pagan sources, and may be obstacles to the realization of true ekklesia.
    Jon

  16. C. Pridham says:

    Trevin,
    I am very confused by your review. You say “We need to be willing to throw out traditions that are unbiblical” but in your review you don’t seem to acknowledge that any exist. You mention it might be good to recover certain practices but what about throwing any out? Disenchanted church members are leaving churches not because others are pointing out problems but because we who are in the churches refuse to acknowledge that real foundational problems exist in the way we function as the church. Viola and Barna’s book gives those who are disenchanted hope that CHANGE might be on the way.

  17. Jerry says:

    Charles has come close to nailing it:

    When you read 1 Corinthian 14:26 as a prescription for “worship” instead of an apostle aghast at the confusion of a Gentile church, what do you expect?

    We really do view 1 Cor 14:26 as a prescription for “gathering” – herein lies the majority of our differences, and so your assessment is very accurate.

    I personally believe that if you implement the ideas of 1 Cor 14:26 into some corporate gathering – it will compeletely rock your Christian boat – you’ll be shocked at the level of Jesus in your meetings. You can even do it in the church sanctuary if you want – the Lord doesn’t view that part of your building as evil at all. If you can pull Jesus out of the person standing next to you – you’ll have a whole lot more of Jesus than if you are just exposed to one person’s ideas and theology and life’s understanding.

    The only thing that really stops the 1 Cor 14:26 thing from working is the “Diotrephes syndrome” (3 John 1:9) – where you have a person who is considered to legitimately have a “monopoly” on the gathering and therefore is entited to and allowed to completely dominate the setting. You can tell a “Diotrephes” a mile away – they won’t receive anything you say – which will make the meeting rather boring and meaningless to you – in that you won’t be allowed your opinion or revelation at all.

    For some reason, women do the 1 Cor 14:26 thing quite naturally – but men have this “alpha dog” thing where they are sizing each other up all the time. My wife loves the institutional church – her view of it is sitting in the nursery talking to the other women. My view is quite different.

  18. Ron Park says:

    I’ve haven’t read the new version of Pagan Christianity with Barna’s input, but I have read the first, less-hyped version of Viola’s book – and I have to say I initially had mixed feelings about what Viola was communicating. To be perfectly honest, I found myself cheering in those instances when Viola exposed the questionable origins of some church tradition, doctrine or practice that I already viewed as mindless religious bunk. On the other hand, I found myself bristling and getting all defensive when he would tip one of my own sacred cows. That said, I think that (while I still don’t agree with everything the book has to say)Viola has done a valuable service to the prevailing church culture of the West. Truth be told, we need to have our cows tipped. We have become shameless control freaks when it comes to a church that does not belong to us. It belongs to Jesus. And He is not just some historical figurehead from whom we can derive legitamacy for our precious institutions and programs. He is a living person who literally exists and who is trying to communicate with and direct His people in the present tense. And I think it’s high time we started seriously questioning ourselves, opening our spiritual ears to what He is trying to tell us, and looking for ways to remove our rearends from the throne that rightfully belongs to Him alone.

  19. Joe Miller says:

    Hi, an excellent alternative to Viola’s book is “The Ancient Church As Family” by Dr. Joe Hellerman. His work is well researched and addresses many of the “pagan” influences on our faith. Dr. Hellerman’s contribution is a blend of good history AND respectful discourse.

  20. Joel Spencer says:

    After a lifetime of church involvement, from “laity” to volunteer and paid staff, it is INEXPLICABLY OBVIOUS that organized religion continues to fail time after time to achieve true spiritual growth. It is a man-made system and a man-made system can only reproduce what it is – a monotonous, lifeless “body” that is expecting little more than a few “warm and fuzzies” in an occassional Sunday morning service.

    The modern “Christian” church has done nothing but disappoint a world full of non-believers. We must stop feeding a system that continues its cycle of failure – it is time to be a true follower of Christ, rather than just a bunch of good “Christian’s” that look like everybody else.

  21. The greatest advice I could give to any honest truth-seeking person… would be to read the book for yourself. (Something many have obviously not thought of yet.)

    Leave your assumptions at the door. Don’t read things into this book that are not explicitly stated by the authors. Open yourself up to whatever the Lord may speak to your heart. Deny your flesh and allow anything that must die (i.e. those things not of Christ)… to be thrown into the flames. Don’t look for models and forms… look for Christ!

    If you go into this book with many preconceived ideas and a negative attitude of defense against what you already believe is unquestionably sound in your mind… then you might as well save yourself the effort and read something else that will make you feel that your church practices are infallible and beyond any need of revolution.

    If you are interested… check out my review at Amazon.
    You also can find me at: http://www.myspace.com/daviddflowers
    I welcome sincere dialogue.

    Peace.

  22. I would echo earlier comments. If you haven’t read the book then please do so. You might be surprised, Frank and George actually have some positive things to say about institutional churches.

    Personally I agree with lots of what George and Frank have written but not everything. How would I honestly be able to come to that conclusion if I had not read their book?

  23. George Dunn says:

    I don’t intend to defend the book although I heartily endorse it and think it is an important work to be read and considered. I read the original version and now have read the joint version and I’am thrilled to see so much response. If the book gets us to think and dialogue then I believe it has accomplished the intent of the authors.

    there is no doubt that Frank viola is involved and a peoponent of “organic” or house churches. His own experience obviously validates this. Like Frank, I myself have experienced not only the “institutional” church (in many denominations and forms) but also more intimate settings. I have found that there is no apt substitute for relationship, intimate relationship with God and with brothers and sisters. It si my opinion that the institutional model substitutes programs, rituals, and stuff for real open relationship vertical and horizontal,

    I think those who so vehemently oppose this concept need to experience both and then make a decision. Perhaps “primitive” is better. Why not give it a try? Why are we so defensive of “the system”? What’s to lose by exploring other alternatives?

    change comes hard but I’m reminded that the greatest revolutionary in history was Jesus Christ and His new “way” so threatened the people of God and their religious sytem that they called for the romans to crucify him! Well Frank and George, you’re in good company.

  24. Mike Greiner says:

    Oh, for goodness sake. What did Barna ever do to earn all these silly slathering groupies? He’s just a second rate pollster with an ax to grind. He’s made a fortune telling the church how awful it is, and now he’s ready to burn the whole thing down.

    Yes, he appeals all these wierdo types (“Uh, yeah, like, I was a student in a seminary and I, like, bought the line about the church. But then, uh, I read Barna and now I see the light. so uh, drop out, man.”

    But he’s neither a serious scholar, nor a serious historian, and I’d say, he’s an untested statistition.

    Here’s my criticism of the church: We can be so gullible as to let authors and publishers create a cult of celebrity.

    George, keep leading the drop-outs brother. And, like we were before you and will be after you, we true “pagan” pastors and “pagan” church-goers, will keep pushing forward the kingdom of God with this “pagan institutional” Church that often stumbles but never retreats.

    Great points in your review, my friend.

  25. Jeanette says:

    There is an interesting print interview on the book, which has a great discussion afterwards. You can read it at http://thin-edge.org/2008/02/27/the-thin-edge-hosts-joint-interview-with-barna-viola/

  26. Ann says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! After decades as an evangelical Christian (within mainline to charismatic to Conservative Baptist to seeker-sensitive churches), I finally found my way into the Eastern Orthodox Church. It has been no picnic getting here. There are massive cultural, emotional and ecclesiological hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is the prevalence of Viola and Barna’s broad take on Church history in the modern evangelical world, i.e., never mind that Jesus said He would build His Church and that the gates of hell would NOT prevail against it, the Church apostasized with Constantine’s reign, hell did indeed prevail, and we have to yet fully recover the “true NT Church!” Well, I’ve decided to believe Jesus here. The Eastern Orthodox Church has its share of human problems (ethnocentrism, nominalism, externalism, etc.) and historical sins and sinners, but formal and dogmatic apostasy isn’t one of them! It would be hard to find a more Christ-centered liturgy and hermeneutic of the Scriptures than in Eastern Orthodoxy. It has maintained roots as far back in Christendom as one can go in the sense that, historically, dogmatically and in terms of actual communion it has not split off from any other historically recognizable Christian body. All others have split off from it. The contemporary Orthodox Church is the historical continuation of the trunk of our Christian tree, so to speak. Returning to the Eastern Orthodox communion was my categorical rejection of what I consider now to be the Donatist tendencies I inherited from my Protestant background (Donatism being the heresy that the visible Church on earth can be reformed and purified by humans to contain only true believers). I believe such tendencies color many if not all modern attempts to “reform” the Church which come from outside of actual communion with those who have remained within its most ancient visible boundaries. I bless and love all those everywhere who genuinely love and seek to follow our Lord Jesus Christ. He honors faith wherever it is found. But after less than wholly satisfying attempts to piece together my own “orthodoxy” outside of the Orthodox Church with nothing but my Bible and the various Protestant interpretive traditions of my background to guide me, it is such a relief to find it all together here, whole and in its full context with riches I never anticipated (and, yes, struggles and problems, too, but of a significantly different sort). To those who aren’t sure what the Eastern Orthodox Church is, I recommend http://www.ancientfaithradio.com as a good source of information and other Orthodox links. Bless you, Trevin!

  27. kburchard says:

    You might enjoy a series that I am doing about this here:

    http://kburchard.wordpress.com/

    This was the subject of my degree thesis project. Some of my research is the foundation for the series on church structure, leadership, organic vs. organization, etc. I’d love your feedback. There are 4 posts on this thread right now. The most recent is a bit provocative.

    You will probably be GREATLY challenged regarding the “Pagan Christianity” book’s conclusions by reading a critique of it by another HOUSE CHURCH GURU, Zane Anderson. Here’s his critique:

    http://www.housechurch.org/blog/2008/02/18/pagan-christianity-real-hope-or-shrill-hype/

    Zane is a House Church Movement leader, but he is incredibly articulate in his ability to punch holes in the prejudices that exist AGAINST organized churches in the house church ideology.

    God bless you on your jorney friend,

    Kenny / Hanford CA

  28. Don says:

    Here are two really good interviews with the authors.
    http://www.ptmin.org/barna_viola2.mp3 and http://www.ptmin.org/barna_viola.mp3

  29. volkmar1108 says:

    Ditto to this;

    By all means, let’s engage Frank Viola in a debate, but let’s address what he really says and not what we assume he means. Viola and Barna explicitly disown such restorationist notions as the positing of a mythical perfect church in the first century. They also say that they are not saying that it’s got to be in the Bible to be legitimate. They do refute the notion that exists in some conservative evangelical circles that everything these churches do comes straight out of the Bible. Their claim is that many traditional ways of doing things will not bear close theological examination. They’re right about many things. I’d disagree about some others. But this discussion can’t even begin if we read into their book some coventional primitivist and reconstructionist ideas that they in fact reject.

    Comment by Frank — January 8, 2008 @ 7:23 am

    I too am a child of the Stone/Campbell Reformation movement. I’m enough of a scion of that movement to recognize that Viola and Barna do not advocate “restoring the first century church”…rather, they recognize that many accepted patterns and practices have served to suffocate the Body of Christ instead of freeing her members to function within and out of the natural environment provided by the Spirit. Too many cultural practices have come to be accepted as “Biblically authorized” when in reality they are just cultural mandates that have been grafted in.

    Tom

  30. J. R. Miller says:

    I appreciate your perspective on this topic. You bring up some good points and expressed them very well. Points I missed in both my interview with Frank and George and in my sumary of the issues.

    I am also with you on the idea that there is much that can be done to rediscover the church without condemning Her!

  31. louisa capell says:

    look, there is a huge frank viola cult following, we got wrapped up in this mess before we knew what it was, there are thousands of people who study the 2 books as SCRIPTURE, we know of a community who believe that the books are letters to the church for today, just as the epistles were letters for that time. this is serious heresy, and it is rampant. they worship frank, they do, and they say things like, “what frank is teaching us is….”
    we have witnessed this, this is scary stuff and it needs to be spoken out against!

  32. Susan says:

    To Louisa Capell…they are drawn into the trap and enticed by his teachings…do they know anything of the man behind the words except what his worshippers say and those that want to share in his glory? When the truth begins to come out they exchange it for a lie because then they will have to question their beliefs and they have no where to go if they have been taught that they alone are the true church and have true church life.

  33. louisa capell says:

    susan, and anyoneelse who can descern between right and wrong,
    it is indeed a trap. people who were “normal christians”, and by “normal”, i just mean surrendering to christ realizing they are sinners, trying to live a christian life pleasing to god and reading scripture for what it is, the written word of god, and applying it to every aspect of life since god is life…….these people are bit by bit, although some rapidly, “throwing off the oppression ” of the scriptures.. that all of us poor unspiritual blind pagans who think we are christians have been so oppressed by.they do not respect the word of god, they are twisting it and muddying it and saying,” well…what god really means here is…” im not kidding, they are chopping up scripture into little bits insisting that you must know greek and hebrew to truly understand the secret mysteries of god that no body has known since the first century church………….they do hate and i mean hate any scructure at all in the church.and abhore the king james bible. they dislike the apostle paul because much of what paul says is in direct opposition to their twisted beliefs. look, i stand for truth and these guys, viola especially are wolves in sheeps clothing. there is a 3rd book now which his followers put on the same level as scripture, its called from eternity to here. i have read them, it is all garbage. run away from this stuff, its a cult, i know women shaving their heads because they are no longer under the “bonds and shackles”of certain scriptures, the books are teaching them about being just like the world in order to win the world. this is heresy. there is an evil spirit in this. i know, im in it, and we are getting out, but so many are sucked in , especially new christians , or new to home fellowship, its a cult.

  34. Daniel Dombek says:

    A thousand footnotes does not a scholarly work make.

    I have read the book. I picked up the book hoping for much more than it offered. I have long been troubled by the current condition of the institutional church, particularly its over dependence on philosophical traditions in its apologetics, which have also strongly influenced its theological categories/language.

    I would have to place the scholarship of this book alongside those of other conspiracy theorists, who, choosing a position, find everything they can do to “prove” it.

    One thing sadly missing is a appreciation for the many nuances in the word “pagan.” It is thrown around this book as if it only had one possible meaning (or strength of meaning). I’m sorry, but to imply that candles on an altar is as pagan as Mystery Religion rituals is a stretch.

    Or, how about this example: Jesus’s death on the cross was a pagan death. The Jewish (and, therefore, biblical) punishment for blasphemy (what the Jews accused Jesus of) was stoning. Was Jesus’s redeeming death, therefore, unbiblical? This just sounds strange. Hopefully, things pagan can be redeemed or we’re all in a lot of trouble: the church (body) is full of them.

    Also on the chopping block is any benefit from tradition due to this overwhelming pagan influence on them. This may cost us more than we’re willing to give.

    I find it interesting that the 4th century church leaders, blinded by their “pagan influences,” were responsible for collecting together the very books that were canonized as the New Testament. This means that the New Testament, itself, is among the very traditions that suffer from pagan influences. Without these ‘pagans’ the New Testament would more than likely, not be the book we study today.

    Careful, my brothers and sisters, you may cut off the very hand that feeds you.

  35. NDC says:

    When did throwing out imagined ramifications of “how bad things will get if people accept this book fully” ever equate to good research and arguments that contradict the authors?

    All I hear in these blogs of this book are: poor research, I don’t agree with the premise, et cetera.

    Can you produce better research? Can you contradict each point and show how the body of Christ fully operates in the modern church that was discussed?

    I haven’t seen any REAL arguments against this book.

  36. I haven’t read the book, but I think the reviews I’ve read are going to be enough.

    You hit the nail on the head when you talked about how the authors are not going to bring about any unity in the body of Christ.

    I thought, when a friend told me about the book, that this is going to foster a superior attitude towards those who embrace organized Christianity and is not going to help the cause of unity.

    Is this book motivated by love?

  37. Otto says:

    It’s really sad to see that people who have not read the book or really understand the premise of the book have so many negative comments about not to mention they judge the intention of the authors. From someone who has read the book I percieved the deep love of the church from Frank and Barna. I’m very surprised how so many believe in the headship of Christ, but deny Him in the most important living way. We worship a ressurected Jesus, we are the body, each one with a unique gift that too often gets squelched in the institutional church. I think that it takes a huge amount of humility and faith to step out of a human officiated setting and trust that the loving savior will materialize in the midst of His people. As for those who have not experienced this, I’m sorry but it is not fantasy it is Jesus Himself living through His body in a real living way untouched by the traditions of men who unknowingly strangle the life out of His beautiful bride.

  38. Daniel Dombek says:

    I have read this book, and while I found some of the history in it interesting (particularly on American Revivalism), the chief argument against the book is that it complete ignores the gospel’s power and purpose to “take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), that everything “pagan” now belongs to the Kingdom of God for its use (cf. Acts 11: 5-10), Christ, Himself, has made all things clean. The pagan world stole these things and kept them their proper use: the gospel redeems them all for the purpose of the Kingdom (Rm 8: 21-23).

  39. Dyscyple says:

    yea I think this review is a bit misguided.

  40. Jamie says:

    My greatest beef with the current church modus operendi is that poor people are not taken seriously by most church-going people and the pastoral leadership. The poor are living on the edge and the last thing they need is another 10% deduction off their meagre paychecks. Has anybody else noticed that there are very few old cars in church parking lots these days? The poor can’t afford to come and be treated as full members since a healthy tithe appears to be a prerequisite. I think the current church model is missing the boat with at least 30% of the population. Home church offers a reasonable possibility and needs a proper trial. Is anybody open to it?

  41. Firefly says:

    “A thousand footnotes does not a scholarly work make.”

    ## Hislop’s “Two Babylons” has 1,027 footnotes – scholarly it is not. Hislop did not believe that pagan things could be won for Christ either: which suggests that Jesus is not much of a Saviour – it seems He can make a world, but that when it is spoiled by sin, He is unable to ransom it.

    “One thing sadly missing is a appreciation for the many nuances in the word “pagan.” It is thrown around this book as if it only had one possible meaning (or strength of meaning). I’m sorry, but to imply that candles on an altar is as pagan as Mystery Religion rituals is a stretch.”

    ## Hislop has a thing about wax candles – I wouldn’t mind betting (if I were a betting man, which I’m not) that Barna is cribbing from Hislop.

    Barna appears not to notice that “paganism” is a quality not inherent in what is looked at, but imposed on what is looked at as a conceptual framework for studying them. Israel was as much a “pagan” country as Egypt or Babylon or Rome – all that distinguishes Israel from these other cultures, is God’s gracious election of it. And election can’t be discerned from history, because it’s hidden in God. So seen purely historically, Israel is as much and little pagan as these other lands.

    The same applies to the NT Church – historically, it’s a late antique Jewish Messianic sect with a belief in the central importance of a crucified Jewish preacher; IOW, it is nothing of any great importance – *unless* one looks at it from its own POV. Barna is not looking in that way at what he criticises, so his argument collapses; it’s valueless & self-serving.

    Greek was the language of the NT – was it Christian before Christ ? It was, in some sense, pagan. Apparently this was not a problem for the Holy Spirit: or does Barna reject the NT because it was writen in that “pagan” language ?

  42. Firefly says:

    “We need to be willing to throw out traditions that are unbiblical.”

    ## That includes the 27-book New Testament – the Bible never mentions the gospels acording to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, or the 23 other books. Still less are they listed. Jude quotes from 1 Enoch: by ordinary Fundamentalist logic the quotation proves that Jude is quoting a genuine prophecy from before the Flood.

    There is 0 Biblical basis for treating the 27 books of the written NT as anything more than works composed by mere human industry:

    1. The Bible Jesus knew did not include the NT.
    2. “If they do not believe Moses & the prophets, they will not believe though one should rise from the dead” – if those books were enough for Jesus, by what right do sinful men presume to add 27 more ?
    3. Jesus does refer to a “new testament” – in His Body & Blood (Matthew 26); of a written NT He has not a word to say
    4. The Apostles are commanded to baptise, and to preach (Matthew 28; Mark 16): there is no command to write.
    5. Even if there were commands by Jesus or His Spirit to write, it would not follow that the writing would be inspired.
    6. Even if such a writing were inspired, that would not in any way prove that it was intended by God to be preserved in the Church for centuries to come;
    7. nor is there any basis for the gathering together of writings, to the number of 27, being the 27 specific writings in the NT, for the use of the whole Church: no command of Christ, the Spirit, or of prophets (like Agabus), or other servants of Christ exists in the NT, to do any of those things, let alone all four.
    8. It is carnal and apostate for those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to put their confidence in written works such as 27 NT books. It is easier to trust in a visible set of books than in the Unseen Lord, but to do so is to fall away from the liberty He brought.
    9. If St Paul found the Law condemned him, so also are Christians condemned by the 27-book NT – it brings knowledge of sin, but no release from it. It greatly worsens the condition he was in, because it threatens damnation to sinners. So it brings despair upon Christians, where Jesus is our Hope; & it returns them to a death-dealing book, whereas previously they had Christ to trust in.
    10. The Law is to be written in men’s hearts (Jer.31) – but to seek it in the 27-book NT is to ignore that promise, & to make the knowledge of God external.

    They are interesting as records of what people thought and said & believed, but there is no *Biblical* foundation for treating any of the 27 books as anything more than merely human, useful as they may be. The solution – throw them all out !

    1. Dave says:

      The New Testament Bible we have today was initiated by Constantine who declared himself head of the church. Many manuscripts that he didn’t like we’re declared illegal. This man was responsible for many pagan influences in the early church since he was a convert from a pagan sun worship cult. He brought many of his traditions within his sun worship with him to the early church. Easter and Christmas are purely pagan in their origins along with the Christmas tree and Easter bunny and Easter eggs. None of these holidays or traditions are biblical. The bible even speaks against Cutting down and decorating trees.He also changed Saturday worship commanded under the Ten Commandments as law. To the first day of the week. Sunday is not the lords day as most Christians believe. The bible clearly say seventh day and that is Saturday, not Sunday. Jesus commanded that his fathers house shall not be a house of merchandise, but you see coffee shops, book stores and other merchandising in the church as well as gambling, and big screen movies and Saturday football social gatherings at churches. We’ve put work out rooms and basketball gyms and have turned the church in to a social community rec center/mall. So where is the sanctuary? Well you might need a map from the guy at the front door to help you find it. I’m just wondering when Jesus said the church is exempt from his commands and they can change whatever seems right in their eyes. Just throw out the women covering their heads and the women not speaking in church because we outgrew that after women became liberated.i hear churches say were a New Testament church? Does this mean they throw out the Old Testament. Did Jesus say he came to change the Law or the prophets. No he didn’t. he came to fulfill the prophesy. I think people forget Jesus was a Jew. And his deciles would be Messianic Jews. Those who would close their ears to changing the church to reflect the truth are so steeped in their traditions they don’t see that what they are doing is sin.the bible is for re-proof. if our traditions cause us to sin then we must root them out. Jesus warned the phrases that their traditions were causing them to sin. The church need to look at every detail of their traditions ans if it is unbiblical then it must be removed. not to do so is sin.

  43. Stephan says:

    I was just scrolling the internet interested to see others thoughts on this book. I can completely understand you disagreed, but I was left a little wanting on your trying to open up “dialogue” about it. That is something I would like, as I’m not fully sure myself, but it felt more like you were telling us why the book was wrong as opposed to seeking to open up honest dialogue, which is interesting because that was the #2 complaint listed about the book.

    Also, your opening statement #1 complaint (which was a bit sarcastic and critical in my opinion) about the early church is simply not true. It was made very clear in the book that the idea of how the body of Christ was made to operate (and is clearly revealed operating under the apostolic guidance of Paul in 1 Cor. 14) does not mean that there was some “pristine, uncorrupted, untainted early church that we must aspire to be.”

    #3 I could relate to in a way because I do feel history has a much more intricate working of God in the midst of humanity then the book would reveal. I think they did lean to much toward the darker truths of Church history. However, I’m glad they brought up these truths. We must not be blind to our past, or we will continue repeating it.

    #4 and #5 really have nothing to do with whether or not the message of the book was true, historically accurate, or biblical. It was based on what (you assumed) the results would be if this book were true. They were mighty assumptions to make, at that.

  44. Amber says:

    Maybe for pastors and those on staff within the institutional church this book may seem to be controversial. When I read this book it changed the whole idea of what it means for me to be a church member. It actually mobilized me into serving even more within the institutional church. It inspired my spirit to not rely on the institutional church as my end all be all in Christianity and when the institution church does things I may not agree with, my God is bigger and He will fulfill His purpose regardless. It helped awaken me from being a consumer member to a sacrificial member of the body of Christ that wants to pour into the lives of those in and outside the church. It also helped me see the brokenness and limits of church leadership and a desire to see the body of Christ be an active support for them just as much as a support for their communities.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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