the weblog of Alan Knox

Living in the necessary

Posted by on Jan 22, 2008 in books, definition, elders, gathering, office, worship | 10 comments

The second edition of Frank Viola’s book Pagan Christianity (with the addition of co-author George Barna) is making a huge splash in the blogosphere – perhaps a larger splash than the first edition. It seems that certain sectors of the church are seriously considering this book (whether they agree or disagree with the premise) while other sectors are ignoring it.

I read the original edition of the book a few years ago. At that time, I thought that Viola had some very important things to say, but that at times his message was lost behind his over-the-top rhetoric. I was hoping the rhetoric would be toned down in this new edition, but apparently this is not the case. (However, I would still recommend this book highly!)

As I read Pagan Christianity, I thought Viola’s purpose was to demonstrate that many of the practices that we consider necessary to the church today were not developed from Scripture but from pagan culture. He tackles things such as church buildings, paid professional pastors, sermons, order of service, etc. Again, his point is that we do not find the modern expression of these things in Scripture, but instead they were developed from pagan culture – primarily, Roman culture.

(Update: There is a very good interview with Frank Viola concerning the purpose of Pagan Christianity at Drew Marshall’s website. HT: Brother Maynard)

I think that Viola is correct in much of his history. But, what should we do with this information? If church buildings were developed from culture instead of from Scripture, does that make church buildings wrong? If paid professional pastors developed from pagan practices instead of from Scripture, does that make it wrong to have paid professional pastors? These are the questions that we must deal with, and in fact I think that each group of Christians – each church, if you will – should deal with them separately.

Why? Well, notice that Viola is starting with current practices and working backwards. He begins with various aspects of modern churches, and then he attempts to determine where those practices originated.

My desire is to work in the opposite direction. In my research, and on this blog, I am trying to begin with Scripture to determine what is necessary for the church to operate and grow as God prescribed and described in Scripture. If we know what is necessary, then we know what can be altered, added, or removed without affecting the working of the church.

For example, I believe that Scripture teaches us that the purpose of the church meeting is to build up all believers toward maturity in Christ. Notice that this says nothing about buildings, or pastors, or music styles, or carpet colors, or steeples with crosses, or choir robes, etc. However, if the purpose of the meeting of the church is edification, then this does say alot about how we relate to one another in order to know how best to encourage one another toward maturity (Heb 10:24-25).

I do believe that this has major implication to how we meet together. However, different groups of believers may decide that different context would be more beneficial for edification. The context – building, house, store front, school, etc – is not as important as the purpose of the meeting. Edification is necessary – buildings, houses, schools, etc. are not necessary.

Instead of determining whether or not we should have buildings, paid professional pastors, etc, I prefer to focus on determining what is necessary for us to live as the church. If we live in the necessary, the other aspects will fall into place based on our context. If we begin with the necessary, and we find something that distracts or hinders the necessary, then we know what needs to be changed or removed. If we attempt to live in the necessary but something is missing, then we will know what to add.

Let’s start with searching Scripture to determine what is necessary. Then, let’s live in the necessary.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-22-2008


    I agree with you that we should start with scripture and move forward. While what Viola is doing is important, i.e., showing what practices are not found in scripture, in the end, what counts is what is the purpose for which everything is done.

    That may sound like an opening for all kinds of stuff; after all who would say they aren’t doing things for God’s glory?! But, the basic purpose of the body of Christ is to build each other up into the renewed image of God—to be involved in the establishment of the kingdom of God. If we agree on that, then it has huge ramifications for how “church” is done.

    My copy of Pagan Christianity just arrived today; I can’t wait to read it. I hope at least some of the polemic has been toned down.


  2. 1-22-2008

    I do not applaud some posts enough. I have been in a string of debates in a few blogs and getting beat down.

    Thus, I just want to stand and applaud 🙂

    Especially on these words:

    My desire is to work in the opposite direction. In my research, and on this blog, I am trying to begin with Scripture to determine what is necessary for the church to operate and grow as God prescribed and described in Scripture. If we know what is necessary, then we know what can be altered, added, or removed without affecting the working of the church.

  3. 1-23-2008

    Great post Alan. Frank has written two books that work in the opposite direction that you suggest. One is called “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church”, the other is called “God’s Ultimate Passion”
    He’s also coming out with a sequel to Pagan Christianity in August which will present the constructive side of the argument that roots the church in Scripture and in God Himself. I’m really excited about this one.

  4. 1-23-2008

    Pagan Christianity was the third book in a series (of 5?)beginning with Rethinking the Wineskin and Who is Your Covering. Apparently at least the first two will be sections in the new volume in August.

    The ptmin site has changed A LOT in the last couple of months. I just ordered a couple more Wineskin books in Nov. Now it is as though they never existed (along with the excerpted articles).

  5. 1-23-2008


    I hope you review PC after you read it. I would love to read your thoughts about it.


    I applaud you for being willing to dialog with those who disagree with you.


    Thank you for the comment and your email. I look forward to reading the new edition of PC.


    I have Rethinking the Wineskin, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Maybe I should try to read it after the new edition of PC.


  6. 1-24-2008

    The series makes more sense if you read Wineskin first – i.e. PC wasn’t meant to be the first thing you saw, but it expands topics breeched in the first book (as does the second). I haven’t read the remainder of the series and they are no longer available. Maybe they will be included in the new work as well.

  7. 1-24-2008


    I love your idea of going back to the Bible to figure out what is NECESSARY, and then from there, determining what can be changed in how that’s expressed. Something about that just really struck me…instead of starting where we are now and working backwards (which I would tend to do), starting with the Bible and moving forward. Very insightful.

  8. 1-24-2008


    I think it will be very interesting to see how the follow-up books to PC will be accepted and reviewed.


    It is not always easy to begin with Scripture and find what is necessary – usually called the minimalist approach. However, I have found it very rewarding and freeing.


  9. 1-28-2008

    I agree with you Alan, just because something is not found in scripture does not make it wrong. The problem comes when we impose things of the church that are outgrowths of our culture unto others that do not share our culture — when we put inessentials on the same plane as the essentials.

    I’ve heard about old time Christian missionaries who told Africans that drums were the instruments of the devil and would not let them incorporate their style of music into worship. It is odd to read through the New Testament and notice it says very little about how a church service should be structured. It seems to me that this was done so the church could adapt and have different expressions. So Christians wouldn’t get bogged done in inessentials and focus on them at the expense of the truth. And yet how many churches have split due to an argument over whether or not the lights should be on during worship or what types of songs should be sung. Or if divorced people can remarry. I know that Christian Russians a few hundred years ago burned themselves alive in their churches because their reforming patriarch told them to cross themselves with two fingers instead of three.

    Have our pre-pagan cultures influenced the way we do church? Of course, but I’m not throwing out my Christmas tree. So long as the influence is only in unessential ways it seems to be completely acceptable.

    This is of course not to say that all cultures are equal and that the church should seek to not transform culture. The church should (and did) transform polygamous cultures into monogamous ones, moved societies from slavery to freedom, introduced notions of chivalry into warfare, etc. It is only to say that the church can be expressed in different ways.

    And I think it is important that more and more people are starting to recognize this (though sometimes I fear we’ll react too far the other way. In giving up disputes over unessential truths we’ll stop making distinctions over essential truths and fall into ecumenicalism). The Truth of the church is timeless, but the church itself need not be locked into rigid, unchanging structure that arbitrarily keeps people out. The whole ‘build it and they will come’ mentality worked before, but it is no longer working. You cannot just set up a church building on main street and expect people to fill it every Sunday morning. In a time of suburbs, mass production, and television and the alienation that those things bring home churches with a greater focus on community seem to be far better equipped to helping Christians in their walks with God (edification) than the traditional hymns, message, closing prayer. That may have worked well once, but our culture has changed and the empty pews all over the West seem to indicate that it is no longer working.

  10. 1-29-2008


    Thanks for the comment. Yes, tradition and culture will always find their ways into the church – the way we live and the things we do. However, as you said, we must be careful not to force our traditions and cultural norms onto other believers.