It seems that everyone and his brother (and his brother’s cousin) has reviewed Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. However, after commenting briefly about some of these reviews a few weeks ago in a post called “Living in the Necessary“, I received a review copy of the book. So, I promised to read and review it on my blog.
First, there have been a few interviews with the authors that are very helpful in understanding this book. You should at least read Bill’s (“The Thin Edge“) interview with both authors in the post “The Thin Edge hosts joint interview with Barna & Viola” and Brother Maynard’s (“Subversive Influence“) interview with Frank Viola which begins with the post called “A Conversation with Frank Viola, Part I“.
In Pagan Christianity, Viola and Barna state that “almost everything that is done in our contemporary churches has no basis in the Bible” (pg. 4). This is the primary concern of their research and their book. Chapter by chapter they demonstrate from historical accounts that the church building (ch. 1), the order of worship (ch. 2), the sermon (ch. 3), the pastor (ch. 4), Sunday morning costumes (ch. 5), ministers of music (ch. 6), tithing and clergy salaries (ch. 7), baptism and the Lord’s Supper (ch. 8), and Christian education (ch. 9) arise from culture and not from Scripture. Based on the fact that these practices arise from culture and not from Scripture, and their assumptions which will be covered below, they state the purpose of this book: “[I]t explains how this practice stifles the practical headship of Jesus Christ and hampers the functioning of His body” (pg. 9).
Instead of reviewing this book chapter by chapter, which many have already done, I plan to examine the big picture presented by the book. I want to state at the beginning that I agree with many of the assumptions and conclusions of the authors. I agree than many, if not most, of the practices of the modern church arise from past cultures and not from the teachings of Scripture. I also agree that many of these same practices are unnecessary and in some cases detrimental to the maturity of the church and the believer.
To me, the most important aspect of this book is that it brings to light many practices and beliefs that are not based on Scripture. All believers should consider the importance of these things. If buildings, budgets, paid staff, choirs, etc. are not taught in Scripture, then they are not necessary for us to live together in Christ. Why, then, do we consider these and other practices to be necessary? Could it be that we are missing something important because we focus on things that are scriptural? I think this is happening.
Viola and Barna’s historical analysis is very beneficial. Some have discredited them because of their reliance on secondary sources (i.e. history books instead of the actual writings). I also wish that they had included more citations from primary sources. However, if they had relied only upon primary sources, it would have taken volumes to hold the information.
When I read the first edition of this book (authored only by Viola), I was disappointed by the tone and rhetoric. In this second edition, the tone and rhetoric is much more balanced. Many who have negatively reviewed this book complain about the rhetoric. It is true that the authors still make some sweeping statements, overall the tone is much more palatable in this second edition.
My primary concern with this book is the assumptions that the authors make. For example, they assume that the meeting of the church should include input from many different attenders, not just one or two. Similarly, they assume that leadership should be from example, not necessarily from authority. While I agree with their assumptions, the average Christian today – and the average leader – does not agree with these assumptions. Therefore, their arguments fall apart.
For example, the arguments claim that these practices did not arise from Scripture but from culture. Most people will agree with this claim. However, where people disagree is the statement by the authors that these practices negatively affect the church. Why do they disagree? Because they disagree with the authors’ assumptions, not with the authors historical analysis. As the authors themselves state, not everything that arises from culture is bad and not everything negatively affects the church. Therefore, they cannot simply demonstrate that these practices arise from culture, they must also demonstrate that the practices negatively affect the church. For the most part, this is assumed without analysis.
In other words, more work is needed. Why is it important for many believers to exercise their spiritual gifts when the church meets? Why is it important for believers to see their leaders as equals instead of as authoritarian figures? Why is it important for music sang to God to arise from the hearts of the people instead of from professionals? I agree with many of their assumptions, but I do not think most of their readers will agree.
I appreciate the work that Viola and Barna have put into this book. The historical analysis alone is worth the price of the book. I hope more people read this book and decide to study these practices in more detail. I hope more people ask the questions that I’ve asked above. I think that the church will be stronger if we recognize that these practices are not necessary, and instead they sometimes distract believers from how they should live with one another.
I definitely encourage any believer to read this book. You may not agree with it, but hopefully reading it will cause you to search the Scriptures for these practices. And, when you don’t find them, perhaps you will start asking why we rely on them.