the weblog of Alan Knox

Yet another review of Pagan Christianity

Posted by on Mar 20, 2008 in books | 13 comments

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.


13 Comments

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  1. 3-20-2008

    Alan,
    Great review. I agree with your feeling that the arguments were incomplete. I believe that the next book will look more closely at the practices and the impact that they have on our life together. PC is really only setting the stage and providing the necessary historical data. You make a very valid point that further discussion is necessary.

  2. 3-20-2008

    Alan,

    I am just now finishing reading Pagan Christianity and I too agree that it is a non-sequitir to point out that because most church traditions have their roots in culture rather than Scripture they therefore must be immediately discarded. It simply doesn’t follow that because something is pagan in origin that it is necessarily stifling to the mutual ministry of the body. After all, as Viola notes, chairs and shag carpets have pagan origins. ;-)

    Nevertheless, I also agree with most of the assumptions in the book regarding the problems with the stifling of the mutual ministry of the body and Jesus not being allowed to be the head of the church due to the traditions of men getting in the way of the sovereign, spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit.

  3. 3-21-2008

    Alan, George and Frank just did a live teleconference answering questions from readers. Some of the issues you raise are answered on it. You can listen to the recording at http://www.ptmin.org/barna_viola.mp3
    Jeanette

  4. 3-21-2008

    Alan,
    As usual I appreciate your view on this topic, I am waiting to get my copy from the library but I have read a good deal of Viola’s other works and I am familiar with the arguments.

    It is interesting that some in the ‘emergent’ church are working along some of the same lines, to form a church outside of church culture, which is where I see it hindering God’s work because not only do we have to evangelize Christ but the church culture. Most people outside of the church aren’t fans of the church culture.

  5. 3-21-2008

    Hey Alin
    I enjoyed the post. I guess I wonder how you would determine practices of the church if they are specifically spelled out in the church. Or what to do if your interpretation disagrees with others in the church.
    Ed

  6. 3-21-2008

    Grace,

    I have also heard that the next book will answer some of these questions. Perhaps its just me, but it seems backwards to me. By the way, I thought your review was excellent, and much more detailed than mine.

    Dusty,

    This is exactly why I think that we need to argue for and defend “mutual ministry” more than we need to argue against current practices. If we seek to work toward “mutual ministry”, then the other things will fall into place, I think.

    Jeanette,

    Thank you for the book and for the link. Hopefully I’ll be able to listen to the recording soon.

    Jason,

    I hope you’re able to read PC and review it as well.

    Ed,

    First, congratulations! Second, many practices are neutral. Other practices are beneficial in certain circumstances. I have often done things that I thought were not scriptural because I also thought they were beneficial for the people around me.

    -Alan

  7. 3-22-2008

    Hi
    I just want to say HELLO! and also Happy Birthday to your blog! I found my way here because I was reading and looking for thoughts on 1 Cor. 9 I want to thank you for your faithfulness & love of God’s word and from spending some time on here, it’s so wonderful to see that you have a genuine & sincere desire to be biblical when it comes to proclaiming God’s word against anti-biblical practises and teachings. I am sure this is going to be a site I am going to hang out in :-) so a big hello to to you and your family ! God Bless you in your pursuit of Him and His perfect will and purpose in your lives, Ruth

  8. 3-22-2008

    This is exactly why I think that we need to argue for and defend “mutual ministry” more than we need to argue against current practices. If we seek to work toward “mutual ministry”, then the other things will fall into place, I think.

    Amen and amen.

  9. 3-23-2008

    Ruth,

    Welcome to my blog, and thank you for the kind words. I hope you decide to take part in the discussions here.

    Dusty,

    Thank you, and happy birthday!

    -Alan

  10. 5-18-2008

    I wish I could agree, but as a leader of the traditional, you cannot look past your own bias. The church has misled and destroyed numerous lives and people by sitting on its laurels and manipulating the congregation with untrained and trained leaders all possessing incorrect motives, agendas and personald preferences. Those who speak out against the book seem to find fault with the very challenges Frank brings forth which cannot be justified by scripture. Your arguments do not hold water when weighed against the word. If you are attempting to keep your memberships up to support your pastoral salaries, your building fund budgets and your program budgets, then arguments make much more sense.

    Deacon and Usher
    deaconandusher.wordpress.com

  11. 5-18-2008

    Deacon and Usher,

    If the “you” in the last two sentences refer to me personally, then you should know that I don’t accept a salary, nor do I (or “we”) have building or program budgets. Notice that I agree with the conclusions of this book. I do not think they argued their points very well. I’m not “against” this book. In fact, I’ve recommended it very often.

    -Alan

  12. 6-17-2008

    HI Alan, I just finished posting the last part of an interview I did with Frank Viola and George Barna.

    Here is where it starts.

    In the next day or two I am posting my conclusion, and I am quoting from your post here. If you have any thoughts or questions about specific parts of the interview, I would appreciate reading your insight before I post my summary.

  13. 6-17-2008

    J.R.,

    I’ve been following your interview. In fact, I already have a post written to be published tomorrow that links to the four parts of your interview. I don’t have anything particular to say about it, but I found in very informative. Thank you!

    -Alan