Is your church pagan?

A while back, I wrote a ramble about the local church. As a follow up, I have decided to publish a series of posts on an interesting book that I recently read on the topic. The name of the book is Pagan Christianity? – written by Frank Viola and George Barna (check it out on Amazon here). The book (from now on called PC) asks the simple question: “Where did we inherit our church practices from?”. In short, itΒ is a guided tour through church history, exploring the historical roots of the traditions commonly found in mainline churches. There is a chapter each on church buildings, the order for services, the sermon, the pastor, church outfits, worship leaders, tithing and clergy salaries, communion, seminary education, the use of the New Testament and Jesus the Revolutionary. I would like to take a chapter at a time and hear your thoughts on each topic.

The basic method of the authors is to assess church practices using four categories (I made up the names myself):

  • Scriptural
    • Christian
    • non-Christian
  • Pagan
    • Helpful
    • Harmful

According to PC, Scripture is our final authority on how God’s church should gather and function. This means that those traditions which are clearly commanded for local churches in the New Testament, such as baptism or corporate prayer, form the non-negotiable pattern for Christian communities. But not all practices that are biblical are Christian. Some, such as animal sacrifices and stoning adulterers to death, are not God’s will for us even though we could quote chapter and verse to ‘support’ them (there are less obvious examples that might divide people, such as tithing and Sabbath-keeping). So there may be non-Christian things in our church services which are falsely justified by Scripture.On the other hand, Scripture gives no exact blueprint for how to ‘do’ the nitty-gritty of church. This has led to many extra-scriptural church practices in our gatherings which have no we are not commanded to do and are therefore important to question. In PC these extra-scriptural practices are called pagan, whether they are good or bad, because they are not based on scripture (pagan does not mean sinful in the book).

The way the authors assess each church tradition is simple: First, they ask – is it pagan in origin? Secondly, if it is pagan, is it a development or a departure from the heart of God for His church found in the Scriptures? If it is harmful to the New Testament model of a local church, why is it not removed? This is perhaps the strong point of PC; it asks questions about what we do at church which we often don’t. Are church worship teams scriptural? Are modern sermons pagan? Is the role of a modern pastor helpful? Are church buildings harmful? In my opinion, the great value of PC is in the questions it raises.

For obvious reasons, the book has attracted a lot of attention both inside and outside Christian circles. There are many negative reviews available online (even by people who haven’t even read the book!), where the book has been called dangerous, divisive, deceitful and arrogant by both scholars and casual readers alike. On the other hand, there are a large number of other Christians worldwide (again both scholars and casual readers) who have hailed PC as a life-changing book. Some have even called it a groundbreaking step towards restoring traditional churches from their worldly systems back to the original New Testament model. While some of us will quickly jump to defend our cherished traditions from this book and others of us will eagerly endorse its novel and radical approach, I feel it is important for all of us as Christians to search the Scriptures for ourselves and discuss these issues in a teachable yet anchored spirit. If the authors are claiming that we gather in a wrong or sub-Christian manner that is impeding our fruitfulness and intimacy with the Father, surely it is important to consider. And if we are not, we should equip ourselves to encourage others away from deceptive teachers that write such books.

So, I guess by now you have gathered what the position of the authors is – according to Viola and Barna, most of what you do every Sunday at church has little in common with the early Christian gatherings found in Scripture and much in common with pagan culture.

Do you agree?

Is there a specific church tradition which you experience as harmful to your spiritual growth?


8 thoughts on “Is your church pagan?

  1. Hi JC,

    Ah, I think you are converging on a matter here. Through Some Thoughts, I have picked up that the way we “do” church is something for which you have a very profound burden/concern and I think it is very good. I think FF also reflects on the matter often and has a lot to say about it.

    I have often thought some church practices, hailed as scriptural in churches where I am, are not. Some examples:
    > The anointing of rooms/furniture
    > Tithing (which you’ve already mentioned)
    > Praying in tongues during services or, more commonly, during intersession or cell group
    > Communion (the approach)
    > Worship (the approach)
    > Church size (when a church becomes too big, it often becomes either impersonal or superficial)
    > Submission to those who have “spiritual authority” over me
    > The spiritual authority concept (in general)
    > The spiritual warfare concept (the offensive approach that is often taken instead of a resistance approach)
    > Failure to address sin within the congregation

    There are other things that I question very seriously that has been taught in churches where I’ve been:
    > The anointing of people (to the degree in which it is practiced in some places)
    >The notion of demonic influence/presence/strongholds in people that are filled with the Holy Spirit.
    > The performing of miracles that have no implication on life outside the church (e.g. gold dust on hands, being slain in the spirit or the spasmic rolls or fits of laughter “caused by the Holy Spirit”)
    > The neutral stance regarding the acceptability of remarriage after divorce.

    Then of course, there are those things that are practiced in churches that I don’t go to, such as the concept of being a Christian without persueing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or baby baptism.

    Another thing that I’ve discussed with FF in the past, is our approach on cell groups. I don’t know about you guys, but here’s my experience. I have been in different cell groups for most of the time since 2005. That’s 7 years now. In all that time, I would say there has been only or two that has had any real positive legacy in my life. And cell groups often feel awkward or superficial or just plain boring.

    The good experiences that I’ve had can be summed up in: in two of the cell groups that I were in, I developed a *real*, non-pretending, non-half-hearted friendship with another cell member.

    But, the church is, and always will be, subjected to the very acute difficulty that it is filled with people. And verily I tell you, more than 90% of people in churches are far from solid Christians.

    When one talks about the new testament church, one must keep in mind that most of Paul’s letters to churches dealt with *problems* in the churches. Things had become twisted, and fast at that. In Revelations, is it not true that 6 out of the 7 churches stood accused?

    The new testament church was, just like today’s church, quite full of problems, simply put.

    And, you also make the point that, not everything that has entered the Church since the books of the Bible was written, is bad – some of it is helpful. Like digital projectors. Or coffee. Or bibles, for that matter πŸ˜€

    The other day I was so put off when I went to read a website of some church where the pastor was raving for a whole page long about how using musical instruments during worship is not endorsed by the Bible (though I know it is in Psalm 150), and therefore using instruments during worship is sinful.

    What frustrates me so is how defensive people tend to become when you say that something that is practiced in their church is not actually scriptural (though you didn’t say it’s bad). I really do wish that people would be more open to re-evaluating their ways.

    I am very interested to hear more of your discussion, JC.

    I guess my post does not make any specific point. Rather, I just blurted out some thoughts on the matter that I’ve had.


  2. Hi Levra! I think the reason why ‘how we do church gatherings’ is so important to me is because most of the people that I have had contact that have grown tremendously in the Lord have done so outside official church structures rather than in them or because of them. Even though its not true for everyone (or even perhaps the majority), I do see a trend and I just wonder why that is. The growth seems to be happening more in a ‘John-the-baptist in the desert’ type of pattern rather than “12 disciples living in intimate community around Jesus’ type of pattern. There seem to be a lot of John the Baptists out there on the fringes of the institutional church, and some are floating while others are leaving – but maybe that’s just from my perspective. Either way, I really do believe that God intends for us to have a strongly corporate faith and that church gatherings should cater for an experience of the BODY of Christ – gifts functioning, people participating, fellowship deepening, lives changing etc as well as an experience of the HEAD of Christ (if I can put it that way) leading us, speaking to us and instructing us. It feels to me that we should measure the effect of our church structures and practices against the New Testament to see if it encouraging or discouraging these types of experiences – or do you think it is unrealistic/misguided?

    • Hi JC.

      I’m interested to understand exactly what you mean when you refer to John-the-Baptist-in-the-desert and “12 disciples living in intimate community around Jesus”.

      Do you mean the former is many people listening to one figure, and the latter is a more interactive interaction between believers?

      And what do you mean that some are floating and some are leaving?

      I am trying to think of examples of having seen people grow a lot in the Lord, but it’s difficult. The few cases I can think of involved personal discipleship, or in other words, a close relationship with a more mature christian, as well as solid teaching (usually rather from recordings or books than local churches). Of course, the best type of growth also happens when someone is filled with the Holy Spirit and learns to *listen* to the Holy Spirit.

      Although I have not seen many people grow tremendously in the Lord, I have met many “Christians” that have grown tremendously in spiritual pride, or doctrinal deception or licencism. And in many of these cases, the Church’s teaching, or lack of teaching, can be blamed for that. In other cases, the fact that the people were on solo missions can be blamed.

      I am becoming increasingly skeptical of people talking about how God intended things. It seems that later on, all that God really did in this world was intend things and then it all spun out of his control. The “God’s intention” topic could make for a whole thread on its own, I think.

      But admittedly, all is not the way that God made it to be. We are all living in sin, which God hates, to put it simply. But the church is something that came along long after the fall of man, so perhaps we should think very carefully before we say “The Church is a bit of a failure.” Because, after all, Christ said that *HE* will build his Church. So if we say that the Church is a failure, then it implies that Christ failed…

      But perhaps it will be helpful to distinguish between the Church, and a church system, or as you call it “official church structures” or “the way we do church” or “church gatherings”.

      Maybe I can align my view on a good church structure/system with my view on a good government: With a good government, everybody is not well-off. The reason being that many people are lazy, or foolish spenders of money and the only way that they will ever become well-off is through unjust hand-outs. Some other governments have caste-systems that makes it practically impossible for certain people to ever advance socially or economically – Apartheid, or the Hindu caste systems, and pre-revolution France are some examples.

      In my opinion, a good government should provide an economic and social system where it is possible for an individual who wants to make something of his life (economically, socially or both) through good choices, hard work and excellence.

      I think the same is true for the church system. A church system should facilitate and encourage believers who really want to make something of their faith to do so. But if there are a bunch of complacent Christians around who are not really interested in growing, then the church system is not to the one to place the blame upon.

      As for what I see “the Church as”, I like to believe that the Church, the spotless, glorious bride/body of Christ exists today – at this very moment. To me it refers neither to a specific congregation, nor to a denomination, but rather to the world-wide network of true believers. You, me, FF, Angus Buchan, Fred May and those dying for Christ in China: we, and many more, are the Church.

      Sorry – I think I got a bit way off-topic, but I was trying to discuss around your notion of the Church not being the way that God intended.

      But that’s not even really what you said:
      “Either way, I really do believe that God intends for us to have a strongly corporate faith and that church gatherings should cater for an experience of the BODY of Christ – gifts functioning, people participating, fellowship deepening, lives changing etc as well as an experience of the HEAD of Christ (if I can put it that way) leading us, speaking to us and instructing us.”

      I actually agree with every word there without a single objection.

      Most of “the way we do church” comes down to: the band leads worship, and then someone teaches. There is very little (if any) time taken to let people participate in the service through gifts of the Spirit – though some churches (Shofar, to its credit) do encourage this to a degree.

      Most people’s church experience is far from deep, far from (inter)personal and they really do not participate. The experience is strikingly similar to going to see an emotive or enriching film with some large group of friends or semi-friends.

      So yes: the way we do things is definitely lacking.

      The tough questions are:
      If we can find a better through this discussion – how do we actually bring about change?
      If we are successful in bringing about the change, would there be a worthwhile amount of people who would want to join us, or do most people actually really prefer their current church setup?

      πŸ™‚ well, I guess I got a bit carried away… again. Sorry bout that, but I really am eager to hear more about this from the rest of you. How are your personal experiences in church(es)? How do you perceive the experiences of those going to church with you?

  3. I used John-in-the-wilderness and the-disciples-around-Jesus as an analogy for two environments of spiritual growth. One is growth within the community of a local church setting – like the disciples – and the other is growth in isolation outside the corporate setting – like John. It’s similar to what you said about people that learn more from books and digital media that they do in church services πŸ˜‰ And when I say floating, I mean that some are floating around the fringes of a local church while others are just leaving theirs because it is not doing anything for them and they don’t feel they can do anything for it. I hope I make a little more sense now… I’m interested to know if you’d describe yourself as a John-in-the-wilderness, a disciple-around-Jesus or some other ‘Third Category’ πŸ˜‰ On another note, if I read between the lines correctly, it sounds to me like you’ve been listening to a bit more of Paul Washer… πŸ™‚

    • Most of my growth has come through close relationships with more mature Christians, notably the leader of my church band in the NG kerk during high school, and my friendship with FF during undergrad years. The apex of FF’s role in this regard was to help me to learn to listen to the Holy Spirit.

      Consequently, a lot of growth has come through listening to the Holy Spirit.

      A lot of my best experiences with the Lord has come through simply applying Bible basics (love, humility, faithfulness, integrity) that I found myself in places like Proverbs, the Sermon on the Mount, and Ephesians.

      Last year I was privileged to be part of a church (The Bay Community Church) in Capricorn Park that is as close to a Biblical church as I’ve seen, as far as “the way we do church” is concerned. There too, I was privileged enough to be discipled by a strong Christian man of about 60 years old.

      Throughout the last year, I have learnt many very valuable things through listening to sermons and reading books by David Pawson.

      During my time at Shofar (about 6 years), I attended the various foundations, Bible School, cell groups and church services. To be honest, I did not experience any of these very positively or that they led to significant spiritual growth. But perhaps I did grow through it and just did not notice. Many others attest to having life-changing experiences through attending the same things, but I can only speak for myself.

      To grow, a tree needs water, minerals and sunshine.
      I think that an essential to spiritual growth within a church structure is sincere love between the members. This is something that I did experience at The Bay, while not so much at Shofar (though, once again, others may have had different experiences).

      So, the above description of my spiritual growth experience should address your question as to whether it has been a 12-disciple or a John-in-the-desert thing. I guess, in a sentence, I would say that it was more a John-in-the-desert thing, but with definite elements of 12-disciple.

      Haha – I’m not a big Paul Washer listener. I’ve listened to about 8 or so of his sermons, but I feel that he basically has one burden, which is that your faith should impact the way you live, with a major focus on repenting from bad works. I told myself that, if you heard one of his sermons around that topic, you’ve heard most. There’s also his sermons about “the way we do family”, and though I agree with a lot, if not most, of what he says – especially relating to respecting your elders and leading as a man – I feel that he sometimes calls for people to live by Jewish family rules (not Christian rules) of 2 – 3 thousand years ago in a society that operates by a whole different set of rules and with significantly different mechanics.

      For example, I believe that the principle of deep respect of a girl or a woman’s father remains, it is not universally required to ask his permission to court his daughter. But anyway, Paul Washer has a lot of good stuff to say, and I would recommend him in a heartbeat to any Christian who has not yet listened to him (provided their faith isn’t too sketchy, lest he’d scare them off with his angry words πŸ˜‰ ).

      • Paul Washer was definitely a phase for me as well, but I am thankful for it in many ways. I am so glad that you had a good experience at Bay Community Church, it is always encouraging to hear positive testimonies. Spiritually mature men over 60 are not a dime a dozen at the moment, so praise God for that! I think an important part of this series of blog posts for me is to hear whether or not the Holy Spirit is addressing some of these issues about the local church in other believers lives or not. In other words, are those that can hear His voice experiencing the same things? Are they even in the blogosphere? πŸ˜‰ Anyway, I am really grateful for your comments and looking forward to interacting with you on the more meaty topics coming up. Bless you brother

  4. Pingback: Pagan Christianity Chapter Discussion – Preface | Some Thoughts On Being Christian

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