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, it 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):
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?