This is the second in a series of posts on the book Pagan Christianity (hereafter PC), and in this post we will start the book with the preface to get an idea of what is coming ahead. The preface begins by suggesting that the church of Jesus Christ has fallen into two opposite traps in its approach to the local church: the error of the Pharisees and the error of the Sadducees. The Pharisees were so zealous to obey God’s commands that they developed a whole system of traditions in order to live out their understanding of the Law of Moses practically. However, in doing this they missed the heart of God and introduced many rituals and customs which brought His people into bondage. This ‘tradition of the elders’ was passed on from generation to generation as ‘the way things are done’ and eventually elevated to the same level of authority as Scripture. The Sadducees, on the other hand,erred in the opposite way. Instead of adding to Scripture, they subtracted from it by accepting only the first five books of Moses as the Word of God. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the more supernatural elements of Scripture, such as the existence of angels and the resurrection of the body. Do the Pharisees and Sadducees sound familiar to you? These two parties were the primarily opponents of Jesus during His ministry, and (according to the authors of PC) His church is still greatly hindered by these types of people today.
Firstly, modern Christianity is described in the preface of PC as being guilty of the error of the Pharisees for adding ‘a raft of humanly devised traditions that have suppressed the living, breathing functional headship of Jesus Christ in His Church’ (page xxi). In the authors’ opinion church buildings, modern sermons, paid pastors, worship teams, seminary education etc. are unbiblical (pagan), not very helpful and in many cases harmful to our experience of Jesus (see the previous post for clarity on this way of assessing church). They make a strong statement about their intent of writing PC: “In short, this book is dedicated to exposing the traditions that have been tacked onto God’s will for His church – traditions that run contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Our reasons for writing it is simple: We are seeking to remove a great deal of the debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ to be the fully functioning head of His church” (page xxiv). Barna and Viola are not saying that all pagan practices are necessarily wrong. They are claiming that, rather than continually reforming our extra-scriptural customs, we have become blind slaves of a new ‘tradition of the elders’ that is often in conflict with God’s desire for His people – like the Pharisees were. “And this is why the church is in the state that it is in today, hampered by endless divisions, power struggles, passivity and lack of transformation among God’s people” (page xxiv).
Secondly, Barna and Viola assert that contemporary Christian churches have become like the Sadducees by either removing or plain ignoring ‘a great bulk of New Testament practices’ (page xxii) that should shape how we gather together as believers. On the one hand, they are saying that there are some direct Scriptures which we do not or cannot obey because of the way we conduct church gatherings. But even more importantly, they are claiming that on a deeper level the actual essence and goal of the local church is ignored. Not only are there a Pharisaic mountain of harmful pagan traditions heaped on top of the New Testament foundation, but we have not necessarily even got the original New Testament foundation underneath them! Apparently, most of today’s mainline churches are ‘institutional’ in nature rather than ‘organic’ in nature as found in the New Testament. This is at the heart of how this book assesses whether or not our pagan practices are helpful or harmful. If it supports organic church, it is good. If it suppresses it, it is bad. Organic churches are described as churches born out of and held together by God’s internal spiritual life, rather than constructed by human institutions and held together by external religious structures. Organic churches are characterized by the timeless principles of “Spirit-led, open-participatory, face-to-face, every-member functioning meetings” rather than the “program-led, spectator-driven, impersonal, clergy functioning meetings” (page xxiii) found in institutional churches. Without this New Testament organic pattern at the centre of our understanding on how and why we gather as Christians, we may end up like the Sadducees who knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.
“We are making an outrageous proposal: that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does. This proposal, of course, is our conviction based upon the historical evidence that we shall present in this book. You must decide if the proposal is valid or not” (page xxiv).
Provocative stuff! What do you think?