This is the fourth in a series of posts discussing the book Pagan Christianity (PC) by Frank Viola and George Barna. We have warmed up to the topic in the discussions of the preface and introduction and I hope you are all finding it stimulating. Now we can start the book! In the first chapter, the authors put forward their challenge: “Are we really ‘doing church’ according to the Bible?” According to them, the answer would shock you if you actually investigated it for yourself. Here is one provocative quote which gives their answer: “As startling as it may sound, almost nothing that is done in our contemporary churches has any basis in the bible. As much as pastors preach from their pulpits about being ‘biblical’ and following ‘the pure Word of God’, their words betray them” (page 4). From what follows, it seems that Viola and Barna are making a call in their book for all Christians to take responsibility for how they practice their faith, to question what they have been taught and to actively follow Jesus rather passively following ‘the way of our fathers’.
“The unexamined life”, said Socrates “is not worth living”. Unfortunately, say the authors, most Christians are living an unexamined Christian life while claiming to model it on the bible. The reason for this hypocrisy, they say, has to do with the incredible power of tradition in people’s lives. Traditions so easily become an idol in our hearts. They give us identity, meaning and belonging in a community. Many Christians have allowed themselves to be labelled and defined by a certain Christian tradition (Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal etc.) and inherited a long list of cherished, calcified practices from it that they automatically assume and defend. They are blinded by their loyalty and emotional commitment to the doctrines and rituals of their denomination, and therefore they feel threatened by people who question them. This is just like the Pharisees. They were brought up and trained in a movement that claimed to be scriptural when in actual fact they were following humanly devised practices and not God’s Word. So despite their emphasis on Scripture, when Jesus claimed that their traditions were not legitimate they closed their ears to Him and tried to destroy Him. In the same way, some Christians will find it disturbing or even offensive to hear that their church experience might not be biblical or legitimate. It takes honesty and courage to challenge what our denomination has taught us and seek the truth whatever the cost will be to our identity. Unfortunately, “if truth be told, we Christians never seem to ask why we do what we do. Instead, we blithely carry out our religious traditions without asking where they came from. Most Christians who claim to uphold the integrity of God’s Word have never sought to see if what they do every Sunday has any scriptural backing” (page 5). It is time, say Viola and Barna, for us to step out of the false emotional security of tradition and humble ourselves so that God can open our eyes to His truth. Just as in the case of the rich young ruler, we too need to be prepared to ‘sell out’ on our Christian traditions in order to follow Jesus if that is where He is leading us.
Viola and Barna warn that one of the biggest obstacles to letting to go of tradition is that we are all trained to defend it with ‘proof texts’ from the bible. All of us can find a few verses somewhere to back up our church experiences, but have Christians always read those passages like that? Do we actually know where our church practices originate from historically? This is the aim of PC; to show us what historical events gave birth to pastors, sermons, church buildings, tithing etc. Here is a quick overview of the authors’ approach to church history. Each chapter in the book looks at the five key eras in the 2000 year history of the church when its practices were drastically altered. They are:
- The Jewish Messianic era (30 AD – 70 AD)
From the time of Jesus until the destruction of the Jewish Temple by Rome in 70 AD, Christianity was primarily a Jewish ‘kingdom of God’ political movement with Hebrew roots. Almost all our New Testament was written in this time, describing the good news of Israel’s Messiah using words and concepts that were understood in 1st century Palestine. In terms of church meetings, believers gathered initially in the Temple and local synagogues before retreating to home fellowships due to religious persecution.
- The Greek Philosophical era (70 AD – 324 AD)
From around 70 AD the influence of the Jewish believers and their Judaic worldview began waning, being replaced by the pagan influence and culture of the Greco-Roman gentiles who had begun dominating the churches. Many heresies and open challenges to Christian beliefs were also coming from outside the church, leading to many intellectual debates and the start of Christian apologetics. From here on, Greek culture and philosophical thinking began influencing the Christian approach to theology, discipleship and the Old Testament. The message took on a more existential and less Messianic tone. Gospel truths started becoming more systematic, abstract, dry and ‘confined to the frontal lobe’ (as Viola puts it). God began to be studied instead of worshipped, discipleship became more about information than transformation, and the Old Testament became metaphorical instead of historical. This radically altered the face of the Christianity and the way the local church functioned.
- the Roman Imperial era (324 AD – 1517 AD)
From 70 AD to around 324 AD, churches remained underground due to political persecution and their Gentile communities were still meeting in homes and small gatherings as described in the New Testament. However, in one of the biggest turning points of church history, the roman emperor Constantine the Great became a believer and Christianity was unexpectedly made the official state religion of the world superpower of the day (just imagine that!). Suddenly, with all their thousands of strange deities and pagan worship rituals, everyone in the empire had to be Christian. It is not hard to imagine how this huge influx of ‘Christians’ had many serious consequences for the faith. Christianity became rich and famous. Massive church ‘Temples’ were funded and built by Constantine. Christianity also thus became official and institutional, absorbing many governmental aspects of the Roman Empire such as hierarchical leadership structures with official salaried posts and a plethora of administrative duties. Lastly, since Christianity became political and imperial, Christendom (the Christian kingdom) was born with church leaders influencing issues of state (think Crusades) and Christian religion became a power base for controlling the masses. It is easy to imagine the incredible changes all this brought to ‘how we do church’ – even to this day.
- The European Reformation era (1517 AD – 1700 AD)
Over a thousand years later, in the early 16th century in the heart of Europe, Martin Luther headed up the Protestant reformation. It was a reaction to the control of the Roman Catholic Church which was determining church practice and salvation through tradition. The reformers sought to remove many of the pagan traditions that the Roman Catholic Church enforced and to put the Word of God back into the hands of the people so that they could decide for themselves ‘how to do church’. It was an honourable attempt to return to the bible but, according to Viola and Barna, they did not go far enough in restoring biblical Christianity. They won back doctrines such as ‘the priesthood of all believers’ theologically, but not practically. They could not see past many of their ingrained Catholic traditions, and so they just retained some of them (like cathedrals and infant-baptism) and changed others in a superficial way (like communion). And because church remained tied to the state, whole countries were still either Catholic or Protestant. Christianity remained national, but it moved from being imperial to being cultural. Unfortunately, it was back to the Book, but not back to the New Testament church.
- the Anglo-American Revival era (1700 AD -1900 AD)
The 18th and 19th centuries, with the rise of the British Empire and America, saw great moves of God on both sides of the Atlantic. Through Ewan Roberts in Wales, the Wesleys in Britain, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney in America and many other famous people, significant revivals of the church broke out with renewed passion for experiencing the Holy Spirit. Although there were often excesses, abuses and frauds, the genuine filling and gifting of the Spirit began manifesting among God’s people more frequently and huge open meetings were held where people’s lives were changed and God’s presence was felt. And yet, according to the authors, the Revivalists didn’t go far enough in the changes that they brought. Even the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements which flowed later from this era and brought valuable renewal to the church have not broken free from Greece or Rome and still remain pagan and institutionalized in many respects. They have retained Greek sermons and theological education; they have retained Roman church buildings and clergy. More than that, they have added more pagan elements to the mix – American Christianity (in short) has become commercialized and consumer-driven. Unfortunately, although it was back to the Holy Spirit, it was not yet back to the New Testament church.
It is now, in our generation, that we must begin getting back to the New Testament local church. God restored his Word in the Reformation, He restored His Spirit during the Revivals, and it is now, stress Viola and Barna, that God is restoring the functioning of His church.
THREE QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
Pagan Christianity takes quite a negative view of tradition. What do you think about their point about the blinding effect of church tradition on believers? Aren’t we all naturally born into tradition? Or does God hold us accountable for the traditions that we follow?
There is a memorable quote in the book which says: “When the Greeks got the gospel, they turned it into a philosophy. When the Romans got it, they turned it into a government. When the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture. And when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business.” Do you think it was part of God’s plan that the church moved through the Greek, Roman, European and American eras of the church, or not? Why…?
Viola and Barna make a strong claim that we need to do church according to the principles of the early church as described in the New Testament. Do we really need to do Christianity by the Book and get back to the New Testament church? Or, to extend the organic metaphor, is the Body of Christ supposed to be ‘developing into maturity’ over the centuries?