The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review


Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Revised and Updated
By Frank Viola and George Barna (Barna/Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Carol Stream, IL 2008)

If you've ever read the New Testament and wondered how in the world the elements of the modern institutional church came to be the way they are-- this book will shed light on the question. Frank Viola (of
Present Testimony Ministry) and George Barna (of The Barna Group) explore the origins of various church practices and concepts in a well-told and relatively easy to read manner.

The authors walk through various topics that are close to the heart of modern institutional Christianity-- the church building, the order of worship, the sermon, the role of the pastor, how we dress for "Sunday church," the music minister, the professional clergy and tithing, baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Christian education. Each is discussed with a view towards how the modern ideas or practices developed.

Each chapter has a "what's the big deal" section in which the authors discuss how and to what degree these modern ideas and practices impact the core values and essence of  Christianity. For example-- the role of the professional clergy has the effect of turning everybody else into "laity" (among other things). And yet-- the idea of some Christians being like modern-day clergy and others like modern-day laity is quite foreign to the New Testament.

This new version of the book makes significant improvements on the early version. First, the title has changed from "Pagan Christianity" to "Pagan Christianity?" The title highlights the idea than many modern church practices have some pagan or secular influence behind them. The new "?" in the title softens the original, making it a question instead of an accusation. The new version is usually kinder towards those who are part of a modern institutional church than the previous version was, and it also generally uses better argumentation and logic in making its points. The original by Frank Viola now has touches of George Barna in it, such as references to "Jesus the Revolutionary." These improvements make a purchase of the new version very worthwhile to those who owned the previous version. I highly recommend it to those who wonder how in the world we got from the biblical church to the modern-day church in terms of these highly-visible practices and concepts.

I agree quite a bit with the authors-- like on how ridiculous so much of modern church practices are. I'm not trying to hurt anybody's feelings or be a wise guy, but I've had an article tentatively entitled "The Church Show" in work for more than a year, and it's just too depressing to finish. But the gist of the article is that this whole "going to church service" thing is just so ridiculous in the absence of the most important aspect of the church-- a rich, relational fellowship. And this is part of the message of Pagan Christianity?; so much so that I'll probably scrap my article and save myself the misery of writing it.

But in spite of my agreements with the authors on the overall gist of the book, there are still some things in this version with which I disagree. They are important enough to mention here, though I'll touch on a few of these in this review. These are best covered by speaking of specific cases.

First, I don't think the authors are always fair to historical figures. When I see how they handle situations I have personally studied, it makes we wonder how fair they are to others throughout history in cases where I haven't personally done a lot of research.

As an example, the authors cite what Ignatius told the seven churches of Asia certain about "the bishop" being intimately involved in many aspects of the church gathering, and they go off accusing Ignatius of being one of the ones who "messed up the church" by advocating the monarchical episcopate (the rule of a single elder/bishop over a congregation). But the authors don't seem to consider the circumstances or the whole story, and they seem more interested in blaming people than understanding what was going on.

Without the influence of the extra-local workers who had been mentored by the New Testament apostles, the church began to drift toward the organizational patterns of her surrounding culture.

Ignatius of Antioch (35-107) was instrumental in this shift. He was the first figure in church history to take a step down the slippery slope toward a single leader in a church. We can trace the origin of the contemporary pastor and church hierarchy to him. Ignatius elevated one of the elders in each church above all the others. This elevated elder was now called the bishop. All the responsibilities that belonged to the college of elders were exercised by the bishop. (p. 110-111).

It's hard to count the things I have a problem with in this short citation. To begin with, people who had been personally trained by the apostles were few and far between in their lifetimes, and they were increasingly rare by the time Ignatius wrote his letters. It's not the fault of Ignatius or those in the churches in Asia Minor that there weren't any apostles or apostolic trainees around.

Churches had local elders (also known as bishops or overseers) who led the churches once they had been established. This is relatively evident from the New Testament and even early church history (e.g. the letter of Clement to the Corinthians).

Students of this period of history know that
the problem of itinerant false teachers was becoming more significant for the church at this time of Ignatius. From his letters, we can see that he knew these particular bishops personally and gave his instructions as it related to those specific circumstances. He knew these bishops personally, he knew they were faithful, and he wanted the church to stick close to them because of the imminent threats around them.

There is no evidence Ignatius "elevated" anybody to anything. Ignatius was a bishop of Antioch of Syria; by what authority could have "promoted" bishops in Asia Minor anyway? There is no evidence of any structure or organization to facilitate that. Nor is there evidence that anybody else's roles were usurped. If the monarchical episcopate existed in the time of Ignatius (and that is not clear by any means), there is no evidence he was the one behind it. Want to know more? Read the letters yourself in context and decide for yourself.

And what is the difference between a single "bishop" leader in a church and a single missionary (or "extra-local worker") leading a church? Is it not possible that there could have been multiple house-churches in a city and each one was led by a bishop/elder? Other authors have suggested that a single bishop/elder would represent the rest in traveling to other places-- such as in visiting Ignatius. If Viola and Barna wanted to point to something that advanced the monarchical episcopate, they would have been better off citing the concept of apostolic succession referred to by Irenaeus in the late 2nd century in response to the gnostic threat.

My point is that Ignatius has been warped by both later "catholics" in favor of the monarchical episcopate or still later "protestants" who might oppose it.
There is a difference between the church doing something in a particular time and place to solve a particular problem, and the church universalizing that action to all cases for all times, places and circumstances. I discussed this dynamic more fully in my book, Keeping the FaithThere is also a world of difference between merely writing about something and being the one who caused something to happen.

This whole discussion and objection on my part might seem a bit nit-picky to some. But the reader of Pagan Christianity? needs to know that there is more to the story, that people in church history didn't usually just decide, "Hey, let's corrupt the church today" in doing what they did. They often acted courageously, sometimes paying with their lives (like Ignatius) for their faithfulness. This doesn't mean they were infallible, it doesn't mean they couldn't or didn't make major blunders or cause great problems or hurt at times. But they should absolutely be treated fairly and given the benefit of the doubt, even if we don't like what ended up happening later, unless we have significant evidence to the contrary.

And this whole discussion doesn't just refer to Ignatius, but to anyone who may differ from us in our perspectives of what Christians and churches should and shouldn't do. The fact that there is dispute makes these "disputable matters," and in such things we are not here to judge another's servant (Romans 14:1-4). Let's learn what happened, let's try to understand why things happened as they did.

Second, there is 
another matter begging for more attention from this book, and that is the topic of primitivism itself. This topic merits further discussion on its own (see the Barnabas Ministry article "Thoughts on Primitivism"); here I will just say that the reader should be cautioned about how unbiased and authoritative any primitivistic argument might truly be.

Lastly, there are some instances of bad logic in the book (though not nearly as many as in the previous version). For example, in the comparison between an "organic house church" and the modern institutional church,
the authors talk about how the primitive house church lent itself to a festive meal and a close fellowship. They also lament how institutional church is vastly different from this and lends itself to a less personal experience. While the point is well-taken, it is obvious that an "organic house church" can have a miserable, unhealthy fellowship and an institutional church can have a wonderful, intimate fellowship. These comparisons are sometimes overstated and remind me of weight-loss product ads that show the "before" picture in black and white and the "after" picture in color. Similarly, overstatements are scattered through the book. The authors defend this (in a Q&A page on the website) saying:

What's an overstatement? The answer largely depends upon which hill a person is standing on at the time they read a book. What some say is an "overstatement" others say is a "prophetic challenge."

Overstatement is one thing when one is "preaching to the choir." But when addressing others seeking truth, overstatement is inappropriate. It is imprecise, invites criticism and often leads to division. It can weaken one's argument. Indeed, I happen to agree with the authors on quite a few of their perspectives but I wish they presented some parts of their message in ways that are less impeachable. These sort of discussions should be characterized by careful, respectful discussion rather than easily misunderstood or dismissed overstatements.

In fairness to the authors on these criticisms, sometimes they cut short more thoughtful discussions because they considered that it would take them away from their main objective-- discussing the rise of certain modern church ideas and practices and how modern ideas and practices might differ from what God may have intended for the church. And in the above linked page, they discuss various other questions people have raised about the book.

In all,
Pagan Christianity? is informative, stimulating and very worthwhile. It would also make a wonderful book for small group study and discussion, where critical thinking and sharing of differing perspectives can help Christians today understand the origins of church practices much better. Christians today need to know the history of what they do. Use this as an opportunity to learn more about history, to actually read the letters of Ignatius and others who are discussed, and to learn about church history. Discussions on the issues it raises, coupled with some of the cautions I've raised here, would make for stimulating, interesting discussion.


Copyright © 2008 John Engler. except as noted. All rights reserved.

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