“We are also 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.”
“Pagan Christianity”, Frank Viola & George Barna, Tyndale 2007:xx
So begins the highly controversial book by Frank Viola and George Barna. These authors then live up to these opening words in their Preface- that is, their assessment of the contemporary church is indeed: outrageous!
It’s rare that a Publisher commences book with a disclaimer by virtually saying we are publishing this even though we don’t agree with it. This type of disclaimer is especially rare for a publisher such as Tyndale. After reading this book I understood why Tyndale were so apprehensive in publishing it. While this was puzzling, what I found most puzzling was that George Barna put his name to it! One can only wonder at the damage this book has done to his reputation.
THE CLAIMS OF CHRISTIAN PAGANISM
A “Pagan” is someone who is either ignorant or has wilfully rejected the truth and as a result is an idolater (worships idols). This is the word that the authors have chosen to use to describe modern Christianity. It is, as they admit, an outrageous claim. Here’s a summary of their charges against modern Christianity-
The modern church is not abiding by the Scriptures despite its ardent claims to the contrary
Church buildings are essentially idols
The Order of Worship in churches today suffocates the spiritual life of believers
The Sermon is the most stifling instrument to Christian maturity
The concept of Pastor is the greatest hindrance there is to Christian ministry
Getting dressed up for church is hypocritical and ungodly
Contemporary church music is stupefying for genuine worship
Tithing is nothing more than a continuation of the Old Covenant’s sacrificial Laws and is therefore now obsolete [not dealt with here but read a rebuttal to this point]
Paying Pastors a salary denies the Priesthood of all believers
Baptism classes are a man-made invention that breaches the command of Christ to be baptised immediately
Christian ministers over-emphasise the need for education to be a Christian minister
The New Testament is not meant to be used for proof-texting, but in its overall message which should be understood within the context of the relationship of the author and the audience.
A FAULTY FOUNDATIONAL PREMISE
The authors build their case on a few premises. One of these premises is that the New Testament does not prescribe an order of service for how a church should worship. But then they weave through the entire book reasons why they believe the Church is worshiping in an ungodly way.
The other premise is that the earliest church was “the purest form” of Church “before it was tainted and corrupted” (page xviii). But within one chapter of this statement they acknowledge that when the church is planted cross-culturally it legitimately adopts structures and worship patterns that relate to its culture-
Also, just because a practice is picked up from culture does not make it wrong in and of itself, though we must be discerning. As author Frank Senn notes, “We cannot avoid bringing our culture to church with us; it is a part of our very being. But in the light of tradition we need to sort out those cultural influences that contribute to the integrity of Christian worship from those that detract from it.”
Whenever I hear somebody make the thoughtless appeal for the modern Church to return to the church model of the Book of Acts, I always wonder which chapter of the Book of Acts are they referring to? In every chapter of Acts we see the Church growing, developing, changing, and confronting new problems that require doctrinal refinement and structural adjustment. This development and structural change of how the church was led and how it worshiped needed to change as the Church continued to adjust and respond to cultural changes and challenges through the centuries. But what if the Church does commence erroneous practices? Is it reasonable to assume that Christ’s warnings to the Seven Churches demonstrates some principle of how He corrects His Church? I think history reveals the answer to this question in the affirmative. But, the authors more than suggest that not even God can correct His Church went it deviates into error-
The contemporary church is like a jet airplane that has no capacity for in-flight course corrections.
PAGAN CHRISTIANITY, (Page xxx)
The other main premise of the book is that all traditional leadership models of church government are evil (pagan). This premise is based on the authors’ narrow understanding of what the priesthood of all believers means.
Based on these premises, which we will scrutinise soon, the authors make some outrageous assertions about the modern Church. These assertions are supposedly supported by their appeal to Scripture and history. But these appeals to Scripture are generally based on very poor exegesis (interpretation of the Scripture) and the authors’ use of Church History, to justify their criticisms, which is at times, appalling.
With such glaringly bad argumentation and extremely shallow support for such arguments, you would think that those who are supposed to be Biblically-literate would be able to discern this straight away. But amazingly, it has bowled over many believers and brought great confusion to many good-hearted pastors who have not known how to respond to this attack.
FIRST, THE GOOD POINTS
Viola and Barna criticise superficial Christianity and its resultant forms of corporate worship. They give an example of a family getting dressed up to go to church after the Dad yelling at his kids to get ready and abusing his wife for not organising their children early enough. In his rush to get his family to church on time he gets a speeding ticket. Arriving late and flustered and angry he commands his family to smile as soon as they get out of the car and to walk into the church happy. When they get into their church they are joined by the other smiling, happy, families and are then preached at by the pastor who tells his flock- we do everything by the Book- the Bible is our ultimate guide! Viola and Barna present this as the stereotypical, church-going, American family. And if they are right, their criticisms of it are more than justified.
The second major positive about this book is its critique of the modern role of “pastor”. The authors rightly identify that the New Testament does not prescribe for churches to be led by a pastor much less for one man to wear the over 30 “hats” that pastors are expected to wear (the various responsibilities that pastors are expected to fulfil). They attribute the high rate of ministry burn-out among pastors as the inevitable result of such unBiblical expectations by congregations who expect their pastor to essentially do the entire ministry of their church, especially when it comes to making everyone in the church “happy”.
The insistence that the authors place on the priesthood of all believers is commendable although I think they have confused the original understanding of this concept with egalitarian ministry authority.
WHERE THE BOOK IS NEARLY RIGHT
The authors claim that the modern Church has strayed too far from the path laid down by the original Church. This path, they claim, is where every believer has equal opportunity to contribute to the direction and ministry of the fellowship. Any member of the fellowship can bring a teaching, lead a song, share a Scripture or a thought. This type of fellowship is not “controlled” by a leader, but rather every believer has an equal say in how the fellowship should be led.
Viola and Barna are not the first to extol this model of Church. John Nelson Darby more-or-less promoted it back in the late 1800s and more recently James Rutz in 1992 published a book called: “The Open Church: How to Bring Back the Exciting Life of the 1st Century Church” where he advocated similar ideas. What Darby and Rutz reacted against was a stale, authoritarian, spiritually-stifling, model of Church. Darby rejected the idea of a priestly class of believer and Rutz rejects the idea of a passive “laity”. But Viola and Barna go further than both. What they argue against is any form of planned worship led by any authority within a fellowship. While the truth that these 4 authors are promoting (that God gives every believer the opportunity to approach Him and minister in some way on His behalf) is Scriptural, they each confuse God-given ministry with God-given authority. Secondly, they assume that when it comes to how a church fellowship worships, spontaneity is spiritual and planning is unspiritual. I doubt though that Viola and Barna are consistent with this method of distinguishing what constitutes “spiritual” (God pleasing) in other areas of their lives.
In support of their premise that the New Testament Church of the first century encouraged every believer to participate in a worship service, they cite First Corinthians 14:26. But they amazingly seem to completely miss the real point of that verse! Paul is not commending the Corinthians for their disorganised, disorderly, worship – he is rebuking them! Note the last part of the verse they cite-
¶ What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
First Corinthians 14:26
Read on in First Corinthians 14 and you’ll hear Paul talking about God not being “the God of confusion” (verse 33). This is because the “open” type of church service that the Corinthians had developed (which was vastly different to the way the other churches of the first century worshiped) had become a free-for-all and was therefore confusing to most of those attending.
Rather than this being “the model” for how a church fellowship should worship together, the New Testament prescribes exactly what Viola and Barna reject: planned order under the authority of a leader. By the way, the earliest form of Christian worship was not a house-church model. The house-church fellowship of the earliest believers developed as a result of the persecution of the first Christians where they simply could not meet openly in public venues.
On the day the New Testament Church was birthed, the Day of Pentecost, the believers were no longer in the Upper Room but were now in the Temple precinct seeking God. Thus, when the Holy Spirit fell upon them it was a very public event! Therefore, the early Church most naturally saw that it’s worship of Jesus was a public event to be conducted in a public venue. For the ensuing weeks the believers continued this practise of worshiping Christ in the public venue of the Temple and meeting in one another’s homes (Acts 2:42-44). During these public meetings in a public venue, they prayed, probably sang, and one of them would preach. Acts 2 records the main points of Peter’s sermon and Acts 7 records the main points of Stephen’s sermon. Viola and Barna deny that the early Church did this and then label modern churches that continue this original model of Church worship as: “pagan”!
As the church spread, the default format for Christians to gather was to do so in a public setting. This most naturally involved Synagogues, Public Squares, and riversides (which was where Jews would meet in towns where their numbers were insufficient to form a Synagogue, Acts 16:13; Psalm 137:1). Only as a fall back position did the church meet in homes. When the State sanctioned persecution of the Church ended in the fourth century, the Church immediately established public venues for worship. This was not a “paganising” of the Church, but a consistent strategy of outreach and witness established from the Day of Pentecost.
If Viola and Barna are attacking the over-emphasis on church buildings where congregations focus too much of their time and resources on merely maintaining their buildings rather than their priorities being on the commission and commands of Christ, then all Christians should take note of their criticisms. But if, as it seems, that they are condemning churches from owning any buildings at all – and appealing to the first century church as the basis for their criticisms – they are sadly very wrong. There is nothing paganwith a congregation of believers owning a public building to be used as a witness, for worship, and the proclamation of the Word!
It is also true that as the Church grew and developed through its history, it began and perpetuated certain traditions. As the authors point out, not all of these traditions are supported by Scripture. But while this may be true, it is a non-sequitur that therefore all Christian traditions are “pagan”. Among these so-called pagan traditions the authors list such things as: pews for worshipers to sit on, a pulpit for the preacher to preach from; and eventually stain-glass windows. The authors’ premise is that since these things are not prescribed in the New Testament that they are wrong or “pagan” (not Christian).
CONFUSED ABOUT MINISTRY & AUTHORITY
The authors of PAGAN CHRISTIANITY commit a fundamental error: they confuse the priesthood of believers (which is about our equal access to God through the finished work and ministry of Christ) with the distinctive roles of responsibilities that Christ gifts to various members of His Church. While we are all equal in our standing before God because of Christ, we are not equal in our God-given responsibilities. Viola and Barna make emphatic statements about the New Testament’s leadership structure being completely egalitarian – that is, no one is a leader over other believers. This type of leadership they call “hierarchical” and they claim that it is condemned in the New Testament. But they are very wrong. God does call certain believers into leadership roles that at times involves the God ordained establishment of hierarchy. But unlike the corporate world’s version of hierarchy, God’s version is based on responsibilities and the servanthood of the leader. In this way, the New Testament can use hierarchical language to describe the varying scope of responsibilities that distinguishes leaders-
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
First Corinthians 12:28
Viola and Barna build on their faulty premise of leadership egalitarianism and go so far as to say that the role of a pastor as a leader in a congregation is “pagan”. Yet when we read First and Second Timothy it is clear that the apostle Paul was writing to his protégé as the leader of that assembly in Ephesus (despite there being a plurality of elders already there). He tells Timothy to set apart (ordain) additional elders (congregational leaders) and some others as deacons (assistant leaders). He tells Timothy to continue to teach, preach, read aloud publicly, the Scriptures.
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
First Timothy 4:13
Timothy was charged to read, expound and teach the Scriptures to the Ephesians. In this way he was pastoring the church. This would have required all of Timothy’s time to organise, prepare and deliver his ministry to the Ephesian church. So despite Viola and Barna claiming that paying pastors a salary is unbiblical and even “pagan” Paul actually said-
¶ Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
First Timothy 5:17-18
Paying people for “spiritual” service is not pagan! It is thoroughly Biblical!
Viola and Barna object to the modern sermon. They attempt to show that the central place that the sermon has in most Christian worship services is a fairly recent development inspired by pagans and unnecessarily adopted by the Church Fathers. But as the instruction to Timothy in First Timothy 4:13 reinforces, preaching and teaching in a church service by a pastor dates back to the foundation of the Church. There is nothing pagan about a New Testament scholar sharing insights from God’s Word in an inspirational manner- which we generally call: a sermon. But none of this negates the opportunity that every believer has to share insights from God’s Word with other believers in an appropriate context.
The authors condemn modern liturgies (orders of service) as having pagan roots. They claim that the early church worshiped on the basis of spontanaety. But the public assembly of believers was to be orderly and well led – not disorderly or disorganised. This is one of the main points of correction that the apostle Paul deals with throughout First Corinthians.
The authors condemn the over-emphasis of professional ministry training for pastors. While we join with Viola and Barna and reject outright the idea of a priestly class of believers, we can not join with them in condemning ministry training for those who have the responsibility to care and lead for other souls and their spiritual welfare. In fact, Hebrews tells us that while the Mosaic Priesthood is fulfilled in Christ, God still calls and equips certain believers to be shepherds within the flock of believers and to lead them. As such, these leaders are to be “obeyed” (Hebrews 13:7, 17). This is something the authors of PAGAN CHRISTIANITY would seemingly find repulsive.
¶ Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
¶ Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
These verses do not undermine the idea of the priesthood of all believers, but they do highlight that the New Testament makes a distinction between those called to live out their witness in the marketplace and those called by God to devote their lives to leading and watching over souls by ministering God’s Word. I have written extensively on this issue in my eBook: AUTHENTIC APOSTOLIC LEADERSHIP- STRUCTURE FOR THE CHURCH TODAY.
IS OUR WORSHIP REALLY PAGAN?
Viola and Barna assert that song leaders, choirs, and worship directors are pagan in origin and are therefore wrong. They base this assertion on their premise that worship services in the New Testament were only conducted in homes where everybody had the opportunity to lead a part of it. They even suggest that musical instruments were not used and therefore are out of New Testament order for today. But again they are wrong in both their premise and their conclusions. The New Testament does not condemn those who are gifted musically to be used as the worship leader of an assembly. On the contrary, the New Testament seems to encourage people to focus their ministry in the area of the spiritual gifting (First Corinthians 12). Secondly, it is likely that when Paul tells the Ephesians and Colossians to worship God by singing hymns, Psalms and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) with all their heart, that this could have and probably did include musical accompaniment. The New Testament Church honoured the Psalms. In the Psalms we read over and over that worshipful melody unto the Lord can be made with musical instruments.
¶ Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
If Viola and Barna are criticising some expressions of modern church worship because it is more akin to entertainment than praise for God, then their criticisms are valid. But from anecdotal evidence and personal observation, by far the majority of worship leaders genuinely do what they do to bring glory to God and inspire believers to worship God. Setting yourself up as a judge of another believer’s expression of worship is a very dangerous (and presumptuous) thing to do.
HOW SHOULD WE READ OUR BIBLE?
When it comes to using the Bible, Viola and Barna advocate a similar error to that of the Emerging Church leaders. The Bible is not meant to be used for “proof texting” they argue, but to establish and build a relationship with God. On first reading this statement seems tame if not even true. But when we consider what these authors are really advocating, there are a lot reasons to be very concerned.
¶ All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Second Timothy 3:16-17 NKJV
Despite what Viola and Barna assert, the Bible can not only be used to establish doctrine (right belief), it should! Other Emerging Church leaders such as Rob Bell have rejected traditional, orthodox Christianity in favour of “neo-liberalism” where such foundational doctrines to Christianity such as: the virgin birth of Christ, the physical resurrection of Jesus, the exclusive nature of salvation through Christ, the authority of Scripture, have been abandoned. Christians should not be caught off guard by the crafty language used by those advocating for the “Emerging Church”.
The Bible should never be used out of context in a way that an obscure verse is made to mean something that the overall tenor of Scripture does not advocate. In this sense, being “doctrinaire” is against the tenor of Scripture, but being doctrinally precise is not.
A BIBLICAL CONCEPT OF CHURCH NEEDED
The authors argue for an organic model of Church. They claim that this is the model presented in the New Testament. This model looks like House Churches. While there is nothing wrong with House Churches, there is something seriously wrong with claiming that this is the model for every church congregation. Healthy churches know how to assemble publicly (Hebrews 10:24-25) and meet in small groups semi-privately (Acts 2:42-44). The New Testament prescribes that congregations be led by qualified leaders – and as important as this was in the first century, it is absolutely imperative now due to the increased complexity of life. It also prescribes a God-ordained order of authority within and over congregations which in no way negates the equal access to God that every believer enjoys. It also broadly tells us to worship God together by prayer, singing, teaching, giving and sharing.
A local congregation of believers is a group that meets under the headship of Christ, submitted to His appointed leaders, guided by the Holy Spirit through the teaching of God’s Word, where believers are supported and equipped to glorify God with their gifts. This statement could be said like this- being part of a church is a witness together where the believer can worship together and proclaim the Word of God together.
History tells us that God has a way of shutting down congregations. In the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation Christ instructs His apostle John to write to the “angels” of the 7 churches of Asia Minor. These “angels” were God’s appointed messenger to each congregation. That is quite literally what the word angel means (messenger). Today we generally use the word “pastor” (based on Hebrews 13:17, 1Peter 5:1ff) to describe the person fulfilling this role. To each of the churches Christ warned them that if they abandoned Him He would remove their candle stick (shut them down). Perhaps there are church congregations that need to die because they have ceased to seek and represent Christ to a needy world. But for those churches that have culturally adapted to sincerely reach their societies for Christ as a Word-based, worshipful witness, they don’t need the kind of scurrilous allegation that would seek to label them as “pagan”.