Polemics and overstatements

Here are a few quotes from a famous Christian who really had a slash and burn approach to the established "church" of his time.  The quotes are from the NRSV and you can find most of them in Mat 23.

  • Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.
  • You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
  • You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?
  • They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others
  • For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.
  • You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
  • For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

The truth is the people of which Jesus speaks would often be highly regarded.  We know that a great many of these Pharisees believed in Jesus.  An examination of the rabbinic tradition reveals that the were some very genuine, sincere dedicated people among their ranks.  Jesus consistently makes sweeping blanket judgments about the entire group.  At times he seems to do and say things that would intentionally irritate them. 

My point in all this?  Sometimes you have to tell people the unvarnished truth regardless of how many people you tick off.  I was thinking about this today as I pondered Frank Viola’s less than irenic spirit in Pagan Christianity.  For years I’ve challenged people I’ve  known personally in conventional Christian ministry.  I’ve done my level best to be charitable, respectful and sensitive.  After years of trying the net impact is still pretty much zero.  If the issues you challenge people on go too deep they just ignore them no matter how constructive you are.

A number of people are saying that Frank Viola would need to tone things down to get better acceptance.  I’m not convinced.  I think he is right about most of what he says.  He might overreach in a few areas but even if he didn’t people wouldn’t accept most of what he is saying.  The cost of dealing with the truth is too high.  It is too easy to ignore or write off. 

Sometimes one needs to be so strong you polarize opinions to get people to move or change.


  1. #1 by Darryl on January 20, 2008 - 10:28 pm

    I don’t know that either approach (irenic vs. abrasive) really gets anywhere by itself. Jesus could be abrasive without sin; I’m not so sure that I have that capability. Not sure about others but I can say that much about myself.

    I’m with you in one way: the issues raised in this book are too important to be swept away. But they haven’t built the case yet for the alternative.

    I’d also like to see a bit more interaction from church historians on both sides. I think that will happen in time.

  2. #2 by LT on January 20, 2008 - 11:34 pm

    I haven’t understood one aspect of your criticism of the book. It is true that the book doesn’t go in to solutions or an alternative but this book isn’t an essay on why people should go organic. It is a deconstruction of current church practice in the light of history and scripture.

  3. #3 by Darryl on January 21, 2008 - 6:36 am

    I think their original statement, that the institutional church has no right to exist, implies a solution as an answer to the critique. It’s a huge solution that’s offered. I’m glad to see that they’ve rephrased this more carefully now.

    The other issue is that I think people infer the implied solution from other stuff Viola has written, but I was more concerned about the original statement on page xx.

  4. #4 by James Rohde on January 28, 2008 - 12:43 am

    Abrasive? How about arrogant, vitrolic, and incendiary — I’m referring to Martin Luther, of course. Hope the sissies would read how uncompromising and biting he was with the apostates of his day. God give us more people with holy guts! How about his pamphlet cover (I think Luther drew it himself,) a picture of a mitre and ornate robes around bare buttocks expelling gas in reference to the Pope’s speaking ex cathedra? Are we dim or what?

  5. #5 by John Coroy on February 1, 2008 - 7:27 am

    I have had mixed feelings (and thus mixed results) about speaking too strongly to my “friends” about my recent acceptance of the historical points that Frank Viola makes in “Pagan Christianity”. I now (since Sept 07) have a “house church” meeting in my home. I now completely reject and repudiate the construct of the traditional church structure. I feel like I am now looked at like someone with two heads having been an elder and staunch supporter of that system for over 25 years. What comes to my mind is that Jesus selected both an apostle of love and a zealot! Some can and will be more direct while others try to gently influence. I do agree thought that the gentle approach is less effective with adults with hardened opinions than it is with those with the heart of a child. Honestly I still have not arrived at a place where I know which approach to take. I am new at this so I am still trying to find my “sea legs” or “voice” so to speak. I welcome your prayers and advice.

  6. #6 by Mike Morrell on February 8, 2008 - 9:54 am

    I appreciate your take on all this. Some folks just won’t quit going on about tone, eh? I have entered the fray, here. Would love to have your feedback.

  7. #7 by Jill on July 30, 2008 - 6:39 pm

    The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at
    It’s also available on Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://www.frankviola.wordpress.com

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