Pagan Christianity : Now that I’ve actually read the book

Lots of people have reviewed the content of the book chapter by chapter with varying degrees of intellecutal honesty. I thought the book was beneficial in that it provided some history and context for much of what happens in church these days. It raises the issue of the relevance of the New Testament on ecclesiology. It also puts some fire underneath church leadership which should feel the urgency of our present situation far more than they seem to. I’m not sure the book will convince a lot of church leaders to change but it will be warmly welcomed by those of us who have moved on to a new paradigm. It is my earnest hope that such a bold and sometimes insensitive challenge will bring many more of us back to scripture.

I give the authors strong marks on the research on the history of church practices but lower marks on their summary conclusions and their arguments against specific church practices. I think the book would have been stronger if they spent more time proving their assertions about the negative impact of things such as clergy, buildings, and sermons. In some places The authors make allusions to “organic” Christianity as the solution without even attempting to make that case which legitimately annoys some. The next book is supposed to address solutions.

While I agree with the direction of the many of the authors positions I came away thinking they base way too much on 1Cor 14:26 NRSV: “What should be done then, my friends? 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.” I believe it could be the most ignored clear chunk of scripture relating to ecclesiology but one verse isn’t enough to make a strong case against most of our church practices. I tend to take 1Cor 12 more universally than one verse in chapter 14. This is especially true because of 1Cor 14:34.

I found that many of the footnotes I looked up were to Viola’s other books. In building their case for certain points they didn’t always deal with all the evidence that isn’t in harmony with their point. On the topic of buildings the authors correctly point out that the church chose to gather in homes but they neglect to mention some of those homes would have had court yards that could handle 60 or 70 people. The ever present threat of persecution would have also played a factor even in times or areas where persecution was non-issue.

The book can’t be all things to all people. It isn’t a theology book, nor is it a biblical examination of church and it isn’t a book about solutions or a new model. It is a historical examination of the practices the church imported from the culture around them and a critique of their usage. There is much to debate about in the book but it is definitely worth reading.

I’d like to reflect on the most important issues the books raises for me.

How does the church evaluate traditions we imported from the broader culture?

The book points out a number of church practices that have no basis in scripture. While the authors acknowledge that just because a given practice is not found in scripture (or in their terms the more rhetorically charged “pagan”) it isn’t necessarily a bad way of doing things. The authors examine the lion’s share of church practices and find fault in almost all of them. Because they don’t actually dedicate any significant portion of the book to something that is “pagan” that they don’t find fault in it can give people the impression that they really have no use for any aspect of contemporary church whatsoever.

In each chapter most of their energies were spent deconstructing any given church practice like the use of buildings or the role of pastors. It was at the end where judgment was passed on the church practice. I thought the arguments they made for abolishment of things like buildings and clergy lacked the same depth that the deconstruction had.

In response to the challenge of this book we could be researching the real world outcomes of the things like sermons, paid clergy and buildings. Each of these practices undoubtedly has a positive and negative side. What is it about a building that hinders broader participation? Can a church change what they do in the building and make it a base for compassion or justice minsitries? How would one evaluate the Internet as a vehicle for church ministry?

While I may pick on the authors for not presenting a complete picture of the impacts of these church practices I have to fault contemporary church leaders for their inordinate focus on the positive outcomes on current church practices while ignoring the negative. All church practices should go through vigorous scrutinty and comparison.

The fundamental assumption behind conventional church ministry
The primary paradigm for church ministry today is information transfer. There are people who are properly trained and certified to convey messages to people who are less qualified. These messages are conveyed primarily through preaching and teaching which will instruct, encourage and admonish he faithful in to a deeper more life changing relationship with God. The buildings are necessary because you need lots of room for all the people to financially support one of these specially trained and certified people to do the proper preaching and teaching. The sermon is the primary vehicle for the message. Christian education is used for training people and tithing exists to financially support the system.

Some people might want to nuance the concept to be something broader and deeper than “information transfer.” One might call it “word” ministry. This kind of ministry has some scriptural basis. In the New Testament we see it largely in operation among people who hadn’t decided to follow Christ or were very new in their committment.

Among more mature Christians there is a shift. It is abundantly clear that genuine love was the glue that kept things together, not a committment to an organization or attending an event. God’s power is evident through the spiritual gifts working in the body. The primary vehicle for ministry was interpersonal relationships. This can be seen in the kind of instructions we see in the letters. The problems that were dealt with were ones that would arise from a “ organic” kind of community.

I believe that one of the primary reasons why conventional ministy has provided diminishing returns over the last couple of decades is that it is geared towards the illiterate masses of the world of yesterday. A movement towards more relationships and stronger participation by all members would fit better in our context.

Our reliance on “ information exchange” is a major point of weakness because among the mature it does next to nothing.

The New Testament is worth reading when it comes to church

Last summer I spent a number of days of my vacation reading through the New Testament gleaning what I could about church. There isn’t much in terms of explicit instructions about church and many of those instructions were sent to very specific churches to address very specific problems. The wealth of the knowledge comes from how ministry is described, the values of the authors, and the kinds of problems that are dealt with. The picture of church in the New Testament is primarily relational with lots ministry participation. It is very different from what we know today.

  1. #1 by grace on January 29, 2008 - 9:30 am

    Good review. I agree that the authors conclusions weakened the validity of their presentation. There is a need for scrutiny of practices within the church (not just from those who have left) which is what I hoped this book would bring to the table. Overall, do you think the book will be helpful or detrimental toward that purpose?

  2. #2 by Nathan on January 29, 2008 - 3:25 pm

    Good review. I added it to my list!


  3. #3 by Kelly on January 29, 2008 - 8:12 pm

    hey LT;
    I came over to your blog tonight and I wish I’d visited more often! I’m linking you over on my page so I don’t forget that this is here. I wish I had time to read the book you reviewed!

  4. #4 by LT on January 29, 2008 - 9:18 pm

    “Overall, do you think the book will be helpful or detrimental toward that purpose?”

    It is hard to say. I think change happens much more quickly when people get desperate. Not so much when they are challenged by a book.

  5. #5 by William on January 30, 2008 - 12:24 pm

    I think this book is geared toward those “ready” for a change. for those of a divine discontentment. for those not afraid of going into unchartered waters. for people who really want to live not just survive. I agree with LT’s statement that “change happens much more quickly when people get desperate.” crisis has a way of making words of truth pop out from the pages your reading from. yes, I’ve read much of Viola’s material and I say it is prophetic in nature and caring in character. say, has anyone of you met the man?

  6. #6 by LT on January 30, 2008 - 11:43 pm

    has anyone of you met the man?

    I haven’t.

  7. #7 by Jon Zens on January 31, 2008 - 9:48 am

    In response to the query, “has any one of you met the man?”, I know Frank very well, and regard him as one of my closest friends. He is very humble, open to the input of others, and has a great sense of humor. Most of all, he desires to see Christ flourish in the Body of Christ.

    You can hear him in conversation and in response to questions in interviews he has recently done at

    While the NT certainly does not unfold neither as a detailed manual for church life, nor as a blueprint like Levitcus for church gatherings, it cannot be denied that Paul repeatedly calls the brethren to follow “the traditions” passed on by the apostles and commends them for so doing.

    Thus 1 Cor.14 stands as a fascinating “test case” in how we selectively use the NT. For the most part, evangelicals have put 1 Cor.14 on the shelf to collect dust. Functionally, the distinct impression is given that 1 Cor.14 is irrelevant for our coming together as a church. Hence, the question that looms large in my heart is, “Why have we exalted and set in concrete that for which there is not a shred of evidence — the pastor, the sermon and the pulpit — and in the process of clinging to these human traditions, ignored and missed the tremendous blessings of open, Christ-centered meetings where each one can bring an edifying contribution?”

    William Barclay said about this passage, “There was obviously a freedom and informality about it which is completely strange to our ideas . . . . There was obviously a flexibility about the order of service in the early Church which is now totally lacking . . . . The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contributing something to it.”

    There is nothing in the NT about pastor/staff dominated gatherings. We would do well to consider that perhaps Christ’s presence would prosper and the brethren would be spurred on to growth and maturity if we paid more attention to the glimpses of ekklesia life displayed in the New Testament.

    Jon Zens
    Editor, Searching Together

  8. #8 by John Coroy on February 1, 2008 - 7:09 am

    I just finished the book and found it very interesting. Well written and researched. The summary of traditions at the end will continue to be a resource for me. When reviewing some of the traditions I blindly carried out, I honestly cringed and felt gullible. I believe that this book will be helpful because it has the potential to cause a vigorous debate in the traditional church world which is always healthy when sincere hearts are seeking truth. Those without ears to hear will vigorously oppose it on some technical grounds no doubt. Some will intentionally miss the whole point by clouding the real issue. Is the New Testament our definitive guide on practice and worship or not?

    I do have a comment and following question on the acceptance of tradition. In the original Passover given to Moses, wine was not mentioned as a part of the meal. When Jesus conducts it and still today traditionally 4 cups are consumed. Where/when did the cups of wine get added in? The Babylonian captivity? Jesus obviously accepted this addition and used it in a profound way even though its use in the Seder meal is not specifically found in scripture.

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