Tuesday, April 6, 2010

This Book Beat Me Up

I purchased my copy of Pagan Christianity? several months ago. I have to confess that it was so challenging that after I read a few chapters I put the book on my shelf with no intent of ever finishing it.

Well, after recently reading House Church, I decided to give Pagan Christianity? another try. I finished it this time (and I'm black-and-blue for it).

It's not that the writing style is difficult. Rather, it is what the author, Frank Viola, has to say that is so challenging. Basically, Viola takes a look at many of our church practices and shows that they have pagan roots. This is startling to read and difficult to digest.

The most impressive aspect of this book is the research that went into it. Viola backs up his claims with both the biblical record and church history. He shows that much of what we do in modern, Western Christianity came out of Roman pagan practices. After Emperor Constantine made Christianity the preferred religion in the empire, the pagans brought numerous practices into the life of the church. We still use, with some alteration, many of those practices today.

Viola spends each chapter on a particular topic. Reading these struck me blow-by-blow, as if in a boxing match. The author tells how (for example) the church building, the modern worship service, the modern sermon, and the modern preacher all have pagan backgrounds. By contrast, Viola looks at the biblical record to prove that the early church met in homes, gathered in a participatory manner, took turns speaking during meetings, and looked to Christ for leadership.

Since I'm currently serving as pastor in a traditional, Western church, you can see how this book challenged me a great deal. I'm struggling to know what to do with all this. It is a good struggle, but a struggle nonetheless.

For me, the issue comes down to whether or not the church practices we read about in the New Testament are designed to be prescriptive or descriptive. In other words, is the example we read about in Acts, I Corinthians, etc. what we are supposed to follow (a command) or do we have freedom in this areas (a possibility of what we can do).

I've grown up believing that what we read in the N.T. is simply descriptive. However, the more I study the more I'm beginning to think it may be prescriptive.

What do you think?

Back to Pagan Christianity? - I highly recommend it. Read it (if you dare).

To go to the book's homepage, click here. To order the book, click here.


Arthur Sido said...

I am like you in that I always assumed it was descriptive but I think the question now is: what is the underlying principle? In Acts 2 and 4, what is the point? In 1 Cor 14, what is Paul trying to express? Those hard questions lead to some hard to swallow answers.

Eric said...


I agree that the answers can be difficult to swallow. Change is often uncomfortable, especially when things have been done a certain way for years. Those principles you talk about often fly in the face of what we see in the modern church.

Les Puryear said...


I read this book and was very disappointed. This book belongs to a genre that has been popular lately called the "everything is wrong with the church and here's how to fix it" genre. I have grown tired of these complainers.

Allow me to recommend a book to you that will challenge your thinking in a different direction. Kevin DeYoung's "Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion."

Have a great day.


Eric said...


Thank you for the comment. I like Kevin DeYoung and have read his book, "Just Do Something." I'll have to check out the one you are suggesting.

As for this book, I think Viola makes some very valid points. I have yet to hear anyone refute the historical evidence he presents. I agree that there are many people who complain about the church without presenting any evidence. It was the evidence that spoke to me in this text.

As for the modern church, there are many problems (at least in general). What I'm pondering now is whether or not a main reason the church has so many problems is that we are not copying the model we see in scripture.

Thanks again.

Nicholas said...

Les, I agree - DeYoung/Kluck's book "Why We Love the Church" is an excellent book, and if I remember correctly, they even address Viola/Barna's book in that.

Eric, This book (Pagan Christianity) is really a watered down version of emergent church literature. In one of his earlier books, Barna worked hard to try and explain how it is that two Christian men getting together to play golf on a Sunday morning is a legitimate way of "doing church" and that we shouldn't really question that - it's how they "worship".

Here are 2 reviews to look at:

http://www.housechurch.org/blog/2008/02/18/pagan-christianity-real-hope-or-shrill-hype/ (This guy is actually a part of the house church movement - I have a lot of disagreements about what he writes, but this article nails it - he addresses each point very specifically)

Joe Thorn did a few posts on it as well:

Eric said...


Thanks for the links. I'll take a look at them.

Don't worry - I'm not going emergent. I also don't agree with everything Barna says.

I just ordered DeYoung's book and will be sure to read it soon.

That said, I do think Viola makes some good points. If there is a pagan background to at least some of what we do, then we need to take a hard look at those practices. Additionally, the church in the modern West is, in general, struggling a great deal. Why is this so? It may be that what we are doing simply is not effective. Maybe we need to try to follow what is presented in the N.T. Clearly, we would not do, for example, the things that the church in Corinth got wrong. However, we could do what they got right.

These are the things I'm thinking over right now. As I said in the post, it is a good struggle (even if it is uncomfortable).

Alan Knox said...


Description/prescription tends to be determined more by our background/tradition/denomination than any hermeneutical method. We will often choose one thing to be prescriptive while we choose something else in the very same sentence or passage to the descriptive only.

I hope you read DeYoung's book. I'd love to hear your take on it.


Eric said...


I agree completely. We tend to see things as prescriptive that we are already doing. We see things as descriptive that would challenge our current beliefs and practices.

I remember a blog post you once did on Acts chapter 20 that points this out. I think you wrote that we take as prescriptive Paul's admonition to defend the flock but as descriptive Paul's statement about it being more blessed to give than receive. The reason is simple: pastors like the idea of being the defender, but they don't want to give up their paycheck.

Oh how difficult it is to change what we like to do in order to follow the biblical model!

Anonymous said...


I think biblical theology, genre, the historic witness of the church, and just plain common sense require of us that we interpret the New Testament teaching on the church descriptively and prescriptively. I am optimistic that this can actually be accomplished with Scripture as the authority, and without tradition holding us in a straightjacket but instead offering us a guide.

You give the example of 1 Corinthians. What of the Corinthian church would you take to be prescriptive? As far as that church's practice is concerned, I hope you'd say, "almost nothing" (I think you would). So what you're really talking about with that example is the prescriptions Paul gives to that church to make a course correction. But note that the model Paul gives us is one largely constructed by negation (i.e. he tells us much of what we ought not to do, less of what we are to do).

With Acts, the genre is markedly descriptive. It is history that records for us the activities of the early church. Are there prescriptive principles we can infer and apply? Certainly. But where Scripture does not mandate something or teach by inference (such as with the question of baptism in Acts 19, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, etc.), I believe there is freedom. Nowhere, for example, does the New Testament dismiss the idea of Christians meeting in buildings even if they themselves did not have them. Which is more likely: that they did not have them because they were trying to make an ecclesiological point, or because they were a persecuted minority on the fringes of society who even if they could have facilitated large gatherings in large buildings would have incurred the ire of Rome?

Grace and peace,

Eric said...


Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your thoughts and I'll take them into consideration as I think through these things.

I agree with you that the church in Corinth had many problems. Even a cursory reading of the epistle should show us that. However, there are positives. For example, Paul makes an important statement about their gatherings in 14:26. This shows us that their gatherings were participatory in nature. Paul could have told them to stop this, but he did not. Considering the negative tone of the letter, his silence on this is important. Paul's focus is certainly that they do all things for edification. So we must ask, "Does Paul want their meetings to be participatory or is he just describing them?" I think we may be too quick to simply say he is being descriptive.

As for Acts, I agree that much is descriptive. However, since the apostles were with the early church, we can rightly assume that their activities/practice were approved (unless the text says otherwise). The apostles would know better than anyone else what Christ would have wanted for His church. Regarding meeting locations, we know that homes were approved. Otherwise, the apostles certainly would have told them to stop. What about large buildings like we have today? We don't know. Do we have freedom in this area? Again, we don't know. Therefore, it appears that when we follow the biblical model (those things which were done with the apostles' knowledge and approval), we can know we are correct. When we get outside what is mentioned in scripture, then we simply do not know.

Thanks again.

Aussie John said...


During the first twenty, of fifty years of preaching and teaching, I often struggled with the fact that we Baptists, like most churches, are masters at reading Scripture through the filter of our suppositions, no matter what flavor we are.

I also know that most Baptists,as do other churches, even though not realising it, hold their suppositions as equally authoritative as Scripture, and as such view challenges to those views with hostility.

To challenge those suppositions is regarded as heresy.

I found Viola to be dealing with many of the questions which I had earlier pushed to one side. I simply stuck my head in the sand.

I certainly don't agree with everything Viola writes, but he has affirmed my own long held belief that until we deal with the fact that the ecclesiology which we inherited from the Reformation is still basically pre-Reformation, and the cause of much of the growing disfunction which is so apparent, and, this is being exacerbated by church leaders who would, it seems,rather see the church destroyed than admit the possibility they could be fallible and misled.

Eric said...


It is fascinating how we pick and choose what practices we want to use. To say that we really look to scripture in all we do would be, I think, dishonest.

An interesting question is how much freedom we have. I'm not sure.

I do know this. In the modern American church we do many things which cannot be found in the bible. I also know the church as a whole is dying. Is there a connection between the slow death of the church and our unbiblical practices? It sure seems so.

Jeffrey said...


Excellent post. I would, however, disagree with your last answer to John that the church is dying. It depends on what you call the "church". Capitalization helps me think it through. A 503C corporation with real estate holdings and paid employees is the "church", with a little c. The People that gather in the name of Jesus are the "Church", with a big C.

In my experience, most Christians have a gnawing, growing realization that church is broken. They desire to be part of the big C Church, but little c church is all they've known, so they confuse the two.

We know that the gates of hell will not prevail upon the Church, but what I see is the remnants of the institutions that people have come to feel comfortable with, and have called the church, to be less and less appealing to believers. If I were to attempt to put a finger on why, I would guess it's because people are generally not allowed to use their gifts and be participatory members of the living organism that is the Church. A select few, fit the needs of the organization and are allowed to do what they're called to. Most, however are only allowed to serve the institution.

Honestly, I couldn't care less if every church in America closed it's doors. The Church in America will continue. I've ofter heard that the reason the Church in China is so strong, is because it is persecuted. I'm sure there's some truth to that. Either directly, or indirectly related to the persecution, however, is probably an element of participatory fellowship when many of those believers meet.

As an aside, in my opinion, the real estate holdings, possessions, and salaries related to the 503c corporation cause huge problems for the church. What good do they do? People feel pressured to give to build buildings. Staff members do things they know to not be God's will for their life, due to the golden hand cuffs of a pay check. fellowships, at best spend tons of time dealing with repairs, bills, etc, and at worst, divide over stuff. My question would be, what possible good does a building do? Is it worth all the trouble? I don't think that meeting in a building is evil, but my guess is that God used the home fellowships as an example that anyone could follow. Not everyone in the world, or in history can afford a building. Since Churches have functioned without them since Pentecost, they are inarguably not necessary.

Pick any other man-made element in the church, and you could probably see the same pattern. It's not mentioned in Scripture, because at best, you don't need it, and at worst, it's detrimental to the growth of the Body (and by growth, I don't mean numbers.

How much better to sell it all, give it away, meet in homes, get together periodically in larger groups if desired, and let everyone do what God calls them to do? The only "drawback" would be that some would lose control/ position, and cede it to Christ.

I think much of the struggle people have with what you're currently working through, is guilt at letting go of little c church, because it's what we've always known, and confused with big C Church. Don't worry, Jesus is more than able to bring believers together and shepherd them as his Church.

Who will trust Him?

Eric said...


Thanks for the comment.

A little clarification on my part would be good. When I say the church is dying, I'm referring to the Western, modern church that depends on buildings, programs, and single pastors. That system of church is proving to be ineffective in reaching the lost or bringing about practical holiness of the saints.

Christ's church, however, will never die. We know that from the scripture you mentioned. Gatherings of Christ's followers will continue no matter what the world does.

If this country exists in 100 years, the church will still be here. However, this modern church that is common today will, I believe, be long gone.

Anonymous said...


Is it the buildings, programs, and polity that are having the greatest negative impact, or the Christianity-lite born from pragmatism, consumerism, and individualism? Where you might see the former as symptoms of the latter, I actually see the Viola and Barna proposal as a symptom of the latter. This is even more clear when you follow the trajectory of the Christian anarchist movement a la Jacques Ellul, etc. Forget catholicity. Forget the historic contributions of Spirit-filled Christians from the second century onward (nay, go so far as to dismiss the patterns they developed as hopelessly pagan [see Liberalism, Protestant and Harnack, Adolf von]). Forget the conventional models (they're not really working to reach the lost and they're pagan too). Forget ecclesial authority (each of us individually knows better what the Bible says anyway).

Eric, I have very much appreciated your concern for needless division in the Body of Christ, but I can't imagine a direction more fragmentary than this one. Instead of looking for the most common ground in a church as possible to warrant participating in it, this approach looks for all the things that are wrong with a church to excuse separating from it.

Eric said...


To answer your first question, I believe both groups are problems. I see the former leading to some of the latter. I would not, however, say they are the only cause.

As for historic contributions through the years of the church, these may be valid or may not. If I can't see the practices in scripture, then I don't know what to think anymore. I'm not trying to be arrogant, I just want to be as biblical as I can be.

Rather than separate from other Christians, my hope is to encourage followers of Christ to look to the biblical model. My reasoning is two-fold. First, there are church practices seen in scripture that we can know are approved by the apostles. Second, and this is more pragmatic, I see much of what we do today as simply ineffective in bringing about growth in Christ.

My goal is not division. My goal is a biblical church. We must be willing to ask hard questions like the ones Viola asks.


Anonymous said...

I hope my comments are not coming across as too harsh. I sometimes write too passionately.

Just to clarify, all of my comments are directed toward the book. I have read your previous posts and I know your heart on division, etc. I appreciate how you are thinking through these things and I have enjoyed reading your commentary. Most of all I appreciate your desire for your thinking to be conformed to the Word of God.

I'm only saying that I've seen some of the out-working of this movement firsthand, and I'm not convinced that biblical unity is at all a priority.


Eric said...


Your comments are fine and appropriate. Thanks.

I agree with you that Viola and Barna do not seem concerned with unity. They seem ready to "cut the cord" and be done with all things traditional whatsoever, including the church as a whole. This is a problem.

Additionally, I wish the book had been written with a little less of a negative tone. Granted, the content was out of necessity negative, but I wish the tone had been more gracious.

I'm looking forward to reading another of Viola's books entitled, "Reimagining Church." It is the positive to Pagan Christianity's negative.

I think there is much we can learn in looking at the genesis of our church practices. For this I commend Viola. I hope that unity does not get completely tossed by the wayside.

Keith said...

I'm working through this book now. The message I'm getting from it is not that certain practices are wrong because they have pagan origins. It's that they are wrong, because they facilitate passivity. I need to do something besides sit still for a few hours and listen to other people speak or sing.

Eric said...


It's good to hear from you!

The book was very challenging to me for that very reason. It seems that in general the pagan practices led to a passive laity. The church we see in the NT, however, was active as a whole. I Cor. 14 gives us this as a model.

Watch out for this book! Most pastors don't like it at all because it confronts most of what they do.

ceeking_truth said...

Pastor Eric, (it says ceekingtruth but this is really Jessica Auner) I read this blog post a few days ago while I was looking for wisdom on another topic. I read all your posts about the church and it intriges me. So I looked and Provedentially my local (very small and NEVER has the book I want) library actually HAD the book. I have NOT been able to put this book down. I have driven Bobby crazy (not really) with little snippets but then when I would say something and he would get defensive he would grab a Bible and try and dispute it. While it's not something we are used to, it has definately got me thinking. I can't put this book down. Thank you for blogging about this book. Ok I'll drop another note when I get through with the book. By the way I am really impressed that you have been so open to exploring this topic. Tell your wife I said hello and i really enjoyed chatting with her.

Eric said...


This book is one that intrigues a lot of people, but also upsets a lot of others. I know it challenged me a great deal.

I recently read two other books that helped my thinking about the church. One is entitled "House Church." You can find that one at www.ntrf.org. Another helpful book is entitled "Why We Love the Church." That one is a defense of the traditional church. You can find it at www.whywelovethechurch.com. Just so you know, Nick likes "Why We Love the Church," but I do not. I just didn't find the authors' arguments convincing. Anyway, God bless you as you think about what Christ's church should both be and do.