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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is Christianity Mostly Pagan? (II)

Modern Fads and Trendy Churches

The modern Church is rife with fads and what is worse still the fads pass as genuine worship of the God of Scripture. From marketing the Church with the accompanying enormous down side, to the journey affectionately known as the “Emergent conversation,” there is a veritable “spiritual” smörgåsbord available to the modern consumer of things spiritual. Have you noticed that even some pagans have taken to calling themselves “spiritual,” but not religious?

In addition, there are those who call themselves Christians or evangelicals who feel no compunction to attend worship, but are satisfied to bear the name of Christian even though they do not hear the preaching of the Word of God, without partaking of the sacraments, without tithing, without praying, without singing praises to God, and without Christian fellowship. Yep. Sounds like genuine, “authentic” Christianity to me, doesn’t it to you? When you break it down like this, being “spiritual” is a minimalist concept. It’s like having the Supreme Being “out there somewhere;” the Man Upstairs, who could not give a fig about your life and never, never makes any moral obligations on you. That’s my definition on modern spirituality. You can be a metro-spiritual. Why not? If you can be a metro-sexual; you can be a metro-spiritual. By the way, a true metro-sexual will have seen the movie Sex and the City two or three times by now, but has no desire to see Indiana Jones.

To date, we have run the gamut of the technological church to the ultra-simple church. The former is characterized by a marketing/CEO/CFO approach, while the latter is more at home with a folksy, laid back emphasis on community. (I’ll leave Jeremiah Wright and Father Pfleger out of the discussion, but I must admit that I don’t quite understand how so many can scream about the separation of Church and State and allow Wright, Pfleger, Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Hillary to “speak” in churches. What they’re holding is nothing less than a political rally. But our elected officials warn other churches not to promote or descry candidates, even if the candidate in question is in favor of partial-birth abortion. Can you say “double standard”?)

Both the “techie” and “folksy” forms share the following notions: doctrine really isn’t that important and the “consumer” is king. Both modernism and postmodernism are fluid categories, with a lot of overlap; both are profoundly impacted by relativism and pragmatism.

I mentioned in the first installment in this series that Frank Viola and George Barna have re-released a 2002 work entitled Pagan Christianity?[1] This book questions the origin of virtually every aspect of what has come to be called the traditional Christian Church. One of the main theses of the authors is that almost from the outset Christianity adopted elements from paganism and incorporated them into what has come to be called “worship” in our time. The net result is that components of paganism formed what the authors believe is pagan Christianity.

In the place of this rat infested, bastardized worship, Viola offers a fully functioning body of believers, in which all participate and play an active role rather than sit on the sidelines watching. Few could or should argue with this aspiration. After all, far too few in the modern Church are vibrant, robust participants/members in Christ’s Church. But Viola’s call is really nothing new. During the period of the Reformation, the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism taught that true believers are and forever should remain living members of Christ’s Church (Cf. Lord’s Day 21, Q/A 54). They further taught that each believer is duty bound “to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well being of the other members” (Ibid., Q/A 55).

As often as not, the modern Church can be characterized by a football analogy. In a game, there are twenty-two men on the field in need of rest and thousands sitting in the stands in need of exercise. Typically, there seems to be a “core of the faithful” in every congregation that get 90% of what needs to get done accomplished, while the overwhelming majority is blissfully willing to stand by and watch it all happen. They are also usually the first to have criticism when they don’t like what others have done. I call these folks the “takers.” They will show up for worship, just don’t ask them to help in any way. This being the case, Viola’s encouragement for more member participation is, within reason, a welcome, biblical suggestion.

There are times, however, when the prescription for cure is worse than the disease or when it’s simply the incorrect prescription. In my estimation, Viola’s book is such a book. Along similar lines to Harold Kamping, Viola is advocating a kind of dismantling of the modern Church, opting rather for house churches where literally everyone has the opportunity fully to participate in each home “worship service.” It is an undeniable, indisputable truth that at the outset the Christian Church met in the homes of the members, although the church in Jerusalem appears to have been sufficiently large to have met in a separate building (Comp. Acts 6:7 with 8:1). We disagree with Viola that house churches were the only places where Christians met. House churches were clearly in use at the outset, but they were not the only mode of meeting and worshiping. It is clear from the New Testament letters and writings that there were organized churches, with specific leadership qualifications as well as restrictions for who could not be a leader, teacher, preacher, Elder, or Deacon.

In the opening chapter of his book (“Have We Really Been Doing It by the Book?”), Viola questions whether we are truly worshiping the Lord “by the book,” which is an entirely legitimate and very important question. Quite frankly, I’m very pleased that he asks the question, but I disagree with his conclusions of why the modern Church is not worshiping by the book. Viola constructs a scenario where a fictitious pastor tells his congregation that in their congregation, things are done “by the book,” i.e., by the Bible. An equally fictitious congregant silently begins to question getting “dressed up” for church, how hypocritical it is to have just had an argument with his wife and kids on the way to church, the notion of sitting in pews to listen to a sermon, why half of the congregation is barely awake, why his kids hate Sunday school, and why he participates in the same, yawn-inspiring ritual every Sunday when all going to church does is bore him to tears and does nothing for him spiritually.

This sounds very much like an unspiritual congregation and congregant. Viola carefully avoids giving you sufficient information to draw any conclusions. For example, is the congregant making active use of the means of grace that God has supplied? That is, is he reading his Bible and praying daily? Is he leading his wife spiritually? Is he the spiritual leader in his home or is he derelict in those duties? How serious is the congregation about the Word of God? How much do they prepare themselves for worship? How serious had they been about taking the requisite time to insure that this church was a true church according to biblical principles?

Viola, however, is well acquainted with pop-psychology as he sidesteps such questions and plants the seed of doubt in his fictitious character as well as every reader who is as unspiritual as the character. It’s all so subjective. Here’s what Viola writes: “Winchester felt unclean and sacrilegious to ask such things. Yet something was happening inside of him that compelled him to doubt his entire experience. These thoughts had been lying dormant in Winchester’s subconscious for years. Today, they surfaced.”[2] No doubt, a number of mega-church and Emergent church movement folks can identify with such generalities, but I contend that a spiritually mature, discerning, and discriminating Christian will find this all a ploy.

One of Viola’s theses throughout the book is that the New Testament Church had no honorific titles and that they were not organized hierarchically. He offers Matthew 23:8-12; 20:25-28; and Luke 22:25-26 as “proofs.” You see, even non-leader leaders use biblical texts from time to time. They just don’t like it when others use them. For them, it’s okay; if others use them they are fundamentalist proof-texters. In our next issue, I will offer some “proofs” to show that Viola is simply dead wrong here.

[1] George Barna & Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 20082).

[2] Ibid., 3. Emphasis added.



Blogger Jeff said...

Glad you are reviewing the book, or I hope more to the point, the thought behind the book. I hope you can get deeper than the surface. Frank Viola bothers me. There is something about the way he is communicating that bothers me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, though. Is it his attitude of “certainty”? No, because we can be certain of things and still be gentle with our words. Another reviewer called him “critical and cynical” and I don’t think that is far off the mark. I’ll give you credit for reading the book, since after reading several papers put out by Viola’s ministry, there was no way I could read a whole book by him.

Full disclosure: I come from a church that meets in a building (so we are looked down upon by those “house-church” people). We have no “pastor”. We take no “offering”. We have “elders”. We mostly all come out of denominational backgrounds. We are small, diverse, and informal. But we didn’t get this way by reading books (though we are all well read). We read the Bible and do what we feel the Holy Spirit directs us to do. We have done this for 30 years.

I agree in principle with many of the conclusions Viola comes to. He concludes many things correctly, such as: Christ is the true subject of Scriptures, the church is a living thing, and people in the church should exercise spiritual gifts, and function, etc. I even think house churches may be even healthier in the long run than an organized, structured, denominational church. But, the way he gets to the conclusion hurts people. There are a huge number of comments, even in a few papers, that are grossly out of line. His attitude hides an agenda.

Some things don’t ring true as I read them. On the one hand he seeks after the true New Testament pattern for the church, but on the other hand he cozies up to the emerging church. They have no interest at all in NT patterns. What gives?

I hope you can dig through what’s true and right and get to the heart of it.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

If I may extend my remarks, I do not want to judge Mr. Viola. He is a brother. He is seeking the heart of the Lord. I want to make it clear my comments relate to what he teaches, not who he is in the Lord.

10:38 AM  
Blogger J. R. Miller said...

Hi, if you are interested, I am posting a 5 part interview with both George Barna and Frank Viola. Please feel free to pass the word and share your thoughts.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Soon I will be discussing what I consider to be gaping holes in Mr. Viola's treatment of the subject of his book.
For the time being, however, consider how his non-hierarchical house meeting squares with Heb. 13:17: "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."
The same would apply to the emergent conversation that also eschews leaders--theoretically--but has tons of them practically.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

I appreciate your comments. I've heard several theolgoical minds say similar things.

One point of contention though: I don't know of an 'emergent' church leader who isn't interested in the New Testament pattern of the church. I'm sure some exist, but I know of nobody.


9:07 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Yes, that is true. The word "Pattern" means something very specific to me, which it may not mean to others. You have no doubt read much more of the writings of the emerging people than I. I struggled mightily through a couple of very popular paperback books by the young emerging writers. What I read said nothing about what I think of as pattern.

In those books, I was horrified, insulted, amazed, disappointed, and in the end deeply sorrowful for the readers of them. I think of lost sheep without a shepherd. My heart aches for the young who are being led to bad pastures.

To use the name "Jesus" is not the same as recognizing Jesus Christ Lord. There is only one foundation to build on. If they don't begin with the right foundation, the rest is all wood, hay, and stubble. The next generation will suffer because of these influences.

4:55 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

Thanks for the clarification. I'm add... I know of no emerging church leaders who do not declare Jesus Christ as Lord.

Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Scott McNight, Mark Scandrette, Karen Ward Doug Paggit, Lilly Lewin, Jason Evans, Joel McClure, Pete Rollins, Jason Clark, Rob Bell...

I suspect that the Spirit has the church in a better place than we are capable of imagining... of course, this assumes that we really declare that Jesus is Lord :)

8:30 AM  

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