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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 05, 2008

Is Christianity Mostly Pagan?

A New Release of an Older Book

In 2002, George Barna and Frank Viola released a book entitled Pagan Christianity? One of the main theses is that what passes for a “liturgy” today—do modern Christians even know what liturgy means anymore?—is little more than the incorporation of several pagan elements. It is not as if, however, Barna and Viola only desire to point us to what they believe are serious problems in the modern Church, but they also offer an alternative: a return to house churches as we find in the New Testament. But there is more. Viola aims at a house church where anyone of any gender or age can do anything at anytime. Of course, this destroys his thesis because women were prohibited from certain duties and ministries in the New Testament Church, which seems to escape Viola. Nonetheless, at this point I’m only reporting to you what Barna and Viola claim.

In the Preface, Viola itemizes a number of errors in the modern Church. First, he tells us, “contemporary Christianity is guilty of the error of the Pharisees.”[1] More specifically, the modern Church has introduced “traditions that have suppressed the living, breathing, functional headship of Jesus Christ in His church.”[2]

As if being Pharisaical weren’t enough, the modern Church is also accused of being Sadducee-like as well. From Viola’s perspective, “the great bulk of first-century practices have been removed from the Christian landscape.”[3] How will Christianity ever recover from such a blow? Well, according to Viola, thankfully there are still a few daring souls in the faith “who have taken the terrifying step of leaving the safe camp of institutional Christianity.”[4] In reality, Viola is suggesting little more than an extension of the Emergent church movement.

Viola asserts that God has not been silent when it comes to the principles that govern the practice of his Church.[5] God was, however, silent for a long time if Viola is correct—and I don’t think he is—because the Almighty allowed paganism or pagan elements to dominate his Church and her liturgy for almost two thousand years without intervening. This is slightly akin to N.T. Wright’s belief that no one got justification by faith right until he appeared on the scene. With the necessary changes being made, the Church has been a hodge-podge of raw paganism until Viola and Barna appeared to rescue the day.

A series of questions are posed that I believe are very good ones, but our conclusions are light years apart. Here are Viola’s questions: “Where do we find our practices for the Christian life? Where is our model for understanding what a Christian is in the first place? Is it not found in the life of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the New Testament? Or do we borrow it from somewhere else? Perhaps a pagan philosopher?”[6]

Here are my answers: We find our practices for the Christian life in the Bible—all of it. Our model for understanding what a Christian is in the first place is Christ as he is revealed in all of Scripture (Cf. Luke 24:27, 44). Our model is found in Jesus, but in terms of the biblical doctrines, we are to be acquainted with the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) and to realize that Jesus, Paul, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, Peter, Jude, John, and the other biblical human authors do not contradict each other. Do we borrow our model for understanding what a Christian is from other sources? Not if we are mature students of the Word; certainly not from a pagan philosopher.

Viola gives us an insight into his understanding of Scripture when he writes, “in the New Testament we have the genesis of the church.”[7] Really? He sounds very much like a dispensationalist. Others have taught that God’s Church existed from the beginning and that Adam and Eve were its first members. Keep this type of thinking from Viola in mind as we proceed.

In distinction from the modern Church, Viola opts for the first century model of the Church as an “organic entity.”[8] What is that precisely? “Organic churches are characterized by Spirit-led, open participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership.”[9] I want you to keep this thesis in mind as well. How do we know conclusively that our worship is “Spirit-led”? Does the New Testament recommend “open participatory meetings” when certain participants are told to remain silent? (Cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-12.) Moreover, the phrase “nonhierarchical leadership” is a contradiction in terms. In real life, the buck has to stop somewhere with someone. Viola, who ends up being the primary author, wants us to believe his words, even though he does not substantiate them biblically. In this sense, he is just like McLaren and the Emergent church tribe.

Finally, we are given this thesis in the Preface: “that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does.”[10] As I mentioned earlier, there is a very real sense in which I agree with Viola, at least about the contemporary aspect. There is nothing biblically incorrect about the Church as an institute, with the exception of the manner in which the Roman Catholic Church has defined it.

As far as the contemporary manifestation of what is supposed to pass for “church,” David Wells has provided us with an excellent guide regarding what is dreadfully wrong in his latest book, The Courage to Be Protestant.[11] From the marketers of the mega-church movment to the Emergent conversation, we are dealing with a contemporary form of worship and “doing church” that has neither a biblical nor historical right to function as it does. I would also add to this list the form of “church” that Viola and Barna advocate in this book.

In all three—the mega-church, the Emergent church, and Viola’s “house church,” there is a great deal that is patently unbiblical. As far as reference to a historical form, the mega-church exchanged that decades ago when it became “seeker sensitive” and “user friendly.” What mattered most was not the historical root of the Christian faith, but entertaining the troops and keeping them blissfully happy—and ignorant.

Old Bri has repeatedly stated that he is not fond of how the creeds of the Church have expressed the faith once contended for (Jude 3), but for some reason likes the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The longer the “conversation” drags on, however, the more untenable even these generic creeds become for McLaren as he moves farther and farther from the orthodox Christian faith and increasingly embraces theological liberalism via the Social Gospel. The closer he comes to other world religions the farther he moves from the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

Viola contends that the Christian Church in its current form is an amalgamation of various pagan components. In essence, therefore, he is denying 4,000 years of Church History that has specified that worship services are not to be “open-participatory meetings” in the sense that he employs the phrase. The assertions that Viola (and Barna) make in this book require a veritable mountain of biblical, scriptural proof, which they do not supply. His caveat is a weak excuse: “This is not a work for scholars, so it is by no means exhaustive.”[12] That’s fine. It is not a prerequisite that the book be either scholarly or exhaustive. It does seem fair, however, since Viola is disputing thousands of years of ecclesiastical practice that he provides rather substantial evidence to make his case. That is not asking too much. Moreover, he can be thorough without being exhaustive, especially since he is advocating dismantling the contemporary form of Church and substitute another form in its place.

As we progress, I trust it will become increasingly evident that in chapter after chapter Viola barely produces substantive reasons for why he objects to certain practices, that he is a full-orbed Arminian, who is peddling his particular brand of theology, that he holds the Reformation and Puritan eras in disdain, and that his references are few. But after the mega-church and Emergent church movements, why should modern Christians be chagrined about the further devolvement into the abyss that Viola and Barna espouse? Bill Hybels’ actions said it best when he recently fully admitted that his mega-church, seeker-sensitive, marketing model had failed and failed miserably. For a moment I thought the man might have come to his senses, but no. Instead of returning to biblical orthodoxy, he invited the non-leader leaders of the Emergent conversation to his church for the spring meeting. This is all based on the adage: if two wrongs don’t make a right, why not try a third?

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

[2] Ibid., xviii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., xix.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., xx.

[11] David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[12] Ibid.



Blogger lee n. field said...

"One of the main theses is that what passes for a “liturgy” today—do modern Christians even know what liturgy means anymore?—is little more than the incorporation of several pagan elements."

This sounds a little, ummmm, crackpotty. Like something you'd hear from some marginally Christian cult, a few lessons before they hit you with the really weird stuff.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

Ron... I recall being about 12 years old as a good Christian school reformed kid and saying the following to my dad: "We have some of the best theology don't we?" His response was, "Yes. We think so."

I no longer believe that I always have the best answers. I believe I have a good handle of what God requires of me: "To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God."

You obviously still believe that you have all of the best answers on the planet. Too bad your humilty simply sucks.

10:43 PM  
Blogger jazzact13 said...

--Too bad your humilty simply sucks.--

That statement written with absolutely perfect humility, no doubt.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

You believe that the Bible is an enigma and that Christians are left without any certainty, any knowledge, any understanding, or any wisdom.
Your constant referral to Micah 6:8seems to miss the point because when others write about biblical justice you get exercised. If we are supposed to DO justice, does God make it clear what we are to do and how we are to do it? Or, is it simply a matter of preference?
I'll be looking forward to seeing you in an end zone or behind home plate with a Micah 6:8 sign, which would be an improvement over the John 3:16 text.
I agree: You no longer have the best answers, but for different reasons. I believe you no longer have the best answers because you have abandoned Scripture. May the Lord have mercy on those that you are leading and teaching this kind of nonsense to.

1:27 PM  
Blogger jazzact13 said...

--If we are supposed to DO justice, does God make it clear what we are to do and how we are to do it? Or, is it simply a matter of preference?--

Actually, it's probably a matter of getting dispatches from Wallis and McLaren and co. in order to find out what flavor the 'justice of the day' is.

A bit of false guilt over our nation's prosperity, a side order of biblical morality as oppression, a main course of socialism disguised as "social justice", some mindless leftist ranting for dessert, and a bit of self-righeousness to wash it all down.

Truly a feast only a Screwtape would savor.

5:06 AM  
Blogger IceDawg said...

I find your post somewhat inconsistent Randy. Obviously you still believe you have a better answer that rattle, otherwise, why put it forward? If you're not sure you have the best answer, why should we care that you disagree with rattle? If you don't believe you have the best answers, are you voluntarily accepting conclusions that you think are incorrect? I don't mean that as put-down humor, but can you see how those questions would come up based on your position/statement?

Also, the OT & NT have a total of 774,746 words written in them (or so it is reported). Do you think perhaps the other 774,733 (or 99.9983%) inspired words that you have not mentioned in the posts would have some additional teaching that may be able to help us define Micah 6:8 so we can better understand it? Again (this has been said to you many times), what does the Bible say justice looks like? How does the Bible describe the concept of mercy? What does it mean to walk humbly with your God? Those are all questions you need to answer biblically. So far, your post is to vague to be helpful to anyone looking for answers to those questions.

7:26 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

You wrote: "You believe that the Bible is an enigma and that Christians are left without any certainty, any knowledge, any understanding, or any wisdom."

For the record, I never said that. That kind of statement is simply a lie... or b.s. You continue to make conclusions and statements about people based on your theology rather than on what they say and write.

I respect the biblical text as much as you. I simply hold it differently. I believe it was inspired by the Spirit, and it has the abilty to breathe life into people.

I believe people can know much about God through the text. I believe it is our best source for knowing about God. But knowing the biblical text does not mean that we know God. Knowing about God and knowing God are two things that may intersect, but knowing about God doesn't necessarily lead to knowing God.

Our perspective that knowledge will lead to a deep passion for God may have great merit, but indoctrinating followers of Jesus doens't necessarily lead to more faithful followers of Jesus.

I believe we can know truth through the biblical text as it is understood within the faith community. In other words, the context of the church becomes our hermeneutic for understanding the gospel.

I believe the biblical text is a great means of finding wisdom. Yet, knowing the biblical text doens't necessarily lead to wisdom.

This is really why I find you frustrating. You know so much. You have so much knowledge; you've studied under great men.

Yet, my granfather with an 8th grade education had so much more wisdom. He lived into the biblical text in regard to his treatment of those who knew Christ and those who did not. He walked closely with God.

I believe wisdom is attained by being faithful, by living humby in the presence of God, and following his lead.

I believe God is sovereign enough to protect and guide his church so that I don't need to do this too much. I believe celebrating, and calling others to live into the kingdom of God is one of my greatest vocations in life.

I believe that people can know God, find an eternity in his presence, and find agape love if they follow the call to submit to the ways of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

I believe in an eternal hell, but I have no idea who will find themselves in that situation. I know God loves the world and his creation. I know that God is a God who is faithful, and I know that the biblical text says very little about 'hell' as we have come to know it.

I know Dante's 'Inferno' has largely shaped our understanding of hell, and the biblical text doesn't make reference to Dante's 'Inferno' since it had yett to be written. Neither do I believe it is inspired by the Spirit.

Ultimately, your conclusions about my life are entirely off. If we could get beyond this hurdle, perhaps we could have some understanding.


9:27 PM  
Blogger jazzact13 said...

--I know Dante's 'Inferno' has largely shaped our understanding of hell--

Umm, to the best of my knowledge, my understanding of hell has little to do with Dante's Inferno.

--I believe we can know truth through the biblical text as it is understood within the faith community. In other words, the context of the church becomes our hermeneutic for understanding the gospel.--

What is this suppose to mean? Does the church get to vote on what a passage means? If one church believes that Christ is the only way to God, and another believes that there are many ways, then neither ir wrong because that's the hermeneutic each faith community uses to understand in their context?

6:31 AM  
Blogger LZ Blogger said...

Rattlesnake6 - Just for clarification the Second Amendment case you sited is actually "District of Columbia v. Heller". Hopefully, there will be at least 5 on the high court who actually understand the original intent of the “founding fathers”! ~ jb///

6:27 AM  
Blogger Randy said...


Read Lesslie Newbigin's "Foolishness to the Greeks" & you'll better understand what I mean by the church being the 'hermeneutic of the gospel.'

8:36 AM  
Blogger Jilliefl1 said...

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 Frank is also blogging now at

2:18 PM  

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