Is Christianity Mostly Pagan?
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.” More specifically, the modern Church has introduced “traditions that have suppressed the living, breathing, functional headship of Jesus Christ in His church.”
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.” 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.” 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. 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?”
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.” 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.” What is that precisely? “Organic churches are characterized by Spirit-led, open participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership.” 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.” 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. 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.” 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?
 George Barna & Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity? (
 Ibid., xviii.
 Ibid., xix.
 Ibid., xx.
 David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
Labels: Pagan Christianity?