Lynn Joshua's Reviews > Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices

Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola
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's review
Feb 09, 2012

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Read in January, 2010

The authors present these main ideas:
The early church was pure and untainted by cultural influence.
Almost all of our current church practices derive from pagan sources, and should therefore be thrown off.
(If you disagree with us - you must love the traditions of man more than you love God!) J

The authors are correct on many points. It is necessary to question why we, the church, do things the way we do. It is essential to throw out traditions that are unbiblical. The church today is filled with unbiblical practice. Here are some truths that Viola and Barna point out:

The church IS the people of God.
The clergy/laity distinction is wrong.
The way our Sunday morning gatherings are carried out does not encourage participation.
Leadership training should be hands-on, apprenticeship driven.
We should all use our gifts for mutual edification.
The ‘sinner’s prayer’ is unscriptural.
The Lord’s Supper should not be a solemn ritual, but a joyful celebration.

However - the early church was not pure and unpolluted by human tradition. Paul’s letters are filled with reproof and instruction to church groups that were full of error and sin. They were not pure and untainted by their culture. And, why assume that because something derives from "pagan" sources that it necessarily perverts and pollutes "essential" Christianity? For instance, legal codes are of pagan origin (the Code of Hammurabi). So the 10 commandments could be dismissed as pagan in structure? The New Testament was written in Koine Greek - a pagan tongue - and the writers made extensive use of pagan literary devices. Ancient paganism espoused beliefs about an omnipresent, invisible deity, a son of god who takes human form, a world-wide flood, cleansing of sin by blood sacrifice, future punishments and rewards – why not just dismiss the whole Bible as Pagan? Pagans also wore robes, educated their children, and raised vegetables. Where does it end?

Here are some quotes from Pagan Christianity:

*the early church met only in homes*

*The pulpit was a piece of stage craft borrowed from the Greeks in which professional speakers delivered monologues in public debates. *

* Preaching a sermon to a Christian audience was begun late in the second century. Sermons were an extension of the activity of the Greek sophists, who had mastered the art of rhetorical oratory. *

* Dressing up for a church gathering is leftover from paganism and is hypocritical for Christians.*

*Christian education is unbiblical because it is mind-focused. The intellect is not the gateway for knowing the Lord. We can only obtain divine truth through spiritual revelation, being guided by God inwardly.*

*Any and all routine stifles the Holy Spirit*

To state that "the early church met only in homes" is a misrepresentation. They also met in public places such as the Temple and synagogues. Acts 2:46 records public and private gatherings.
As for the pulpit and the sermon (sermon defined as reading and explaining) being of Pagan origin - that idea is discounted by Nehemiah 8:4: Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Nehemiah 8:8 says that they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. (Of course, any examples from the OT are dismissed because the authors say that was all done away with in Christ - and it is no longer to be used as a reference for us today.)

The ideas the authors present are in many ways misleading about history. If you read the sources the authors give, you may come to very different conclusions than they did. Citing bits and pieces of someone’s writing is not an honest use. People with a particular point to prove can use history in any way they choose.
For example, Viola refers to a book by Edwin Hatch many times. This book, "The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church" was written in 1888. Viola notes that Hatch "was one of the first to challenge the sermon." The truth is, Hatch was Unitarian, and challenged just about everything Christian.
Viola and Barna build their case with quotes from people who would never support their main premise. You could gather an equal collection of quotes from the same sources that would condemn the unstructured/non-hierarchal/individualistic model the authors advocate.


The authors of this book are ‘separatists’ rather than ‘puritans‘. They would throw off all the old ways and start from scratch, rather than working within the existing forms to bring about needed re-form. This book tends toward a model of church where a dozen or two people meet in someone’s home on the Lord's Day, and participate equally in exhorting, singing, and edifying each other with no one leading. (However, uninhibited extroverts usually end up controlling things in groups when there is no structure.) The authors continually state that the church is an living organism and not an organization. Yes, but as soon as people begin to meet regularly - they will invariable begin to organize in some way; even in these organic, free-flowing, house-churches. I'm not sure why people resist structure and hierarchy. I wonder if it has more to do with Enlightenment individualism and egalitarianism than it does with "biblical" principles.

Church leaders could profit from a prayerful reading of this book. However, I am afraid that this book will be used as a justification by people who are already alienated from their local bodies of believers. There are so many people who want to focus on what is wrong with the church instead of with them. It is easier to say that the main problem with the church today is those pagan sermons, wasteful buildings, superficial relationships, and lazy/money-grubbing/controlling preachers. It couldn’t be that I am too busy pleasure-seeking to study my bible and practice its teachings by sacrificially loving God and others.
Another issue is that of authority. Can we speak out against error without rebellion? We must not be so quick to embrace ideas that cast off the authorities God has put around us for protection.

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