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Pagan Christianity

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I came across reviews of this book at Darryl Dash’s Blog and Pastor Joe Thorn, both of whom are blogging through it with apparently fairly balanced criticism thus far. I haven’t read it myself (having just heard of it), but from their reviews it seems to be a book that states in a fairly blunt manner many of the issues I’ve been mulling over myself on the way we do church these days. I’ve put together a few thoughts here on the premise of the book and the characteristics of the early church, and I’ll follow up with another post exploring how contemporary church practices approach these ideas. Again, this is in no way a review of the book itself, but an exploration of ideas I’ve encountered through interacting with these reviews.

Darryl writes what in a nutshell the book proposes:

  1. The origin of many of our church practices (examples: church buildings, orders of worship, sermons, pastors, tithing, clergy salaries) is non-biblical, and these practices are inconsistent with those of the early church. “Almost everything that is done in our contemporary churches has no basis in the Bible.” (p. 4) Much of it was lifted from pagan culture.
  2. Just because something does not appear in the Bible does not mean it is wrong. However, our non-biblical church practices often hinder the development of our faith and keep us from encountering the living God.
  3. “The church in its contemporary, institutional form neither has a biblical nor a historical right to exist.” (p. xx)
  4. The church must return to its biblical roots. At a personal level, we must ask questions of church as we know it and pray seriously about what our response should be.

Even from the few quotes Darryl pulls out here, Viola & Barna seem to overstate a few things and use lots of superlatives, but on a fundamental level the ideas they put forward seem to ring true to me in several ways. There’s quite a bit of criticism Viola and Barna seem to deal out, but I want to zero in on the fourth point above, the lone positive premise in the lot, and consider what the essential “biblical roots” of church practice are or should be.

In conversations around church reform the early church is the popular touch point for how church “should be done”. One the one hand here are the folks who knew Jesus while He was on the earth, and established the Christian communities that all other Christian communities have been based on. They were wildly successful in a way that any modern revival would only hope to be. On the other hand much of Jesus’ letters to the churches in Revelation was criticism and exhortation. They certainly weren’t doing everything right.

Regardless of whether or not the archetype is justified, there are two elements I think the early church got right in a way that contemporary churches haven’t quite caught up to. From what I can tell, the early church was strong on relationship-based community. They shared money and possessions; but even more than this they shared life on a regular basis in a way that contemporary churches either yearn for or are intimidated by. Many of Paul’s common exhortations are on an interpersonal level – “be patient, bearing with one another in love”, or “rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” – all things you can’t obey if you’re not in real relationship with the people around you in church.

The early church also had extraordinary and consistent evidence of the power of God at work among them and through them. To some degree I’m sure this was necessary to establish the early church in its fledgling years and set it apart from other religions of its day, but I can’t believe this completely explains it. Even a cursory reading of Acts reveals a church with a very different attitude of faith than any contemporary American church I’ve heard of. They’re bold and confident in God and His power – not because they’ve motivated themselves to be but because it’s true, and it’s happening around them. And I can’t avoid thinking that this kind of power and true confidence was present as a result of their community experience. They trusted each other, had faith for each other, and supported and gave for each other in a way that God blessed with miraculous signs.

I’m no student of church history or expert on Biblically sound church practices, but it seems to me that these two things – authentic community and the power of God – are the essentials of any community of believers based on the death and resurrection of Jesus. If a church got these things right, I would think everything else that’s worthwhile would follow.

In a second post I’ll explore the interaction between modern institutional churches and these principles.

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  1. Jeanette
    January 9, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Frank is interacting with those who have questions about the book at http://www.ptmin.org/pcobjections.htm

  2. February 4, 2008 at 6:44 am

    Thanks for the book review. I think I’ll check it out. I left the vineyard about 6 months ago. Oddly enough I felt that I needed to leave the “institutional church” to follow Jesus. Church these days does seam more about buildings, services, money, and sermons. What about loving our neighbors and the poor?

    It’s good to see you blogging. I’ll keep an eye out for more great post’s.

  3. February 17, 2008 at 2:52 am

    Hi, an excellent alternative to Viola’s book is “The Ancient Church As Family” by Dr. Joe Hellerman. His work is well researched and addresses many of the “pagan” influences on our faith. Dr. Hellerman’s contribution is a blend of good history AND respectful discourse.

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