Pagan Christianity? A Book Review

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The root of nearly every church practice is pagan and not New Testament Christianity. Convincing the reader that this statement is true is the aim of Pagan Christianity? And I have to say, the authors Frank Viola and George Barna have done an exceptional job at this. The scope of the book is therefore very focused. Going back to the New Testament and working their way through the history of Christianity up to the modern era Viola and Barna consistently paint a picture of a religion that has adapted the pagan and secular culture around it instead of replacing it. The claims of Viola and Barna are very significant and I believe if followed (though not fully as I will later show) will result in a revival among Biblical Christians.


The thesis of Pagan Christianity? is that many of the practices of the institutional church are not rooted in scripture but in paganism and secular culture. Therefore, the only true and Biblical church is what the authors refer to as the "organic church" which is a home church movement. The book’s bias is clear from its title alone. Almost everything we do in church is contrary to God’s design because it comes from paganism and not scripture and is therefore harmful to the church and its mission. The author’s main contentions are with any church practice that is not clearly rooted in the New Testament. This includes the church building, the order of worship, the sermon, dressing up for church and others.

With relation to the church Viola states that, “It can be rightly said that Christianity was the first non-temple-based religion ever to emerge” (11). Again he says, “Strikingly nowhere in the New Testament do we find the terms church (ekklesia), temple, or house of God used to refer to a building” (11). According to Viola, sacred temples were a concept that belonged to paganism and Judaism. The sacred temple of Judaism and its services were done away with at the cross. Because of this, the New Testament Christians met in homes. However, over time Christians began to pray for the dead martyrs, then to them. Their grave yards became viewed as holy places on which shrines were built and eventually buildings were built over the grave sites (during the time of Constantine) and considered holy as well. All of this has origins in paganism and not Christianity. When Constantine came on the scene he built cathedrals for the Christians and even named the cathedrals after certain saints. A practice which was also pagan. The church building then came to be viewed as a sacred place. Having no biblical precedent to defend this, the proponents of the church building began pointing to the Old Testament temple as a defense for their sacred church buildings, but this was based on faulty exegesis. Viola rightly argues that the New Testament church was the people not the building. He traces the concept of a sacred building in Christianity to paganism, Clement of Alexandria (the first recorded to use ekklesia in reference to a meeting place) and Constantine whom was the first to, “erect special buildings for worship” (12). For Viola, church is people not buildings. The church is something you are a part of not an edifice you go to. I agree with Viola in the sense that the incredible amount of money spent in up keeping a building most people only use once or twice a week could be better spent in reaching the lost.

As for the order of worship, Viola writes that it is “mechanical and predictable” (48). I couldn’t agree more. Viola traces the order of worship to the Catholic Mass. Where does the Catholic Mass come from? Viola writes: “[T]he mass did not originate in with the New Testament; it grew out of ancient Judaism and paganism. According to Will Durant, the Catholic Mass was ‘based partly on the Judaic Temple service, partly on Geek mystery rituals of purification, vicarious sacrifice, and participation’” (51). Even after the protestant reformation he shows that apart from some minor differences, “Luther kept the same order of worship as found in the Catholic Mass” (55). Violas biggest contention with the church building and the liturgy is that it transforms the congregants from active members within the body of Christ to “passive spectators” (55). According to Viola the worship service should be an event in which all members participate. The leader of the meeting ought to be Jesus Christ himself and not some priest or clergyman. This all included style of worship is the New Testament model and according to Viola, “Gods people have never broken free from the liturgical constraints they inherited from Roman Catholicism” (73).

Though Viola contends with countless other issues the last one I will look at is his view on dressing up to go to church. This issue, as opposed to the afore mentioned ones, does not in fact have pagan roots but cultural ones which Viola argues are contrary to the New Covenant. According to Viola, “[t]he practice of dressing up for church is a relatively recent phenomenon” (146). Although dressing decently is not a new thing, dressing up is. Viola argues that the early Christians did not dress up for Church because they didn’t have clothes to dress up with. Most people in the early days of Christianity only had work clothes and decent clothes. They would wear their decent clothes for their assemblies. However, the idea of dressing up for anything was a privilege that only the wealthy had. When “fine clothes became more affordable to the common people” (146) they began to dress up as the rich to “demonstrate their newly improved status” (147). Church became a place where the common people now dressed up in imitation of the rich who would dress up for their special occasions. However, the idea of dressing up for church was controversial when it first began. Viola states that “[s]ome Christian groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted this cultural trend” (147). However, it soon became the norm to the point that today not dressing up for church is considered irreverent even though it has no biblical precedent. Viola argues: “[T]o say that the Lord expects His people to dress in fine clothing when the church gathers is to add to the scriptures and speak where God has not spoken. Such a practice is human tradition at its best” (150).

Pagan Christianity? has really changed the way I look at church and ministry. However, my chief objections with Viola are that he seems to refer to pagan origin as enough reason to expel a practice from Christian life. If this is so then we should all stop using the names of the weekdays (except for Sabbath), get rid of our wedding bands, Hymns, stop shaking people’s hands, and forbid the celebration of Christmas and Easter (all of these have pagan origin). However, such a position is extremism at its best. Not everything of pagan origin is an abomination to God. A lot of it is good and useful because pagans are people first and pagans second. Therefore, while I agree with much of what Viola says I don’t go as far as he does. For example, I agree with his arguments against the church building but I see it more as an opportunity to reform how we use the building instead of getting rid of it. Likewise, the order of service is horrendous. I can’t stand it. But reformation rather than elimination is the wisest route in my opinion. As far as dressing up for church, I don’t believe it should be mandated because God never mandated it. However, to condemn the practice as if inherently evil is going too far. It should neither be mandated nor forbidden.

Pagan Christianity? has really changed a lot of my conceptions. I hope to plant a church someday and after reading this book I have decided I will do a lot of things differently. For example, I will not treat the church as though it is inherently holy like the Old Testament sanctuary because it isn’t. Though I won’t treat it like a laundry room, I will refrain from treating the meeting hall (incorrectly referred to as the sanctuary) as the Catholics treat their cathedrals. Likewise, I will seek to arrange the meeting place and order of service to encourage full participation from the congregants instead of performing a “clergy show” as churches typically do every weekend. I will also reject a mandate for dress. While dressing decently should be expected in church it is also expected in many other places, but dressing up is in my opinion a yoke we were never meant to carry. Another concept that Pagan Christianity? has influenced me in is in the role of the sermon. While this is not a new concept to me, Viola helped to solidify a growing conviction I have had about sermonizing week after week. While I fully agree with the sermon I don’t like the idea of sermonizing. Ellen White herself said that the church should not expect to hear a sermon every weekend. In my estimation, this practice weakens the spiritual life of the church especially when it is the same person preaching Sabbath after Sabbath. In addition Pagan Christianity? shows how our modern, clergy officiated, gloomy communion service is in no way how the early Christians celebrated communion. “For the early Christians, the Lord’s Supper was a festive communal meal. The mood was one of celebration” (192). Viola argues how this, and many other aspects of our communion service, was handed down to us from Catholicism and do not come from the New Testament.

Violas objective in writing this book is to exhort Christians to return to the New Testament model of Church. According to Viola, this is a home based movement that has Christ at the head and not clergy, encourages full participation, and is free from all of the pagan and cultural influences that have crept into the church over the last 2,000 years. To accomplish this objective Viola analyzes nearly everything we do in church including what I have just mentioned plus the origin of the pew, steeple, pulpit, pastor, ordination, choir, worship team and much more. For Viola each of these practices represents a departure from pure New Testament Christianity and damages Gods mission and purpose for the church.

While Pagan Christianity? is a great book I think its weakness is that it often goes too far in what it condemns. While a reformation is desperately needed scripture does not mandate how church should be run. Therefore, principle not blueprint (for which there is none), should be our guide. The New Testament informs us of how the early church operated and grew; it does not mandate that we do everything exactly as they did it. While engaging in anything that would go contrary to biblical principles should be forbidden, all other issues should be considered from a soul winning perspective. In addition, I find it interesting that for a book that traces Church practices to their origin, Viola is virtually silent on how Christians came to celebrate Sunday as the Sabbath. If there is any church practice that is clearly pagan in its origin and evolution it is this one. However, apart from a brief mention of it, Viola says nothing about it. [1] I believe that God is much more concerned that we keep His commandments than that we get rid of pews and steeples.




[1] “In AD 321, Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a day of rest – a legal holiday. It appears that Constantine’s intention in doing this was to honor the god Mithras, the Unconquered Sun” (19).
Pagan Christianity? A Book Review Pagan Christianity? A Book Review Reviewed by Pastor Marcos on December 10, 2012 Rating: 5

2 comments

  1. Hi Marcos. I am reading your posts. Surely God has blessed you with a talent which I have not seen in others. I read many of them. I enjoyed everyone of them and learnt a lot too. I plan to read all of them, if I have time. May the good Lord bless you for your passion and use you in every way He can.

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    1. Thanks Moni! I am blessed to know that you are being blessed as you read. All the praise goes to God who has taken me (and continue to take me) through many journeys of discovery. God is awesome!

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