What’s the Fuss about “Pagan Christianity”?
Frank Viola’s 2002 book Pagan Christianity: Exploring
the Roots of Church Practices has kicked up some
fuss since it was revised with the help of George Barna
and recently released under the Barna/Tyndale imprint.
This is a ground-clearing book. Many Christians
will be surprised—maybe shocked—to learn how much
contemporary “Christian” practice has no biblical basis whatsoever.
The question is: So what? Is such development merely the appropriate
fruit of gradual adaptation to changing circumstances? Or
is today’s church guilty of the charge Jesus leveled against the Pharisees:
“You nullify the word of God by your traditions” (Mt. 15:6)?
Legitimate adaptation and contextualization, or betrayal?
Viola (and now apparently Barna) believe the answer is “betrayal.”
They celebrate those who have “left institutional Christianity”
and have begun meeting in unstructured house churches—seen
here as the only legitimate form of the church.
The authors summarize: “The DNA of the church produces certain
identifiable features. Some of them are: the experience of authentic
community, a familial love and devotion of its members one
to another, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the native instinct to gather
together without ritual, every-member functioning, the innate desire
to form deep-seated relationships that are centered on Christ, and
the internal drive for open-participatory gatherings. We believe that
any church that obstructs these innate characteristics is unsound, and
therefore, unbiblical” (p. 263).
One can hardly argue with that, except
for the idea that it is possible for groups to meet “without ritual.”
I have considerable sympathy with the book’s argument. Contemporary
Christians, in my view, are not self-critical enough of
the ways they do church—whether liturgical Protestants, revivalist
evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, seeker-sensitive congregations,
or “emerging” churches (not to mention the Roman
Catholic and Orthodox traditions). Most of us do not pay enough
attention to what the Bible plainly teaches about the nature and
practice of the church as Body of Christ. So I wish church leaders
everywhere would calmly read and reflect on this book.
But that is not the end of the story. In the background here is a
deeper question: How do we view changes in church practice over
Legitimate development, or betrayal and maybe even apostasy?
This debate has a long history, tracing back at least to Peter’s
God-prompted decision to have dinner at Cornelius’ house. In the
Middle Ages people were anathematized, imprisoned, denounced, or
burned at the stake depending on how they answered the question.
Here also the issue of revitalization comes in. The logic behind
the Center for the Study of World Christian Revitalization
Movements holds that genuine renewal is not an either/or issue.
Three Approaches to Church History
Traditionally, the church’s development through history has
been seen in one of two ways: The “traditional orthodox” approach
or the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory.
The Traditional View. The most generally accepted view—the
traditional orthodox interpretation—is that God has guided the
church through history, protecting it from heresy and apostasy, assisting
it to adapt to changing circumstances. The development of
clergy, liturgy, church buildings, and all the rest were the ways in
which the church successfully adjusted as it grew and got more
complex, and the way it extended its influence.
Constantinianism—the development of the church after the
conversion of the Emperor Constantine—is the key test case. In the
traditional orthodox view (celebrated first by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical
History), the success of the church under
the great triumph of the church. God’s hand was in it all.
In this view, it is foolish to expect the church today to look like
the New Testament church (which was essentially a network of
house churches with highly flexible leadership patterns). The New
Testament church was the church in embryo; the little seedling that
has now wonderfully put forth branches into all the world.
The Secret History of the Faithful Remnant. The other view, unsurprisingly,
is just the opposite. God has been working down
through history through a mostly hidden underground church. The
“institutional church” is corrupt and largely apostate. But God has an
unbroken succession of the true church that has appeared from time
to time in groups that the official church viewed as heretical or extreme.
This true church has surfaced periodically under names like
Montanists, Priscillians, Anabaptists, Waldensians, and so forth—
and in networks of house churches today.
This view has been advocated by various people—notably the
German Pietist Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), and today people like
Gene Edwards. Pagan Christianity seems to assume this theory.
In this view, Constantinianism was a great tragedy—the fall of
the church. The only route to fidelity is a return to the New Testament
pattern, some form of restoration to the original model.
The choice here is rather clear-cut. But there is a third way, a
mediating position that can be supported biblically, historically,
theologically, and sociologically.
The Renewal Movement View. This view recognizes the truth in
both the traditional view and the counter-view. Yes, God has been
working through the “institutional church” down through history, despite
its problems. Yes, the church has often been unfaithful, corrupt,
and, in certain times and places, apostate. And yes, God has often
worked through marginal groups—even sometimes rather extreme
groups, like the “Montanists” — to enliven a “faithful remnant.” And
yes, many of these groups were not really heretical doctrinally, yet
were shamefully persecuted and often driven underground.
The renewal-movement view holds that, despite the church’s
frequent unfaithfulness, God has continued to work through “institutional”
Christianity. It also observes that underground “remnant”
churches can themselves become corrupt, or dysfunctional (I’ve
known some), or moribund, needing renewal.
Those of us in the Wesleyan tradition note John Wesley’s insights
here. Wesley was outspoken in his denunciation of the failures
of the Anglican Church in his day. Yet he did not abandon it.
His views on the church, drawn largely from the New Testament,
church history, and contemporary groups such as the Moravians,
had much in common with the “secret history” view.
But Wesley felt it was possible (and substantially proved it) to
create a “faithful remnant” movement within the larger “institutional”
church. This was British Methodism during Wesley’s lifetime.
In this view, God has worked throughout history to bring new
life to the church through a series of movements. This dynamic is foreshadowed
already in the Bible, especially in
documented over the centuries of the church. God has never given up
on the church—even the “institutional church.” Neither should we.
Yet in particular times and places the church may become so unfaithful
that it falls under God’s judgment and may even disappear entirely.
Rethinking “Pagan Christianity”
We who find the renewal movement view convincing thus
have a mixed reaction to Pagan Christianity. Though a valuable
contribution, it is neither the last word nor the whole story.
Some specific criticisms: The book speaks of “transformation,”
but exactly what that means is mostly undefined. The authors
paint with too broad a brush in speaking of “contemporary Christianity”
and the “institutional church.” Many “traditional” churches
do demonstrate genuine discipleship, community, and deep spirituality,
whatever their imperfections. The book holds that local
churches should be “autonomous,” despite what the Bible teaches
about translocal networkings of the Body of Christ. And it largely
ignores the contribution of Roman Catholic orders, an “institutional”
form that in many notable instances faithfully embodied
genuine Christianity for centuries.
Two other issues are more fundamental: First, the book’s basic
syllogism is fallacious. It holds that because much church practice is
pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned. Viola
writes, “Should we follow a model of church that is rooted in New
Testament principle and example, or should we follow one that finds
its origins in pagan traditions? That is the ultimate question” (p. 264).
But the options are not that simple, and the “model” advocated is not
as unambiguously New Testament as the authors believe.
Second, the authors do not really deal with the key issue of
contextualization. Yes, the New Testament vision of the church
should be normative. But what does that really mean in very diverse
cultural contexts? When it is appropriate to adapt cultural traditions,
even “pagan” ones, and use them for kingdom purposes?
Still, the cumulative weight of Pagan Christianity is impressive.
Christians today who want to see the church be faithful to the
gospel of the kingdom should ask themselves: Which of our current
traditions are consistent with Scripture and help us to be faithful
communities of the kingdom? And which really nullify God’s
Word? If churches confront that question prayerfully while seriously
examining Scripture, many things may change.
–– Howard A. Snyder