Wednesday, July 02, 2008


I have been posting a large variety of comments of response to this ongoing book review, some of which seem to have ignored that I am reviewing this book seriatim-- taking it Chapter by Chapter. It is the purpose of this review to give you a good critical analysis of how the book comes across, as one is in the process of reading it.

But let me point out here one truly over-arching problem with the way this 'provocative' book is set up--- Claims made by the authors, especially in strident form in the text, cannot be taken back or adequately qualified in minute footnotes that few people are able and fewer are willing to read. In other words, the very format of this book is not only not reader friendly at all , it is unintentionally deceptive, and leaves all kinds of unqualified impressions if one sticks to the text. The point is this-- don't make categorical and strident claims in the text that then die the death of a thousand qualifications, most of them in tiny footnotes. This is just misleading.

And one more thing to be clear about, before we get to the chapter on the Sermon. I am indeed a historian of early Christianity, including the period up to and including Constantine, as anyone who has read various of my works including NT History and the Living Word of God and the Gospel Code, will know. For example I and Dr. Warren Smith of Duke will be leading a doctoral seminar here the next two weeks on 'The Early Church Fathers and the Formation of the Canon". None, and I do mean, none of the books relied on in 'Pagan Christianity' are even on the reading list for this course. The sources relied on are either too outdated, or are not up to speed on the state of discussion of the subject matter. And I must say it is a total mystery to me why Barna and Viola would rely on Will Durant, who was anti-Christian in his analysis of early Christianity, and frequently very wrong, as he read early Christianity through the synthetic 'history of religions' sort of approach that one finds in the 'Zeitgeist' movie-- yikes! It is a mystery as why he comes in for regular use in this book.

One more fact about me since some of the blog posts relative to this book asked--- I am also a historian and theologian of the English Reformation, having taught 18th-20th century Methodist history and theology for some 20 years, including at Duke. So when I say, this book is poorly researched when it comes to church history, I am not kidding, and I am in a position to know. It really is. It is actually a bit better when it comes the Biblical material. Having cleared the air on those subjects lets get down to the core of what the argument is in the chapter on the Sermon and on the Pastor.

Let's start with the usual flamboyant claims that tend to be made in the text of this book, especially near the beginning of chapters---

“The stunning reality is that today’s sermon has no root in Scripture. Rather it is borrowed from pagan culture, nursed and adopted into the Christian faith.” (p. 86).

Then comes the qualifications---

The authors claim that the point here is not that there is not preaching in the Bible but that the modern sermon is miles apart from what we find in the Bible. The major differences enumerated are –today it’s a regular occurrence, delivered by the same person, to a passive audience, in a cultivated form of speech. It is assumed or partially argued that none of this is true about real Biblical preaching or proclamation. In fact, they are for the most part wrong on all all four issues.

To bolster this claim the authors point out that OT preaching by prophets was sporadic and extemporaneous and open to audience participation. Of course this ignores that what went on in the OT tabernacle and temple was highly scripted, did indeed involve recitation of pre-existing Words and instructions from God, and as the book Psalms makes clear there was music, liturgy, specific hymn tunes, and a choir director. Prophets in the OT are seldom depicted as being involved in worship, never in in home group meetings, and regularly in the public-- including in the king's court. What is said about spontaneous utterances of prophets in such social settings is really of little or no relevance to the discussion of 'in church' Christian preaching, teaching, or prophesying because of the difference in function and social purpose and setting.

The authors then concede that there was proclamation based on Biblical texts in the synagogue, but they argue ‘anyone could deliver a message or preach if they wanted to’ in the synagogue. So far as we can tell, this is in fact historically false. Firstly, only men were allowed to speak. Secondly only Jews or God-fearers would be allowed to speak. Thirdly, the elder or president of the synagogue, or sometimes the long standing members of the congregation would normally decide who could speak and invite them to do so (see for example Acts 13.42--- Paul was invited by the synagogue attendees to speak further on these matters at the next Sabbath service in Psidian Antioch). The point is, you had to be invited to speak, you couldn't just barge into the synagogue and do so as it had an order of worship. And let me say at this point that the historical evidence we have is clear enough that this pattern of worship was adopted and adapted by many early Christians, especially in the predominantly Jewish Christian congregations. But even in largely Gentile congregations we see the adopting of the Jewish 'elder' office for Christian purposes as the Pastorals make clear.

It was at p. 88 in the book where I was ready to pull all my hair out. Here, and in subsequent pages consuming much of the rest of this chapter the authors try to argue that 'rhetoric' was something pagan later imposed on Christian discourse and preaching, but that it is no part of what we find in the NT. This is entirely historically false. The speeches in Acts are in fact summaries of speeches, and they are in fact rhetorical masterpieces, crafted according to the rhetorical outline of how an effective and persuasive ancient speech should be delivered and carefully edited by Luke (see my Acts commentary).

Furthermore, Paul’s letters and Hebrews, and 1 Peter, and indeed most of the rest of the so-called epistolary literature in the NT are oral documents meant to be dramatically delivered out loud and they are indeed structured in good rhetorical form. There is nothing purely spontaneous about them, if by spontaneous one means lacking conformity to known pre-existing rhetorical patterns. I have demonstrated this at great lengths in my socio-rhetorical commentaries, but you need not take my word for it. You can consult hundreds of scholars from around the world who have done the in-depth analysis of what we find in the NT, and they have come to the same conclusion. I would commend to you the important work of Averil Cameron on Early Christian Rhetoric who demonstrates at length that during the entire period of the first five centuries of Christian history Christians who spoke in Greek or Latin used rhetoric and rhetorical structures to form their discourses, sermons, homilies, evangelistic messages and so on. This includes the NT writers. One more thing. The Church Fathers for whom Greek was still a living language were perfectly clear about the fact that Paul and the author of Hebrews and others were all using rhetorical patterns, forms, and devices. Read for example the superb work on John Chrysostom by Margaret Mitchell entitled The Heavenly Trumpet published by Westminister/J.Knox. The Greek Fathers not only knew Paul and Luke and others used rhetoric-- they molded their own preaching on the previous Christian examples found in the NT canon!

The sermon is not an invention of Protestants over the course of the last five centuries. No one who has actually read the sermons of Chysostom or Ambrose or Augustine or a host of other Church Fathers could ever make a silly assertion like that. And furthermore, I would stress once more, the use of rhetoric already was in play in the Diaspora synagogues, which is one of the reasons why Paul's rhetoric was sometimes well received, at least initially in such synagogues. The writers of the NT are almost without exception Jews, not former pagans, and almost without exception they use not only the Greek language they had long since learned but the Greco-Roman rhetoric that was a part of elementary education all over the Empire, including in Jerusalem!

The burden of the chapter on preaching is that modern preaching harms the church by making a particular individual the center of attention, making the audience passive, and stifling the gifts and graces of a large majority of folks. Of course this can happen, but in fact my experience is quite the opposite. Good preaching and pastoring enables the gifts of the other members congregation, it does not disable them. Good preaching and teaching points away from the vehicle to the source-- God, of course.

But the problem with the main thrust of this chapter is it is based on the unBiblical notion that anyone should be able to teach, preach, prophesy on a regular basis 'in church'. This is false--only some have the gift of teaching, preaching, or prophesying. If you bother to read the gift lists in 1 Cor. 12 or in Romans or in Ephesians, there are specific gifts parceled out by the Spirit to specific persons, not to everyone. Look for example at the form of the rhetorical questions at the end of 1 Cor. 12.29-30. The Greek is emphatic using the double negative--- 'not all are apostles are they?' [answer no] 'not all are prophets, are they?' [answer no] not all are teachers are they? [answer no]. And the reason for this is not because someone is stifling the priesthood of all believers (which, once more, has nothing to do with who are leaders and who can be teachers in the congregation). Its because only those gifted and graced by the Spirit and recognized by the church as having such gifts should be doing those things on any sort of regular basis. Period. James says with good reason that not many should desire to be, and presumably not many should engage in teaching, especially if they haven't been learning first!

The very reason Paul silences the women in 1 Tim. 2.8-15 is because they need to be quiet and learn before they teach. When Paul says "I am not now permitting [these aforementioned high status well dressed] women to teach or to usurp authority over men" he is making very clear what ought to be happening in worship when it comes to the proclamation of God's Word. It is not intended to be a dialogue, and as Paul says ever so clearly in 1 Cor. 14.33b-36-- if you have questions (in this case for the prophets), ask your husband at home.

A Dialogue is not Biblical preaching. It never was, and it never will be. It is of course true that sermons were from time to time interrupted both in the synagogue, and elsewhere. But such things are seen as interruptions in the text, unplanned, unexpected, and often inappropriate outbursts, and as Paul says in 1 Cor. 14, no one should barge in and interrupt a prophet when he is speaking God's word. That's inappropriate. This is precisely why the wifes are to ask their questions at home. They are interrupting the prophesying part of that Corinthian worship service.

The whole point of saying 'the spirit of a prophet is controlled by the prophet' is that there is no need to spontaneously speak what one thinks God has said to you. One can wait, even if there is a congregation with many prophets.

On p. 100 we are told that 1 Cor. 14.26 and 31 say that teaching is supposed to come from everyone. First of all 1 Cor. 14.26 is a descriptive statement, not an imperative or a mandate. Paul is saying that in chaotic Corinth, everyone was trying their hand at everything. Paul does not condone this, indeed he spends no little time in 1 Cor. 12 telling them that the Spirit distributes different gifts to different person 'as the Spirit decides'.

You cannot exegete 1 Cor. 14 in isolation from 1 Cor. 12 which is indeed prescriptive about who can and should do what. And this brings us to 1 Cor. 14.31. Paul is talking to the prophets of this particular congregation, not everybody. As the rhetorical questions at the end of 1 Cor. 12 make ever so clear, Paul doesn't think they all are, or should be prophets. In 1 Cor. 14.31 he says to those who are legitimate prophets, who can and ought to behave like genuine prophets that "you can all prophesy in turn..."

It is not difficult to prove this does not mean absolutely everyone. You will remember that Paul said in 1 Cor 11 that a woman could pray or prophesy (if she has the gift) if she had her head covered. Then in 1 Cor. 14 he tells some women they should simply be silent and listen to others prophesying and ask their questions at home. Which women would those be? Clearly not the same women referred to in 1 Cor. 11 whom Paul has endorsed as prophetesses. We could go on down this path but this is sufficient.

Not all are called to teach or preach or prophesy. But it is true about prophets in particular that they may receive a late word from God, not pre-conceived, which they may feel led to share. This does not in any way suggest that all communication in a home church meeting like this should be spontaneous, because frankly prophesy is not the same thing as preaching or teaching, both of which normally require preparation and grounding in God's Word. The amalgamating of preaching and teaching and prophecy is a mistake, and not all of these gifts of speech are meant to be used 'spontaneously' or by just 'anyone'.

And this brings us to an important point. I have no problems with mutual exhortations, family sharing, and the like. There is a time and place for everything, and I think home groups and Bible studies are excellent times for such things. The problem of course with home groups is that they do not fulfill the mandate of Jesus to his disciples be 'a city set on a hill, which cannot be hid.' He might as well have said 'a church hidden in a suburban home can't be found'.
If you are meeting hidden in the suburbs in a home with no sign posting and no open invitation to one and all to come and join you, and no public evidence that corporate worship or a Christian meeting is happening there, you are not fulfilling the prime mandate to invite people into a public and personal relationship with God through coming into the living presence of God in worship in public. You just aren't.

My point would simply be that what Viola and Barna are describing is a vital part of fellowship, and certainly not the focus of worship. Worship in the Biblical sense focuses on God and not mutual interchange and discussion. And since preaching is an essential part of worship, it too deliberately depends upon and fosters the environment of listening. Very different is a text like Col. 3.16 and it also provides no mandate for the 'everyone should be able to do everything' philosophy.

What the Greek of that Col. 31.6 sentence says is that in fact by singing we are in an indirect sense instructing one another and sharing wisdom with one another. This is a verse a Methodist is bound to love, but what it is not about is the gift of teaching in the normal sense, which Paul makes clear only some have. He is saying here that the music, and all those who share in it have a pedagogical function. This is a good thing to bear in mind since too often we see music as simply an affective thing, not cognitive. Notice as well the reference to 'psalmoi' here, which were part of the OT liturgy, being pre-set, pre-written songs that required knowing the tune, and indeed having a choir director according the book of Psalms itself.

Heb. 10.24-25 says nothing about everyone being teachers or preachers or prophets in the congregation. It does say we should all encourage and spur one another on to maturity in Christ. That is of course true but irrelevant if the issue is 'who should regularly and normally teach, preach, prophesy in the church meeting'. Notice that Heb. 13 reminds us that all such persons referred to in Heb. 10.24-25 need to be paying attention to, respecting, and listening to their leaders.

In short, early Christian meetings were periodic in nature, hence the reference to the first day of the week in both 1 Cor. 16 and Rev. 1. Only some persons had the gift of teaching, preaching, or prophesying-- not everyone should try to do such things, because not all had such gifts. Thirdly, only prophecy, so far as we can tell, was normally and regularly something 'spontaneous', and preaching whether in the synagogue or in the church was not simply prophesy. It involved an exposition of pre-existing Words of God.

It is interesting that we find both Paul and Peter using the exact same catena of OT Scriptures to preach about Christ as the stone of stumbling and the keystone. This cannot be an accident. It means that there were pre-set collections of texts used not only in the synagogue, but by Jewish Christians in synagogue and church settings as the taking off points for preaching. This was an early form of the lectionary.

Fourthly, the NT is full of evidence of rhetorical skill and structure. There is nothing very spontaneous about the preaching summaries in Acts if by spontaneous one means 'not reflecting pre-existing rhetorical patterns and styles of argument'. This is simply false. Rhetoric is certainly not something that was imposed on Christian discourse out of paganism, and after the church had become largely Gentile. It was already used in the Diaspora synagogue and smart Jewish Christians who spoke Greek, like Paul and Peter continued to use it in those and other settings in the Roman world.

In short, the chapter on the Sermon falls far short of making its case, and indeed has so many misstatements and errors of fact as well as interpretation, that even if we just use it as a conversation starter, it should come with warning. WARNING: THE CONTENTS IN THIS CHAPTER SEEM TO HAVE SETTLED INTO THE NOTES IN SHIPMENT. DON'T TAKE THE STATEMENTS IN THE TEXT AT FACE VALUE BECAUSE THEY WILL BE SEVERELY QUALIFIED LATER, USUALLY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE.


D.C. Cramer said...

Hi Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for these thought provoking critiques of Barna and Viola's work. Your criticisms of their research and arguments seem to me to be (in most cases) beyond dispute.

However, I wonder if this discussion (both from B&V and from some of your comments here) is setting up a false dichotomy over what a 'true biblical church' must entail. It seems to me that scripturally there are descriptions (and perhaps prescriptions) of church that at times sound more 'high church' (synagogue worship) and at other times more 'low' (house gatherings). To say that true worship/ preaching/ fellowship/ outreach / etc. cannot take place in one or the other setting seems to me to be a rather strong categorical claim. This is certainly true of B&V's claims against traditional churches, but I also sense a hint of it in some of your responses against their proposed solution (house churches). For example, your statement to the extent that the mandate to be 'a city set on a hill' simply can't be fulfilled by a house church without a sign seems to rest on a rather (uncharacteristically) literalist interpretation of what it means to be a visible 'city' or 'light' in a community. If the fine research by missiologist David Garrison (CHURCH PLANTING MOVEMENTS) is anywhere near accurate, it seems that in many parts of the world, entire church planting movements are exploding through house church networks (in many places out of necessity, as buildings are simply not feasible). The mandate to be a city on a hill in these situations, then, is being fulfilled quite faithfully through peer-to-peer interactions and personal invitations to join a house church meeting, rather than simply having a visible presence through an imposing structure with a sign.

I guess my main concern in brief, then, is that despite B&V's negligent research and misplaced criticisms, their constructive elements may not be themselves unbiblical or necessarily based on bad ecclesiology. Rather, it seems to me that at both a descriptive and normative level, there is a vast diversity in forms of church and that perhaps this diversity was itself a part of God's design for his Church. From Anabaptist, Quaker and early Methodist forms of church to the modern church in China, the Muslim world, and other parts of the world today, I believe that true worship and church life has and does take place (as well as in high Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Reformation forms of church). Any ecclesiology that categorically dismisses either traditional churches or house churches as unbiblical or inherently deficient in some way may be overstepping the purpose of biblical ecclesiology in the first place. It appears that B&V may have fallen into that trap; I trust that you won't return the favor.

Best regards,

David Cramer

J. R. Miller said...

It will take some time to digest and investigate all this, but in short---wow!

Bill said...


If we agree that Paul says in effect that "not all" should speak in a meeting, does it therefore follow that only one person should? But honestly, I don't mean to be combative, I'm merely drawing that distinction to illustrate the point I actually want to make - and to raise the question I really want to ask.

You've made clear you feel that PC isn't up to the standards of a scholarly work in many ways. You've pointed out there are some statements we can't take quite as absolutely as you sense the authors are asking us to take them. Okay, I get that. I understand you on those points.

But this is my point: I cannot seem to figure out just what exactly it may be that you are arguing for.

Is it to say that qualifications belong in the text? Got it. To prove that Frank and George aren't scholars? Granted. But surely that isn't what's making you want to pull out all your hair, is it? Surely you've read books that fall beneath your scholarly standards before, right? That gripe alone doesn't explain to me the passion and the vigor that you've engaged us with in these posts.

So here is my question, and I'm honestly and sincerely trying to understand you a bit better in this: Please, sir, I'm sorry if I missed it, but what is your main point?

Of course, I will continue to read the rest of the series. And thanks again for your earlier graciousness.

Ben Witherington said...

Three little points. I am not saying that only one person should speak in worship of course, though certainly there should be only one at time speaking. Why am I doing this? Because Frank Viola himself asked me to do so. Thirdly, it would be silly to suggest churches can't meet in homes or can't worship in homes. Of course they can, and in some examples in the NT they did, though its certainly not normative in any sense nor mandated in the NT. I think however that the limitations of this approach far out way its benefits. And yes, I have been in house church settings.


Bill said...

Thanks very much for that reply, brother. That helps a lot.

Bethel said...

Hi Dr Witherington,

Thank you for your effort on these reviews.

You mentioned the excellent rhetorical structure of Acts for example, in particular the sermons captured by Luke.

From an academic point of view, how likely is Peter, given his social-economic background, able to deliver a sermon that is rich in the structure and style of Greco-Roman rhetoric on the day of Pentecost for example? In other words, would have Peter likely receive an elementary education based on Greco-Roman thought, or was such education a preserve of a privileged few in Palestine.

I certainly understand that NT culture of the time is predominantly oral, and certainly preaching and teaching orally would not be something alien to the apostles. However, do their (the apostles’) speeches/sermons in Acts automatically take the forms of G-R rhetoric, or is this a product of Luke’s editing and restructuring in your opinion? (One of course would not be surprised that Paul had such learning).

God bless,
Keith Tan

graham old said...

'In other words, the very format of this book is not only not reader friendly at all , it is unintentionally deceptive, and leaves all kinds of unqualified impressions if one sticks to the text.'

That's quite a subjective statement though, isn't it?

I found the book to be very user-friendly. Once it became obvious that the footnotes were important to the content of the book, it wasn't too much of a hassle to read them.

This is, after all, a popular-level book and should be treated as such.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Graham you must have different footnotes than the hardbound copy I have-- mine almost require a magnifying glass. Whatever one thinks about that, the major issue is--- should you make dramatic statements that you then have to qualify a ton thereafter. My answer is no-- that is misleading. You should start with the qualifications and work your way to a reasonable and non-polemical conclusion.


Ben Witherington said...

Ah yes, the old Peter was an illiterate fisherman myth. Several things should be said: 1) Galilee was a regions surrounded by 10 Greek cities, called the Decapolis. 2) Bethsaida, where Peter was from was on the border with various non-Jewish regions, and not far from Caesarea Philippi as well; 3) the fishing business required a knowledge of Greek. One not only had to pay tax and toll collectors, if one sold fish on both sides of the small lake, one needed to speak Greek; 4) what Acts says is that the Sanhedrin folks suggest that Peter is not someone who went to their seminary. It does not say he was illiterate. It says he was UNLETTERED, i.e. didn't have the proper degrees; 5) rhetoric was a part of even the most elementary education in Greek, and was taught in Jewish schools in Jerusalem; 6) the speeches of Peter in Acts would have in some cases been in Aramaic, and therefore the Greek is Luke's who most certainly knew rhetoric.


chill said...

Thanks again for carefully walking through this.

It frustrates me that Barna came out with "Revolution" a few years ago basically saying that the research 'evidence' is proving people are moving away from a traditional church, to practicing their faith outside of the normal concept of church.

Now he is finding 'evidence' that traditional church is really Pagan. It seems more than a coincidence. He seems to have 'found' exactly what he wanted to find in history. It also would make me cast doubt on his goals and findings in Revolution.

tom said...

Are you throwing out the Baby with the Bathwater here?

I confess that I don't have your historical credentials and see your point, but the "history" lesson of Viola was blatently the weakest aspect of his book. It was the question raised that were intriguing.

Frankly, any educated reader should have had "Red flags" raised when Viola made definitive claims. The Christian church has been around for 2000+ years, with many long term controversies. As a church (a people of Christ) we have split over these controversies to the point where House churches of 2-3 may be the only way to find anyone who agrees with each other.

My point is, Viola raises a very Restorationist perspective. Think about what political, cultural, and habit based elements have been added to our current understanding of "Church". When we attempt to restore, we often restore from further political, cultural, and habit based perspectives.

That's really all that can be taken from this work in my opinion. Viola takes many liberties with history, then assumes his opinion as definitive.

It's a horrible way to write an academic text, but a very entertaining text from which to begin a discussion of why Christ's 1 church is sitting in buildings and houses with different names, rituals, and beliefs.

I frankly am not sure Christ would be welcome at many of them ... because he is not much like them.

billy v said...

I do like, for the most part, the whole organic church movement and some of the heart behind these works to get us focused more on the mission than on ourselves. But your review has highlighted some of my concerns in this movement away from trained leaders teaching and preaching in the community. I agree that even a cursory reading of Paul shows that not all are equally gifted when it comes to instructing God's people from his word.

graham old said...

'Whatever one thinks about that, the major issue is--- should you make dramatic statements that you then have to qualify a ton thereafter... You should start with the qualifications and work your way to a reasonable and non-polemical conclusion.'


This seems a common way to write in these tabloid times and I can't see a reason why one shouldn't.

I understand that in a scholarly work, that's the case, but I can't think of many examples of contempoary communication where it's considered deceptive to do what V&B do.

I get that you didn't like it, but I guess I just don't see why they should start with the qualifications. Heck, most people don't even preach that way!

Matt said...

Dear Dr. Third,

In Churches of Christ we have ministers, elders and deacons. We interpret "pastors" or shepherds to be elders and not the lead minister. So the big decisions of the church and the shepherding of people takes place with a plurality of elders and is not put on the shoulders of the preaching or senior minister. Most make it a point not to call the ministers pastors but would reserve that for the elders.

Also, I never heard back on the first post about what you meant in referring to the Restoration Movement which includes Churches of Christ...?

This is a great series of posts. Keep it up!

Brigitte said...

Anecdotally speaking, in my life so far, I've been to many Bible study groups and enjoy the intimacy of those very, very much.

On the other hand, my only contact with a "house church", per se, has been with my next door neighbors. They were very dear, sweet neighbors who invited us occasionally to church parties, slide-shows of their mission trip to Romania... (very impressive work by a small group.)

I don't remember ever having been invited to worship, but we were invited to participate in the alpha course, they were planning to run.

So, I said, could I have a look at the book they were using. So, I looked at it, and sorry I can't quote it, it came across to me saying that main-line church goers are not "fully" Christian. So I talked to the neighbor about it and asked her what it was that I was missing. She affirmed that indeed I was missing something, but she could not point out to me what. We belabored this for a bit.

I said, if I come to the meetings I might disagree sometimes, especially the before mentioned point and feel the need to discuss this. However, this was not going to be ok. There was not going to be dissent in that group or setting. OK, so I did not go and I am quite content to let Jesus Christ judge whether I am Christian or not.

It is the attitude of judging where no judgment is called for or appropriate that is the problem that is being tackeled in this series, I think.

Thanks for your words, your defense and your passion, here, Dr. Witherington.

Jon said...

It seems to me that there are three primary reasons why your critique of PC is so harsh.
a. You have treated it as though it were a work of scholarship, which the authors deliberately say it's not. Here's a direct quote from the preface.
This is not a work for scholars, so it is by no means exhaustive. A thorough treatment of the origins of our contemporary church practices would fill volumes. But it would be read by few people. Although this is a single volume, it includes a great deal of history. Yet this book does not chase every historical sidelight. Rather, it focuses on tracing the central practices that define mainstream Christianity today (p. xx).
For a scholarly work, the book falls short. Not because it's inaccurate, but because it deliberately doesn't bring into play all the counter arguments of dissenting voices.
But for a popular polemic that challenges deeply entrenched traditions, the book is outstanding. It's not hard to understand why it's a bestseller (it has a 90-day average of #839 on That’s a huge indicator that there’s widespread interest for this book, and that contrary to what you have said, the authors are not “preaching to their own choir.” Nor has the book “died any deaths.”
PC is written in the style and manner of various authors who have a prophetic, provocative, and passionate edge such as A.W. Tozer, Stanley Hauerwas, and Tony Campolo, yet with the scholarly backing of such distinguished scholars as Robert Banks, Howard Snyder, Dave Norrington, etc. I’m quite confident that if John Howard Yoder were alive, he would have endorsed the book also since many of the points the book makes correspond to perspectives found in his writings.
b. As I said in my first response, you seem to equate your particular opinions of church history with truth and any departure from it with error. The fact is that many scholars other than yourself disagree with your analysis of both post-apostolic history and NT ecclesiology. I think, therefore, that it would be more responsible and less arrogant-sounding to say, "In my opinion, the authors are wrong here because of such-and-such."
c. You attribute to the authors’ views they do not in fact embrace. In my first and second response I provided specific examples.
Now on to the specific points you make in the third part of your review:
1) Regarding your passionate defense that you are a church historian, my understanding is that your forte is historical study in relation to the NT rather than church history in the post-apostolic and Reformation era and beyond, which PC focuses on.
For those reasons, I cannot fault the authors for not going to you for your analysis of post-apostolic church history as much as they would someone who is a Professor of Church History or those who specialize in the field. That was my point in part one.
Next, it's incorrect to say or imply that I "ignored" the fact that you were reviewing the book chapter by chapter before reading the entire book. I could obviously see that, it's just that I disagree with that approach and believe that it's one of the reasons why there were so many factual mistakes in your review.
Being an editor for the last 30 years, I've learned that in order to review a book fairly, it's important to read the entire work first to understand the author's full thought. Only then can one accurately give a fair chapter by chapter critique. This is pretty standard for those who review books professionally.
To say that PC is "poorly researched" is simply false. With hundreds of footnotes and several hundred volumes in the bibliography, the research speaks for itself. The book may not come to roost where you would. It may not give an exhaustive list of point and counter-point as the typical scholarly work does. And perhaps worse (in your view), it may not include any of your books in the bibliography (which you lamented when you began your review). It also may not utilize your favorite sources. But the fact still remains that the book draws on a wide breath of study by scholars, historians, and theologians who have traced the origins of various church practices, and it does a great job at documenting every statement. This is hardly “poor research.” Perhaps this is why it’s gotten the endorsement of reputed scholars and theologians,, some of whom are as well credentialed as you are.
To the contrary, the book is well researched and the key points are not easy to refute without considerable overreaching.
2) Regarding your unconditional dismissal of Will Durant: First, he was a world class historian whose work has stood the test of time. Second, his Story of Civilization is of the most accessible popular treatments of history available (remember, PC is a popular work). Third, while no historian is infallible and Durant’s worldview is certainly to be questioned, the parts where the authors’ cite or quote him are dead-on and attested by other contemporary historians. Here’s a quote by Durant that would be an example of what I’m talking about:
In the enthusiasm of its discoveries, the higher criticism has applied to the New Testament text tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies, Hammurabi, David, Socrates, would fade into legend. Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that many inventors would have concealed. No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of higher criticism, the outlines of the life, character and teachings of Christ remain reasonably clear and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.
Furthermore, just because none of the books in your history course aren’t mentioned in the bibliography shouldn’t be regarded as a litmus test of its accuracy. The authors cite and draw on the recent work of Rodney Stark, James F. White, Frank Senn, Bruce Shelley, Ramsey MacMullen, Michael Grant, Robert M. Grant, George Marsden, Everett Ferguson, Justo Gonzalez, and many, many others.
But the real issue is: Is the source wrong in the specific places where the authors cite them? Having examined these issues for years, I have to say “no” -- the book is indeed accurate.
3) Your comment that “the book dies the death of a thousand qualifications” is an opinion that I feel is quite misleading. What you call a qualification is an answer to an anticipated objection. A scholarly work would put such objections within the main text. But this typically breaks up the flow of thought. A popular work puts such objections and their responses in a footnote or endnote. Let’s look again at the example you gave:
You quote them saying, “Today’s sermon has no root in Scripture” (p. 86). Then you accuse them of qualifying that statement in a footnote. I went to that page and didn’t see a footnote for that statement. Even so, they repeat the point (and believe me they need to) that by “sermon” they aren’t talking about biblical preaching or teaching. This is a valid point that’s easily missed given our traditional mindset. So repetition of it in both the footnotes and main text (Q and A) is necessary to help prevent reader misunderstanding. This isn’t a qualification as much as it is a response to an anticipated objection.
4) Now on to the area where you spend the most time on: The use of Greek rhetoric in the orations of the first-century apostles and prophets. I would argue that the case that the authors make is in fact historically correct. They have in view the polished rhetoric and art of rhetorical brilliance and eloquence that marked many of the Greek rhetoricians, particularly the sophists. Dave Norrington in his seminal work, To Preach or Not to Preach? The Church’s Urgent Question (Paternoster, 1996) has added a lot of fresh insight on this subject.
In addition, Bruce Winter in his book Philo and Paul Among the Sophists (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and Duane Litfin’s St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation (Cambridge University Press, 1994) make the following points that correspond with PC’s perspectives.
- Paul renounces Greek rhetorical techniques in preaching that are marked by exalting the art of eloquence. To Paul, these undermined the power of God and the centrality of the cross.
- Paul writes: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God …. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power….” 1 Cor. 2:1, 4-5. Winter believes that Paul had the sophists in view.
- Paul rejected the rhetorical methods of the sophists so that he would not be aligned with them in any way.
- Winter argues that 1 Cor. 1:17 focuses on the rhetorical skill of the speaker. Paul argues against rhetorical artistry because it obscures the proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
- The sophists charged for their services while Paul offered his gospel free of charge and worked manually lest he be a burden to the churches.
- Paul’s presence in public and his delivery style were deficient according to the standards of Greek rhetoric (2 Cor. 10:10).
- Paul and Apollos were judged in terms of their rhetorical abilities. Paul renounces the employment of rhetoric in preaching in 1 Cor. 1-2 because it conflicts with the message of the cross. Preaching based on Greco-Roman rhetoric displays the artistry and personality of the speaker and puts the focus on the speaker rather on Christ. This is why Paul denounces such preaching. God saves through the weakness of the cross and the brokenness of the vessel used, therefore, the gospel should not advertise the strength of the speaker by “wowing” his hearers with his rhetorical artistry. This, according to Winter, compromises the gospel.
On these points the authors of PC are in agreement with Winter, Litfin, and Norrington. See also Dr. Jeremy Thompson, Preaching is Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow?

In the same spirit as the above, Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Paul by R. Dean Anderson Jr. (1996), argues the following:

- When viewed in the light of ancient theoretical canons, Paul's letters to the Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians do not exhibit, nor do they evidently intend to execute, the kind of argumentation that would have been reckoned satisfactorily persuasive by a hypothetical professor of rhetoric contemporaneous with the apostle (cf. p. 28).

- Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians deviate from the rhetorical standards of Paul’s day.

- Paul appears to have no direct knowledge of rhetorical theory (pp. 251-255).

- "It is very easy to label a particular passage or argument in Paul's writings by some Greek technical term, but unless rhetorical theory enables us to say something relevant concerning its use and function at that point, our analysis is pretty worthless" (p. 34, also pp. 83, 92).

- Some scholars may have too hastily assumed that Paul was well versed in rhetorical theory.
5) The authors are not arguing against biblical preaching and teaching as you assert. They are instead arguing against the modern sermon and calling into question the belief that it is the equivalent of NT preaching and teaching. As they put it themselves:
We strongly believe in preaching, teaching, prophesying, exhorting, and all forms of sharing the Word of God. We are simply saying that the modern sermon, which we define as the same person (usually a clergyman) giving an oration to the same group of people week after week, month after month, and year after year is not only unbiblical, it is counterproductive. We want readers to look at the biblical and historical evidence for this point and decide for themselves whether or not we are correct in our analysis. In fact, research conducted by The Barna Group has shown that sermons are generally ineffective at facilitating worship, at drawing people closer to God, and at conveying life-changing information to those in the audience.

Despite your lengthy review, you have failed to dismantle what is stated in PC regarding the entrenched traditions that cluster around “the pastor.”
6) “The sermon,” you note, “is not an invention of Protestants over the course of the last five centuries.” Who suggested that it was? I don’t know of anyone who would hold to that notion -- certainly not the authors of PC. Honestly, I have no idea how you could think they believe this when they clearly trace the sermon in the Christian faith to Chrysostom and Augustine (p.93ff.). These two men brought Christian preaching to a highly-developed rhetorical form. The authors show how the Reformers went back to them and drew from their styles of rhetoric. So this is yet another case of arguing against a point the authors never make.
7) The authors say in a footnote “most synagogues allowed for any member to preach to the people who wished to do so. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the modern sermon where only religious ‘specialists’ are allowed to address the congregation.”

Note the words “any member” … this is fundamentally true. “Women” in that day would not have “wished to do so.” For you to harp on this brief sentence in the footnote by saying that women and Gentiles (non- proselytes) weren’t allowed to speak in the synagogue is an example of a glaring factual error reveals how your review must reach hard to find a falsehood.

8) You argue that “good preaching and pasturing enables the gifts of the other members.” The authors repeat this point in the book, saying that true preaching and teaching equips God’s people. But again, you are equating “good preaching” with the modern sermon. And this is the very point the authors are challenging.

9) When you say that the notion that anyone can teach, preach, or prophesy on a regular basis is “unbiblical,” you are dead wrong. While the NT teaches (and the authors agree) that not all Christians are specifically gifted as teachers, prophets, or apostles, it also teaches that every Christian is a minister, a functioning priest, and is capable of instructing, prophesying, and exhorting in the church. Here are just a few examples from the NT literature itself:

1 Cor. 14:31 - For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. [This is not relegated to prophets only. See R. Banks, H. Snyder, G. Fee, F.F. Bruce, and many of other scholars on this point.]
Rom. 15:14 - I myself am convinced, my brethren, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. [These words were written to the church in Rome and included all believers].
Heb. 10:25 - Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another … [Note that this has reference to the normative meeting of the church. This clearly shows us then that the congregation is active during the meeting and is engaged in exhorting “one another” and “provoking “one another” to love and to good works (v.24). There’s nothing here about passively listening to one man. The same point is made in 1 Cor. 14:26 which you freely advocate in your commentary on Corinthians (see Part Two of my review)].
Howard Snyder buttresses the point the authors make saying,
The clergy-laity dichotomy is a direct carry-over from pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood. It is one of the principal obstacles to the church effectively being God’s agent of the kingdom today because it creates a false idea that only ‘holy men,’ namely, ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership and significant ministry. In the New Testament there are functional distinctions between various kinds of ministries but no hierarchical division between clergy and laity.
In another place Snyder says,
The New Testament teaches us that the church is a community in which all are gifted and all have ministry.

10) You assert: “The problem of course with home groups is that they do not fulfill the mandate of Jesus to his disciples be 'a city set on a hill, which cannot be hid.' He might as well have said 'a church hidden in a suburban home can't be found.’”

When I read this, I wanted to pull my hair out, but I didn’t have to because it literally began falling out!  I guess the first-century churches that Paul established, most of which were quite small in membership (I believe you suggest 40 in Corinth in your commentary) and all of which met in homes, sadly didn’t fulfill the mandate of Jesus. Are you suggesting that the home ekklesias of the first century were somehow set on a hil, but contemporary counterparts can’t be? Your comment seems to reveal a bias against a valid ekklesia form.

11) In closing, part three of your review falls short of making its case, and indeed has so many misstatements and errors of fact as well as interpretation that even if we just use it as a conversation starter, it should come with a warning: Examine the argumentation in this review very closely before you hastily assume that the respected author is correct in his interpretation of the NT and church history.

The main points of chapter three in PC are that the traditional way of structuring church services has dubious origins and is patently out of sync with what is revealed in the NT. As Ernest F. Scott noted concerning the gatherings of believers in the early period:

Prayer was offered, as in the Synagogue, but not in stated liturgical form. It was uttered freely, on the impulse of the Spirit, and was presented in the name of Christ, the Intercessor . . . . The Christian faith gave rise to hymns of a new character, often produced in the heat of the moment and almost as soon forgotten; but sometimes short lyrics of real beauty were treasured and repeated . . . . Chief of all these [elements] was the observance of the Supper . . . . This, indeed, was not so much a part of the worship as the vessel which contained all the parts. The purpose of the Christian meeting was to hold the common meal, and to make it a memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples . . . . The exercise of the spiritual gifts was thus the characteristic element in primitive worship. Those gifts might vary in their nature and degree according to the capacity of each individual, but they were bestowed on all and room was allowed in the service for the participation of all who were present. “When you meet together,” says Paul, “each of you hath a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, an interpretation.” Every member was expected to contribute something of his own to the common worship . . . . Worship in those first days was independent of all forms (The Nature of the Early Church, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941, pp.75,77,79,87).

PC is suggesting that in light of the calcified structure that characterizes church services, perhaps we would do well to re-visit the alternative pictured in the NT. Your review has given no substantive reasons why the challenge issued in PC should not be taken very seriously by the Christian community. – Jon Zens

Ben Witherington said...


Just one small response here. I know Howard Snyder quite well. He is my colleague here at Asbury, and frankly, he just doesn't agree with much of what is said in Pagan Christianity, while endorsing some of it, in his books like The Problem with Wineskins. The problem of course is that your case is based on detailed assumptions about the NT, as well as about early Christianity. But where are the NT scholars who are lining up to laud this book? Besides Robert Banks are there any? And why not?
Could it be that the argument is so tendentious and not that well supported in Scripture that Biblical scholars are leery of it? Well the answer to that question is yes, not because there aren't some valid criticisms of the traditional institutional church, but because the view of early Christianity and its texts is skewed in various ways.


Ben W.

J. R. Miller said...

Dr. Worthington,

Since Jon brought up the work of Robert Banks, which is also a strong source for the work of Barna, I thought folks might like to read my review of his work, "Paul's Idea of Community"

While there are many good points he makes, which are relied upon by Viola, I think there are some concerns about Bank's text critical approach that diminish the weight of some portions of Scripture.

If you think my book review is worth a read and will add value to the discussion, please post my comment. Otherwise, you are free to discard it. No hard feelings :-)

Jon said...


Howard Snyder’s endorsement speaks for itself. It’s in the book. People who endorse books often don't agree with everything in the book, but if they felt a book was totally erroneous and without value, they would not endorse it at all. Aside from myself, Robert Banks isn't the only NT scholar who endorsed the book. But more importantly, why would NT scholars be lining up to laud this book anyway? It’s not a book about NT studies. It’s a historical work that traces the origins of modern church practices. It’s also a popular work rather than a scholarly one. That being the case, my understanding is that the authors only asked a few scholars for endorsements. I do happen to know that one scholar wanted to endorse it, but he felt that his job would be at stake if he did. Keep in mind that PC challenges the pillars of the entire religious system. That’s no small undertaking and it’s fraught with risks. The sixteen people who did endorse PC are no shabby bunch ( Interestingly, the majority of them have received formal theological training. Even so, what difference does it make who and how many people endorsed it? As I’ve demonstrated in my responses to your review, many competent scholars disagree with your take on the subjects with which you strongly disagree with the authors. Each reader, therefore, must decide for himself or herself where the truth lies. The view that PC takes on the NT church is suggested but not developed and fleshed out in the book. It’s developed in the sequel, “Reimagining Church,” which I highly recommend. The discussion in “Pagan Christianity” is not complete without it. -- Jon Zens

J. R. Miller said...

Hi Jon, I was checking out your website. I applaud your creative use of your church's non-profit status to publish and sell your magazine and teaching videos. I am also pleased to see that you have found a way to use the "pagan institution" to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ! We may disagree on some f the substance within PC, but from what i have read so far, I welcome your friendship as a brother.

Volkmar said...


Under the laws of the Empire we live within ANY of us can "have" a church and non-profit tax exempt status. I have the necessary paper work from the state I live in authorizing me to sign wedding liscenses. (Funny that we give the State that much authority...) That doesn't make me, or Jon, "institutionalist" or "pagans".

Here's what Len Hjalmarson has said on "institution"--pagan or otherwise;

I see INSTITUTIONALIZATION as the process of moving from personal and shared responsibility for the ongoing life of a community to reliance on mechanisms and means that may no longer relate to the founder’s purpose. You may reflect that this definition is informed by concerns about centralization of power, bureaucratization, hierarchy and control, rationalization and efficiency, objectification and depersonalization. You would be right. (To me this represents the worst of secularism and Cartesian imagination and what Ellul described as the spirit of technos).


Keith Throop said...

Thank you for your work in addressing the many issues with Pagan Christianity. I really appreciate in a special way because I have been dealing with a number of people who have been drawn into the House-church Movement and who have bought into the kinds of fallacious and un-Scriptural arguments found in this book. In fact, I have been writing my own series of blog articles responding to the movement, and I have let the readers of my blog know of your writing on the subject as well.

If any here are interested in the series I am writing, which deals with many of the Scriptural issues found in Pagan Christianity, here are links to the first six articles:

Part One: Does the Bible require that churches meet strictly in houses rather than in other kinds of buildings?

Part Two: Does the Bible require that church gatherings be “completely open and participatory with no one leading”?

Part Three: Does the Bible require that the Lord's Supper be celebrated only as part of a “full meal”?

Part Four: What kind of authority – if any – do elders have in the churches?

Part Five: What is the meaning of Ekklēsía?

Part Six: What is the proper understanding of Hebrews 13:17?

Given that I am a Reformed Baptist, you will no doubt see some differences in perspective in my articles, but I think overall there is a remarkable agreement with a great deal of what has been said here.

I welcome feedback, and I am glad that finally someone with Dr. Witherington's background and knowledge is addressing these issues.

Thanks so much, brother!


David Zane Anderson said...

Aside from myself, Robert Banks isn't the only NT scholar who endorsed the book.

Jon, other than yourself and Frank, who is referring to YOU as a scholar?

The scholarly community has NOT lined up behind this book, as Ben rightly observed.

As for Robert Banks he's "uncertain" about 1 and 2 Tim, Titus, and even... Ephesians. See Paul's Idea p 3, 193 f.

Frank took his little copy of Gene Edwards' Beyond Radical and went out looking for footnotes. Just compare the table of contents with the contents of PC. Same slogans. Same tone. Not very original. Hardly monumental.

Jayce said...

"You have treated it as though it were a work of scholarship, which the authors deliberately say it's not. Here's a direct quote from the preface."

Scholarship or polemic aside, false claims does not a good book make, period.

J. R. Miller said...


Of course you do not accept the compromises you make as "institution" only the compromises others make.

Still, where in Scripture does it say the church should file for recognized status for tax benefits.

You just like to enjoy some Pagan benefits and then judge others for the Pagan benefits you don't agree with.

I think the Biblical word for that is "hypocrite".

Volkmar said...


What "compromises" are applicable to myself?

I do not belong to a church-like organization which has or has registered with any government for tax exempt status.

Earlier in life I was a member of a church in which I was functioning in a pastoral role (along with three other persons) and was recognized by "ordination" which was registered with the state. Though I am no longer a member of that denomination, my registration of ordination is still valid in the state in which I reside and such gives me the validation of said state to sign and validate state issued marriage liscenses. I have never exercised that authorization...though three of my daughters were wed in a six month span last year.

My point was that non-profit status with the IRS or "ordination" papers do not necessarily constitute "institutionalism" when it comes to the functioning of an ekklesia of God's people. The house church of which I am a member has absolutely no need to register as a non-profit. We have never needed to support by self-taxation either staff or physical plant.