Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Pagan Christianity--- Postlude

One of the more disturbing problems with the sort of arguments found in 'Pagan Christianity' is the lack of understanding of early Christian history, and the relationship of continuity between earliest Christian communities and the communities one finds at the turn of the NT era and at the beginning of the second century when there was still much Jewish Christian influence and character in these communities. Those who want to actually study the influence of the synagogue on early Christian meetings in homes for worship and fellowship should carefully work through James Burtchaell's important monograph From Synagogue to Church. Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (Cambridge U. Press, 1992). When one examines a text like the Didache, which comes either from late first or early second century Jewish Christian contexts, what is so very interesting about this text, is not only its Jewishness and its use of the Gospel of Matthew's form of Jesus' teaching, but its highly developed sacramental theology of both baptism and the Lord's Supper, a sacramentalism that has nothing to do with pagan rituals, ceremonies or theologies at all.

Here for example is translation of Ivan Lewis of Didache Chapter 10 which comments on the prayer said after the Eucharist, If you read Didache 9 first you will see that clearly the context is a discussion about the Lord's Supper.

1) After the meal, give thanks in this manner:
2) We offer thanks, Holy Father,
For Your Holy Name which fills our hearts,
And for the knowledge, faith and eternal life,
You made known to us through Your Servant;
Yours is the glory forever.
3) Almighty Master, You created all things for Your own purpose;
You gave men food and drink to enjoy,
That they might give You thanks;
But to us You freely give spiritual food and drink,
And eternal life through Your Servant.
4) Foremost, we thank You because You are mighty;
Yours is the glory forever.
5) Remember Your Body of Servants,
To deliver it from everything evil
And perfect it according to Your love,
And gather it from the four winds,
Sanctified for Your kingdom which You have prepared for it;
For the power and glory are Yours forever.
6) Let Your grace come,
And let this world pass away.
Hosanna to the God of David!
May all who are holy, come;
Let those who are not, repent.
Maranatha. Amen.
7)But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving/Eucharist as they wish.

Notice please the reference to the communion providing spiritual food and drink unto everlasting life. The Greek is even clearer than the English.

And just for the sake of comparison let us consider a text from an outsider--- Pliny the Roman Governor of Bithynia in A.D. 112-113. Here is what he had observed about early Christian meetings. Pliny has been busy trying to get Christians to worship the image of the Emperor, which most are very unwilling to do. When he inquired of them what their worship practices were, here is the answer he received:

"However, they [the Christians he interviewed from Bithynia] assured me that the main of their fault, or of their mistake was this:-That they were of the habit, on a certain fixed day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by an oath, not to do anything that was ill: but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break their promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal, which they had left off upon that edict which I published at your command, and wherein I had forbidden any such conventicles. These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant maids, who were called Deaconesses: but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition. "

Several things are of note about this revealing passage: 1) the context suggests that the meeting at dawn was on the same exact day each week; 2) it was a morning meeting; 3) the singing of a hymn to Christ as a god was most certainly seen as part of an act of worship, which Pliny countered by trying to get them to worship the image of the Emperor; 4) there would be ethical exhortation and promises made of virtuous behavior; 5) notice the part in italics above about how after the worship time they would depart and meet again to share a common meal. It is this latter part that is said to have been abandoned upon the edict of Pliny because it was an indoor meeting that suggested something of a conventicle or secret society was being set up; 6) note the reference to deaconesses involve presumably in both the worship of the set day and the common meal at different local. Perhaps they were tasked with the serving of the meal, since diakonia in its root meaning is 'to wait on tables'.

Now it is precisely this sort of early evidence that needs to be used to help provide context for the proper reading of the NT evidence about meetings in homes and their character and praxis. When one does this, it is interesting to see that in the latter text the common meal is separated from the worship at sunrise, and the former is what is seen as more pernicious or threatening to the Empire.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Ben,
I've always found it interesting that so many authors can simply make up fabrications about early christianity and then are praised by the media and book reviewers everywhere. Well anyway I guess books like these are proof of a fallen and helpless world that we must reach for Christ. Thanks again I will continue to check back.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I disagree that sacramentalism doesn't have to do with other religious rituals. All religions have ritual, as men seek to understand "God" and worship Him. The meaning that humans give to the rituals is the significant factor, not the ritual itself...unless you believe in transsubstantiation...or consubstantiation....is it the actual ritual that makes one "pure" or "faith" that does? If one believes that it is the actual ritual, then one is cultic in understanding..."pagan rituals" sanctioned ("redeemed") within the community of faith...OR does one believe that "faith" is what changes the ritual into actuality, which is individually assessed??? If it is "faith" then, any ritual done in faith is acceptable, for it is not the ritual itself, but the faith of the individual...if one believes in the former, then it is the "Church" that sanctifies the "pagan" into "the pure"....But, then one has to believe in the "purity codes" as significant today (which is debatable)...My question in light of this is: Is it that the Church "takes into its bosom" anything and everything and sanctifies it by its proper use???? Is the holiness (sacred/secular debate) really about faith in the Church as God's instrument of sanctification? The Essenes, who I understand were the forerunners of Christinity were only one form of Judiasm, this "sect" of Judiasm "sees and understands" faith within these terms....while the Jewish faith would understand faith differently, as common Judiasm was diverse before "rabbinic orthodoxy" set in (just as it was in the Church)...The political is the realm of government and democracy is the highest form of understanding man made in God's image, not ritual or sacrifice...or theocracy, but men acting responsibly within a diverse and free society...

JM O'Clair said...

Dr. Witherington,
Not to deter the discussion too much --
I'm sure you know that Pliny's letter to Trajan was written in Latin; so the word translated, in my opinion awkwardly, as 'deaconesses' isn't diakonia, but rather ministrae.

Also, very recently (in April during my course on Tacitus and Pliny) I had a conversation with classicist Miriam Griffin about this passage and the awkwardness of deaconesses as the translation for ministrae. Pliny certainly knows of some of the practices, but he admits in 10.96.1 that he had never been present at 'trials of Christians.' With the women, Pliny is dependent on what they're saying to him. We don't know what they said. But they must have given Pliny some explanation concerning the status of these Christians.

We both concluded that Pliny, although he was aware of these Christian practices (how much did he know?), might not have known the particular nuances of the specific function of these ministrae. We settled on a more general translation such as 'servants.' We were trying to see things from a Roman point of view as Pliny wrote about his investigations.

This is not to detract these women's function in their own church context, but it seems safer to keep it generic and understand Pliny is writing from his point of view as a Roman.

Basically, I'm not disagreeing with your post, I'm just nit-picky with this ministrae word. Is that clear as mud?? :)

Gary Sweeten said...

I have a human reaction to any book with such an overarching theme of conflict. I assume that the leaders in past days did things for some reason they thought were consistent with the Bible and historic prctices so they were not totally aberrant or pagan.

That said, thanks for taking so much time to share your insights and ideas. I do appreciate the immense amount of study and prayer that has obviously gone into them.

Additionally, I appreciate the fact that you do not denegrate the supernatural aspects of the early church or the Jewishness of our faith but integrate them. I have long been a proponent of small groups and house churches because I founded several in the Jesus Movement as a result of most traditional churches refused to allow me to bring my bearded, beaded and bra-less converts to their formal services. However, I do love high liturgy and great choirs with good music as well.

So, thanks for the scholarly integration of liturgy, charisma, small groups, clergy and laity. You are a rare theologian.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Dr. Ben,
Have you seen this critique of your critique of Viola and Barna's Pagan Christianity?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ted: Yes each part of Jon's rebuttal I published as responses to each of the blog posts. I do understand their frustration with some forms of the institutional church. What they do not seem to grasp is that what they are suggesting is certainly not any more Biblical in various regards. It becomes clearer and clearer that if 1 Corinthians wasn't in our canon, they would have no basis for much of the way that they envision church happening. And they are prepared to ignore the evidence of Jesus teaching his disciples not only things like a particular prayer to repeat, or a particular model of leadership which not only allows for ministerial support, but in fact says quite specifically the minister is worthy of such support, they are guilty of over-exegeting their key texts so that it would appear that spontaneity is what God most wants in worship, and hierarchial leadership was forbidden. This certainly was not the apostle Paul's view not least because he was the hierarchial leader who was telling them how to conduct their worship and fellowship gatherings-- and he expected to be obeyed!


Ben W.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Dr. Ben,

I tend to think God wants both a set as well as spontaneous element in our walk and worship in Jesus.

No critique at all in what you're saying, and I appreciate it, and am seeking to learn so as to better understand God's will for us and for the church, in Jesus.

Thanks again!

Steve Sensenig said...

It becomes clearer and clearer that if 1 Corinthians wasn't in our canon, they would have no basis for much of the way that they envision church happening.

But it is in our canon, so what's the point being made?

I understand your desire to make sure other relevant scriptures are included in our ecclesiology, but the answer is not to then ignore 1 Corinthians, is it?

Jon Zens said...


In reading over your postlude where you cited from the Didache, my main response is that I don’t see anything particularly “sacramental” about it. It seems to me that a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a house church person, or the authors of PC could utter such a prayer without any problem.

If one thinks the Didache is an accurate standard to understand the practices of any of the first century churches, then perhaps we should take its disdain for minister salaries to heart.

- If a visiting apostle remains somewhere for 3 days, he’s a false prophet - 11:5
- If he takes anything from God’s people except for a loaf of bread, he’s a false prophet – 11:6
- If he asks for money, he’s a false prophet - 11:6
- If a someone says in the Spirit, “give me money “ do not listen to him – 11:12
- Christian workers should work for their own bread – 12:3
- “In no way should anyone live among you unemployed as a Christian” – 12:4
Interestingly, I find nothing in the Didache that contradicts the points the authors make in PC. I actually find agreement. The Didache talks about multiple overseers and nothing about a single pastor. It also affirms that there were traveling apostolic workers and true prophets. At the same time, I personally wouldn’t take it as a guide for NT church practices. Consider the following rules:

- If you fast on Monday or Thursday you are a hypocrite. You must fast on Wednesdays and Fridays – 8:1
- The person who is baptized should fast two or three days beforehand – 7:4
- The person doing the baptizing must also fast - 7:4

No one denies the variety that undoubtedly existed in the NT era. It’s just that the glimpses of information we do have in the New Covenant documents point toward interactive meetings, not toward the post-Reformation “order of service” that PC takes issue with.

Few would deny that the agape meal and multi-participant meetings are present in the NT. The crucial issue is, Did they cease for valid reasons? Roman Catholic D.I. Lanslots freely admits (as he seeks to justify the RCC agenda):

The public worship or the Liturgy, which is a certain development of prayers and ceremonies, as we have it to-day, did not exist in the days of the Apostles . . . . Two early ceremonies, that accompanied the celebration [‘Holy Eucharist’], soon disappeared; they were not essential. The first was the love-feast; the other the spiritual exercises, in which people were moved by the Holy Ghost to prophesy, speak in divers tongues, heal the sick by prayer, and so on; St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians refers to that (14:1-14) [The Primitive Church: The Church in the Days of the Apostles [1926], Tan Books, 1980, pp.264-265].

“They were not essential,” he opines. In terms of practice, Protestants have essentially agreed with this notion. PC is suggesting that what came in their place was substandard, contra the NT traditions, and ended up effectively redefining the NT concept of church.

Protestants usually affirm that the New Testament is the benchmark for all of life, and our life in the Body of Christ. As PC points out, the visible church began to takes it cue from traditions other than the NT quite early on. G.A. Jacob pointed out this phenomenon during an ecclesiastical struggle in his day:

Notwithstanding the still generally acknowledged supremacy of Holy Scripture amongst us, the main current of Church opinion on all questions of polity and practice (to say nothing here of doctrines) has for a very considerable time been setting strongly towards the ecclesiastical system of the third and fourth centuries, to the neglect, in this respect, of the New Testament . . . . [The movement] was begun and carried on by men who diligently and perseveringly brought to bear upon the public mind their stores of learning, gathered not from the Apostles, but from the post-apostolic Fathers; not from the divinely taught Church of the New Testament, but from the humanly deteriorated Church of a later time . . . . And all the while there is frequently a profound ignorance of what the Church system at that time really was, and the extent to which it had departed from the simplicity of the apostolic age and truth (The Ecclesiastical Polity of the New Testament: A study for the present crisis in the Church of England, Thomas Whitaker, 1879, pp.20-21, 23).

So it would seem that we really need to ask ourselves, Do we take the revelation in the NT seriously as our starting point, and does the way we practice church honestly reflect NT values? I think PC has done a marvelous job of challenging us to re-visit these questions as does the sequel, Reimagining Church. – Jon Zens

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you once more for this Jon.

I will only say a couple of things at this juncture-- 1 Corinthians is Paul's most corrective letter. Paul is answering problem after problem, one of which is the chaos in Corinth-- the lack of structure and order in their meetings.

It is a very serious mistake to take this as a blueprint for Christian community, even a very charismatic community.

The last thing he wanted to encourage in this document is more spontaneity in an already overly spontaneous worship service, and less order and leadership.

The Greek of 1 Cor. 12 is very clear indeed--- only some have the gift of teaching as an ongoing function in the church gather, only some have the gift tongues, only some have the gift of healing, only some have the gift of prophecy, and only some are apostles.

The rhetorical questions at the end of 1 Cor. 12 cannot be interpreted any other way. The answer to them all is--- no.

In 1 Cor. 16, Stephanas and his family are singled out as not only the first converts in Greece but the leaders of the house churches there in Corinth to whom the whole of the audience of 1 Corinthians are urged to respect because of their ministerial service. They are spending their whole lives in Christian service, and deserve to be so supported.

In addition Paul asks for money for Timothy, who is also doing the Lord's work. The phrase "send him on his way with your blessings" is not a nice little spiritual epithet-- it is a technical Greek phrase referring to providing traveling funds and material support so he can get to his next port of call (see also Paul in Rom. 15, and the same phrase in the Johannine Epistles-- check 2-3 John).

My point is simple. The church in Corinth had a regular influx of outside leaders-- Paul, and his various co-workers, but it also had leaders like Stephanas devoted to fulltime service, whom Paul expects to be supported, as he argues is right earlier in 1 Corinthians.

You may not wish to call these folks 'paid clergy' or 'paid ministers' but that is what they were.

In an age where the apostles were dying out, the Didache reflects an awareness that the local church needs to be more wary in supporting unknown itinerant prophets etc. who simply turn up and want money. This has nothing to do with paying known Christian works who are indigenous devoted to fulltime ministerial service, as Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 16.

N.B. I saw Howard Snyder this week and he is sending me his critique of Pagan Christianity and your churches, as well as what he has said in support. I will endeavor, in the spirit of full disclosure to publish this on the blog soon, with his permission.



Jon Zens said...

Ben –

Thank you for your replies to my responses to part four and your postlude. Some closing thoughts to wrap up our conversation:

1) If I may, I would like to make a few honest observations about the style of communication reflected in your conversation on this subject. I am not sure if you aware of this, but your language comes across as if you are dogmatically certain of your personal opinions. I find this ironic and sad because this is what you originally accused the authors of in PC. I can well understand an author being passionate and confident in his or her beliefs in a book or in preaching. But to be uncommonly dogmatic in a discourse such as this in the face of contrary opinions of other scholars of equal stature (who I’ve quoted and cited repeatedly) comes off sounding a bit arrogant and condescending.

Several times you appealed to yourself as a “scholar” and “historian,” as if that closed all discussion. Wikipedia notes with regard to “Appeal to Authority”:

“An appeal to authority or argument by authority is a type of argument in logic consisting on basing the truth value of an assertion on the authority, knowledge, expertise, or position of the person asserting it. It is also known as argument from authority, argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect) or ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it). It is one method of obtaining propositional knowledge, but a fallacy in regard to logic, because the validity of a claim does not follow from the credibility of the source.”

I am one who stands in awe of your intellectual abilities as brought to bear upon the study of Scripture. However, I have in the course of my responses to you cited numerous other respected scholars who see things differently than you do, and on the surface you haven’t given their viewpoint the time of day. For example, James Dunn pointed out four areas – increasing institutionalism, attaching authority to office, a widening gap between clergy and laity, and grace becoming attached to ritual acts – that were not in the first generation, but appeared later. Doesn’t this indicate that such things were not part of the “apostolic tradition”? That should give us cause for concern, as I see it.

I say this in all graciousness, but I think it would serve the body of Christ better if you exhibited a little more humility and were less certain of your assertions and assumptions. For example, never once in your discourse on this subject have I seen you say, “I could be wrong about this but…” or “the scholar you mentioned makes a good point and he may be right about that” … or “that’s a point worth pondering,” or “I think…” or “I believe”… or “It’s my opinion that…” or “I stand corrected on that point,” etc.

Instead, your rhetoric has been consistently filled with statements like “this is false, this is erroneous, this is dead wrong,” without any acknowledgement that these are your opinions and there are other competent scholars who disagree with them. Paul did say that “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” I believe that those of us who are engaged in scholarship must always keep that statement in mind. Of course, all of the above is just my humble opinion, I could be wrong about it. 

2) You state: “The charge of anachronism is a serious one, all the more serious when you make it of a historian…” I don’t know how to respond to this except to remind you that I am also a historian and other historians and scholars like myself would agree with that particular observation. It’s my experience that conversation gets short-circuited if we become offended when someone else makes critical observations about our conclusions. Keep in mind that you have “charged” me with having an erroneous theology, which I find to be a far more serious “charge” (to use your term). But if I allow myself to be offended by such statements it only reveals pride in my own heart.

Again, I think the language of dogmatic certainty defeats good healthy conversation. I believe that all of us who study the biblical text must be open to the idea that we may be wrong in our views, and we should respect those scholars who disagree with us rather than dismissing their views with the rhetoric of dogmatic certainty or becoming offended by their critiques. Our allegiance should be to Jesus Christ who is Truth, not to our views, our interpretations, our study, or our intellect.

3) With regard to the body of Christ being modeled after the life of God, I don’t think your logic follows. Equality of value and personhood is one thing; difference in function and role is another. Also, your language of dogmatic certainty -- “it is simply false to say that the church is modeled on the life of God…” -- is rebutted by other world-renowned scholars. The work of Stanley Grenz, Mirsolav Volf, Kevin Giles, Leonardo Boff, and others demonstrate quite powerfully the connection between the life of the Trinity and the church and that the former is a model for the latter. In other words, other scholars disagree with your opinion here.

3) Regarding taxonomy, I would say that for the most part “preaching” in the NT takes place in evangelistic settings where the gospel is proclaimed to unbelievers, while teaching and words of a mutual flavor (exhort, encourage) are connected with Christian gatherings (cf. C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching & Its Developments, pp.7ff. David C. Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach?, Paternoster, 1996). Interestingly, the “proclaiming” that is done in the context of the Lord’s Supper is accomplished by the Body, not by one person’s monologue.

4) The office of bishop – in particular the monarchial bishop like Ignatius -- that emerged in post-apostolic times is certainly a development not substantiated by the NT canon and cannot be accurately equated with the ministry of extra local, traveling apostles (see Judy Schindler, “The Rise of One-Bishop-Rule in the Early Church: A Study of the Writings of Ignatius and Cyprian,” Searching Together, 10:2, 1981, pp.3-9). I would encourage your readers to go back and read what Ignatius actually said about the ultimate and unquestioned power and authority of the bishop. No first-century apostle ever wielded such authority (see Robert Banks’ discussion on Paul’s apostolic authority in “Paul’s Idea” and “Dictionary of Paul and His Letters”).

Elaine Pagels documents the whole rationale for the bishop as supreme as it arose in post-apostolic history. She points out Clement of Alexandria remarks “That whoever refuses to ‘bow the neck’ and obey the church leaders is guilty of insubordination against the divine master himself. Carried away with his argument, Clement warns that whoever disobeys the divinely ordained authorities ‘receives the death penalty!’” Pagels goes on to say:

“This letter marks a dramatic moment in the history of Christianity. For the first time, we find here an argument for dividing the Christian community between “the clergy” and “the laity.” The church is to be organized in terms of a strict order of superiors and subordinates” (“One God, One Bishop: The Politics of Monotheism,” The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1981, p.41).

This brings to the fore an important question that PC raises: are such things as the monarchial bishop departure or development? “Development and departure are two different things,” notes F.F. Bruce, “and should not be confused. Development is the unfolding of what is there already, even if only implicitly; departure involves the abandonment of one principle or basis in favor of another” (A Mind for What Matters, Eerdmans, 1990, p.238). He goes on to say, “If it should be asked further (in light of what has already been said) how development is to be distinguished from departure, or how can it be prevented from lapsing into departure, the answer may lie in certain criteria which the NT writings themselves provide” (p.244).

5) As you well know, it is through Paul’s counsel to the Corinthian situation that we learn much about how the church is to function. When a teacher corrects a student’s handwriting, that in no way suggests that the teacher wishes him/her to stop writing altogether. The truth is 1 Corinthians is preserved in the NT canon. While their problems are not to be emulated, it still provides apostolic insight into healthy body life. The amazing thing is that with all their issues, Paul still assumes that the body can work out its waywardness in light of his instruction to them. Paul in this epistle never puts the onus of responsibility on leaders, and never addresses them separately. As put forth in Matt.18, the body binds and looses, using the keys of the kingdom.

6) I assume that Paul sees mutual exhortation, etc., carried out in a church meeting because that’s the setting given in 1 Cor.14 and Heb.10:24-25. 1 Cor. 14:26 is not merely descriptive but it also carries prescriptive force. Such scholars as Gordon Fee (1 Corinthians, NICNT, Eerdmans), William Barclay, F.F. Bruce, Leon Morris, John R.W. Stott, Robert Banks, et al., are of this opinion. Again, other scholars disagree with your opinion here. Even if it was just descriptive, isn’t it healthy to ask, “Why are our meetings so far from this description?”

7) There are 58 one-another’s in the NT, and absolutely nothing about “one pastor” bearing the entire responsibility for the edification of the church (as John Owen put it). I’ve already given you many arguments that challenge the existence of the modern pastorate, in addition to the arguments in PC. Having a participatory meeting does not rule out the functioning of the various gifts you listed. In 1 Cor.14, Paul has instructions for the “prophets,” but he also assumes that anyone in the gatherings may “prophesy.” Again, Howard Snyder has it right when he says,
“The New Testament teaches us that the church is a community in which all are gifted and all have ministry.”
“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.”

8) I would suggest that any structure of church that ends up with a few doing the work of many is a perversion and corruption of the body image Paul develops in 1 Cor.12. If I’m not mistaken, the way that many (if not most) modern churches operate, one would think that Paul said in 1 Cor.12:14, “The body is not many parts, but one.”

9) The Jewish churches and the Gentile churches both had the same essential attributes that mark the ekklesia of God. This point isn’t developed at all in PC so your comments on this are misguided. While some of the Jewish churches struggled with legalism (Acts 11-15) and some of them were tempted to return to the shadows of the Law (Hebrews), it’s a mistake to try to argue that the Jewish churches were some sort of a model for justifying the modern institutional church structure. I’ve already answered the objection that Jewish Christians had Christian ekklesia meetings in synagogues. This won’t hold up historically.

10) Again, I feel that your arguments which try to support a fixed clergy salary fall short and constitute a stretch of the imagination. I also think you missed my point in my comments on the Didache. I agree that the Didache was addressing traveling apostles who were asking for money, but it was doing more than that – it was speaking of all Christian ministers as well. But that’s really neither here nor there. Read again the other rules that the Didache sets forth that I listed. I know no pastor who follows them today, and I know few scholars who believe that they reflect the normative life in the first-century churches, which was my initial point. But I see nothing in it that contradicts the arguments in PC.

Finally, thank you for posting Howard Snyder’s honest review of PC. I think his opening statements summarize the book beautifully:

“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.”

This breathes the same air as his endorsement for the book:

“Most contemporary Christians are massively ignorant as to how the church got to where it is today and of how much current church practice is due simply to accumulated tradition, with little or no roots in Scripture. This book provides a useful service in peeling back the layers of tradition, showing the origins of much that we today call "church." Christians who want to be biblically faithful, regardless of their particular tradition or church form, can learn and benefit from the book.”
- Howard Snyder, Professor of History and Theology of Mission, Asbury Theological Seminary

Regarding some of the other comments, PC clearly states that it is not suggesting that just because something has a pagan origin, it should be jettisoned. It purports instead that those pagan traditions that interfere with NT revelation are to be rejected. The authors are also not pushing for one model of church as being the correct one and their arguments for “organic church” are developed in the sequel. They also state in the book that God has used and is using the institutional church despite its unscriptural structure. The issue of contexualization is handled in the sequel, and the authors would agree with Howard that PC is “not the last word or the whole story.” The fact that there is a sequel demonstrates this on its own.

I think the key points in PC are summed up fairly well by Richard Halverson when he said,

“When the Greeks got the gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got it, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business.”

It would seem that the Good Ship Ekklesia set sail in the first century and that after several thousand years in the sea, so many barnacles have attached themselves to the ship that it’s original form is unrecognizable.

Ben, I’ve enjoyed interacting with your opinions. I hope that your review and my critique of it will provoke your blog readers to read the book for themselves and discover what God is saying to them through it in their particular situations. As Howard himself wrote in his review,

“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.”

I hope they will do so. May God’s peace and grace be yours.

Take care,

-- Jon Zens

p.s. If you or any of your blog readers wish to dialogue with me further about this subject, I can be reached at jzens@searchingtogether.org

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jon:

Thanks for this final coda to the discussion.

Several points in reply--- a supposedly prophetic book like Pagan Christianity deserves a vigorous reply, especially when it involves faulty analysis of the key Biblical texts, and an unbalanced reading of early Christian history and practice.

As someone who cares just as much as you or Frank do about these matters, I would be doing you no good service to have done otherwise.

When I see someone lighting a match next to a open gas can I'm going to yell FIRE as loud as a can, preciously because I care about people like you, and would not want in any way for you to go seriously astray on these matters.

You should take my words in that context-- I found many of the views in this book not only factually wrong, and exegetically wrong, and theologically wrong--- I found them alarmingly so! Hence, the passion.

This is not a matter of humility or hubris, it is a matter of evidence.
My concern is that the evidence has been badly misrepresented, and this especially concerns me at the exegetical level.

Secondly you can't judge tone unfortunately, most of the time, in a email or a cold medium like a blog. I enjoy my exchanges with Frank, and I imagine we will go on having them.

Your tone in your emails has frankly been far different than the tone of Pagan Christianity. It is not only too strident and imbalanced a book, it is too cock sure of its analysis of things. I am glad it has been modified since the original publication but there is miles to go before it becomes a useful cattle prod to an overly institutionalized church.

Most people not of your persuasion will simply put this book down, and not give it an honest listen--- and that's too bad as it has some good points to make.

Thirdly, it is quite pointless for me to say "in my opinion" when it fact it is not by any means just my own personal view or opinions--- what I've been talking about is the view of the vast majority of scholars including the majority of evangelical scholars, and you surely must know this.

When you have a minority view, you have to do a much better job of: 1) explaining your view; 2) justifying your view; 3) presenting your view, and the place for humility, instead of a censorious tone such as we find in 'Pagan Christianity' is in just such a study--- perhaps especially when it is addressed to a broad audience who will not know the nuances or the assumptions behind the study.

Many blessings,

Ben W.

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Ben, I just thought I would share a few recent thoughts I wrote on my blog- www.corpuschristioutreachministries.blogspot.com [love your insights!](812) NEW WINE NEEDS NEW BOTTLES- Jesus said no man takes a piece of new cloth and sews it onto old clothes. Or no one takes new wine and puts in into old wineskins. If you do the wineskins will break and the wine is lost. Jesus was a radical revolutionary, his message and Kingdom were one of tremendous change and transition. The New Testament calls this ‘the time of reformation’. In John chapter 3 he told Nicodemus ‘unless a man is born again he cant even see or begin to perceive this new thing’. We often seek for new understanding, trying to improve our lives and callings. Sincere people who are looking for innovation and trying to be on the ‘cutting edge’. One of the common mistakes we as believers make is we often approach ‘new ideas’ with ‘old structures’ in mind. Much of the stuff I have written on ‘local church’ fits into this category. Jesus is primarily teaching the reality of his New Covenant being one of complete transition and change. He knew that the old mindset of law and legalism would not be able to contain the New Covenant. The Spirit of God needs ‘new’ [born again] vessels to be poured into. Jesus also said those who have been ‘drinking the old wine’ have a natural tendency to resist change. They are comfortable with the traditions and form that have surrounded them for most of their lives. There is ‘special value’ on ‘wine that is old’. Jesus told the disciples ‘I have many things to teach you, but you are not able to hear them right now’ in essence ‘their old wine skin mentality’ couldn’t handle the new things. In all growth and maturing there also needs to be a basic understanding that it does no good whatsoever to change or introduce reformation to the degree that both the wine and the wineskins are lost. Jesus realized there were certain things that the disciples just couldn’t handle, and it would have been pointless to have ‘cast the pearls’ at that time. I want to challenge you, God often holds back the answer to a question or problem because he realizes we need to be re-positioned before we can receive it. He doesn’t simply communicate ‘new and deep revelation’ for the sake of making us smarter! He wants the people of God to come to maturity so he can be glorified in all the nations. New wine is good, in fact it is a necessity! But it does absolutely no good if it’s spilled all over the ground.

(813) I was going to do the parable [some say story! - I explain it later] of the rich man and Lazarus, but felt we should go another way. Yesterday I was reading some stuff on line and learned of the book Frank Viola wrote ‘Pagan Christianity’. I have not read it, but I have read other books from Frank and I think he is an excellent teacher. As I was ‘perusing’ the comments from Pastors and others who read the book, I realized that it stirred up a controversy in many circles. I thought it interesting that a big part of our teaching has been debated recently and I wasn’t even aware of it. Let me make some comments about ‘the comments’. The title might be a little strong, I understand the actual fact of many modern Christian practices arising from ‘pagan’ sources. But this in itself was no secret to the believers who willingly did this at the time! I remember reading one of my ‘history of Christianity’ books and hearing a Catholic author explain why the 4th century church did embrace, to a degree, certain pagan things. Some Protestants seem to think that the fact that Christmas and Easter have obviously pagan histories is a secret known only to them [them being protestants]. But the Catholic author explained that ‘changing’ pagan holidays into ‘Christian ones’ was done on purpose. The intent was to allow the pagans to keep their special days, though the institutional purpose of those days was changed, as the Emperor Constantine was legitimizing Christianity [his brand of it]. Now was this ‘compromising’? Sure. But was this a secret pagan take over of Christianity? Probably not. So when we see ‘pagan’ things [cultural changes] being mixed in with Christianity, sometimes it doesn’t mean what we think. Paul teaches in Timothy to give honor to Elders and respect those in authority. Paul says ‘I am writing these things so believers will know how to behave in the House of God’. In context, the elders and the ‘House of God’ are simply speaking about the mature saints who were living and dedicating their lives for the propagation of the gospel and spending extra time ‘building Gods House’ [the actual community of believers in their midst]. But later on as Christianity developed the ‘House of God’ would be seen as the ‘church building’. The hired positions of clergy were seen as ‘Bishops, Pastors, and Priests’. So when you would have a reformer rise up [Luther] it was easy to initially brand him as a heretic who was ‘going against Gods House’. Who was ‘not honoring’ the Elders [Pope and Bishop]. The mistake was reading the New Testament and simply applying the names [House of God- church building. Bishop [of Rome] - Catholic apostolic succession from Peter] of things to the present understanding. So the Protestants would have their Reformation and only go so far. For all practical purposes the ‘House of God’ was still seen as ‘the church building’. And the Protestant Pastor was still seen as the office of someone who ‘oversees the church’. There really was no reformation of ‘church practices’ or the way ‘we do church’. Now, are all of these practices inherently wicked? No. Do they hinder growth and maturity among believers? To a degree, yes. Paul's words to Timothy on honoring Elders, giving them ‘double honor’. This speaks about actually sharing your material goods with those in the community who were dedicating themselves to learning and teaching this ‘new way’. All believers did not have access to scripture like we have today. The scrolls of the Old Testament and the letters of Paul were circulating, but some of the new believers couldn’t even read! So in these communities of people, which Paul describes as ‘The House of God’ you had ‘spiritual parents’. More mature Elders who had a stable grasp of doctrine. They would help keep the believers on course in a day where there was no internet, libraries [available to the general public at large] no radio or T.V. [this one could be a blessing!]. In essence these Elders, Bishops [overseers] were simple believers who were worthy of ‘double honor’ [feed them, help them out materially, they are meeting a real need and for all practical purposes they are needed!]. But as Constantine would ‘marry’ the Empire and institutionalize the church, the ‘double honor’ portions of scripture were used to justify a ‘tithe system’ that would support ‘the church’. Priests and Bishops took on a different meaning than the way Paul would use the term. The development of hired clergy and the overall institutionalizing of the church used common New Testament terms, but for the most part these terms were taken out of context. The Protestant Reformation dealt with important doctrinal issues, but this basic ‘way of seeing church’ did not change. While I haven’t read Franks book yet, I plan on reading it in the future. Understand I am not commenting on what frank Viola means when he says ‘Pagan Christianity’. I am simply sharing my thoughts on the development of Christianity.

(814) OUR WE A BUFFET OR A PARK? I guess we need to do some more on ‘the house church movement’. First, the New Testament addresses ‘the church’ as the corporate people of God. The great mystery is that Christ is dwelling in our hearts by faith. That all believers are walking around as ‘the mobile dwelling place of God, THE HOUSE OF GOD!’ Now, from this standpoint we live and function as the people of God. As we learn and grow we realize that ‘along the way’ we have grasped on to limited ideas about who we are and what the church is. Many of these concepts are shared by both Catholic and Protestant believers. Some who have been helpful in showing us the limited perspective of ‘church at/as the building’ as being silly, seem to have grasped on to the idea that ‘church at the house’ is the basic organic nature of ‘church’. I disagree. In society today you have all sorts of family units. Kids are being born and leaving home and going out into this ‘brave new world’ and imprinting their name on the world. All over the earth you have parents who are writing and keeping in touch with their offspring as they learn and grow as people. These kids are doing all sorts of things [shopping, eating, going to movies, going to the buffet on Sunday]. Now say if you as a parent changed the way you wrote your letters; ‘Dear Johnnie and family’ turned into ‘dear kids who meet and eat every Sunday at the buffet’. The kids would be wondering ‘what’s up with dad, why does he see us only thru the lens of us eating on Sunday’ [or whatever day you eat]. The basic mistake that dad is making is he is seeing one of the functions of his kids [meeting for the purpose of eating] and mistaking that function for ‘the kids’. That is he is beginning to identify his kids in a limited way by viewing them only thru this lens. Now say if dad does some research and finds out that the first century ‘kids’ were having their meals in the park. It was only as time progressed that they built ‘buffets’ and places to go on Sunday to eat. And as time progressed all the kids from future generations starting viewing themselves thru the lens of ‘we are families, we are people who eat at buffets on Sunday’. Now say if the researcher who has discovered that the early families really never ate at buffets [met in buildings!] begins to teach that ‘true family’ are those who meet at parks. The fundamental mistake, in my mind, would be defining ‘the people’ [church] as the kids who eat/meet at the park. While in reality, these first century ‘kids’ were defined as being ‘real kids, who were living and ‘eating’ and functioning as real people as a result of really being born by real parents’. That is the real definition of ‘being kids’ is neither ‘meeting at the 4th century church building’ [or calling the actual building ‘the kids’!] nor is it ‘meeting at the first century park’ [home meetings]. The researcher, as helpful as he has been in showing us the limited model of 4th century ‘buffet eating’ has also been limited in his replacing of ‘the church’ as building based versus home based. Would you address your kids as ‘buffet based’ or ‘park based’? That is would you define them by using the measuring rod of ‘where they met to eat’? Of course not! They are ‘kids’ [children of God] because they have been born into human [spiritual] families. Their fundamental nature as ‘children of humans’ [of God] is what makes them ‘kids’. So today I wanted to re focus our attention on what the ‘church’ actually is. The church are all the people of God [both those in buildings, parks and any where else they happen to be] who are alive because they have been actually born from God the father. Our identity is not based on 4th or 1st century ‘ways of meeting’. Our identity is based on being ‘born from above’.

(815) It seems as if every time I take an excursion from a ‘study’ I do 3 or so posts. So let’s see if I can close here. There are obviously major hurdles and feelings at stake when any body says ‘look, I have found some great stuff in the bible. Lots of it has to do with the fact that what you thought was ‘church’ is not ‘church’. What you thought was a fulltime position of ‘Pastor’ is no where in scripture. And what you have been doing for the past 20 years is off track’. Any job description [Prophet!] that carries this type of function is not going to be well received! [I am not talking about me]. So as we examine and learn about the church and the role of leadership, we must realize that feelings are going to get hurt ‘who does he think he is! Man that guy is threatening my livelihood!’ Well, yes it is possible that the fact that there were no 1st century ‘Pastors’ in the context of what that word means today, can be threatening. So do we never address the issue because it is threatening? But do we go around and teach all the believers that they should abandon all present structures? I appreciate all the good teachers I have learned from over the years. Real insights into things that I would have never seen without their help. Some of these teachers have been excellent on revealing the fact that the 1st century church did not have the office of Pastor as the weekly speaker to the ‘local church’. This was not the normal way believers met. The 1st century gatherings were corporate ‘body life’ experiences. People learn and grow in a conversation with others. They stagnate by sitting in an audience [both the pastors and the spectators]. Now, some have argued that Elders, Pastors and Overseers in general had a very limited, if not non existent, role in the first century churches. This can be debated somewhat. I don’t want to argue the point, but simply say that there is enough evidence in scripture to believe that Elders [basic oversight] existed as a regular part of the communities of Jesus in the first century. These leaders were simply more mature men who gave direction and oversight to the flock as God ordained. They were not ‘Pastors’ in the sense of today’s Pastoral office. But they did exist in scripture. So in all of the well meaning efforts of returning back to a more biblical form of church life, I think we need to leave room for leadership to exist and function to some degree. Some of the brothers seem to have gone a little too ideological in the area of ‘no human headship’. They teach that the 1st century churches declared the headship of Jesus by having no human ‘control’ at all in the meetings [communities]. I kind of see their effort as noble, but a little too impractical. Some of this teaching goes along the line of ‘the biggest hindrance to the Body of Christ are the Pastors/Elders’. While I do see a negative result from believers overly depending on the present pastoral office. Yet I do not see a type of New Testament ecclesiology that was absent all human leadership. Leadership is there, it is plural [obey THEM that have the ‘rule’ over you- by the way ‘rule’ here is different than ‘rule’ when referring to human govt. and kings. Jesus did teach that Kingdom leadership would be thru care and oversight] and it is communal. It exercises itself thru leaders [Apostles, Prophets, Elders, etc.] as they live together as a community of people. So the basic reason I am bringing this up is I feel some have drawn a little too idealistic picture of ‘the local meetings’ in the first century. Sort of like the meetings were very spiritual because of a total lack of oversight. I don’t see this description at all. I see Paul writing the Corinthians and rebuking them strongly for having terrible meetings! Now his solution isn’t ‘have everyone one shut up and listen to the Pastor’ [there was no ‘Pastor’!] but there certainly wasn’t some type of purposeful ‘leaderless’ church that had no recognized leaders. To the contrary Paul will give specific instructions in his pastoral epistles [Timothy, Titus] to make sure the local saints knew who were recognized Elders. Paul was not afraid of saying ‘these guys are leaders, if you have problems and situations that arise in my absence, don’t be afraid to go to them. They are stable in the faith’. So while it is true that the first century churches did not have the office of Pastor as we have come to define it today. Yet they weren’t a bunch of ‘leaderless’ people. Elders existed and Paul seemed to have no problem with everyone knowing who the Elders were.

(816) Okay, I lied! Just to clarify, these last few entries are dealing with years of studying and dealing with ‘organic church’. Many fine authors; Austin Sparks, Gene Edwards, Watchman Nee, Robert Banks, etc. There are varying themes and ideas that arose out of the ‘Rethinking the Wineskin’ mentality. One of the other areas of concern has to do with the understanding of ‘Apostles’ [itinerant workers] as it relates to the ‘Ecclesia’. I am grateful over the amount of believers in general who have recently come to grips with the fact that Apostles do exist today according to the plain reading of the New Testament. The ‘older idea’ of dividing up the portions of scripture that say ‘after Jesus ascended he gave gifts to men, Apostles, Prophets, etc.’ it is fairly obvious that these ‘Apostles’ were made after Christ’s ascension [Ephesians] and that they exist alongside the other gifts. Now, with all the recent dialogue on Apostles and ‘church planting’, do you know how many times the command is given in the New Testament to ‘start churches’? Zero! That’s right, no where in the New Testament are we [or Apostles] commanded to ‘go and plant a church’ Huh? All Christians [Apostles too!] are commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. It is obvious that in the New Testament the Apostles did have a strong gifting to present the gospel and the gospel taking root in the people [which is what ‘church planting’ is!] But there is no reason to believe that as we challenge the idea of ‘hired clergy’ and the average believer’s dependence on them, that at the same time we should teach a concept that says ‘it is impossible to have a true ecclesia without the extra local worker’. This has been taught many times over the years as I have studied this movement. I feel the mistake is in seeing the power of ‘church planting’ residing in a specific role, and ONLY that role, while at the same time trying to free Gods people from the un biblical role of ‘full time Pastor’. As far as I can tell the church at Rome was ‘started’ by the Diaspora who were scattered sometime after Pentecost. Paul wrote them a letter [Romans] but did not arrive there until later. The point I want to make is this, as we challenge the present ideas and limitations that the ‘institutional church’ has put on the people of God, we don’t want to make the mistake of telling them that ‘the Apostle’ is now the ‘office’ that is indispensable to your healthy existence! The power of the gospel is what makes ‘healthy churches’ [communities]. Sure Apostles are important, but it is the power of the Spirit in the work of regeneration that ‘plants churches’. Now, someone does have to get the message to them! But whether that’s an Evangelist, Prophet or little old grandma! Once the gospel is proclaimed to a group of people, all the essential elements of life are present.

Tom Jagels said...

Ben, I'm just curious...

Do you believe that the actual body and blood of Christ is present in the Eucharist?

God bless,

Chris McMillan said...

Hi Dr. Witherington,

When Pagan Christianity first came out I was a little overwhelmed with the positive response it was receiving by many in the blogosphere. I knew that the concepts were not totally biblical and was disturbed by how much impact the book seemed to be having. After reading your detailed critiques I feel much better. In my humble opinion you eviscerated every argument that Viola and Barna have put forth. There will never be enough evidence for some people who are bound and determined to push a certain agenda but as far as I'm concerned you made a compelling case. One thing I haven't heard anyone talk about is the fact that Viola states that itinerants should be paid while calling for the termination of all paid clergy. Guess what Viola does for a living? He is an itinerant. Doesn't that sound a little self-serving? Anywho, thanks for your expertise in dismantling the arguments from this troublesome book.

roger flyer said...


I don't think Ben (the authoritative voice of the Lord) hears you.

Ed Darrell said...

These guys at "Stones Cry Out" don't like the Halverson quote. Just FYI:

Israel said...

Are we not missing the point about Christianity here? should we be preoccupied with house churches/preaching or rather the heart of the message of Christ. Whatever the context the good news are shared should not be the main concern. i think we all trying to express the same thing differently. We are not arguing about Christ but rather how he should be represented! Early church like we are were caught up in their contexts and this influences expression. God never spoke down from heaven and said to the early church this is how you do church!!!Therefore each age will express the SAME truths differently, i think there is enough evidence of this throughout history.