Book Review: Pagan Christianity, by Frank Viola and George Barna
Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Tyndale House Publishers, 2008. 336 pages.
Practical paganism. No, it’s not a guide for aspiring pagans. It’s the summary of Frank Viola and George Barna’s critique of low-church Protestantism in their 2008 volume, Pagan Christianity?. The authors, identifying themselves with the radical reformation (264–265), argue that modern churches have both abandoned practices that characterize New Testament churches and adopted practices that are pagan in origin. Thus, in a practical sense, Protestant churches that preach sola scriptura are, in fact, dominated by pagan traditions.
According to Viola and Barna, the New Testament church is organic, while the modern church is institutional. Organic churches are Spirit-led bodies of believers marked by Christ-centeredness, non-hierarchical leadership, intimate community, and meetings that are both highly participatory and spontaneous (246–250). Conversely, many of the practices found in the institutional church have no biblical or historical warrant (xx). Most of the book is spent examining these practices and structures, seeking to establish their pagan origins and demonstrate their divergence from the biblical pattern. Among the pagan innovations that have crept into the church are monological preaching, the pastoral office, and prepared liturgy. No sacred cow is safe! The authors close by exhorting their readers to follow Christ, the Revolutionary, in breaking with the traditions of the elders in order to obey the Word of God.
There are aspects of the book that are laudable. Chief among them is the authors’ assertion that “God has not been silent when it comes to the principles that govern the practice of His church” (xviii). Their arguments against pragmatism and unintentional reliance on worldly methods highlight the need for churches to follow the prescriptive rule of the Word. Moreover, the authors rightly criticize the tendency among many evangelicals to overemphasize the individual aspects of Christianity to the neglect of the corporate nature of the faith. At a few points, one might think the book was coauthored by Dever and Leeman! All this to say that the book is not without its bright spots.
But like a raging house fire, any light this volume sheds isn’t worth the resulting loss. The preface warns readers that they will be confronted by the “unmovable, historical fact” of pagan practices in the church (xix). The warning proves to be misleading. To put it generously, the authors’ bold claims are often supported by appeals to authority rather than through careful demonstration. More bluntly, the book is littered with the kind of haphazard historical work that characterizes Dan Brown novels. Despite the authors’ confident assertions, the book’s thesis fails to convince due to a lack of careful historical work.
Yet, like a long bus ride to prison, a bad journey is overshadowed by a worse destination. While some of the book’s argumentation is poor, the conclusions are often worse. In their critique of the sermon, the authors allege that the monological preaching from modern pulpits has no basis in Scripture and does more harm than good (97–102). Teaching in corporate worship, they argue, is to be spontaneous and dialogical, with every member teaching one another (100). This practice is supplemented by occasional preaching from apostolic workers, like Paul or Timothy, who equip churches through an itinerant ministry (102–103). I grant that the spontaneous, one-to-another ministry of the Word in corporate worship qualifies as a form of teaching, but is it wise for this kind of teaching to make up the bulk of the church’s diet? The centrality of the preached Word in the life of the local church doesn’t rest on a few cherry-picked texts. No, the sermon flows out of the gospel. In preaching, we recognize that God gives and sustains life through his Word, of which we, his people, are ever in need. Preaching does not reduce the congregation to passivity but puts them in a fundamentally receptive posture. By hearing, believing, and obeying the preached Word, the congregation honors Christ as their Redeemer King. I fear that the form of teaching that Viola and Barna champion keeps hungry churches from the rich food of Scripture that could be theirs through preaching.
Another significant problem with the book is its critique of the pastoral office. The authors argue that pastoring is not an office, but a gift that is exercised by various members in the church (106–108). In their view, the pastoral office functionally denies the priesthood of all believers and challenges Christ’s headship over the church (136–137). In my view, the authors simply fail to interact with the biblical material in a rigorous way. The author of Hebrews recognizes a group of leaders that teach the Word and give oversight to their congregation, who, in turn, submits to their leaders (Heb. 13:7, 17). Similarly, Peter casts elders as under-shepherds of the flock of God, exercising their authority in a Christ-like way (1 Pet. 5:1-4). Far from usurping Christ’s headship over the church, pastors serve to display the authority of Christ through loving spiritual oversight and biblical instruction.
Similarly, the pastoral office is not in tension with the priesthood of all believers. God uses pastors to make their members better priests by equipping and sanctifying them through the ministry of the Word and the power of the Spirit. Viola and Barna seem to think that churches need to be freed from the yoke of the pastorate. In so doing, they undercut God’s authority displayed in the pastor’s spiritual oversight and declared in the pastor’s biblical teaching.
For all of this, those in 9Marks circles can learn from a book like this one. First, the book exposes the need for Christians to grow in their understanding of systematic theology. In their final chapter, Viola and Barna seek to correct the evangelical tendency to rip biblical texts out of their context. The key to understanding the New Testament correctly, the authors contend, is to reconstruct the historical context behind the text and read it in that light (239-240). If congregations are taught that either proof-texting or historical reconstruction is the key to form theological conclusions about ecclesiology, they will reap the bitter fruit of such Biblicism. The church desperately needs a resurgence of constructive dogmatics. Far from being something imposed on biblical texts, systematic theology is the web of doctrinal logic that ties Scripture together as a unified whole. These canon-spanning doctrines are essential to rightly dividing God’s Word. Thus, principles for and practices of church life must be distilled from Scripture, not only from individual texts in the context of apostolic example, but in the context of the Bible’s doctrinal content.
Second, Viola and Barna reveal the need for biblical teaching about the church in the church. Merely modeling what a healthy church looks like leaves our congregations underserved. Our members need biblical instruction to understand how church practices arise from Scripture. Without this kind of instruction, the congregation’s trust is implicitly shifted from the Bible itself to their leader’s grasp of the Bible or, worse, to rote tradition. This distancing from and ignorance of biblical ecclesiology leaves the congregation in a precarious place. If Viola and Barna questioned the basis of your church’s practice, would your members be able to respond biblically? Whether in sermons, discipling relationships, Sunday School classes, or occasional asides during public services, pastors need to teach their people how the Bible shapes the corporate life of the church.
Finally, to end on a positive, we need to follow Viola and Barna’s example by regularly asking questions about the basis for our ecclesiology. The authors are probably correct in positing that most Christians rarely question the biblical backing for our understanding of church life (5). If we aren’t careful, the formal authority in our churches can slowly shift away from God’s Word onto the shifting ground of preference and tradition. Just as Scripture functions as a mirror to expose our personal faults, so it ought to be used to reveal worldly aspects of our churches in order that they might be better conformed to God’s design for his gathered people. Those who preach the reformation principle of sola scriptura should be the first to recognize the church’s perpetual need to be reformed by Scripture. In so doing, we rightly submit ourselves to the rule of Christ over his church through his Word.