PAGAN CHRISTIANTY: by George Barna and Frank Viola


First a word of disclaimer. I know Frank Viola, indeed for some years he has asked me loads of good and telling questions via email. I did not really know what his take was on various matters, but I gladly answered his questions. It is interesting to me that this book appears to take no notice of various of these answers which I have given, nor are any of my works found in the bibliography at the end of the book. Perhaps I have missed something in the minutiae of the truly minute footnotes at the bottom of each page, but now I am wondering why exactly I have answered all those questions over the years. It’s a pity.

Frank Viola is a sharp person, but neither he nor George Barna really interact in this book with the scholarly literature that would call into question their strident claims and theses. They are arguing a particular case, and so they largely cite sources that support their case, for example Robert Banks’ work on Pauline house churches comes in for heavy usage. Their claim to present us with bare historical fact and to stand always on the Biblical high ground needs to be seen for what it is from the outset— good and powerful rhetoric meant to warm the cockles of the hearts of all who affirm Sola Scriptura, but when one actually examines some of the major claims closely, they will not stand close and critical scrutiny.

I am quite sure that the immediate reaction of some to this book will be “Just what we need—another lambasting of the institutional church, by grandchildren of the radical Protestant reformation, sometimes called the Restoration Movement!” But we should all abide our soul in patience and hear the gentlemen out before deciding.

I personally knew we were in for trouble even from the beginning of the 2008 edition of this book when early on we are told that Isaiah died by being sawed in two. This may be in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (an early example of Protestant hagiography complete with myths, legends, half-truths, and yes some truth), but it is not in the Bible and we don’t have any historical evidence to verify it. So much for presenting us with “just the facts Mam, just the facts.”

From the first of this study we are also led to expect that the authors will play the role of Socrates, asking probing and critical questions and taking radical steps to help us live out the implications of the answers. They warn one and all, giving the caveat emptor, that if you follow them and their wisdom, be prepared to be ‘slandered, libeled, called names you never heard in the Bible…’ as that prescient prophet Paul Simon once sang. A martyr complex is never far behind when one is an anti-institutionalist.

And of course the big bad guy in Pagan Christianity is not going to be sin, suffering, the Devil, or any of those things. The big bad guy is going to be what is loosely called the Institutional Church and that other famous whipping boy—‘church tradition’ and oh yes— Greek philosophy. The particular animus is against the Roman Catholic Church for paganizing Christianity. Dan Brown would have liked this book.

But frankly there are no such thing as ‘institutional churches’. Churches have institutions of various sorts, they aren’t institutions. Furthermore, the Bible is full of traditions and many of those developed after NT times are perfectly Biblical. It’s not really possible to draw a line in the sand between ‘Biblical principles’ and traditions. The question is which traditions comport with Biblical tradition and which do not. And there is a further problem. It is ever so dangerous to take what was normal in early Christianity as a practice, and conclude that therefore it must be normative. It may have been normal in the NT era for non-theological reasons, for example for practical reasons.

To tell us that the church is really people, people united in Christ and serving the Lord, is to say nothing for or against the ‘institutional church’, or for that matter its institutions. Everyone agrees that the church is people, more specifically people gathered for worship, fellowship, and service. Everyone agrees that the church is a living thing and organism, not an organization. So what’s the beef here, and where is the real thrust of the critique?

Let us begin with a historical point made on p. 6 on the basis of old and weak evidence. The idea is that Christianity had become overwhelming Gentile and already was adopting numerous pagan practices in the last third of the first century A.D. Frankly, this is historically false. Not only did Jewish Christianity continue well into the fifth century in many forms and places and in considerable numbers, including in the Diaspora and not just in Israel and Syria, in fact all of our NT was written by Jewish Christians with the possible exception of Luke’s works, but he seems however to have been a god-fearer. And in fact many of the NT documents were written for Jewish Christians including Matthew, Hebrews, James, Jude,1 Peter, and probably John, the Johannine Epistles, Revelation.

If you are wrong about the history of the early church, and wrong about the character of the canon as well, then it is no wonder you will make mistakes in your argumentation. It is interesting that documents like the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Protoevangelium of James, and other documents which came out of largely Jewish Christian circles are just ignored as well. These folks need to read a book like Oscar Skarsaune’s edited volume on Jewish Believers in Jesus. They will discover it is not possible to say either that Jewish Christianity waned after 70 A.D. nor is it possible to say that the dominate practice of the church was pagan, and became increasingly pagan in the first, second, third centuries— wrong, and wrong.

They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by reading sources more recent than Will Durant and Shirley Case, neither of which represent the state of the discussion on such matters in the last 50 years. They also need to read Paul Trebilco’s major study on Ephesus and the church in that region.

One thing about these f
olks— Barna and Viola are very sure of themselves. They warn the reader early on (p. 7) that you will be confronted by unshakeable historical fact which will rock your world. If however it’s like the ‘facts’ on pp. 6-7 about the rise of pagan Christianity, we are not dealing with ‘facts’, unfortunately. We are dealing with a misreading of early Christian history.

One of the odder features of the book Pagan Christianity which surfaces immediately in the first real chapter is the attempt to see early Christianity as rather like Melchizedek (‘without antecedents, without succesors’), and so basically something entirely unique and different from either early Judaism or other sorts of ancient religions. Ttis conclusion involves not just an assertion about a difference in theology but a difference in praxis as well.

We are given the usual litany about Christians meeting in homes, and how they did not have church buildings. This is of course partially true, so far as we can tell, but frankly they didn’t just meet in homes, nor were there any mandates for them to do so saying “in order to be truly Christian thou shalt meet in cramped quarters.” They also met in Solomon’s Portico, which is to say in the Temple precincts as the early chapters of Acts informs us, and furthermore they went to synagogue services in purpose built buildings, and furthermore they occasionally rented halls, like the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus, and later in the first century, as the archaeological evidence makes clear, they met in caves, namely the catacombs in Rome, as well. I don’t see much of a movement in the church today to go back to cave dwelling J

The authors of this book are right to critique the modern western church for having an edifice complex, and spending too much money on buildings and too little on missions, evangelism, other forms of ministry. But there is absolutely nothing in the NT which either suggests or requires that Christians should only meet in homes. And furthermore, the major problem with these sorts of arguments are that they ignore the differences in social setting, then and now.

Christians met in homes so often and for so long because they were part of an ‘illegal religion’ a ‘superstitio’ as the Roman’s called it. They did not meet in public because they wanted to meet in peace, and in freedom. It isn’t because they thought ‘small group house church ministry is cool or Biblical’.

Nor is it true, that Christianity was the first non-Temple based religion in antiquity. There were plenty of tribal religions in the ANE that could not afford and did not have Temples, or priests. They did sometimes have ‘high places’ where they would offer sacrifices, as the OT mentions.

It is not enough to say that NT theology indicates that it was Christ who was the perfect sacrifice, who is our high priest, and who fulfilled the function of temples did away with all such things. What one would have to argue is that Jesus came saying “I came that you might not have buildings any more”. Church buildings are not, and frankly probably shouldn’t be called temples because literal sacrifices are not offered in them. Sacrifices of praise and self-sacrificial offerings yes, real sacrifices no. This however does not in any way suggest that bodies of believers should not have purpose built buildings. That’s an example of over-egging the pudding, as the British would say, or as I would put it, over reading the evidence by a lot.

And this brings me to another of their claims— that there is no evidence of church buildings before A.D. 190 when they are mentioned by Clement of Alexandria. Wrong and wrong. Here again archaeology helps. If one goes to Capernaum one can see, through the glass floor of the modern church there, the ‘house of Peter’, which was expanded into a Christian meeting place. It was no longer just a home, it was enhanced so it could be a better place of worship—house becomes church building, so to speak. How do we know this? Because of the Christian graffiti in the walls left by Christians, some of which goes back at least to the early second century, and probably back to sometime after 70 A.D. when both Jews and Christians relocated, and one of the places they went was Capernaum.

Then too, one should compare the recent news reports that in Jordan by the river they have found perhaps the very earliest church structure—associated with the 70 and possibly even dating from the late first century. My point is this— early Christians did not have an allergic reaction to buildings, not even to purpose built buildings. It was the social situation which dictated what it was wise and prudent to do about housing Christian meetings in that era, not some theological principle. It is not helpful to say, “until 300 there were no buildings first built as churches”, unless you add “until the 4th century Christianity was illegal!”

What about the argument that early Christianity did not have a priestly class? This appears to be largely correct, but they did indeed have elders, deacons, apostles, overseers/episokopoi. There are several NT documents that talk about the priesthood of all believers—1 Peter and Revelation, for example. You will notice that in 1 Peter as well Peter does not say ‘I am just one of the priesthood of all believers’. No, he begins his letter by introducing himself in the same manner as Paul did—as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In other words, when he talked about his ministerial roles, he refers to himself as an apostle.

If you look closely at the priesthood of all believers material in the NT it becomes clear that this terminology was used in relationship to the new spiritualized way of looking at sacrifices as we see in Rom. 12 or Heb. 13.15. It has nothing to do with the leadership structure of those churches, so far as I can tell. Nowhere does the NT say “since we have a priesthood of all believers we no longer affirm the role of set apart ministers or as they later came to be called ‘clergy’”.

In other words the priesthood of all believers is in no way an argument against their being ordained leaders of various sorts in the church, leaders who are both anointed and appointed not from below but from above, appointed by leaders.

There is frankly no Baptist or low church Protestant ecclesiology to be found in
the NT in regard to this particular matter. Paul for example instructs his co-workers Timothy and Titus to appoint elders. The elders do not appoint themselves, nor do congregations get together and ordain or appoint them much less vote on them. The ecclesial structure of the NT church was hierarchial, not congregational—it started with the apostles and the 12 at the top, worked its way down to the co-workers of the apostles who were also itinerant and over multiple congregations, then there were the local church leaders—prophets, teachers, elders, deacons etc. In the early second century the apostolate seems to have been succeeded by bishops, most especially monarchial bishops like Ignatius of Antioch (read his letters sometime from the first 2 decades of the second century. They are quite revealing.). In short, the priesthood of all believers neither rules out nor negates the fact that there was an ecclesial leadership structure in the early church which involved in various cases a process of ordination from higher officials. To say otherwise is to misread the NT evidence. Of course it is true that what determined who had which gifts and graces was the work of the Spirit, but the Church needed to recognize that work and affirm it, and this took place through leaders who saw the gift in people like Timothy, and did from time to time use a process of ordination to make clear whom the Spirit had gifted and graced.

On p. 14 we are told that when Christianity was born, it was the only religion that had no sacred objects, spaces, or persons. This actually ignores the fact that Christians continued to meet with Jews in synagogues, until and unless they were expelled. Even the apostle to the Gentile went and worshipped with Jews in synagogues until he was expelled. It does not appear that even Paul thought there was something inherently inappropriate when it came to Christians attending a synagogue service in a building.

I must admit I was also surprised by the bold claim that there were no sacred persons. Actually I would say there were no other kinds of Christians in the church. This is precisely why they are called hagioi or ‘holy ones’ repeatedly, even in Paul’s letters. One of the major mistakes made in this book repeatedly, is assuming that Pauline and Gentile Christianity and its various forms and functions was the only form of Christianity in existence in the middle and latter half of the NT era itself, along with which comes the corollary assumption that Pauline house churches must be the models for all churches today. This does not follow.

This brings up another oddity about the argument being made in the first main chapter of the book. Just because a building was not called a temple, would not mean to early Christians that it was not a sacred building. Jews of course called various of their sacred buildings synagogues, and what is interesting about this is that James, the very brother of Jesus, in James 2.2, as he writes to Jewish Christians all over the Diaspora refers to their meeting place as a synagogos. This is not a reference to a non-Christian meeting place, as James 2.1 makes perfectly clear. Could it be a reference to just the meeting itself, rather than the place of meeting? While this is not totally impossible, it is certainly unlikely since the term already referred to buildings in the first century A.D. in various places in the Holy Land where James lived. There were already synagogue buildings in Jerusalem itself whilst James was the head of the Jerusalem church.

At the bottom of p. 15 we are told that Christians began reverencing the dead in the late second or third century. Actually this practice is already in evidence in the fifties A.D. and is referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 15 when he talks about proxy baptism for the dead (for more on this see my Conflict and Community in Corinth, ad loc). I would suggest that Paul knows he is dealing with partially socialized Christians coming from a pagan background, who simply brought such practices into the church already in the mid-first century. The so-called paganizing of the Church was not instigated by Roman Catholics. It came much earlier, and in fact it was largely rejected by the church.

Like Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code, Constantine is painted as ‘Bad Bart’ the person who messed things up in Pagan Christianity. He is called on p.18 the father of the church building, which is giving him far too much credit. He did of course take Christianity off the illicit religion list, and he and his mother became the patrons of the building of various churches including in the Holy Land, but it is simply false to say that there were no church buildings long before Constantine. It will not do to make him the bad guy who ruined pristine and pure early Christianity.

On p. 19 we also have the suggestion that Constantine was the one who originated the idea of Christians having a holy day, or a day of rest, that day being Sunday. While Constantine certainly made it a legal holy day, Christian’s had been meeting on the Lord’s Day for worship for a long time prior to that time. We see this alluded to in 1 Cor. 16 when Paul refers to setting money aside ‘on the first day of the week’ which is when they would have gathered to do this, among other Christian activities. Even more importantly we hear about the Lord’s day on which John had a vision in Rev. 1.10. There is also the very telling reference to Christians meeting on the first day of the week, Sunday, in Pliny’s famous letter to the Emperor Trajan. But I need to emphasize again, many Christians well into the middle ages were Jews, and so far as we can tell, they continued to think that there were such things as holy days. Paul’s discussion of the matter in Rom.14.5-6 should be quoted: “some regard one day more sacred than another; others consider everyday alike. Everyone should be convinced in their own mind. Those who regard one day as special do so unto the Lord. In other words, while Christian practice varied on this matter in the 50s, Paul has no problems with the person who regards one day as sacred or special unto the Lord. Indeed he sees it as an appropriate form of worship.

Some of the critique of Constantine is of course warranted, especially when one begins to study in depth the theology of holy relics. But a theology of holy time and holy persons, and even holy space already existed, not only in the OT, which is of course part of the Christian’s Bible, but in NT Christianity as well. I have detailed a length what the NT says about the Lord’s Supper, and how it indeed was seen as a sacrament that had to be partaken of in a worthy manner, or one could actually fall ill as 1 Cor. 11 says. This can be seen in my Making a Meal of It,
and so I will not belabor that point here.

One of the worst things that can happen to persons who are anti-institutionalists, and anti-sacramentalists, is that so angry are they about the excesses and bad theology that has sometimes come out of the ‘institutional church’ that they throw the baby right out with the sacramental baptismal waters. I understand this, but it is a colossal over-reaction. Desacralizing worship, the Lord’s Supper, and even persons is not something devout Christians should be about. The last thing the church needs is a more casual, less reverential approach to all these things which removes altogether the recognition that one is entering into the presence of the Holy One when one comes to worship, the One in whose presence we too become sanctified, something that happens through encountering God through prayers, praise, songs, sacraments, and of course the preaching as well. It is the living presence of God that we encounter in any and all true worship, whether through mediated means or directly.

Worship and a theology of worship which trivializes the sacred, the holy, is not the theology of worship offered in books like Hebrews and Revelation and 1 Corinthians in the NT. Mystery is not the same as magic, any more than miracle is the same as magic. Magic is when humans try to manipulate the divine for their benefit. Mystery and miracle is when God comes down, and we touch the hem of his garment and are healed, helped, sanctified, whether that touch comes through hearing the Word, or receiving the Lord’s Supper, or singing a meaningful hymn or song or offering a prayer. It can come in a myriad of means, and thank goodness it does often come in mediated ways, because like Moses at the burning bush, if we reach out to touch God directly, as an unholy person, we may well experience ‘burn out’ even ‘ministerial burnout’.

There is nothing wrong with, nor unBiblical about worshipping God in a way that strongly suggests the special nature of the occasion, the great mystery and majesty of God, and some of the things that help with that are candles, and stained glass windows, and organs, and processions, and all manner of things that proclaim—“I am coming into the presence of the holy one, and I should give God my best.” In fact, worship is the time when all of creation bows down before God, and all of creation should be offered up to God—including our best music, our best words, our best attitudes, our best art, and so on should be offered up to God.

It is a mistake to think that Jesus instituted some sort of pristine primitive religion, that was iconoclastic in nature. Jesus also worshipped in the synagogues. Jesus also worshipped in the temple (see Lk. 2.41-52). What Jesus despised was the corruption of the holy, not its representation in material form. It is no accident that it was the money changers and animal salesmen that he attacked in the outer courts of the Temple. These had been recent additions to the Temple precincts in his lifetime.

And notice what he says. He quotes the OT and calls the Temple “the house of God” which humans have corrupted and turned into a “den of bandits” (Mk. 11). Jesus does not say the Temple is not the house of God! He says that this particular Herodian temple is the ‘temple of doom’ because of its corruption, and in Jn. 2 he alludes to the fact that he himself will be the focal point of future worship, calling himself and his body the Temple (he is not referring to the body of believers in John 2). Nothing in any of this theology of Jesus suggests we should never have sacred buildings or spaces thereafter. What we are told is that Christians should focus on Christ who is both temple and sacrificial lamb and high priest. That, is a matter of Christology and worship focus, not a matter of architectural plan or policy.

I quite agree with the statement that space is never empty it always embodies a meaning, and also the remark that where a body of believers meets affects the character of the church. So let us think about that for a moment. Suppose the church met in the bathroom in homes. Well, it would probably be a very small meeting, and gender specific as well, unless the home had two bathrooms. At least one of the sacraments might happen during worship in that space J But it certainly wouldn’t make it anything special, indeed someone would protest that it was inappropriate. Why? Because of course a bathroom is not a holy place by and large. How about in the living room? Certainly better, and less unholy for sure. But what this whole line of thinking suggests is that there are indeed more and less holy spaces. And frankly, I find it much easier to worship where the space and place reminds me to take my shoes off, put away all unholy thought, because I have entered into the presence of a holy God. An ordinary space connotes an ordinary activity, nothing special. A casual space connotes a casual activity, nothing special. A special space connotes something else entirely.

Some time ago, I was in Rome ending a wonderful tour of Greece and Italy. We had been pilgrims going and seeing various wonderful Biblical and later Christian sites. We finished by worshipping 150 feet underground in a catacomb. In the barreled vault of an alcove there were niches all the way up where Christians had been buried. We sang “for all the saints who from their labors rest”, a great modern hymn of the church and it rang with an amazing echo. We took communion together in that sacred space, and it was one of the greatest worship experiences any of us had every had, before or since, I imagine. We sensed we were celebrating with the saints above in heaven who had been buried there, just as the saints in heaven are described as participating in worship in Rev. 4. God was glorified and we certainly were edified and sanctified.

Far be it from me to suggest this is the only way or place God can be glorified and the saints edified. But it is certainly one legitimate godly and non-pagan way. God of course can be worshipped in simplicity as well. I remember well the wonderful accapella singing at Abilene Christian worship time at Abilene Christian University. It was simple yet profound, and profoundly beautiful —indeed wherever and however God is worshipped in Spirit and in truth, it is true worship. In my view wors
hip is where beauty and truth and goodness and holiness should all meet, and kiss.

My point in the above critique is simply this— calling more high church worship ‘pagan’ is not only a tragedy which impoverishes the soul. It’s a travesty. And saying over and over again that there is not a shred of Biblical evidence for sacred buildings, particularly church buildings reflects both historical myopia and bad theological analysis of a theology of holiness and worship. Such a view is narrow where the Bible is not narrow, and it fails to grasp the great breadth of ways in which God can be truly, and Biblically worshipped and served, and is indeed worshipped and served around the world every single week. We do not need to be liberated from holy worship—we need to be liberated in and by it, in whatever form it may legitimately take. And that’s the Biblical truth.

More from Beliefnet and our partners