Pagan practices

Yesterday I mentioned the argument at the core of the new Barna and Viola book Pagan Christianity. Most of the book is about the following main point:

The origin of many of our church practices (examples: church buildings, orders of worship, sermons, pastors, tithing, clergy salaries) is non-biblical and inconsistent with the practice of the early church. “Almost everything that is done in our contemporary churches has no basis in the Bible.” (p. 4) Much of it was lifted from pagan culture.

This is the strongest and bulkiest part of this book. In fact, most of the facts in this section should be obvious to anyone who has thought through these issues. Viola and Barna provide some documentation and tease out the effects of these practices.

  • Churches are not buildings, and the early church met in homes. Church buildings began with Constantine. Buildings express and influence the character of the church in negative ways, and consume lots of resources.
  • The order of service is not biblical, and reduces mutual participation within the church, and puts too much emphasis on the pastor. It’s also frequently boring, encourages passivity, and focuses too much on church as a one-hour event.
  • Sermons come from Greek culture. They turn the preacher into a “virtuoso performer”, stalemate spiritual growth, elevate clergy, and are often impractical. Preaching and teaching God’s Word is scriptural, but not the way that we do it.
  • Pastors are a form of hierarchical leadership, and churches have become pastor-driven. One-man ministry suffocates the functioning of the church, fosters dishonesty, and ignores the plurality of leadership in the New Testament church.
  • Dressing up for church is a recent innovation, and it creates a division between sacred and secular, encourages people to mask their real selves, and goes against the primitive simplicity of the early church.
  • Music has become a professional event led by specialists, rather than an a corporate affair in the hands of all of God’s people.
  • Tithing is an Old Testament practice that did not apply to the early church. Clergy salaries are not biblical. We are to support the Lord’s work financially and give generously to the poor, but our resources should not just go to fund salaries, operational costs, and buildings.
  • We have replaced water baptism with the sinner’s prayer, and separated the Lord’s Supper from its proper context of a full meal.
  • Christian education is rational, objective, and abstract, rather than practical, experiential, and spiritual. Seminaries prop up the pagan practices of the church.

They make some good points, and a lot of it should not seem new. I’ve been surprised in the past, though, by those who don’t know some of these things.

My review of this part of the book (remember – there’s more to come):

  • There are some real issues here that need to be confronted. How can we avoid, for instance, funneling too much money to institutional maintenance? Are we really giving enough to the poor? How can we overcome one-man ministry and the passivity that’s common in many of our churches? How can we function as bodies and not as one-hour events? We shouldn’t avoid these issues.
  • The authors sometimes overreach. I don’t buy all of their arguments. Are all buildings wrong, or is there a way that we can use them missionally? Did Paul really teach that elders/pastors should never be paid? Are seminaries always focused on head-knowledge, or can they also help form someone in practical and holistic ways? Arguing that there are issues that need to be addressed is not the same as saying that everything needs to be chucked – especially if you agree that there is some flexibility in how the church is shaped.

I haven’t even come to the solutions they propose yet. Don’t forget this is only the first of what I see as the four main points of their book.

Overall, Viola and Barna raise some important issues that need to be addressed, even if they do get a little carried away at points. The real question is how to respond. That comes next.

Update: Joe Thorn is about to blog through this book as well. “I’m blogging from my Blackberry because I have to begin venting my thoughts on this a bit or I will explode…”

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada