Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
By Frank Viola and George Barna
Reviewed by David D. Flowers
Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, may very well be the most important book written on the Christian church in the last two millennia. Frank Viola and George Barna team up to give their readers a critical examination of the last 1700 years of church history. Does the institutional church have any biblical and historical right to exist? “Are the practices of the institutional church (the clergy/laity system, salaried pastors, sacred buildings, the order of worship, etc.) God-approved developments to the church that the New Testament envisions? Or are they an unhealthy departure from it?”
The first edition of this book entitled, Pagan Christianity: The Origins of Our Modern Church Practices by Frank Viola is the third book written in a set of five books on church restoration and organic church life. Viola and George Barna, Christian pollster and author of the book Revolution, have co-authored the newly revised and updated Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Barna brings to the book a fresh look and a polished language that improves on the delivery of Viola’s original work. Barna, who has caused no small stink upon his recent confessions regarding the church, makes his decision to leave the institutional church complete with the publication of this book. If it wasn’t clear in his book Revolution… it is certainly clear now.
I enjoyed the new format of this book. At the end of each chapter, the authors give the reader a “Delving Deeper” section which lists common questions with answers in return. I felt that this helped to clarify what the authors were truly saying in order that fact might be separated from fiction. I also enjoyed the updated references and the plethora of footnotes listed at the bottom of each page. These references may be in a smaller font, but they are the entire foundation of historicity which resulted in the penning of this book. Therefore, the serious reader will not want to overlook the footnotes. The reader will also find the “Summary of Origins” and “Key Figures in Church History” in the back of the book a great help as well. The book may look like a long read… yet, you will find that your interest is peaked beyond that of any other historical book you have ever read. You will read until you are done… or until you have thrown it out the window.
The serious questions raised in this book will give the Christian reader more than enough to wrestle over. Viola traces the pagan origins of almost every church practice that institutional Christianity holds dear and holds it to the light of the New Testament. I remember first reading the original Pagan Christianity over a year ago. I had spent 6 years of my life in “vocational ministry” within the institutional (Southern Baptist) church and I had a degree in Religion/Biblical Studies from a Baptist University. I had just resigned from my position as Minister to Students/Education because the church’s leaders were opposed to fundamental teachings of Jesus. My wife and I saw that we could no longer serve among them. It was during this time that I began to read and study like never before. I was seeking to be a senior pastor in a church somewhere in the United States. I studied church history, ecclesiology, Christology, etc. I was seeking the Lord's will for his church. I compiled a list of what the New Testament described the church looked like in fellowship and among the world. With the help of Viola’s book, I quickly realized that my list did not reflect the church I knew and that that church could not be seen in the model of the traditional church. I had to rethink my understanding of it all.
I know how hard this read will be for many people, especially clergy members. Pagan Christianity? will, no doubt, be a most uncomfortable read for all those who believe the Body of Christ is an institution. For the clergy member, the read will almost be impossible. At every turn of the page, the flesh will flare up in a horrible display of arrogance and pride. Many will scoff at its claims and discourage others from reading it before an honest examination can be made. If the reader is not prepared to reexamine his faith and practice for a paradigm shift, he or she might as well leave this book well alone. If the reader is not yet at the end of their rope in frustration against the church practices and shallow conception of Christ that is believed and taught within the institutional church, this book will only breed anger and confusion. But, if you were like me a year ago… you are tired and want answers… and, most importantly, you want more of Christ… then please read this book and allow yourself to be moved by it. I encourage you to have an honest conversation with the Lord as you read. And listen to his still small voice.
To the rabid opponents of this book, I strongly recommend you speak to no one before you have done truthful research concerning these matters AND have had an honest conversation with Jesus first. Many will argue that this book only proposes another “form” or method of church. This book is not about forms, but about principles. To argue forms is to miss the point of this book. Many will make preposterous claims that this book seeks to tear down the church of Jesus Christ, when in all realitythis book exalts Jesus Christ of Nazareth and submits that we return to simple community gathered around his headship free from the human inventions of man and religion that hinders the Body from every-member functioning. This book does not propose we mimic the model of first-century Christianity, but that we mimic our Lord. Out of our Lord’s commands and the principles of his person and work (i.e. life and teachings) will come normal Christian church life!
Why has this book been written? The authors write, “We have written this book for one reason: to make room for the absolute centrality, supremacy, and headship of Christ in His church.” (p.250) This statement alone should be enough for any true follower of Christ to pick up and read. But unfortunately, many people, for whatever reason, will choose to accept slander about the authors (even from trusted pastors) as enough reason to discredit and discount them as credible voices of truth in mainline Christianity. This is an incredible action considering that many institutional churches in the last decade have built their entire plan of attack off the statistical findings of pollster George Barna. On top of that, both of these men boldly proclaim Christ in a way that is undeniably and unmistakably from a spirit of love and edification. The premature responses of the majority prove how mankind is driven by mere human emotions and tradition, instead of biblical truth discovered through a consistent and verifiable method of biblical interpretation that seeks to exalt Christ above all things.
This reviewer and ex-clergy member challenges you to consider the message of these men. Compare the claims of this book with the Christ and the church of the New Testament before you decide who and what are truly following and being a reflection of pagan Christianity. All of us must choose between spiritual revolution (i.e. return to Christ) or religious reformation (i.e. tweaking the old pagan systems). One of these will release the church from her chains and free her from the bondage of man’s religion to experience the natural faith of Christ. The other will only prolong God’s people from beholding Christ in majesty and splendor to the world. There is only one life to live. Choose wisely.
Date: January 2008