I thought I might aim to read through Frank Viola and George Barna's book Pagan Christianity on Thursdays for a while. While I expect to disagree with it greatly, it is no doubt an important respresentation of where a whole lot of the church is today. That begs us to ask, what truth about the church does this book embody, even if I believe we should strongly disagree with a lot of the specifics of what it says. I am also proud to say that Frank Viola is my friend on Facebook. :-)
I start today with the Preface and Acknowledgements by Viola. First, I have enjoyed the interspersed quotes. They've picked some great ones.
In the Preface, Viola gives the main point of the book: "the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does" (xx). On the following page, he makes a more modest claim, "those who have left the fold of institutional Christianity to become part of an organic church have a historical right to exist--since history demonstrates that many practices of the institutional church are not rooted in Scripture."
I don't think I have a problem with the right of "organic" churches to exist. He defines an organic church as "a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic churches are characterized by Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership" (xix). I don't have a problem with the house church movement in general. I will certainly grant to organic churches the right to exist. :-)
However, in practice a group of individuals just going with the flow of the "Spirit" might just as easily turn out to be a group that commits mass suicide to join a passing comet. What Viola and Barna don't realize is that what keeps the house church movement sane is as much its Christian subconscious as its use of the Bible itself. Nothing in the Bible itself will keep you from going off with David Koresh. Such groups certainly would claim to be Spirit-led. In practice, more than anything else, even more than the text of the Bible itself, it is our inherited Christian glasses that keep us on track. And these glasses would not wrongly be called "tradition."
Viola and Barna are not aware of their own glasses while they are in the process of enlightening the rest of us hoping that "every literate Christian would read this work" (xx) so they can be rescued from their ignorance.
Viola begins his preface with a "parable" involving Jesus, Pharisees, and Sadducees. I call it a parable not because Viola does, but to highlight the fact that he is passing on to us a tradition on how to interpret Jesus' interaction with "characters" in the story called Pharisees and Sadducees. No doubt most of Viola's readers will be familiar with the "tradition of the contemporary elders" that he passes on.
Pharisees are those who added to Scripture. Sadducees are those who took away from Scripture. Both of them took steps to put the Son of God to death. Let he who has ears to hear, hear. The interpretation is that those in the "institutional" church oppose the spirit of Jesus by adding "reams" of things that are not in the Bible. Meanwhile, there are many practices of the early church that the institutional church has removed from its practice.
Why do I call this a Violian parable? Because it is a (contemporary) traditional interpretation of the Pharisees and Sadducees that goes well beyond the Bible. For example, it is true that Jesus and Paul disagreed with the Sadducees on the topic of resurrection. But nowhere in the Bible is the objection made to the Sadducees that they take things out of Scripture. The objection is to what they teach (e.g., Matt. 16:12). In other words, Viola is following traditions of his own outside the Bible without knowing it. I don't have a problem with it--he does.
As a matter of fact, although Viola can claim some good scholars behind his understanding of the Sadducees, the idea that they did not believe in angels and restricted Scripture to the Law are both a matter of significant debate among scholars. Both of these claims are based on single statements (e.g., Acts 23:8), the meaning of which is genuinely ambiguous.
On the matter of the resurrection, it is important to point out that on this issue the Sadducees were actually more Scriptural than the Pharisees, since only one passage in the Old Testament points to resurrection (Dan. 12:2) and many deny it (e.g., Job 14:14). The Sadducees thus represent with the Old Testament Scriptures the approach that Viola and Barna are advocating!
With regard to the Pharisees, it is true that they had traditions on how to keep Scripture. So do we! Because the Bible does not address every possible situation that might occur--indeed, the overwhelming majority of decisions we must make in life are not addressed in the Bible--we are forced to apply more general biblical statements to the specifics of our world and situation.
Is Viola against abortion or pornography or pre-marital sex. These are appropriate Christian beliefs. But the Bible has no verse against abortion. Indeed, the only explicit comment on the death of an unborn child (Exod. 21:22) involves a fine in distinction from "serious injury" that might occur to the mother. The oft quoted Matthew 5:28 as a prohibition of lust was about adultery and thus is not about unmarried individuals lusting after each other. And it would be difficult to find any explicit prohibition of pre-marital sex in the Bible other than an assumed expectation for women to be virgins when they married.
What I am saying is that the common Christian prohibitions on things like abortion, pornography, and pre-marital sex is appropriate Christian working out of basic principles in life that is exactly the kind of "tradition of the elders" that the Pharisees generated over time. Jesus criticizes them sometimes for what they add and especially for the misplaced emphasis of their worst representatives.
But in Matthew 23:3 he tells the crowds to obey their teaching. He affirms their tithing of mint, spice, and cummin (23:23)--which is added tradition on how to tithe. And perhaps even more significantly, Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee in the present tense in Acts 23:6.
My point is that before the book even begins, in Viola's preface, he has already demonstrated a penchant to interpret Scripture within a tradition, and the impossibility to apply it without in a sense "adding" to it.
This is going to be fun!