Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pagan Christianity 1

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!


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Even the title suggestst that there is some "pure form" of Christian faith!

Ken Schenck said...

Indeed, "I believe the first century church was the church in its purest form, before it was tainted or corrupted" (xviii).

Bob MacDonald said...

I think there is more about resurrection in the Psalms than you have suggested. E.g. Psalm 49. This might give rise to Jesus' critique of the Sadducees that they know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.

There are many other psalms where the life of the covenant is more than the present age - but time's linearity is by no means assumed. A vertical rather than a horizontal time could be in view (ask the super string theorists why there are 6 hidden spatial dimensions but only one of time in their theories.)

Bob MacDonald said...

Ken - why the first century church? It is full of conflict as well as revelation. What relevance has comparative purity got to do with church?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

That is presupposing a LOT! especially in regards to the text's representation of the early Church...

I think you are indeed right as it concerns radicals that "misunderstand" and create "cults" without even knowing it...

Ken Schenck said...

Bob, I hope everyone could tell I was quoting Viola's preface in my comment above.

Yes, there is debate over a number of passages in the OT. Wright certainly leans your way, as I think Puech does.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I was responding (reacting) to your David Koresh comment, as I had watched a Jim Jones documentary not long ago and watched some individuals who were rescued from the "Children of God"...AND, I have had many experiences with radicals, Maranatha Campus minitries, Youth With A Mission, and other charismatic type groups...while these groups served a purpose, there has been much damage in the name of "the great commission" of my friend's is still trying to overcome some of the wrong teaching in one of these types of organizations...And hear, me, I am saying that those who lead each group, are many and various, so, there is no standard whereby one can ascertain whether the teaching is appropriately interpreted, which leaves those who are in the group at the mercy of the leader's whims and "insights"...this is cultish.. and damaging.

Keith Drury said...

I am delighted to know that you will review this book as you read it. THANKS!

Like most "restoration" movements this one likes to pretend they are exempt from tradition while establishing their own. I accept that there is much wrong with the "institutional church," but I also think that most corrective movements have not improved the stew either. John Wesley constantly looked back to the "primitive church" but in citing examples he was quite selective and picked and chose only certain things to recommend.

We've heard this "trump" argument against bringing into the church "pagan elements" about just about everything from guitars and drums to buildings, elections or organs... mostly applied to anything people don't like. But it is amusing to see people try to "get back to the early church"...until they actually discover some of the practices of the church in the first 100 years...then they revise their plan quietly (as Wesley did).

However I will watch this latest "second reformation" with interest because, who know, even if constructed on a false premise, it might bring some renewal to the stew... we'll see.

Bob MacDonald said...

Ken - re resurrection, I was responding to this statement which looked to me like yours not theirs: "since only one passage in the Old Testament points to resurrection (Dan. 12:2) and many deny it (e.g., Job 14:14)"

I now see your "" on the purity issue - sorry - I missed that one.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Is the "second reformation" what is troubling the waters of the Anglican communion over the homosexuality issue. I hear that they burn condoms in Africa "in the name of Jesus"! Wow, what a witness (just like burning abortion clinics)!

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Ken. Count me as another one who's greatly looking forward to these posts. Your recent book reviews have been excellent & interactive summaries - and somehow I'm gathering this one will be especially interactive. ;)

The point of your intro post is fair enough and I also appreciate that you offer it partly in fun. It's a pretty strong point, actually, but on the other hand I have to say I hope you aren't going to spend most of your posts swallowing such gnats whilst straining out the whole camel. Of course Frank has his own 'traditions'. Does that affect the central thesis of the book, according to this preface?

"In this book we intend to show how that organism was devoid of so many things that we embrace today." (xix) And "In short, this book is dedicated to exposing the traditions that have been tacked on... to remove a great deal of debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ..." (xx)

Personally, I think the quote your post identified as his main point (xx)is presented more as a further application, as I read the preface. Sure, you could say it's his real agenda, but hey - be fair to the piece itself. ;)

I sincerely hope Frank appreciates your pointing out of some 'traditions' he may not have caught onto, as such. Further, your argument that all christians today rely on some general 'traditions' is valid and worth consideration. I don't know - maybe Frank shouldn't make so much so black and white all the time. But please don't miss his major point in getting distracted by some of the more 'outrageous' expressions in the book.

I believe the publisher's preface by Tyndale says quite a lot about why this book is so important. In that spirit, I hope you'll take their advice to heart in crafting your interaction with Frank & George's thoughts in these reviews.

Thanks so much...

Anonymous said...

I do hope that you all will take the time to move past the preface of this book in order to understand what is being called "pagan" and unbiblical. I wouldn't judge a book by its cover or the preface alone. I'm perplexed as to why any conversation would commence from what has been written above.

I could address several points being made in the blog post and in the comments above. I think I would like to simply encourage the readers to be cautious in making premature judgments on the content of PC. I would go a step further and ask you all to reconsider a few things.

Is the institutional church an improvement upon the humble beginnings of the early church that gathered around Christ alone and his model of leadership... or is it a departure from the Gospel itself?

Any legitimate critique of the church (in the way we meet and practice our faith) must be done by a measuring of the purity of Christ. Are we willing to say that we have improved up the first apostles ability to plant churches and nurture the community of the saints? How is it that several hundred years after these apostles... when the world and state merged with the "church"... did we lose our simplicity in the knowledge of Christ? Has this simplicity now been replaced by a "reformation" of a catholic church?

When it comes right down to it... this conversation has nothing to do with the petty peripheral issues and the pragmatic approaches to "doing" church. It is not about reaching some church utopia. It is fundamentally an issue of whether or not we reflect our Lord in the way we gather and in the way we live out the Gospel. If we wish to understand the teachings of Paul... we must first encounter the Person of Jesus.

It is the hierarchal (Gentile) leadership that the world can't live without, but disciples have been commanded to abstain. It is this leadership that goes to the heart and core of the institutional church. And we have become so dependent on this worldly form of advancing our cause... we can only skeptically mock the upside-down and small "organic" methods of the Kingdom.

We can continue to repeat the same ole mantra of the last 1700 years... or we can reimagine what Christ intended for the church. I recognize that many are content to do the first. For those who see the need for a spiritual revolution instead of a religious reformation... I encourage you to read the book.

Ex-Clergy Member,
David D. Flowers

Ken Schenck said...

Bill, you're appointed as the official "keep me honest" reader. :-)

I didn't figure I know enough yet of Viola's critique of the institutional church yet to respond to the more important things...

Ken Schenck said...

David, I welcome the possibility to engage with a genuine convert to this new tradition. :-)

Like I said above, Viola is obviously scratching something that itches.

Bill Heroman said...

Fair enough, Ken. (I knew I liked you.) :)

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, David, your use of the terms "religious reformation" in contrast with "spiritual revolution" kind of confirms what Ken's been talking about...that all people hold on to a tradition outside of the Scriptures.

I think you come from the school of thought that contrasts "religious" versus "spiritual" and "religion" over and against "relationship with God"? I don't think that the New Testament really pits those terms against each other, and I don't think most people load those words with that much meaning...coming from a Pentecostal/Charismatic background, I have frequently heard preachers use those terms the way you have, but I have not found direct correspondence in the Scriptures (telling since they claim to be more biblical than "religion", whatever that means).

Well, the use of such terms is really 'internal' language - meaning that it's understood that way only within a certain school of thought. Outside of that school, most people don't really use those words the same way, and as such, don't really grab those words that way. It's a case where people who hold that 'religious'/'spiritual' ideology are talking only to themselves.

Just trying to point out that even those of us who are calling the church back to a 'pure/Scriptural' model of Christianity are actually using a language and worldview outside of the Scriptures to articulate that call...but of course, I might be setting up a straw man. Feel free to correct me if I have misunderstood, David.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't aware of this book but looking forward to getting it and reading your thoughts. I must admit that I am more than open to its thesis. Drury is right there is no way back to the early church that would be to deny the incarnational nature of the church and gospel.
Nevertheless when I look at church history and bishops sitting on thrones, mega church pastors abusing their power and money I can't help but think that church wasn't meant to be that way.
In my own mind I am pretty sure Constantine was the catalyst not totally to blame as many in the church seemed eager to to accept his patronage and the power it brought. There is no doubt that post-Constantine that the Church went from persecuted minority to persecuting minorities and for that to happen something "pagan" had to have entered the ecclesiastical DNA

Anonymous said...

i can understand the thought of david koresh coming to mind about a world with house churches. But the structure of the organic church is to prohibit david koresh's. The non-hierarchical structure should limit the damage.

Also with organic churches you don't have mega churches being led down the wrong path, and worrying about turning that large boat around with just a little oar. You have smaller churches that are easily steered in the right direction with accountability and teaching.

I think viola throws the baby out with the bath water in this book. He touts his thoughts like it is dogma, but i do agree with what he's saying if that makes sense? Viola shows that the church is in desperate need of a functionality over-haul. Basically, the church structure and how it operates now is inefficient and unbalanced, and viola uses history and scripture to prove his point.

Forget all the doctrine, forget theology because it's not like our service, sanctuary, and structure are really based on that anyways. Viola only wants to overhaul 1,600 years of tradition not doctrine. Once you read the book, you will see that we do have a lot of tradition. Most of us will come to the conclusion that we agree, but we will never do anything about it, because the church structure is such an enormous beast to turn around.

Just because something is inefficient doesn't necessarily make it wrong, but you have to agree with Viola's book that we know this system is broken, and yet we duplicate it over, and over, and over. Our system now is not unbiblical, because it's not like God shows how every culture and every generation should adapt the church to its surroundings.

Overall this book was one of the best books i have ever read. I do not agree with everything in the book. i don't know if anyone would. I love the book because you can tell that Viola is truly questioning the roots of our operations, and is not trying to question God. Basically, the best part about the book is that so many people have been screaming that something we are doing is not right, and is not working; but we don't know why or what the reason is. Viola basically states some very good answers to our frustration "duh! here's why - so much of how a church operates is just tradition passed from generation to generation, and some of it is over 1,600 years old"

Organic church's are not going to keep the David Koresh's out of office, but the current system doesn't either.

- jared b

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Jared, I appreciate having individuals like you and David in on the discussion to make it a real discussion and not just me setting up a "straw man."

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,
This should be an interesting journey. Viola has a new book that is more "positive" in tone. PC is principally a critique. His new book "Reimagining Church" attempts to sketch out a way forward. Viola has resources at his main website:

Anonymous said...

I think the issue of using "biblical" language is distracting us from engagement with the Person of Jesus. Instead of us doing a critical examination of Christ with our hearts and mind... we choose to squabble over words. We miss the point of the Scriptures.

The challenge in trying to assist others in a paradigm shift... is to use a language that conjures up new thoughts... or just old thoughts that have been forgotten; a way in which the Lord might breathe out a fresh perspective of himself... a renewed Christology.

It is my hope that we would do some serious interactions with the Person of Christ in ink (the Gospels) and in the flesh (personal relationship). This is the entire task of the church to begin with: knowing Jesus and making him known by "Christ in you" our only hope. What does this Jesus look like in our personal lives and in the practices our the church?

Furthermore, I'm not interested in having more depressing conversations to build upon our narcissistic ecclesiology. The key to discovering genuine church life... is ultimately found in Christ alone... not the Scriptures read as legal documents.

I'm sure this will be misunderstood. I only mean to say this... if "biblical language" is our concern... if the sum of our spirituality is found in "Sola Scriptura"... then we should stop before we begin. We have lost the ability to edify anyone in this pursuit. However, if it is Christ in whom the keys to revolution are found... then lets talk about Christ instead of "church" in a Pharisaical approach to spirituality.

May the written word lead us to the living Word instead of being a means to our denominational ends. Thanks to Ken for his open heart toward the issues raised in PC.

David D. Flowers

Anonymous said...

So, if you're a big enough christian celebrity with your own publishing outfit and happen to discover an older book which you really dig - you can now become an instant "co-author." That how it works in the field of Chri$tian marketing these days? What dishonesty from the git-go. What gimmickry.

But I do applaud the Barna editing/proofing reading team for removing all those needless exclamation points from the original edition!

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for your reviews Dr. Schenck... I am really struggling through Viola's first book Rethinking the Wineskin.

There is a legitimate test: "Show me your fruit" that exists and many movements outside what Viola and Barna call the Institutional Church have a lot of it to show.

But I can't let my heart outrun my head and I have to look at our fruit too. Just saying thanks as I struggle to figure out how to best serve Jesus. Oy.