Monday, September 22, 2008

Book Review: Pagan Christianity?

What do the following have in common?

  • the idea of the church as a sacred space
  • tax-exempt status for churches and Christian clergy
  • coming to church with a reverent attitude
  • wearing your best clothes to church
  • the collection plate
  • the "Sinner's Prayer"
  • the weekly sermon

Answer: according to Frank Viola and George Barna they all have their origins in paganism or secular social practices. Viola and Barna have written a fascinating history of many practices that are often taken for granted in our churches - Protestant and Catholic. Richly documented and engagingly told, the authors confront the reader with the unexpected reality that much of what we consider biblical — or at least biblically permitted — has solid roots that are embedded in and nurtured by understandings that often contradict the purpose of the church as described in the New Testament — at least as Viola and Barna understand it.

The authors begin the book by asking whether '... we have really been doing it [church] by the book [the New Testament]'. According to Viola and Barna the answer is clearly 'No!' They understand the New Testament to provide an ideal model for the church that, over the centuries, has been corrupted until much of what we do as Christians in our churches often undermines the very purpose and function of the Church as originally intended.

Although Pagan Christianity? is a fascinating historical journey, the book is not written primarily to inform the reader about history. It's ultimate purpose is to

... demonstrate... beyond dispute that 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. (p. xxi)

In addition to this, the authors wish to make what they call a

bold proposal that: the church in its contemporary form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does.

To put it bluntly, the organic church has the right to function as it does, but not the contemporary church. This is a strong claim. Are the authors' conclusions correct?

It is clear that, indeed, many contemporary practices in the church are not biblically-based. It is also clear that many of those practices undermine things like the priesthood of all believers (replaced by hierarchical structures and elevation of individuals to pastoral office rather than one of many roles); or giving which is freely motivated by conviction (replaced, in many churches, by the assertion that God requires tithe-paying); or orderly all-member participation in worship (rather than passive watching of worship performed on a stage). One of the great values of Pagan Christianity? is that it unveils a history of Christian practice of which many of us are ignorant. In that sense it is an invaluable book and definitely worth reading.

But one must read with caution. There a times when the authors make claims that are not accurate or provide evidence that is not quite as they suggest. For example, on page 188-189 the authors write:

[In the New Testament], the confession of baptism is vitally linked to the exercise of saving faith. So much so that the New Testament writers often use baptism in place of the word faith and link it to being "saved."

There is a footnote at the end of this statement that lists a number of passages that, according to the authors, provide examples of this. They are Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; and 1 Peter 3:21.

Mark 16:16 reads:

The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.

The Greek word translated believes here is pisteuo from the word pistis meaning 'to believe' or 'have faith in'. But this verse does not use 'believes' and 'baptized' interchangeably. It is the one who believes and is baptized who is described as saved. The authors are incorrect when they suggest that baptism is often used in place of faith. They are two different things often occurring together but not replacing each other. Acts 2:38 is similar:

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Once again, this does not provide evidence of the authors' claim. Repentance and baptism is mentioned here but there is no suggestion that one can be used in the place of the other. What all this means is that the reader needs to be aware that not all of the evidence provided necessarily supports the authors' claims in the way they suggest.

Another issue that others have pointed out in criticism of the book is the lack of recognition that Christianity began as a sect within Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and all his disciples were Jews. There is no discussion in Pagan Christianity? of the Jewish roots of the early Christian Church. Jesus attended the synagogue as his disciples would have. And, in the synagogue, the reading of Scripture and a sermon were the common practice. Why, then, do Viola and Barna argue so strongly against the sermon, suggesting that it has pagan/secular roots, rather than seeing its origins within the Jewish synagogue? If the authors of this book want to go back to the original forms of New Testament practice, then why not go back to the practices of Jesus and emulate his attendance at the synagogue? The avoidance of the Jewish roots of the New Testament church implies that there is a selective use of history in support of a particular model of the church that these authors favour.

A reading of scholarly literature on the forms and functions of the early church leads, in my view, to the conclusion that there wasn't one specifically prescribed form of the church. The authors fail to acknowledge that descriptions of things in the Bible are not necessarily prescriptions that we must follow. This is a common fallacy that many fall into when interpreting the Bible. It is frequently assumed that, because a biblical character did something that it is generalisable to all Christians. This is clearly invalid as soon as we stop to think about other examples such as circumcision — a practice few Christians would argue is required. This type of argument is most probably used when what we read in the Bible fits with our own cultural or religious practices.

Another fallacy that is committed, in a general sense, in this book is the genetic fallacy — the belief that the origin of something determines the acceptability of the object under consideration. Sometimes, the origins of something are most certainly relevant in judging the acceptability of something — but not always. This type of thinking needs to be used with caution. For example, the origin of English names for the days of the week are mostly pagan. That doesn't mean we should stop using the names of the week. It is the same with some of the arguments of Viola and Barna. Just because the sermon has, according to the authors, origins outside of Christianity doesn't mean we should abandon sermons. Surely the sermon should be judged on its worthiness in its own right.

Yet another fallacy of thinking is arguing from silence. Viola and Barna seem to believe that what is written in the New Testament is the sum total of what the New Testament church practiced. In other words, if something is not mentioned in the New Testament, they didn't do it. There is also hasty generalisation — if something is mentioned then it must have been a general practice.

Finally, the tone of Pagan Christianity? could have been more positive. The impression left with the reader is that there is little salvageable in modern institutional Christianity. Those of us who worship in institutional churches undoubtedly would agree that there is much that is unhealthy and needs to be changed. But is abandoning the church the answer? And is it all as bad as Viola and Barna say it is? The answer is 'probably not' to both questions.

Pagan Christianity? is a fascinating and, at times, informative read. But the problems outlined above make it a book that one needs to read with a certain amount of caution and unease. By all means sit down and read the book for an enjoyable afternoon. But, ultimately, it might be better to read other more careful books to gain an understanding of the history of the development of the Christian church and the range of practices that have enriched the Church through the ages.

Further reading


  1. Very interesting review. I hope to be able to find the book and read it. I am often intrigued by how much fuss is made over any change in a church's worship service when the service as we now know it most likely bears little or no resemblance to new testament Christian services.

  2. I've read "Pagan" also and thought it was insightful and right on target. It is controversial, but sometimes it's necessary to shake things up a bit when the Body of Christ has veered off course. (Think Martin Luther).

    I believe the purpose of "Pagan Christianity" is not to pick apart the traditions and practices of the established church, but rather to show how they harm the Body of Christ and prevent it from functioning as our Lord intended. It’s not to say the authors expect us to wear togas and sandals and throw out anything that smacks of the twenty-first century. But in order to dismantle the deeply entrenched system that we’ve come to call “church”, it’s necessary to demonstrate where these things came from, and that they’re not directives from God’s Word. For example, although there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with believers gathering in a building set aside for that purpose, it’s not the ideal setting for the church, based on the nature of the church. The church is a family, not an organization. Families typically gather in cozier settings that are more conducive to the life they live together. The New Testament stresses that we have become God’s building, His dwelling place. Having a building associated with the church obscures this picture. Consider how the world defines the church, and even many believers: it’s a place you go, not what you are. Call it semantics, but there’s a huge difference between attending something and being that something.

    Also, the sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at
    It’s also available on Frank is also blogging now at Also, have you seen the spoof video for "Pagan"? Very funny. Check it out at