Book Review: Pagan Christianity By Viola & Barna
Let me begin on this (the first day of school) by making a typical bloggy self-referential comment: I can’t believe that I’m doing a book report for fun. I used to hate these things! OK – on to the book report:
Frank Viola has teamed up with George Barna (czar of evangelical statistics) to write a scathing polemic against the modern institutional church. “Pagan Christianity” is a summary of all the ways that our modern churches have departed from the New Testament church. Viola argues forcefully that all the ways in which we have altered the idea of “church” since the first centure have pagan roots and that we ought to get back to the purity of the first century. Viola’s ideal of church is what he calls the “organic” church – which meets in homes with no paid clergy, not permanent building, no set order of worship, etc – just as the NT church was. In each chapter he takes an element of modern church life (paid clergy, church buildings, etc) and explains when and where the innovation came from and how these things are harmful to the church. What I liked most about the book was the historical data on the origins of many church practices. These are laid out in an easily digestible format and are meticulously footnoted for those who want to dig deeper. It is eye opening to see the origins of many our our church practices.
However, Viola is consistently unsympathetic in his explanations of why these innovations occurred. For example, when writing about baptism he excoriates the 2nd century church for creating a 2 to 3 year catechetical process which was required before baptism. Viola doesn’t tell us why this was done, other than that it was to transform conversion into a salvation-by-works scheme. I certainly don’t think we ought to put barriers down for people to become baptized, I am sympathetic with the reasons the 2nd century church did this. They were under intense persecution. Christians were being brutally executed and tortured by the Roman government. One motive for a long and thorough catechetical process was self preservation. The church was very wary of allowing Roman spies into the fellowship who could then inform on all the church members and their activities. A long and strenuous initiation process ensured that converts were genuine and wouldn’t inform on church members and activities. I don’t know that those early church leaders made the right choice, but I’m sympathetic to their situation for sure. Those early church leaders also worked without the benefit of the canonized New Testament.
Viola also speaks little about the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church through the centuries. He seems to paint a picture of the early church as the perfect ideal and all innovations in church life since the first century simply pollute the purity of that ideal. Surely innovations in church praxis have been guided by the Holy Spirit to adapt to a changing world. Viola argues otherwise.
I found that part of me was tempted by the thought of going “off the grid” and joining a simple “organic church” that Frank espouses. However, I find that I still believe in the church, in my church (I suppose that now is a good time for full disclosure – my church pays my salary!) and in the way we do a lot of the things we do. I certainly think there are lots of problems, but they come from sinful, fallen people (more disclosure – I’m sinful and fallen too) and not from the fact that we own a building or have paid clergy.
Perhaps I simply can’t be objective because I’m too much a part of the problem that Viola describes, but I won’t be giving up on the “institutional” church just yet.