Frank Viola and George Barna believe that virtually everyone misunderstands the church because they draw almost everything they do from pagan sources instead of the New Testament, and thus the modern church has become an organization and an institution rather than a living organism.  The solution is to return to the New Testament model which describes the organic church which the authors define as “simply 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.  This is in stark contrast to a clergy-led, institution-driven church” (pp xxiii; see also pp 240-241).  The organic church has no human leadership, organization or formal teaching, meets in homes with no more than 35 people (pp 43-44), and is the only authentic expression of the local church, according to Viola and Barna.  Most chapters are structured around something the authors reject as unbiblical, or pagan in origin, and should be eliminated from the church.  The authors are against:

  • Chapter 2 – church buildings, Christian funerals and structures which promote the transcendent nature of God.
  • Chapter 3 – an order of worship and human leadership, including preaching, communion services as normally practiced and individualistic salvation.
  • Chapter 4 – sermons. Paul preached but not in the church meetings (p 83). We should preach Christ, not information about Him (p 100). Teaching comes through the sharing of every members’ experience, not through biblical instruction (pp 100-103).
  • Chapter 5 – pastors. Elders in the New Testament were not appointed, did not lead, and were never paid.  All scriptural texts to the contrary are discounted.
  • Chapter 6 – dressing up for church.
  • Chapter 7 – music ministers, or leaders, for they keep Christ from leading the singing.
  • Chapter 8 – tithing which they see mainly as a necessity only because of paying clergy (pp 182-185).
  • Chapter 9 – modern practices of baptism and communion. The authors clearly believe in baptismal regeneration (pp 188-189), and believe that the Lord’s supper was always a full meal (pp 196-198).
  • Chapter 10 – theological teaching since New Testament training was of the spirit, not the intellect (pp 199-200, 209). God speaks through every member so biblical instruction is largely unnecessary (pp 206, 219, 244).
  • Chapter 11 – systematic theology, which is seen as mere “proof texting” (pp 222, 229, 232). The authors believe the chapter and verse structure, as well as the order of the books in our modern canon, corrupt the understanding of the Bible (pp 225-227).   Strangely, they claim Paul wrote two thirds of the New Testament, which is of course not true, and support some of their ideas from an out-of-context proof text of Ezekiel 37.
  • Chapter 12 and 13 – Point the reader to the next steps if the premises of Pagan Christianity are accepted. Organic churches will be self-correcting and self-taught, as people share their experiences rather than receive instruction. They will also be led directly by Christ without the need for human leadership.

Pagan Christianity is a difficult book in which to engage because the authors do not support their views through careful biblical analysis or exegesis.  This would be expected from men who reject formal instruction and systematic theology.  They provide insightful historical developments for many practices common in the church today, claiming that all of those are of pagan origin and should apparently be rejected for that reason.  And while this concept is the basis for the entire book (p. xxxiii), the authors repeatedly pull their punches saying that just because a practice has pagan roots does not mean it has to be tossed for that reason alone (pp. 44, 46, 58, 75, 103, 143, 155).  For example, at the end of most chapters, after trashing some treasured practice, the authors often balance their comments.  So it is no wonder Viola and Barna can claim their views have never been credibly refuted or discounted because many of their ideas are like “playdough” – they can be shaped in any number of directions.  There are, however, at least four major features upon which the book rests:

  1. Pattern/practice: The underlining thesis is that we must duplicate the practices of the New Testament church.  If the early church did something, we must too.  If the early church did not do something that we are practicing today, then it must be of pagan origin.  Conversely, this means that the scattered and inconsistent examples of the first church must be adhered to by the 21st century church.
  1. Proof-texting: While proof-texting is condemned by the authors, their understanding of New Testament teachings are dominated by one text –   First Corinthians 14:26-31.  (e.g. pp. 59, 75, 76, 78, 80, 82, 92, 99, 100, 166-168, 247-248, 263).  Time and again this passage is referenced as to how the organic church functions.  This is disturbing on many levels:  should one short text have complete control over how the church meets?  Why are not the NT epistles which are devoted to church doctrine and practice such as 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians, as well as the rest of 1 Corinthians, given a place at the table?  In addition, 1 Corinthians 14 is contextually a rebuke or correction of how the church at Corinth functioned.   Basing the church on one passage in the context of correction is problematic to say the least.  And of great interest is the fact that the authors never reference verse 34 which calls for women to keep silent in the church.  This blows a major hole in their understanding of the organic church, and its “every member participatory meetings.”
  1. Anti-teaching: Instruction, teaching, and preaching is minimized and ridiculed throughout the book.  Every member participating, that is, sharing their experience with Christ, replaces instruction.  It would not take much thought to realize that the organic church would be a biblically illiterate church. Sharing of experiences, however beneficial in its place, does not produce theologically sound Christians.
  1. Mysticism: Since teaching is negated, how do Christians grow?  The authors are convinced that it is through mysticism.  The Lord communicates directly to each Christian, in their spirit or heart, but not their mind or reason (pp 206-207).  They write, “Those who train others in Christian work should be familiar with those spiritual realities that transcend intellect and emotion.  Consequently, spiritual formation, spiritual understanding, and spiritual insight are vital ingredients in training for spiritual service” (p 219).

Pagan Christianity is helpful as it provides historical information about many church practices today.  These practices should be evaluated, not just continued because of traditions or pragmatism, and Viola and Barna are correct in this observation.  However, the book is deeply flawed because it is not developed on exegetical grounds, it rejects systematic theology and formal instruction, it touts mysticism and wraps the church around one NT corrective text, while ignoring the vast material the Spirit has given us in the Scriptures.

Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (revised and updated) by Frank Viola and George Barna (Tyndale Momentum, 2012), 291 pp. plus xxiii, paper $15.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel