Pagan Christianity? Hope or Hype?

Pagan Christianity? is a win-win for the “co-authors” and the “co-author’s publisher. A well known pollster discovers a book written several years ago by a lessor known, touches it up, and uses his name to promote it. Ultimately though, all of us win whenever truth is revealed, errors are exposed, and the church is brought closer to her Lord and to each other.

In actuality, George Barna and Frank Viola team up in PC? to inform us how to meet, where to meet, how to sit, how to dress, how to speak, how to sing, when to speak and sing, how to read the Bible in the proper order, how to discover Paganism under every stone – in the church bulletin, the windows, and even in the carpet – how to finally get it right in a world where everyone else got it wrong. If this book represents the house church movement then it has chosen to go negative.

One almost gets the idea that church meeting/leadership structure is the beginning, middle, and end of the faith. So much so that if outward things aren’t configured accordingly – “God’s eternal purpose is defeated” and it becomes your privilege and obligation to pack up, per the “Final Challenge” section.

In summary, small groups are vastly superior to large ones and those outside the institutional churches now possess the higher moral ground and the deeper Christian life.

The book’s perspective is that Jesus, rather than making good on his promise to build and guide his church despite the gates of Hell, somehow long ago lost control, became dependent upon humans, is now lonely, hands tied, looking for freedom, romance, and a place to go. In contrast to that sickly figure is the apostolic proclamation of Jesus – now exalted, reigning, the self-sustaining King who stands in need of no one, no thing, ruling and over-ruling in all things which come to pass above and below, adding to his church daily, his word not returning to him without effect, seeing the former travail of his soul and being satisfied, always in the midst of those gathered in his name. Neither is He worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things. Acts 17:25.

The authors point the reader to an impotent Jesus one would rather pity than worship and serve: “The Protestant order of worship strangles the Headship of Jesus Christ. …. Where is the freedom for our Lord Jesus to speak through His Body at will? … Jesus Christ has no freedom to express Himself through His Body at His discretion. He is held captive by our liturgy! He too is rendered a passive spectator!” page 68.

False dichotomies, strained analogies, historical distortions, private interpretations occur throughout but valid points also abound. The readers’s challenge is sorting it out… Most chapters leave the reader in a state of reasonable doubt, to muse: “So what?” , “Yea, but…”

PC is truly an in-your-face book with an in your face cover containing an in-your-face message. The father’s have truly eaten the sour grapes this time and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Heading off the grape list – I mean the gripe list are:

Pastors who interfere with, subvert and usurp the headship of Jesus That’s apparently ‘pastors’ as in all pastors. Now why must this be when it is Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, is the very one who has appointed and ordained shepherds in his church? 1 Peter 5, Acts 20. Jesus and pastors are not competitively opposed but complementary in purpose. True, there are bad eggs out there just as was forewarned. No surprise.

An overseer/pastor/elder is required to be a teacher. Scripture is clear that all Christians are not teachers and that pastor/teachers are God’s special gifts to his church. No doubt there exist pastors who are domineering but most would be delighted to see others engaged in ministry. It is likewise true that for every controlling pastor there are countless lazy “laymen,” not looking to get involved – certainly not being suppressed. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Meetings in which everyone participates Viola, the real author of the book, must be unaware that most churches offer participatory and interactive Sunday School classes where spontaneous and vigorous dialogue is invited and all are encouraged to say their peace. Not to mention home meetings which lately have been adopted by churches of all varieties. Add congregational singing, special music – solos, duets, etc, responsive readings, church suppers, the Lord’s Supper, prayer meetings, picnics, and just hanging around in the parking lot or lobby. Sounds rather ‘participatory’ to me. I’ve been there and I was not a “passive observer.” Who is to suggest that these participants are not seeking the glory and fullness of Jesus Christ in these activities?

The priesthood of all believers, contrary to the unrelenting drumbeat of the author(s) is not associated with participation in Christian gatherings or the lack of such participation – it’s about an all-inclusive lifestyle of direct access to God. Furthermore, “Jesus-led meetings” or “meeting under the headship of Jesus” are also unknown to the scriptures because every aspect of life, 24-7-365, has already been claimed under his headship. His presence is explicitly guaranteed to each individual and groups meeting in his name, seeking to draw near to Him. No conditions are attached.

George Barna sought to demonstrate in chapter one of Revolution that a Sunday morning round of golf with a golfing buddy is a perfectly legitimate form of “doing church.” Now, the authors in PC are inquiring if the rest of us are really “meeting by the book.” Unbelievable. As their book unfolds, “meeting by the book” translates into one-size-fits-all house churches with a 1 Corinthians 14 type of open meeting. That sort of meeting, however, is a tongue-speaking meeting and a direct revelation prophetic meeting, much to the delight of our Pentecostal brethren. Do the authors insist on those elements as well?

Orders of worship or liturgy The apostles appointed order – not merely spontaneity. Order beats disorder. Boredom, sadly, happens in every sort of meeting. Many if not most house churches follow a regular order of doing what they regularly do. Although unwritten, it is just as real. Formal meetings are not for me either – others find them beneficial, even awe-inspiring. Let each decide.

Buildings which suppress body life Where does the scriptures warn us against such? Why didn’t Jesus and his apostles enter the temple and synagogues and command everyone to vacate the premises, go back home, and sit in a circle “without any human leadership” in order to “just share”? If the end of the Temple meant the end of the legitimacy of buildings for any Christian purpose, the apostles would have received and conveyed the message. They would have ceased to preach, teach, fellowship, and operate in the synagogues and the temple courts. The end of the Temple meant the end of animal sacrifices and the accompanying Levitical Priesthood. The authors keep repeating that “we are all priests now” as if that somehow proved their case. Exodus 19:6 demonstrates that all were always a “kingdom of priests.” As priests, the saints have forever been a separated people having direct access to God, able to mediate for one another. The priesthood of all does not and has never precluded the existence of physical structures or official leaders. Our Lord made it plain via the conversation with the woman at the well that true worship depended not upon location but upon “spirit and truth.” Be it a church house or a house church, it’s still bricks, boards, and mortar.

The OT contains references to a highly detailed and artistically appealing tabernacle which Jehovah gave the plans for, an ornate and colorful temple which his glory filled and which Jesus called “his Father’s house.” Choirs, full-time musicians, chief musicians, instruments of every description were employed in public worship. The idea that these forms of expression originated in Paganism is an absurdity beyond imagination. The thought that NT saints now have less freedom to employ these forms in their worship than their OT counterparts is unsustainable as well.

I can’t help but notice that church buildings, at present and throughout history, have been the community centers in many localities. Why would not the attendees desire to look and smell their best when they arrived? What business is it of others? I am familiar with churches which have owned their buildings debt-free for more than 250 years. These are often used for public events which would totally overwhelm the private home of any member. Things like food and clothing storage and distribution, home school cooperatives, athletics, day care, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, dance instruction, music instruction, plays, concerts, movie viewings, marriages, funerals, family reunions, burials in church owned cemeterys, youth events, senior activities – even local house church meet-ups.

The Jewish people had a long tradition of meetings in large groups which extended backwards in history for thousands of years. Every Sabbath was a holy convocation. Our Lord is aware that folks really do draw strength by being in a crowd of like-minded ones just as in smaller groups.

In fairness to history, it should be noted that in some localities early Christians were severely persecuted – even thrown to wild beasts. Some were forced to meet secretly in private dwellings – even in caves. The fact that neon church signs from the apostolic age have not been unearthed should surprise no one. Many priests are said to have been converted in the apostolic age. Whole synagogues may have been Christianized over time – we don’t know for certain. A believer in this era would have attended public and private meetings, just as recorded in Acts 2.

What I do know is that liberty in Christ entitles Christians to own and use whatever they will for his glory, be it a house, meeting house, house boat, or tree house. Yes, if something such as a building becomes a financial ball and chain or is seldom utilized, it should be dispensed with. It shouldn’t take the study of Paganism to figure all this out. I have yet to meet the person who claims that a building is necessary for church. It’s simply a matter of convenience.

Elders? Deacons? Overseers? These seem to get swept aside in the name of a contrived definition of the priesthood of all believers. Why are these characters minimised when there is line upon line concerning their appointment, moral requirements, duties, and connectedness to the first churches? To posit, as do the authors, that “the word ‘pastor’ appears only once” doesn’t take into account the other uses of the word and the other synonyms for it. (1 Peter 5, Acts 20, Titus 1, 1 Tim 3, 1 Tim 5, etc.).

And why, pray tell, do the very ones who so devastated by “main speakers” and chairs alligned in the same direction, etc. regularly participate in conferences and workshops where they are the “main speakers” – chairs aimed forward, carpet on the floor, money exchanging hands, worship leaders and bands up front “leading the music,” recording machines capturing their “monologues” to be later converted into articles of commerce? Are the authors bemoaning the priesthood of every believer being violated, spontaneity being pillaged, and Jesus being robbed when the attention is upon them?

Viola has stated that he really wants everyone to read this book. OK, why not do that which Christians writers could not have done in the past and put the book on the internet where anyone, anywhere can access, read, print, or email it? That was his practice in the past, I recall. Barna should make it his, too – then they can open up meaningful, much needed dialogue about “paid ministers”, “love of money” and “making merchandise of the word of God.

This is remarkable: George Barna doesn’t believe that the traditional church or the traditional pastor has any warrant to function and that church today has zero impact on the community but he is all but stumbling over himself to sell his wares to traditional churches and their pastors. The authors drone on that the Christianity is too cerebral and academic. Why do they fuel those fires by publishing “must read” books and educational materials one after the next with more “cranium-swelling” works on the way?

Hey, how is that “simple church” requires reading one book after another?

Viola in the original edition of PC, page 294, writes: “Take note, the NT is not a manual for church PRACTICE.”

George Barna, in like manner, wrote in Revolution: “The Bible does not rigidly define the corporate PRACTICES, rituals, or structures that must be embraced in order to have a proper church.” page 37

And: “We must also address one other reality: The Bible never describes “church” the way we have configured it. The Bible goes to great lengths to teach us principles for living and theology for understanding. However, it provides very little guidance in terms of the methods and structures we must use.” page 115

Such quotes would seemingly dismiss questions of church governance and style, leaving them open for expediency and preference according to one’s conscience before God. Furthermore, according to Revolution, a true Christian needn’t attend nor be attached to any local assembly. Take it or leave it. So, I must inquire, why would Barna have the least scintilla of interest in the methods of others? How could anyone get it wrong?

What of the extensive footnotes? The primary sources are conspicuously missing in a book alleged to be a historical study. Likewise missing are word studies of the original terms in question. Taken as a whole, the notes, however interesting, do precious little advance the conclusions of the book. An equal sized collection of notes could be gathered to demonstrate the Pagan roots of the model of church/spirituality/mysticism/individualism/allegoricalism which the authors advocate. Few – microscopically few – of those cited did/would sign off on the core message of this book which, I suppose, is why “no such book was ever written.” If it were a real historical work, historians and theologians would be endorsing it in significant numbers, which they aren’t.

In short, this book is about externals, most of which are erroneously linked to Paganism and to an all-powerless Jesus who isn’t available, isn’t around unless everything specs out. In their attempt to champion freedom and simplicity in Christ, the authors actually do the opposite. While being assured that they “have both scripture and history on their side,” neither is in the end.

It’s also a book about unsubtle guilt manipulation. It closes with a ‘now that you’ve heard the real story for the first time you need “to step out” of the toxic wasteland known as the institutional church.’ The passage about “voiding the word of God by traditions” is evoked as support as the guilt gets piled higher. What is conveniently overlooked is the fact that Jesus is dealing with unbelieving Pharisees in the context – not believers and not about matters of church practices. Twice on the same page we are reminded that externals count for little. Mark 7:6 “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Mark 7:15, Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.” Or as another puts it: To the pure, all things are pure.

Furthermore, if Christianity had adopted Paganism to the extent of this book, the Pagan world would have noted that fact and gloated in it.

Personally, I’m into house type churches and I disdain overt institutionalism, clergyism, and commercialism wherever I encounter it. Most of all, I’m into the church – one, holy, and universal. The bottom line is that there is but one faith, one Lord, and one church. You’re in or you’re out irrespective of your meeting format and leadership setup, however important. We’re obligated to love every other saint enough to die for him or her. In that context alone, Christians should inquire how God might further reform their church structures and roles according to Scripture. The book, along with hundreds of others out there, is right on in that certain foundational elements are amiss and that changes are in order, past due. The book, however, is grossly mistaken that “most every practice is rooted in Paganism.”

Meetings are but a means to the end of conveying the hope, love, and fellowship of Jesus who is all and in all. Getting the externals right, though highly desirable, is not the end. Truth is, due to the lingering effects of sin, alternate forms of church have unique problems to overcome despite all the romantic idealism dripping off the exaggerated reports and bogus statistics.

Very soon, Jesus the Judge will inquire of us what we did each day in his name for others, not if we had perfectly ordered meetings.

The arrogant talk by Viola of certain parties having “no right to exist” is but a shameful echo of an unlearned lesson from the past: “What need have I of you?” 1 Corinthians 12. Far away may be it driven, readers! (In the newer edition, it does appear that “right to exist” has been changed to “right to function” but the condescending, self-righteous tone of the book remains.)

Despite the failings of men and all those misconfigured churchs, Jesus has indeed been preached worldwide and has emerged as the most influencial person of all time, His church is the most influential institution of all time on planet Earth. For the most part, house churches have played a non-existent or lesser role thus far. That may change if God wills. The number of those needing Jesus now is greater than existing structures can hold.

Even in China where house churches are touted as pristine Christianity, few remotely resemble the model set forth in PC – things like human leadership and distracting wooden benches, you know. The history of the church reminds us that God is willing to use whom he will, despite how they meet.

What’s the house church movement in America accomplished so far? Where are they – those tens of millions of super Christians, “growing exponentially” in number? They should be highly visible on every street in every town in America. And since, according to Barna, Revolutionaries give more than a tithe, the effect of 10’s of billions of dollars in charitable donations should be apparent.

It’s been several years now since Barna’s Revolution came out. I’m starting to suspect that his Revolution is rather his hallucination about the way things ought to be. ‘Announce the Revolution – they will come.’ Another house church advocating guy, interviewed by Time Magazine, reported (elsewhere) that a thousand house church planters had been trained in two months in the USA but… later he wasn’t sure what country this training actually occurred in. Be that as it, it does speak volumes that when it’s time for this movement to get its message out via the big league media, the message is not a positive, transformational ‘we’ll show you because we’ve done it – not just tell you’ message about what God has truly accomplished but rather a winding diatribe about how the institutional church has failed because of Pagan influence.

Ancient Paganism, the term loosely used, espoused beliefs about an omnipresent diety, a son of god in human form, an invisible god-spirit, a world-wide flood, expiation of sin by blood sacrifice, a priesthood, laws from a diety, future punishments below, glory above – why not just dismiss the whole Bible as Pagan? Some do, of course. Pagans also drank milk, took wives, and raised children. Where does it end?

Give me a few minutes and I can, with merely a one dollar bill, demonstrate (I speak as a fool) the Deistic, Masonic, Egyptian, Zoroastrian roots of modern American practices. Then you’ll be given the opportunity to renounce your citizenship and to leave the premises. Interested?

Hey, maybe Pagans got their best ideas from us. It is the genuine article which gets counterfeited, is it not? Imitation, the best form of flattery?

18 thoughts on “Pagan Christianity? Hope or Hype?

  1. Great points…

    I am in total agreement that regardless of all else, there is only one faith, one Lord, and one church.

  2. Thank you very much for this work. As a devoted “housechurcher”, I find it necessary for the house church movement to exercise this kind of internal critique.

    House churches is about values, as “preach the gospel to the poor”.

  3. Hi, Good words, Zane.

    I learned about house churches and got excited. I looked for house churches in the Richmond, VA area but found nothing. I went so far as to advertise in the newspapers. Anyone from around metro Richmond?

  4. Zane,

    I thank you for this review. It is a reminder that not all in the House-Church Movement are the same in their views. It is also a good reminder that not everyone who puts himself forward as a leader in this movement should be taken as a spokesman for the whole.

    As you know, I have been writing a series of articles at my own blog that are critical of much in the House-Church Movement, but I agree with virtually everything you have written in response to Viola and Barna. In fact, I think you may well have relieved me of the need to write my own review!

    I know you have already commented at my blog with a link to this review, but I intend to write a brief post there anyway, letting my readers know of your review and providing a link to it.

    Thanks again!

    Your Brother in Christ,


  5. Skeptics –and others– are again promoting the idea that Jesus and his miracles, etc were borrowed from pagan myths.

    A new article and mp3 at Probe shows that Christianity is historical, not mythical, and that in many cases the pagan myths are borrowed from the true account of Christ.

  6. Wiccans and Pagans are with Barna on this one. I am not, however.

  7. Thanks for bringing some of this information up, Brah, as I have the book/read much of it and agree with many of the points they brought up……but much of it indeed seemed biased/incomplete. Especially in regards to knocking the institutional church on differing fronts….and for that matter, what seems to be hypocrisy seeing that they appear in many of the same things (conference/talks) they diss themselves. Barna, IF i’M NOT MISTAKEN, has even done research/been affilated with many kats FROM INSTITUTIONAL CHURCHES.

  8. Hey Zane,
    I’m four posts into my series on church structure and organization. You might find the most recent one a bit provocative. It is based on using church models as a baseline for criticising churches, ministers, and predicting the possibility of congregational dysfunction. I enjoyed your review. Here’s my post (part 4 is up now):

    Here’s a spoiler: I believe that small groups are most helpful for a lot of things, but judging motives based on models is dangerous.

    Kenny / Hanford CA

  9. Thanks for a good review from someone that is familiar with the house church or emerging church movement. I read PC and was really taken aback at the failure to show both sides of the argument. Barna usually does a better job than this but swaying an audience may have just been the agenda.

    Thanks Again,

  10. Did you and I read the same Barna book? Reference of two golfers getting as much out of their game as their church was an indictment on what the established denominations have become, not a prescription of what should be. As he said so clearly in chapter six (page 52) “Switching from a Methodist church to a Presbyterian church is not transformational; determining to live in accordance with a biblical world view.” and on page 59 “God is still active in the lives of those people who are wholeheartedly devoted to and searching for Him.”

    As Barna clearly says, it is not the size of the congregation that supports authentic faith experiences, but the action of the leadership to mentor, encourage and teach the gathered believers in true experience of the living God.

  11. Obviously, I am in favor of fellowship on the golf course and churches of small size.

    Lets begin with the cover of Revolution, friend. The subtitle is “Finding vibrant faith beyond the walls of the sanctuary.” And, from the back cover: “Millions of believers have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead.”

    On page 7 we discover that the super-Christian golf buddy David “rarely attends church.”

    On page 116: If a person is able to live a godly life outside a congregation based faith, then that too is good.

    Page 120: Millions of them attend church – millions do not.

    Page 29: My goal is to help you become a revolutionary… Whether you become a revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me…

    Page 131: Knowing that many revolutionaries grow in their relationship with God outside the ministry of a local church.

    All this sounds “prescriptive of what should be” to me. In fact, Barna frequently speaks of the unchurched revolutionaries as superior to their lesser churched brethren.

    The scriptures offer precious little in support of Barna’s slogans or of his scenario of churchless Christianity. The word ‘church’ means a congregation, deliberately assembled. It is never applied to one person or “hangin out.” “Being the church” is as much an absurdity as you commanding one of your children to “just be the family.”

  12. Dear Zane,

    I must be a busy guy (or a slow reader!) but it took me a week after your edifying comment on my blog and my seemingly interminable commentary on Frank’s book. I’m so glad I plowed through to read it, though. It makes so many valid points.

  13. Frank Viola’s personal life has caused me to not endorse him. He left his wife for one of his own high school students (she was out of school but only about 20). He further would not submit to even the house church leaders who urged him to repent and return to his wife.

    As far as the book, I think too often house church Christians write out of anger and not biblical correction. They so want others to leave the traditional church for house churches that they can come across mean spirited. Further, while house church members actknowledge that God has used pastors, they still call for their demise.

  14. Strong stuff, but some very good insights as well. I think you are new to my blog as well, so I hope you don’t mind if I point you to an interview I did a while back with Viola and Barna both.

    I apologize ahead of time that a lot of my links are broken… somehow my switch from blogger to WordPress did not turn out as I had hoped. Anyway, if you bear with the breaks until I get them fixed, I think you should enjoy the interview and my summary.

  15. I ask you to consider a theory. What if Jesus came to remove the “priest class”, the spiritual aggressors of his day. What if this re-established priest class was able to come back into power. I believe that this “priest class” is the head with the mortal wound that came back to life, that they are abomination set up in the Holy Place!

    Remember Jesus came as one who serves at the table.

    NLT Luke 22:25 Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ 26 But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. 27 Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.

    The table is the communion table, with the word of God being the food. A Godly pastor must make sure everyone else is hearing and sharing the Holy Spirit before he feeds, not futilly trying to feed everyone at the table.

    Make any sense?

  16. “Christian” real estate 501c3 merchandise entities are alien to the Christian congregations in scripture. Paul’s work with the congregations in scripture, are the LORD Jesus Christ Almighty’s template for Christians of all ages. We must do the works the Lord appoints us to do after he saves us. We mustn’t squander our efforts and resources in non-scriptural and costly projects, but spend those efforts and resources on people in need as scripture plainly shows us.
    Beware of Bible studies with strange doctrines and philosophies of men. Beware of blinkered Bible studies that beat some passages to death and leave others in the dark. Hopscotching all over the Bible makes it difficult to put the whole together, ESPECIALLY if one doesn’t spend much time doing even that.
    Read through the entire Bible in a year. Then repeat year after year until the Lord takes you home. Listening to the Bible during brainless chores, workouts, or drive time can help someone who is so busy that they feel challenged to find time to read. In this day and age, one has to get to the point where they can vet their teachers/preachers/authors. Become wise unto salvation, don’t get conned.

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