18/11/2007

Pagan Christianity (by Frank Viola)

A friend lent us this book, which we've all been reading, off and on, for a couple of weeks. Frank Viola is an American speaker and writer who has published several books in a series about the problems with today's church, and how to get back to Biblical principles.

'Pagan Christianity' proposes that the majority of today's church practises are actually rooted in Pagan or secular practises that have nothing to do with Scripture, and bear no resemblance to the early church as described in the book of Acts. As our friend said, 'Jesus came to abolish structure, hierarchies and legalism, and we've spent two millenia building them all up again.'

There are many good points in this book, which is interesting from a historical perspective, and - I assume - broadly accurate. There are certainly many references to check, relating to the culture of the times, and the way the church has adapted and changed over the centuries. Even the church of the second century was - according to the author - nothing like the churches planted by the Apostles.

Much of the book was thought-provoking and challenging. We probably all know that church buildings are just places to meet - that 'the church' is the people, not the places. We also know that dressing up for a Sunday - whether in smart suit and tie, or clerical robes, or 'Sunday best' for the congregation - is purely cultural, and not necessary. And that the Lord's Supper - what we know of as Communion, or Eucharist, or Mass, depending on our churchmanship - originated around a meal. But I don't often think of all these things at the same time.

Nor did I realise quite where the idea of a sermon originated - in secular orations - or the concept of church leadership in a hierarchy - in secular politics. There's a lot more, too. Each chapter takes one aspect of 21st century church life, and looks at its origins, and how it developed to where we are today. It's not an attractive history.

However I have several problems with the book.

Firstly, the author is extremely negative. He's not just opposed to Pagan and secular practises, he's strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism too, and - it seems - most of the established Protestant and Orthodox practises too. Occasionally he gives a disclaimer - that most priests or Pastors are caring, well-intentioned people who love God, for instance - but his overall writing attempts to destroy just about everything that happens in today's church gatherings. Some of it may well need to be re-considered or even abolished, but Frank Viola appears to throw out not just the baby with the bathwater, but the entire bath and fittings too. For a new or uncertain believer reading this book, their entire foundations could crumble with such negativity.

Secondly, he generalises wildly. He expounds in one chapter about the dangers of proof-texting, for instance, then insists that every Bible training school in the world teaches this method! Not just that they sometimes use it but that they actively endorse it. Since he can't possibly have written to every Bible college in the world to check, this is a ridiculous generalisation; moreover, I know of many church ministers who are adamantly opposed to proof-texting. They were certainly not taught to use it.

Thirdly, while he tells us (rightly) not to take verses of Scripture out of context, he then does exactly this himself in places. One example is that in his chapter against dressing up on a Sunday, and particularly clerical robes, he quotes 'Beware of men in long robes' - totally and utterly out of context! I did wonder if he was trying to be funny here, but the book is not written in a humorous way, and he doesn't make it at all clear, if that was his intention.

Fourthly, and perhaps most significantly, he does not propose any better solution. He mentions house churches as being closer to the Biblical model; many would agree with him. But, he says, many house churches have developed their own structure and hierarchy, and are no better than institutional churches. Again, this is probably true. So, he tells us, we should not just rush out and start a house church, since we'd probably get it wrong. There's only one method, and to find out what that is, we have to buy another of his books.

Hmmm. That's enough to make me very suspicious, and quite determined not to buy any more of his books.

I did, however, visit his website. There are documents to download and read, and a newsletter to subscribe to. Frank Viola, it seems, has his own version of a highly-organised empire, where he is the supreme speaker and writer, fount of all knowledge. Just what he said should not happen in the church.

He says on the site that the general understanding of a house church - or house group - isn't really good enough. Anyone, he says, can meet for a meal, some prayer, some Bible study, and perhaps some singing. But that, apparently, is not real church. In order to have a 'Biblical' house church, a group needs to be led and taught by an 'Apostle' from another house church. Where do we find one? Well, potential house churches can request an apostle at the website....

This very limited approach seems to me even more legalistic than most of today's established churches. Moreover, telling people they should leave their churches because they're doing all these non-Biblical things is supremely unhelpful. We are all, he tells us, the Body of Christ, and shouldn't worry about minor doctrinal issues. I agree. But at the same time we should apparently refuse to have fellowship with anyone who believes in church buildings, sermons, liturgy, robes, candles, music groups, and so on - all of which are, surely, relatively minor issues.

All in all, very bizarre.

I think the book is worth reading just to shake up people's ideas of what 'real church' is and isn't, and to see the origins of much of what we do. But take it with a very large pinch of salt.

The copy I have looks like the remarkably expensive (and out of print) one at Amazon UK; the prices at Amazon US are considerably lower. Borrowing it, if you can, is a much better idea.

1 comment:

J. R. Miller said...

Hi, an excellent alternative to Viola's book is "The Ancient Church As Family" by Dr. Joe Hellerman. His work is well researched and addresses many of the "pagan" influences on our faith. Dr. Hellerman's contribution is a blend of good history AND respectful discourse.