Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Further Discussion on Organic vs. Institutional Church

It seems I've gotten wise to my own limitations and have started noting thoughts that cross my mind as I trudge through the rest of Pagan Christianity. I don't recall if I explained how it came into my possession, so I will briefly elaborate on that. My first exposure to the book was via and Amazon recommendation in late spring. I opted not to buy it by virtue of the fact that I was unfamiliar with both authors. I guess I have a general skepticism concerning who I can or can't trust out there, and seeing as I haven't even reached a year anniversary in my walk with Christ, I'm trying to avoid the abundance of terrible scholarship out there. I've already been duped by my own curiosity, having purchased a book about the Gnostic gospel of Judas by Bart D. Ehrman. I thought it no coincidence, either, when I found myself meeting with a few members of church who told me that an elder had once mentioned how his only regret about his studies involved how much time he invested in reading the unhealthy things. I've softened my position on this stuff for two reasons: 1) we are presently in the age of apostasy; 2) my belief that the only effective way to keep false teaching out of the church, and to prevent it from uprising within the church, is to have an intimate understanding of these alternative belief systems. Back on track: Around June, when our local church was about to break its ministries for the summer, things got really stale for me. I started to backslide a lot, and it was within this context that a close friend and pastor handed me a copy of Pagan Christianity with the intent of having a men's book club over the summer. And thus began the internal conflict re: everything we've come to refer to as "church."

Of course, one needn't read very far into the book to grasp its thesis, which reccurs throughout: the way we do things inhibits the manifestation of the Spirit, the giftings it bestows upon us, and the [real-time] headship of Christ. No one in any denomination that makes the slightest effort to honour the Bible would deny that Christ is the head of the church. This is not the premise that Viola and Barna are trying to address. It's much subtler than that. Their motivation is to restore our worship style to that expressed by Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. Aside from Pagan Christianity, most books I read that try to correct false teaching (in any context) involve a critical reading of the original Greek and Hebrew texts. This is a lost art, especially in the present age. Scholars who write about Biblical Hermeneutics stress the inadequacy of one's understanding of any biblical text when one's methodology is to read our modern definitions into the diction of the Bible. Hence, as linguistic changes seep into our consciousness, our implicit ability to consider the original context of Scripture is diminished, if not depleted. This is the root cause of most deviations from proper doctrine or an understanding of it. And so, words like "elder" or "pastor" lose their original definitions, which essentially referred to how closely one's example mimicked that of Christ. Nowadays, we regard these as clerical terms relating to offices within the church; history records their origin as a synthesis of pagan rituals and Roman law. That's a sweeping summary of what Viola and Barna hope to impart, as well as their exhortation that we must return to the kind of worship described in Romans: give your entire being to Christ and let the Spirit guide you. Even if it defers from the institutional guidelines or precepts enforced by hierarchical members of the "Christian" institution.

Now then, this is the last time I will offer such a synopsis. From here on, I will merely note the pros and cons, as I see them, in Pagan Christianity. My citations all refer to this year's printing of the book--its second edition.


In general: It sheds light on congregant complacency that is so rampant in modern churches. With all respect to our very talented worship leaders--and we certainly don't lack for gifted staff members at my church--one would have to believe that if the format were truly effective, I wouldn't see so many members of all ages with arms crossed during our time of worship. Unlike the tunnel-visioned opinion held among traditionalist "King Jamesers," this is not because we sing "too many modern songs and not enough hymns." (By the way, my unaffectionate name for them is not strictly in reference to their allegiance to a translation 400 years dead but to their general attitude as concerns the "sacrosanctity" of traditional worship.) Also, our entire district--yes, district--was privy to 600 new commitments to Christ last year, 100 of which have become weekly attenders. This is NOT the extent of God's power. So, goodonyas Viola and Barna for having more faith in God than our results have produced.

page 98: They make reference to the fact that, because we allow "paid professionals" to carry the cross of the entire congregation, we have not only become listless in our faith, but we have become dependent on these leaders for spiritual growth and nourishment. Shame on everyone who does not apply every word of the New Testament to his or her entire life. I pray daily that God convicts me of this sin of neglect, and that He work to transform me into the kind of living member of the universal Body of Christ, which is to be thoroughly a beacon of Christ's love and an every-member function priesthood.

pages 99-100: Viola makes another insightful observation in noting that so many of the sermons we listen to offer little more than moral or ethical advice. Conversely, when the apostles and their peers preached the gospel to nonbelievers, Christ was the centre and focus of the revelation. It was not a school of thought, a body of doctrine, or even the Bible, which didn't yet exist, that they presented; it was Jesus. No more, no less. (How could there be more than Jesus?) In fact, 1 John 2:27 says that we need no teacher other than the Holy Spirit. This is not to suggest that some of us aren't called to expound on the biblical texts to help people in their walk, but that the way of life that we are to live should not require a weekly sermon. I am forced to agree with this.

Why would so many pastors and believers cringe at what I just said? Two reasons: 1) a lack of faith on their own part in God's ability to do this; 2) the fact that they have not experienced it themselves. Everything about our society distracts from Christ. It makes perfect, logical sense that we should feel a dependency toward our spiritual leaders. Unfortunately, God is not concerned with the wisdom of this world; nay, He promises to reduce it to utter foolishness. "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Cor. 1:20) With all respect to some of the senior members of our church who think the world is going to hell at a faster pace because we no longer sing hymns or read the KJV, it is this kind of clinging to the perceived sacredness of these "objects" that is driving a wedge between themselves and God.

Now then, the several cons of the book (and perhaps I lean too heavily in this direction):

page 62: With regards to the opening pastoral prayer in Puritan churches, Viola makes a veiled comment about how they could last more than hour. Now, I want to make a few distinctions here. First, prayer is the ONLY thing I could perceive as transcending our ability to taint it. Although Viola doesn't outright condemn prayer, he owes the reader some better phrasing here. Because of the general tone of the book in its condemnation of institutionalized worship, Viola has set himself up in such a way that places prayer in a predisposed bad light. I doubt this was his intention, but it certainly feels that way when you first read the way he criticizes extended prayer sessions.

page 64: The same applies to the treatment of Sunday evening worship services. They absolutely cannot be, of themselves, inherently bad. Viola even makes mention of the fact they are generally poorly attended. So what? If people want to demonstrate their commitment to God by congregating for a second time within a calendar day, I can't find fault in it. Furthermore, my experience has been that evening service is a lot more meaty than the seeker-friendly tone of morning service.

page 71, note 146: Viola makes an absurd point about how the church isn't called to make disciples of the whole world in one generation. In other words, Christ is okay with letting some people die, as long as we remain focused in our effort to eventually get around to evangelizing the whole world. I don't know where to begin with this one. I have to believe that, if we still did church the way Paul did, that our examplary behaviour would inflect the kind of "good infection" C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, which, in a nutshell, refers to the peace and love that oozes through our pores because of our relationship with Christ. If this were to spread exponentially, we could certainly bring the whole world to salvation in less than a generation. Also, Paul prayed tearfully for those whom he hadn't met yet, and I have to believe that the closer one becomes to Christ, the more one's heart bleeds for the unsaved. Viola's point here is a stinking pile of cow dung. If I must appeal to Scripture, Matthew 28 seems like a good place to start.

page 91: I'm nitpicking here, but Viola equates the Sophists of 5th Century B.C. Greece with paganism. This is wrong on two levels. First, the sophists were wandering teachers for hire who specialized in the art of rhetoric. They were hired by high society Greeks to train their sons in the art of persuasion, in preparation for success in public life. They were markedly unreligious, as A.H. Armstrong indicates in his book An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy. A few points regarding our semantic use of the word "pagan." In olden times, it referred, simply, to rural life as distinct from urban life. Hence, we find that Olympian worship and philosophical systems (such as Plato and Aristotle's) were practiced in the city-states, whereas mystery cults and heathen practices were prominent in the rural, less populated areas of ancient Greece and her neighbours. We have, over time, changed the definition of pagan and given it a connotation of heathenism. Ironically, the Sophists, who gravitated toward the city-states, were neither pagan in the rural sense, nor in the mystery cult sense.

pages 92-93: Viola asserts that because of the institutionalization of church, non-trained Christians were denied the right to speak to God's people. There is a problem with such a statement. Why does Viola use what he considers a bastardized form of church as the referent? His argument, unlike his thesis, conforms to the congregational worship style, when the fact is that organic Christianity was not limited to the organic church setting, but involved an entire way of life. If Christianity proper existed prior to the contamination described herein, those who preached and lived it purely had only to continue along their then current path. Where is the documentation that describes their persecution? Where and when did they knock heads with the Romanized church of Constantine and the church fathers as described in the patristic writings? This places too much emphasis on evangelism and meeting together and not enough on the entire Christian life.

That's it for now. I will proofread this all later, as my sister is visiting from Toronto and I want to share in her company. Neither did I want to neglect these points for too long. I am about midway through the book, FYI.


Blogger Jilliefl1 said...

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 Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://www.frankviola.wordpress.com. Also, have you seen the spoof video for "Pagan"? Very funny. Check it out at http://youtube.com/watch?v=hslswIal9u4.

20/9/08 17:36  

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