Pagan Christianity? - A Response & Review
By Keith Malcomson
A response in articles to the teachings of Gene Edwards, Frank Viola, George Barna, the House Church Movement, the Organic Church Movement and the Simple Church Movement - and such like. Please note that I am not against the practice of gathering in homes, or of challenging anything that is contrary to Scripture.
Although many think the resurgence in house-churches is a new thing, lost in the 4th century but rediscovered in the late 20th century, this is far from true. For those well read in church history it is well known that the home has frequently been the residence of the church in a variety of movements in different countries and generations. Even in my great-grandmothers day, who was a staunch Presbyterian, the fellowship of believers in the home was vital and effectual in spiritual life to the local church. I once met a very elderly lady who was saved in one of these house meetings through the influence of my great grandmother.
What is so very sad at this present time in the house church movement (otherwise known as the organic church movement or simple church movement) of our day is that many leave the existing denominations and structures in search of a more spiritual natural way of “doing” Church only to end up in a quack mire worse than what they left. There can be no doubt that there is indeed much wrong with what is called “church” in this generation, but we also read of such problems in those churches planted by the first apostles within the first century. Just as they presented to the church in their day the pure vision of a New Testament church as the body of Christ so we also must hold fast to this heavenly vision and proclaim it in calling this generation back to the simplicity, purity, passion and power of that church.
I think any movement which actually builds upon and makes itself a name primarily by the fact of pointing out what is wrong is heading for trouble. Although there is much talk amongst the leading writers of this movement concerning deep intimate fellowship with Christ, His headship in the local gathering of believers and of His eternal purpose in Christ, these are most certainly not the central points on which many people are exiting religious systems to gather in homes.
I have watched this movement for 15 years and read a number of their works. Although I could speak highly of some of the material produced I must say I have watched the gradual rise of certain teachings which I consider to be leaven, heretical and dangerous to the local gathering of believers and I believe that they will shortly take their teachings to their natural conclusion in a way that will shipwreck a great many genuine seekers. If we study past movements we will see this time and time again. Genuine believers leave the religious system inspired by a dynamic voice for the high pastures of the New Testament Church only to die in a wilderness through disillusionment. Of course on the other hand multitudes play it safe and stay in a system of religion where they die under leadership that cares more for the organisation and security of the system than the souls of the sheep.
The highly acclaimed book Pagan Christianity? was written by Frank Viola and co-authored by George Barna. It carries the sub-title of Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. What I have noticed being introduced subtly but not explicitly in earlier works by author Gene Edwards is here coming to fruition. Tyndale House published this book but they make clear in the preface that although they believe that many of the questions raised are important and that much of what is taught in it is true they “do not necessarily agree with all the authors’ positions…”
Viola’s own website informs us that when it was released in January 2008 it literally “rocked the Christian world.” This book is hailed as ground breaking, unique and a paradigm shifter. On the back cover they claim that “Viola proves his point by documenting every claim he makes.” On page 7 they claim that in this book you will be “confronted by unmovable historical fact.”
Although this is called a unique, revolutionary study and strongly implies that no one before has seen these things with such clarity, actually a believer who is well read in church history and the writings of great men of God down over the years will know that a number of historical points made in Pagan Christianity are in fact a simple compact presentation of material already comprehensively dealt with by many other authors. I must say that their are sections of this book which are pure historic fact which most true believers would have no problem with. But within all this material are certain seeds which are not only biblically incorrect but very dangerous.
These hidden seeds are as dangerous as any of the man-made traditions which are exposed by this book and its authors. It is not historic facts presented by the authors that I have a problem with. Neither is it the fact of challenging established tradition amongst genuine believers which cannot be found in scripture. Instead it is the promotion by Viola and Barna of their unique views which do not line up with true church history or the written Scriptures.
1. Church Buildings
Did the early church only and exclusively meet in homes for their normal and main meetings, and if so are we then obligated to do likewise? Is the building the church meets in vital to its whole character and atmosphere? Must the gathered believers face each other in a small environment in order to allow a manifestation of the Headship of Christ? These and other questions will be answered.
2. Lord’s Supper – Breaking of Bread – Communion
Is it true that the Lord's Supper as seen in Scripture was always in the context of a full meal? Does removing the bread and cup as a remembrance of Christs death from the context of a full meal turn in into a strange pagan-like rite? Are Frank Viola and George Barna calling us to return to the correct New Testament practice of the Supper, or are they moulding it to their own thoughts, opinions, and preferences by creating their own new tradition?
3. The Sermon: Preaching & Teaching
Is the typical practice of regular preaching and teaching of sermons in the normal church gathering a tradition of man or the pattern of the New Testament? Did the Puritan's get it wrong and Viola get it right? Is eager listening to preaching and teaching really a passive act of bored saints or the normal response of true believers? Was Biblical teaching a two-way dialogue or a one-way oratory? Does Scripture reveal that teaching was done by any and all or by gifted vessels chosen by God?
4. The Headship of Christ
Throughout this book the authors present themselves as the great defenders and promoters of the Headship of Christ in the local Church. But what exactly is their definition of the headship of Christ? If the Church was functioning correctly with Christ as its head what would it look like?
It has been said and alledged concerning Pagan Christianity? by its promoters that it is the most reviewed book by those who have never read it. Also Frank Viola has commented more than a few times that he is the most misqouted of persons. A number of such comments are made as a response to those who disagree with what is taught in the book. I just want to state clearly that I have read it very carefully and gone over various parts of it numbers of times. I have given clear quotes with page references and have checked the opinions of Viola which he expounds and clarifies even more-so in other books. I am in no way misrepresenting his comments or misquoting him but am testing his clear beliefs by the written Scripture and the inspired history of the Church as given by the Holy Spirit. If you have any doubts about this check for yourself. I am pretty amazed at some of the poor biblical responses from those supposedly contending against the teachings set forth in Pagan Christianity such as Ben Witherington and Mark Driscoll. This is just a sign that the Evangelical Church has generally lost the ability to think biblically or to test all teachings by God's written Word in an effective way.
Controversy is often used in God's hand to cause His people to return to His Word on bended knee and with open heart in seeking the God of Truth to open His truth to their minds and hearts. Frank Viola and George Barna have sent forth this book and a number of other books which hold teachings contrary to that held in scripture and dearly loved for 2000 years by men and woman of God. The fact that they have scattered their seed so openly and so widely knowing the effect of doing so they aught not to be surprised that those who disagree will respond by lifting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) as well as lifting their voices to warn the flock of God. It is the duty of every true preacher, shepherd and leader to do so. May the Lord establish many of you deeper in truth with a greater revelation of Jesus Christ and the fuction of His Church as you read the above response.