Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: Viola & Barna, Pagan Christianity

314853: Pagan Christianity! Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices Pagan Christianity! Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices

By Frank Viola & George Barna / Barna Books

Many Christians take for granted that their Sunday morning worship service is rooted in the New Testament, but why does the church in the New Testament seem very different from our own expressions of corporate worship? Frank Viola and George Barna come to the startling conclusion that most of what Christians do in church is rooted more in pagan culture than in the New Testament.

Discover how many church customs really originated. This thought-provoking exploration into the background of how believers have worshiped for centuries uncovers many non-Christian roots. From the order of worship to the pastor's sermon, traditional dress codes to Christian education, Viola and Barna take a revealing look at Sunday morning. 304 pages, hardcover from Barna Books.

Frank Viola is an influential voice in the contemporary house church movement. Frank is a nationally recognized expert on new trends in the church, holds conferences on the deeper Christian life, and is actively engaged in planting New Testament style churches.

George Barna is the chairman of Good News Holdings, a multimedia firm in Los Angeles that produces Movies, television programming, and other media content. He is also the founder and directing leader of the Barna Group, a research and resource firm in Ventura California. He has been hailed as "the most often quoted person in the Christian Church today" and is counted among its most influential leaders.


This is one of those books that leave me with mixed feelings. The authors correctly point out a number of examples where traditionalism, structuralism, and misuse of authority are undermining to the ministry of the Church. They rightfully identify numerous biblical teachings such as a plurality of elders, congregational participation in ministry, and an emphasis on the edification of the body that are sadly neglected in many churches. On the other hand the book is written in an unnecessarily provocative style and many of the conclusions drawn from historical analysis are somewhat ill supported. The authors make some good points but also border on throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is therefore a bit difficult for me to settle on any unified opinion of the book.

The Good

This book points out many important elements of biblical ecclesiology that are either neglected or subverted in modern fellowships. They rightfully highlight the harmful and counterproductive nature of the pastor as C.E.O model and the unbiblical distinction between clergy and laity that exists even in many churches that are doctrinally opposed to the concept. They show how various organizational and architectural structures can reinforce, almost subconsciously, unbiblical views of the Church and the function of its ministry. They rightfully emphasize the necessity of servant leadership and mutual participation in worship, teaching, and fellowship contexts.

The Bad

The book is an apologetic for a particular ministry philosophy and there is no biblical justification made for that philosophy (perhaps that is in the follow up book). There is virtually no exegetical work in the book to demonstrate, from the biblical text, why these various developments in the history of the church are anti-biblical (which is more important than if they are unbiblical). The interpretive perspectives on the scriptures that are presented are simply assumed. The book is filled with footnotes to support its argument; however, many of those are references to other works by the author. The historical research is heavily dependant upon the work of Will and Ariel Durant who are not specialists in church history and wrote primarily for a public audience. Unfortunately, more substantial historical works by those who are specialists are neglected. Much of the historical analysis leaps from the assertion of certain facts to interpretations that are arguable and seem in many cases to be oversimplifications. In fairness to the authors, the book is intended for the layman rather than for historians but that hardly justifies superficial historical support considering the scope laid out in the introduction and implied by the title.


The book raises important issues that should be honestly considered by Christians. We should constantly be examining our practices in light of the scriptures. I particularly encourage those who are pastors, elders, or leaders to read the book and to examine their ministries with regard to the criticisms that are raised. On the other hand, I do not believe that the appropriate response to those criticisms is necessarily the remedy that they suggest. There are other important theological (and historical) considerations that are not addressed. It is a good book to generate discussion as long the reader understands that there are other perspectives. Had the book been written with more strongly argued historical analysis and a less polemical tone it would have been more valuable, but it is still worth a read.

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