Today we wrap up “Pagan Week” which was held over from last week for the extended conversation I’ve been having with Frank Viola, talking about Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices and many of the subjects it raises. This all follows my own review of the book which ran all of last week. If you’re just tuning in you might want to catch up on part one and part two of the interview; if you’ve been following along, you’ll recall that we’re all sitting around a table in your favorite independent local coffee shop, and have just poured coffee refills as we talked about discerning whether a practice’s origins were good, bad, neutral, or redeemable. As before, Frank and I will converse for a bit an then you’ll get your comments in — as this is the wrapup, feel free to bring up anything we’ve hit in the conversation or in my review so far… I can’t drink too many of those carmel lattes in one sitting, but I’m always happy to hang around and pour another cup of medium roast fair trade coffee. So, back to the conversation.
Bro.M. Where does contextualization of the gospel and the expression of church fit in? You mention in the book that church meetings in the first century embodied their culture, while those from later times drew from their culture and you labeled it as being of pagan origin. What’s the difference?
Frank: Great question — this is a large topic. In short, when we look at the New Testament and we read about the church of Century One, we can draw a distinction between two kinds of practices: Cultural practices and Organic practices.
Cultural practices would be those practices that are tied to first-century culture. For instance, the Gentile believers spoke Greek, they didn’t have Bibles, they met early in the morning so that the slaves could gather before work, they used torches to light up the rooms when they met in the evenings or early mornings, etc.
Organic practices are those practices that are tied to the DNA of the church. They embody the theology of the New Testament (e.g., the priesthood of all believers, the church as family, etc.), and they express the visible image of the invisible God (the Trinitarian Community). When we say “first-century practices” we are often using that as a synonym for “the organic expression of the church.” These practices are built upon the spiritual principles that transcend time and culture. Some examples are the every-member functioning of the Body, the oneness of the Body, authentic community, the headship of Jesus Christ, every member is a minister and a priest, etc.
We are essentially arguing that many of the practices that make up the modern, institutional church were borrowed from Greco-Roman culture. We argue that they not only have no root in New Testament principles, but in many cases, they actually violate the DNA of the church. They run contrary to the organic expression of the Body of Christ. Not to mention that they are outdated for our time — since many of them date back to the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. A perfect example is the clergy/laity class distinction, and its cousin, the secular/spiritual dichotomy. In the book we trace these disconnects historically and show that they have pagan roots. But we go further. We show how and when these dichotomies infiltrated the church. Finally, we show how they do not square with the organic nature of the church, violate New Testament teaching, and in the end, prove harmful to the Body of Christ.
In short, those practices of the first-century church that are reflections of the DNA of the church, express its organic nature, embody New Testament theology, and spring out of the life of the Triune God ought not to be ignored or over-contextualized to the point that they disappear. It’s interesting to me that some people wave the “contextualization” flag when it is convenient for them to ignore a NT teaching or principle; yet these same people will wave the “we’re not being faithful to Jesus” flag when something doesn’t line up with their doctrines or practices. This often happens at an unconscious level; we’re not always in touch with it until someone points it out to us.
Richard Halverson waxed eloquent on the tendency to over-contextualize saying, “When the Greeks got the gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got it, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business.” F.F. Bruce did the same when he wrote,
The restatement of the gospel in a new idiom is necessary in every generation — as necessary as its translation into new languages. [But] In too much that passes for restatement of the gospel, the gospel itself disappears, and the resultant product is what Paul would have called ‘another gospel which in fact is no gospel at all’ (Gal. 1:6f.). When the Christian message is so thoroughly accommodated to the prevalent climate of opinion that it becomes one more expression of that climate of opinion, it is no longer the Christian message.
The following can be said using Bruce’s penetrating observation: “When the church is so thoroughly accommodated to the prevalent climate of opinion that it becomes one more expression of that climate of opinion, it is no longer the church as God envisioned her to be.”
In George’s introduction on page xxix, I added the following words to distinguish between organic practices and cultural practices: “Therefore, adhering to the principles of the New Testament does not mean reenacting the events of the first-century church. If so, we would have to dress like all first-century believers did, in sandals and togas!” In the next volume, I plan to discuss the whole issue of contextualization in more detail.
Incidentally, when we speak of the early church in reference to its organic expression, we’re not talking about the various problems that some Christians had in the early churches (as in the church in Corinth). We are not saying, “let’s get drunk at the Lord’s Supper.” We are rather speaking of the leadership structure of the church and the way the Christians gathered. They were face-to-face, organic, non-authoritarian, non-hierarchical, non-institutional, Christ-centered communities that purposed to express the Lord Jesus in their locales. Such churches will always have problems… then and now. But those problems don’t have to change the design of the church.
Bro.M. I think that’s an important distinction… we don’t want to romanticize the first-century church too much and miss its faults. If it weren’t for some of those faults, we’d be missing out on some valuable parts of the New Testament! So shifting gears a bit and picking up on the earlier mention of apostles, there was another point that might not have been clear in the book. Do only apostles preach? And then only gospel-invitational messages? “Apostles” are becoming a current topic again — can you comment more on how you see the role of the apostle?
Frank: I believe that the apostolic ministry is essentially a community-founding ministry. Apostles are called, trained and sent to plant the ekklesia. They lay the foundation of Jesus Christ among a group of people. They equip, train, and then leave the church on its own under the headship of Jesus. This principle is best seen in the ministry of Paul. But it’s also seen in the ministry of the other apostles as well, including Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, etc. (all of whom are called “apostles” in the NT).
I believe the principle of apostolic ministry can be traced back to the Triune God. At bottom, God purposed to expand the fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit to human beings. That’s apostolic ministry at its root. Its goal is to establish visible communities on earth that reflect the Trinitarian Community in the heavens. I believe this ministry is part of the church’s DNA — her organic nature. All the gifts and ministries mentioned in the New Testament are like the natural features on a human body. They organically emerge just as eyebrows and fingernails organically develop on a baby — just as long as the child is cared for properly.
No, apostles aren’t the only ones who preach. Evangelists and prophets also preach. I’ve also seen new Christians preach who were fired up for Jesus Christ. “All can prophesy,” as Paul writes. But that doesn’t make all prophets. Apostles preach; but preaching doesn’t make one an apostle. “Pagan Christianity” uncovers the modern sermon, tracing its roots and challenging its effectiveness. As we state in the book, the sermon is not the equivalent of preaching and teaching. The sermon, as we define it, is basically a particular form of speaking that’s given by the same person (who is usually paid) to the same passive audience week after week, year after year, without end. That’s what we’re challenging in the book on biblical grounds, historical grounds, and spiritual/pragmatic grounds.
Bro.M. Makes sense. Now, you mention in chapter 11 that the Great Commission is actually a prophecy, not a command. What does this mean for how we have viewed those passages in the past and how we should deal with them now?
Frank: There are a number of scholars who point this out from the Greek. If you read Wuest, for example, in his translation of the Bible, in all three places where “the commission” appears, it’s not a command but a prophecy.
That simply tells me that the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the making of disciples is an organic thing. It’s not a legal duty or religious obligation. You will never find any apostle in the NT telling God’s people to go out and witness or evangelize. It’s what she, the church, does when she’s given Christ to be her life, her food, her drink, her air, and her light — all the things that Jesus said He was in the book of John. When the church lives by Christ, she makes disciples. I’m of the opinion that many Christians have never been taught how to live by an indwelling Lord. We are so often taught “follow Jesus”, “do what He did,” but we somehow neglect to ask the question: “How did Jesus live the Christian life?” “What was the engine that drove His life; what was the energy and force behind His behavior?”
I believe that’s a critical question. If we read the Gospels with an eye to discovering an answer, we will be amazed to find how often He speaks of an internal relationship with an indwelling God. Jesus lived by an indwelling Father. He made it clear that He could do nothing without His Father (John 5). He then turned around and said to us that we can do nothing without Him (John 15). Since Pentecost, the passage has moved from Jesus to the church. What God the Father was to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is to us. He’s our indwelling Lord. We live by Him. That’s not an individual pursuit (as Protestantism has emphasized); it’s a corporate journey and a corporate experience. “Christ our life” is a major theme of the New Testament. Yet so many of us have seemed to miss this. I know I did for a long time.
Bro.M. I understand you’ve got another book coming out later this year. What can you tell me about that one? Is it an extension of the themes you’ve introduced in Pagan Christianity, or are you moving on to other topics?
Frank: Yes, I do. Three more books will follow “Pagan Christianity.” They will attempt to answer the major questions that readers have been asking after reading “Pagan,” such as:
- Is the church really a spiritual organism or is it a human institution?
- If it’s an organism, what does that mean practically? Is that just a theory, a doctrine, a theology or does it have practical implications?
- What can we learn from the first century church, if anything?
- What is normative vs. descriptive in the NT church? And how do we determine the difference?
- Does the NT give us any clear guidance on church life and practice? If so, what and how can we discover it?
- What is organic church life and how does it express itself today?
- How are organic churches planted?
- Where can I find an organic expression of the church?
- Can the institutional church be renovated? If so, how? If not, why not?
- If I’m a leader in a traditional church and I agree with your main points, what are my alternatives?
- And many more…
Note that “Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be an isolated book that answers all questions. It is meant to be a polemic, a deconstructive work that leaves readers time and space to absorb and grapple with a simple question: Is it possible that many of our staple church practices do not reflect God’s original intention for His church? There’s a lot of language among the OT prophets about “breaking up, tearing down, rooting out” before there can be a “building new, planting new, and starting new.” “Pagan Christianity” can be viewed as a sledge hammer to help break up, tear down, and root out, while the other books in the series can be viewed as a stab at planting new seed and laying a new foundation. By the way, Tyndale has just released a helpful discussion guide that goes along with “Pagan Christianity.” It can be downloaded freely at paganchristianity.org.
I really appreciate this opportunity, Brother Maynard. I’m honored by it. Can I ask a question of you now… what’s your real name??
Bro.M. *cough* Oh, my, look at the time! Thanks again for the interview, Frank — sorry, gotta run! ;^)
Really, I was just kidding on that last part — Frank has my real name, but he’s been sworn to secrecy! So this wraps up the intervew and the end of “Pagan Week — Held Over.” Any comments on contextualization? What observations can we make now that we’re wrapping up? As I suggested earlier, does the conversation with Frank portray something that comes across a bit differently than the book does? Has the conversation been helpful?