Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices Welcome to “Pagan Week” — this week I’m working through Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. If you want to see what you missed, you can catch up with the prolegomena and yesterday’s post, Pagan Christianity II: Buildings & What Happens Inside. Today we have our sights set on the pastoral staff, the money, and the sacraments.

Before diving in, we’re at the halfway point in my working through the book material and I want to drop a reminder not to draw conclusions until we get to the end. Although I am offering a number of concerns or highlighting my points of disagreement with the book, this is not the full story, and we’ll get there. When we do, I hope to be able to offer some thoughts on how the reactions to the book came to be so strong from some quarters, and why even some of my own objections need to be viewed this understanding as well as an appreciation of the authors’ thesis and purpose in writing. With that material covered, I’ll be able to explain to whom I will recommend the book.

7. The Pastor (Chapter Five), Costumes (Chapter Six), & Music Ministers (Chapter Seven). The book is particularly hard on the role of the pastor, and in building an argument that “not a strand of scripture supports the existence of this office” (p.141), it may not have been the best tactic to state that more biblical authority exists for the practice of snake-handling (p.108), nor that “Moses had set himself against a clerical spirit that had tried to control God’s people.” (p.109) A near-thorough trace of the practice in various religions of a mediator between God (the gods) and man somehow omits the fact that it was God who instituted the Old Testament priesthood. Not that it matters, since the New Testament fundamentally changes these mechanics, but in declaring priesthood itself a pagan idea, some explanation is warranted for its divinely-ordained practice in the Old Testament.

Some good background material follows on the practice of ordination, wrapping up by noting the failure of the reformers to go quite far enough in the recovery of the priesthood of all believers (they recovered it soteriologically but not ecclesiologicially, p.128). The book is hardest-hitting on the role of the pastor as it is commonly conceived today: “Nothing so hinders the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose as does the present-day pastoral role.” (p.137) This statement is likely to earn the authors as much rebuke as any, which is quite understandable. Attempts are made to be clear that the critique is not being made of pastors personally, rather it is against the pastoral office. Somehow the last words of Sal Tessio to Tom Hagen (Abe Vigoda to Robert Duvall in The Godfather) come to mind. “Tell Mike it wasn’t personal, just business. I always liked him.” In this case, the explanation is just as unlikely to change the assessment that’s been made, as those who operate in the pastoral gifting identify with it very closely. Indeed, Paul tells the Ephesians not that the gift is given to the body, but that the person with the gifting is given to the body. My article, “Servant Leadership & The Fivefold Ministries: Ephesians 4 Gifts Reconsidered” deals with this more fully. To be clear, I’m not suggesting Frank and George are a pair of long-lost Corleone brothers on a vendetta against pastors. Rather, the allusion is to the fact that things may not always be received as they’re intended.

The chapter argues that the term “pastor” appears only once and is at best “oblique.” Other than Ephesians 4:11, a different Greek word is used, one which means “shepherd” but is translated “pastor.” Regardless of the linguistic variation, if the terms are understood to refer to the same role, the point is moot and the argument mere semantics. The argument is made, however, that the other uses of “pastor” (aka “shepherd”) actually refer to elders or presbyters. If the two are distinct though, the explaining-away of the term in Ephesians 4:11 needs additional support even if it is hapax. In this case, the practice is so widely accepted that the burden of proof, rightly or wrongly, is effectively higher. The point that the “classic” text in Ephesians uses a different word from the remainder of the New Testament references to “pastors” is noteworthy, and some discussion is given to the more common term.

Each chapter ends with a few clarifying questions and answers, and this chapter includes a question about church planters who didn’t stay long in one place, but moved on, asking if this wasn’t because trained leaders were rare. The answer explains the motives of first-century apostolic church planters as moving on in order to allow every-member ministry, and (oddly, perhaps) cites Watchman Nee for further explanation. Since the motive is here inferred from the actions, I’m not sure a case can be made here to soundly establish the reasoning that preceded the action. Again, this is one of the issues in narrative theology… unless the motive is specifically recorded, we don’t always know why certain things were done as they were. We know that they moved on; we don’t necessarily always know the reasons.

Of course, if the role of the pastor is objectionable, then so too will be any form of garb that identifies him as such. The discussion on dressing up for church extends from there to the parishioners, so that “as with virtually every other accepted church practice, dressing up for church is the result of Christians being influenced by their surrounding culture. Today, many Christians ‘suit up’ for Sunday morning church without ever asking why. But now you know the story behind this mindless custom.” (p.148) Unfortunately, if in the culture (or subculture) in which one attends Sunday services it is common to don a suit and tie, it doesn’t help convince you to stop when you are told that what is cultural to you is in fact mindless. Here again, the question has more to do with contextualization, and the ascription of pagan practices is not generally helpful… or in my opinion, entirely pertinent. The logic behind it may be questionable, and this objection is made with some warrant… but nonetheless, if it be “done to the glory of God,” why bother to criticize? The point of the authors is, I believe, simply that the Bible doesn’t tell us to dress up for church… and though that’s obvious to some, the concept is apparently a bit jarring to others.

Music ministers are viewed as a form of clergy, and a history of church music offers the assertion that liturgical chanting is of pagan origin (p.160), as are the boys’ choir, the funeral dirge, and the practice of funeral orations (p.161-2). Aligning the choir with the clergy, the authors state, “The choir in their archaic robes were now standing with the clergy in front of the people!” (p.164). If some of the musical tunes were lifted from the surrounding (pagan) culture and sung (or chanted) with Christian lyrics, it seems to me to be the practice of contextualization. The origin has similar impact as the later practice of using drinking songs as the tune for Christian hymns… that is, the gospel is unaffected, but at least people can hum the tune.

8. Tithing (Chapter Eight) & Sacraments (Chapter Nine). The chapter on tithing is one of the stronger ones, though I found it odd that the Q&A at the end stated that itinerant apostolic ministers or church planters have a legitimate right to a paid salary (p.185). Tithing is a practice I’ve written about here before as well, challenging the practice on similar (not identical) grounds as are described in this chapter. I would have liked to see a more detailed explanation of how, why, and who has a legitimate right to a paid salary, as the note that the itinerant church planter is entitled to a salary does beg the question of where it should come from, so a further discussion of these mechanics would be warranted. The book’s purpose is not to describe these however, only to illustrate how much of what we’ve accepted as having biblical origins in fact do not.

The book argues for a closer connection between baptism and conversion, though it is not clear if the authors are arguing that conversion is incomplete without baptism. The “sinner’s prayer” and the notion of a “personal savior” are viewed as substitutions for baptism. As for the Lord’s Supper, the original context is outlined of the festive meal, and the practice of particular garments, rituals, and the recitation of common phrases is criticized as “medieval Catholicism through and through.” (p.196) It seems that the objections in this matter are quite similar to those against the liturgy or order of service.

The Didache. At this point it seems appropriate to me to raise the subject of what is in my mind a big omission, as no mention is made of the Didache (meaning “teaching”). The work purports to represent “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” and most likely dates to the late first or early second century. Considered canonical by some of the church fathers, it ultimately didn’t make the cut. The document provides general instructions to early Christian communities, and among its instructions are those concerning local and itinerant ministry and the sacraments of baptism and communion. Although the work is noncannonical, and whether or not the connection to the twelve apostles is in question, it certainly reflects practices that were common in the late first century and into or through the second century.

The Didache instructs that an itinerant apostle should not stay more than a day or two, and is not to ask for money, else he is a false prophet (11:5-6). A prophet or teacher may settle among a community, in which case the community is instructed to offer them of their firstfruits, for they “like the workman” are “worthy of his food,” and are referred to as “high priests” (13:1-7). Chapters 7-10 (the chapters are less then ten verses, some only three) offer instructions concerning baptism and communion as well as fasting and prayer. In particular, it prescribes prayers and particular words for use in the Eucharist.

Unfortunately, the Didache paints a portrait of a portion of the life of the early church that seems to differ somewhat from what Viola and Barna’s work describes. Even if it were argued that this represents the state of the church in the second and not the first century, it remains a reflection of the church prior to its institutionalization under Constantine. Clearly, the prescription of words for the Eucharist and the instructions concerning local and itinerant workers seems to contradict key points the authors are making in Pagan Christianity. The mere existence of the document does not entirely disprove their thesis ipso facto, but the failure to deal with it does undermine their argument somewhat. (In the forthcoming interview, I ask Frank why the Didache is not referred to.)

Conclusions on Pastors, Tithes, & Sacraments. As mentioned, the chapter on tithing is the strongest point of those I’ve covered here. While I sympathize with the ultimate goal of many of the other arguments made in these few chapters, they seem to overreach somewhat and some suffer from a case being not quite made, at least in my mind. As I was reading, the effect was for me somewhat cumulative, and running in the opposite direction to the cumulative effect of that of the building thesis. As a result, although I wanted to agree with much of the objective, by this point in the book I was feeling conceptually distanced from the authors and their argument. Tomorrow we’ll tackle “Pagan Christianity IV: Christian Education, the New Testament, & Pagan Conclusions.” In the meantime, there’s a lot in these sections for discussion, mainly surrounding some of the most difficult points for the institutional church to concede.

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