I had been hearing about the idea that the current institutionalized form of the church is not the biblical form for a year or two. I tend to be very skeptical whenever anyone says “the way we are doing things now is totally wrong” (in any sphere, not just religion), but when I learned that Pagan Christianity was co-written by the same guy who did the oft-quoted Barna Group research, I figured that the book might be worth reading.

According to Viola, the Christians of the first century met in homes, with groups that had no fixed order of service, but where every member used their spiritual gifts, and while there was no planned order, there was an emergent order in what people shared/sang/prayed/read that was clearly the work of the Holy Spirit. Communion took the form of a communal meal. The house churches were themselves established by iterinerate apostles, who established the church and then left it alone for long periods of time, returning periodically to check in and shepherd the churches.

Although the Apostle Paul had instructed Timothy about elders, presbyters, and bishops, in linguistic usage that makes them equivalent, by as early as the second century Ignatius of Antioch instituted a pattern in his churches where one of the bishops/elders/presbyters in the group was given higher authority than the others. By the third century this had spread to all the churches, marking the evolutionary beginning of the pastor.

Constantine created substantial changes when he made Christianity the State religion in the fourth century, and Viola attributes most of the pagan influence to him. He instituted a hierarchical structure that both function as and was modelled after the Roman judicial system. So the bishops where given charge of spiritual matters on a provincial level, and it trickled down to the individual priests in their parishes. Constantine was arguably still pagan, retaining the pagan title Ponifex Maximus (Chief Priest) until his death. Since he was Christian, Christianity received many of the benefits that paganism had previously received: exemption from taxes, a salaried clergy, and public financing for magnificent temples (usually called basicalicas, since they were modelled after the judical buildings). The Emperor needed approriate ceremony, so the service took on the form of an imperial judical court, with the fancy costumes of the Roman judiciary, a processional, choirs from the imperial ceremonies, candles, and a bishop’s (judge’s) throne in the center of a raised platform.

Since this was effectively a Christian temple, practices from pagan temples were imported, most notably priests, sacrifices, incense, and the sacred/secular divide. The temple became the sacred space, along with sacred priests (and vestal virgins! [i.e. nuns]). Temples have sacrifices, and the Christian temple had the Communion service, which changed from a communal meal celebrated by the corporate body of Christ into a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrifice. Importing some ideas from the mystery religions, the priest held up the bread and wine, whereupon it was magically transmuted into the very body and blood of Jesus, and was placed upon the altar to complete the sacrifice. The congregation became a spectator, and in fact, holding a love feast was actually forbidden in the eighth century.

As time continued, many well-educated pagans became Christians, many of whom turned into church fathers. They took with them Greek thought in which they were eductated: the idea that knowledge itself is virtue, Aristotelean propositional thought (by Thomas Aquinas), and powerful rhetoric (Augustine and Chrysostom). In fact, Chrysostom was trained in rhetoric by a Sophist. The Sophists where masters of the art of swaying men’s minds by the power of the tongue. They made a living selling rhetorical performances and selling training in the art of rhetoric. Their speeches, mostly aimed to glorify the speaker, and when imported into Christianity became the precursor of the modern sermon.

Aristotle and Plato helped shape the medieval thinking of the church. Each bishop was required to keep a school to train clergy (and others), teaching church doctrine as well as Aristotle. The Platonic ideas of the sacredness of light and space and form created the Gothic cathedral, whose heights reached up into heaven, whose large space was filled with colored light filtering through stained glass windows, creating a visibly sacred space. Medieval thinking contributed the idea that one should be sombre in church, as they felt that piety expressed itself in appropriate solemnity.

At this point Christian expression of worship was a solemn, spectator affair where the laity gathered in a Greek-style sacred space called “church,” derived from a Roman judical ceremony where a professional priest re-enacted a mystical sacrifice. This is a far cry from the New Testament view that the believer is the living temple of the Holy Spirit, where everyone is an equal member of the body of Christ, with unplanned services where every member spontaneously expressing their spiritual gifts at appropriate times in the service according to the moving of the Holy Spirit, joyfully celebrating the love and resurrection of Christ with a communal meal.

The Reformation restored some element of participation in the service with congregational singing, which allowed the people some participation in worshipping God. The re-enactment of the sacrifice was removed and communion was also returned to full congregational participation. As the Reformation continued, communion became secondary to teaching, and the sermon took the primary place. This came to America via the Puritans, who had long expositional sermons. The Puritans also introduced a legalistic attitude (such as guilt over missing a church service) and a lengthy pastoral prayer before the sermon, which is still sometimes prayed in the same Elizabethan English.

America has had a history of itinerate evangelists and revival services, which has also influenced modern church. The seventeenth century revivalists were the genesis of the idea that the goal of preaching is to win souls (instead of, say, to prepare the congregation for every good work). In the nineteenth century, Charles Finney popularized the Methodist altar call; D.L. Moody contributed door-to-door evangelism, the singing of a salvation hymn by a soloist, and the decision card; and John Mott popularized the idea of evangelizing the world in one generation. Billy Graham introduced the practice of raising one’s hand to receive Christ “with every eye closed and every head bowed.” Finally, Calvary Chapel reshaped the rock concert into a worship team during the 1960s as an evangelistic tool.

So the present state of affairs is that every Sunday a professional clergy conducts a tightly controlled the meeting (to ensure correct doctrine), with an order of service little changed from the Reformation, often sitting in the front in what was originally the bishop’s throne, preaching a Greek-inspired monologue at a pulpit (where the Greek rhetoricists gave their speech), dressed in a black suit descended from the black scholar’s gown which had replaced the Roman judical vestments by the Reformers. Before or after the service is a Sunday school, originally classes to educate street orphans who would not have been able to take Monday through Friday off of finding food to attend public school. When the social class called “teenagers” was created in the 1960s, a need for “youth pastors” arose. The professionals (pastor, youth pastor, worship leader), and the sacred space that has replaced the individual Christian as the house of God, are funded by a 10% tithe. This optional-but-required tithe was actually not instituted until the eighth century and was 10% because that was the Roman amount of land-rent, so when the church became land-owners, the rent went to them. Now, it primarily funds the building and the pastors salaries, with little left over to help the poor.

Viola and Barna raise some very salient points in their analysis of current church culture. Biblically, the church is the body of believers not a building (you can’t "go to church,” you can only be part of the church), thus there is no such thing as a sacred space. In fact, the sacred and the secular have been combined: Paul commands us to work as if the Lord is our boss. The sacred ceremony of communion that we have inherited has little resemblance to the communal, celebratory love feast described in the New Testament. There is no laity/clergy of sacred professionals split, as we are all the priesthood of believers. He does have a good point that the congregation is passive by the very design of the building—pews for observers and a raised platform for the performance—as well as the fact that the service leaves no room for the leading of the Holy Spirit, since there is already a leader. True, the leader could himself be led by the Spirit (rare), but the congregation can only express the Holy Spirit’s leading as much as the leader does; if the Holy Spirit gives an individual believer a song, a message, or an impression of need for timely, specific ministry there is no way for them to express it. This is all funded by a tithe, which in the New Testament was strictly voluntary, and which Paul even refused to burden the churches with, preferring to work professionally to earn a living as a model for the new believers. The Bible talks a lot about caring for the poor, the widows, and the orphans, but nothing about funding pastors salaries or large buildings.

However, I take issue with their assertion that the New Testament expression of Christianity is a) necessarily normative for today, and b) is only consistent with spontaneous, leaderless (well, Holy Spirit led) gatherings. I agree that a lot of the modern church service has roots in Roman culture, but I think that God is quite ok with a variety of expressions of worship, and if you think that a processional in formal garb honors the Lord as King, I think we have the freedom in Christ to worship that way. Martin Luther turned a lot of bar songs into hymns, and nobody has a problem with that... I think that the authors probably have a similar opinion, qualified with the fact that pagan practices are sometimes diametrically opposed to Christian thought (e.g. the concept of “sacred”), so some practices would not be acceptable.

A more serious critique of the New Testament expression being normative for today is that all cultures change over time. I find it hard to believe that the worship service will remain the same unchanging New Testament expression over the unending years we have in the New Jerusalem, or even that the worship service of New Jersualem Year 100 will be the same as NJ Year 1. God seems unendingly creative; I think that even He might get bored of the same thing for 100 years, let alone 10 trillion years... Secondly, humans consistently organize themselves into large groups, which necessitates a hierarchy. This is probably not a result of the Fall: the Bible seems to describe a hierarchy of angels, which would indicate that hierarchy is actually God-designed. People like being part of a large group of people, as long as it remains personal. Hierarchy is God-designed, it is faceless bureacracy that is from the Fall. I feel like home-sized fellowships of 20-30 is actually a little bit of an unstable size; it is too large for intimate communication, but small to have provide a deep pool for potential relationships. I suspect there is a natural tendency for groups to combine up to about 100-200 people, at which point it becomes maintain connections with everyone. Finally, I just don’t see a loose network of extended-family-sized groups shephered by an itinerate apostle as sustainable over a timescale of centuries. In fact, the New Testament church itself change from meeting in the temple courts daily with all things in common to a more house church model. What happens when Christianity saturates the population, such that all the people that are likely to convert have already converted? Does the itinerate apostle just keep going to the same groups over and over? Wouldn’t that be very similar to a pastor? In fact, if the local population is saturated, there is likely to be little turnover of people in the groups (especially in ancient society where most people did not stray far from home). If the occassional birth/death/conversion is the only change in the group, Viola’s view of church looks rather stagnant. I guess if it is truly Spirit-led, some solution would be forthcoming, but I think it would look different than a strict “New Testament” church.

It is also unclear to me whether the form of church Viola describes is the only form that is consistent with New Testament values. One of his important values is that it is lead by the Holy Spirit and that every member participates. However, the New Testament describes a variety of meetings: 3000 believers meeting in the temple courts daily, communal meals, and even meetings where Paul monologued a young man to death and had to resurrect him. Peter and the other apostles apparently had a “ministry of the word” in Acts 6, which could only have been done in large groups due to the lack of mass media, and he certainly couldn’t have gone to hundreds of house churches. There is also no suggestion that there was any sort of itinerate apostleship in the church in Jerusalem. Since the New Testament gives at least one alternative expression of Christian life in the Jerusalem church, which did not appear to exhibit house churches and spontaneous, Spirit-led gatherings (Peter actually strikes me as rather pastor-like in the first few chapters of Acts, but perhaps without the control tendencies), it seems likely that there are other expressions of Christian life consistent with New Testament values than the one Viola prefers. So while his expression seems more New Testament than the typical evangelical or mainline church in the U.S., I think he overstates his case. But, according to his blog, Pagan Christianity is meant to be read along with Re-imagining Church, so maybe he presents alternative forms there.

While I think that Viola has a bit of tunnel vision regarding the expression of New Testament values, he does provide a very thorough summary of how the church has taken on the form it has today. The Catholic Mass makes so much more sense as an adopted pagan sacrifice ritual, and it is interesting to learn the evolution of the high-church ceremony. My baptist church that I grew up in would probably be horrified to learn that the chairs in the front where the pastor and emcee sat were descended from the Roman judiciary seated in the front with the bishop in his throne! But even if light and colors being sacred is a Platonic thought, God does describe Himself as light, and I fully expect Gothic cathedrals to have a place in the New Jerusalem.

Viola succeeds in his stated mission of collecting the derivation of the modern Christian expression into one convenient book. He is pretty thorough, and provides a huge number of references (in fact, about 10% of the text is footnotes). I do wish he would go into a little more detail in places; many times he merely makes an assertion and provides a source. However, the effect is very convincing, and I feel like I understand the modern church a lot better, and I also understand better why I have so often been, frankly, bored by the modern Christian expression (but often unable to admit it to myself). I also feel like the book is a helpful service to the Christian community in pointing out many places where we have undeniably strayed from New Testament Christian values. If you struggle with feeling that church is somehow maybe not working right, this book will give some concrete explanations. Whether we must re-imagine church as a house church or whether it might express itself in different, equal valid forms remains to be seen, but I look forward to the sequel.
Review: 8
Thorough working through of church history. Good information for any Christian, and I would recommend it to anyone who is secure in their faith. If you have sacred cows, you may be find your world rocked. My main complaint is that he seems quite anti-institutional church (for valid reasons) but offers little to replace it, except a model that few people have heard of that is offered with little validation. Perhaps that validation is in the sequel, but if so, maybe there should be a large warning on part one that says “only read in cooperation with part two.”