Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices
by Frank Viola and George Barna
Speak of the paganisation of Christianity to most Christadelphians and their minds are almost certain to go to Easter and Christmas and the claims that they have pagan origins. Some might even be quick to point out that ecclesiastical vestments, adoration of saints, feast days and other elements of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity also have their roots in paganism.
This book however provides startling evidence that most of what Christians do in present-day churches is not rooted in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles. Christadelphians will almost certainly be shocked to discover that many of their regular practices had their origins well after the first century. What they cherish as a return to first century Christianity is in fact the accumulation of traditions which have little or nothing to do with apostolic practices.
The authors provide ample evidence that first century Christians met in homes and shared a common meal together. Their meetings were informal and everyone actively participated. Formal structured meetings, buildings specifically for church/ecclesial meetings, a 'sermon' or 'exhortation', even sitting in rows of chairs which all face the front where the 'action' takes place on the 'platform', are all practices which developed much later in Christian history. In fact, the shift from house-based informal meetings around a meal to formal meetings in a special building with a structured 'order of service' took place after the Council of Nicea. Ironically, the same church council which gave us the doctrine of the Trinity also gave us the framework for the modern Christadelphian memorial meeting!
Many ecclesial practices which Christadelphians assume are a 'restoration of first century Christianity' actually have little or no basis in Scripture. The authors of this book provide numerous examples of traditions and practices which originated much later, including the following:
- the earliest believers were baptised immediately after conversion. The practice of 'preparing' people for baptism by teaching them the 'doctrines of the church' began much later.
- the 'sermon' or exhortation is a relatively modern invention. We learn from 1 Corinthians that when the early church came together "everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation ... for the strengthening of the church" (1 Corinthians 14:26). The practice of only one person (always a man) addressing the church/ekklesia began well after the development of a professional clergy and largely as a result of doctrinal conflict (so that the priest/bishop/pastor could indoctrinate the church in orthodoxy, or 'correct doctrine').
- the practice of passing out the 'emblems' as tiny glasses of wine and a morsel of bread began with English Methodism. The earliest church celebrated 'communion' as a full meal, of which bread and wine was only a part. Everyone participated, including unbaptised children.
- 'dressing up' for church/meetings is a Victorian tradition. For centuries Christians wore their everyday clothes to church. There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for the practice of wearing ones 'Sunday best'.
- appointing or electing some brethren to leadership or management positions has no Biblical basis. The first Christians recognised people's gifts and acknowledged mature Christians as 'elders', but no one was given any special authority to 'rule' or 'manage' the church/ekklesia. Christadelphian 'Arranging/Managing Brethren' are simply a variation of the pagan practices which produced a professional 'clergy'.
I recommend this book to anyone who is serious about examining the practices of the first century Christians. You will certainly find it challenging in places. You may still wish to hold on to cherished traditions, but will have to confess that they are just that - traditions - and have no Biblical basis. I doubt very much that after reading this book anyone will continue to claim that Christadelphian meetings and structures are a 'restoration of first century Christianity'.
But this book is not primarily about tearing down cherished traditions. It provides valuable insights into the beliefs and practices of the first communities of Christians and is a useful resource for anyone wanting to know what church/ekklesia meant to the earliest disciples. It encourages a return to the simplicity of New Testament Christianity and to a fully functioning body in which all believers play an active role.