Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pagan Christianity

Book Review
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.


Cjlcarmody said...


I'm presuming if Christadelphia doesn't return to its true Biblical roots as you have indicated, you will no longer be part of the Christadelphian fellowship - how could you be if it doesn't uphold what you believe to be correct.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to take a look at it sometime.

Admittedly I can understand the logic behind our formal meetings in halls (imagine trying to fit a gathering the size of say, shafts or PT into a house all the time). I just wish that more people would realise that we can still do these things, especially with some of the smaller ones (though i suspect i'm cutting close to home here)

Cliff York said...

Hi Steve,

The "House Church" model has much going for it.

For a start, it can be a lot less formidable for folk who may be a bit agrophobic. Secondly, everybody has an opportunity to connect and participate... not just warm a pew, being "shiny on Sunday", and pretend to play "Happy Families" for an hour or two half way through the weekend.

Jesus seemed to be pointing to the "House Church Model" when, in feeding the 5,000 families, He sat them down in companies of 50 on the grass and had a breaking of bread with all of them... men, women, children and "the strangers in their gates".

We are finding at the meeting I support, that 50 in the "Home" on Sunday is about as big as we want to go... but don't stop coming folk... we will always find room for you at PR.

This gives a great opportunity to "seed" another House Church nearby, and help it grow to 50 and so on.

Mega Ecclesias can tend to lose their focus on what Jesus commanded us to do, and can tend to reach a point where preserving the status quo is more important than finding and implementing creative ways to reach out to the community. Of course, management becomes an issue with larger than a House Church, so the opportunity for Spiritual Abuse actually increases (perhaps even exponentially.)

The Son keeps shining in.

Cliff York said...

Hi Frist,

Why would you presume that if Christadelphia does not return to its true Biblical roots that you (Steve) will no longer be part of the Christadelphian fellowship...

I am not answering for Steve, (he can do that), but I would like to point out that I do not agree with many things that the Australian government implements... but that does not mean that I will be leaving Australia any time soon... or that I will no longer be regarding myself as an Australian... after all I am Australian both by birth and formation.

I also may not agree with much that some in Christadelphia try to pass off as "Upholding the purity of Apostolic Doctrine and Practice" (they call it ‘The Truth’ – the Bible actually calls it 'Leaven')... but that does not mean that I will be leaving Christadelphia any time soon.

God planted me into this church family 5 decades ago and He has not indicated anywhere that I should leave either Australia or my Christadelphian Church Family.

I see little point in leaving CD to “be bound” (the meaning of 'religion') to any other church/denomination anyway, because every Church Family (including CD) has some level of dysfunction, either in mis-belief or mis-practise that we must deal with. We may not be able to change it... but we can certainly be changed ourselves!

The principle of "becoming the change you wish to see" rings true in both the national model and the church model I have addressed so far. After all, the Father wishes that we display His characteristics to whomsoever, wherever we find ourselves.

1 Kings 18:3 tells us an interesting fact about one Obadiah (who had a "House Church) in a cave somewhere in Israel, (which was under wicked Ahab's rule). We note, that not only did Obadiah not leave Israel because he did not agree with Ahab... he stayed right on in Ahab’s very house and modeled the Father right where the Father planted him.

"Grow where you are planted" says the proverb. Surely it is not growth to be continually changing "religions" (or denominations of even "fellowships" either for that matter) simply because something comes up which you might not agree with.

Who wants to be religious anyway? “Religion” means ‘to bind’ (not to God, as you may have been told… just ‘to bind’). Jesus said that the “Truth” He gave us would set us Free. James says (in the only place where the English word 'religion' occurs in our Bibles), that if we want to be “religious” or “bound to anything” we are "bound" to share God in meaningful ways.

We have been given the freedom to associate with the untouchables, the poor, the lepers, the fatherless, the widows… even with people who may not believe the same things we do... in other words, we have been commanded by Scripture to fulfill Jesus' very own mission statement given in Prov 31:9 and Luke 4:18... (without other members of the "Church Family" poking their nose into affairs that are no business of theirs!!)

After all, we are never counted by the Father as "guilty by association" and the adversity can produce the changes that the Spirit would wish to see in us.

"Calm seas never made a good mariner" says another proverb. So why bail out of the ship anytime conditions in the ship might not suit you?

"They went out from us", says John, "for they were not of us". Sometimes it may be necessary to move on, (especially if Spiritual Abuse is being perpetrated, and the abuse becomes more than one can handle,) but change will never progress if those who God is using as instruments of change constantly take their talents "elsewhere" each time something appears that we might not agree with.

The Son shines in... Jesus never left Israel/Judah because He did not agree with Legalism/Pharisaism... He stayed within His natioanl family and made the difference. And He is the reason you and I are able to fully enjoy Freedom of Association today, with whomsoever, wherever the Father leads us.

Remember, Holiness is contagious… sin is not!!

Praise Him.

P.S. My wife just shared this thoughtful insight with me… “The powers-that-be can only remain on their throne through deception. It is the people's ignorance and credulity that allow the powerful to manipulate and control them.”

Steve said...


"I'm presuming if Christadelphia doesn't return to its true Biblical roots as you have indicated, you will no longer be part of the Christadelphian fellowship"

Your presumption is wrong. This kind of thinking is also at the base of many of the divisions in the Christadelphian community. It's the spirit that says "if you don't agree with me then get out; if you don't like the ways things are (even if many others agree that they're bad) then get out; if you don't get out then we'll either throw you out or break away and form our own splinter group".

I've lost count of how many times I've heard it said in Christadelphian lectures "we are a community of Bible students - if you show us from the Bible where we are wrong then we will happily change". Of course, this is simply not true. Christadelphianism has not changed substantially on a single issue in more than 100 years. Anyone who attempts to show "from the Bible" how things could be done a better way meets with your kind of comment - i.e. "then I guess you'll be leaving (because that's what we want you to do)".

What Frank Viola and George Barna have done in this book is to show us how the church/ekklesia came together in the first century, and pointed out how far we have shifted from that model through the accumulation of traditions, many of them with pagan origins. They have also hinted that if the church/ekklesia were to return to it first century practices then it much function more fully as the people of God.

But if you want to close your mind off then to anything that's helpful, even if it's well researched and Biblically based, then I guess you're welcome to do so. In fact, you will be standing firmly in a long line of Christadelphian traditionalists who have firmly closed their minds to anything that doesn't agree with their preconceived notion that Christadelphians have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Steve said...


Frank Viola and George Barna in Pagan Christianity? provide evidence that the earliest churches probably had a maximum attendance of around 35. That is based primarily on archaeological evidence. We know the first century Christians met in homes, we know the kinds of homes which were often used for such meetings, and we know how big they were. These gatherings were limited in size by the homes in which they met. As the Christian community in any area grew they would start new house-meetings.

For the first three centuries Christians did not have any special buildings. The earliest identifiable Christian meeting place is the house of Dura-Europos in modern Syria. It was simply a private home remodelled as a Christian gathering place around AD 312. This house was essentially a house with a wall removed between two bedrooms to create a large living area. This house could accomodate about 70 people (Pagan Christianity? page 14-15).

I don't think they are suggesting that our practice of meeting in special buildings is "wrong". They are simply saying that we cannot claim to be continuing or restoring a first century Christian practice if we do. The very nature of meeting in halls or special church-buildings affects the kind of meetings we have, and meetings in halls or special buildings have a remarkably different character to meetings held in homes around a meal table.

In my view, much of the intimacy of the early church/ekklesia was probably lost in the shift from homes to special buildings. Certainly the informality, spontaneity and full participation would have been lost as the church went to structured formal services.

Smaller churches/ekklesias may very well have an advantage here, as you suggest.

Trevor said...

Thanks for your review.

For a review giving a contrary point of view, perhaps you would find Ben Witherington's opinion of interest.