About Pagan Christianity and the constructive sequel Reimagining Church.
Compiled by T. Black, Feb. 2011
Update: Frank Viola has written over 20 books since Pagan and Reimagining were released in 2008. This page contains a comprehensive list of objections and their answers to those two volumes, including links with further responses.
If you have a question that’s not answered here, it’s undoubtedly answered in one of Frank’s subsequent books. See his complete book catalog here with descriptions and endorsements.
Pagan Christianity released in 2008. The book debuted hitting #11 on Amazon.com (out of all 7 million books). Since then, the book has often ranked #1 in Ecclesiology (on Amazon) and has regularly appeared on Tyndale’s top 10 best-seller list.
An often overlooked fact is that Pagan Christianity is not a stand-alone book. It is only the first half of the argument. As such, it’s very incomplete. Reimagining Church is the necessary follow-up along with From Eternity to Here and Finding Organic Church.
Pagan Christianity deconstructs while Reimagining Church constructs. Both books must be read together to form a complete picture.
Take some time on this page. It contains incisive interviews with Frank and George about the content of the book. It also contains public debates with scholars as well as scores of specific questions, objections, and critiques along with responses from the authors.
The page begins with insightful quotes, interviews with the authors, endorsements, resources, definitions, and a lengthy question-answer section. Enjoy!
“I wish church leaders everywhere would calmly read and reflect on this book … the cumulative weight of Pagan Christianity is impressive. Christians today who want to see the church be faithful to the gospel of the kingdom should ask themselves: Which of our current traditions are consistent with Scripture and help us to be faithful communities of the kingdom? And which really nullify God’s Word? If churches confront that question prayerfully while seriously examining Scripture, many things may change.” Dr. Howard Snyder, Professor of History and Theology of Mission at Asbury Seminary
“Viola, F. and G. Barna, Pagan Christianity (Tyndale 2008) is the best single source I know of that exposes how thoroughly pagan the traditional and contemporary understanding of the church is. Viola and Barna argue — rightly — that the passivity and impotence of the church today is largely due to this fact. Viola and Barna call us back to a New Testament understanding of church that is rooted in authentic communities in which believers share life and engage in ministry together.” Dr. Gregory A. Boyd, prolific author and former professor of theology, M. Div (Yale) and Ph.D (Princeton)
I am not here attacking Christianity, but only the institutional mantle that cloaks it.
A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. It wasn’t the world being round that agitated people, but that the world wasn’t flat. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.
Experience supplies painful proof that traditions once called into being are first called useful, then they become necessary. At last they are too often made idols, and all must bow down to them or be punished.
J. C. Ryle
I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? . . . A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
If Christianity is to receive a rejuvenation it must be by other means than any now being used. If the church in the second half of [the twentieth] century is to recover from the injuries she suffered in the first half, there must appear a new type of preacher. The proper, ruler-of-the-synagogue type will never do. Neither will the priestly type of man who carries out his duties, takes his pay and asks no questions, nor the smooth-talking pastoral type who knows how to make the Christian religion acceptable to everyone. All these have been tried and found wanting. Another kind of religious leader must arise among us. He must be of the old prophet type, a man who has seen visions of God and has heard a voice from the Throne. When he comes (and I pray God there will not be one but many) he will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking, smooth civilization holds dear. He will contradict, denounce and protest in the name of God and will earn the hatred and opposition of a large segment of Christendom.
Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convinced of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convinced by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
The real trouble is not in fact that the Church is too rich, but that it has become heavily institutionalized, with a crushing investment in maintenance. It has the characteristics of the dinosaur and the battleship. It is saddled with a plant and programme beyond its means, so that it is absorbed in problems of supply and preoccupied with survival. The inertia of the machine is such that the financial allocations, the legalities, the channels of organization, the attitudes of mind, are all set in the direction of continuing and enhancing the status quo. If one wants to pursue a course which cuts across these channels, then most of one’s energies are exhausted before one ever reaches the enemy lines
John A.T. Robinson
Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.
DEFINITIONS (on page xxxi of Pagan Christianity, 4th printing, etc.)
As you read this book, we feel it is important that you understand how we are using the terms below.
We are using this word to indicate those practices and principles that are not Christian or biblical in origin. In some cases, we use it to refer to those ancients who followed the gods of the Roman Empire. We are not using the word as a synonym for bad, evil, sinful, or wrong. A “pagan practice or mind-set” refers to a practice or mode of thinking that has been adopted from the church’s surrounding culture. We believe that some pagan practices are neutral and can be redeemed for God’s glory. We feel that others stand in direct conflict with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles and thus cannot be redeemed.
The term organic church does not refer to a particular model of church. (We believe that no perfect model exists.) Instead, we believe that the New Testament vision of church is organic. An organic church is a living, breathing, dynamic, mutually participatory, every-member functioning, Christ-centered, communal expression of the body of Christ. Note that our goal in this book is not to develop a full description of the organic church but only to touch on it when necessary.
This term refers to a religious system (not a particular group of people). An institutional church is one that operates primarily as an organization that exists above, beyond, and independent of the members who populate it. It is constructed more on programs and rituals than on relationships. It is led by set-apart professionals (“ministers” or “clergy”) who are aided by volunteers (“laity”). We also use the terms contemporary church, traditional church, present-day church,and modern church to refer to the institutional church of our day.
New Testament Church, or First-Century Church
These terms do not refer to a particular form of church. We are instead speaking of the church of century one that we read about in our New Testament. (In this book, first-century church is used as a synonym for New Testament church.) We do not advocate a primitivistic return to a particular model of the early church. Instead, we believe that a return to the spiritual principles, the organic practices, and the spirit and ethos of the first-century church, along with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, should guide our practice of the church in our day and time.
Biblical, or Scriptural
These words are used first and foremost as source statements and secondarily as value judgments. Biblical or scriptural refers to whether a practice has its origins in the New Testament Scriptures. References tounbiblical or unscriptural practices do not automatically imply error. These words can refer to the fact that a certain practice does not appear in the New Testament (in which case it should not be treated as sacred). But they can also refer to a practice that violates the principles or teachings of the New Testament. The context will determine how these words are used. We certainly do not agree with the doctrines of “the silence of Scripture” and “the regulative principle,” which teach that if a practice is not mentioned in the New Testament then we should not follow it.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS
Thanks for being so available to answer questions. I don’t know any other authors that do this; I wish there were more. I’ve read your entire series on the church and I want to know if you had the whole series in mind in the beginning or if it just came to you as you were writing the books?
Answer. Many years ago I had a series of books in my head that were designed to turn the sod on how we view and practice the church. I attempted to self-publish that series, and without a professional editor, did the best I could. When Tyndale approached me with interest in one of the books in that series back in 2006, I reframed the entire library in my head. So the series that you find on the ReChurch Library page, which is the order in which they released, is the order that I wanted to see them come out.
Frank, it’s been two years since you and George released Pagan Christianity. I have read a lot of blogs that praise the book and many that criticize it. I really appreciate that you’ve created this page to answer questions and especially that you are available to debate people on the book. How many of your critics have taken you up on a blog debate?
Answer. Only one person in these two years has asked me to respond to their questions and objections in a public way. He wrote his criticisms of the book on his blog and then invited me to respond, and he published my response on his blog for all to read. So only one person in two years.
Frank, thanks for your books and articles and messages. They are changing my life. The new book is incredible. I have a friend who follows some blogger who is spouting that you don’t believe in leadership. He also says that you wrote your postchurch article because people were going churchless after reading Pagan Christianity and you were regressing. I’ve read all your stuff so this is all way off to me, but I wanted your reaction. Oh, and would you be willing to debate any of these people?
Answer. You couldn’t be more correct. Both ideas are just plain wrong. As you no doubt know, over one-half of my bookREIMAGINING CHURCH is all about leadership (including an exegesis on all the biblical texts on elders, pastors, etc.). I still find it fascinating that because I challenge the traditional form of leadership that finds its roots in the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds that this means I am against leadership. I’m espousing leadership the way Jesus taught it and the way it was practiced by the apostles and in the churches (all of which were organic and not institutional). As I point out in “Reimagining,” Jesus took dead-aim at both the Jewish and Gentile models of leadership, yet many Christians aren’t aware of this. In FINDING ORGANIC CHURCH, I go into great detail on the leadership that traveling apostolic workers provide. You can even find a definition of a leader in that book. The other bit about Pagan Christianity is just plain ludicrous. In that book, George and I spell out that we aren’t espousing a churchless expression of Christianity, but the organic expression of the body of Christ — which is far more intense than the traditional/institutional form. The sequel,REIMAGINING CHURCH, discounts the postchurch view by name on page 40. And yes, if you look at the rest of this Q & A page, I’ve offered to debate those who wish to discuss these issues in the light of the New Testament. (Note that straw men collapse pretty quickly during a debate.) So far, only one person has taken me up on that.
Hi Frank. I read your article on The Ooze about leaving the institutional church and I really enjoyed it. I agree with all that you said and can identify with your reasons. Some people don’t seem to get what you’re saying. For instance, a few people condemned you for being bored with church, saying that boredom isn’t a good reason to leave a church. A few others said that you basically bailed out of the church instead of trying to fix it and that you don’t love the church, or else if you did you would remain in it and try to reform it. I’d like to hear your response. Thanks.
Answer. Good questions. First, when I said I was bored with the institutional church, to my mind, that betrays the lack of life that I found there. Note that I was a part of many institutional churches representing many denominations and movements. All very diverse, yet having a very similar structure and order of worship (as all institutional churches do). Over the last 21 years since I’ve been out, I’ve visited a number of institutional churches now and then and have even spoken in them. And this has only strengthened my resolve, not weakened it. The bottom line is that Jesus Christ is anything but boring! He’s the most exciting, incredible, amazing Person that a mortal can know. And knowing Him in an organic expression of the church . . . where a face-to-face community is pursuing Him, loving Him, encountering Him, knowing Him, and expressing Him together is anything but boring.
Thus for me, if a ritual becomes boring, it simply means that it lacks life and should be changed so that God’s people can re-connect with their risen Lord who is anything but boring. I affirm all who find the Sunday morning Protestant order of worship (or high-church liturgy) exciting, helpful, and full of life. But for me and millions of other Christians, who haven’t found it that way. Therefore, I would ask that they equally affirm us. We are all brethren in Christ even though we may find our Lord in different ways.
Second, regarding the other objection, this again exposes the very problem that I, George Barna, Jon Zens, and many others have tried to address. There is a vast difference between a religious system and a way of organizing Christian worship (a la, “the institutional church”) and the Body of Jesus Christ (a la, “the ekklesia”). I have never given up on the church. In fact, I profoundly love the church and am a functioning member within her body. It’s the institutional system that I’ve given up on and for good reason. I don’t believe it’s biblical nor do I believe it can be easily adjusted. Not without major division to God’s people and no little hostility from the top of the hierarchy.
In fact, I would say that I found her . . . the living breathing experience of the bride of Christ . . . outside the religious system.
For those who feel that the institutional church system is biblical, I would simply challenge them to show it to me in the New Testament. (By the way, I’m not inviting people to answer this challenge on a blog that I’ll never see.) I speak for millions of Christians when I say this, but we gave up on a system that we felt was tried and found wanting. Does God use that system? Absolutely. Does it do any good for people? Yes, no question. Are God’s people in it? Yes, of course.
But that’s not the question that many of us are asking. We are asking a different question. Namely, we are asking: what did Jesus Christ teach about His body and what did the apostles teach about the church and how it should function and be expressed in the earth? Those are the questions I grapple with in my book REIMAGINING CHURCH.
My article is just a short primer. The book tells the rest of the story and uses the New Testament to articulate it.
Frank, I gave Pagan Christianity to some friends and their response was, “Barna and Viola make a lot of good points, but they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” I’ve heard this so many times that if I hear it again, I’m going to scream. What’s your response to that line?
Answer: I think there’s only one baby worth saving – it’s the babe of Bethlehem, the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything else can be parted with and most of it is clutter. To call the clergy system, the hierarchical/business-patterned leadership structure, the Sunday morning Protestant ritual, the billions of dollars we spend on church buildings and overhead “the baby” is ludicrous in my opinion.
From the place where I’m standing, it seems to me that what we’ve done is substitute the bathwater for the baby, tossing the latter and keeping the former.
In the words of NT scholar Jon Zens,
It seems to me that we have made normative that for which there is no Scriptural warrant (emphasis on one man’s ministry), and we have omitted that for which there is ample Scriptural support (emphasis on one another) . . . we have exalted that for which there is no evidence, and neglected that for which there is abundant evidence.
But let me think about your question some more and I’ll tell you how I really feel about it
It is some people’s opinion that you and George only use those historical sources that agree with your points in the book and exclude those that disagree. What’s your response to this?
Answer. Jon Zens, a highly respected church historian and NT scholar, has answered this objection very well. Since I don’t think I can improve upon his answer, I’ll quote it below. I’ll simply say that the issue really juices down to the type of bookPagan Christianity is. Scholarly books present every conceiveable counter argument and respond to each one (that’s why it’s not uncommon for scholarly works to sometimes be 900 pages long with very few people reading them). Popular books that are written as polemics do not do this. Pagan Christianity is deliberately a popular book rather than a scholarly one (that’s why it weighs in at below 350 pages). I’m very familiar with those works that disagree with my conclusions and thesis. But I’ve simply not been persuaded by their arguments. Here’s Jon’s answer:
The bibliography alone contains hundreds of books showing a wide breath of the subjects at hand, many of which were written by scholars and historians who disagree with some of the authors’ conclusions. The book shows keen familiarity, for example, with two well-known liturgical scholars, Frank Senn and Gregory Dix and their work – scholars who disagree with some of the authors’ conclusions. Furthermore, a good number of the sources they use were written by Anglican and Catholic scholars who admit that various practices they embrace are of pagan origin; yet these scholars still uphold and defend their present form of church. (Barna and Viola go a step further and challenge some of those practices on biblical, spiritual, and pragmatic grounds. And then leave it to the reader decide if those practices are a help or a hindrance to what Jesus had in mind for His church.) Very simply, it was not within the scope of the book to examine the claims and counter-claims that others have made. The book states this very point in the preface, arguing that if they had dealt with every counter-claim and traced every practice in detail (making it a “scholarly” work), it would have consisted of many volumes that few people would read. I think that one reason that PC has become a bestseller is that it is so accessible to the average reader. PC was concerned to boil things down to the key issues related the shift from New Testament simplicity to post-apostolic bureaucracy. I’ve been studying “church” issues for thirty years, and it would be my conclusion that PC accurately reflects the basic conclusions – even virtual consensus – of a wide range of NT theologians and church historians. For example, it would appear that James D.G. Dunn’s summary remarks capture the essence of PC’s heartbeat: “Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism – when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change” (Unity & Diversity in the New Testament, Westminster Press, 1977, p.351).
You make a good point about how the New Testament letters were arranged in our Bible. But what is your view of the canon of Scripture and how it came together? Do you believe that the Bible we have is reliable?
Answer. My view of the canon is that the books that make up our Bible are inspired by God, true, accurate, and reliable. To my mind, modern critiques of the Biblical canon have been refuted by many first-rate scholars. Here are some books I would recommend that explain how we got our Bible. All argue that the Scriptures we possess are completely reliable. The Canon of Scripture & Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?by F.F. Bruce. The Formation of the New Testament Canon by William Farmer & Denis Farkasfalvy. How We Got the Bible by Neil R. Lightfoot. The Birth of the New Testament by C.F.D. Moule. The Making of the New Testament by Arthur G. Patzia. By What Authority? by Bruce Shelley.
Dear Frank, I really enjoyed the chapter on “Reapproaching the New Testament.” The analogy you gave about the sociologist really hit home. I agree that the order of the New Testament letters and the chapter/verse divisions makes seeing the Bible as a whole difficult. Do you know of a chronological Bible that leaves out the chapters and verses?
Answer. There are several. One is called The Narrated Bible in Chronological Order by F. LaGard Smith (Harvest House). Another is The New Testament: A Translation by William Barclay (Westminster John Knox Press). Another is called The Books of the Bible (International Bible Society). This one isn’t all chronological; it categories some of the books by literary genre. With the exception that this Bible follows old scholarship on the dating of Galatians, it’s a solid work. In addition, Thomas Nelson is releasing The NKJV Chronological Study Bible in October. I’ve not yet seen it so I cannot comment.
You talk about open church meetings where every member of the Body participates, both men and women. How do you deal with 1 Corinthans 14:33-34 where the women are asked to be silent?
Answer. Great question. Some of the best scholars disagree on this subject. You can read my interpretation of that text, as well as the one in 1 Timothy 2, in Reimagining a Woman’s Role in the Church. Hope you find it helpful.
I agree with your points about the Bible not supporting a professional clergy. But what is your opinion on those ministries that take money? Don’t you and George receive money for your books as authors? What’s the difference between that and what you address in the book? Also do you recieve an honorarium when you speak? Thank you.
Answer. In the book, we are challenging something very specific: a paid professional clergy that receives a salary for being “the minister” to a local congregation. We discuss the biblical, historical, and pragmatic reasons for our challenge. By the same token, we have no problem with ministries that receive money from those who feel inclined to support them. For example, the New Testament teaches that church planters who spend their time on the road traveling to preach the gospel and raise up churches have a right to live off the gospel (see 1 Cor. 9). In addition, I personally support several ministries that help the poor around the world. And I have no problem with Christian authors being compensated for their labor in producing a product (like a book) or Christian musicians producing a product (like a music CD), both of which cost a huge amount of money to create. (By the way, if you’re an author by trade, you’re pretty much living by faith! Very few books sell like that of Rick Warren or Max Lucado.) All of these things are worlds apart from a paid professional “clergy” that’s being salaried to minister to a local group of non-professionals called the “laity.”
As to your second question, I don’t have a problem with conference speakers receiving money for their speaking. However, I’ve chosen not to do so. Taking my que from Paul, I have never charged God’s people whenever I’ve ministered to them. That would include conference-speaking as well when I labor in helping or planting a church.
For further thoughts on this subject, I would recommend three books:
Roland Allen’s “Missionary Methods,” Chapter 6 – Finace.
Watchman Nee’s, “The Normal Christian Church Life,” Chapter 8 – The Question of Finance.
Christian Smith’s, “Going to the Root,” Chapter 2 – Do Church Without Clergy.
Hi Frank. I was reading a blog who talked about Eugene Peterson. Apparently Peterson spoke at a conference recently and said that “the church in America is the abomination of desolation!” The reviewer went on to praise Peterson for being a jolting prophet. The irony is that this same reviewer trashed your and George’s book, Pagan Christianity?, saying how harsh it was and how it was overstated. Man, doesn’t he see the hypocrisy here? Why doesn’t he realize his bias? What’s your take on Peterson’s statement?
Answer. I’m not sure. The comment “the church in America is an abomination of desolation” trumps anything George and I say in Pagan Christianity. If one reads that sentence literally, it’s a cart blanche condemnation of all churches and all Christians, and a harsh one at that. I personally think Peterson is one of the most gifted writers of our time. His books on spiritual formation are without peer. That said, I would not agree with the statement that “the church in America is the abomination of desolation.” As I’ve written in my book, FROM ETERNITY TO HERE, the church is the most beautiful woman in the world. In the eyes of God, she’s drop-dead gorgeous, blameless, holy, and pure. And Jesus Christ is out of His head in love with her. The modern church system, however, is a different thing (and many Christians confuse the ekklesia with the religious system.) We point out in Pagan Christianity? that the modern church system is unbiblical and hinders the church from being all that God called her to be. But I wouldn’t call it the “abomination of desolation.” That’s a bit much, I think.
Frank, I saw someone on a blog say that you and George hang your “whole argument” on 1 Corinthians 14:26 and that this text is stating a problem not the norm. What is your reply?
Answer. First, we never hang any argument on that one text. And it’s certainly not the “whole argument” of the book, since the book is a study in why we do what we do in our churches today.
We used 1 Corinthians 14:26 as one example of what a NT church meeting was like. There are other texts we list throughout the book when we describe a normative church meeting in the NT – Heb. 10:24-25; Col. 3:16, etc. These are clear exhortations for every member functioning in corporate gatherings. Heb. 10 is the one most often used by pastors to get people to “go to church.” Yet the whole text is about mutual exhortation. This was the pattern in the NT church. And that pattern is rooted in the strong NT theology – namely, the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2, etc.) and the every-member functioning of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12; Rom 12, etc.). It’s also rooted in the spiritual instincts of every Christian. We have a spiritual instinct to share with others what God has revealed to us. We don’t develop this thought (the early church meeting) in the book because Pagan Christianity is a study in what we do today and why we do it. We simply leave it to the reader to decide if the Sunday morning order of worship, which grew out of the Catholic Mass, is superior to the NT church meeting. My next book develops this idea.
Second, I know very few scholars who interpret 1 Cor. 14:26 as Paul stating a problem. Most all of them, including the top-drawer exegetes (F.F. Bruce, Ben Witherington, Gordon Fee, et al.) show clearly that this text is referring to what should be the norm. It’s an exhortation and a “description of what should be happening” in Corinth’s gatherings (as Gordon Fee put it). Later in the chapter, Paul simply reels in some of the chaos in the meetings without removing the open-participatory nature of the gatherings. This text harmonizes with both the spirit of the NT as well as other examples and exhortations throughout it. So it seems to me.
P.S. Keep in mind that in the above I’m strictly speaking of the kind of meeting that’s envisioned in 1 Corinthians 14. There are other types of meetings that an ekklesia will organically have also (because they too are built into its spiritual DNA). I discuss the different kinds of meetings organic churches have in REIMAGINING CHURCH, Chapter 2.
I read some negative reviews on your book and was honestly skeptical. But I bought it, read it, and loved it. I found the chapter on Jesus, the Revolutionary to be one of the best, and I wish all the critics of the book would read that chapter. It really gives a different view of Jesus. My question is, I’ve got a friend who thinks you and George are trying to get the church to return to the ancient practices of the first century. (He hasn’t read the book, he’s just read a few reviews.) I see that you mention the first century church a lot in the book but you also mention the organic church. Can you clear up the difference? Oh, I love the quotes throughout the book. They by themselves are worth the price of admission.
Answer. “Jesus, the Revolutionary” is actually my favorite chapter in the book. In fact, I would recommend some readers to read that chapter first before they get into the content of the book. It will certainly help them to see the perspective from which we are writing.
As for the early church/New Testament church/first-century church, there does seem to be confusion among some readers. I’ve answered a similar question below, but I’ll come at it from a different perspective here.
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. My next book, due out in August, will explore this subject in far more detail.
Frank, man, thanks so much for this book. I just finished it and it’s rocking my world! Awesome book. Thanks too for listing the reviews. I’ve been following the reviews on this book and I’m perplexed. A few bloggers have charged you and George with promoting the only right model of doing church. Other bloggers have corrected them saying that this isn’t what the book says, yet they seem to just ignore it. I read it and didn’t see where you guys say that at all. Why do you suppose these people keep banging that same drum?
Answer. I’m not following all the reviews, so I really can’t say. Nor would I dare judge the motives of my brothers and sisters in Christ. (Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about those who engage in that sort of thing.) Some of my friends are reading all the reviews. Their comment is that virtually none of the negative reviews have actually interacted with any of the specific points the book makes, and so far, none of the reviewers are willing to engage me or George in a debate or discussion. They’ve also pointed out that half the negative reviews were written by people who have never read the book.
If we make a point in the book that’s incorrect historically or biblically, I’d be happy to stand corrected. But no one has come to either of us with their corrections.
You are right in observing that George and I don’t believe that there’s a “right method” for doing church. A recent review done over at Kingdom Grace made this quite clear. The book doesn’t suggest or imply the one “right” method. That’s something that a few readers are bringing to the text themselves. In fact, the book says little about what we should do next outside of prayerful consideration before the Lord. (Some readers have been frustrated by this. They want the five-step silver bullet solution.)
I plan to tackle some constructive alternatives in the sequel, which I submit to the publisher on Tuesday (it comes out this summer). I certainly don’t believe that I have all the answers. As I’ve stated in some of the recent interviews (see above), the issues are quite complex. I’m still in school and believe that as long as I draw breath, I’ll always be.
Those who read “Pagan” and want to know my views on ecclesiology should read FROM ETERNITY TO HERE (endorsed by some of the major voices in the Christian world). “From Eternity” is a narrative theology of the Misseo Dei (Eternal Purpose of God) putting Jesus Christ and His church at the center. The book unfolds God’s dream for a community on the earth that reflects the community of the Triune God — tracing this theme from Genesis to Revelation. They will also be interested in THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH which is a narrative ecclesiology unfolding God’s quest for community through the New Testament chronologically. Both books develop the chapter in Pagan Christainity entitled “Reapproaching the New Testament: The Bible is Not a Jigsaw Puzzle,” which challenges the cut-and-paste/clipboard approach to Bible study and offers a fresh way to approach Scripture.
I’ve been reading a particular blog that’s critiquing Pagan Christianity. I keep wondering if the guy read the same book that I did. Turns out he’s a pastor. He made the charge that you and George have been hurt by some pastor in your past and that’s why you’ve written the book. Could you respond?
Answer. I’d like to borrow this person’s mind-reading cap sometime
I’ve never been hurt by a pastor or any leader in the institutional church. In fact, all the pastors I’ve had a personal relationship with have helped me spiritually, and I have great respect for each of them. There are numerous pastors who read my books, and some of them are my friends. While I disagree with them on the subject of ecclesiology, it hasn’t affected our relationship to date. Interestingly, every person I know who has dared to challenge the clergy system has at one time or another been accused of being hurt by a clergyman and painted as a bitter, disgruntled soul. It appears to be a convenient way to dismiss or discredit anyone who dares to question the status quo. Personally, I’ve never seen this tactic work. It usually ends up backfiring.
While we’re discussing the clergy system, I’ve been reading John Howard Yoder lately. Here are some of his contra “one-man-preacher-pastor-clergy-office” insights, many of which map to the same points that George and I make in “Pagan.”
[Beginning of Yoder]
“The whole concern of Reformation theology was to justify restructuring the organized church without shaking its foundations.”
“There are few more reliable constants running through all human society than the special place every human community makes for the professional religionist . . . But if we were to ask whether any of the N.T. literature makes the assumptions listed — Is there one particular office in which there should be only one or a few individuals for whom it provides a livelihood, unique in character due to ordination, central to the definition of the church and the key to her functioning? Then the answer from the biblical material is a resounding negation [no].”
“The conclusion is inescapable that the multiplicity of ministries is not a mere adiaphoron, a happenstance of only superficial significance, but a specific work of grace and a standard for the church.”
“Losing the specific and original trait of the primitive community, the church by and large became again subject to the usual anthropologically universal pattern of the single, sacramentally qualified religionist. By and large . . . this pattern has continued to our day in churches of every polity and theology.”
“Let us then ask first not whether there is a clear, solid concept of preaching, but whether there was in the N.T. one particular preaching office, identifiable as distinctly as the other ministries. Neither in the most varied picture (Corinthians) nor in the least varied (Pastoral Epistles) is there one particular ministry thus defined.”
[End of Yoder]
By the way, I got a call yesterday from a former pastor at Willow Creek who wanted to encourage me regarding the book. He told me that he spent an entire evening reading all the reviews on Pagan Christianity and went on to say that many people are raving about it, but some are being put on heart medication because of it. He contiuned to encourage me, which I appreciated very much. Another friend recently reminded me of the “BUT SOME” phenomenon that we read about in the Lord’s ministry. If you don’t know what the BUT SOME phenomenon is, here’s a preview:
Luke 11:14-15 – And he was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake; and the people wondered. BUT SOME of them said, “He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils.”
John 11:45-46 – Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him. BUT SOME of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done.
Matt. 28:17 – And when they saw him [Jesus Christ], they worshipped him: BUT SOME doubted.
Luke 23:5 – And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.
A word of encouragement to anyone who takes a stand against traditional thinking: Some will appreciate it; BUT SOME will not. And whether you like it or not, there’s an excellent chance that you may find yourself stirring up the people.
It seems to be written in the bloodstream of the universe.
Hey Frank. I want to thank you so much for the book. I was floored by it! An amazing work. Hey, I’ve been following one guy’s blog and he’s doing a good job slamming the book. Makes one think that you and George believe devils exist in church buildings and every traditional Christian is a pagan! He’s leaving out so many points you guys make in the book and then accuses you and George of failing to acknowledge those points. Didn’t know that spin doctors existed in the emerging church until now. Would you debate this guy if the opportunity arose?
Answer. Thanks for the kind words. Someone recently said to me that “the book is a bombshell dropped on the traditional church playground so don’t be surprised if some people do whatever they can to discredit and dismiss it, that includes being intellectually dishonest.”
It’s possible to be captured by the same spirit one opposes . . . and not even realize it. Church history bears this out all too plainly.
Yes, I’d be willing to do a public debate.
A number of people are reacting to this statement in the book — “the church, in its contemporary, institutional form, has neither a biblical nor a historical right to exist.” What did you mean by that exactly?
Answer. This statement appears in the Advanced Reader Copy of the book which went out to reviewers and magazines. The published edition (hardback) which was printed a few weeks afterwards and sent to bookstores phrases it this way:
We are also making an outrageous proposal: that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does. This proposal, of course, is our conviction based on the historical evidence that we shall present in the book. You must decide if that proposal is valid or not. (page xx)
Note the words we use are “a biblical nor a historical right.” That simply means that what we are calling “the institutional church” (the book defines this) has no “biblical” merit or justification. And historically, it can be demonstrated that the church in its present form didn’t originate with God, but from human inventions and traditions. (This is what we give historical evidence for in the book.)
This doesn’t mean the church in its present form is evil, bad, sinful, or useless. Nor does it mean that God hasn’t and isn’t using it, despite its shortcomings. It simply means that the institutional form we’re speaking of has no “Scriptural basis.” And as we argue in the book, many of its features actually contradict the teachings of Scripture.
Let me offer an example. Suppose that someone in our time began to say, “We need to change the way we have the Lord’s Supper. From now on, we’re going to replace the fruit of the vine with Dr. Pepper and the bread with french fries. (All those between the ages of six and ten break out into applause.) And instead of remembering Jesus Christ and His death/resurrection, we’re going to remember David’s victory over Goliath.”
Now suppose this idea catches on. And after three hundred years, it’s essentially the universal way that Christians take the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). It goes unchallenged and unquestioned. In fact, most Christians can’t conceive taking the Lord’s Supper any other way.
Is there anything morally wrong with drinking Dr. Pepper or eating french fries (not counting the opinion of some nutritionists). I’d say no. Is there anything wrong with remembering and celebrating David’s victory over Goliath? I’d say no. But, I would argue that the original meaning and intention that Jesus Christ and the apostles gave to us (“handed down”) regarding the Lord’s Supper has been utterly changed and emptied of its original meaning. And whatever the Lord’s Supper was originally supposed to embody in the mind of God has been lost. Thus, to my thinking, taking the Lord’s Supper in this new fashion has no Biblical merit. Or to put it differently, in this particular form “it doesn’t have a Scriptural or historical right to function as it does.”
In like manner, we are saying that the modern, inherited, institutional form of church has strayed far, far afield from the New Testament concept of “church” in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. And we are asking the question: Should we keep supporting this inherited form or should we begin to do things differently?
No doubt, there’s a better way of phrasing that sentence; but it seemed to make sense to us at the time.
I hope that helps.
Here are some questions I want you to address. Do you believe that the only kind of meeting a church should have is an open meeting where everyone shares equally? Does the Bible really teach that? Do you believe it’s wrong for Christians to meet in a building? Do you deny that the early church met in the Temple as well as in homes? Do you believe there are never times when a Christian can preach and teach from the Bible?
Answer. These questions are all answered in the book. And the answer to all of them is “no.” To be specific, we show that there were two kinds of meetings in the NT: 1) apostolic meetings — where someone ministers to an audience temporarily for equipping, and 2) church meetings — where every member functions and participates to display Jesus Christ.
In many (if not most) modern churches today, what we call “church” is in a way similar to an apostolic meeting, though it never ends and there’s no equipping for God’s people to gather under Christ’s headship. And the “church meeting” has been utterly abandoned.
What most Christians call “church” today is really a religious service/performance that’s dominated by the preaching of typically one person. We’re challenging that in the book. In fact, we’re challenging the entire Protestant liturgy. (Footnote: In my personal judgment, the church of Jesus Christ is dying for a lack of creativity. We Protestants keep repeating a 500-year old ritual with little change. Thank God some of us have broken through to something different, and we’ve found an entirely new universe on the other side.)
We never say it’s wrong to meet in a building. (A “building” and a typical “church building” are two different things, and we’re questioning the purpose/function/usefulness of the latter.) I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with meeting in a building in and of itself. We point out in one chapter how Paul of Tarsus rented the hall of Tyrannus for apostolic meetings in Ephesus. I myself have held apostolic meetings in a rented building for a short space of time to raise up a church or to hold a lengthy conference for a network of churches. I’ve also seen some church buildings renovated to be more conducive for every-member functioning. Interesting stories on that score.
The church in Jerusalem did use the Temple at times, but it wasn’t in the way that many people assume. The Jerusalem saints didn’t meet in the Temple per se. They gathered in the Temple courts (Solomon’s porch) which was a large outside area with a roof over it. They did so for a certain period of time to hold apostolic meetings. This was during the birth of the Jerusalem church. They also used it to accommodate the large city-wide council they held regarding a schism in Antioch.
The apostles also visited the synagogues for evangelistic purposes. But the assembly held its church meetings in homes throughout the city. We make this point in the book, and it’s something often misunderstood today. There are apostolic meetings, evangelistic meetings, and church meetings. And there’s a big difference between “the work” and “the church,” something that the next volume will explore.
Finally, I’m all for preaching and teaching in church meetings, in apostolic meetings, and in conferences. I do it, in fact. It’s the shape of the order of worship and the modern sermon that we challenge. The modern sermon being an oration that a pastor is paid to deliver to the same congregation every week ad infinitum. We challenge these things on historical, biblical, and pragmatic grounds.
I hope that clarifies.
Can you give some clarity on what you mean by the words “biblical basis,” “unbiblical,” and “unscriptural practices”? These words in the book seem to be causing a lot of confusion to some people. They think you are arguing for only one way of doing church that replicates the first century church across the board. Can you shed light on this?
Answer. Great question! As with most authors, when I sit down to write (or as Tom Wright puts it, when I sit down in front of my computer and “open a vein”), I have one or two audiences in mind that I’m speaking to. When I wrote Pagan Christianity, our primary audience was the evangelical Christian world. That would include Charismatic/Pentecostals also. Consequently, in the book, George and I speak that language. Terms like “Biblical basis,” “Scriptural support,” “Biblical merit,” etc. are pretty well understood by most people in that tradition, and I’d dare say, by most Protestants in general.
I was in the institutional church for thirteen years. During that time, I was part of about a dozen different Protestant denominations and five different parachurch organizations. Without exception, all of them claimed that their practices were “based in the Word of God.” Terms like “Biblical” and “Scriptural” were a big part of their theological and ecclesiastical vocabularies.
To some people, these terms can conjure up all sorts of ideas. To some, I think they may conjure up what the Church of Christ doctrine calls “the silence of the Scripture.” That doctrine teaches that if something is not mentioned in the NT, we shouldn’t do it. And if it is in the NT, we must do it. (In Reformed circles, it’s known as “the regulative principle.”)
I don’t hold to that doctrine at all. To my mind, it’s an unlivable doctrine, and it’s highly legalistic. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” Paul said.
Nor do I hold to what I call “Biblical blueprintism.” This is the idea that within the pages of the NT lies an ironclad pattern for doing church that’s as inflexible as the law of the Medes and Persians.
No such pattern exists. Historically, those who believed they had “the pattern” and claimed to practice it ended up splitting six ways to Sunday. Because not everyone agrees on the specificities of the pattern.
What I do believe, however, is that the New Testament contains a revelation of Jesus Christ and His church. As we say repeatedly in the book (especially at the end where we field questions), the church of the first-century was organic. And that organism we call the church has the same DNA today as it did in Century One. Thus when I use terms like “Biblical” or “Scriptural” or “first-century church practices” or “first-century experience” or “Biblical merit,” I’m speaking of the organism called ekklesia as it’s discussed and envisioned in the NT, the features of which she possesses yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
What are some of those features which are native to her DNA? Features like the headship of Jesus Christ (He alone is the Head of the Body), face-to-face authentic community, the every-member functioning of the Body, mutual submission, the family nature of the church, the priesthood of all believers, etc. I’m speaking of the spiritual principles that embody the life of the church which are rooted and grounded in NT teaching. I sometimes call this “the organic expression of the church,” “gathering in NT fashion,” “meeting first-century style,” or “NT-style church.” Many different terms to describe the same concept, which is pretty broad.
It’s important to know that this book intentionally, deliberately, and with forethought, does not discuss the above in any detail at all. In fact, we repeatedly say in the book that the whole question of the NT organic church will be dealt with comprehensively in the next volume (REIMAGINING CHURCH, which is now available). That’s where the discussion of solutions will be engaged. The book will also answer questions like: What is normative in the first-century church vs. what is culturally relative? Is there such a thing as a NT ecclesiology? Can NT principles actually work in the 21st century? And something I mention in “Pagan,” but never fully develop: What is a narrative ecclesiology?
That said, what we do in “Pagan” is make three points:
* Much of what we do for church today has no root in the NT. It didn’t come from Jesus Christ, the apostles, or any NT author. And much of it didn’t even come from Judaism. (So let’s stop calling those practices Biblical and treating them as though they were God-breathed.) I personally find the history of our church practices to be fascinating, riveting, arresting, stunning, captivating, and even mind-blowing.
* Much of what we do for church today originated from Greco-Roman customs (the practices of pagans) and human-made inventions. (So let’s acknowledge this and not pretend that they are inspired by God.)
* Many of those practices, we believe, actually hinder the church from being what God designed her to be and how she should function. (Be open to that possibility; it just might be true.)
One thousand plus footnotes later, we leave it up to the reader to decide if our accepted church practices are a development or a departure from what we find in the NT regarding the church.
The next book will explore that question in great depth.
So Pagan Christianity is not the end of the story; it’s only the beginning. It’s the “clearing away the debris” phase before a new foundation can be laid and a new paradigm introduced.
Hope that makes sense.
Now let me add an endnote to the subject I began this email with — writing.
Here are choice words from Winston Churchill. They happen to be my experience . . . unfortunately.
“Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”
And yes, I felt that way when writing my part of Pagan Christianity.
One of the charges against the book is that you and George are using overstatements, etc. Your response?
Answer. What’s an overstatement? The answer largely depends upon which hill a person is standing at the time they read a book. What some say is an “overstatement” others say is a “prophetic challenge.”
I remember once hearing a friend charge a particular church book with being “riddled with overstatements.” Today, this same friend feels that the author made his case. What happened? New grooves were cut in his brain that didn’t exist at his first reading.
When a particular book is loved and loathed at the same time, the vital question to ask is . . . are these “overstatements” backed up by reliable evidence? If they are, then I wouldn’t call them “overstatements.”
The traditional understanding of church is so entrenched in our thinking that it’s very difficult for us to analyze our current practices critically. What we’re up against is a mindset. All of the solutions that Christian leaders have given — more prayer, more preaching, more Bible reading, more good works, etc — all assume that the present-day ecclesial mindset is correct and shouldn’t be tampered with. At bottom, we are really dealing with a problem of how we think and conceptualize.
Let me see if I can illustrate this. I was in a conversation not too long ago with someone who argued that they understood the church to be God’s people, a face-to-face community, the very Bride of Christ in a locality, and not a building, a denomination, or a religious service. Minutes later this person began saying to someone else, “So which church do you go to?” This is one example of how deep the mindset runs. It’s burned into the circuitry of our brains. (If you didn’t catch that, read the book and learn where the idea of “going to church” came from. And how it’s at odds with the NT understanding of church.)
Another example was when I was in a conversation with a pastor of a small church. Some of the church members were present with him in the living room. He told me how much “his people” didn’t look to him before they make decisions. How “his people” were free. How “his people” were not controlled by him in any way. Nor were they dependent on him but on Jesus. (Interestingly, everyone in the room would look to him before they threw in their comments and at him as they spoke. Both he and they were completely out of touch with this.)
Anyway, this pastor was completely unconscious of the fact that he kept using the term “my people” as he continued to tell me how they belonged to the Lord and not to himself.
Again, the clergy mindset runs deeper that many of us can imagine. (Overstatement?)
I believe that one of the ways to help break this mindset is to state the truth graciously, but without compromise and dilution. This naturally opens one up for the charge of making overstatements. Yet I believe the important question is not “is a sentence overstated?,” but “do the authors support and justify that statement with their arguments and research?”
Keep in mind that a big part of what we are doing in the book is to bring together many of the “overstatements” made by competent and reputable historians, scholars, and theologians along with their research which supports those statements. Here’s a sampling of what I mean. Consider for yourself if you feel these are “over-the-top, overstatements” or not. At face value, they sure seem that way to me:
The term ‘laity’ is one of the worst in the vocabulary of religion and ought to be banished from the Christian conversation. (Overstatement?)
– Karl Barth
The clergy-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies. (Overstatement?)
– James D.G. Dunn
The New Testament ‘Ecclesia,’ the fellowship of Jesus Christ, is a pure communion of persons and has nothing to do with the character of an institution about it; it is therefore misleading to identify any single one of the historically developed churches (which are all marked by an institutional character) with the true Christian communion. (Huge overstatement? . . . read the part again beginning with “it is therefore misleading . . .”)
– Emil Brunner
I also believe that what goes on in them [support groups] is far closer to what Christ meant His Church to be, and what it originally was, than much of what goes on in most churches I know. These groups have no buildings or official leadership or money. They have no rummage sales, no altar guilds, no every-member canvases. They have no preachers, no choirs, no liturgy, no real estate. They have no creeds. They have no program. They make you wonder if the best thing that could happen to many a church might not be to have its building burned down and to lose all its money. Then all the people would have left is God and each other. (Big Matzo ball overstatement?)
– Frederick Buechner
The clergy-laity dichotomy is a direct carry-over from pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood. It is one of the principal obstacles to the church effectively being God’s agent of the kingdom today because it creates a false idea that only ‘holy men,’ namely, ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership and significant ministry. In the New Testament there are functional distinctions between various kinds of ministries but no hierarchical division between clergy and laity. (Overstatement?)
– Howard Snyder
A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith. (Overstatement?)
– Reggie McNeal
I have a friend who likes to say “the solution to all the problems of the church is to shoot all the pastors and burn down all the church buildings.” Now that’s what I’d call “Overstatement City.” And no, I don’t agree with it; it’s just a sick joke.
As a potential reader of this controversial book, my advice to you is simple: Read the book for yourself and interact with the arguments made, look at the footnotes and check them out for yourself, and then decide if what we’re doing is inflating it with fluffy overstatements or if what we’re saying is substantiated by hard historical evidence. Also keep in mind that the book has been endorsed by some top-drawer historians and scholars.
On that fine note, let me rehearse a story that captures the entire thrust of Pagan Christianity, which is essentially a polemic/deconstructive work that seeks not to offer solutions, but to challenge conventional church practices and thinking.
A mother and daughter were working together in their kitchen preparing their Easter dinner. As was her custom every year, the mother took a ham out of the fridge and put it on a cutting board. She would then cut about an inch off both ends of the ham. Once the mother did this, the daughter stopped her and said: “Mother, why did you cut both ends off the ham?”
The mother stopped dead in her tracks and pondered the question. She was perplexed since no one had ever asked her why she did this before. She had done it that way as long as she could remember.
The mother answered and said: “Well sweetie, I don’t know the answer to your question. Your Grandma always cut the ends off her ham, and I have always done it the same way. I never ever asked why. Let’s call Grandma and ask her why she cuts the ham that way.”
So they grabbed the phone and called Grandma. The mother asked her own mother if she knew why she cut the ends of the ham off before placing it in the pan. The Grandmother fell silent. She never thought about it. She simply said, “That’s the way my mother always did it. Why don’t you call her and ask why?”
She hung up the phone and dialed the little girl’s great-grandmother, and she asked the question: “Why did you cut off both ends of the ham before cooking it?” The great-grandmother replied instantly: “It was because we couldn’t afford a pan large enough to hold the ham. So we cut both ends off to make it fit.”
This story can be applied to much of what we do for “church” every Sunday.
(At this point, I can faintly hear someone retort . . . “I’m angry at you for telling this story. I didn’t think Christians were supposed to eat pork!”)
And the discussion marches on . . .
Here are some wise words from F.F. Bruce to chew on: “Some institutions are allowed to grow so old and venerable that the idea of scrapping them is unthinkably sacrilegious.”
What do you say to the charge that you argue against institutionalization and organization in the church, yet you accept it in the likes of a Christian publishing company?
Answer. With respect to the church, the question is not is, Is it “organized”? The question is, “what is the source of its organization?” Is its form and structure organic or institutional? Big difference. My human body has a form and it’s highly organized. But that organization is organic, and it springs from life.
I believe the church is something Divine. It’s a living, breathing entity. That’s not pious rhetoric. It’s reality. I expound on this at length in FROM ETERNITY TO HERE.
So the church, properly conceived and practiced, is not a human institution; it’s a living organism.
On the other hand, a Christian publishing company — much like a hospital, a school, a university, etc.– is an organization/institution that can be used for good in the world. While God’s people may be part of it, it isn’t the ekklesia of the living God, and shouldn’t be equated with such. Two different entities; both operating on different principles. At least they should, I believe. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Christians are to act like non-Christians in their businesses. It simply means that the structure of the two entities is different.
A Christian organization may legitimately have a president, vice president, etc.; but the church of Jesus Christ knows only one Head and “you are all brethren,” as the Master Himself put it.
The above will be explored in the next book. Too much to say in this short space. I hope that clarifies more than it confuses.
Frank, the book is making some pastors angry, defensive, and accusing. You and George really got them in a frenzy! I’m wondering if any of these people would engage you in a question/answer discussion on their blog. Have any of them asked you to do this?
Answer. Not yet. And to be honest, I wish they would. I’d be very open to do a Q & A interview. I think it would help bring clarity to the issues for both sides of the debate. Despite the firestorm that’s breaking out in some quarters over the book, I’m happy to hear that people are reading it for themselves and contemplating the issues.
One thing that encourages me is a story a friend of mine told me long ago. He was a hungry Christian who wanted to know his Lord better. Someone put into his hands Watchman Nee’s book, “The Spiritual Man.” As he read that book, he became so angry that he threw it against the wall in a fit of rage. He decided he would never open it up again.
As the Lord brought my friend through different experiences in life, some quite difficult, he picked the book up again. This time, however, it became a new book to him. Same words, same message, same book. But he now stood in a different place . . . a place where he could receive its message. For the last thirty years, this man has been preaching the spiritual truths found in that book.
I’ve had similar experiences myself. While I admit that a book has never made me angry (I find that particular experience difficult to relate to), I have found some books to be quite difficult to read and understand. Some just seemed colorless at the time. Later, however, I picked those same books up only to be benefited immensely from them.
I guess my hope is that some who have gotten angry with the book today will see something of Jesus Christ in it tomorrow. And despite its shortcomings and weaknesses, God will get something for Himself through it in the lives of His people and in the bloodstream of His church.
Recently, I was reminded that every book that has changed the course of church history has been hailed and hammered, venerated and vilified all at the same time. Popular books that all mortals love rarely if ever change anything that’s significant. But those who challenge the status quo and go to the root of the issues (“radical” means going to the root), will see fireworks . . . this is true regardless of how careful, gracious, or solid their presentation may be.
As I said at the front, while some people are reacting to the book negatively now, the overwhelming response we’re receiving is incredibly positive and encouraging. I’m thankful for this. For as we say in the book, “Our reason for writing it is simple: We are seeking to remove a great deal of debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ to be the fully functioning head of His church.” (p. xx)
The fact of the matter is that millions of Christians are leaving the institutional church to find what their hearts are longing for. I believe that longing is for a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and the experience of ekklesia. There are between five and twenty million of us in the United States who have left and that number is growing. A recent study stated that one million Christians leave the institutional church every year in America. As Reggie McNeal has said, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.”
Our book is giving many of these people language to communicate why they feel this way as well as historical warrant for their decision.
Frank, I read someone say that you and George are the only people doing church right and that you write the book without allowing any room for disagreement or dialogue. They also quote you as saying, “when I began meeting in the New Testament fashion” to mean that you believe you alone know the right way to do church. Your thoughts?
Answer. Hmmm . . . we actually wrote the book to create and encourage dialogue. This is evidenced by the fact that we ask many questions throughout to encourage readers to consider. We also have a question-answer section after each chapter. We (along with Tyndale) are also creating a discussion guide to go with the book. This forum is another example of that desire.
I guess I don’t see how or in what way the book ends dialogue or discussion. If some feel that way, that certainly wasn’t our intention.
Perhaps some feel this way because we are confident in the research that backs our conclusions. Obviously, all of our statements are our opinions based on our experiences and conclusions. We aren’t infallible and don’t pretend to be. However, we aren’t afraid to question traditions boldly and to raise questions that millions of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are asking (often beyond closed doors).
As for the quote above, that’s not the exact quote, I’m afraid. Early on in the book, I say “not long after leaving the institutional church to begin gathering with Christians in New Testament fashion, I sought to understand how . . . ”
There’s no article in that sentence. The word “the” doesn’t appear there. I don’t believe there is THE right way to meet as if the corporate life of God’s people is a narrow endeavor. There’s something I call the organic expression of the church, which is what I’m speaking of when I say “New Testament fashion.” The organic expression of the church looks different-yet-very similar in every age and in every culture. In the book, we don’t discuss organic church life much at all. Just in passing mainly and in answering specific questions.
The sequel to Pagan Christianity, which comes out this summer, will explore what I believe to be the key features of an organic expression of the Body of Christ — a term that’s not readily familiar to many Christians today.
Anyway, I expect that book to bring a lot of clarity to the issues.
As for the idea that I believe I’ve discovered “the right way to do church,” ummm . . . (cough), I wish I did make such a discovery! I’m a man who is on a journey. I’ve been privileged (and I thank God for it) to experience organic church life on a number of occasions. And it’s wrecked me. Every Christian I’ve ever met who has touched it has been wrecked also. Wrecked for Jesus Christ and the experience of His Body and nothing else. (I’ve found in my own spiritual journey that Christ is the only thing that doesn’t wear out in the Christian life. Everything else eventually becomes old and tiresome after a while. So it seems to me anyway.)
But again, that’s another discussion. Regarding the “right” way of doing church (the constructive question), I really don’t think in those terms. To my mind, that question comes from the wrong tree. It’s one that emanates from the knowledge of good and evil. My questions are of a different character: Where is Jesus Christ in a particular practice? Where is His life? Where’s the Body of Christ displaying the unsearchable riches of Christ? Where’s the most beautiful girl in the world, that glorious woman who is the fiancé of my Lord, expressing herself in freedom and glory?
Those are my guideposts. NT teaching and example on the church all point toward HIM. He is her everything.
That said, I consider myself to be an observing botanist who is ever learning. I learn by watching God’s people when they are set free from guilt, condemnation, and religious tradition and are encountering Jesus Christ in an organic way in close-knit community. This is what makes me tick.
Do you believe that the church should have no leadership? Doesn’t the Bible teach leadership?
Answer. I don’t ever recall saying anywhere that the church doesn’t nor shouldn’t have leaders. I don’t believe that at all. As my friend Hal Miller has said, “Leadership is. It could be good or bad. But it always is.” It’s thetype of leadership that’s the issue. Official, top-down, hierarchical leadership is what we discuss in the book. When we trace the origin of the modern pastor, for instance, we’re contrasting that office with the NT concept of shepherd/elders. . . a very different thing in our view.
The next book will explore the idea of leadership in the church in much more detail. And it will discuss the issues of “covering,” “accountability,” “authority”, and “submission.” It takes a very different view on these issues than what’s commonly taught in Protestant circles.
I read a review of the book this morning that said, “Their overarching conclusion is that if a method wasn’t used in the first-century church and was invented by someone who isn’t a Christ-follower, it doesn’t belong in the ministry of today’s local church.” I read the book and didn’t get that at all. Care to comment?
Answer. You’re right, we don’t say that nor do we believe it. Our argument is that only those pagan practices that are in disharmony with the teachings of Scripture, which contradict the nature of the church, and which don’t square with the headship of Jesus should be re-examined and in many cases, discarded.
One blogger says that you and George “used your book to raise the house church movement as the one sacred method for gathering the believers.” Is that what you’re doing in the book?
Answer: Interesting. Anyone who has read the book knows that we don’t delve into solutions, but rather, we stick to deconstructing current practices. Only in passing do we discuss the unchanging principles of the headship and centrality of Jesus Christ, the every-member functioning of His Body, the priesthood of all believers, and authentic community as envisioned in the NT.
What we do in the book, near the end, is argue for a brand new approach to the NT when it comes to constructing our church practices. It’s a narrative ecclesiology.
The constructive question — “What do we do now and how do we get there?,” is a very complicated one. Thus it’s dealt with thoroughly in an upcoming book that releases August 2008 – REIMAGINING CHURCH. That book will explore those timeless principles of the first-century church which are rooted firmly in the Triune God, in the cross/resurrection of Christ, and in the unfolding narrative of the Bible. The book will clearly distinguish what is timeless from what is time-bound in the early church. And it will raise many important questions to grapple with.
As for the idea that we are promoting the house church movement as “sacred” or as “the solution,” this is not true. We actually critique the house church movement in the book and draw a distinction between it and “the organic expression of the church.” Those are two very different things. Some house churches are organic; others are not.
I’ve often said that asking someone to describe a “house church” is like asking someone to describe a plant! The variety is that immense.
I’ve stated my own critiques of the modern house church movement in numerous places.
In short, I’ve never proposed house church as the solution. If I had to choose between some house churches and some institutional churches, I’d join those institutional churches in a heartbeat. But again, that’s not the issue. The issue is what does the New Testament envision for the church? What is God’s idea of church? What is Jesus’ idea of church?
Those questions are deliberately not discussed in “Pagan Christianity” in any length. They will be discussed in depth in the next volume. And the answer is not the house church movement, as that movement embraces a ton of different kinds of ecclesial expressions . . . some good, some not so good. (And some quite pitiful.) At the same time, the answer is certainly not what we have on the earth today in the way of institutionalized Christianity. That’s one of the major points of the book.
I saw that one person wrote that you and George “hate history” and believe that the historical church has done nothing good after the post-apostolic period.
Answer. Again, I don’t see how anyone who reads the book can come away with that idea. We repeatedly commend Christians after the post-apostolic age, even if we happen to disagree with their ecclesiology.
In fact, George and I state in the book that we owe our salvation and our baptism to the institutional church. The issue is not whether or not God can or is using the institutional church. We repeatedly acknowledge that He has and is. But the good is often the enemy of the best. And His blessing is not the equivalent of His full endorsement. We discuss this aspect at length in the book.
The Body of Christ has been around for the last 2,000 years, and it has discovered the riches of Christ in many areas. I, for example, have drawn much from the early fathers in the way of their theology and insights into Christ. The same is true for many movements that ended up becoming Christian denominations. Many Christians after the post-apostolic age were spiritual giants in my view, and I have great respect for them. But that doesn’t mean that they saw perfectly in all areas. And it doesn’t mean that their ecclesiologies were correct.
There has always been a line of Christians who stood outside the institutional church. They have been called the Radical Reformation, the Trail of Blood, the Pilgrim Church, and the Left Wing of the Reformation.
The great theologian Jurgen Moltmann said that “the church’s future lies with the left wing of the Reformation.” Our book can be seen as a foretaste of that. George and I state who some of those radical Reformers were and reference various books that tell their story. It is their story that has been forgotten and lost. And it is their ecclesiology that has been ignored. “Pagan Christianity” brings that ecclesiology to the forefront.
Some have assumed that your book takes the position that just because a practice is pagan in origin it’s evil and should be tossed. I read the book and know that this isn’t what you’re saying. Can you give some clarifying words?
Answer: We actually write that this isn’t our argument early on in the book. We use the example of pile carpets, chairs, and the Western calendar, arguing that these inventions are of pagan origin, yet they shouldn’t be discarded because of it.
The book also states that we don’t address Christmas and Easter for the same reason. (See the next question for details on that.)
The argument of the book is that most of what we do in our “inherited” churches today does not come from Jesus, the apostles, or the Word of God, but out of pagan tradition . . . so let’s stop calling it “Biblical” and treating it as if it were sacrosanct. (Many Christians act as though these things were written with the finger of God.) The second argument of the book, which is the main point, is that many of these practices violate the DNA of the church, hinder the headship of Jesus Christ, and suppress the functioning of His Body. They also contradict many of the core teachings of the NT, such as the priesthood of all believers.
Our ultimate goal is to see the centrality, supremacy, preeminence, and headship of the Lord Jesus Christ restored in His church again, and that’s the point we make repeatedly.
In Pagan Christianity, you address many of the pagan traditions that have shaped the modern church. But how come you never discuss the so-called “Christian” holidays like Christmas and Easter which have pagan roots?
As before said, the scope of the book is to treat those church practices that hinder the functioning of the Body of Christ and which suppress the headship of Christ. For that reason, we do not address the Western calendar that we all use on a daily basis. Nor do we address pile carpets or chairs, which are commonly used in church services. All of these are pagan inventions. We do not address them simply because we do not see how they hinder the functioning of the Body or the headship of Christ.
By the same token, I have never seen the holidays where Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ (Christmas) and His resurrection (Easter) hinder the functioning of the Body of Christ or the headship of Christ in His church. (I have seen this issue create strife when people insist on what other Christians must do in relation to these holidays. But that’s another issue.)
I am aware of the history behind when Christians began celebrating the birth of Christ and His resurrection, and whenever I hear it, I find myself yawning. Our spiritual forefathers chose to compete with the pagans by redeeming certain days for Jesus Christ that had traditionally been kept sacred by their heathen neighbors.
History is clear that the Christians chose those same days to honor their Lord instead of going along with the pagan celebrations. It was a testimony against paganism and a way to “redeem the days.” I find nothing wrong with this at all. (Of course, I am not at all suggesting that promoting Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny is celebrating the birth of Jesus and the resurrection. Those have nothing to do with the Christian meaning of Christmas and Easter. I’m speaking of the celebration of these two events where Jesus is glorified on those holidays.) It is not dissimilar to when Martin Luther and William Booth took bar tunes created by pagans, and redeemed them by setting Christian lyrics to them. Do you realize that many of the classic hymns that we Christians sing routinely were originally put to pagan tunes long ago? Again, I personally see no problem with this.
Consequently, to think that a certain day or musical tune holds some type of ritualistic evil is superstitious at best. What is more, this sort of thinking is actually pagan.
How, why, and when God’s people remember and celebrate the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a matter of personal conscience (Romans 14:1-6). Therefore, I have never had a burden to address these things. I stand with Paul, who was a non-legalist, in his conclusion about observing certain days: “Let every man be persuaded in his own mind.”
Note: Some of the nastiest, most judgmental, and most unChristlike emails we have received have come from people who are legalistic about the holidays and forcefully push their own views on everyone else. This betrays the entire spirit of my ministry and my books.
One person indicated that the flaw of the book is an insufficient description of culture and what constitutes accommodation versus appropriate contextualization. Is this a fair assessment?
Answer. We address this issue in the book. Again, I’m all for redeeming certain pagan practices . . . those that can be redeemed. Christmas is one example. Paul said “I become all things to all men that I may save some.” That’s contextualization and accommodation.
But there are other practices that cannot be redeemed, because they strike at the very heart of the gospel and contradict the organic nature of the church which flows out of the Triune God.
The words of F.F. Bruce on this score are fitting:
“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.”
I’ve written a short essay entitled Rethinking Church and Culture which expands this mode of thought. In it, I try to address the whole issue of accommodation, assimilation, and redemption of culture. This is discussed in the book as well, and the above article is cited.
Why is it okay to question certain Protestant or Catholic theology, but somehow heretical to question Protestant or Catholic ecclesiology?
Thankfully, the book is doing great right now, and so far, the overwhelming feedback we’ve received has been positive.
On a related note, there are two quotes that I love, both of which appear in the book.
“Experience supplies painful proof that traditions once called into being are first called useful, then they become necessary. At last they are too often made idols, and all must bow down to them or be punished.”
-J. C. Ryle
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
I’ve read that some folks who haven’t even read the book say that you and Barna are telling people what they should do. I read the book and didn’t see any of this in there, and honestly I was frustrated a little because there was no practical instruction. Did I miss something?
Answer. No, you didn’t miss anything. You actually read the book 😉 It’s easy for people to make all sorts of judgments on a book that they haven’t read. It’s a little tougher to actually dialogue with specific points in context.
On that score, a friend told me recently that he read two blog reviews on “Pagan Christianity,” and the reviewers hadn’t even read the book. All they were doing was repeating the same exact analysis that one or two other reviewers had written.
I remember reading a blog that reviewed a book written by a friend of mine. The reviewer tore the book to shreds. He quoted the author out of context, ignored many of his key arguments, summarized the book unfairly and in a way that dissuaded people from reading it. He essentially said that the book overstated its case and didn’t make valid points. He also asserted that the book said that everything the modern church was doing was wrong, and thus the book couldn’t be taken seriously.
All his negative feedback caused me to buy and read the book! I wanted to know what could make someone so reactionary.
When I read the book myself, I discovered that the blogger was uncommonly biased in his review. His summary was way off-target, and it had few points of contact with the truth. It completely misrepresented the book’s message.
The amazing thing was that most of the people who commented on that blog took the reviewer’s word for it and just accepted his analysis of the book without question. And many of them didn’t read the book for themselves.
It was then that I realized that reviewers who aren’t intellectually honest (or careless in their reading) have the power to dismiss a book in such a way that others will refuse to read it.
In philosophy, this technique is called a “straw man argument.” Let’s say you don’t like a book. You are so upset while reading it that it’s hard to pay attention to all the points due to the steam that’s blowing out of both your ears. You then review it, but you misrepresent the author’s arguments. You explain that the book makes various weak and ludicrous points (points, mind you, that the authors themselves never make). Then you proceed to demolish those arguments in the eyes of your audience. Those who haven’t read the book for themselves think you’ve destroyed the author’s thesis. But in reality, you’ve done something quite deceptive.
Sometimes this is done deliberately. Other times its done when people carelessly read a work and miss the point, wittingly or unwittingly.
When “Pagan Christianity” was written, we concluded that we didn’t want to tell people what to do. Instead, we wanted them to make their own decision. Some involved in the book project wanted us to give step-by-step instructions on what do to. It was argued, “You must tell people what to do with this or they’ll be frustrated.” Others felt this was the wrong approach. It was too premature and more had to be discussed before we could give valid options. So it was decided to end the book leaving readers to pray over the content, and answer the question: “Is what we’re doing today a departure from God’s intention or a development?” This is the ultimate question the book raises. It’s stated explicitly at the end when we come to our concluding remarks.
We also let readers know that there would be a second book coming out in the Summer of ’08 which would present a positive case for what church could really be like in our time.
Another point to consider. We Western Christians want fast and easy solutions. “Microwave on high for three minutes, add water and stir,” is our mentality. But we’ll never come to valid solutions if we don’t fully understand the problems.
When we’re dealing with the issue of the church in its present form, it takes a paradigm shift of mammoth proportions to understand where to go next. The present paradigm of church that we’re stuck in right now runs pretty deep. The present mindset is formidable. The hostile reactions by some when people simply question what we do for church today is proof positive of how deep it runs.
That said, we wanted “Pagan” to just make the simple point that what we do doesn’t originate from the teachings of Jesus Christ or the apostles. And much of it is in direct conflict with them. We want people to chew on that one simple point for awhile before we introduce them to the next question: “What did Jesus and the apostles actually teach about the church?”
The truth is that in “Pagan,” we ask more questions than we answer. And that’s intentional. The second book will be similar, but it will be constructive. It will paint a picture of the ekklesia that I and many others have lived and experienced over the years – the roots of which stand firmly in the New Testament vision of the Triune God, “the Community of the Godhead,” as theologian Stanley Grenz used to put it.
What do you say to the charge that you and George are defying God’s sovereignty by challenging the history of church practices?
Answer. I really don’t understand that argument. Did Luther and Melancthon defy or deny God’s sovereignty when they challenged the church of their day? Did Dietrich Bonhoeffer defy or deny God’s sovereignty when he spoke out against what was happening in the church of his day? Did Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Ezekiel and Daniel defy or deny God’s sovereignty when they prophesied to Israel about its present course? (Please don’t miss the point here. I’m not suggesting that I can fill the shoes of any of these men, for I certainly can’t. I’m simply demonstrating that they were operating within God’s sovereign plan.)
I’m a firm believer in the sovereignty of God. But that sovereignty also includes prophetic voices who seek to bring God’s people back to the thought of God when they have veered from it. (That is the essence of prophetic ministry.)
Thus when I see someone challenging the church or seeking to bring a correction to a long-standing tradition, I don’t view that as a challenge to God’s sovereignty. I weigh it and decide whether or not that voice belongs to the Lord and is in line with Scripture. And if it is, it’s part of God’s sovereign action in space/time.
I am intrigued with your writings and am ordering your revised book (Pagan Christianity). I am wondering, however, how you are able to ignore the diverse, varied, and cross-supporting (interchangeable) descriptions of Elders (Presbuteros/Episcopos/Poimen) as active, accepted leaders of the first century church, as presented in the New Testament.
Answer. Hmmm . . . I’m wondering where you heard this or why you believe it? I argue for this very thing in the book. What gave you the idea that I reject plural elders? I certainly believe in them; not as an office, but as an organic function. Elders, leadership, “covering,” authority, etc. will be discussed in the upcoming volume.
What do you say to the idea that you are romanticizing the first-century church. It had many problems, right?
Answer. My response is that I wish they would take the time to read my work before making such conclusions. I’ve written quite a bit about the problems in the first century church. See THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH for example. They are the same problems that any organic church today will face. I face them all the time as someone who plants organic churches.
The interesting thing is, the solutions that are found in the Epistles are incredibly applicable to the problems that organic expressions of the church face today. It’s not the outward shell of the early church we are looking at. It’s the DNA of the organism which is reflected in the teachings of the NT. Elements like authentic face-to-face community, mutual submission, the church as family, the every-member functioning of the Body, the headship of Jesus, etc. These are part of the church’s genetic code in every age. I will expound fully on all of this in a future work, which will explore the Godhead and how the church emerges out of it. In short, the church is called to be the visible image of the invisible God. Her high calling is to express the Lord Jesus Christ in the earth in every locale. In Pagan Christianity, we are simply saying that our cherished traditions have smothered much of this and suppressed the DNA of the church to work freely in many situations.
Why didn’t you get more into the issue of Constantine’s influence on the political outlook of the church in his role of marrying the church and the state?
Answer: We touch on it briefly, but one reason is space. The book is already 336 pages long. The other and more important reason is because others have done an adequate job handling that question. People like Brian McLaren, Stuart Murray (PostChristendom), and the radical orthodox folks have made a strong case about the Constantinian influences on the politics of the church.
What George and I have done in Pagan Christianity is take that argument a step further and show how that same influence has affected much of our ecclesiology.
For some reason, it’s difficult for some people who agree with the first camp to connect the dots and take that extra step.
Some are assuming that you are wanting to create a first-century church in our day. Is that what you and George are advocating?
Answer. Not at all. And we make this clear in the book. The Alexander Campbell (Restoration) movement (a la, the modern-day “Church of Christ”) as well as the Plymouth Brethren, both spawned in the mid-19thcentury, tried to do just that. And both movements ended up splintering into countless factions.
Reinventing a NT church is not where we are headed at all. Instead, we speak rather briefly about the organic nature of the church.
In the next book, I will explore what that means and what it looks like in the first century and today. The church is an organism. Most Christians agree with that, and it can be proven by the NT quite easily. But what exactly does that mean and what does it look like in the first century and in our day?
That will be the subject of the book. It’s a very different approach to what I call ‘the biblical blueprint’ mentality of trying to duplicate a first-century church in the 21st century. This isn’t something I stand with.
I’m so glad you retained the footnotes in this edition. I find the history absolutely fascinating. I just wish some of the footnotes were put in the text. Did Tyndale give you a hard time with keeping the footnotes? I know that most publishers today require authors to use endnotes, which I don’t care for.
Answer. Both George and I requested to keep the footnotes retained because we felt with a book like this, they are not only powerful, but as you said, incredibly fascinating. I’m glad Tyndale conceded. If you like history, the footnotes provide some astounding information about many of the great leaders of the past, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and some of the early church fathers. My editor put some of the footnote information which appeared in the first edition into the actual text. A wise move. But we couldn’t do that for all of them, as the book would be well over 500 pages!
Not too long ago someone told me that they felt every Christian should read the book just for the education in history and nothing more. It’s a fascinating journey through time, and as the philosophers tell us, we’ll never understand the present unless we study the past.
Two of my favorite quotes in the book are – “Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it” and “What history teaches us more than anything is that men never learn anything from it.”
I love those because they are painfully true in so many cases.
May it not be so for our generation.
Some would charge you and George of creating division in the Kingdom of God. What do you say to that?
Answer. Well, I suppose that charge could be made to any person or group that challenges the status quo. Interesting, I’ve heard that some people in a certain movementare making this claim (not sure if that’s true or not). If it is, it’s ironic because this very movement has been accused of this very same thing by our Fundamentalist and Reformed brothers and sisters.
My hope is that people would read the book for themselves and make up their own minds as to whether or not what we are saying is warranted and biblically, spiritually, and historically justified . . . and whether or not we have a divisive spirit.
I also wish that some who disagree with the book would discuss the specific points of contention with me. George and I want this book to create honest dialogue on the issues the book actually raises.
On the other hand, I’m encouraged that many people have commended us for the gracious tone and spirit in which the book was written. In fact, a top editor from a large Christian publisher (not the publisher of the book) told me personally that he felt the book was “pastoral,” meaning it took people by the hand and walked them through the arguments with a kind spirit. Yet it retained its Christ-centered, prophetic edge.
I hope that others will feel that way. That was certainly our intention at least.
Some are saying that in the book you are not allowing for any discussion. What is your response?
Answer. One of the reasons why we added objections and responses to every chapter (and many at the end) is to create a sense of conversation. We state in the book, both in the beginning and at the end, that we want the book to create respectful and thoughtful discussion on issues that are rarely talked about today. So this is our hope. My email address and web site are accessible to anyone. I’m open to discuss the issues with anyone who is willing to do so in a gracious, respectful manner. And of course, as my time permits.
We have stated a historical case that most of what we do in our modern churches does not come from Jesus, the apostles, or the NT. Rather, it is derived from pagan culture dating mostly back to the third through fourth centuries. And the question we are asking readers is this: “Are these practices a departure or a development from what God had in mind for His church originally?”
Is it possible that much of what we are doing today for church does not reflect the will of God? Is that possible?
That’s a question that is often skirted. If someone is going to disagree with the book, that’s the issue they need to address. Straw men arguments won’t do. People who take the plunge and read the book will eventually catch on.
Whether we like it or not, millions of Christians have left and are leaving the “inherited” church. But they haven’t left God nor the assembling together of His people. As one Bible professor once pointed out, these souls felt they couldn’t survive spiritually in the present religious system, so they bailed out.
Our book demonstrates that these people have a historical and a biblical right to feel the way they do. And they shouldn’t be faulted or criticized for their decision.
I recently read in a blog where someone accused you and Barna of being full of pride because “for them to write from such a definitive perspective, the way they have written, an element of pride must no doubt be present.”
Answer. I guess my only question is: Has this person who imputed this evil motive to our hearts actually read the book? God forbid if we have written in a spirit of pride. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. I’m not sure I equate pride with challenging traditions. Pride is a motive of the heart. One can challenge something boldly and be humble while they do it. The prophets of both Old and New Testament eras are examples. It depends on one’s spiritual posture and motive. So it seems to me anyway.
To be perfectly candid, I believe it is the Lord’s favor and grace that this book was published in the first place. And I still can’t believe it was published. I wrote the original version in 2002 never dreaming that a Christian publisher would ever be interested in it because the message was so radical. But it seems that God had different ideas.
My goal in both the first and second editions are stated numerous times in the book. It’s to clear away all the debris so that Jesus Christ can be seen and experienced in all of His glory and beauty.
Anyway, I love what my friend Brian McLaren has written about criticizing a work. When I first read it, I felt that I could have written it myself (because of how it reflected my own heart, not because of the style. Brian is a much better writer than I am.)
My hope in all of this is that God’s people would read the book themselves and make their own decision as to how they will respond. That . . . opposed to allowing someone else to summarize it for them who got angry with the message.
At the same time, if someone enjoys church the way it is and they feel nothing needs to be changed, then by all means, they shouldn’t even turn the cover. But to my mind, to make judgments on a book they’ve not read is not intellectually honest. We warn people of so much in the preface. From our vantage point, the book really is a red pill (= The Matrix).
The book is well documented. There are footnotes on every page. What do you say to the person who dismisses this saying that footnotes can be taken out of context?
Answer. The book has over 1,000 footnotes. We wanted readers to know that we aren’t blowing bubbles or building air castles when we tell the arresting story of where what we do comes from.
Getting to your question, I suppose they are right. Anyone can use a footnote. The question is, does that footnote correspond to a real source, is the information valid, and is it used in context?
My editor at Tyndale, along with her staff, went through every footnote with a fine-toothed comb to make sure they matched up and were valid. This was a huge task, but it was very helpful.
I am confident that my readers can make up their own minds on those questions as they read the book. It’s not terribly hard to do. I will also point out that the book has been endorsed by some heavy weight scholars and historians. Robert Banks, Howard Snyder, and Jon Zens being a few of them.
I applaud you for your courage in writing this book. Both you and George really have stuck your neck out here. Was it difficult for you to make the decision? Did you know you guys would get a lot of heat?
Answer. I wasn’t born to be popular. Yes, we knew the book would be unfairly attacked and that some people would work hard at trying to persuade people not to read it. God is in charge of all that. He simply asks us to be faithful.
Anyone who takes a stand against traditional Christianity, whether in its theology or its ecclesiological practices, is raw meat for those who will uncharitably disagree. If you’re going to take such a stand, you need to get used to the sight of your own blood.
In this connection, it’s important to keep this particular work in historical perspective. If this same book was published 500 years ago, the authors would have been roasted over a slow spit, boiled in olive oil, or suffer a crueler fate.
For that reason, the book is dedicated to those fearless souls who gave their lives because they refused to capitulate to man’s traditions in God’s house. I proudly take my stand in their lineage.
In some ways, it’s fitting that Tyndale has chosen to publish this book. Read what happened to William Tyndale and you’ll understand that comment. Tyndale was declared a “heretic”, strangled to death, and his body burned at the stake in the name of God because he took an unpopular stand for what he believed to be right and true in the eyes of the Lord. (I am thankful to Tyndale House for having the courage to publish this book.)
I have friends who are leaders in the Body of Christ who I disagree with on the issue of ecclesiology. Some of them are pastors and evangelical scholars; others are Anglican bishops and scholars. I love what they’re doing in various areas of the faith. And my disagreement with their ecclesiology doesn’t affect our friendship or my respect for them. The Kingdom of God is much larger than our ecclesiological views. And so is the Body of Christ.
I do wish that Christians who disagree with each other would be respectful and charitable and fair in stating their disagreements. Some are, for sure. May their tribe increase!
Perhaps we’ll see a day when all or most of God’s people can disagree in a spirit of grace and peace. When that day comes, I think the Lord will have gained a great deal for His eternal purpose.
Frank. Here’s a recent blog post. He first quotes from your book saying, “They will bring their own songs, they will write their own songs, they will minister out of what Christ has shown them–with no human leader present!” Then he gives his opinion, “Um… no they won’t. They won’t do much of anything without a leader. They won’t even clear the 16 inches of snow (don’t you miss northern Indiana Tony?) off the church steps and handicap ramp. They leave it for the “leader” to do it alone. They won’t bring food for the food pantry. “Leader’s” job. They won’t even show up to worship let alone write their own songs. Barna and Viola overestimate the commitment that nominal Christians have to anything. Sheep won’t do much else but die without a shepherd.” What’s your response?
Answer. I’d say that this sort of thinking and assumption is one of the reasons why we’ve written the book. It runs deeper than we can imagine. It’s job-security for modern clergy that’s built on fear and helplessness. My experience over the last twenty years, as well as the experience of my co-workers who plant churches, is that God’s people can certainly function under the headship of Christ if they are equipped to. The statement about singing, therefore, is not arm-chair philosophy or wishful thinking. It’s been my experience over the last two decades. In my book, THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH, I trace how Paul of Tarsus raised up churches and equipped God’s people to function in his absence and without a local pastor. Some say this can’t be done today; yet experience defies such an assertion.
On a related note: To my mind, the quotes in the book by top notch scholars and theologians are worth the price of the book. I love the one by Karl Barth where he says that “the term ‘laity’ is one of the worst in the vocabulary of religion and ought to be banished from the Christian conversation,” as well as the one by James D.G. Dunn where he says that the clergy/laity dichotomy is the worst of all heresies.
What do you say to the person who rejects the book without reading it because they believe that what we do can’t come from paganism, but must come from the Jewish faith instead?
Answer. We demonstrate historically that this isn’t the case. My advice to such people is simply to look at the evidence we present by noted historians and refute it specifically. Simply saying, “That can’t be true, I’m not taking this seriously” is hardly a convincing argument, especially from someone who hasn’t read the book and hasn’t interacted with the historical evidence.
As a friend of mine recently said to me, “Frank, these kinds of responses sound like, ‘don’t confuse me with the facts.'”
I prefer to interact with those who have actually read the book and can point out specifically where a statement or argument is off base. I’m very open to weigh such things and to make corrections where necessary.
Some are saying that your argument is that the entire church is pagan, and that this is an overstatement that’s ridiculous. Your response?
Answer. First, I agree that such a statement is ridiculous. For that reason, we never make it, we don’t believe it, and our argument in the book is entirely different. Thinking the best, this is an example of an assertion that could only come from someone who hasn’t read the book.
How do you address the Scriptures in 1 Timothy and Hebrews about submitting to leaders?
Answer. These questions are addressed in the book. They will also be explored in great detail in the next volume,Reimagining Church, especially the concept of “covering” and “submission to authority.” I believe very strongly in leadership in the church. I’ve never denied this. But I believe, along with people like Robert Banks, that it should be expressed drastically differently than what’s commonly accepted today.
Frank, I just read one guy’s blog today. He’s a pastor and wasn’t going to blog about the book, but when he read it he became so angry that he’s trashing it left and right now. He said you and George are way off but he never gives any examples. He quoted George as saying something to caution rebellious hearts not to cause division because of the book. Didn’t you say that in the original edition? The fact that this guy is playing fast and loose with the facts says a lot to me. Reading his blog actually made me go out and buy the book so I can read it for myself.
Answer. Yes, you are right. In the beginning of the original edition, I cautioned those who are inclined to be “rebellious hearts” not to cause division, but if they choose to leave their church, they should leave quietly and take no one with them. That paragraph appears in the new version as well.
What do you say to the person who accuses you and George of hating the church?
Answer. After each chapter, there’s a section called “delving deeper” where George and I field objections that we anticipate will be in the minds of some of our readers. One of those questions is exactly, “Why do you hate the church?” We answer that question warmly and (hopefully) wittingly. You will just have to read the book to see our answer Let me know how we did on that one, would you?
Why don’t you talk about the pagan origin of Christians meeting on Sunday? The early Christians, Paul, and Jesus had church on the Sabbath as the Law commands, didn’t they?
Answer. We have no evidence whatsoever that the early church gathered for their meetings on the Sabbath. Actually, the evidence shows that at least some of the early churches met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2), which is the day of Christ’s resurrection (Mark 16:9). Nonetheless, Paul is quite clear on his understanding of the Sabbath.
The reason for this is that the early Christians saw God’s relationship to Old Testament Israel as part of the old creation. In Christ, God had destroyed the enmity (which was the Law) and the wall of partition that separated Jew and Gentile thus creating one new man . . . one new humanity . . . one new person which transcended all physical distinctions (Ephesians 2:14-16). Consequently, the early Christians met on the first day of the week, which was the day of Christ’s resurrection, indicating that they were part of a new creation. Under the New Covenant, there is no “wrong” day for the church to gather.
For Paul, the Law was a shadow of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Sabbath was merely a picture of Christ, who is our Rest. For this reason, Paul told the Colossian church to not allow anyone to judge them with respect to keeping the yearly feasts, the monthly new moons, or the weekly Sabbaths. All of these things were but a shadow of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:16ff.). Now that we have the reality of Christ, the shadow is no longer necessary.
The writer of Hebrews is in agreement. The Law contained shadows of the New Covenant (Hebrews 10:1). And the Sabbath was a shadow of God’s rest, which is Christ Himself (Hebrews 4:4-10). Therefore, Christians are no more obligated to keep the Sabbath (literally) than they are to gather in a physical temple and offer animal sacrifices to God. These practices were photo pictures fulfilled and realized in Christ. Consequently, the Christian is free to separate unto God any day he wishes. He is not under bondage to keep the earthly shadows.
This debate was present in one of the churches in the first century. The church in Rome contained both Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles knew their freedom from the Law. Thus, they had no obligation to keep the Sabbath. The Jews, however, felt that Sabbath-keeping was still necessary. Paul’s answer to this dilemma was brilliant: “Let every man be persuaded in his own mind.” Paul told the church to let him who is free in his conscience to eat any food and to regard all days the same to not despise the one who feels obligated to eat certain foods and to keep certain days holy. He then said to those who feel obligated to keep certain days holy and to eat certain foods not judge those who are free in all of these things (Romans 14:1-12). If we would all follow Paul’s exhortation, it would bring forth much peace in the Christian family.
Why don’t you and other biblical scholars use the names Yahweh and Yahshua but instead you all use the pagan names that have been given to Father (G_d) and His Son (Jesus)?
Because we are following the New Testament authors themselves who call the Son of God Iesous (Jesus), not Yahshua. Also, God is never called Yahweh in the New Testament. New Testament scholars are agreed in regarding the suggestion that Greek names are “pagan” — as if they carried some inherent non-Jewish religious flavor — to be nonsense. Consider how many New Testament Jews were named Simon or Philip or John. Those weren’t Hebrew names.
The foundational error in this sort of thinking is the failure to understand that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was Hellenized. Therefore, many Jews – and Christians – took Greek names. (The New Testament authors wrote in Greek.) There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s not religiously “pagan.” In addition, the roots of our heritage trace further back than the nation of Israel or even Abraham. It’s rooted in the Eternal Son, the Christ of God, before time and creation. That’s where the lineage of Jesus, the Son of God, originates and that’s where our true identity is located.
We Christians are part of a new creation which is neither Jew nor Greek, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. So we are neither Hebrew nor Gentile (see Colossians, Ephesians, and Galatians). And although Jesus was Jewish in His flesh, He was an eternal being, the first of the new creation, neither Jew nor Greek, but the beginning of what the early Christians called “the third race” and “new humanity.” See the Introduction to Jesus: A Theography as well as From Eternity to Here for details on this point.