Most of our religious habits are man-made choices.
A new book challenges common assumptions about the church.
Editor’s note: As an organization, we have long held to the position that presenting viewpoints that don’t necessarily mirror our own is a healthy, and even stretching proposition. We believe strongly in divergent perspectives as they often have the power to make us think, re-think, and challenge our long-held beliefs.
The following article is an excerpt from Pagan Christianity?, a new book that asks very important questions about the history of the Church and how we have come to accept most of the “normal” patterns of church life that we have today. On the surface it may seem heretical to even question some of these engrained values, but that’s what a good argument does: It presents historical evidence, it raises questions, and it dares to help answer them.
Because the majority of our readers have their lives vested in the local church, we thought it was important and mind-stretching to present the authors’ viewpoint in this book and allow for meaningful dialog and careful reflection.
What do modern and postmodern Christians know about the history of the church that would help to shape present-day attempts at honoring God and being the church? Precious little, it turns out. And therein lies a significant problem. Historians have long held that if we do not remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it. There is ample evidence to support that warning. Yet we often persist in our well-intentioned but ignorant efforts to refine life.
The recent story of the Christian church in America is a great example of this. The major changes in spiritual practice over the past half century have been largely window dressings. Pick a trend — megachurches, seeker churches, satellite campuses, vacation Bible school, children’s church, affinity group ministries (e.g., ministries for singles, women, men, young marrieds), contemporary worship music, big-screen projection systems, EFT giving, cell groups, downloadable sermons, sermon outlines in bulletins, Alpha groups.
All of the above have simply been attempts to rely on marketing strategies to perform the same activities in different ways or places, or with particular segments of the aggregate population. Whatever difficulties were present in the larger institutional setting that spawned these efforts are invariably present in the smaller or divergent efforts as well.
Altering the ways in which we worship is no simple task. When people suggest significant changes in some of the hallowed practices, cries of “heretic” can be heard coming from all directions. Such protest is common largely because people have little knowledge of the true foundations of their faith.
Rather than foster continued resistance to methodological innovations, it’s time that the body of Christ get in touch with both the Word of God and the history of the church to arrive at a better understanding of what we can and should do — as well as what we cannot and should not do.
If you spend time searching God’s Word for most of the common practices in conventional churches, you will rarely find them. If you go further and spend time tracing the history of those practices, you will soon discover that most of our religious habits are man-made choices. In fact, you’re likely to discern a pattern about the way that we “do church” these days: If we do it, it’s probably not in the Bible as one of the practices of the early church!
Does it surprise you that most of what we do in religious circles has no precedent in Scripture? This includes many of the activities within church services, the education and ordination of clergy, the routines commonly used in youth ministry, the methods of raising funds for ministry, the ways in which music is used in churches, even the presence and nature of church buildings.
There were three historical periods when a bevy of changes were made in common Christian practices: the era of Constantine, the decades surrounding the Protestant Reformation, and the Revivalist period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But as you are about to find out, those changes were the result of passionate, though often ill-informed, followers of Christ.
The believers during those periods simply went along for the ride, which resulted in new perspectives and practices that churches have held on to for many years. So many years, in fact, that you probably think of those routines as biblical in origin.
Not surprisingly, having changed the biblical model of the church, we have become adept at building support for our approaches through proof-texting. Proof-texting is the practice of taking disparate, unrelated verses of Scripture, often out of context, to “prove” that our position squares with the Bible. You may be stunned to discover how many of our esteemed practices are way off the mark biblically.
Does it really matter how we practice our faith, as long as the activities enable people to love God and obey Him? The preponderance of evidence shows that these perspectives, rules, traditions, expectations, assumptions, and practices often hinder the development of our faith. In other instances, they serve as barriers that keep us from encountering the living God. The way in which we practice our faith can, indeed, affect the faith itself.
Does that mean we must go back to the Bible and do everything exactly as the disciples did between 30 and 60 AD? No. Social and cultural shifts over the last two thousand years have made it impossible to imitate some of the lifestyle and religious efforts of the early church. For example, we use cell phones, drive in automobiles, and utilize central heat and air.
The first-century Christians had none of these forms of human convenience. Therefore, adhering to the principles of the New Testament does not mean re-enacting the events of the first-century church. If so, we would have to dress like all first-century believers did, in sandals and togas!
Also, just because a practice is picked up from culture does not make it wrong in and of itself, though we must be discerning. As author Frank Senn notes, “We cannot avoid bringing our culture to church with us; it is part of our very being. But in the light of tradition we need to sort out those cultural influences that contribute to the integrity of Christian worship from those that detract from it.”
It is in our best interest to scour the Words of God to determine the core principles and ethos of the early church and to restore those elements to our lives. God has granted us great leeway in the methods we use to honor and connect with Him. But that does not mean we have free rein. Caution is advisable as we strive to be humble and obedient people who seek His central will. Our goal is to be true to His plan so that we may become the people He desires us to be and that the church may be all she is called to be.
You probably know that today’s jets use very sophisticated computer systems to constantly reorient a plane as it travels on its path. During the course of a trip from Los Angeles to New York, literally thousands of course corrections are made to ensure that the plane sets down on the appropriate landing strip.
Without those course corrections, even a tiny one percent deviation from the original flight plan would land that airplane in a different county! The contemporary church is like a jet airplane that has no capacity for in-flight course corrections. A little change here, a minor deviation there, a slight alteration of this, a barely perceptible tweaking of that — and before you know it, the whole enterprise has been redefined!
Is this hard for you to believe? Then we encourage you to invest yourself in the process and do some of your own research. Frank Viola, spent many years laboriously tracking down the historical data that identified how the church got onto this crooked path. If you are skeptical — and we encourage healthy skepticism that leads to fact-finding and truth — then commit yourself to identifying exactly what did happen over the course of time.
This matters! Your life is a gift from God and is to be lived for God. Furthermore, the church is one of God’s deepest passions. He cares about her well-being, as well as how she expresses herself on the earth. So understanding how we got from the early church to the contemporary church, and figuring out what you will do about it, is very important.
Questions We Never Think to Ask
As Christians, we are taught by our leaders to believe certain ideas and behave in certain ways. We are also encouraged to read our Bibles, yes. But we are conditioned to read the Bible with the lens handed to us by the Christian tradition to which we belong. We are taught to obey our denomination (or movement) and never to challenge what it teaches.
(At this moment, all the rebellious hearts are applauding and are plotting to wield the above paragraphs to wreak havoc in their churches. If that is you, dear rebellious heart, you have missed our point by a considerable distance. We do not stand with you. Our advice: Either leave your church quietly, refusing to cause division, or be at peace with it. There is a vast gulf between rebellion and taking a stand for what is true.)
If the truth be told, we Christians never seem to ask why we do what we do. Instead, we blithely carry out our religious traditions without asking where they came from. Most Christians who claim to uphold the integrity of God’s Word have never sought to see if what they do every Sunday has any scriptural backing. If they did, it would lead them to some very disturbing conclusions that would compel them by conscience to forever abandon what they are doing.
Strikingly, contemporary church thought and practice have been influenced far more by post-biblical historical events than by New Testament imperatives and examples. Yet most Christians are unconscious of this influence. Nor are they aware that it has created a slew of cherished, calcified, humanly devised traditions — all of which are routinely passed off to us as “Christian.”
A Terrifying Invitation
I now invite you to walk with me on an untrodden path. It is a terrifying journey where you will be forced to ask questions that probably have never entered your conscious thoughts. Tough questions. Nagging questions. Even frightening questions. And you will be faced squarely with the disturbing answers. Yet those answers will lead you face-to-face with some of the richest truths a Christian can discover.
You will be stunned to learn that a great deal of what we Christians do for Sunday morning church did not come from Jesus Christ, the apostles, or the Scriptures. Nor did it come from Judaism. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, Judaic Christianity waned in numbers and power. Gentile Christianity dominated, and the new faith began to absorb Greco-Roman philosophy and ritual. Judaic Christianity survived for five centuries in the little group of Syriac Christians called Ebionim.
But their influence was not very widespread. According to Shirley J. Case, “Not only was the social environment of the Christian movement largely Gentile well before the end of the first century, but it had severed almost any earlier bonds of social contact with the Jewish Christians of Palestine … By the year 100, Christianity is mainly a Gentile religious movement … living together in a common Gentile social environment.”
Strikingly, much of what we do for “church” was lifted directly out of pagan culture in the postapostolic period. (Legend tells us the last surviving apostle, John, died around AD 100.) According to Paul F. Bradshaw, fourth-century Christianity “absorbed and Christianized pagan religious ideas and practices, seeing itself as the fulfillment to which earlier religions had dimly pointed.” While today we often use the word pagan to describe those who claim no religion whatsoever, to the early Christians, pagans were those polytheists who followed the gods of the Roman Empire. Paganism dominated the Roman Empire until the fourth century, and many of its elements were absorbed by Christians in the first half of the first millennium, particularly during the Constantinian and early post-Constantinian eras (324 to 600). Two other significant periods from which many of our current church practices originate were the Reformation era (sixteenth century), and the Revivalist era (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).
Chapters 2 through 10 [of Pagan Christianity?] each trace an accepted traditional church practice. Each chapter then tells the story of where this practice came from. But more importantly, it explains how this practice stifles the functional headship of Jesus Christ and hampers the functioning of His body. If you are unwilling to have your Christianity seriously examined, do not read beyond this page. Give this book to Goodwill immediately! Spare yourself the trouble of having your Christian life turned upside down.
However, if you choose to “take the red pill” and be shown “how deep the rabbit hole goes” … if you want to learn the true story of where your Christian practices came from … if you are willing to have the curtain pulled back on the contemporary church and its traditional presuppositions fiercely challenged … then you will find this work to be disturbing, enlightening, and possibly life changing.
Put another way, if you are a Christian in the institutional church who takes the New Testament seriously, what you are about to read will force you to have a crisis of conscience. For you will be confronted by unmovable historical fact.
On the other hand, if you happen to be one of those rare breeds who gathers with other Christians outside the pale of organized Christianity, you will discover afresh that not only is Scripture on your side — but history stands with you as well.