Jon Zens Responds to Ben Witherington III

Jon Zens vs. Ben Witherington III

Zens Punches Holes in Witherington’s Critique of Pagan Christianity

Shortly after Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna released, Ben Witherington III critiqued the book. Dr. Jon Zens responded to Dr. Witherington in five parts. We are publishing Dr. Zens’ response with his permission. He originally sent each post directly to Dr. Witherington. Zens, who is highly regarded as a renown biblical scholar, does some wonderful teaching as he responds to Witherington. Enjoy!


Jon Zens is one of the scholars who endorsed Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna, along with Dr. Robert Banks, Dr. Howard Snyder, Dr. Dave Norrington, Dr. Graydon Snyder, Dr. Gregory Boyd, Dr. Ralph Neighbour, Alan Hirsch and others.

Dr. Zens has a wide-ranging theological background. He holds a B.A. in Biblical studies from Covenant College, a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and a D.Min. from the California Graduate School of Theology. Zens’ groundbreaking articles in the late 1970s, “Is There a ‘Covenant of Grace’?” and “Crucial Thoughts on ‘Law’ in the New Covenant,” were highly instrumental in developing what came to be called “New Covenant Theology.” Jon’s doctoral thesis was published in an edited form in 1997 as “‘This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him’: The Foundation for New Covenant Ethics and Ecclesiology.” He is also the author of the new book A Church Building Every 1/2 Mile: What Makes American Christianity Tick?, which releases at the end of July.

For the last thirty years, Jon has been the editor of a magazine entitled Searching Together. He’s not only a NT scholar, but he’s an expert on church history. Jon also served as a pastor for a number of years, but moved on after concluding that full reformation within the existing institutional church system was unworkable. You can read his story here.

Also, for the past thirty years he and his wife, Dotty, have been ministering in small fellowships concerning living under grace and learning to extend grace to others.

What follows is Jon’s incisive response to Ben Witherington’s review of Pagan Christianity. To read Frank Viola’s debate with Mr. WItherington as well as responses by George Barna and Frank to questions and objections to the book, click here.

Part One


For years I have deeply appreciated your insightful studies, especially concerning the cultural settings of Jesus, Paul, the church and women. You have truly opened some crucial gates for better understanding and applying the New Testament documents.

Your review of Pagan Christianity (PC hereafter), however, was quite disappointing. It didn’t breathe the same careful and unbiased air that your published works do. It rather gave the clear impression that you hadn’t read the entire book, and that what you did read, you didn’t read very carefully. I think this opened you up to making some of the mistakes in your review which I will outline below. Furthermore, the authors have already answered many of your objections quite satisfactorily here. The interviews with Barna and Viola are particularly helpful. I suggest you and your readers take the time to read and listen to them.

You begin by mentioning that your works were not found in the bibliography of PC and that you somehow had expected them to be. However, in some of Frank’s other books he does in fact make reference to your writings and contributions. It is my understanding, therefore, that Frank’s questions to you were not about the subjects in PC, but about issues relating to his other works, particularly his book, The Untold Story of the New Testament Church, which is a popular narrative of the first-century church. Your work is cited there a good bit.

It’s clear from some of PC’s footnotes and acknowledgements that Frank has consulted many competent historians on his research for the book (some of whom obviously disagree with you on certain points). PC is primarily a historical work. Since you are a NT scholar, and not a church historian, one wouldn’t expect you to be consulted for the material in this particular work.

The thrust of your critique seems to lie in your assertion that the authors don’t deal with the scholarly literature of those who disagree with their conclusions. It implies and wrongly assumes that they were, at best, ignorant of such literature or, at worst, were less than honest in discussing it.

A careful reading of the source material and the bibliography of PC demonstrates that they were well aware of “the scholarly literature that would call into question their strident claims and theses,” and were not persuaded by them. 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).

Here are some other observations for you and your readers to consider:

1) In the beginning of your review, you say: “I personally knew we were in for trouble even from the beginning of the 2008 edition of this book when early on we are told that Isaiah died by being sawed in two. This may be in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (an early example of Protestant hagiography complete with myths, legends, half-truths, and yes some truth), but it is not in the Bible and we don’t have any historical evidence to verify it. So much for presenting us with ‘just the facts Mam, just the facts.’ “

 I felt this was both a weak and misleading statement for two reasons. First, both Jewish and Christian traditions suggest that Isaiah was sawed in half. (Some believe this is alluded to in Hebrews 11:37.) This account is mentioned in the The Martyrdom of IsaiahThe Ascension of Isaiah, and the Talmud, for example. Just because it’s extra-canonical doesn’t mean it’s untrue. Peter being crucified upside down is based on similar traditions. Yet authors frequently mention it without qualifying that it’s based on tradition.

But second, and more importantly, this is an example of how it seems to me that a) your review doesn’t provide hard proof to disprove the authors’ specific statements (just because another author disagrees with one of their particular findings doesn’t make it untrue or false), and b) your review reads too much into certain statements and disregards context. For instance, neither Barna nor Viola were trying to make a case for Isaiah’s death in a specific manner, as those who haven’t read the book would easily assume by your review. It was a fleeting statement at best. Here’s the exact statement in context.

Isaiah was sawn in half, John the Baptist was beheaded, and Jesus was crucified. Not to mention the thousands of Christians who have been tortured and martyred through the centuries by the institutional church because they dared to challenge its teachings (p. 4).

Therefore, to judge the whole book on that one statement, which does have some historical attestation, is quite an over-reach to say the least.

2) The authors do not suggest, as you have implied, that “house church” is the only form or model of church. In fact, if one reads the entire book, they will discover that the authors are quite critical of much that goes on in some house church circles today. Instead, they argue for something they call “the organic expression of the church,” which takes many different forms depending on culture and time, but which is always consistent with NT principles and the nature of God. In this regard, they issue various critiques on house churches in Chapter 11. On pages 240 and 241, they write:

Is “organic church” a synonym for “house church”? If not, what is the distinction? No, it is not a synonym. Some house churches are organic, while others are not. A number of present-day house churches are glorified Bible studies. Many others are supper-fests (the meetings revolve around a shared meal and that is about it). Some house churches are just as institutionalized as traditional churches—with a living room pulpit and chairs arranged in rows so attendees can listen to a forty five-minute sermon.

3) Much of what you have argued were points that the authors themselves agree with. For instance, in the book they never suggest that there is only one way to do church. In fact, the authors refute that very thought. They write:

The term organic church does not refer to a particular model of church. (We believe that no perfect model exists.) …. 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.

4) They never suggest that it’s always wrong to use a building or that buildings are somehow inherently evil. Here’s a direct quote from them on this question:

Do you think it’s always wrong for a group of Christians to use a building for worship or ministry? Not at all. Paul rented a building (the Hall of Tyrannus) when he was in Ephesus, and the church of Jerusalem used the outer courts of the Temple for special gatherings. What we are establishing in this chapter are five key points: (1) it is unbiblical to call a building a “church,” “the house of God,” “the temple of God,” “the sanctuary of the Lord,” and other similar terms; (2) the architecture of the typical church building hinders the church from having open-participatory meetings; (3) it is unscriptural to treat a building as though it were sacred; (4) a typical church building should not be the site of all church meetings because the average building is not designed for face-to-face community; and (5) it is a profound error to assume that all churches should own or rent buildings for their gatherings. It is our opinion that each church should seek the Lord’s guidance on this question rather than assume the presence of a building to be the Christian norm. Tracing the history of the “church” building helps us to understand why and how we use them today.

5) You state: “There were plenty of tribal religions in the ANE that could not afford and did not have Temples, or priests.” The truth is, however, that the overwhelmingly vast majority of religions have been marked by the presence of, as John H. Yoder called him/her, “the religious specialist.” Yoder rightly observes:

There are few more reliable constants running through all human society than the special place every human community makes for the professional religionist . . . . in every case he disposes a unique quality, which he usually possesses for life, which alone qualifies him for his function, and beside which the mass of men are identifiable negatively as “laymen,” i.e., non-bearers of this special quality . . . . One person per place is enough to do what he needs to do . . . . the clergyman mediates between the common life and the realm of the “invisible” or the “spiritual” . . . . No one balks at what his services cost (“The Fullness of Christ,” reprinted in Searching Together, 11:3, 1982, pp.4-7).

As the authors argue in Chapter 5, the whole “clergy” tradition has no basis in the NT, and is one of the most enormous obstacles to the Body of Christ functioning as it should. Roman Catholic William Bausch makes these astute observations:

Our survey has shown us that no cultic priesthood is to be found in the New Testament. Yet we wound up importing Old Testament Levitical forms and imposing them on Christian ministry . . . . Nevertheless in practice there is no denying that there has historically been a gathering into one person and his office what were formerly the gifts of many . . . .[This practice] goes astray, of course, when it translates to mean that only ordination gives competence, authority, and the right of professional governance. It goes further astray when eventually all jurisdictional and administrative powers in the church come to be seen as an extension of the sacramental powers conferred at ordination. In short, there is a movement here away from the more pristine collaborative and mutual ministries of the New Testament (Traditions, Tensions, Transitions in Ministry, Twenty-Third Publications, 1982, pp. 54, 30).

6) You seem to totally miss the point when you say, “I was also surprised by the bold claim that there were no sacred persons.” This is one example of how you didn’t read the book very carefully. Of course, the authors affirm that all of God’s people are “holy ones.” They write:

In the minds of the early Christians, the people—not the architecture—constituted a sacred space ( p. 11).

What was meant is that in Christ’s kingdom there are no “holy persons,” in the sense Yoder described above the “religious expert” who is a notch above the “lay” people because of some special ceremony, often called “ordination.” In Chapter 5, they effectively argue that the NT never envisions a sacred priesthood or a sacred clergy that’s set apart as more holy than the rest of the body of Christ. Again, a careful reading of the whole book before you did your review would have avoided making this mistake.

7) The “recognition” of functions portrayed in the NT is a very far cry from the “ordination” to office that developed in post-apostolic times (cf. Marjorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, Eerdmans, 1980). You seem to merge the two together as if they are organically connected. A number of scholars, like Warkentin and Banks, have uncovered some fresh thinking of what ordination was in the NT that flies in the face of traditional assumptions on the issue. PC treats this subject quite competently in Chapter 5, and it’s treated in more depth in the sequel,Reimagining Church.

8) “The ecclesial structure of the NT church was hierarchial.” It would seem that Jesus’ corrective remarks to the Twelve ruled out such a model of leadership – “not so among you.” There are many scholars who would differ with your conclusion. One example among many would be Herbert Haag, a Roman Catholic himself, whose examination of the evidence led him to assert:

In the Catholic Church there are two classes, clergy and laity . . . . This structure does not correspond to what Jesus did and taught. Consequently it has not had a good effect in the history of the Church . . . . Among his disciples Jesus did not want any distinction of class or rank . . . . In contradiction to this instruction of Jesus, a “hierarchy,” a “sacred authority,” was nevertheless formed in the third century (Upstairs, Downstairs: Did Jesus Want a Two-Class Church?, Crossroad, 1997, p.109).

Another author who asserts this position would be Kevin Giles. This concept is dealt with in great detail in the sequel to PC, which releases in August.

9) You suggest that the NT views the Lord’s Supper as a “sacrament,” but I do not think this is accurate. And many scholars would agree with me. As PC points out, the Lord’s Supper, as instituted by Jesus and practiced in the early church, was a meal together. Leonard Verduin gave a number of reasons why the transformation of a meal into a post-apostolic “sacrament” was retrogressive and connected to alien pagan influences (The Reformers & Their Stepchildren, Eerdmans, 1964, pp.137-142). As Vernard Eller noted, “the whole style of thought that goes along with the concept ‘sacrament’ is just plain foreign to the N.T.” (“The Lord’s Supper is Not a Sacrament,” Searching Together, 12:3, 1983, p.3).

10) You say: “They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by reading sources more recent than Will Durant and Shirley Case, neither of which represent the state of the discussion on such matters in the last 50 years.” I feel this statement is misguided. First, the The Story of Civilization is the most successful historiographical series in history. Second, a look at the bibliography and the footnotes reveals that the authors also rely on more recent historians. And third, simply broad-brushing Durant as outdated without giving specifics as to where the authors cite him with incorrect information and how and where those statements have been refuted by all modern historians is not compelling at all. The fact is that the pieces of history that the authors cite from Durant are attested to by many other historians, both past and present.

11) I was surprised and taken back by your disparaging comment that “Dan Brown would have liked this book.” That struck me as a cheap shot that I find ridiculous. It also suggests, underhandedly, that Barna and Viola are not interested in truth or are making things up. After reading your review combined with that statement, I thought to myself, “It could be said, then, that Pope Leo X would have liked Witherington’s review!” I say that based on your approach which I felt was largely made of argumentation that omitted important facts that would call your conclusions into question.

12) You rightly note, “The question is which traditions comport with Biblical tradition and which do not.” This is the very question the authors ask again and again. I believe that PC has done an admirable job of trying to sort out the general contours of organic church life reflected in the NT from the subsequent trappings that sapped the life out of the church. There is great liberty under the New Covenant. But surely we are not free to do “church” is any way we please. Surely not everything that calls itself “church” is really ekklesia. Aren’t we supposed to pay attention to the “apostolic traditions” contained in the NT? Should not our church practices be in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles and consistent with the nature of God? Is the acid test of any church form whether or not it fosters and cultivates NT values? Isn’t it safe to say that the great majority of post-apostolic traditions only served to move the church away from Christocentrality and NT simplicity? These are the central questions that PC asks.

13) You make a wrong assumption about what the authors mean by “institutional church.” Here is their definition from their own words:

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”).

14) Your statement that “Everyone agrees that the church is a living thing and organism, not an organization,” fails to reckon with the fact that history is replete with examples where institutionalization kills life. The truth is that many forms of church are out of sync with the DNA of the ekklesia. Many environments are hostile to organic life. PC rightly points out that there is good reason to question if the inherited ways of doing church are conducive to promoting the growth of living forms.

15) You assert: “Christians continued to meet with Jews in synagogues.” I see no evidence in the NT that Christian gatherings were held in synagogues. The times Paul and a few others visited synagogues was not to have a gospel-based gathering, but to proclaim Christ from the OT evangelistically.

16) The authors aren’t against tradition. In fact, they argue for what they call “the apostolic tradition” which is mentioned within the NT. Moreover, they don’t believe that a practice is wrong just because it may be post-apostolic or invented by pagan sources. They repeat this point throughout the book. They write:

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 AD 30 and 60? 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 reenacting the events of the first-century church. If so, we would have to dress like all first-century believers did, in sandals and togas! (p. xxxix).

The use of chairs and pile carpets in Christian gatherings has no biblical support either. And both were invented by pagans. Nonetheless, who would claim that sitting in chairs or using carpets is “wrong” simply because they are postbiblical inventions authored by pagans? The fact is that we do many things in our culture that have pagan roots. Consider our accepted calendar. The days of our week and the months of our year are named after pagan gods. But using the accepted calendar does not make us pagans (p. 74-75).

17) Keep in mind that the constructive side of the authors’ argument is only tangentially discussed in PC. Not much attention is given at all to defending what NT-based church life looks like. Nor is any attention given to refuting many of the counter-arguments to it. This is quite deliberate. Interestingly, I noticed that your review gives full attention to this matter, when the book doesn’t. This has created some obvious misunderstandings on what the authors fully believe about the subject.

The sequel called Reimagining Church which I, Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, Rad Zdero, John White, and others have heartily endorsed, does this very thing. In Len Sweet’s words, “In Reimagining Church, Frank Viola is at the top of his game, showing a serene, soaring mastery of the theology of church as organism rather than organization.”

Reimagining Church carefully refutes such popular concepts as hierarchical leadership structures in the church, official ordination, common myths about the purpose of the ekklesia meeting, et al., and it paints a compelling picture of organic church life that’s rooted firmly in the nature of God and NT principles. I hope that all of your blog readers will read both PC and Reimagining Church and analyze for themselves the merits of the arguments.

There are many other matters I could speak to in your review, but these will suffice for now. I will plan on responding to your “Part 2.”

In closing, I would like to make this observation that I would think should give us pause for serious reflection. In the period when the early church blossomed incredibly with divine love and spiritual power, it had no special buildings, no clergy, and no fixed ritual (cf. Graydon Snyder, First Corinthians: A Faith Community Commentary, Mercer, 1992, pp.248-249; William A. Beardslee,First Corinthians: A Commentary for Today, Chalice Press, 1994, pp.136-137). When church edifices, clergy and fixed rituals became prominent, the visible church became focused on perpetuating itself and lost the simplicity of Christ. This is why I believe the information in PC has appeared for such a time as this, when the Body of Christ needs to recapture a NT vision regarding the “new humanity” in Christ.

Given that PC is truly a ground-breaking book (no other book traces and documents the origins of our modern church practices, nor issues the sort of specific challenges that Barna and Viola do), it’s sad to me that a person with your acumen would not attach more value to the book (as other scholars have), but rather go out of his way to dismiss it without a substantive basis.

You accuse Barna and Viola of being too sure of themselves and their views on church history. That may or may not be the case. Having read and listened to them in many interviews, I would say that’s hardly the case. But after reading your review, I had to ask myself that same question of you. Since other competent scholars and historians that Viola and Barna cite and quote disagree with your analysis of church history and ecclesiology, is it possible that you’re a bit too confident in your take on those subjects?

I would encourage folks to read the book for themselves carefully, prayerfully, and critically. Do not be persuaded by a review, either by a Robert Banks, a Howard Snyder, an Alan Hirsch, a Ben Witherington, or even myself. Read it for yourself before God and test it against Scripture. And above all, follow your conscience rather than what any human being says.

There are many other matters I could speak to in your review, but these will suffice for now. I will plan on responding to your “Part 2.”

– Jon Zens

Part Two

Pagan Christianity (PC from henceforth) came out January 1st, and here we are six months later discussing it. I’m glad about this as these issues need to be addressed in our time.

Having read all four parts of your review, it seems to me that the major flaw throughout is that it’s loaded with anachronistic rationalizations for modern institutionalism.

In Part One of your review, you connected the “elders” mentioned in the NT with the “clergy” that came “later,” and the recognition of functions portrayed in the NT with the rite of “ordination” that crystallized in later history. I pointed out in my first response that this is not comparing apples with apples, and I explained why. Likewise, in Part Two you connect matters described in the NT with practices that emerged later on in time and read them back in the NT text. Doing this creates confusion and deserves a strong critique.

Again, I don’t have time to respond to every point you make in Part Two, but I’ll cover those that deserve immediate rebuttal.

1) Throughout the review, you never interact at all with the main point of the authors, which is: the Protestant Sunday Morning Order of Worship does not appear in the NT and emerged later as the result of absorbing Greco-Roman customs (e.g., the Roman imperial court), Jewish rituals, and human invented traditions in the post-apostolic period.

You simply make the unsubstantiated statement that there are errors in the historical facts. But then you only give one example, and sadly, that example is yet another case where you argue against a point that the authors never make. This is misleading.

You write, “e.g., Zwingli did not hold to a purely memorial view of the Lord’s Supper—see the work of Dr. Steinmetz.” The author’s never say that Zwingli held to a “purely memorial view.”

Here is what they said: “Zwingli is also credited with championing the ‘memorial’ view of the Supper.”

This is a fact that’s attested by hundreds of historians past and present. Zwingli is credited for the memorial view. Fact. I challenge your readers to investigate this for themselves if they doubt it. It won’t take them long to find many articles crediting Zwingli for that viewpoint. Perhaps this is because he used the very words that the Eucharist was a “memorial of the sacrifice.”

Even so, the majority of your review is not aimed at critiquing the key points in the chapter (see above), but instead, you attack what the authors deliberately and admittedly do not develop in their book, but which is treated in detail in the sequel, “Reimagining Church.”

2) The bulk of your review seeks to justify a clergy-led “worship service” that includes liturgical furniture out of the NT. However, you have not made your case and you are wrong on many counts, which I will explain in the following.

3) You suggest that the authors of PC “are mainly preaching to their own choir…or at least to low Protestant churches in general.” It would seem that the wide readership that this book has obtained would indicate otherwise. Thousands of people – Christian, non-Christian, those who are part of the institutional church and those who are outside of it – are reading PC. It is hardly limited to some small and loyal choir. (There are over 500 reviews on the book so far.)

Furthermore, numerous pastors are responding very differently than the clergyman who have praised you for your review on your blog. Frank has posted some of these responses from pastors on his blog.

4) Your entire review is built on a huge but false assumption that you never support. This assumption is the linchpin for your entire argument. Here is the assumption: That the Christian meeting in the first century was a gathering for worship, i.e., a” worship service.”

This assumption cannot be substantiated anywhere from the NT. There is no place in all of Scripture that teaches that Christians are to gather for “worship.” Other scholars agree. For example, in chapter 9 of his seminal work, “Paul’s Idea of Community,” Dr. Robert Banks discusses Romans 12:1-2 which says that our whole life is to be a worship until the Lord. He then makes this crucial point, “since all place and times have now become the venue of worship (Rom. 12:1-2), Paul cannot speak of Christian assembly in church distinctively for this purpose.”

5) You begin the review with a six-paragraph bible study on 1 Cor. 8-14. I didn’t see anything in those six paragraphs a) where you contradicted anything the authors said in the book, or b) where the authors would disagree. So I fail to see why you spent so much time on that when, in fact, it had no bearing on the book’s argument.

What you seem to have missed in your discussion, however, is that 1 Cor. 12 opens up with a discussion of the difference between God in Christ and pagan idols. Since Frank has discussed this in another place, I will quote him directly as it sets the stage for Paul’s discussion of 1 Cor. 12-14:

1 Corinthians 12:1 says, Now concerning spiritual manifestations, brethren, I don’t want you to be ignorant. You know that when you used to be pagans, you were led astray to dumb idols and you were led by them.

What is a dumb idol? It is not an idol with a low IQ! A dumb idol is an idol that does not have the power of speech. It is a mute idol. Before they came to Christ, the Corinthians were following pagan gods that did not have the power of speech. These gods were mute. They were dumb. Paul goes on saying,

Remember how you served dumb idols? By contrast, I make known to you that if you speak by the Spirit of God . . .when you say something as simple as, “Jesus is Lord,” the Holy Spirit is speaking through you. And there are varieties of gifts, but it’s the same Spirit. There are varieties of ministries, but it’s the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but it’s the same God who’s working.

Notice that God communicates in a variety of ways, but it is the same God who is doing all the speaking. And He does that speaking through His Body! … Jesus Christ has the power of speech. He is not a dumb idol. He speaks. And when He speaks, He reveals His mind. But He does not reveal His whole mind through an individual. It takes the Body. It takes the brothers and the sisters in a church to make known His mind. It takes the Body to lay hold of His mind. This sets the stage for Paul’s discussion of a church meeting in 1 Cor. 14, a meeting where Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit speaks and reveals Himself through every functioning member of His Body (“Laying Hold of the Mind of Christ,” Frank Viola, 2001).

6) After you finished your six paragraph bible study, you put forth your key argument. You suggest that in 1 Cor. 10, the word “table” COULD refer to a piece of liturgical furniture. Your words, “Could it be that there was actually a table involved a piece of liturgical furniture?” This is quite a stretch and an extremely thin argument to refute the authors’ point that the early church meetings were simple and marked by open sharing centered on Jesus Christ Himself. The fact is that the word trapedzes is used for an ordinary table where one eats a meal (see Matt 15:27; Mark 7:28, Luke 22:21, etc.).

Many scholars have shown that the Lord’s Supper in the first century was taken as a full meal (see Robert Banks, I. Howard Marshall, et al. See also Eric Svendsen’s work in The Table of the Lord). Each argue that the Lord’s Supper would occur around the same table or tables that they ate from every day. In Acts 16:34 the word trapedzes is used synonymously with a “meal” – the jailer “set before them a table.” To transform a common table into a consecrated piece of religious furniture is to read yet-to-be sacramental practices back into the New Testament. Therefore, it’s highly UNLIKELY that the table mentioned in that text is anything more than a table that was used to hold a meal.

7) To say that nowhere in the NT do we find any statement that Jesus Christ is leading a meeting is simply false. 1 Cor. 14 depicts a meeting where God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is speaking through prophesy and other gifts and where God is being revealed as a result (see 1 Cor. 14:26-33. Paul’s very words “God is not the author of confusion” suggests that God is “authoring” [leading] the meeting, or should be).

8) You say “worship is not the same thing as bible study.” The authors wouldn’t’ disagree with that and they don’t. You seem to have missed the point that a) the authors do not believe that the first-century church meeting was a worship service or that worship was its primary goal, and b) the author’s don’t believe that the first-century church meeting was a bible study. In chapter 11, they discount the idea that the church meeting is a bible study. They state in one of their Q and A’s:

Is “organic church” a synonym for “house church”? If not, what is the distinction? No, it is not a synonym. Some house churches are organic, while others are not. A number of present-day house churches are glorified Bible studies. Many others are supper-fests (the meetings revolve around a shared meal and that is about it). Some house churches are just as institutionalized as traditional churches—with a living room pulpit and chairs arranged in rows so attendees can listen to a fortyfive-minute sermon.

They emphasize again and again that the first-century meeting was a gathering to express Jesus Christ through the every-member functioning of His body. It wasn’t a worship service or a bible study. While worship is included in this and the bible is no doubt used, studying the bible or worshipping God are not the central goals. Christ revealed and expressed is the goal which results in the edification of the body (1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 3:9-11; 4:16).

9) You argue in your review that the authors’ are opting for a meeting that includes no planning, which does not include worship to Jesus Christ, and which are out of order. These statements are simply not true. Here’s a direct quote from the book:

In organic church life, the meetings look different every week. While the brothers and sisters in an organic church may prayerfully plan the focus of their own meetings (for instance, they might set aside a month for the body to concentrate on Ephesians 1), they do not plan a specific order of worship. Instead, everyone is free to function, share, participate, and minister spiritually during gatherings, so the creativity expressed in them is endless. Participants do not know who will stand up and share next, nor what they will share. There might be skits; there might be poems read; there might be new songs introduced and sung; there might be exhortations, testimonies, short teachings, revelations, and prophetic words. Because everyone is involved and people contribute spontaneously, boredom is not a problem. The most meaningful meetings are generally those in which everyone participates and functions. Jesus Christ is the center of the meeting. He is glorified through the songs, the lyrics, the prayers, the ministry, and the sharing. The meeting is completely open for the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ through each member as He sees fit. In the words of 1 Corinthians 14:26, “every one of you” contributes something of Christ to the gathering. In organic church life, the corporate church meeting is an explosive outflow of what the Lord revealed of Himself to each member during the week. These features are virtually absent in the typical institutional church service.

10) In your lengthy discussion of worship you seem to incorrectly assume a few things, and pit one against another without warrant. You repeatedly share your conviction that small groups of believers major on focusing on each other and rarely bare the fruit of “worship.” Robert Morey purported in the title of his book that Worship Is All of Life. A special synergy emerges out of a gathering together as believers, as 1 cor.14:26 indicates. You contrast “focusing on God” with “talking to each other or exhorting each other or laying hands on each other.” Why? Isn’t caring for each other on the horizontal level just as much “worship” as singing or hearing Scripture read publicly?

Why must you imply that “a time together without an order of worship, without a liturgy, with a worship leader” is seriously defective? I trust you are aware that other competent scholars disagree with your assessment here.

“A time together without an order of worship, without a liturgy, without a worship leader” basically reflects what was occurring in Corinth with Paul’s approbation. There is no “up-front” leadership mentioned in the 1 Cor.14 meeting. Paul does not put the kibosh on an open, participatory meeting. He just desires that in such a gathering all the contributions build up the whole ekklesia and are understood by everyone. (This argument is developed in depth in “Reimagining Church.”)

11) I challenged the idea that it is proper to call the Lord’s Supper a “sacrament” in my response to Part One. In Part Two you use the word again and again. Calling Baptism and the Lord’s Supper “sacraments” was a tragic post-NT development. I’m not the only scholar who has argued this. One of the most famous is Emil Brunner:

Properly speaking, New Testament Christianity knows nothing of the word “sacrament,” which belongs essentially to the heathen world of the Graeco-Roman empire and which unfortunately some of the Reformers unthinkingly took over from ecclesiastical tradition. For this word, and still more the overtones which it conveys, is the starting point for those disastrous developments which began soon to transform the community of Jesus into the Church which is first and foremost a sacramental Church (The Misunderstanding of the Church, Lutterworth, 1952, pp.72-73).

12) “We actually have no evidence,” you submit, “that all Christian worship services were like the one in Corinth, but even if they were, there was supposed to be an order to things.” The point you seem to totally miss is that Paul has no desire to squelch their meetings where “each one” had something edifying to contribute. Paul’s response to their unedifying ways was not to impose a rigid church order upon them nor to set up a clergy. He simply introduced some broad guidelines to ensure that the meetings were edifying, and he was confident that they would adhere to them.

Furthermore, the spirit of this meeting is found in the book of Acts 2, Colossians 3, and Hebrews 10 all attest to the fact that the church gathering is one where the members of the body function and participate in ministry.

Just a quick example is Hebrews 10:24-25. This is the text that many pastors use to get people to “go to church.” “Forsake not the assembly together” the writer says. But look closely at the passage and what the author says happens in that assembly: “Exhorting ONE ANOTHER … provoking ONE ANOTHER to love and good deeds. The hallmark of this meeting is ONE ANTOHER . . . mutual participation and mutual exhortation.

13) The big question for me is why so many Christians are foot-loose with the revelation contained in 1 Cor.12-14 and Hebrews 10? These are descriptions of “the meeting” of the ekklesia. Why do we in our praxis consign these texts to oblivion? (The exception being the part in Hebrews 10 which stays not to forsake church services.) We have elevated and set in concrete that which there is absolutely no evidence in the NT – the pastor, the sermon and the pulpit – and in so doing lost the untold blessings of gatherings where Christ is exalted as all the parts bring forth uplifting contributions.

I find it fascinating that some commentators have found implied references to the informal meetings of the first-century church in James’ exhortation to be “slow to speak and quick to listen”:

There may be an allusion to the free and unstructured worship of early Christian assemblies (Curtis Vaughn, James: A Study Guide, Zondervan, 1960, p.35).

It is possible that contentious Christian babes were taking advantage of the informal style of worship in the early Christian church to produce wrangling (Earl Kelly, James: A Primer for Christian Living, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974, p.69).

We do not have a huge amount of NT information that specifically details how believers functioned in their assembling together. But the way most traditional church services are structured you would think 1 Cor.14 and Hebrews 10:24-25 didn’t exist, and if they did, have no relevance. Why do we discard what information we do possess from the NT, especially when what do have in the NT comports with NT teaching and doctrine of the body and the priesthood of all believers . . . and the alternative model violates both? I explore these themes in my articles “Building Up the Body: One Man or One Another?” and “Four Tragic Shifts in the Visible Church.”

14) You put down small gatherings as “largely anthropocentric,” as “looking at and to each other,” and rarely resulting in “worship.” But you admit that the Corinthians had 1 Cor.14-type meetings and Lord’s Supper in homes. Were these meetings people-centered and worship-less? I have to doubt that you would suggest that. Why were such meetings in the first century wonderful, but such in our day are suspect?

15) You write: “When Paul describes worship in 1 Cor. 8-14 he is largely critiquing the lack of order and structure in the service there, not baptizing it and calling it good.” The authors wouldn’t agree with this, but it misses the point. It suggests that everything in 1 Cor. 14, for example, is a description of how a church meeting should not operate. But this is false. 1 Cor. 14:26 is an encouragement and a “description of what should be happening” in Corinth’s gatherings. See Gordon Fee, Robert Banks, and F.F. Bruce on this text as well as the work of Watchman Nee and G.H. Lang. And consider even your own words:

1 Cor. 14:26 gives us one form of early Christian worship. There is no mention of worship leaders or of reading the Torah. Rather each brings a song (perhaps sung in the Spirit), a teaching, a revelation. The impression is of a real act of the body, not merely the performance of a noted few. (Conflict in Corinth, p.285).

My question then is: “Why were smaller home gatherings workable and profitable in all ways in the first century, but now they are only problematic in your eyes?” So not only do your read later traditions back into the NT, but you are also hesitant to admit that what was Christ-centered in apostolic times can also come to expression in our day.

16) You say, “What Frank is describing is an in-home nurture or discipleship meeting with some worship elements.” This is flat-out wrong. As the authors state repeatedly in their book, the type of Christocentric “organic church” meetings that they see in the NT have been their experience in our day, and they are far different from your description of a small group meeting. On page 78-79, Frank describes what a NT church meeting looks like. (I suggest your readers take a look at it.) The kind of meetings he describes are very different from what you’ve portrayed. It seems to me, therefore, that you are confusing the meetings the authors are talking about with the kind of small group gatherings you’re familiar with. Read Frank’s description and then ask yourself if that’s anything close to “anthropomorphic.” Clearly it is not.

17) To try to tease out of Mark 13:14 and Rev. 2-3 a justification for a clergy because someone “read” epistles that were sent to a church to the believing community strains credulity. I’ve been in many church meetings (outside the institution) where someone read a letter to the church that was addressed to it. That didn’t make them clergy. The best explanation for this is simply that those who could read in the early churches read letters to the rest of the group (illiteracy was quite high in the first century, as you know). This is another example of having to stretch the biblical material to justify “clergy.”

18) You say that “salvation is merely means to the end of worship.” I, along with many other scholars, would disagree with you. While we believe that salvation is a means to an end. The end is something that goes well beyond worship. See Stanley Grenz, A Theology for the Community of God, where he discusses the phrase “the eternal purpose” as the reason why we exist. DeVern Fromke’s Ultimate Intention is also helpful on this question.

19) Let me add an observation, given your strong focus that the only reason why Christians should come together is for worship. I was once a pastor, and I’ve been in many institutional churches of all different denominations. I can tell you that in my observation, I’ve seen Christians worship more deeply and focus on Christ more strongly in meetings that were outside institutional lines than I have in any institutional church. Therefore, with all your justification of the institutional form of church by the litmus of “worship,” I found this highly ironic. The truth is, many folks in our day are absenting themselves from “worship services” for many reasons, one of which is that they are bored and feel that there must be “something more” to church.

20) You write, “There is more than enough here in this book to make my hair stand on end.” Part of the reason why this is happening to you is because you assume (quote wrongly I might add ) that ekklesia must have hierarchical leadership, religious furniture, a modern “pastor,” a pulpit, and a specially dedicated religious building. As PC demonstrates quite compellingly, the early church had none of these things. The book then raises the question: could it be that this is because Jesus died for something very different with respect to His church?

21) You end by quoting the lyrics to the song, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full into His wonderful place.” I believe that the authors have successfully pointed out that this happens best when the church is set free from a man-made institutional order of worship that has changed little over the past 500 years, and it is better experienced when Jesus Christ Himself is the object, center, and active head of the Christian gathering when His body is freely expressing Him by their gifts.

I plan to respond to Part 3 soon.

– Jon Zens

Part Three


It seems to me that there are three primary reasons why your critique of Pagan Christianity (PC) is so harsh.

a. You have treated it as though it were a work of scholarship, which the authors deliberately say it’s not. Here’s a direct quote from the preface.

This is not a work for scholars, so it is by no means exhaustive. A thorough treatment of the origins of our contemporary church practices would fill volumes. But it would be read by few people. Although this is a single volume, it includes a great deal of history. Yet this book does not chase every historical sidelight. Rather, it focuses on tracing the central practices that define mainstream Christianity today (p. xx).

For a scholarly work, the book falls short. Not because it’s inaccurate, but because it deliberately doesn’t bring into play all the counter arguments of dissenting voices.

But for a popular polemic that challenges deeply entrenched traditions, the book is outstanding. It’s not hard to understand why it’s a bestseller (it has a 90-day average of #839 on That’s a huge indicator that there’s widespread interest for this book, and that contrary to what you have said, the authors are not “preaching to their own choir.” Nor has the book “died any deaths.”

PC is written in the style and manner of various authors who have a prophetic, provocative, and passionate edge such as A.W. Tozer, Stanley Hauerwas, and Tony Campolo, yet with the scholarly backing of such distinguished scholars as Robert Banks, Howard Snyder, Dave Norrington, etc. I’m quite confident that if John Howard Yoder were alive, he would have endorsed the book also since many of the points the book makes correspond to perspectives found in his writings.

b. As I said in my first response, you seem to equate your particular opinions of church history with truth and any departure from it with error. The fact is that many scholars other than yourself disagree with your analysis of both post-apostolic history and NT ecclesiology. I think, therefore, that it would be more responsible and less arrogant-sounding to say, “In my opinion, the authors are wrong here because of such-and-such.”

c. You attribute to the authors’ views they do not in fact embrace. In my first and second response I provided specific examples.

Now on to the specific points you make in the third part of your review:

1) Regarding your passionate defense that you are a church historian, my understanding is that your forte is historical study in relation to the NT rather than church history in the post-apostolic and Reformation era and beyond, which PC focuses on.

For those reasons, I cannot fault the authors for not going to you for your analysis of post-apostolic church history as much as they would someone who is a Professor of Church History or those who specialize in the field. That was my point in part one.

Next, it’s incorrect to say or imply that I “ignored” the fact that you were reviewing the book chapter by chapter before reading the entire book. I could obviously see that, it’s just that I disagree with that approach and believe that it’s one of the reasons why there were so many factual mistakes in your review.

Being an editor for the last 30 years, I’ve learned that in order to review a book fairly, it’s important to read the entire work first to understand the author’s full thought. Only then can one accurately give a fair chapter by chapter critique. This is pretty standard for those who review books professionally.

To say that PC is “poorly researched” is simply false. With hundreds of footnotes and several hundred volumes in the bibliography, the research speaks for itself. The book may not come to roost where you would. It may not give an exhaustive list of point and counter-point as the typical scholarly work does. And perhaps worse (in your view), it may not include any of your books in the bibliography (which you lamented when you began your review). It also may not utilize your favorite sources. But the fact still remains that the book draws on a wide breath of study by scholars, historians, and theologians who have traced the origins of various church practices, and it does a great job at documenting every statement. This is hardly “poor research.” Perhaps this is why it’s gotten the endorsement of reputed scholars and theologians, some of whom are as well credentialed as you are.

To the contrary, the book is well researched and the key points are not easy to refute without considerable overreaching.

2) Regarding your unconditional dismissal of Will Durant: First, he was a world class historian whose work has stood the test of time. Second, his Story of Civilization is of the most accessible popular treatments of history available (remember, PC is a popular work). Third, while no historian is infallible and Durant’s worldview is certainly to be questioned, the parts where the authors’ cite or quote him are dead-on and attested by other contemporary historians. Here’s a quote by Durant that would be an example of what I’m talking about:

In the enthusiasm of its discoveries, the higher criticism has applied to the New Testament text tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies, Hammurabi, David, Socrates, would fade into legend. Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that many inventors would have concealed. No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of higher criticism, the outlines of the life, character and teachings of Christ remain reasonably clear and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.

Furthermore, just because none of the books in your history course aren’t mentioned in the bibliography shouldn’t be regarded as a litmus test of its accuracy. The authors cite and draw on the recent work of Rodney Stark, James F. White, Frank Senn, Bruce Shelley, Ramsey MacMullen, Michael Grant, Robert M. Grant, George Marsden, Everett Ferguson, Justo Gonzalez, and many, many others.

But the real issue is: Is the source wrong in the specific places where the authors cite them? Having examined these issues for years, I have to say “no” — the book is indeed accurate.

3) Your comment that “the book dies the death of a thousand qualifications” is an opinion that I feel is quite misleading. What you call a qualification is an answer to an anticipated objection. A scholarly work would put such objections within the main text. But this typically breaks up the flow of thought. A popular work puts such objections and their responses in a footnote or endnote. Let’s look again at the example you gave:

You quote them saying, “Today’s sermon has no root in Scripture” (p. 86). Then you accuse them of qualifying that statement in a footnote. I went to that page and didn’t see a footnote for that statement. Even so, they repeat the point (and believe me they need to) that by “sermon” they aren’t talking about biblical preaching or teaching. This is a valid point that’s easily missed given our traditional mindset. So repetition of it in both the footnotes and main text (Q and A) is necessary to help prevent reader misunderstanding. This isn’t a qualification as much as it is a response to an anticipated objection.

4) Now on to the area where you spend the most time on: The use of Greek rhetoric in the orations of the first-century apostles and prophets. I would argue that the case that the authors make is in fact historically correct. They have in view the polished rhetoric and art of rhetorical brilliance and eloquence that marked many of the Greek rhetoricians, particularly the sophists. Dave Norrington in his seminal work, To Preach or Not to Preach? The Church’s Urgent Question (Paternoster, 1996)has added a lot of fresh insight on this subject.

In addition, Bruce Winter in his book Philo and Paul Among the Sophists (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and Duane Litfin’s St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation (Cambridge University Press, 1994) make the following points that correspond with PC’s perspectives.

– Paul renounces Greek rhetorical techniques in preaching that are marked by exalting the art of eloquence. To Paul, these undermined the power of God and the centrality of the cross.

– Paul writes: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God …. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power….” 1 Cor. 2:1, 4-5. Winter believes that Paul had the sophists in view.

– Paul rejected the rhetorical methods of the sophists so that he would not be aligned with them in any way.

– Winter argues that 1 Cor. 1:17 focuses on the rhetorical skill of the speaker. Paul argues against rhetorical artistry because it obscures the proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

– The sophists charged for their services while Paul offered his gospel free of charge and worked manually lest he be a burden to the churches.

– Paul’s presence in public and his delivery style were deficient according to the standards of Greek rhetoric (2 Cor. 10:10).

– Paul and Apollos were judged in terms of their rhetorical abilities. Paul renounces the employment of rhetoric in preaching in 1 Cor. 1-2 because it conflicts with the message of the cross. Preaching based on Greco-Roman rhetoric displays the artistry and personality of the speaker and puts the focus on the speaker rather on Christ. This is why Paul denounces such preaching. God saves through the weakness of the cross and the brokenness of the vessel used, therefore, the gospel should not advertise the strength of the speaker by “wowing” his hearers with his rhetorical artistry. This, according to Winter, compromises the gospel.

On these points the authors of PC are in agreement with Winter, Litfin, and Norrington. See also Dr. Jeremy Thompson, Preaching is Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow?

In the same spirit as the above, Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Paul by R. Dean Anderson Jr. (1996), argues the following:

– When viewed in the light of ancient theoretical canons, Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians do not exhibit, nor do they evidently intend to execute, the kind of argumentation that would have been reckoned satisfactorily persuasive by a hypothetical professor of rhetoric contemporaneous with the apostle (cf. p. 28).

– Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians deviate from the rhetorical standards of Paul’s day.

– Paul appears to have no direct knowledge of rhetorical theory (pp. 251-255).

– “It is very easy to label a particular passage or argument in Paul’s writings by some Greek technical term, but unless rhetorical theory enables us to say something relevant concerning its use and function at that point, our analysis is pretty worthless” (p. 34, also pp. 83, 92).

– Some scholars may have too hastily assumed that Paul was well versed in rhetorical theory.

5) The authors are not arguing against biblical preaching and teaching as you assert. They are instead arguing against the modern sermon and calling into question the belief that it is the equivalent of NT preaching and teaching. As they put it themselves:

We strongly believe in preaching, teaching, prophesying, exhorting, and all forms of sharing the Word of God. We are simply saying that the modern sermon, which we define as the same person (usually a clergyman) giving an oration to the same group of people week after week, month after month, and year after year is not only unbiblical, it is counterproductive. We want readers to look at the biblical and historical evidence for this point and decide for themselves whether or not we are correct in our analysis. In fact, research conducted by The Barna Group has shown that sermons are generally ineffective at facilitating worship, at drawing people closer to God, and at conveying life-changing information to those in the audience.

Despite your lengthy review, you have failed to dismantle what is stated in PC regarding the entrenched traditions that cluster around “the pastor.”

6) “The sermon,” you note, “is not an invention of Protestants over the course of the last five centuries.” Who suggested that it was? I don’t know of anyone who would hold to that notion — certainly not the authors of PC. Honestly, I have no idea how you could think they believe this when they clearly trace the sermon in the Christian faith to Chrysostom and Augustine (p.93ff.). These two men brought Christian preaching to a highly-developed rhetorical form. The authors show how the Reformers went back to them and drew from their styles of rhetoric. So this is yet another case of arguing against a point the authors never make.

7) The authors say in a footnote “most synagogues allowed for any member to preach to the people who wished to do so. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the modern sermon where only religious ‘specialists’ are allowed to address the congregation.”

Note the words “any member” … this is fundamentally true. “Women” in that day would not have “wished to do so.” For you to harp on this brief sentence in the footnote by saying that women and Gentiles (non- proselytes) weren’t allowed to speak in the synagogue is an example of a glaring factual error reveals how your review must reach hard to find a falsehood.

8) You argue that “good preaching and pasturing enables the gifts of the other members.” The authors repeat this point in the book, saying that true preaching and teaching equips God’s people. But again, you are equating “good preaching” with the modern sermon. And this is the very point the authors are challenging.

9) When you say that the notion that anyone can teach, preach, or prophesy on a regular basis is “unbiblical,” you are dead wrong. While the NT teaches (and the authors agree) that not all Christians are specifically gifted as teachers, prophets, or apostles, it also teaches that every Christian is a minister, a functioning priest, and is capable of instructing, prophesying, and exhorting in the church. Here are just a few examples from the NT literature itself:

1 Cor. 14:31 – For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. [This is not relegated to prophets only. See R. Banks, H. Snyder, G. Fee, F.F. Bruce, and many of other scholars on this point.]

Rom. 15:14 – I myself am convinced, my brethren, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. [These words were written to the church in Rome and included all believers].

Heb. 10:25 – Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another … [Note that this has reference to the normative meeting of the church. This clearly shows us then that the congregation is active during the meeting and is engaged in exhorting “one another” and “provoking “one another” to love and to good works (v.24). There’s nothing here about passively listening to one man. The same point is made in 1 Cor. 14:26 which you freely advocate in your commentary on Corinthians (see Part Two of my review)].

Howard Snyder buttresses the point the authors make saying,

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.

In another place Snyder says,

The New Testament teaches us that the church is a community in which all are gifted and all have ministry.

10) You assert: “The problem of course with home groups is that they do not fulfill the mandate of Jesus to his disciples be ‘a city set on a hill, which cannot be hid.’ He might as well have said ‘a church hidden in a suburban home can’t be found.’”

When I read this, I wanted to pull my hair out, but I didn’t have to because it literally began falling out! J I guess the first-century churches that Paul established, most of which were quite small in membership (I believe you suggest 40 in Corinth in your commentary) and all of which met in homes, sadly didn’t fulfill the mandate of Jesus. Are you suggesting that the home ekklesias of the first century were somehow set on a hil, but contemporary counterparts can’t be? Your comment seems to reveal a bias against a valid ekklesia form.

11) In closing, part three of your review falls short of making its case, and indeed has so many misstatements and errors of fact as well as interpretation that even if we just use it as a conversation starter, it should come with a warning: Examine the argumentation in this review very closely before you hastily assume that the respected author is correct in his interpretation of the NT and church history.

The main points of chapter three in PC are that the traditional way of structuring church services has dubious origins and is patently out of sync with what is revealed in the NT. As Ernest F. Scott noted concerning the gatherings of believers in the early period:

Prayer was offered, as in the Synagogue, but not in stated liturgical form. It was uttered freely, on the impulse of the Spirit, and was presented in the name of Christ, the Intercessor . . . . The Christian faith gave rise to hymns of a new character, often produced in the heat of the moment and almost as soon forgotten; but sometimes short lyrics of real beauty were treasured and repeated . . . . Chief of all these [elements] was the observance of the Supper . . . . This, indeed, was not so much a part of the worship as the vessel which contained all the parts. The purpose of the Christian meeting was to hold the common meal, and to make it a memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples . . . . The exercise of the spiritual gifts was thus the characteristic element in primitive worship. Those gifts might vary in their nature and degree according to the capacity of each individual, but they were bestowed on all and room was allowed in the service for the participation of all who were present. “When you meet together,” says Paul, “each of you hath a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, an interpretation.” Every member was expected to contribute something of his own to the common worship . . . . Worship in those first days was independent of all forms (The Nature of the Early Church, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941, pp.75,77,79,87).

PC is suggesting that in light of the calcified structure that characterizes church services, perhaps we would do well to re-visit the alternative pictured in the NT. Your review has given no substantive reasons why the challenge issued in PC should not be taken very seriously by the Christian community.

– Jon Zens

Part Four


In part four of your review, you spend the bulk of your time showing from the New Testament that there are specific people who do pastoral work and other functions. It seems to me that you are missing the main point of PC in this regard. The authors are saying that the tradition of “clergy” in Roman Catholicism and “the pastor” in Protestantism has no organic connection to what is portrayed in the NT, and it comes into conflict with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

While Reimagining Church explores the function of first-century shepherds, overseers, and elders in detail, I’ll just make a few observations in response to your review.

1) You seem to assume that contemporary “pastors” and the elders, shepherds, and overseers mentioned in the NT are on the same plane. But PC is rightly saying that this is not the case. A whole doctrine of “the pastor” has been repeatedly articulated in hundreds of books – with minor variations, of course. Here are nine books from various perspectives which, if taken together, would pretty well give the contours of what people have in mind when they hear the word “pastor.”

Edward Schillebeeckx, Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ; Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor; Hezekiah Harvey, The Pastor: His Qualifications & Duties; David S. Schuller, et al., Ministry in America: A Report & Analysis, based on an in-depth survey of 47 denominations in the U.S. & Canada, with interpretation by 18 experts; Norman Shawchuck & R. Heuser, Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People; Robert L. Randall, Pastor & Parish: The Psychological Core of Ecclesiastical Conflicts; Melvin J. Steinborn,Can the Pastor Do It Alone?; Stefan Ulstein, Pastors [Off the Record]: Straight Talk About Life in the Ministry; and John A. Sanford, Ministry Burnout.

The host of assumptions about the role of “the pastor” in such books cannot be substantiated in the NT. The “office” of pastor set forth in Protestant tomes is unknown in the NT. That is the essence of what PC is setting before its readers.

For example, Puritan John Owen believed that “on this office [‘pastor’] and the discharge of it He hath laid the whole weight of the order, rule, and edification of His church” (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, edited & abridged by John Huxtable, London, 1947, p.55). Southern Baptist Frank Owen crystallized the essence of what church people assume is to be the operational standard:

The OT had the prophet and the priest . . . . In Evangelical Christianity the church has merged the two OT figures into one office called ‘pastor’ . . . . This fellowship, like a flock, needed a leader like a shepherd . . . . An orderly church needs one overseer, one shepherd, one pastor . . . . the pastor needs to have general oversight of the education, music, youth, activities and any other ministries in the flock . . . . Allow this old veteran to observe that chaos easily develops where no one is in charge. If the church is to be one flock, it needs one shepherd. Let him be first among equals” (Western Recorder, January 14, 1981, p.11).

2) In your reactions to PC’s chapter on “The Sermon,” you seem oblivious to the deeply entrenched and thoroughly misguided traditions that cluster around the post-Reformation defenses of “the minister.” As the quotations from J. Owen and F. Owen reveal, the scale has been inordinately tipped to a position that you can’t even discover on the pages of the NT.

PC is simply uncovering and exposing the glaring disconnect between the body life described in the NT, and the clergy-centeredness that was concretized in post-apostolic times.

3) You seem to miss the point that the nexus of responsibility to “bind and loose” is committed to the believing community, not to “office bearers.” You say, “Jesus, according to Mt.16, founded his church on a leader named Peter. He was given the keys to the kingdom and the power of binding and loosing.” But whatever Matt.16 teaches, that is not the whole story, is it?

In Matt.18 we see very clearly that the “keys” to bind and loose are in the possession of the ekklesia. The epistles are addressed to bodies of believers, not to leaders. Even at Corinth where problems and immaturity abounded, Paul addressed the believers as possessing the spiritual resources to face and resolve their issues. He never addressed “leaders” separately as if problem-solving fell specifically upon their shoulders.

4) You aver that the shepherding “task is not given to everyone . . . . in no case are all Christians called and gifted to do shepherding.” In saying things like this, I think you are missing a vital NT perspective. Without denying that some individuals function as “shepherds,” it is nevertheless the case that the task of general oversight and pastoral care is given to everyone in the body. If you think about it, all the characteristics of elders are to be marks of the whole community – including instruction (Heb. 5:12; Rom. 15:14). The many facets of caring – including warning the unruly, comforting the feebleminded, supporting the weak – are to be fleshed out by the community as the whole body functions (1 Thess. 5:14; see also the 58 “one another” exhortations given to the believing community). In Gal.6:1-2, those in the body who are walking in the Spirit are to be involved in the restoration process when others become ensnared in sin. In 1 John all the brethren are to “test the spirits.” As John H. Yoder observes,

The whole concern of Reformation theology was to justify restructuring the organized church without shaking its foundations … 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 …. 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 …. 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. (“The Fullness of Christ: Perspectives on Ministries in Renewal,” Concern, No. 17, Feb. 1969).

5) An especially revealing passage is Heb.12:15 where the verb episkopeo appears. The noun form of this verb, of course, refers to “overseers,” or “elders.” We get our word “Episcopal” from it. So here we have the action of “overseeing” applied to the whole body of brethren. R.C.H. Lenski makes these observations: “Episcopos is a bishop; the participle bids all the readers to act the part of episcopoi, overseers, by exercising continuous oversight of each other” (The Interpretation of Hebrews, p.443). Lenski translates this as, “continuing to exercise oversight lest anyone be dropping away from the grace of God.” Elders (overseers/shepherds) simply model this oversight and pastoral care for the rest of the church.

6) When any of Paul’s churches were in crisis, Paul didn’t write his corrective letters to “the pastor.” He instead writes to the whole church, and he exhorts the entire church to deal with the crisis. Contrast that with today’s practice. If there was a crisis brewing in the typical traditional church today, letters would be addressed to the pastor, not the congregation. In fact, a close look at the Pauline letters, as well as those of Peter, James, and John, reveals that the apostles never mention a single pastor. That there were elders/overseers/shepherds in some of them is without question, but they clearly didn’t have the kind of prominence that the modern pastor is given today. (For an insightful discussion on the role of first-century elders, see R. A. Campbell, The Elders: Seniority in Earliest Christianity. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994.)

7) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus weren’t called the “Pastoral Epistles” until around the eighteenth century. Timothy and Titus were not pastors as we conceive of them today. They were in Paul’s circle of apostolic workers, usually on the move. On occasion they tarried in a single location. Significantly, Paul never calls them pastors or elders. He does call Timothy an “evangelist.”

8) Our church practice has been so focused on “the pastor” that we have lost the broad pasturing responsibility entrusted to all the brethren. By paying people to “do ministry,” the people in the pew often end up participating very little, if any, in vital caring for one another. The reality is that “ministry” has traditionally shifted from the many to a few – often, only one.

9) In the discussion of one pastor versus a plurality of elders, you again seem to miss the point. The truth is that there is a well-defined doctrine defending the need for “one pastor,” summed up in Frank Owen’s sentiment – “An orderly church needs one overseer, one shepherd, one pastor.” In the NT, references to elders and overseers are always plural. There is no example of an ekklesiahaving one shepherd. “If any of you is sick, let them call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14).

As Wayne Grudem notes, “no passage suggests that any church, no matter how small, had only one elder. The consistent NT pattern is a plurality of elders ‘in every church’ (Acts 14:23) and ‘in every town’ (Titus 1:5)” (Systematic Theology, p.913). Once again, there is just no connection between the leadership described in the NT and the long-standing tradition of “the pastor.”

My observation would be that the great bulk of people who have been sitting in pews hearing sermons for 30-50 years are rarely equipped for ministry, are often biblically illiterate, and are essentially trained to be ears for the mouth of the body – spoon-fed and dependent on the charisma of one gift behind the pulpit (cf. Clyde Reid, The God-Evaders, Harper, 1966; The Empty Pulpit, Harper, 1967). David Thomas in 1898 summarized the situation well in his comments on 1 Cor.14:

The Christian church in assembly, on the same occasion, might have several speakers to address them . . . . If this be so: 1. Should Christian teaching be viewed as aprofession? It is now: men are brought up in it, trained for it, and live by it, as architects, lawyers, doctors . . . . 2. Is the Christian church justified in confining its attention to the ministry of one man? In most modern congregations there are some Christian men who, by natural ability, by experimental knowledge and inspiration, are far more qualified to instruct and comfort the people than their professional and stated minister. Surely official preaching has no authority, either in Scripture, reason, or experience, and it must come to an end sooner or later. Every Christian man should be a preacher. Were the half-hour allotted in church services for the sermon to be occupied by three or four Christly men . . . . with the capability of expression withal, it would not only be far more interesting, but more profitably spent than now (“1 Corinthians,” The Pulpit Commentary, p.459).

In a sense, PC zeros in on and parses issues that are broadly discussed thematically in Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity, inNigel Goring Wright’s Disavowing Constantine, and in Colin J. Bulley’s The Priesthood of Some Believers.

If I may, I’d like to quote Frank in a recent interview he did with George Barna. The whole interview is worth hearing as they discuss the book and their views on the modern pastorate. In it, he issues this challenge to his listeners:

Pick up your NT and look for this man. Show me a man in the NT who preaches to the same congregation week after week, month after month, year after year. Show me a man in the NT who is called the head of the church. Show me a man in the NT that makes the decisions for a local church. Show me a man in the NT that represents the church in the world, that blesses civic events, that marries the living and buries the dead. And if you can find that man in the NT who fits all of those descriptions, then George Barna will give you $500,000.

This is a challenge to consider for all who assume that the modern pastoral office and role is firmly based in the NT. The fact is, such a job description cannot be found.

The fact of the matter is that while some pastors cannot accept the challenges in PC, there are many pastors who have testified that they have known deep down in their hearts that their role as pastors wasn’t in line with God’s will. Reading PC has helped them to get in touch with their consciences. You can read some of these testimonials on Frank’s blog.

In closing, I would encourage you to consider two essays that, I believe, capture the pulse of Pagan Christianity. You come across pretty dogmatically with your views, but it needs to be kept in mind that other adept scholars have come to different conclusions after examining the NT revelation.

*Gordon D. Fee, “Laos & Leadership in the New Testament,” Listening to the Spirit of the Text, Eerdmans, 2000, pp.121-146.

*John H. Yoder, “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood: A Protestant Perspective,” The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, Univ. of Notre Dame, 1984, pp.15-45.

I think the following summary by Ernest F. Scott once again confirms that the pivotal points made in PC have been seen by others.

[The ekklesia] was not the Jewish community over again, with a few minor differences, but was a new creation . . . . [W]hen much of his spiritual teaching was forgotten . . . the church took on more and more of the character of an ordinary society. It sought its models deliberately in the guilds and corporations of the day, and before a century had passed a Christian church was almost a replica in miniature of a Roman municipality. It had a body of officers graded like those of the city, clothed in similar vestments and bearing similar titles. The conception of a unique society, representing on earth the new order which would prevail in the Kingdom, seemed almost to have disappeared (The Nature of the Early Church, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941, pp.31, 110).

Thanks again for considering my thoughts.

– Jon Zens



In reading over your postlude where you cited from the Didache, my main response is that I don’t see anything particularly “sacramental” about it. It seems to me that a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a house church person, or the authors of PC could utter such a prayer without any problem.

If one thinks the Didache is an accurate standard to understand the practices of any of the first century churches, then perhaps we should take its disdain for minister salaries to heart.

– If a visiting apostle remains somewhere for 3 days, he’s a false prophet – 11:5

– If he takes anything from God’s people except for a loaf of bread, he’s a false prophet – 11:6

– If he asks for money, he’s a false prophet – 11:6

– If a someone says in the Spirit, “give me money “ do not listen to him – 11:12

– Christian workers should work for their own bread – 12:3

– “In no way should anyone live among you unemployed as a Christian” – 12:4

Interestingly, I find nothing in the Didache that contradicts the points the authors make in PC. I actually find agreement. The Didache talks about multiple overseers and nothing about a single pastor. It also affirms that there were traveling apostolic workers and true prophets. At the same time, I personally wouldn’t take it as a guide for NT church practices. Consider the following rules:

– If you fast on Monday or Thursday you are a hypocrite. You must fast on Wednesdays and Fridays – 8:1

– The person who is baptized should fast two or three days beforehand – 7:4

– The person doing the baptizing must also fast – 7:4

No one denies the variety that undoubtedly existed in the NT era. It’s just that the glimpses of information we do have in the New Covenant documents point toward interactive meetings, not toward the post-Reformation “order of service” that PC takes issue with.

Few would deny that the agape meal and multi-participant meetings are present in the NT. The crucial issue is, Did they cease for valid reasons? Roman Catholic D.I. Lanslots freely admits (as he seeks to justify the RCC agenda):

The public worship or the Liturgy, which is a certain development of prayers and ceremonies, as we have it to-day, did not exist in the days of the Apostles . . . . Two early ceremonies, that accompanied the celebration [‘Holy Eucharist’], soon disappeared; they were not essential. The first was the love-feast; the other the spiritual exercises, in which people were moved by the Holy Ghost to prophesy, speak in divers tongues, heal the sick by prayer, and so on; St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians refers to that (14:1-14) [The Primitive Church: The Church in the Days of the Apostles [1926], Tan Books, 1980, pp.264-265].

“They were not essential,” he opines. In terms of practice, Protestants have essentially agreed with this notion. PC is suggesting that what came in their place was substandard, contra the NT traditions, and ended up effectively redefining the NT concept of church.

Protestants usually affirm that the New Testament is the benchmark for all of life, and our life in the Body of Christ. As PC points out, the visible church began to takes it cue from traditions other than the NT quite early on. G.A. Jacob pointed out this phenomenon during an ecclesiastical struggle in his day:

Notwithstanding the still generally acknowledged supremacy of Holy Scripture amongst us, the main current of Church opinion on all questions of polity and practice (to say nothing here of doctrines) has for a very considerable time been setting strongly towards the ecclesiastical system of the third and fourth centuries, to the neglect, in this respect, of the New Testament . . . . [The movement] was begun and carried on by men who diligently and perseveringly brought to bear upon the public mind their stores of learning, gathered not from the Apostles, but from the post-apostolic Fathers; not from the divinely taught Church of the New Testament, but from the humanly deteriorated Church of a later time . . . . And all the while there is frequently a profound ignorance of what the Church system at that time really was, and the extent to which it had departed from the simplicity of the apostolic age and truth (The Ecclesiastical Polity of the New Testament: A study for the present crisis in the Church of England, Thomas Whitaker, 1879, pp.20-21, 23).

So it would seem that we really need to ask ourselves, Do we take the revelation in the NT seriously as our starting point, and does the way we practice church honestly reflect NT values? I think PC has done a marvelous job of challenging us to re-visit these questions as does the sequel, Reimagining Church. 

– Jon Zens



Thank you for your replies to my responses to part four and your postlude. Some closing thoughts to wrap up our conversation:

1) If I may, I would like to make a few honest observations about the style of communication reflected in your conversation on this subject. I am not sure if you aware of this, but your language comes across as if you are dogmatically certain of your personal opinions. I find this ironic and sad because this is what you originally accused the authors of in PC. I can well understand an author being passionate and confident in his or her beliefs in a book or in preaching. But to be uncommonly dogmatic in a discourse such as this in the face of contrary opinions of other scholars of equal stature (who I’ve quoted and cited repeatedly) comes off sounding a bit arrogant and condescending.

Several times you appealed to yourself as a “scholar” and “historian,” as if that closed all discussion. Wikipedia notes with regard to “Appeal to Authority”:

“An appeal to authority or argument by authority is a type of argument in logic consisting on basing the truth value of an assertion on the authority, knowledge, expertise, or position of the person asserting it. It is also known as argument from authority, argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect) or ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it). It is one method of obtaining propositional knowledge, but a fallacy in regard to logic, because the validity of a claim does not follow from the credibility of the source.”

I am one who stands in awe of your intellectual abilities as brought to bear upon the study of Scripture. However, I have in the course of my responses to you cited numerous other respected scholars who see things differently than you do, and on the surface you haven’t given their viewpoint the time of day. For example, James Dunn pointed out four areas – increasing institutionalism, attaching authority to office, a widening gap between clergy and laity, and grace becoming attached to ritual acts – that were not in the first generation, but appeared later. Doesn’t this indicate that such things were not part of the “apostolic tradition”? That should give us cause for concern, as I see it.

I say this in all graciousness, but I think it would serve the body of Christ better if you exhibited a little more humility and were less certain of your assertions and assumptions. For example, never once in your discourse on this subject have I seen you say, “I could be wrong about this but…” or “the scholar you mentioned makes a good point and he may be right about that” … or “that’s a point worth pondering,” or “I think…” or “I believe”… or “It’s my opinion that…” or “I stand corrected on that point,” etc.

Instead, your rhetoric has been consistently filled with statements like “this is false, this is erroneous, this is dead wrong,” without any acknowledgement that these are your opinions and there are other competent scholars who disagree with them. Paul did say that “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” I believe that those of us who are engaged in scholarship must always keep that statement in mind. Of course, all of the above is just my humble opinion, I could be wrong about it. :-)

2) You state: “The charge of anachronism is a serious one, all the more serious when you make it of a historian…” I don’t know how to respond to this except to remind you that I am also a historian and other historians and scholars like myself would agree with that particular observation. It’s my experience that conversation gets short-circuited if we become offended when someone else makes critical observations about our conclusions. Keep in mind that you have “charged” me with having an erroneous theology, which I find to be a far more serious “charge” (to use your term). But if I allow myself to be offended by such statements it only reveals pride in my own heart.

Again, I think the language of dogmatic certainty defeats good healthy conversation. I believe that all of us who study the biblical text must be open to the idea that we may be wrong in our views, and we should respect those scholars who disagree with us rather than dismissing their views with the rhetoric of dogmatic certainty or becoming offended by their critiques. Our allegiance should be to Jesus Christ who is Truth, not to our views, our interpretations, our study, or our intellect.

3) With regard to the body of Christ being modeled after the life of God, I don’t think your logic follows. Equality of value and personhood is one thing; difference in function and role is another. Also, your language of dogmatic certainty — “it is simply false to say that the church is modeled on the life of God…” — is rebutted by other world-renowned scholars. The work of Stanley Grenz, Mirsolav Volf, Kevin Giles, Leonardo Boff, and others demonstrate quite powerfully the connection between the life of the Trinity and the church and that the former is a model for the latter. In other words, other scholars disagree with your opinion here.

3) Regarding taxonomy, I would say that for the most part “preaching” in the NT takes place in evangelistic settings where the gospel is proclaimed to unbelievers, while teaching and words of a mutual flavor (exhort, encourage) are connected with Christian gatherings (cf. C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching & Its Developments, pp.7ff. David C. Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach?, Paternoster, 1996). Interestingly, the “proclaiming” that is done in the context of the Lord’s Supper is accomplished by the Body, not by one person’s monologue.

4) The office of bishop – in particular the monarchial bishop like Ignatius — that emerged in post-apostolic times is certainly a development not substantiated by the NT canon and cannot be accurately equated with the ministry of extra local, traveling apostles (see Judy Schindler, “The Rise of One-Bishop-Rule in the Early Church: A Study of the Writings of Ignatius and Cyprian,”Searching Together, 10:2, 1981, pp.3-9). I would encourage your readers to go back and read what Ignatius actually said about the ultimate and unquestioned power and authority of the bishop. No first-century apostle ever wielded such authority (see Robert Banks’ discussion on Paul’s apostolic authority in “Paul’s Idea” and “Dictionary of Paul and His Letters”).

Elaine Pagels documents the whole rationale for the bishop as supreme as it arose in post-apostolic history. She points out Clement of Alexandria remarks “That whoever refuses to ‘bow the neck’ and obey the church leaders is guilty of insubordination against the divine master himself. Carried away with his argument, Clement warns that whoever disobeys the divinely ordained authorities ‘receives the death penalty!’” Pagels goes on to say:

“This letter marks a dramatic moment in the history of Christianity. For the first time, we find here an argument for dividing the Christian community between “the clergy” and “the laity.” The church is to be organized in terms of a strict order of superiors and subordinates” (“One God, One Bishop: The Politics of Monotheism,” The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1981, p.41).

This brings to the fore an important question that PC raises: are such things as the monarchial bishop departure or development? “Development and departure are two different things,” notes F.F. Bruce, “and should not be confused. Development is the unfolding of what is there already, even if only implicitly; departure involves the abandonment of one principle or basis in favor of another” (A Mind for What Matters, Eerdmans, 1990, p.238). He goes on to say, “If it should be asked further (in light of what has already been said) how development is to be distinguished from departure, or how can it be prevented from lapsing into departure, the answer may lie in certain criteria which the NT writings themselves provide” (p.244).

5) As you well know, it is through Paul’s counsel to the Corinthian situation that we learn much about how the church is to function. When a teacher corrects a student’s handwriting, that in no way suggests that the teacher wishes him/her to stop writing altogether. The truth is 1 Corinthians is preserved in the NT canon. While their problems are not to be emulated, it still provides apostolic insight into healthy body life. The amazing thing is that with all their issues, Paul still assumes that the body can work out its waywardness in light of his instruction to them. Paul in this epistle never puts the onus of responsibility on leaders, and never addresses them separately. As put forth in Matt.18, the body binds and looses, using the keys of the kingdom.

6) I assume that Paul sees mutual exhortation, etc., carried out in a church meeting because that’s the setting given in 1 Cor.14 and Heb.10:24-25. 1 Cor. 14:26 is not merely descriptive but it also carries prescriptive force. Such scholars as Gordon Fee (1 Corinthians, NICNT, Eerdmans), William Barclay, F.F. Bruce, Leon Morris, John R.W. Stott, Robert Banks, et al., are of this opinion. Again, other scholars disagree with your opinion here. Even if it was just descriptive, isn’t it healthy to ask, “Why are our meetings so far from this description?”

7) There are 58 one-another’s in the NT, and absolutely nothing about “one pastor” bearing the entire responsibility for the edification of the church (as John Owen put it). I’ve already given you many arguments that challenge the existence of the modern pastorate, in addition to the arguments in PC. Having a participatory meeting does not rule out the functioning of the various gifts you listed. In 1 Cor.14, Paul has instructions for the “prophets,” but he also assumes that anyone in the gatherings may “prophesy.” Again, Howard Snyder has it right when he says,

“The New Testament teaches us that the church is a community in which all are gifted and all have ministry.”

“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.”

8) I would suggest that any structure of church that ends up with a few doing the work of many is a perversion and corruption of the body image Paul develops in 1 Cor.12. If I’m not mistaken, the way that many (if not most) modern churches operate, one would think that Paul said in 1 Cor.12:14, “The body is not many parts, but one.”

9) The Jewish churches and the Gentile churches both had the same essential attributes that mark the ekklesia of God. This point isn’t developed at all in PC so your comments on this are misguided. While some of the Jewish churches struggled with legalism (Acts 11-15) and some of them were tempted to return to the shadows of the Law (Hebrews), it’s a mistake to try to argue that the Jewish churches were some sort of a model for justifying the modern institutional church structure. I’ve already answered the objection that Jewish Christians had Christian ekklesiameetings in synagogues. This won’t hold up historically.

10) Again, I feel that your arguments which try to support a fixed clergy salary fall short and constitute a stretch of the imagination. I also think you missed my point in my comments on the Didache. I agree that the Didache was addressing traveling apostles who were asking for money, but it was doing more than that – it was speaking of all Christian ministers as well. But that’s really neither here nor there. Read again the other rules that the Didache sets forth that I listed. I know no pastor who follows them today, and I know few scholars who believe that they reflect the normative life in the first-century churches, which was my initial point. But I see nothing in it that contradicts the arguments in PC.

Finally, thank you for posting Howard Snyder’s honest review of PC. I think his opening statements summarize the book beautifully:

“This is a ground-clearing book. Many Christians will be surprised—maybe shocked—to learn how much contemporary “Christian” practice has no biblical basis whatsoever.”

This breathes the same air as his endorsement for the book:

“Most contemporary Christians are massively ignorant as to how the church got to where it is today and of how much current church practice is due simply to accumulated tradition, with little or no roots in Scripture. This book provides a useful service in peeling back the layers of tradition, showing the origins of much that we today call “church.” Christians who want to be biblically faithful, regardless of their particular tradition or church form, can learn and benefit from the book.”

– Howard Snyder, Professor of History and Theology of Mission, Asbury Theological Seminary

Regarding some of the other comments, PC clearly states that it is not suggesting that just because something has a pagan origin, it should be jettisoned. It purports instead that those pagan traditions that interfere with NT revelation are to be rejected. The authors are also not pushing for one model of church as being the correct one and their arguments for “organic church” are developed in the sequel. They also state in the book that God has used and is using the institutional church despite its unscriptural structure. The issue of contexualization is handled in the sequel, and the authors would agree with Howard that PC is “not the last word or the whole story.” The fact that there is a sequel demonstrates this on its own.

I think the key points in PC are summed up fairly well by Richard Halverson when he said,

“When the Greeks got the gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got it, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business.”

It would seem that the Good Ship Ekklesia set sail in the first century and that after several thousand years in the sea, so many barnacles have attached themselves to the ship that it’s original form is unrecognizable.

Ben, I’ve enjoyed interacting with your opinions. I hope that your review and my critique of it will provoke your blog readers to read the book for themselves and discover what God is saying to them through it in their particular situations. As Howard himself wrote in his review,

“Most of us do not pay enough attention to what the Bible plainly teaches about the nature and practice of the church as Body of Christ. So I wish church leaders everywhere would calmly read and reflect on this book.”

I hope they will do so. May God’s peace and grace be yours.

Take care,

— Jon Zens

p.s. If you or any of your blog readers wish to dialogue with me further about this subject, I can be reached at

Read Dr. Zens review of Pagan Christianity.

Read the Willow Creek Review of Pagan Christianity.

Answers to Questions by Frank Viola and George Barna.

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