Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pagan Christianity? by Barna and Viola Part 2

Read Part 1

George Barna and Frank Viola have written a new book, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the roots of our church practices. In part 1 I explained why I'm unhappy that they took valid points and pressed them to extremes that undermined their thesis. In that post, I discussed their coverage of church buildings.

Their coverage of buildings was similar to their work on church leadership, the subject of this post.

They start out with an important point--that the early church developed the unbiblical concept of clergy and laity--a concept that has been catastrophic in the history of the church. They trace the development of this concept through the second century and into the third by which time the notions of the clergyman as a priest and the monarchical bishop were well-entrenched.

The only addition I would suggest is more discussion on why some of the early fathers went so extreme in insisting that people listen to nobody but the bishop or those authorized by the bishop (priests). I don't accept that it was simply a case of them imitating Roman pagan culture. I think the main reason was that they were terrified at how rapidly false doctrine was spreading through the church. Gnosticism and related teachings posed a real threat to the future of Christianity in the second century. But instead of teaching people why it was messed up and how to refute it from scripture, the leadership tried to silence the voice of Gnostics by outlawing their teaching in favor of approved, or official teachers. This same faulty strategy for maintaining doctrinal purity has been used down through history and up to the present day.

But on the whole, Barna's and Viola's coverage of this unfortunate development and the damage it did to the body of Christ was good. Once ministry came to be viewed as the province of the clergy, Christianity became a new religion, unrecognizable from a biblical perspective. As I argued in Organic Disciplemaking, one horrific result was that disciple making in the New Testament sense diminished to the vanishing point. Only clergy would be discipled from then on, so 99% of all Christians were left to languish in spiritual ignorance and immaturity. The notion of practicing your spiritual gifts and developing your own ministry disappeared from Christian history for almost all Christians during this period.

Another awful result was the complete loss of accountability for church leaders. People today are generally unaware that the Bible was taken out of people's hands very early in the history of the church. Reading and interpreting the Bible was reserved for the clergy. Increasingly, people had no way to know whether the things their priest or bishop said were of God or whether they made it up. Once this happened, anything was possible. Back in New Testament times, God had prescribed that prophets should speak, and the rest should "pass judgment." (1 Cor. 14:29) Without access to the Bible, this practice disappeared very early in the church's history.

So this section of the book was off to a great start, like most of their chapters. Then came the over-reaching and the extreme conclusions.

Instead of leaving it that the church never should have designated clergy as some special class who were alone capable of interpreting scripture and preaching, they advance a mode of church life virtually devoid of human leadership! When discussing the early church, they give their definition of a New Testament meeting straight out: “What do we mean by a first-century-styled church? It is a group of people who know how to experience Jesus Christ and express him in a meeting without any human officiation.” They add that “the one who plants a first-century-styled church leaves that church without a pastor, elders, a music leader, a Bible facilitator, or a Bible teacher… those believers will know how to sense and follow the living, breathing, headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings.” (234)

Viola describes going to a house church today where people show up, begin singing, someone else sings and they hold hands, someone shares what God showed them that week, someone else shares, and that's it. The only Bible teaching is a guy standing up and reading some scripture and showing how it glorifies Christ for a couple of minutes. Someone else stands and adds some thoughts. More singing, poems, sharing, and "none of this was rehearsed, prescribed, or planned." (78,79) They think if a group "has a leader present who is the head of the meetings... such meetings are directed by a human head who either controls or facilitates it." Instead, meetings should be "without human control or interference." (266)

As someone whose mother was Quaker, I fully understand the longing some feel for spontaneous worship as the mark of authenticity. This is exactly how Quaker worship times work. I also was at a ton of meetings like this back in the Jesus movement, and more recently when visiting house churches in the U.S. But ask yourself, “Why can God only lead after the meeting starts, rather than beforehand?” Just because someone prepares their teaching or preaching doesn’t imply that God isn’t leading, as these authors repeatedly claim. And this assertion—that only impromptu speech is spiritual—is so extreme and unbiblical that it undermines the whole case against formalism. Note: they aren't just saying that spontaneous meetings are okay, they argue that this is the ONLY valid kind of ongoing meeting for churches. Stay tuned for why this is wrong.

Yes, the Bible portrays an interactive meeting with all using their gifts in 1 Cor. 14. but it never says the meeting has no leader, and other portrayals of meetings in the New Testament definitely show a leader present, and planned preaching and teaching, as I will show in my next post.

I've attended these kind of house churches, and I find them boring, often strange, overly subjective, uninformative, and sometimes narcissistic. Being spontaneous doesn't translate into spirituality, and planning doesn't equate to carnality. These are simply false dichotomies, and extremism. Instead, meetings should have both planned parts (like teaching and preaching) and spontaneous parts, and there's nothing contradictory or wrong in that.

The house church movement associated with Viola holds that human leadership violates the leadership of the Holy Spirit.This movement rejects the validity of human leadership in a way that is every bit as alien to the New Testament as many of the other features detailed in this book. From one end of the Bible to the other, God uses human leaders. Early church members are repeatedly called on to respect and follow their leaders. (Heb. 13:7; 17; 1Cor. 16:15,16, etc.) By over-reaching in this way, Barna and Viola undermine the credibility of their own argument, which is a shame because these are points that need to be made.

Read on to Part 3


Anonymous said...

thanks. informative. also, when did the early christians lose access to the scriptures? do we know for sure?

Dennis said...

It was a process, spanning several centuries. By the late 2nd century, the doctrine that nobody should teach but the bishop was well established. Also, the growing focus on ritual and lack of teaching on the importance of learning made scripture seem unimportant to know. But after the Vulgate version was translated, the church ruled at a council (forget which one) that the Vulgate was the true Bible. Other translations were not permitted. Problem was, nobody read Latin in Europe from the sixth C. on but priests and monks. So effectively, lay people couldn't get the Bible from then on. Tyndale and Waldo both translated the Bible and were excommunicated for doing so. Copies were hunted and burned. The Catholics had the Bible on the index of books Catholics shouldn't read until the 1960's.

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