Friday, February 29, 2008

Pagan Christianity by Barna and Viola Part 3

Read part 1
Read part 2

In this post we examine what the early church did in it's meetings.

The authors correctly argue that we search in vain for a “worship service” concept in the New Testament. Today’s order of worship came from a combination of the Old Testament and pagan sources, as they effectively demonstrate. This drastic difference between traditional worship services and New Testament church meetings is an issue that should be pressed hard because the church is unwilling to face the truth about this sacred cow.

But then the authors begin to claim that the New Testament church was devoid of preaching, and that nobody should preach (unless it was a special occasion or the preacher was a church planter)! They say, “the contemporary sermon delivered for Christian consumption is foreign to both Old and New Testaments.” (88) And, "despite the fact that the contemporary sermon does not have a shred of biblical merit to support its existence, it continues to be uncritically admired in the eyes of most present-day Christians." (101) "The sermon actually detracts from the very purpose for which God designed the church gathering." (p. 86)

At first I thought they were saying that the formalized 3-point alliterated sermons taught in homiletics classes were alien, but no. They mean any sermon. Preaching did not happen in early church meetings, according to these authors, except on special occasions or by visiting church planters. They think Crysostom and Augustine popularized the Greco-Roman homily taught in rhetoric classes. (273) They say giving sermons and the art of preaching were "stolen from the pagans. A polluted stream made its entrance into the Christian faith and nuddied its waters. And that stream flows just as strongly today as it did in the fourth century." (93)

I felt confused. Yeah, foreign elements came into preaching during this period, especially the fact that it was restricted to bishops and priests.

But consider the following:

  • Paul characterized his times with the Ephesians as “teaching you publicly and from house to house.” (Acts 20:20), a practice he pursued “daily” according to Luke. (Acts 19:9)
  • The Christians in Jerusalem “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” (Acts 2:42)
  • Paul’s calls on Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:1,2) and to “give attention to the public reading of scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13). The pastoral epistles are loaded with instructions to preach and teach.
  • He includes “if anyone has a teaching,” in his description of a house church meeting. (1 Cor. 14:26) Yes, this could be a short word-based admonition as they argue, or it could be a planned teaching. Nothing in the passage says which is true.
  • He refers to elders who “work hard at preaching and teaching.” (1 Thess. 5:17) This one is important because it shows these are not visiting church planters, but week-in week-out preachers.
All these point to the fact that early church meetings centered substantially on the word of God and preaching/teaching. Our earliest description of a Christian meeting (Justin Martyr in the first apology c. 140 AD) says, “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” So Viola’s and Barna’s claim that the early church was all spontaneous and subjective singing and personal sharing is very different, I think, from what we see in the New Testament, just as what we see in today’s worship service is different.

I totally agree with their claim that the idea of a worship service arose as a response to the vacuum left by the loss of mutual ministry during the third century. This can be adequately demonstrated. But why do they weaken their argument by over-reaching and trying to prove that leaders didn’t preach in the New Testament?

The New Testament does demonstrate regular teaching and preaching, contrary to their argument. Preaching did not have to be impromptu and unplanned as they argue.

Paul calls on Timothy to be diligent so he can “handle accurately the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15) That implies studying. Paul’s “preaching daily at the lecture hall of Tyrannus” Acts 19:9) doesn’t sound very impromptu. The crowd at Solomon’s porch numbered in the thousands. Are we to suppose the apostles weren’t teaching and preaching to large crowds even though it says they were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching? This was all impromptu and interactive? I don’t think so. There is no basis for claiming these lectures are impromptu, or only for special occasions, other than the authors’ preconceptions.

As discussed in the previous post, Viola and Barna have a concept of a meeting without planning or human direction, and the notion of preaching the word doesn’t fit that picture. But I don’t think their picture comes from the New Testament. In Acts 20, Luke records a “breaking of bread” meeting where Paul taught and preached until midnight. That’s a lot of preaching and teaching! I believe if anything, the preaching in the New Testament was way longer and more in-depth than typical sermons today.

Yes, the nature of preaching changed in later church history, and it became something that is not questioned or discussed by the group, which is a mistake. (That's why we open the floor for comments, questions, or sharing after each and every sermon at our large and small meetings.) But advocates for organic s of the church should avoid mixing exaggerated claims in with legitimate claims, thus leaving themselves open to easy dismissal.

See a balanced and well-thought out review here.

Read on to Part 4


Smooth Jazz said...

Oh I gotta read this book. Read my blog about his previous book "Revolution." It should've been titled "The Laodicean Revolution" (but that's too cynical). Sounds like this new book is more of the same un-biblical nonsense.

Barna has been astonishingly dogmatic and uncharacteristically unscientific in this effort to redefine apathetic Christianity as "Revolutionary" Christianity.

For example, from Revolution:

"Know this: just as the prophets of old were unwelcome in their own hometown, so are Revolutionaries looked at askance by even their closest friends and family members."

Dennis said...

I hated Revolution. It was a manifesto for individualism, and showed no real understanding of biblical teaching on the body of Christ. Barna thought one valid form of fellowship was meeting a friend for a round of golf--just as good as any other kind of meeting.

I was super surprised that Barna and Viola teamed up because Barna seems real individualistic and shallow (like chatting with Christians online is one form of disciple making) whereas Viola is real tribal and into a specific kind of holy huddle that constitutes New Testament church. I guess they're working on a sequel that is supposed to explain how Revolution and Pagan Christianity somehow don't contradict each other. That'll be interesting.

Ariel said...

Hey Dennis, thanks for the link. Pagan Christianity? has generated a lot of discussion. My hope is that the benefits of all these conversations will outweigh the shortcomings of the book itself.

Dennis said...

I am recommending that people read it. Their critique of how the church drifted away from biblical teaching is largely valid. The problem comes in more with what they suggest instead.