Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pagan Christianity? by Viola and Barna Part 1

Not good enough.

As a leader in a house church planting ministry, I so wanted to like this book! Frank Viola has been writing in favor of a more organic understanding of church life for years. Observers have often pointed out similarities between his books and some of mine. I see the overlap as well, along with some differences, which should be clear from my most recent book, Organic Disciplemaking. [The need for, and nature of disciplemaking was one area of solid agreement!] Readers like me who share the authors’ desire for an organic, New Testament-style church will experience real excitement while reading some parts of this courageous critique of the modern institutional church. But I’m afraid the work is seriously flawed.

We’ve all seen steer wrestling at rodeos. The cowboy seized the horns of the steer and twists his head, eventually forcing the hapless animal in a direction he never wanted to go. Some interpreters steer-wrestle the Bible and history to fit pre-conceived views of the church. I’m not denying that many, and maybe most of their claims are true. But mixing in exaggeration and selectivity can seriously distort the picture.

I am on their side of the river, and I’m recommending this book, even though I think they over-reached on a number of their points and weakened their case as a result. They show how the concept of church buildings as holy places originated and drew most of its content from pagan influences. They focus on the major formalism added at the time of Constantine, but in fact, church buildings were around, and were viewed as holy houses of God well before Constantine. He did greatly expand the acceptance and the number of “churches” throughout the empire. They then over-reach to the extreme of implying that using buildings at all is pagan and alien to the New Testament.

Their suggestion that the church could just rent or borrow a building like the schoolroom of Tyrannus or Solomon’s portico for "special occasions" doesn’t match New Testament precedent. Paul didn’t rent the schoolroom for a special occasion, but as a base of ministry that he carried on “daily.” (Acts 19:9) Solomon’s portico was in regular use also. Acts 2:46 says, "Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart."
Why should we conclude that large venues like this were for special occasions only, when they appear in the same sentence with things like breaking bread and house church meeting? Outdoor venues like that work well for warm-climates like Jerusalem. It wouldn’t work so well where I live in Ohio.

The point is that the poisonous part—viewing buildings as the “house of God” and auditoriums as “sanctuaries” (which means “holy places”)—should be decried without discrediting the whole argument by exaggerating. The authors think any ownership or regular use of buildings is bad, and steer-wrestle the scriptures to suit their preconceived view.

Read on to Part 2


Anonymous said...

Dennis. The authors never say it's wrong or pagan to meet in a building. They are talking about the "sacred" church building and its architecture and what it does to the church. The question of buildings is answered by the authors in detail on their question answer page. I suggest you and your readers read it before you make other erroneous claims about the book. Viola and Barna have done their homework, and I see no flaws in any of their arguments. They document their thesis quite well actually. The answer page is located at I highly recommend it.


Dennis said...

They say, "Most of us are completely unaware of what we lost as Christians when we began erecting places devoted exclusively for worship." 42 In their delving deeper section, they say of the church in Jerusalem, "The early Christians met in homes for their church gatherings." They say only "when the entire church needed to come together for a specific purpose (Acts 15), it met in an already existing facility...the porch of Solomon..." I thought that was a clear distortion. Acts 2:46 says, "Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house..." These were not special ad hoc meetings that happened once in awhile, they were just as regular as the house meetings. That's distortion, plain and simple. They refer the reader to Acts 5:12 instead of 2:46 because it doesn't mention that they met there on a daily basis.
They say to the second question (p. 44) "church buildings teach us a number of bad lessons that run contrary to New Testament principles." Yes, you're right, they are against the view that buildings are sacred. But if that was all they said, there would be no problem. The problem is that they go right beyond that and do assert that having a building is bad in and of itself. And these are only two examples. I could go right on, and I did read his answers before I wrote my review.
I'm sorry I'm not joining the parade of praise on that website and on Amazon, but I believe that a balanced message is necessary. Just because I agree with him on some points doesn't mean their exaggerations area okay.

Anonymous said...

I don't see any exaggeration in the book. I see that you are missing their point. They say in the book that those texts about the temple in Jerusalem weren't church meetings but apostolic meetings and they give evidence for it. They also distinguish a church building from buildings in general. Here's a direct quote from their answers page. I really think you should read that page.

"Here are some questions I want you to address. Do you believe that the only kind of meeting a church should have is an open meeting where everyone shares equally? Does the Bible really teach that? Do you believe it's wrong for Christians to meet in a building? Do you deny that the early church met in the Temple as well as in homes? Do you believe there are never times when a Christian can preach and teach from the Bible?"

Answer. These questions are all answered in the book. And the answer to all of them is "no." To be specific, we show that there were two kinds of meetings in the NT: 1) apostolic meetings -- where someone ministers to an audience temporarily for equipping, and 2) church meetings -- where every-member functions and participates to display Jesus Christ.

In many (if not most) modern churches today, what we call "church" is in a way similar to an apostolic meeting, though it never ends and there's no equipping for God's people to gather under Christ's headship. And the "church meeting" has been utterly abandoned.

What most Christians call "church" today is really a religious service/performance that's dominated by the preaching of typically one person. We're challenging that in the book. In fact, we're challenging the entire Protestant liturgy. (Footnote: In my personal judgment, the church of Jesus Christ is dying for a lack of creativity. We Protestants keep repeating a 500-year old ritual with little change. Thank God some of us have broken through to something different, and we've found an entirely new universe on the other side.)

We never say it's wrong to meet in a building. (A "building" and a typical "church building" are two different things, and we're questioning the purpose/function/usefulness of the latter.) I don't believe there's anything wrong with meeting in a building in and of itself. We point out in one chapter how Paul of Tarsus rented the hall of Tyrannus for apostolic meetings in Ephesus. I myself have held apostolic meetings in a rented building for a short space of time to raise up a church or to hold a lengthy conference for a network of churches. I've also seen some church buildings renovated to be more conducive for every-membering functioning. Interesting stories on that score.

The church in Jerusalem did use the Temple at times, but it wasn't in the way that many people assume. The Jerusalem saints didn't meet in the Temple per se. They gathered in the Temple courts (Solomon's porch) which was a large outside area with a roof over it. They did so for a certain period of time to hold apostolic meetings. This was during the birth of the Jerusalem church. They also used it to accommodate the large city-wide council they held regarding a schism in Antioch.

The apostles also visited the synagogues for evangelistic purposes. But the church held their church meetings in homes throughout the city. We make this point in the book, and it's something often misunderstood today. There are apostolic meetings, evangelistic meetings, and church meetings. And there's a big difference between "the work" and "the church," something that the next volume will explore.

Finally, I'm all for preaching and teaching in church meetings, in apostolic meetings, and in conferences. I do it, in fact. It's the shape of the order of worship and the modern sermon that we challenge. The modern sermon being an oration that a pastor is paid to deliver to the same congregation every week ad infinitum. We challenge these things on historical, biblical, and pragmatic grounds.

= = = =


Dennis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dennis said...

Anonymous, you say the meetings at the portico "weren't church meetings but apostolic meetings." Where is that in the Bible??? Where can I turn to learn that there are such things as "apostolic meetings" that aren't church meetings? The whole paragraph in Acts 21 is about the church in Jerusalem--a point that Barna and Viola concede.

In Viola's explanation he defines this "apostolic meeting" as "where someone ministers to an audience temporarily for equipping." Again, where it that in the Bible? There's nothing that says these were "temporary" any more than the "breaking bread from house to house" is temporary. Both meetings are given in the SAME SENTENCE.

"Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and bbreaking bread 1from house to house"

By what hermeneutical rule are we to understand that one of these is temporary and the other is an ongoing example we should follow?

Do you see what I mean by steer wrestling? They don't want to concede the validity of large meetings (perhaps of thousands) for a local church, so they create this new entity called the "apostolic meeting" which is only temporary, so they can discount it as a pattern for the church. But the other type of meeting, given in the same context and the same sentence, they count as the pattern we should follow. This is what happens when you come with a preconceived picture, and try to make scripture fit your paradigm.

When you say, "What most Christians call 'church' today is really a religious service/performance that's dominated by the preaching of typically one person." I agree withy you. But I cannot agree that the book didn't both state and imply that meeting in a building in any ongoing way is bad. Let's be honest on that.

Rachel said...

Den, did you see other areas of weakness in this book, or is your sole/ main objection the bit about church buildings being indiscriminately labeled as bad?

Dennis said...

Rachael, Yes, I did see other problems--a lot of them. I'm going to go about 5 parts on this review, so stay tuned.

icurpoint said...

if i am picking up the thread correctly, i think i like the idea of church being temporary yet ongoing as opposed to every week ad infinitum. I have thought now for awhile that every weekend until the end of your life perpetuates the institutional feel of church that we don't want.

Anonymous said...

I just found out that Dennis is the "lead pastor" of a church. This explains the bias he has against this book. I would suggest that readers look at more balanced reviews and endorsements at Also, it's not "honest" to continue to make a point when the authors themselves deny it. I posted a direct quote from the authors where they said they don't believe that buildings are wrong or that it's always bad to meet in a building. They say the same in the book. Dennis ignored that quote and continued to argue something that the authors never do. I recommend reading the book yourself and not being persuaded by a pastor's negative review. Have a nice weekend.


Dennis said...

As any author knows, you are accountable, not for what you intended to say, or realize you should have said, but for what you said. The simple fact that authors deny saying buildings are wrong doesn't change what they have already written in black and white. And besides, I never denied, and in fact pointed out that they allowed for occasional use of buildings "on special occasions" ans they say on page 247, again pointing out that Solomon's porch and the hall of Tyrannus were in this category. My point, clearly articulated, and not answered by you, David, is that the text actually says both of these facilities were used daily, and are viewed the same as house meetings. What is your answer to my question from Acts. 2 where both venues are referred to in the same sentence? Is this steer wrestling, or not?

Your assumption that because I'm a lead pastor I am biased is an ad hominem argument that could just as easily to a website like! We're supposed to get unbiased material there?

Again I refer you to page 41 where they say "All the traditional reasons put forth for 'needing' a church building collapse under careful scrutiny." and on page 42 "there does not exist a shred of biblical support for the hucrh building." They charge that Christians foolish enough to get a building "have been fathered by Constantine who give us the prestigious status of owning a building." So it sounds like that's the only possible motive for owning a building. They go on, "The building is an architectural denial of the priesthood of all believers. it is a contradiction of the very nature of the ekklesia--which is a countercultural community. The church building impedes our understanding and experience that the church is Christ's functioning body that lives and breathes under His direct headship." And then comes the blockbuster: "It's high time we Christians wake up to the fact that we are being neither biblical nor spiritual by supporting church buildings." page 43. All of this without any qualification to the effect that it's only the view of buildings as holy or sacred that's the problem. How could they or anyone turn around and say this book doesn't claim buildings are bad and should not be owned by any local church?

Dennis said...

I have another suggestion for Frank. Why doesn't he open his "answers to questions" section to real questions, instead of composing or editing his own soft pitches? They did the same thing in the book, and it was pretty annoying. Either this list of questioners is the string of butt-kissers I've ever seen, or Frank is either writing his own questions, or screening his questioners like Fidel Castro does. You can tell I'm not screening mine!

Anonymous said...


"Fidel Castro" seems way out of bounds for an author who sets up a page to answer some questions, whether you think the questions are hard enough or not. I think you should consider much milder rhetoric for a brother in christ who is trying see God's kingdom grow.

Dennis said...

Dude! Pray for a sense of humor. I'm just kidding.

Xenophobe said...

Hmmm... Well, you have very valid points Dennis. However, be man enough not to back peddle. Your comment was obviously meant to be a sarcastic jab at what you feel Frank is doing with his questions section. BTW, your probably right. However, don`t just cover up the poke as humor. If you are going to go the route of insulting some one, stand your ground, don`t blow it off as "humor".

Anonymous said...

Dennis, now who's engaging in ad hominems? I just went to the site and Viola is taking questions from people who write in to him. Some of them are your very own objections! In one place, he says he's open to debate anyone who asks. His email address is available at the bottom, so why don't you take his challenge and write him your "tough" questions about the book and we'll all see if he posts it. If he does, you owe the man an apology.


Dennis said...

Alright, I'm sorry for kidding around about it and comparing it to fidel castro. I'm not even worried about Frank's site. He can do whatever he wants. I just thought it was weird that everyone would say "I've heard people say you were this way, but I read the book and didn't see that at all. Could you explain?"

I actually have real respect for Frank and for George and have read both of their books before. I use George's stuff all the time.

Smooth Jazz said...

Hi Authentic,

I too greatly respect Barna's research. Viola I'm not familiar with until this book.

I'm sitting on a beach in Amelia Island, FL reading this Pagan Christianity book. So much of their distilled research about the secular trappings surrounding the "Worship Service" are so incredibly valuable. The book is so useful especially as a "reader's digest" guide to the secularization of Christianity for those unfamiliar with this history.

But there's also a fundamental flaw running throughout the book, as you point out Den. I know what it is, now: the writers approach the secularization of Christianity with the wide-eyed amazement of the naive. I hate saying this, but it's so conspicuous. They seem oblivious to the Jesus Freak movement of the late hippie era, when people my age across the nation realized all that Pagan Christianity documents. They dropped out of the institutional church in droves. Then they all went back. Why? Because they couldn't figure out what to do about it.

Unfortunately, Barna & Viola are merely repeating history. The book is (rightfully) shocked, but it's also (wrongfully) extremist and even worse, their solution to "just hang out & talk about Christ" is so pathetically naive, I do swear it was like a flashback to read it!

Is it actually possible that Barna, as something of a social scientist, is unaware of the unspectacular & dismal failure of the "Bar Room Brawl" approach to Body Life underlying the Jesus Freak era?

I'm probably jaded because I'm still recuperating -- unsuccessfully -- from his previous mind-meltdown in "Revolution" ... but he repeats it here, unfortunately. He actually, asserts that these "20 million-strong" dropouts & do-nothings are all dedicated servants of Christ! Simply astonishing.

A more objective mind surely would acknowledge that perhaps a certain percentage of these "Revolutionaries" are, in fact, materialistic Christians in search of greater personal peace and affluence...but Mr. Barna somehow knows differently. Exactly how he knows this is the great mystery.

I'm gonna hafta blog a little more about this. It's a hooter.

Dennis said...

Boy, you said it about Revolution, Smooth. This book was a manifesto for American individualism and autonomy! You would never know that the New Testament teaches commitment to community, to read this book.

And I also have to agree that the ethos of the book echoes the Jesus Movement. One reason that movement fizzled out was their dread of all human leadership and spiritual authority. The anarchical ethos leads to drab spirituality where anything goes and nothing is being accomplished.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

George and Frank just did an audio audio interview on the book at

For questions or comments, contact me at or Frank at

Jeanette M.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the 5000th reminder, Jeanette. We got it. OK? Frankly, I am not interested in prescreened questions where the authors inform us what they really meant to say but couldn't quite do it in 300+ pages.

J. R. Miller said...

Interesting perspective considering your background. I will have to read more of your stuff. Meantime, if you are interested, I am posting a 5 part interview with both George Barna and Frank Viola. Please feel free to pass the word and share your thoughts.

In the interview, he does address your point and says they do not think owning a building is inherently bad.

Anonymous said...


In some of the first responses you made on this blog page I noticed that you made reference to acts 2:46, noting that the church in Jerusalem met daily in the temple courts. It occurs to me that people who met regularly in the temple courts before they walked in light would continue to do so until the Spirit led them to do otherwise. The courts were available to them for some time before the persecution began, so why would they do otherwise? however, once the persecution is underway, they found little opportunity to gather in buildings devoted to worship until constantine, over 150 years. The home was the standard location, and there was no question among biblical authors about why the other churches weren't renting out bascillicas on a daily basis, a quarterly basis, or ever! lol These large-area gatherings in the temple were good for this local group of believers, but transferring of this pattern is non-existent in the directives found in our scriptures.

you wrote:
[In Viola's explanation he defines this "apostolic meeting" as "where someone ministers to an audience temporarily for equipping." Again, where it that in the Bible?]

Good, question. I don't see it either. But I know that the apostles were there... they hadn't left yet. Maybe that's why Viola called it an apostolic meeting? Either way, I can understand what's going on here without too much effort, an I imagine most people reading this blog do, too.

You also said:
[There's nothing that says these were "temporary" any more than the "breaking bread from house to house" is temporary. Both meetings are given in the SAME SENTENCE.]

True. HOWEVER, history makes it completely plain that these temple meetings were temporary. The christians were scattered and the temple was eventually torn down. House meetings, on the other hand, continued on and the house meeting pattern was transferred to all the new testament churches as far as we can gather from scripture. Therefore, your point is sorta flat.

So, I am taking the time to write all this down because I am curious to know why its so important to you? I don't get it.


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