Summary Rebuttal of Viola’s Pagan Christianity

Ben Witherington has written a lengthy series of rebuttals to Frank Viola’s re-release of his 2002 book Pagan Christianity, this time in conjunction with George Barna and Tyndale House. 

I’m not joking when I said “lengthy”, the entire series of reviews actually comprises 14 blog posts (and covers more than just the book Pagan Christianity), but for those of you looking for a brief summary, I found an excellent paragraph by Witherington in the comments on his last post specific to PC. He does an excellent job of summarizing the basic problem with Viola’s views.

I do understand their [Viola,  Barna, Zens] frustration with some forms of the institutional church. What they do not seem to grasp is that what they are suggesting is certainly not any more Biblical in various regards. It becomes clearer and clearer that if 1 Corinthians wasn’t in our canon, they would have no basis for much of the way that they envision church happening. And they are prepared to ignore the evidence of Jesus teaching his disciples not only things like a particular prayer to repeat, or a particular model of leadership which not only allows for ministerial support, but in fact says quite specifically the minister is worthy of such support, they are guilty of over-exegeting their key texts so that it would appear that spontaneity is what God most wants in worship, and hierarchial leadership was forbidden. This certainly was not the apostle Paul’s view not least because he was the hierarchial leader who was telling them how to conduct their worship and fellowship gatherings– and he expected to be obeyed! 

17 thoughts on “Summary Rebuttal of Viola’s Pagan Christianity

  1. I both agree with and am uncomfortable with much of what Viola says in PC. It feels more like a rant with proof texts and misplaced quotes than a scholarly work, but maybe that’s just me.

  2. It’s certainly not just you. I continue to be amazed that someone could use so many historical facts and yet use them in such a way as to arrive at historical fiction.

    I empathize with many of Viola’s concerns, but he has done a great disservice to the Body. His theological presuppositions (supersessionism) cause him to misinterpret many biblical passages and much of Church history, but he is complaining about legitimate problems in the contemporary Body, so many naturally gravitate to his writing, unaware of how misinformed (and misinforming) they are.

  3. I disagree Nate.

    If you read the narrative to the New Testament and read up on a little church history you will see that the gatherings had no “hierarchial” leadership. The Apostles job was to equip the new believers and plant churches. Paul rarely stayed with a church longer than 6 months. Granted he stayed in Ephesus for a couple years. Probably to rest. He would stay, equipping and evangelizing Gentiles, for 3-5months and then leave the new believers on their own. It forced them into experiencing the cross. They were forced to die to themselves and face their problems with one another, the Jews, and false teachers. Christ was their leader, their pastor, and their Shepherd.

    Also, I think it’s unfair to say that “Viola has done a great disservice to the Body.” without reading his other works like “Reimagining Church” and “From Eternity to Here”. I am speaking from experience here because I did the same thing. I read PC and got angry and discredited it all. It wasn’t until I read the next book “Reimagining” that I saw the relevance of changing how we “do” church.

    Have you read any of his other books? Or any of Watchman Nee or T. Austin Sparks?

  4. Michael,

    I’m steeped in church history and in the biblical narrative. It has, in fact, been my life-long passion. So I know whereof I speak when I say that Viola is wrong.

    On the other hand, God is unimaginably gracious and He works powerfully even through erroneous interpretations of Scripture and history, even through misinformed good intentions, and through truncated theology.

    I encourage you to hold dear the experience of Christ you are enjoying, but to hold in an open hand the teaching being shared.

    I’ve not read any of Viola’s other books (nor do I plan to), although I’ve read both versions of Pagan Christianity, and much of what he has put on the web. I have read considerable amounts of Watchman Nee, but I have not read T. Austin Sparks.

    Have you read Everett Ferguson, Paul F. Bradshaw, Wayne A. Meeks, N.T. Wright, (secondary sources) the Didache, or Apostolic Constitutions by Hippolytus (primary sources)? How about Elders in Every City: The Origin and Role of Ordained Ministry by Roger Beckwith? That would be a great place to start re-investigating church history, and it’s not too long of a book.

  5. That’s right on Brother. Holding dear the experience of Christ. It’s good to meet someone that is actually educated on the matter lol. That doesn’t happen very often, sadly.

    But I am convinced that Viola is on. I thought differently for a good time, but eventually the Lord encouraged me to pursue, what I believe to be, the true Church of Jesus Christ. Having said that, I don’t agree with the individuals who are trying to use PC as leverage to seperate the body of Christ. Hence the reason I am saddend by the many denominations and sects in the Body of Christ. I am experiencing “Organic Church” now, and I must say, “Praise Jesus”. It’s like nothing else I have ever seen. I see Christ in each of the members and He is free to reign in the gatherings and throughout the week as we meet over coffee, dinner, and movies. This is why I am so passionate about it.

    But, the Lord takes us where He wants us. He is the good Shepherd. I know many Christians who are loving Christ in the Institutional Church that are led by Him to stay there for now.

    What a wonderful journey. Living with Christ.

    Bless you Brother.

  6. I’ve experienced the same things you describe in your blog within the “institutional church”. The sad lack of hospitality and fellowship frequently found in the American Church is more a cultural issue than a church organization vs. organism issue.

    The Jesus Way by Eugene Peterson would be a good read for additional perspective on this issue.

  7. My point is that there is no Biblical merit for our modern Church practices or traditions. I haven’t found any that is. I personally have never been hurt/harmed by the inst. Church so the only warrant for me leaving it was whether or not it’s biblical. My conclusion was no, it’s not.

    I beg you not to misinterpret and think I just have something against the institution. Not at all. I’m for whatever the Lord is doing. I also believe that there is a vast amount of fellowship in the institution as well. I love the Lord and all His children and I believe that He dwells inside the believers there the same way He dwells within us “organic” church goers. To me, putting Jesus as the head is the ONLY function of the ekklesia. Not people, prophets, pastors, programs, or even meeting the needs of others. (the over flowing cup of the Lord within us will make helping our fellow man more automatic, not a religious duty). That’s what the “Organic” church is about. We’re not elitist or sectarianists. We’re not a denomination by any means. We’re just a group of believers who have been drawn out of the inst church in order to seek Christ. Christ as the head of his glorious Bride.

    Hope that makes sense lol 🙂

  8. The idea that there is no biblical merit for our modern Church practices or traditions is patently false, and based on an errant theology that considers the Old Testament essentially irrelevant.

    For example, in Pagan Christianity Viola claims, “The modern Pastor is the most unquestioned element in modern Christianity. Yet he does not have a strand of Scripture to support his existence nor a fig leaf to cover it!” (pg 183, first edition) The objections to this falsehood are so numerous as to not even need mentioning.

    or how about this?

    “The origin of the Christian choir dates back to the fourth century….The roots of the choir are found in the pagan Greek temples and Greek dramas.” (pg 202, first edition)

    Oh really? So the book of Psalms, songs often prefaced (in the Hebrew, mind you) by things like, “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.” that was what?

    Viola is able to make outlandish claims like the above because he is a supersessionist–he believe that the Church displaced Israel, so anything from the Old Testament he ignores as precedent for our traditions, and anything from the New Testament he is free to re-interpret according to the view he is placing upon the Holy Scriptures–in effect creating his own, new traditions, but this time out of almost whole cloth!

  9. I have just finished Pagan Christianity, and found its varied and strongly stated conclusions immoderate . I happened to be reading it at the same time as “Early Christian Creeds” by J.N.D. Kelly, “Orthodox Worship” by Williams and Anstall, and “Apostle Paul” by Udo Schnelle , all of which touch on the early church and paint a more complex picture than Viola does. (Not that I would call those go-to texts on the early church.)

    I will say I am enjoying poking through Viola’s bibliography, but feel that some of his sources would be surprised at his conclusions.

    The chapter headings of Pagan Christianity approach the comical because Viola seems to be against everything in the church. (Was there really a pressing need to go after “dressing up for church”?) He seems to believe we got it absolutely perfect for about fifty years, and it has been a mess for nearly 2000 years. When I read Acts, I see that it has always been more or less messy because of human nature; yet the light of Christ has managed to shine through whatever building, organization, or community we try to put it in.

    What is too bad, though, is that Viola makes some excellent points about how we do kingdom life together, and they sit under-explored in a book that discursively rails against nearly all the practices of christendom.

    My father made a point about the institutional church: if you count all the seats in all the churches for all the services each week and work out what percentage of the population that represents at full capacity, you will find it averages about 5%. If we were truly fulfilling the Great Commission, the institutional church and the current structure could not handle the capacity.

    So house-churches, organic churches, etc. absolutely have something to contribute- I just think a fundamentally adversarial posture is unhelpful.

  10. Susan, your thoughts coincide well with mine. I find myself vacillating on Viola. He makes some good points as regards the shortcomings of the Church, anyone could make them in regard to the humanity of the Church, but I have found that because of the manner in which he writes and the polemical nature of his writing combined with gross exaggeration, the overall effect of Pagan Christianity is negative in the lives of many sincere believers.

  11. Nate,

    With all due respect Nate Frank is a brother in Christ and if you truly believe Him to be in error it would be appropriate to contact him and invite him to defend himself. I’ve noticed that whether you do or do not disagree he is open to criticism.

    I wonder since you did read Ben Witherington’s review if you had read Jon Zen’s responses to them. If you haven’t I would advise you do. Jon Zen’s is a “scholar” who is very respected on new testament. He punches holes in many if not all of Ben Witherington’s criticisms.

    Blessing

  12. Otto,

    I have read Jon Zen’s responses to Witherington’s review and I found them grossly deficient. Zen’s is a raging supersessionist and radical New Covenant theologian, whose views cannot be squared with the full witness of Scripture. And by the way, Zens is not a widely respected scholar. In fact, most people have never even heard of him. Though the popularity of folks like Alan Hirsch and Frank Viola is giving Zens a greater hearing these days.

    Zens is calvinist in soteriology, but rejects the term reformed, anabaptist in ecclesiology, but not a pacifist (so far as I know), and a Baptist to boot. New Covenant theology embraces a radical replacement of Israel by the Church, but rejects traditional reformed theology; they’re also dead set against dispensationalism, but like them have no use for the law of God. Bottom line: it’s dangerous stuff, but often sounds really good to the uninformed listener.

    There’s no need to say anything further to Viola than Witherington already has, although if he moved next door to me, I’d strike up a relationship and pray for God to convict him of the truth.

  13. I’m going to way in three months later….

    I read this book a few months ago and really enjoyed it, however, I didn’t agree with most of Viola’s conclusions. I’ve recommended this book to several people while at the same time giving the warning that I don’t completely agree with the author but I do believe the history sparks thought and will cause people to renew their minds on the church we find around us today.

    I believe Nate and Michael were both right in different respects in their dialogue above. I do believe the western institutional church has come along ways from the tradition Christ’s Apostles started and handed down with major changes occurring around the third century coinciding with Constantine. However, I find Viola’s conclusions regarding leadership, especially the lack of, to be scripturally unfounded. There was definitely a leadership structure in place and its hard to read the pastor epistles (1&2 Tim, and Titus) without seeing this. Paul warns enough about false teaching and instructing leaders to be taught to protect against it; the idea of leaving a church, especially a new one, without leadership would be contradictory. Lastly, Paul rebuked, challenged, and commended the churches countless times in His letters and if he wasn’t in some way in authority why would they listen and also to be able to send members of his team (Timothy and Titus) into those churches to correct problems?

    I think our western system today does need some total restructuring and we should get back to the first century church, but doing so while mimicking the leadership structure of the early church. You can have countless churches throughout a city today and receive a different teaching/gospel from almost every one. As Paul warned against you can very easily find a teaching/teacher to satisfy your “itching ears” in almost every community in the West today. Its no wonder we’re quickly moving towards a post-Christian culture, or at least one where the gospel is so muddied you can’t find it anymore.

    Anyway, while I’m not a big fan of Viola’s style, but do respect him as a Christian brother, I did enjoy this book and the challenge it brings to rethink what has become so engrained in our Christian culture and is accepted without thinking. Our church just made the move today from meeting as one to meeting as house churches throughout our city but still part of one network sharing leadership throughout the city (house church elders and city wide elders etc.). We made the move for many reasons one of which being to more closely conform to the Way of Christ and His Apostles as laid out in the New Testament.

    Just my two cents.

  14. Mark,

    If you read Viola’s “Finding Organic Church” and “Reimagining Church” he goes into what leadership was in the NT. He’s certainly not saying that there is no leadership at all, just different than what we see in modern church practices.

  15. The NT is pagan! You see, pagans invented writing. Therefore, the whole Bible is a pagan book. That’s the logic of Viola and Barna.

    The main problem with Viola’s and Barna’s work is that they presuppose that the Bible, esp. the NT, is basically a church manual. It, of course, is not. It’s so much more than that! Sure, there are some passages relevant to church organization. But they are just sketches not fully developed instructions about how to run an assembly. I wonder, for instance, if Viola supports Paul’s injunctions or teachings about the role of women in the assembly. Do the women in the “organic church” cover their heads?

    Christ didn’t leave us a book. But He did leave us a living body, His church. Living bodies grow and develop with time. The body may change its appearance as it ages, but the soul remains the same. Viola and Barna like the idea of the church as something organic and living. Well, organisms evolve and develop over time. You can’t have your metaphor and eat it, too!

  16. Thanks, Nate!

    I’m not Catholic, but so much of what Viola and Barna are up to is just old- fashioned Catholic baiting. The Constantine bogey-man is alive and well. I’m surprised I didn’t see Jack Chick cited in the book’s bibliography!

    Who needs Dan Brown when you have Frank Viola!

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