On “pagan” church practices

We live in an age where revolution is the buzzword; I am always reminded of a lyric from This Love by Stavesacre that sums up the current state of affairs: “Revolution is just a word/That loses more each time it’s heard”. It’s the type of attitude that makes ignorant teenagers and college students wear Che Guevara shirts and promulgates the sort of tripe that appears in icons of pop culture like The Da Vinci Code. As suggested in the latter example, much of these “revolutionary” ideas focus on Christianity.

A lot of my debating experience has come from Internet forums, and I have come across some pretty interesting views from there as well. One particular debate has always stood in my mind with a person who had the tendency to espouse positions that I found puzzling, not to mention strange. It was from him that I first heard the name of Frank Viola.

For those not familiar with Viola, he is a strong proponent of the home church movement, which seeks to abandon the current ecclesiastical structure and revive the practice of worshiping in the homes of believers. When he was introduced to me, it was through an article that advocated home church practice.

The undercurrent of what I read from/about Viola (I can’t remember now whether the piece was an article of his or an interview) was that there have been influences on the way the church does things from outside, specifically “pagan” influences, and that these do not reflect the “proper” way that we were intended to worship and so forth. What really stood out to me was the notion that the Nicolaitans mentioned in Revelation 2:6 reflect a heretical aspect of the modern church, the separation of clergy from laity. The rationale for this is the interpretation that the sect was named etymologically, from the Greek nikos, “to conquer,” and laos, “the people” (which is in fact the source of our word ‘laity’) – hence “conquering the people.” The Nicolaitans, by this logic, were considered dangerous for maintaining a separation by exalting the clergy and subjugating the laity.

I smelled a rat even then, and my research turned up references to the Nicolaitans in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, among other early church fathers, and the overwhelming consensus is that the Nicolaitans were either named for a man named Nicolas/Nicolaus or took their name wrongly from him (Ignatius suggests that the name is false, which does not help the interpretation Viola seems to favor). My opponent had no real response for this; the “conquer” interpretation is merely speculative, and the Nicolaus interpretation is favored by the early church fathers, who were in a much better position to assess the situation.

Fast-forward to the present, where Tom Gilson recently posted a book review of Pagan Christianity, which Viola co-wrote with George Barna of the Barna Research Group. The idea of the book, alluded to in the title, is that Christianity has been “infiltrated” by pagan influences and that much of our current practices are not as they were intended to be (that is, as the early church practiced them). There is plenty of good conversation in the comments (including a few by yours truly that have much the same timbre as this entry), so I encourage anyone to read them.

My contribution is largely that Viola and Barna miss the mark in their assessment. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on a large portion of what they explicitly mention in it, but the idea seems to be that sometime during the third century and afterward, the church adopted (or perhaps co-opted) practices from the surrounding pagan culture, thus (by implication) tainting modern Christianity and requiring the aforementioned reversion to the older methods. There are of course numerous problems with this.

Let us grant first that these offenses, such as the acceptance of Greek rhetorical style in the form of sermons, constitute some sort of corruption of the desired ways that the church should worship. What reasons do we have to believe that the early church was really so pure and uncorrupted by these same influences? I find much reason to assert the contrary; one significant reason is from the structure of the NT epistles (Pauline, Johannine, Petrine, etc.). Although they are called epistles – letters – Dr. Ben Witherington III has argued (successfully, in my estimation) that the NT epistles are not epistles in the same sense as other epistles of the time (they do not follow the same conventions) but rather as homilies; the orality of the 1st century culture meant that the “letters” would have to be read aloud for the Greek letters to be decipherable as actual words. (Remember also that Ambrose, a contemporary of Augustine, is one of the first people recorded as partaking in silent reading; all other reading was done aloud.) When these “letters” were given to the churches, the authors/secretaries (since having an amanuesis was not uncommon in the 1st century) would have composed them in such a way as to have the maximum effect when read aloud to the whole church – they show a homiletic form as a result.

What does this mean? Well, at base, it means the “infiltration” of pagan influences – here shown by the Greek homiletic form, which is consequently the same general style as most sermons – had already begun with Paul. There are plenty of other aspects that contribute to this, but surely it is untenable in light of the full evidence to say that the early church was a pure, uncorrupted institution.

Even so, though, I find the whole question quite irrelevant. If there are “pagan” elements in Christian worship, so what? What does that affect? I think Protestants are quite guilty of a sort of concupiscence of Scripture – we lust after “following the Word of God” so strictly that we tend to ignore a plethora of other things that inform – and hence influence – our faith tradition. These things aren’t intrinsically bad, and where they may have detrimental effects – such as the valid point Viola and Barna make about sermons being a primarily passive activity rather than active – we should adapt, and Gilson gives some good suggestions for improvement. That aside, though, the reactionary stance taken by Viola and Barna in Pagan Christianity doesn’t seem to be a reasonable one to hold, and history would appear to attest to that.


2 Responses to On “pagan” church practices

  1. Opus says:

    Well said.

    There is a fatal error in the reasoning of Viola and his supporters. It is the notion that whatever change occurred MUST necessarily have been a corruption. (That change by its very existence invariably produces degradation.) By this reasoning, the Jews could rightly regard Christianity as a “paganization” insofar as it represented a not-insubstantial change to their own worship.

    I ran into this same thinking in a Messianic Jewish group. The particular group that I attended for a while held that all changes that have occurred since the first century are evil corruptions. These corruptions had, in their view, so distorted “true worship”—particularly as it involved “Sabbath keeping”—that all modern ecclesiastical organizations are irremediably tainted.

    It was an entirely novel idea of mine—and heretical to them—that said changes might have been brought about by God to “de-Judaize” Christianity so that it could be more easily integrated into numerous and extremely varied cultures throughout the world. Moreover, that it is this very aspect of Christianity that makes it the most inclusive religion in the world. This characteristic makes it possible for a Wall Street broker and a jungle tribesman to embrace the same basic religion while possessing an extreme variation of culture.

    Kind regards,

  2. Brody says:

    Excellent thoughts; your idea of “de-Judaizing” Christianity to make it more palatable to different cultures is especially intriguing to me.

    Thanks for the comment.

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