Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

Spong’s swan song — at last! [1]

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

By Spencer D Gear

John Shelby Spong (public domain)

blue-corrosion-arrow-smallReview & Analysis: John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001

This is a shocker! It is vintage Spong – extremely readable but heretical at its heart! He throws out core Christian beliefs such as the atonement (an “offensive idea”, p. 10) and the bodily resurrection of Christ, yet still wants to say: “I am a Christian. I believe that God is real. I call Jesus my Lord. Yet I do not define God as a supernatural being. I believe passionately in God. This God is not identified with doctrines, creeds, and traditions” (pp. 3, 64, 74).

blue-corrosion-arrow-smallHe rejoices that “the blinding idolatry of traditional theism [read, supernatural Christianity] has finally departed from my life” (p. 74). More than that, he proclaims, “Theism is dead, I joyfully proclaim, but God is real” (p.77).

Spong’s version of God

But what kind of God is he or it? He admits that his God-experience is a “God-concept that I grope to find words to convey” (p. 76). He’s not the only one groping. Throughout the book’s 276 pages, I tried to understand what Spong’s God was like, but all I could conclude was that this mystical “God-experience” is filled with unique Spongian content.

For prayer, he proposes “substitute words” that have been identified down through the centuries “with the mystical disciplines of spiritual development—words such as meditation and contemplation” that will include “centering prayer” and breathing exercises (p. 193).

He’s against evangelism and missionary enterprises, the latter being “base-born, rejecting, negative, and yes, I would even say evil” (p. 178). This shocking redefinition of missions as “evil” is associated with his universalism and theory that “we possess neither certainty nor eternal truth” (p. 179).

What would cause him to come to conclusions that are so contrary to classical Christianity? He’s all for life and love because they “transcend all boundaries” but “exclusive religious propaganda can no longer be sustained. The idea that Jesus is the only way to God or that only those who have been washed in the blood of Christ are ever to be listed among the saved, has become anathema [a curse] and even dangerous in our shrinking world” (p. 179).

Beginning at the conclusion

When we throw out the Scriptures as the standard for theology, where do we go for answers? Here we have a new kind of religion, out of the minds of Spong himself and his friends. Their goal is to try to tell the world through the mass media and extensive publications that conservative, Bible-believing (“fundamentalist” is his term) Christians are out of touch for a postmodern, scientific world. When a religion comes out of the mind of Spong, it means that almost anything goes, religiously.

Spong claims that theism is dead. Is this true? He has not provided concrete evidence of churches supporting supernatural Christianity that are dying and his breed are growing. As we shall see, the facts do not support the death of theism. It’s the other way round. Spongism is killing faith and churches.

Spong’s first chapter is titled, “A Place to Begin”, but he begins with his conclusions. That’s cheating! His assumptions are: God is not a being; there is no literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead or a literal star at the birth of Jesus or a virgin birth — that’s mythology! There’s no ascension of Jesus Christ and Christ did not found a church. We are not born sinful. The fall into sin by Adam and Eve is mythical. Women are not less human and less holy than men (I agree!). Homosexuals are not morally depraved; the Bible is not the literal word of God and certainly is not inspired. Forget about absolute Christian ethics because “time makes ancient good uncouth” (p. 6). The colour of one’s skin or ethnic background does not constitute grounds for making one superior or inferior (I agree!). This kind of teaching amounts to Spong’s conclusions, but he claims it is where he begins.

The heresy continues with his repudiation of baptism and the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper. “Since the diagnosis (sinful human nature) was wrong, the prescribed cure (atonement) cannot be right.” Since the fall into sin is a wrong diagnosis, baptism “to wash away the effects of a fall into sin that never occurred is inappropriate.” As for the eucharist, this “reenactment of a sacrifice . . . becomes theological nonsense” (p. 124).

Jesus redefined

Spong’s primary question to answer in this book is: “Can a person claim with integrity to be a Christian and at the same time dismiss, as I have done, so much of what has traditionally defined the content of the Christian faith?” (p. 7) He sees his “task of seeking to redefine Jesus” as something that he does not take “easily or lightly” (p. 130).

Spong raises the question of whether he can be a person of integrity in his answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15-16).

Spong answers with further questions, “Is it still possible for me to use these same words? How flexible are they? How open to new meanings? Is it honest to wrench these words out of that past and to open them to new meanings?” His reply is, “I believe that it is. Words change” (p. 130). But he also is aware that he might be open to the charge that the “genuine reformation of Christianity” that he is seeling may be understood that he is “deluded and in my suppressed fear attempting to hid from or to cover up the death of Christianity” (p. 130).

In the early history of the church when it was fighting for doctrinal survival and the promotion of orthodoxy, it took a hard line on false doctrine. If Spong had been Arius, Apollinarius, Eutyches or Nestorius in the early centuries of the Christian church, his views on the nature of Christ and other doctrines, would have been condemned at a General Council of the Church such as at Nicea, Ephesus, Constantinople or Chalcedon.

But not so with Spong! Even though the Episcopal Church USA did not denounce his views as heretical, the former Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth (now Governor General of Australia), prevented his preaching in Brisbane Anglican churches on Spong’s visit to Australia in 2001. Instead, he spoke in Uniting Churches.

Space limitations prevent a refutation of Spong’s view in support of the genetic cause of homosexuality, that it is “more like left-handedness”. He considers those evangelical organisations that advertise that “they can cure homosexuality” are “not just ignorant, but actually fraudulent” (p. 14). Sexual orientations are “morally neutral” and he “cannot imagine being part of a church that discriminates against gay and lesbian people on the basis of their being” (p. 6). There is contrary scientific and biblical evidence to this view.

What is Spong’s biggest beef with the church? He can’t stand “the literal way that human beings have chosen to articulate that faith” (p. 7). Instead, he wants to continue as part of the church as “I seek the God-experience” (p. 8). Pity help me if I read his book with the same disdain for literal interpretation as he gives to the Bible.

Why would Spong believe that theism is dead? He wraps it in a package with his commitment to Darwinian evolution. The survival of the fittest means that we must move beyond supernatural Christianity to a more modern view – his view. Spongism enlarges on the ideas of people like his mentor and theological liberal, the late John A. T. Robinson, who wrote an assault on biblical Christianity in 1963, Honest to God. What was the bud in Robinson is in full bloom in Spong.

He says that it will “probably be the final theological book of my life and career” (p. xxi) – his swan song at last! I almost shouted, Praise the Lord, except that I know that his kind of “radically reformed Christianity” (p. 18) will continue with others and get continuing mass media coverage.

What are the characteristics of Spong’s new Christianity? The fundamentals are gone. He throws out the inspired and literal Scripture, the miraculous virgin birth, Christ as the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the Second Coming of Christ (p. 2).

The church of tomorrow

What will his “ecclesia (church) of tomorrow” look like? The supernatural is out. There will be no singing praises to a theistic deity. “I treat the language of worship like I treat the language of love. It is primitive, excessive, flowery, poetic, evocative. No one really believes it literally” (p. 204). There will be his ill-defined, mystical “God-experience”. We could do that in a mosque, temple, synagogue, holy place, or ecclesia (his preferred word). There will be no confessing our sins to a “parental judge” (p. 206). There will be no literalised faith story. It will “never claim that it already possesses truth by divine revelation” (p. 214).

The ecclesia of the future will be a place for “Catholic and Protestant, orthodox and heretic, liberal and evangelical, Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu” and where worship of this “god” will not be “bounded by our formulas, our creeds, our doctrines, our liturgies, or even our Bible, but still real, infinitely real” (p. 214). God is not a personal being, not even the highest being but the one he experiences as “the Ground and Source of All Being and therefore the presence that calls me to step beyond every boundary” (pp. 59-60). This is the rejuvenated liberalism of Paul Tillich.

This new community, the ecclesia, “must be able to allow God and Satan to come together in each of us. It must allow light and darkness to be united. It must bind good and evil into one. It must unite Christ with Anti-Christ, Jesus with Judas, male with female, heterosexual with homosexual” (p. 167).

This is a church built in cloud cuckoo land – out of the minds of Spong and his friends! It is beyond radical. It is blasphemous!

Is theism dead?

What’s the truth about the death of theism? Wherever theological liberalism has taken hold, church numbers have crashed. Based on The Episcopal Church Annual (USA), membership fell from a high of 3.6 million baptised Episcopalians in 1965, to 2.3 million in 1997– a loss of fully one-third of its membership (based on Crew, 2001). The average Sunday attendance in the year 1998 was 843,213 (Fairfield, 2001). Two years later (the year 2000), it had further declined to 839,760 (Crew, 2001a). The Episcopal Church USA has shown “30 years of membership decline and over a million members lost” (Episcopal Action, 2001; see also Crew, 2001). “Mainline [church] membership is down (by nearly 6 million members) since 1965” in the USA. “More than 20 million Americans still hold membership in mainline churches. The largest mainline denominations are the United Methodist Church, with 8.7 million members; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with 5.2 million members; the Presbyterian Church (USA), with 2.6 million members; the Episcopal Church, with 2.5 million members; and the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ, each with 1.5 million members” (Wuthnow, 2001).

Jeffrey Walton’s assessment of the decline in the USA Episcopal Church was:

The 2013 reporting year saw a continuation of the downward trend, with a membership drop of 27,423 to 1,866,758 (1.4 percent) while attendance dropped 16,451 to 623,691 (2.6 percent). A net 45 parishes were closed, and the denomination has largely ceased to plant new congregations.

The new numbers do not factor in the departure of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, of which the church continues to report over 28,000 members and over 12,000 attendees, despite the majority of South Carolina congregations severing their relationship with the Episcopal Church at the end of 2012. If South Carolina departures were factored in, the membership loss would be closer to 50,000 persons’ (Walton 2014).

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett), worldwide “around 17 million people become church members each year through conversion, and some 7 million leave the church.” This leaves an annual net growth of approx. 10 million people. We would love to see more, but this is hard evidence against Spong’s death of theism (Long, 1998).

There are some other strong indicators that Jesus is alive and well and the church is growing. In the Ukraine, in the past three years, some 70 new house churches have been planted in Crimea, most in places previously without a church (Ukraine, 2001).

In the city of Xinjiang, China, there were 20-30 small churches with about 300 believers in 1994. Through courage, vision and the Lord’s direction, five couples have been used to enable rapid growth. Over a period of three years, the growth has been so strong that there are now almost 500 churches with about 100,000 members in four districts. This growth has so concerned the Government that it has infiltrated the churches, persecuted the believers, and gone on television, accusing the groups of being a cult (China, 2001).

During the last 10 years of the “Decade of Harvest” among the Nigerian Assemblies of God in Africa, there has been extraordinary growth. The church has not only gained 1.2 million new members, but also ordained 5,026 new pastors and planted 4,044 new churches in Nigeria. The emphasis on reaching previously unreached people groups led to 75 churches being planted in areas previously untouched by Christianity (Nigeria, 2001).

The Pew Research Center has found this about Pentecostal and charismatic church growth in Nigeria:

The Forum’s 2006 pentecostal survey suggests that renewalists – including charismatics and pentecostals – account for approximately three-in-ten Nigerians. The survey also finds that roughly six-in-ten Protestants in Nigeria are either pentecostal or charismatic, and three-in-ten Nigerian Catholics surveyed can be classified as charismatic (Pew Research Center 2006).

Worldwide, the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has grown from no adherents in 1901 to “well over 420,000,000 persons in 1993” (Synan, 2006). Yet Spong has the audacity to say that “Christianity as we have known it increasingly displays signs of rigor mortis [the stiffness of death]” (p. 8).

Lee Grady wrote that:

Third-World Christianity kept growing. There are now about 600 million Christians in Africa. Protestant Christianity grew 600 percent in Vietnam in the last decade. In China, where a 50,000-member megachurch was raided in Shanxi province a few weeks ago, there are now an estimated 130 million churchgoers.

“We have no reason to fear the future. Whatever challenges loom ahead, the same God who carried us through this past decade will give us sucess in the next one.”

Astounding church growth has occurred in Guatemala, Brazil, India and Ethiopia. In Nepal, which had no Christians in 1960, there are now a half-million believers. The Christian population of Indonesia has mushroomed from 1.3 million to 11 million in 40 years.

Smug scholars in Europe and the United States love to cite Islam as the world’s fastest-growing religion, but observers know the facts: Christianity, while waning especially in Europe, is growing faster than ever in the Southern hemisphere. Philip Jenkins, who wrote The Next Christendom in 2002, declared: “The center of gravity has moved to the global south. So if we’re looking for the religion that is going to affect the largest number of lives in the 21st century, it is almost certainly going to be Christianity (Grady 2015).

There certainly are areas where the Christian church is showing significant decline, especially in the Western world. About 100 years ago, Wales experienced a heaven-sent revival. The proportion of the total Welsh population attending church has declined from 14.6% in 1982 to 8.7% in 1995. This report went on to say that “the Church in Wales congregations (Anglicans) report that there has been a slight increase in the size of their congregations in the last five years [i.e. prior to 1997]. The report also found that Churches identifying themselves as Anglo-Catholic or Broad, or Charismatic were growing the most” (Wales, 1997).

Many of these statistics on church growth were obtained from the DAWN website.

Spong’s dislike of evangelicals

Spong is not interested in “confronting or challenging those conservative, fundamentalist elements of Christianity that are so prevalent today.”  Why? He believes they will “die of their own irrelevance” as they cling “to attitudes of the past that are simply withering on the vine” (p. 12).

He goes to great lengths in denigrating traditional, evangelical Christianity, even to the point of making blasphemous statements such as these: “I am free of the God who was deemed to be incomplete unless constantly receiving our endless praises; the God who required that we acknowledge ourselves as born in sin and therefore as helpless; the God who seemed to delight in punishing sinners; the God who, we were told, gloried in our childlike, groveling dependency. Worshiping that theistic God did not allow us to grow into the new humanity” (p. 75).

Among Spong’s 205 items in his bibliography, there is not one that refutes his views or presents a scholarly evangelical perspective. I looked for Don Carson, William Lane Craig, Ben Witherington III., N. T. Wright, J. P. Moreland, Ravi Zacharias, Australia’s Paul Barnett, and other leading defenders of the evangelical faith., but they were absent. Dixon and Torrey’s, The Fundamentals, is included but Spong’s overall thrust is to denigrate these essentials of Bible-believing faith.

Early church leader of the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo, gets a mention because Spong believes he is seeking “some experience inside my life” that “is that restlessness about which Augustine spoke that remains unresolved until we rest in God” (p. 193). I think Augustine would turn over in his grave if he considered his restlessness was anything akin to Spong’s mystical inner experience.

His partners in postmodern theological liberalism from the “Jesus Seminar” and other liberals are everywhere – John Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, Michael Goulder, John Hick, John A. T. Robinson, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Don Cupitt. Spongism is one-eyed religion that is intolerant of opposing views, especially those of the “fundamentalists”.

Spong’s religion linked to death

God’s church is being persecuted around the world, but is showing growth internationally. Spong’s thesis is dead in the water. It is his ideology, a la John A. T. Robinson, radical theological liberalism, that kills churches.

The Episcopalians of Spong’s diocese voted with their feet while he was bishop there. One report said that

Spong [had] been the Episcopal Bishop of Newark [New Jersey] since 1976. He has presided over one of the most rapid witherings of any diocese in the Episcopal Church [USA]. The most charitable assessment shows that Newark’s parish membership rolls have evaporated by more than 42 percent. Less charitable accounts put the rate at over 50 percent. (Lasley, 1999).

What can we learn from Spong?

Is there anything of value for evangelicals in reading Spong? I exhort leaders to be familiar with his views for several reasons:

1.    These kinds of perspectives will continue to command mass media coverage. On his recent Australian visit, there were articles by Spong in The Agenewspaper, Melbourne (eg., Spong, 2001), The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney. There also was significant television and radio coverage. You must know the enemy.

2.    For the sake of all Christians committed to the Gospel, but especially for the young, we need a strong apologetic against his views — from the pulpit and in other teaching ministries. Spong sees “a new portrait of Jesus” (p. 131). It’s an heretical view against which there is a substantial refutation in the Almighty Lord God, the Christ of the cross, the God-breathed and inspired Bible, and the living Christ (through the Spirit), who lives in every true believer and among the people of God. The ministry of apologetics has fallen on hard times in many churches and Bible-training institutions in Australia. This must change with this new breed of Bible-bashers from the liberal theological establishment.

3.    What’s the truth? Evangelical, Bible-believing Christianity is growing throughout the world, not Spong’s brand of “Christianity”.  Spong’s views need to be refuted with solid evidence.

4.    Spong has a point when he says that “most churches will die of boredom long before they die of controversy” (p. 125). Solid biblical teaching must communicate with today’s generation. I observe that some of today’s preaching is boring. This is a call to vigilance in the training of pastor-teachers and the practice of preaching that connects with people.

5.    Christ always is relevant to any people, but sometimes the dirge of the church service turns people off. I believe Spong is correct in observing, “For vast numbers of modern people, including modern religious people, the church is less and less an option” (p. 126). We must investigate why this is so, especially in the West, and begin to address it — immediately. Examining what we do is often difficult for the church. This must change. Does Spong have a point when he says that “premodern symbols do not work in a postmodern world. To do nothing is to vote for death” (p. 126)?

6.    The time is long overdue for the church to become more proactive in addressing some of the big questions of today. Spong does this from his liberal theological view. Some of the big questions include: Why is suicide becoming an option for more people, especially the young? Why is divorce on the rise? How can the church help with better parenting in families? Is the Bible trustworthy for a modern world? How can I be genuinely Christian in a multicultural Australia? What does it mean to proclaim “Jesus is Lord”? Why are evangelicals not as strong as the liberals in the areas of social responsibility? Is the CEO pastor biblical? When we gather as a church, why are most Christians mute? What can we do about teenage rebellion? Is there a biblical perspective on the use of drugs? Is the Holy Spirit too often just a force to be noticed for some Christians? How can relevant Christianity be communicated without froth and bubble or dry irrelevance?

Spong does not want to deal with conservative, fundamentalist Christianity, and believes that it has no application to life today. He comments that “nowhere is this better seen than when one observes how the word Christianis used in our contemporary world” (p. 12). This is the pot calling the kettle black! It is Spong who has demolished the Bible’s definition of a Christian.

Yet he thinks his views are the future of faith, a new Christianity for a new world! Welcome to Spongism, “Christianity” with a killer instinct.

Endnotes:

1.  A version of this article was published in the British magazine, Vanguard, June 2002.

Works consulted

China 2001. 100,000 new believers in Xinjiang in 3 years, Pulpit Helps, September.Available at: http://www.pulpithelps.com/www/docs/988-5476 (Accessed 31 March 2015)

Crew, L 2001. Charting the Episcopal Church (online). Available at: http://newark.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/chartecusa.html (Accessed 4 November 2001). This URL unavailable online, 31 March 2015.

Crew, L 2001a Growth and decline in ECUSA [Episcopalian Church USA] attendance, 1991-2000 (online). .Available at: http://www.andromeda/rutgers.edu/~/lcrew/growthdecline90-00.html (Accessed November 17, 2001). URL unavailable online, 31 March 2015.

Episcopal Action [The Institute on Religion and Democracy] 2001. Available at: http://www.ird-renew.org/Episcopal/Episcopalmain.cfm (Accessed November 14, 2001). URL unavailable, 31 March 2015.

Fairfield, L. P. 2001. Modernist decline and biblical renewal: The Episcopal Church from 1870-2000,” American Anglican Council. January 24. Available at: http://www.americananglican.org/Issues/Issues.dfm?ID-91 (Accessed October 15, 2001). URL unavailable, 31 March 2015.

Grady, J L 2009. Where is God going? Seven spiritual trends of the ‘00 decade. Charisma magazine (online), 29 December. Available at: http://www.charismamag.com/blogs/fire-in-my-bones/8433-where-is-god-going-seven-spiritual-trends-of-the-00-decade (Accessed 31 March 2015).

Lasley, D. M. 1999. Rescuing Christianity from Bishop Kevorkian, review of John Shelby Spong’s, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, for Anglican Voice (online) , posted June 2 1999. Available at: http://www.anglicanvoice.org/voice/spong0699.htm (Accessed November 4, 2001). On 31 March 2015 it was available as, ‘Rescuing Christianity from Bishop Kevorkian – A Baptist looks at Spong’, David Virtue (June 2, 1999). Available at: http://listserv.virtueonline.org/pipermail/virtueonline_listserv.virtueonline.org/1999-June/000415.html (Accessed 31 March 2015).

Long, J. 1998. World Christian Encyclopedia:David Barrett (Assoc. Ed.). Worldwide statistics plus news from Bulgaria, Chile, Brazil, DAWN Fridayfax 1998 #04. Available at: http://www.jesus.org.uk/dawn/1998/dawn9804.html (Accessed November 4, 2001). URL unavailable, 31 March 2015.

Nigeria 2001. Assemblies of God plant 4,044 new churches in 10 years, DAWN Fridayfax 2001#3 (online). Available at: http://www.jesus.org.uk/dawn/2001/dawn03.html (Source: AoG news, January 3, 2001) (Accessed November 14, 2001). URL unavailable, 31 March 2015.

Pew Research Center 2006. Historical overview of Pentecostalism in Nigeria (online), October 5. Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/2006/10/05/historical-overview-of-pentecostalism-in-nigeria/ (Accessed 31 March 2015).

Spong, J. S. 2001. Meditation on the reason for prayer. The Age, October 6. Available at: http://theage.com.au/news/state/2001/10/06/FFXAEOBCFSC.html (Accessed October 11, 2001). The URL was unavailable, 31 March 2015.

Synan, V. 2006. The origins of the Pentecostal movement. Holy Spirit Research Center (Oral Roberts University). Available at: http://www.oru.edu/library/special_collections/holy_spirit_research_center/pentecostal_history.php (Accessed 31 March 2015).

Ukraine 2001. 70 new house churches in the Crimea. National Pastors’ Prayer Network: Global Update (online), 13 July. Available at: http://www.nppn.org/images/GlobalNews/Global07132001.htm#a21 (Accessed 31 March 2015).

Wales 1997. Church decline generally but slight increase for Anglicans, Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS), 7 March. Available at: www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/acnsarchive/acns1100/acns1153.html (Accessed 3 November 2001).

Walton, J 2014. Episcopal church continues shedding members. Juicy Ecumenism: The Institute on Religion & Democracy’s Blog (online), October 14. Available at: http://juicyecumenism.com/2014/10/14/episcopal-church-continues-shedding-members/ (Accessed 31 March 2015).

Wuthnow, R 2001). Still toeing the mainline.  Available at: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/31/story_3171_1.html (Accessed November 14, 2001).


Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated, 7 October 2015.

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Legendary Jesus’ rot refuted

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

By Spencer D Gear

October 3, 2007

This is my review for Amazon.com:  The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition

I have spent hundreds of hours reading skeptics of the Gospels, particularly John D. Crossan, as I write my doctoral dissertation. Crossan claims that “the last chapters of the gospels and the first chapters of Acts taken literally, factually, and historically trivialize Christianity and brutalize Judaism.”

Others promote that we need to distinguish “the ‘mythical’ (anything legendary or supernatural) in the gospels from the historical.” Speaking of Crossan’s, The Historical Jesus, British scholar, N. T. Wright, claims “the book is almost entirely wrong.”

Bruno Bauer, Arthur Drews and G. A. Wells argue that the Jesus tradition is perhaps entirely fictional in nature.

To these and other doubters of Gospel content, Paul Eddy & Greg Boyd, in The Jesus Legend, challenge the Jesus-legend thesis and defend the historical reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition – based on evidence.

This is a book for those who want the challenges of the skeptical left addressed in a substantive, scholarly way. The authors examine (1) The historical method & the Jesus tradition in first-century Palestine, (2) Other witnesses, including ancient historians & the apostle Paul, (3) The early oral tradition between Jesus and the Gospels, and (4) The Synoptic Gospels as historical sources for reliable evidence for Jesus.

They reach the researched decision that “our broad cumulative case for the historicity of the essential portrait(s) of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels” refutes the legendary-Jesus thesis, based on the Gospels an examination of “the general religious environment Jewish Palestine” (p. 452).

They are in agreement with James Dunn that “if we are unsatisfied with the Jesus of the Synoptic tradition, then we will simply have to lump it; there is no other truly historical or historic Jesus” (cited in p. 453).

This is one of the most refreshing books I have read in my scholarly escapades. It is not for those who want a nice bed-time story, but for those who seek answers to the scholarly rot of recent years that has infected the church and the Christian faith.

Spencer Gear,
Hervey Bay, Qld., Australia [my location has since changed]
This document last updated at Date: 28 October 2015.

Pagan Christianity and the Sick Church

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

pagan book
Frank Viola & George Barna
(courtesy ‘Beyond Evangelical‘)

By Spencer D Gear

Book Review: Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity. Present Testimony Ministry, 2002 (paper, 304 pages). See http://www.ptmin.org for purchase details. [1a]. Now available at: ‘Beyond Evangelical‘.

I have a crisis of conscience after reading this dangerous, but prophetic book. It’s a threat for all who believe that any of the following current church practices are based on the Bible: mute Christians when the church gathers, order of worship, the contemporary sermon, church building, the CEO pastor’s function today, Sunday morning costumes, ministers of music, ordained clergy, clergy salaries, tithes, as we know it, the  in contemporary view, and Christian education.

I don’t expect too many pastors will rush to purchase this one, unless they are fed up with their job, have sought God diligently, and see a radical difference between church function Bible-style and what we do today. It would be too painful for this prophetic revision of the doctrine of the church.

Viola takes many of our church practices to the cleaners – successfully, I believe. You will either love him or hate his conclusions. All of God’s people deserve exposure to this radical critique of church practice today.

Viola “makes an outrageous proposal: That the modern institutional church does not have a Biblical nor historical right to exist” (p. 18). Then he sets out in 11 riveting chapters to prove his points. They cut to the core of today’s church practices. We can’t ignore his charges if we want to be a biblical church.

I. He has many beefs with the contemporary church

We claim that “we do everything by the Word of God! The New Testament is our guide for faith and practice! We live . . . and we die . . . by this Book!” (p. 23). We don’t!

What we Christians do for Sunday morning church did not come from Jesus Christ, the apostles, or the Scriptures. Nor did it come from Judaism. Shockingly, most of what we do for “church” was lifted directly out of pagan culture in the post-apostolic period (pp. 27-28).

This view leads to the provocative title of his book, Pagan Christianity. Viola seeks to demonstrate it. I found his arguments pretty convincing.
The image “https://i1.wp.com/www.biblepicturegallery.com/Free/thumbs/Tutankh2.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Here’s the major issue: The non-biblical development and practice of the church “stifles the functional Headship of Jesus Christ and hampers the functioning of His Body” (p. 28). He warns: “If you are a Christian in the institutional church who takes the NT seriously, what you are about to read will force you to have a crisis of conscience” (p. 29).

The problem lies at the feet of Ignatius, Cyprian, St. Augustine, Roman Catholic popes, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, Methodists, Free Church traditions, revivalists, Pentecostals, and others. He claims that “at no time did Luther (or any of the other mainstream Reformers) demonstrate a desire to return to the practices of the first-century church” (p. 45).

Why this concern after 20 centuries of church life?

A. Christ’s Body has lost its function

The meetings of the early church were those of “every-member functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy, and open participation . . . It was unpredictable, unlike the modern church service” (p. 38). This left the church about 19 centuries ago. The institutional church, Protestant (including Pentecostal), Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox don’t have a clue about NT church function. The threat has come from . .

B. Pagan influences!

Just about every sacred cow in the Protestant arsenal of church practice gets a searing critique from Viola. Here are the charges:

1. The modern Protestant order of worship

Today’s order of worship was “not patterned after the Jewish synagogue services,” but had “its basic roots in the Catholic Mass. . . Gregory the Great [540-604] is the man responsible for shaping the medieval Mass” (p. 39).

Calvin stressed the centrality of preaching, was

intensely theological and academic, . . highly individualistic, a mark that never left Protestantism. . . Probably the most damaging feature of Calvin’s liturgy is that he led most of the service from his pulpit! Christianity has never recovered from this (pp. 48-49).

The idea that we are “to be quiet and reverent for this is the house of God” is “a throw-back to the late medieval view of piety” and does not have biblical warrant (p. 50).

Viola admits that “Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, et. al. contributed many positive practices and beliefs to the Christian faith” but “they failed to bring us to a complete reformation” (p. 51). I was dumbfounded to learn that “a pastoral prayer in a Sunday morning Puritan service could easily last an hour or more” (p. 52).

The Free Churches’ order of worship of three hymns, Scripture reading, music, unison prayers, pastoral prayer, the sermon, the offering, and the benediction is not found in the NT (p. 55).

I ask: What’s the big deal when God is worshipped from the heart, the Word is proclaimed, and people are saved through revivals?

In connection with frontier revivalism, he explains:

“The goal of the early church – mutual edification and every-member functioning to corporately manifest Jesus Christ before principalities and powers – was altogether lost” (p. 60). Even John Wesley saw the danger of moving to individualistic decisions of individual sinners when he said that “Christianity is essentially a social religion . . . to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it” (p. 60).

The Pentecostal contribution, to bring back a NT pattern, is not significant:

If you removed the emotional features from a Pentecostal church service, it would look just like a Baptist liturgy. . . Pentecostals and Charismatics follow the same order of worship as do all other Protestants. A Pentecostal is merely allowed more room to move in his pew! . . Such a pinched form of open participation cannot accurately be called “Body ministry” (pp. 63-64).

Where are we today? The result of 20 centuries of church traditions is: “God’s people have never broken free from the liturgical straightjacket that they inherited from Roman Catholicism” (p. 65). Robert Banks (of house churches’ fame) claims that the Reformers’ “Catholicism increasingly followed the path of the [pagan] cults in making a rite the center of its activities, and Protestantism followed the path of the synagogue in placing the book at the center of its services” (p. 66). It is Viola’s view that “the Reformers produced a half-baked reform of the Catholic liturgy” (p. 66).

a. What is wrong with the order of worship in today’s church?

(1) “Neither Catholicism nor Protestantism were successful in making Jesus Christ the center of their gatherings” (p. 66).

(2) “The Protestant order of worship did not originate with the Lord Jesus, the apostles, or the NT Scriptures.” The Sunday morning order of worship is not only “unscriptural and heavily influenced by paganism,” but also “it is spiritually harmful” (p. 67) because:

Flower14 It “represses mutual participation and the growth of Christian community” (p. 68);

Flower14 It “strangles the Headship of Jesus Christ. The entire service is directed by a man. Where is the freedom of our Lord Jesus to speak through His body at will?” (p. 68);

Flower14 “For many Christians, the Sunday morning service is shamefully boring” (p. 69);

Flower14  “The Protestant liturgy that you quietly sit through every Sunday, year after year, actually hinders spiritual transformation” (p. 69). Why? Because it (1) “encourages passivity,” (2) “limits functioning,” and (3) “implies that putting in one hour per week is the key to the victorious Christian life” (p. 69).

Viola’s earlier book, Rethinking the Wineskin (Present Testimony Ministry, 2001), described a church gathering, first-century style. He notes in Pagan Christianity that “the purpose of the first-century church meeting was not for evangelism, sermonizing, worship, or fellowship. It was rather for mutual edification through manifesting Christ corporately” (n178, p. 70).

What is your response to such a claim? Viola writes that “the only sure way to thaw out God’s frozen people is to make a dramatic break with the Sunday morning ritual. The other option is to be guilty of our Lord’s bone-rattling words: ‘Full well do you reject the commandment of God that you may keep your own tradition’ [Mark 7:8]” (p. 71).

2. The sermon

The image “https://i1.wp.com/www.biblepicturegallery.com/Thumbs/la/World/worship/jewish_w/Scroll%20Pentateuch%201.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.This radical renewal leader sails into “the sermon: Protestantism’s most sacred cow,” heading up the second chapter of his book with historian, Will Durant’s, comment, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it” (p. 75).  The author’s view is that “the sermon actually detracts from the very purpose for which God designed the church gathering. And it has very little to do with genuine spiritual growth.” People are likely to respond to this comment with, “People preached all throughout the Bible. Of course the sermon is Scriptural.” Viola grants that “the Scriptures do record men and women preaching. However, there is a world of difference between the Spirit-inspired preaching described in the Bible and the modern sermon” (p. 76).

He contends that the apostolic preaching recorded in the Book of Acts was: sporadic, delivered on special occasions, plain and simple without “rhetorical structure.” It “was most often dialogical (meaning it included feedback and interruptions from the audience)” rather than as per today’s monologue from the pulpit (p. 78).

For examples of the sermon as a dialogue, he refers to Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-9; 20:7, 9; 24:25. In each of these verses, Paul uses the Greek verb, dialegomai, meaning, “A two-way form of communication. Our English word ‘dialogue’ is derived from it. In short, apostolic ministry was more dialogue than it was monological sermonics” (p. 78).

Viola claims that the modern sermon “is foreign to both Old and New Testaments. There is absolutely nothing in Scripture to indicate its existence in the early Christian gatherings.” The earliest sermonising was mentioned by Clement of Alexandria who lived from 150-215 and he “lamented the fact that sermons did so little to change Christians.” However, they “became standard practice among believers by the fourth century” (p. 79). I will contest this claim; see my “assessment” below.

a. From where did the sermon originate?

He traces the sermon back to the sophists (wise ones) of fifth century BC who “were expert debaters. They were masters at using emotional appeals, physical appearance, and clever language to ‘sell’ their arguments.” Around the third century after Christ, “a vacuum was created when mutual ministry faded from the Body of Christ. At this time the traveling worker who spoke out of a spontaneous burden left the pages of church history” (p. 79) and the “clergy-caste began to emerge” with “the clergy-laity distinction . . . widening at breakneck speed” (pp. 79-80).

By the fourth century the hierarchical structure and the “religious specialist” were developing as “pagan orators were becoming Christians,” and “pagan philosophical ideas unwittingly made their way into the Christian community” (p. 82).

What caused today’s sermon to degenerate into a monologue instead of being a vibrant interaction between speaker and audience? Viola says that this was caused by the influence of

former pagan orators (now turned Christian) [who] began to use their Greco-Roman oratorical skills for Christian purposes. They would sit in their official chair and ‘expound the sacred text of Scripture, just as the sophist would supply an exegesis [2] of the near-sacred text of Homer.’ If you compare a third-century pagan sermon with a sermon given by one of the church fathers, you will find both the structure and the phraseology to be shockingly similar (pp. 82-83).

From Viola’s research, he states that the early church’s proclamation (e.g. Book of Acts) involved two-way conversation. This changed when the Greek orators were converted and brought their methods into the church. This made a permanent impact on the church. Conversational style of preaching was expelled by Greek-style one-way communication.

Worse still, “the Greco-Roman sermon replaced prophesying, open sharing, and Spirit-inspired teaching. The sermon became the elitist privilege of church officials, particularly the bishops” (p. 83).

b. Who can we blame specifically?

“We can credit both Chrysostom and Augustine (A.D. 354-430), a former professor of rhetoric, for making pulpit oratory part and parcel of the Christian faith.” Chrysostom emphasised that “the preacher must toil long on his sermons in order to gain the power of eloquence” (p. 85).

The Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, the Puritans and the preachers of the Great Awakening of the 18th century (eg. Wesley and the Methodists), continued the tradition. Martin Luther saw the church as “the gathering of the people who listen to the Word of God being spoken to them. For this reason, he once called the church
a Mundhaus (mouth or speech-house) [p. 86].

“Ironically, ‘the Book’ [Bible] knows nothing of a sermon” (p. 87). I will challenge this view in my “assessment” below.

c. Sermonising harms the church

One would think that teaching as sermonising would provide edification for God’s people. Isn’t that beneficial? Not so, says Viola. Today’s “conventional sermon has contributed to the malfunction of the church in a number of ways” (p. 88). These include:

Flower7  Making the preacher “the virtuoso performer of the church service. As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst.” It has made congregations “a group of muted spectators who watch a performance. There is no room for interrupting or questioning the preacher while he is delivering a discourse” (p. 88).
Flower7 “The sermon stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair, it blunts curiosity and produces passivity.” Christians need to function when they gather, in order to grow (p. 88).

Flower7  The sermon bolsters “the unbiblical clergy mentality,” making “the preacher the religious specialist” and “everyone else is treated as a second-class Christian – a silent pew-warmer” (p. 89).

Flower7  “Rather than equipping the saints, the sermon deskills them” (p. 89).

Flower7  “The typical sermon is a swimming lesson on dry land! It lacks any  value. . . The sermon mirrors its true father — Greco-Roman rhetoric” (p. 90). Viola affirms that “the gift of teaching is present in the church. But teaching is to come from all the believers as well as from those who are specially gifted to each” (pp. 91-92). He appeals to I Cor. 14:26, 31 to support this claim (n110, p. 92). See the “Assessment” below to challenge this claim.

d. Summing up

The sermon, in Viola’s view, is not found in Judaism of the OT, the ministry of Jesus, or in the ministry of the early church. It is a product of Greek rhetoric, brought into the church by pagans who were converted to Christ. “By the fourth century it became the norm,” although it is “an unscriptural practice” (p. 92).

The sermon is an unbiblical sacred cow that causes the priesthood of all believers to become passive in the pews. Since we as Protestant Christians affirm “the doctrine of sola Scriptura (‘by the Scripture only’),” how can we “still support the pulpit sermon.” (p. 93)?

 

3.  The edifice complex: the church building

People often speak of “the beautiful church we just passed . . . Our church is too small. . . The church is chilly today” (p.  97). Secular and Christian people often think this way, but “none of these thoughts have anything to do with NT Christianity. . . Nowhere in the NT do we find the terms ‘church’ (ekklesia), ‘temple,’ or ‘house of God’ used to refer to a building” (pp. 98-99).

Flower7What caused ekklesia to be translated as “church”? Viola gives this historical background:

The translators of the English Bible did us a huge injustice by translating ekklesia into “church.” Ekklesia, in all of its 114 appearances in the NT, always means an assembly of people. . . William Tyndale should be commended because in his translation of the NT, he refused to use the word “church” to translate ekklesia. Instead, he translated it more correctly as “congregation.” Unfortunately, the translators of the KJV chose not to follow Tyndale’s superior translation in this matter and resorted to “church” as a translation of ekklesia. They rejected the correct translation of ekklesia as “congregation” because it was the terminology of the Puritans (n17, p. 100).

a.  Building evolution

From where did the idea come that the building where Christians gathered, became identified with the church?

Christians are “the temple of God.” See I Cor. 15:25, where the resurrected Christ, the last Adam, became a “life-giving spirit” (ESV). See also John 2:12-22 and 4:23. Viola contends that “when Christianity was born, it was the only religion on earth that had no sacred objects, no s
acred persons, and no sacred spaces. . . For the first three centuries, the Christians did not have any special buildings” (pp. 102-103). Rather, the house, the courtyard, roadsides and living rooms were the places where Christians gathered. See Acts 2:46; 8:3; 20:20; Rom. 16:3, 5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 22; 2 John 10. Occasionally Christians used existing buildings (see Acts 5:12; 19:19), but “their normal church meetings, however, were always set in a private home” (n30, p. 102).

When did the church move out of the houses and into special purpose buildings called, “churches”?

b.  When did buildings become “churches”?

“For the first three centuries, the Christians did not have any special buildings.  As one scholar put it, ‘The Christianity that conquered the Roman Empire was essentially a home-centered movement'” (p. 103). By the third century after Christ, “Christians had two places for their meetings: Their homes and the cemetery” (p. 105).

Emperor Constantine, who lived from A.D. 285-337, had a major impact on moving the church gathering from the house to other buildings. This story “fills a dark page in the history of Christianity. Church buildings began with him” (p. 107). We need to understand that “Constantine’s thinking was dominated by superstition and paganistic magic. . . Following his conversion to Christianity, Constantine never abandoned sun-worship. . . Almost to his dying day, Constantine ‘still functioned as the high priest of paganism” (p. 108).

Constantine influenced these changes in the church:

Flower20  In A.D. 321 he decreed Sunday as the day of rest, making it a legal holiday. Sunday was the “day of the sun” (pp. 108-109);

Flower20 He “strengthened the pagan notion of the sacredness of objects and places” (p. 109);

Flower20 In A.D. 327, he “began erecting the first church buildings throughout the Roman Empire. . . Many of the largest buildings were built over the tombs of the martyrs.” One of the most famous “holy places” is St. Peter’s on the Vatican hill, which was supposed to be “built over the supposed tomb of Peter” (p. 111). These “church edifices built under Constantine were patterned exactly after the model of the basilica. The basilica was the common government building. And it was designed after Greek pagan temples” (p. 113). The centre of the building was the altar, considered the most holy place in the building and “it often contained the relics of the martyrs” (p. 114).

Flower20 The church building had a major influence on worship. “The pomp and ritual of the imperial court was adopted into the Christian liturgy” (p. 115).

Flower20 The clergy with special garb happened under Constantine. This was borrowed from the Greco-Roman world, thus aligning it with pagan culture.

Flower20 During the fourth century, pagan religious ideas and practices were absorbed into Christianity. The clergy were elevated in function and the laity were gradually silenced in the church gathering.

Flower20 At this time, there were changes in church architecture with the entrance of Gothic structures

Flower20 Things did not change with the Reformation, when “thousands of medieval cathedrals became their property” (p. 122).

Flower20  Sir Christopher Wren introduced the church steeple following the fire that swept through London, England, in the year 1666.

Flower20 Then came the pulpit, pew and balcony

c. Exegeting the building (p. 130)

You may be asking what Viola questioned:

So what’s the big deal? Who cares if the first-century Christians did not have buildings? Or if church buildings were built on pagan beliefs and practices. Or if medieval Catholics based their architecture on pagan philosophy. What has that got to do with us today? (pp. 130-131).

Viola answers:

The social location of the church meeting expresses and influences the character of the church. If you assume that where the church gathers is simply a matter of convenience, you are tragically mistaken. You are overlooking a basic reality of humanity. Every building we encounter elicits a response from us. By its interior and exterior, it explicitly shows us what the church is and how it functions. . . The form of the building reflects its particular function. . . A church’s location teaches us how to meet (p. 131).

What has happened since the introduction of special buildings for “church”? The present building arrangement with the pulpit domination “creates a sit-and-soak form of worship that turns functioning Christians into ‘pew potatoes.’ To put it differently, the very architecture prevents fellowship except between God and His people via the pastor!” (p. 134)

So, for the last 1700 years, Christians have seen the church as a special building set apart for worship. This has had a disastrous impact on the real church. It has created “an obscenely high cost of overhead” (p. 134). Take this example:

The church edifice demands a vast wasteland of money. In the United States alone, real estate owned by institutional churches today amounts to over 230 billion dollars. Church building debt service, and maintenance consumes about 18% of the 11 billion dollars that are tithed to churches annually. Point: Modern Christians are wasting an astronomical amount of money on unnecessary edifices!

There is no good reason to possess a church building. In fact, all the traditional reasons put forth for “needing” a building collapse under careful scrutiny. We so easily forget that the early Christians turned the world upside down without them. They grew rapidly for 300 years without the help (or hindrance) of church buildings (pp. 134-135).

d. Can this tradition be overturned? (pp. 135-137)

Viola asks us to consider these points:

Flower20 The church building rips into the heart of the Christian faith that was born in the living rooms of the first century.

Flower20 When you sit in a church building, you are celebrating the pagan origins and pagan philosophy on which Sunday morning worship has been built.

Flower20 “There does not exist a shred of Biblical support for the church building” (p. 136).

Flower20 We are “completely unaware of what we lost as Christians when we created the church building” (p. 136). It was “fathered by Constantine who was overcome by the basilicas of the Greeks, Romans, Goths and even the Egyptians and Babylonians.

Flower20 We have bought into the non-biblical notion that we

feel holier when we are in the “house of God”. . . There is nothing more stagnating, artificial, impersonal or stuffy than a clinical church building! In that building, you are nothing more than a statistic – a name on an index card to be filed in the pastor’s secretary’s office. There is nothing warm or personal about it (p. 136).

Flower20 The nature of the true function of the ekklesia is very counter cultural. The church building smothers the possibility of true church function. For centuries many Christians have accepted what we have as the norm. There is a way back, but most are not thinking in that direction.

 

4. The pastor’s role needs radical reformation.

The pastor “is the fundamental figure of the Protestant faith.” The word “pastors” does appear in the NT at Eph. 4:11, which reads, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers . . .” Viola’s chapter heading is, “The pastor: Thief of every-member functioning.”

Viola is so provocative as to state that “there is not a single verse in the entire NT that supports the existence of the modern day Pastor! He simply did not exist in the early church” (p. 141). Beyond that observation, he claims that “there is more Biblical authority for snake handling than there is for the modern Pastor. (Mark 16:18 and Acts 28:3-6 both mention handling snakes.) So snake handling wins out two verses to one verse” (p. 142). He has a point, but the analogy is meant to arouse interest. Viola’s point is that the role of solo pastor in a local church has no biblical precedent. “Pastors” is used in the plural, as shepherds, with “a particular function in the church. It is not an office or a title” (p. 143).

Viola quotes Richard Hanson with favour: “For us the words bishops, presbyters, and deacons are stored with the associations of nearly two thousand years. For the people who first used them the titles of these offices can have meant little more than inspectors, older men and helpers. . . It was when unsuitable theological significance began to be attached to them that the distortion of the concept of Christian ministry began” (pp. 143-44).

Therefore, “the first-century shepherds were the local elders (presbyters) and overseers of the church. And their function was completely at odds with the modern pastoral role” (p. 144).

a.  From where did the contemporary pastoral role come?

The author observes that the seeds of such a role were with the prophecy of Eldad and Medad (whom Moses tried to restrain — see Numbers 11:26-28) , the people seeking a physical mediator when Moses ascended Mount Horeb (Ex. 20:19), and with Diotrephes “who loved to have the preeminence” (3 John 9-10). He sees the hierarchical form of leadership of the social structures of ancient cultures being adopted by post-apostolic Christians (p. 145).

The one-bishop-rule started with Ignatius of Antioch (35-107): “We can trace the origin of the modern Pastor and church hierarchy to him” as he “elevated one of the elders above all the others. The elevated elder was now called ‘the bishop'” (pp. 146-47). By the end of the third century, the one-bishop-rule “prevailed everywhere. . . The congregation, once active, was now rendered deaf and mute. The saints merely watched the bishop perform” (p. 148).

By the time of Cyprian in the third century, bishops began to be called priests and pastors. Together they were called “the clergy.” “It is upon Cyprian’s lap that we can lay the non-NT concept of sacerdotalism – the belief that there exists a Divinely appointed person to mediate between God and the people” (pp. 149-50, 152).

b.  Other influences

1.  Thanks to Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century, the priest became the overseer of the Catholic Mass where the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper “magically” turned into the Lord’s physical body and blood. (p. 153). By this time, “human hierarchy and ‘official’ ministry institutionalized the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 154). Roman Emperor, Constantine, cemented this hierarchical structure in the organised church.

2.  Secular historian, Will Durant, admitted to the synthesis of pagan ideas into

the Christian faith by stating that Christianity grew by the absorption of pagan faith and ritual; it became a triumphant church by inheriting the organizing patterns and genius of Rome. . . As Judea had given Christianity ethics, and Greece had give it theology, so now Rome gave it organization; all these, with a dozen absorbed and rival faiths, entered into the Christian synthesis (in pp. 156-157).

3.  Emperor Constantine exalted the clergy in the 4th century and under the emperor Christianity was honoured and recognised by the State and thus the church was secularised and polluted from its pure stream. The laity became second-class Christians, a division that had never existed in the biblical revelation.

4.  “By the fifth century, the thought of the priesthood of all believers had completely disappeared from the Christian horizon. Access to God was now controlled by the clergy caste” (p. 162).

5.  By the 4th century, Augustine taught “that ordination confers a ‘definite  irremovable imprint’ on the priest that empowers him to fulfill his priestly functions! For Augustine, ordination was a permanent possession that could not be revoked” (p. 165). However, the apostle  Paul knew nothing about an ordination that confers ministerial or clerical powers to a Christian. First-century shepherds (elders, overseers) did not receive anything that resembles modern ordination. They were not set above the rest of the flock. They were those who served among them (p. 166).

6.  The Reformation of the 16th century did not change the clergy/laity distinction. Although “the rallying cry of the Reformation was the restoration of the priesthood of all believers,” the Reformers failed “to recover the corporate dimension of the believing priesthood” (p. 168). The Reformers were hostile to a functioning priesthood of all believers:

Luther and the other Reformers violently denounced the Anabaptists for practicing every-member functioning in the church. The Anabaptists believed it was every Christian’s right to stand up and speak in a meeting. It was not the domain of the clergy. Luther was so opposed to this practice that he said it came from “the pit of hell” and those who were guilty of it should be put to death! (Behold your heritage dear Protestant Christian!) [p. 169]

7.  The term, “pastor,” did not replace “preacher” or “minister” until the 18th century (p. 171). John Calvin, however, in the 16th century believed “the pastoral office is necessary to preserve the church on earth in a greater way than the sun, food, and drink are necessary to nourish and sustain the present life” (p. 172).

It is Viola’s view that

The unscriptural clergy/laity distinction has done untold harm to the Body of Christ. It has ruptured the believing community into first and second-class Christians. . . Our ignorance of church history has allowed us to be robbed blind. The one-man ministry is entirely foreign to the NT, yet we embrace it while it suffocates our functioning. . . The pastoral office has stolen your right to function as a member of Christ’s Body! It has shut your mouth and strapped you to a pew (p. 178).

c. Conclusion

Viola pulls no punches in his assessment:

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! . . . The Protestant Pastor is nothing more than a slightly reformed Catholic priest! (p. 183)

Poet John Milton put it this way: “New presbyter is but old priest writ large!” (p. 183).

It is shown that the development of the pastoral role and the function of the pastor in the local church was something that happened over time. The CEO pastor/priest and the one-man band preacher cannot be found in the NT. I can’t imagine that too many current pastors will be thrilled with this view. If the church accepted Viola’s assessment, which I consider has biblical substance, it would mean radical changes in much of the church function. I can’t see the average church being ready for such – sadly!

 

5. Church costumes

Over 300 million Protestants put on their Sunday best to attend church, but this is “a relatively recent phenomenon,” beginning in the late 18th century (p. 187). Why? While the well-to-do folks could afford nice clothing at any time of the week, but for common people they had only “two sets of clothes. Work clothes for laboring in the field and less tattered clothing for going into town” (p. 187). The exception is with “neo-denominations” such as the Vineyard, where dress is casual.

In the 19th century, church leaders such as Horace Bushnell sought to affirm this new attire, claiming that this “sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them.” Others such as Presbyterian, William Henry Foote, stated that “a church-going people are a dress loving people” (p. 189).

What’s wrong with dressing up when going to church? Viola claims that:

Flower20  “It reflects the false cleavage between the secular and the sacred”;

Flower20  It “screams out a false message: That church is the place where Christians hide their real selves and ‘dress them up’ to look nice and pretty. . . It gives the house of God all the elements of a stage show”;

Flower20 “Dressing up’ for church smacks against the primitive simplicity that was the sustaining hallmark of the early church” (p. 190-91).

Emperor Constantine. It was during this time that “distinctions between bishop, priest, and deacon began to take root” (p. 193). The model followed that of the secular court ritual.

The origin of the clerical “dog collar” goes back only as far as 1865 and was an invention of the Anglicans, not the Roman Catholics (p. 196).

Why the fuss about clergy dress? Viola believes that it “strikes at the heart of the church by separating God’s people into two classes: ‘Professional’ and ‘non-professional'” (p. 197). Jesus and his disciples did not wear special clothing to impress God or others. The Scribes and the Pharisees were into special garb.

The Lord’s view is: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts” Luke 20:46 (ESV).

This critique of Christianity’s pagan paraphernalia extends to . . .

 

6. Ministers of Music

The image “https://i2.wp.com/www.newcreations.net/3d/images/bluenotes/header_ss.gif” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.These, along with the choir director, worship leader or praise and worship team, are “second-string clergy” and are “in stark contrast to the first century way” where “worship and singing were in the hands of God’s people. The church herself led her own songs. Singing and leading songs was a corporate affair, not a professional event led by specialists” (p. 201) . He accurately refers to Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 to support his claims.

From where did this non-Christian emphasis come?

a. The choir

We can thank Constantine’s reign for choirs that were “developed and trained to help celebrate the Eucharist,” but Viola calls upon historian of ancient history, Will Durant, to show that the roots of the choir go even further back to “pagan Greek temples and Greek dramas” (p. 202). Durant comments:

In the Middle Ages, as in ancient Greece, the main fountainhead of drama was in religious liturgy. The Mass itself was a dramatic spectacle; the sanctuary a sacred stage; the celebrants wore symbolic costumes; priest and acolytes engaged in dialogue; the antiphonal responses of priest and choir, and of choir to choir, suggested precisely that same evolution of drama from dialogue that had generated the sacred Dionysian play (Will Durant, The Age of Faith, n 5, p. 202).

Viola claims that by A. D. 367, congregational singing was altogether banned. It was replaced by the trained choirs. . . The Council of Laodicea (A.D. 367) forbade all others to sing in church beside the canonical singers. . . The liturgical chant is the direct descendent of the pagan Roman chant, which goes back to the ancient Sumarian cities. . . Trained choirs, trained singers, and the end of congregational singing all reflected the cultural mindset of the Greeks (pp. 203-204, incl. n9).

b. Funeral processions

Constantine was again the culprit because during his time “Roman betrothal practices and funeral processions were adapted and transformed into Christian ‘weddings’ and ‘funerals’ Both are borrowed from pagan practice” (p. 205).

Viola quotes from Johannes Quasten’s, Music & Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity: “The pagan cult of the dead was too much a part of the past lives of many Christians, formerly pagans, for them simply to be able to replace pagan dirges and funeral music with Psalmody” (in p. 205).

c. Did the Reformation help?

Congregational singing and the use of musical instruments were restored, however, “there is no evidence of musical instruments in the Christian church service until the Middle Ages. . . The church fathers [e.g. Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome, n35, p. 207] took a dim view of musical instruments, associating them with immorality and idolatry.” John Calvin also “felt that musical instruments were pagan. Consequently, for two centuries, Reformed churches sang Psalms without the use of instruments.” It was during the Reformation that “the organ became the standard instrument used in Protestant worship” (p. 207).

d. The worship team

This is of recent origin, dating back to the founding of Calvary Chapel in 1965 by Chuck Smith who started with “a ministry for hippies and surfers. . . The Vineyard has probably shown more influence on the Christian family in establishing worship teams” (p. 210)

e. What’s the big deal?

What’s wrong with ministers of music, choirs, worship leaders and worship teams leading a church’s singing?

Nothing. Except that it robs God’s people of a vital function: To select and lead their own singing in the meetings – to have Divine worship in their own hands – to allow Jesus Christ to lead the singing of His church rather than a human facilitator.

Listen to Paul’s description of a church meeting: “Every one of you brings a song . . .” [1 Cor. 14:26] “Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” [Eph. 5:19]. Song leaders, choirs, and worship teams make this impossible. They also put limits on the Headship of Christ – specifically His ministry of leading His brethren into singing praise songs to His Father (p. 211, emphasis in Viola).

What’s the alternative? Viola meets

with churches where every member is free to start a song spontaneously. Imagine: Every brother and sister leading songs under the Headship of Christ! Even writing their own songs and bringing them to the meeting for all to learn. . .

     Let me warn you, however. Once you have tasted the experience of having worship and praise songs in your own hands, you will never wish to go back to standing in a pew and being led about by a choir director or a worship team. . .

     It is high time that the ministry of music and song be taken away from the second-string clergy and be given back to the people of God (p. 212).

Viola adds one qualifier:

 

I have no problem at all with talented musicians performing for an audience to encourage, instruct, inspire, or even entertain them. However, that ought not to be confused with the ministry of praise and worship singing which belongs to the whole church (n63, p. 212).

 

7. Tithing and clergy salaries

This is getting close to home and I don’t expect too many clergy will be wanting to support and promote Viola’s view. Anybody who sails into clergy salaries and the sacred tithe will not be standing in line for the church’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize or a Rhodes Scholarship.

Of all people, Viola calls upon the infamous renegade Anglican bishop, formerly Bishop of Woolwich (south London), United Kingdom, John A. T. Robinson of Honest to God fame, for support:

The real trouble is not in fact that the church is too rich but that it has become heavily institutionalized, with a crushing investment in maintenance. It has the characteristics of the dinosaur and battleship. It is saddled with a plant and programme beyond its means, so that it is absorbed in problems of supply and pre-occupied with survival (Robinson, in Viola, p. 215).

a. Tithing is biblical but not Christian

The tithe belonged to Israel (see Lev. 27:30-33; Num. 18:21-31; Deut. 14:22-29; 26:12-13), which was “to give 23.3% of their income every year, as opposed to 10%” (p. 219). This is calculated by “20% yearly and 10% every three years” and “equals 23.3% per year. God commanded all three tithes (Neh. 12:44; Mal. 3:8-12; Heb. 7:5)” (n6, p. 219).

So, what is the NT standard that should be practised by the contemporary church?

With the death of Jesus, all ceremonial, governmental, and religious codes that belonged to the Jews were nailed to His cross and buried. . . never to come out again to condemn us. For this reason, we never see Christians tithing in the NT. Tithing belonged exclusively to Israel under the Law (p. 219).

The NT emphasis of the first-century saints was that they were “giving cheerfully according to their ability – not dutifully out of a command. Giving in the early church was voluntarily. And those who benefited from it were the poor, orphans, widows, sick, prisoners and strangers” [see 2 Cor. 8:3-12; 9:5-13] (p. 220). “Paul’s word on giving is: Give as God has prospered you – according to your ability and means” (n8, p. 220).

b. Tithes and clergy salaries

Cyprian (200-258) was the first Christian to “mention the practice of financially supporting clergy. He argues that just as the Levites were supported by the tithe, so the Christian clergy should be supported by the tithe” (pp. 221-222). Cyprian was the only Christian writer before Constantine who recommended the OT tithe for the NT clergy.

One scholar, Edwin Hatch, is quoted: “For the first seven hundred years they [tithes] are hardly ever mentioned” (in p. 222). Viola states that “the Christian tithe as an institution was based on a fusion of Old Testament practice and pagan institution” (p. 222).

There were no salaries for church “ministers” for the first three centuries of the church, but that changed with Constantine who “instituted the practice of paying a fixed salary to the clergy from church funds and municipal and imperial treasuries. Thus was the (sic) born the clergy salary, a harmful practice that has no root in the NT” (pp. 223-224).

The contemporary view of tithing and salaried clergy have “no NT merit. In fact, the clergy salary runs against the grain of the entire New Covenant” (p. 225).

The point is made that while we have exalted paid professionals, “the rest of the church lapses into a state of passive dependence” and the question, “What on earth are we paying the pastor for?” does not arise (p. 226).

Viola is even more critical of paying the clergy:

A further peril of the paid pastor system is that it produces men who are void of any skill – something we inherited from the pagan Greeks. For this reason, it takes a man of tremendous courage to step out of the pastorate.

Unfortunately, most of God’s people are deeply naive about the overwhelming power of the pastor system. It is a faceless system that does not tire of chewing up and spitting out its young. Again, God never intended the professional pastorate to exist. There is no Scriptural mandate or justification for such a thing. In fact, it is impossible to construct a Biblical defence for it (p. 227).

So, what does he conclude about tithing and the clergy system?

Flower20  Jesus did not affirm the tithing system. It was part of the Old Covenant and the early church did not practise it for the first 300 years of its existence.

Flower20  NT giving was according to one’s ability and believers gave to support apostolic workers who were planting churches.

Flower20  Christians in the early churches were liberal in their support of the poor and needy. This caused others to affirm the “awesome, winsome power of the early church and say: ‘Behold how they love one another'”

Flower20  “You, dear Christian, have been set free from the bondage of tithing and from the obligation to support an unbiblical clergy system” (p. 229).

I don’t expect to see a mass exodus from the clergy and tithing system until the church comes to this biblical understanding. Viola’s claims have biblical and historical warrant. It would send the church back to grass roots again if we accepted the author’s critique. This is certainly radical Christianity with a biblical edge. I am convinced by his arguments, but I don’t expect too much support from clergy and ordinary Christian folks in the traditional evangelical church.

But there is more to come in observing the pagan influence on other church practices.

 

8. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper compromised

Renowned church historian, Philip Schaff, warned that

the church, embracing the mass of the population of the Empire, from the Caesar to the meanest slave, and living amidst all its institutions, received into her bosom vast deposits of foreign material from the world and from heathenism. . . Although ancient Greece and Rome have fallen forever, the spirit of Graeco-Roman paganism is not extinct. . . It lives also in many idolatrous and superstitious usages of the Greek and Roman churches, against which the pure spirit of Christianity has instinctively protested from the beginning, and will protest, till all remains of gross and refined idolatry shall be outwardly as well as inwardly overcome (in p. 231).

Even though most evangelical Christians believe and practise believer’s baptism (immersion) rather than infant baptism, the emphasis has changed with today’s believers being saved at one age and baptised at another age.

a.  Baptism vs. the sinner’s prayer

Viola shows the change from the biblical emphasis on baptism right after confession of faith and the current aberration.

In the early church, converts were baptized immediately upon believing [see Acts 2:37-41; 8:12ff., 27-38; 9:18; 10:44-48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:18; 19:1-5; 22:16]. One scholar says of baptism and conversion, “They belong together. Those who repented and believed the Word were baptized. That was the invariable pattern, so far as we know.” Another writes, “At the birth of the church, converts were baptized with little or no delay.” (p. 234).

For the first-century Christian, the confession of baptism was “vitally linked to the exercise of saving faith. So much so that the NT writers often use ‘baptism’ in place of the word ‘faith’ and link it to being ‘saved'” [see Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21] (pp. 234-235).

Infant baptism was powerfully advocated by Cyprian (martyred, 258), who “attributed magical powers to it in its ability to wash away sin,” but

the earliest plausible reference to infant baptism is found in Irenaeus (130-200). Tertullian (160-225) . . . opposed it. Infant baptism seems to have begun in the early second century and had an elaborate theology to go along with it. By the fifth century, infant baptism became a general practice replacing adult baptism (n1, p. 233).

Viola’s view is that “baptism was simultaneously an act of faith as well as an expression of faith” (p. 235, emphasis in original). However, by the third century the new convert’s “life was scrutinised with a fine tooth comb. You had to show yourself worthy of baptism by your conduct” (p. 235).

Thanks to D. L. Moody (1837-1899), the “Sinner’s Prayer” replaced the role of water baptism as the initial confession of faith, while accepting Jesus as one’s “Personal Saviour” can be attributed to Charles Fuller (1887-1968) [pp. 235-237]. “In the first century, water baptism was the visible testimony that publicly demonstrated the heart of this [sinner’s] prayer” (n16, p. 237).

b. The Lord’s Supper

For the NT church, the Lord’s Supper was a communal meal shared in the house of Christians.

Around the time of Tertullian (160-225) the bread and the cup began to be separated from the meal. By the late second century, the separation was complete. . . By the fourth century, the love feast was “prohibited” among Christians. . . [and] the terms “breaking of bread” and “Lord’s Supper” disappeared. . . The mystique associated with the Eucharist was due to the influence of the pagan mystery religions. . . By the 10th century, there was a shift in thinking and language. The word “body” was no longer use  to refer to the church. It was only used to refer to the Lord’s physical body or the bread of the Eucharist (pp. 239-241).

The image “https://i2.wp.com/www.biblepicturegallery.com/Thumbs/ca/church/religous/general/Communion%20bread%20and%20wine.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.What did this do? It “completely removed from the communal nature of the ekklesia” (p. 243) something that was core Christianity in the NT. The doctrine of Transubstantiation (the bread and wine were allegedly changed into the Lord’s actual body and blood) ” became explicit teaching in the 4th century, but it was developed further in the 11th-13th centuries. While contemporary Protestants don’t accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, “they have continued to embrace the Catholic practice of the Supper” by discarding the communal meal (p. 242).

c.  This means . . .

blue-satin-arrow-small  The true meaning and power of the water baptism is now ill conceived. “Water baptism is the believer’s initial confession of faith before men, demons, angels, and God” (p. 243). This is “God’s idea” and we are the losers when we change it.

blue-satin-arrow-small  The Lord’s Supper has turned into a strange pagan rite and been emptied of “a shared-life experience enjoyed by the church” (p. 244).

blue-satin-arrow-small  The Lord’s Supper has moved from an every-Christian meal of “bare simplicity” among friends in a house to the “elaborate splendor” of “a priestly function.” (p. 244)

blue-satin-arrow-small  Christians should “shun the vain traditions of men and return to the ancient paths” (p. 244).

9.  Christian education wrecked

To be a pastor today, most Christians believe the person has to attend Bible College or seminary to be qualified for the Lord’s work. This view doesn’t go well with the NT, which was based on a discipleship/apprenticeship model and not on intellectual learning.

Others have recognised today’s problem with discipling and equipping believers. Puritan, John Owen, said that “every church was then a seminary, in which provision and preparation was made” (p. 248). Contemporary writer, R. Paul Stevens agrees:

The best structure for equipping every Christian is already in place. It predates the seminary and the weekend seminar and will outlast both. In the New Testament no other nurturing and equipping is offered than the local church. In the New Testament church, as in the ministry of Jesus, people learned in the furnace of life, in a relational living, working and ministering context (p. 248).

a. Ministerial training

By contrast, “Modern ministerial training . . . [is] rational, objective, and abstract” (p. 248). Viola states that theological education has developed through four stages in the history of the church:

blue-satin-arrow-small Episcopal in the patristic age (3rd-5th centuries) was training by bishops in how to perform the rituals and liturgies of the church.
blue-satin-arrow-small Monastic education was associated with the ascetic and mystical life, starting in the 3rd century. This involved the training of missionaries for “unchartered territories.” The Eastern church fathers mixed the Greek thought of philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, with the Christian faith (many of the fathers of the faith were previously pagan philosophers and orators). They came with a concoction that historian, Will Durant, observed as “the gap between philosophy and religion was closing . . . The ideas and methods of philosophy had flowed in such mass into Christianity, and filled so large a place in it, as to have made it no less a philosophy than a religion” (in p. 251).

blue-satin-arrow-small The Scholastic stage owes much to the culture of the university, the university of Bologna in Italy (13th century) being the first university, followed by the universities of Paris and Oxford. The term, “university,” comes “from the medieval Latin universitas which was a term used for the medieval craft guilds. . . The word ‘seminary’ comes from the Latin seminarium meaning seedbed” (nn 24, 27, p. 252). Martin Luther, had it right, says Viola, when he said: “What else are the universities than places for training youth in Greek glory” (in p. 253).

blue-satin-arrow-small  The Seminarian model was developed from the university’s scholastic paradigm, originally pursuing the Aristotelian philosophical system to train “the professionally ‘qualified’ minister” (p. 254). Both Protestants and Roman Catholics rely on Aquinas’ work for the outline of the theological curriculum: God, Trinity, Creation, Angels, Man, The Divine Government (Salvation, etc.) and The Last End (p. 255).

b. Seminaries, Bible Colleges, etc.

The founding of “the first Protestant seminary is clouded in obscurity. But the best evidence indicates that the Protestants copied the Catholic model and established their first seminary in America. It was established in Andover, Massachusetts in 1808” (p. 258). Prior to this time, the Protestants trained clergy in Yale (1701) and Harvard (1636), but more seminaries were spawned when Yale and Harvard promoted Unitarianism and rejected other orthodox Christian beliefs.
These are some of the colleges and seminaries at which I have studied.  From four of them I have graduated.

I thank Pastor Fred Lancaster for introducing me to systematic theology; Pastor Aeron Morgan for exemplary expository preaching; Dr Larry Hurtado for my first stumbling Greek summer course; Dr. David Lim for teaching solid biblical studies; Dr. Jerry Flora for his love of biblical theology and Professor Ernest van Eck for doctoral supervision.  It all started when Christ invaded my cane farmer parents’ home in 1959 through a Billy Graham landline crusade rally at the Showgrounds, Bundaberg, Qld., Australia.  Their love for Jesus was infectious and the three children responded to Christ’s invitation to salvation.

The Bible College is a 19th century phenomenon in North America, the first two Colleges being The Missionary Training Institute, now Nyack College, New York (1882) and Moody Bible Institute (Chicago) in 1886. However there was influence from London, England, pastors H. G. Guinness (1835-1910) and C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). There are now over 400 Bible schools (“a minor league version of the seminary”) and colleges in the USA and Canada (p.258).

c. There is more . . .

1. Robert Raikes 91736-1811) from Great Britain established a school for poor children, but he “did not found the Sunday School for the purpose of religious instruction. Instead, he founded it to each poor children the basics of education” (p. 260). The first actual Sunday School was in Virginia, America in 1785.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Sunday Schools operated separately from churches. The reason: Pastors felt that laymen could teach the Bible. D. L. Moody is credited with popularizing the Sunday School in America. . .
As a whole, the modern Sunday School is simply not an effective institution. . .
If the truth be told, most youngsters find Sunday School dry, boring, and irrelevant. Sunday School is a dinosaur that is overripe for extinction (pp. 261-262).

2. The youth pastor didn’t come to the fore until the 20th century, Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan, NY, having one of the first youth pastors in the late 1930s.

d. What’s the problem?

I agree with Viola when he states that “modern theological education is essentially cerebral” and “does not prepare a person for ministry. . . Formal theological training is grossly overrated” (pp. 265-266). A survey of seminary graduates by Hartford Seminary found that

congregations with leaders who have a seminary eduction are, as a group, far more likely to report that in their congregations they perceive less clarity of purpose, more and different kinds of conflict, less person-to-person communication, less confidence in the future and more threat from changes in worship (in p. 266).

“Perhaps the most damaging problem of the seminary and Bible college is that it perpetuates the crippling, unscriptural humanly-devised clergy system” (p. 267). Viola is spot on in his assessment.

How, then, can this whole unbiblical system of church life and training in the 21st century be turned around?

III.  What’s the cure

This demolishing of the contemporary evangelical church tradition should be a wake-up call for all church members and especially for the leaders. It won’t be, because it is too threatening to the status quo. Frank Viola is not the first to call today’s church to account. A. W. Tozer did it:

If Christianity is to receive a rejuvenation it must be by other means than any now being used. . . There must appear a new type of preacher. The proper, ruler-of-the-synagogue type will never do. Neither will the priestly type of man who carries out his duties, takes his pay and asks no questions, nor the smooth-talking pastoral type who knows how to make the Christian religion acceptable to everyone. All these have been tried and found wanting. Another kind of religious leader must arise among us. He must be of the old prophet type, a man who has seen visions of God and has heard a voice from the Throne. When he comes (and I pray God there will not be one but many) he will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking, smooth civilization holds dear. He will contradict, denounce and protest in the name of God and will earn the hatred and opposition of a large segment of Christendom (in p. 271).

A.  Christ the revolutionary

Change will come through those identified “with Christ as revolutionary teacher – radical prophet – provocative preacher – controversialist – iconoclast – and the implacable opponent of the religious establishment” (p. 272).

Renewal movements won’t do it. Revivals won’t cut the mustard.

The axe must be laid to the root of the problem and a revolution ignited. . . All traditions that find no soil in Scripture must be forever abandoned. We must begin anew. . . from ground zero. Anything less will prove defective (p. 274).

blue-satin-arrow-small It will take disciples “of the Revolutionary from Nazareth . . . the Radical Messiah” who will lay “his axe to the root.” Viola believes it will take disciples who will evoke a special question that was asked of Jesus Christ, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” [Matt. 15:2] (p. 274).

Frank Viola is honing in on core biblical material for ecclesiology that has caused the church to get right off track in functioning biblically when the church gathers. However, it is one thing to pull apart one system, but what does he construct as a better biblical paradigm for today’s church? He questions: “Why is it that we Christians can follow the same God-forsaken rituals every Sunday without ever noticing that they are at odds with the NT?” (p. 277)

 

B.  Cut & paste Christianity

Viola claims that one of the problems is with proof-texting Scripture based on the order of books, chapters and verses of the NT especially.

God’s people have approached the NT with scissors and glue, cutting-and-pasting isolated, disjointed sentences from different letters. . . This half-baked approach still lives in our seminaries, Bible colleges, churches, Bible studies, and (tragically) our house churches today (p. 284).

Much of the blame is placed by Viola on those who arranged the NT books in their present order and those who divided Bible books into chapters and verses.

In the year 1227, a professor at the University of Paris named Stephen Langton added chapters to all the books of the NT. Then in 1551, a printer named Robert Stephanus numbered the sentences in all of the books of the NT. . . Stephanus did not use any consistent method (pp. 283-284).

This seems a minor issue, but not for Viola.

Seminarians are rarely if ever given a panoramic view of the free-flowing story of the early church with books arranged in their chronological order. If you do not believe me, try this: The next time you meet a seminary student (or graduate) ask him or her to rehearse for you the entire series of events from Paul’s writing of Galatians to his writing of Romans. Ask them to include dates, places, names of important characters, and the events mentioned in Acts (n16, p. 284).

This piece-meal approach to the Bible has had a startling impact on the life and practice of the church as the individual Christian “ignores the fact that most of the NT was written to corporate bodies of people (churches), not to individuals” (p. 286). As a result, today’s Christians

treat the NT like a manual and blind us to its real message. It is no wonder that we can approvingly nod our heads at paid pastors, the Sunday morning order of worship, sermons, church buildings, religious costumes, choirs, worship teams, seminaries, and a passive priesthood – without even wincing (p. 286).

 

C. The Headship of Christ over the church is the cure.

How do we resolve this impasse? Here is a call for all motivated believers to “a first-century styled church” (p. 289). By this he means

a group of people who know how to experience Jesus Christ and express Him in a meeting without any human officiation. I am talking about a group of people who can function together as a Body when they are left on their own after the church planter leaves them.

The man who plants a first-century styled church leaves that church without a pastor, elders, a music leader, a Bible facilitator, or a Bible teacher. If that church is planted well, those believers will know how to touch the living, breathing Headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings. They will bring their own songs, they will write their own songs, they will minister out of what Christ has shown them – with no human leader present (p. 289).

The image “https://i1.wp.com/www.fci.crossnet.se/images/the_same_forever.gif” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Viola is not an arm-chair theologian in his radical statements. He has “worked with churches that fit this bill” and “after planting a church, church planters should be absent more than they are present” (nn24, 25, p. 288).

D.  The house church is part of the solution.

Objections are anticipated through his character, Joe Housechurch, who goes to verses such as Acts 14:23 which says, “And they appointed elders in every church.” Joe wants to appoint elders only weeks after starting a church in his home. However, the historical context of Acts 14 indicates that two church planters, Paul and Barnabas, were sent from the home church in Antioch where “both men had already experienced church life as brothers, not leaders (Barnabas in Jerusalem and Paul in Antioch)” (p. 290).

Acts 14:23 is part of a discussion of two church planters in South Galatia who were now “returning to visit those churches six months to one year after those churches were planted. Paul and Barnabas return to each of the Galatian churches and ‘publicly endorse old men’ in each church” (p. 290).

Yes, it does affirm that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church, but here “every church” means “every church in South Galatia in A.D. 49” (p. 290). The problem we run into is using the cut and paste method of biblical interpretation when “we blithely lift verses from their historical setting” (p. 290).

Viola examines a biblical approach to taking offerings (collecting money) for the Gentile churches which he has planted and shows that this is very different to the contemporary approach to “offerings” in the traditional church (see p. 291).

With the “Great Commission” of Matt. 28:19, he claims that it reads, “Having gone on your way . . .” and “is a prophecy (‘having gone’), not a command (‘Go’).” He uses Kenneth S. Wuest’s exegesis to support this view [Wuest, The New Testament: An Expanded Translation] (Viola, p. 292). See below for an assessment of this view.

Viola believes that:

Those who opt to meet in homes rather than church edifices have cut out two very fat overhead accounts: Salaried pastors and church buildings. Contrast this with the overhead of a house church. Rather than paid staff and building “overhead” siphoning off 50-85% of the house church’s monetary giving, its overhead amounts to a small percent of their budget. A house church can use more than 95% of its shared money for delivering real services like ministry, mission, and outreach to the world (p. 135).

E.  A practical solution

To get us back to “a living expression of the Body of Christ, first-century style,” we must get back to the NT that excludes proof-texting. A fresh look at the Scriptures” is necessary as we

learn the whole sweeping drama from beginning to end. We need to learn to view the NT panoramically, not microscopically. . . To learn the story of the early church is to be forever cured of the cut-and-paste, clipboard approach to the NT (pp. 294-295).

Viola’s “final challenge” is a call for believers to abandon the church practices that have no foundation in the Bible and that “thwart God’s ultimate intention for His church” (p. 295).

blue-satin-arrow-small The challenge to believers, after reading this expose of pagan practices in the church, is to ignore the evidence or

make a clean break with man’s tradition, so as to pursue the fullness of Christ and His church. . . Will you step out of the institutional church which embraces practices that violate the NT or will you “invalidate the Word of God for the sake of your traditions” [Matt. 15:6]? (p. 296)

The historical evidence is that when conscience and tradition collide, “most of God’s people go with tradition. . .What are you going to do?” (p. 296).

IV.  Assessment

1. It would be easy to dismiss Frank Viola as a fringe dweller taking pot shots at the traditional, contemporary church. But these are canons, not toy pistol shots, that ought to be received and examined carefully by all of God’s people – leaders and everyday Christians alike.

We cannot ignore the contents of Viola’s book if we are to maintain biblical integrity. You may disagree with some specifics, and I do, but he is correct in showing how we have dumbed-down God’s people and exalted the CEO pastors and priests – without biblical precedent.

2. When the church gathers today, only a few believers function. They are the ones in leadership of the church service. Most who attend are mute believers who are not encouraged to participate. The function in these gatherings of God’s people is in no way similar to what we see in the NT, especially in I Corinthians, chs. 12-14. The Corinthian church had lots of problems, but at no point did Paul exhort to close down the mutual ministry promoted in these three chapters.

The NT norm was that “when you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction [lit. a teaching], a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (I Cor. 14:26, NIV). The possibility of participation by every believer in the early church “services” has been lost in most of the Body. Viola’s points are extremely valid.

3. We need to examine some of Viola’s specific claims. These include:

Preaching and Mutual ministry

Preaching sometimes involves dialogue and the church gathering is a time of mutual ministry. These are biblical views. Let’s examine some of the biblical words used in the NT that have a bearing on the type of “preaching” that happened in the early church.

What do we make of Viola’s statement: “Ironically, ‘the Book’ [Bible] knows nothing of a sermon” (p. 87). This is a view that needs to be investigated because a number of Greek verbs (in addition to dialegomai) could indicate something similar to today’s sermon or evangelistic method was practised. Let’s investigate.

The Bible uses dialegomai (I argue),  (I teach), (I proclaim), katangello, from angello (I proclaim or I announce), euangelizo or euangelizomai (I preach the gospel). We need to examine these briefly to see if Viola’s case is substantiated.

 

1. Dialegomai

Viola’s understanding of preaching as interaction is confirmed by a leading Greek authority on the NT, who stated that dialegomai

Means in Mark 9:33 f. and Jude 9 to argue, fight with words; but in Heb. 12:5 it is used of God’s speaking through fatherly discipline. . . The word here [in Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8 f.; 20:7, 9; 24:12, 25] has become a technical term for Paul’s teaching in the synagogue and approaches the meaning of give an address, preach. . . The RSV rendering “argue” is justified in so far as the audience was permitted to ask questions (Brown, 1978, p. 821).

NT Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson, explained dialegomai in Acts 17:2 as being an old verb meaning

to select, distinguish, then to revolve in the mind, to converse (interchange of ideas), then to teach in the Socratic (‘dialectic’) method of question and answer (c/f. Acts 17:17), then simply to discourse, but always with the idea of intellectual stimulus (1930, p. 267).

Greek exegesis is supportive of Viola’s contention that interaction between speaker and audience (two-way communication) was an important dimension of public presentations in some instances in the Book of Acts. However, much of this was Paul’s pioneer church planting ministry in territory that had not been exposed to the Gospel. Is that different from the regular gathering of the church?

Take Hebrews 10:24-25 as an example: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (ESV). This hardly sounds like one-way conversation, but mutual involvement in ministry – even though the context is not dealing with preaching and teaching specifically.

There seems to be ample biblical evidence for the church gathering to be a place of the Body functioning with mutual ministry and teaching by way of dialogue.

However, there is more. The Greek language is rich in the use of other words to describe proclamation and teaching.

 

2. Didasko

“In the NT didasko occurs 95 times, of which 38 are in the Synoptic Gospels.” There are 15 instances in the Pauline Epistles (Brown, 1978, p. 761).

When Jesus taught (didasko), it was as

a Jewish teacher of the period. It is true that we are not always told concerning the externalities of the teaching of Jesus. This was hardly necessary. . . We do at least have information about what happened in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk. 4:16ff.). After the reading of the Scripture portion (Is. 61:1f.), which took place standing, Jesus seated Himself like other expositors of the time and based His address on the passage just read (Lk. 4:21 ff.). . . The same practice of sitting to teach is mentioned by Mt. 5:1 at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount by Mk. In 9:35 when Jesus gave instruction to the twelve on the occasion of their quarrelling for supremacy (Kittel, 1964, p. 139).

The teaching of early Christianity followed the external forms of Jewish teaching [see Acts 5:25]. . . Acceptance of the form denotes similarity of content. That is to say, the teaching consisted primarily in exegesis and exhortation rather than factual instruction in the work of salvation. . .
Since one of the marks of didaskein is the constant reference to Scripture, it includes proving from Scripture that Jesus is the promised Messiah. . . In Acts 18:25 it takes place in the synagogue, which naturally determines the method (proof from Scripture). In Acts 28:31, it is mentioned that there is “proclaiming (kerysso) the kingdom of God” (ESV). “Here again one cannot assume that it denotes the impartation of facts; it rather presents these facts in such a way that the only possibility is to accept them or to be betrayed into opposition to Scripture” (Kittel, 1964, pp. 145-146).

In didasko, the Greeks had a word that could infer interaction with people, but “the gift of teaching in the New Testament is the ability to explain Scripture and apply it to people’s lives” (Grudem, 1994, p. 1061). See Acts 15:35 and 18:11, where teaching the word of God was evident (also Heb. 5:12). Rom. 15:4 states that the Old Testament Scriptures were “written for our instruction [i.e. teaching]” (ESV). According to Paul to Timothy, “all Scripture” is “profitable for teaching” (didaskalia) (2 Tim. 3:16).

There is no guarantee that this type of teaching always involved two-way communication. Contrary to Viola, theologian, Wayne Grudem considers that “in the New Testament epistles, ‘teaching’ is something very much like what is described by our phrase ‘Bible teaching’ today” (1994, p. 1062).

Nevertheless, there is practical value in interactive teaching, where Christians are able and encouraged to engage the teacher for clarification and challenge – but ultimately for edification. I’m not convinced that most of today’s evangelical pastors are prepared to be vulnerable to this extent – or are too ready to give answers in interaction with the congregation. Besides, if the church gathering really got going with significant interaction, the service could last for 2-3 hours. That would not be politically correct for today’s underfed, malnourished Christians who can view hours of TV but are not prepared to endure a church service for much more than an hour! Lord help the preacher who teaches for 45 minutes! I know from experience!

Could it be that there is such spiritual anaemia in the pew because there are so many spiritual novices in the pulpit?

 

3. Kerysso

In the NT, this verb is “found relatively frequently (61 times)” (Brown, 1978, p. 52). It means to “announce, make known by a herald” (Arndt & Gingrich, 1957, p. 432). This preaching/proclaiming/announcing had content (see Jesus use of the word in Luke 4:18). Examples of the content of announcing included: the Gospel (1 Thess. 2:9; Gal. 2:2; Mark 1:14), the Kingdom (Luke 8:1; Acts 20:25), baptism (Acts 10:37), repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), the Christ (Acts 8:5; 19:13; 2 Cor. 11:4), Christ’s resurrection (I Cor. 15:12), etc. As a participle, kerysson, it can refer to “a preacher” (the one preaching/announcing) as in Rom. 10:14 (Arndt & Gingrich, 1957, p. 432).

A wide range of verbs was used in the Greek NT to indicate proclamation as a process and event . . . Kerysso is one of a number of formal verbs of telling and communication, which connote a certain means of communication but are not limited as to the content (e.g. didasko, to each; angello, to report, together with its compounds; lego, to say; homologeo, to confess; martyreo, to bear witness, with its compounds; euangelizomai, to preach; gnorizo, to make known; and others) . . . The wide range of words used in the NT indicates that none of the verbs gained a position of clear dominance or was able to become a technical term.
Just how fluid the terminology was [is] seen from the fact that Paul in 1 Thess. 2:2, 9, described his ministry in the same context as lalesai . . . to euangelion, “we proclaimed . . . the gospel”; Similarly, Luke in Luke 4:43 (parallel Mark 1:38) and Luke 9:6 (parallel Mark 6:12) replaces the Marcan kerysso by euangelizo. But in Luke 8:1 he uses both verbs synonymously side by side . . . (Brown, 1978, p. 54).

How does kerysso compare with the other synonyms used for communicating the message of Christ? Colin Brown’s assessment shows the shortfall in Viola’s exclusive emphasis on dialogue in communication:

Both Luke and Paul prefer the verb euangelizo when they want to describe the total activity of proclamation (in the case of Luke, katangello also). But it may also be noted that kerysso is particularly used when the message of the rule of God as it has dawned in Christ, and of his resurrection, is proclaimed in a particular instance by angels (Luke 1:19; 2:10) or men (Luke 3:18; 9:6; Acts 5:42; 8:4 ff.) [Brown, 1978, p. 57].

4. Katangello

As in Col. 1:28, this word means “to announce. . . to proclaim far and wide” as also in Acts 13:5 where Paul announced the Word of God in the synagogue (Robertson, 1931, p. 485). The context indicates the nature of this announcing, as it was according to the manner in the synagogue. Acts 17:17 found Paul in Athens, reasoning (dialego) in the synagogue and in the marketplace (the agora). The synagogue provided Paul with an opportunity to engage in conversation with people gathered in the synagogue. That was the nature of interaction in the synagogue.
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Generally synagogues were

“Located in houses with the plan and facade of private homes”. . . Only from the third century in Palestine do typical patterns of construction for synagogues become widespread, and at the same time stunning artistic embellishments were widely represented (Chilton & Yamauchi, 2000, p. 1149).

“Just what part a formal sermon played [in the synagogue] is unknown.” However, “the traditional material of the Targum and the involved rabbinic commentaries of the Mikraoth Gedoloth must have originated as running commentaries and organized sermons once delivered in the synagogue.” We can say that the elevation of the clergy in leading liturgical forms of worship in the Christian tradition was not a part of the synagogue service, which “was led by the members of the congregation” (White Jr., 1976, p. 567).

5. Euangelizo / Euangelizomai,

This Greek verb means to “bring or announce good news” (Arndt & Gingrich, 1957, p. 317).

Content and process of preaching are one. They are not separated in thought (Rom. 1:1), apart from when they are set close alongside each other (1 Cor. 9:14, 18). For in the very act of proclamation its content becomes reality, and brings about the salvation which it contains. . . The action of proclamation is denoted not only by the verb euangelizomai (as e.g. in 1 Cor. 1:17), but also by euangelion used as a noun of action (Brown, 1976, p. 111).

6. What can we conclude?

Viola’s statement is that, “ironically, ‘the Book’ [Bible] knows nothing of a sermon” (p. 87, emphasis added)? The evidence from the above group of NT word studies (and it is not complete) related to the proclamation and teaching in the early church, is not as adamant as Viola’s position.

A wide range of verbs was used in the Greek NT to indicate the proclamation and teaching processes and events. There was a fluid use of terms. Therefore, from the exegetical evidence, I am convinced that Viola protesteth too much. There is every indication from this brief examination of some of the verbs used that something similar to the contemporary sermon could have been used. No verb for “preaching” or something similar, gained a clear dominance in the NT.

From a practical perspective, there is much value to be gained from teaching that involves dialogue for clarification and edification. However, such was not the exclusive use in the NT church.

B.  My issues with Viola

1. Not for academics

He warns that “this is not a work for scholars” (p. 18) and I agree, based on its style and lack of primary source referencing in places. Why should the author not call scholars to involvement in his conclusions, if he is addressing such serious unbiblical matters that are practised by many within the church today?

A critique by serious Bible teachers (scholars?) is needed to verify Viola’s penetrating claims. If his view can’t stand the heat of solid scholarship, it is too weak and subjective to pursue as a means of radical renewal. He may not consider himself a biblical scholar, but his subject matter has enormous ramifications for scholars with a thorough knowledge of the original languages of the Bible, historical and cultural studies for biblical background, but especially of NT studies. I hope that scholars investigate his many claims about the paganisation of Christianity.

2. Slack exegesis

If he is going to make such negative claims about the contemporary sermon, in comparison with the early church, he should do his word studies and an examination of context for NT teaching and proclamation. Exegetical work should form the foundation for his conclusions about the divergence between NT Christianity and today’s version of the sermon. My word studies above should show the shortsighted nature of his view on teaching and proclamation as exclusively related to dialogue.

3. His view on the gift of teaching

He considers that “teaching is to come from all the believers as well as from those who are specially gifted to teach” (pp. 91-92). He appeals to I Cor. 14:26, 31 to support this claim (n110, p. 92). I consider that a better statement would be, “Teaching can potentially come from all believers, if the Holy Spirit gifts permanently or for the occasion.”

In I Cor. 14:26, the reference is to Spirit-prompted teaching available to “each one.” However, I Cor. 14:31 refers to prophesy, not teaching. Viola overstates his case here by including 14:31. This is disappointing when one sees so many positive dimensions to this prophetic book.

 4. The Great Commission: command or prophecy?

blue-satin-arrow-small Viola’s claim that the Great Commission of Matt. 28: 19 is a prophecy and not a command (p. 292) needs investigation. Verse 19 begins with the Greek, poreuthentes, an aorist, plural participle, from poreuomai (I go). It is true, as Viola states, that this participle is not a command. However, the verb to which it is connected, “make disciples” (matheteusate) is an aorist imperative (command). Therefore, a translation such as “having gone, disciple!” (Lenski, 1943, p. 1172), or “having gone, make disciples” (Hendriksen,1973, p. 999) is possible, but “go” still has the force of a command. D. A. Carson explains:

In the Greek, “go” – like “baptizing” and “teaching” – is a participle. Only the verb “make disciples” is imperative. Some have deduced from this that Jesus’ commission is simply to make disciples “as we go” (i.e. wherever we are) and constitutes no basis for going somewhere special in order to serve as missionaries. . . There is something to this view, but it needs three careful qualifications.

1. When a participle functions as a circumstantial participle dependent on an imperative, it normally gains some imperative force (cf. Matt. 2:8, 13; 9:13; 11:4; 17:27)….

2. While it remains true to say that the main imperatival force rests with “make disciples,” not with “go,” in a context that demands that this ministry extend to “all nations,” it is difficult to believe that “go” has lost all imperatival force.

3. From the perspective of mission strategy, it is important to remember that the Great Commission is preserved in several complementary forms that, taken together, can only be circumvented by considerable exegetical ingenuity (e.g., Luke 24:45-49; John 20:21; Acts 1:8; cf. Matt. 4:19 10:16-20; 13:38; 24:14) [Carson, 1984, p. 595].

Hendriksen (1973, p. 999) agrees: “The participle as well as the verb that follows it can be – in the present case must be – interpreted as having imperative force. ‘Make disciples’ is by itself an imperative. It is a brisk command, an order.”

It is poor exegesis to call on Wuest’s expanded translation of the NT for support, “Having gone on your way . . .” (Viola, n30, p. 292) and announce that the Great Commission is a prophecy and not a command, without exegetical reasons. Wuest’s expanded translation of Matt. 28:19 reads: “Having gone on your way, therefore, teach all the nations, making them your pupils, baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (1961, p. 78).

This example in Viola shows imprecise and inadequate exegetical skills in addressing an important piece of Greek grammar. He could accuse me of being one from the traditional school (I am a graduate of a college and a seminary) who is more interested in the cerebral, academic, intellectual learning of the frontal lobe than the relational and the spirit (see Viola, p. 247). This is false. I am committed to “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, ESV) and that means careful exegesis.

 

C. What do I conclude?

This is a cutting edge expose of traditional evangelical and liberal church practice that ought to be read, assimilated and actioned by all people in the pew as well as church leaders. It is controversial in many parts, has problems with some exegesis of the biblical text, but he is calling the church back to its roots in first-century church function. If this is accepted as a substantive call to a biblical examine of the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology), it could be the beginning of a new Reformation in church function, a Reformation that did not happen for Martin Luther and the Reformer of the 16th century.

If you accept Viola’s analysis (and it has a lot going for it), what’s his advice? “Either leave your church quietly, refusing to cause division, or be at peace with it. There is a vast gulf between rebellion and taking a stand for what is true” (p. 26).

1.   Strengths of the book, Pagan Christianity

Here are some quick points of the strengths of this much-needed book:

3d-red-star-small  We have lost the Headship of Christ when the church gathers. Many people today would not have a clue about how to function with Christ as Head of the church when it gathers.

3d-red-star-small  Evangelicals claim that they do things according to the Word of God. They don’t! They have adopted some non-Christian perspectives in their doing of church.

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3d-red-star-small  Christ’s Body has lost most of its first-century functions, thanks to the professionalism of the church.

3d-red-star-small The CEO pastor is totally unbiblical and is a “thief of every-member functioning.” Every-member functioning must return.

3d-red-star-small The clergy/laity distinction is unbiblical.

3d-red-star-small  The church service today is shamefully boring in too many churches. We need to abandon Sunday ritual.

3d-red-star-small  Some of his complaints about today’s sermons are valid – they foster performance, muted spectators in the pew, and exalt the clergy.

3d-red-star-small  The church as a building is unbiblical. The benefits of the house church are many.

3d-red-star-small  Tithing is biblical, but not Christian, is an accurate assessment!

3d-red-star-small  We have moved from the NT meaning of baptism “as an act of faith and an expression of faith.” The NT emphasis is that baptism was an initial confession of faith and we have substituted that with the sinner’s prayer.

3d-red-star-small  The Lord’s Supper has been changed from its biblical meaning and practice.

3d-red-star-small  Christian education and ministerial training have been wrecked by the academic emphasis.

3d-red-star-small  Christ, the revolutionary, has been tamed to become Christ, the traditional.

3d-red-star-small  Cut-and-paste proof-texting of Scripture must go (Viola practises some of this himself, I believe).

3d-red-star-small  The call back to first-century styled church function in the house is authentic and biblical.

3d-red-star-small  The author’s “outrageous proposal: That the modern institutional church does not have a Biblical nor historical right to exist” (p. 18) has been established in a substantive way.

2.  Weaknesses of the book, Pagan Christianity

Suspect exegesis on some points (articulated above) causes me to be suspicious of whether he is doing a cut-and-paste (something which he detests) on the historical material that he associates with the pagan influence on church traditions. Has he found areas of legitimate concern in present church practice (e.g. the silence of everyday believers when the church gathers, the failure to acknowledge the Headship of Christ in the church meeting and the non-biblical CEO pastor) and pressed the point to arrive at his own presuppositional conclusions? This may not be the case. I would have to do more research on the individual areas he has raised, where the church has adopted pagan practices, to conclude if his concerns are authentic or biased towards his predisposed views.

His use of secondary sources is a worry. When quoting early church fathers such as Cyprian, Chrysostom, Ignatius, Augustine and others, why does he resort to quoting from recent authors, rather than quoting directly from the church fathers? Much of the material from the early church fathers is available on the Internet (see ‘Early Church Fathers‘. I consider it lazy when an author does not refer to primary sources so that I could check him out as to the context of the church fathers’ remarks.

While Viola’s book is not for scholars, its format is deficient in that an index was not provided. An index is needed for everyday Christians who need to refer back to important principles and teachings that the author is confronting.

V. Who is Frank Viola?

The book’s cover states that he “is a high school psychology and philosophy teacher. In his spare time, he plants house churches, speaks at church-life conferences, and authors books on Christ and His church.” Elsewhere, we learn that

Frank Viola left the institutional church at the age of 23. For the next eight years he experienced church life in a first-century styled house church in Tampa, Florida. Following this intense experience, he was sent out by the church to plant first-century styled churches in other areas. Frank presently co-works with Gene Edwards and is involved with five other men in Gene’s 3-year training (“Seedsowers” 2003).

His latest books are: So You Want to Start a House Church and Straight Talk to Elders (Present Testimony Ministry, 2003). Samples from his books, including Pagan Christianity, were found at: http://www.ptmin.org/articles.htm (cited, 12th November 2003).

Endnotes:

1a.  Distributed in Australia by:

W.A. Buchanan Co.
P.O. Box 469
37 Dalton Street
Kippa Ring, Queensland 4021
paul@wab.com.au

On 7 July 2015, the book in a revised edition was co-authored by Frank Viola and researcher, George Barna, and was available at: ‘Beyond Evangelical‘.

2. Viola correctly views exegesis as “an interpretation and explanation of a Biblical text” (n. 52, p. 83). Grudem (1994) agrees: “Exegesis is the process of interpreting a text of Scripture. Consequently, when one studies principles of interpretation, that is ‘hermeneutics, but when one applies those principles and begins actually explaining a biblical text, he or she is going ‘exegesis'” (p. 109).

For a book of approx. 200 pages that teaches the essentials of exegesis, I recommend Gordon Fee (1983, 1993). Fee defines exegesis “in a consciously limited sense” (for his text) as referring

to the historical investigation into the meaning of the biblical text. Exegesis, therefore, answers the question, What did the biblical author mean? It has to do both with what he said (the content itself) and why he said it at any given point (the literary context). Furthermore, exegesis is primarily concerned with intentionality: What did the author intend his original readers to understand? (Fee, 1983, p. 27)

Works consulted

 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (transl. of Walter Bauer), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition to Zondervan Publishing House), 1957.

Colin Brown (gen. ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (vol. 2). Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1976.

Colin Brown (gen. ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (vol. 3). Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978.

D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Frank E. Gaebelein (gen. ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (vol. 8). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Regency Reference Library (Zondervan Publishing House), 1984.

B. Chilton and E. Yamauchi, “Synagogues,” in Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (eds.), Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors (rev. ed.). Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1983, 1993.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press/Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973.

Gerhard Kittel (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. 2, transl. & ed., Geoffrey W. Bromiley). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964.

R. C. H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Hendrickson Publishers / Augsburg Publishing House, 1943.

A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (vol. 3, The Acts of the  Apostles). Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1930.

A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (vol. 4, The Epistles Paul). Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1931.

Seedsowers, 2003, retrieved from: http://www.seedsowers.com/authors/viola.html (13th Sept. 2003).

W. White, Jr., “Synagogue,” in Merrill C. Tenney (gen. ed.), The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (vol. 5). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976.

Kenneth S. Wuest, The New Testament: An Expanded Translation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961.

Copyright © 2007 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 8 October 2015.

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Something’s gone wrong with the contemporary evangelical church

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

(Os Guinness, photo courtesy www.osguinness.com)

A review of Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness

By Spencer D Gear

A Christian friend who is a musician said to my wife recently, “We sing no song in our church that is more than 2 years old.” The pastor of my church, at the traditional service, spoke of “silly old hymns.” This trend for relevance and debunking of our history and theology in song, is creating a new kind of evangelicalism that is far removed from biblical Christianity.

Once in a while a new book comes along with a prophetic edge in nailing what is wrong with the evangelical church. Os Guinness’s book (2003), is one of them. Guinness, a Brit now living in the USA, shows how the contemporary evangelical church, in its attempt to be relevant, has not only become irrelevant, but also has departed from historic Christianity.

In this short book (123 pp.), Guinness, a former associate of the late Francis Schaeffer and now Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum, Washington, D.C., attempts to answer a “disconcerting question”: “How on earth have we Christians become so irrelevant when we have tried hard to be relevant?” (p. 11)

What is happening to the church?

Evangelicals used to be known as “the serious people,” but “it is sad to note that today many evangelicals are the most superficial of religious believers—lightweight in thinking, gossamer-thin in theology, and avid proponents of spirituality-lite in terms of preaching and responses to life” (p. 77).

What has gone wrong? Guinness remembers his tutor at Oxford University, a prominent European scholar who made this statement in a social science seminar in the 1970s: “‘By the end of the 1970s,’ he asked, ‘who will be the worldliest Christians in America?’ There was an audible gasp when he eventually answered his own query: ‘I guarantee it will be the evangelicals and fundamentalists'” (p. 52). What has been the result? “The years since the prediction at that Oxford seminar have shown beyond question that evangelicals and fundamentalists have embraced the modern world with a passion unrivaled in history” (p. 53).

Without giving away all of the prophetic content of this book, Guinness names these things, amongst others, that are contributing to the demise of what was formerly the Bible-believing and Bible-practising churches.

1. Irrelevance. Church leaders are “solemnly presenting the faith in public in so many weak, trite, foolish, disastrous, and even disloyal ways as today” (p. 11). These disloyal ways include:

a. Faithfulness has been redefined “in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ” (p. 15).

b. “We have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant” (p. 15).

2. The tyrant of time. Filipinos say that “Westerners are people with gods on their wrists” and the Kenyans believe that “Westerners have watches but no time. Africans have time but no watches” (p. 28). This commitment to the clock leads to precision, co-ordination and pressure: “This manic speed is affecting our faith as much as our blood pressure” (p. 36).

3. The worldliness of the church. The church should be “against the world, for the world” (C. S. Lewis). This means that “all truth is God’s truth” (the best, good, true and beautiful can be supported wherever they are found) but “whatever law or practice [that] contradicts God’s law or principles must be confronted” (p. 50).

4. The faith-world of evangelicals is crumbling. In place of the biblical faith of John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Catherine Booth, Charles Spurgeon, Carl Henry, John Stott and others, is “a new evangelicalism” where “therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, end-times escapism crowds out day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, references to opinion polls out-weigh reliance on biblical exposition, concerns for power and relevance are more obvious than concern for piety and faithfulness, talk of reinventing the church has replaced prayer for revival, and the characteristic evangelical passion for missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture” (p. 54).

5. “But evangelicals are blind to the sea change because they know only the present and have little sense of history, even their own” (p. 54). Instead, evangelicals have rushed headlong into unfaithful adapting to the world through accepting the world’s assumptions, abandoning what does not fit these modern assumptions, adapting traditional beliefs and practices to fit the worldly way, and assimilating the world’s ways. “The result is worldliness, or Christian capitulation to some aspect of the culture of its day” (p. 62). The World Council of Churches in 1966 “adopted the bizarre dictum, ‘The world must set the agenda for the Church'” (p. 63). The evidence points to an evangelical church that also has bought into this world’s agenda: “For all the lofty recent statements on biblical authority, a great part of the evangelical community has made a historic shift. It has transferred authority from Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) to Sola Cultura (by culture alone)” (p. 65). In so doing, these evangelicals are recycling “the classic error of liberalism” and are courting “the worldliness, irrelevance, and spiritual adultery that it represents” (p. 66).

Guinness is convinced that these misguided approaches of history and theology among evangelicals and liberals “are a key part of the story of the loss of the West by the Christian church” (p. 66). What have these churches lost? Courage! Continuity! Credibility! Identity!

6. The siren call to captivity to worldly thinking involves conformity to the lure of others, the power of approval, and the seduction of timeliness. These evangelicals “put other gods before God” and choose “other gods beside God.” This is leading to “the loss of the Christian gospel in much of the Christian church in the West today” (p. 66).

That’s the bad news! Is there a way out?

There are solutions.

Guinness believes relevance is correct for the church as it “is at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus and is the secret of the church’s power down through history.” We have seen this in the witness “of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers, scientists, poets, painters, and reformers—Augustine, Dante, Pascal, Rembrandt, Newton, Wilberforce, and Dostoyevsky. Each of them was as faithful to Christ as he was fresh in his times” (p. 13).

The answers are found in

(1) the courage of “prophetic untimeliness” (a term he borrows from Nietzsche and shapes it with “the precedent of the Hebrew prophets”, p. 19); these people are not at home in the present age but belong elsewhere; and

(2) to develop the art of “resistance thinking,” a term from C. S. Lewis, which “is a way of thinking that balances the pursuit of relevance on the one hand with a tenacious awareness of those elements of the Christian message that don’t fit in with any contemporary age on the other” (p. 20).

The author warns that history teaches that “there is a clear link between each messenger’s perspective and each messenger’s pain.” For Christians to speak up about “the church’s deepening cultural captivity” will mean that their “prophetic untimeliness carries a clear cost” They will:

(1) Be “misfits in an ill-fitting world” (p. 86). They are maladjusted enough to know that something is seriously wrong with the church. They will march to the beat of “a different drummer” and will be like a C. S. Lewis who referred to himself as an “Old Western man”, a “dinosaur”, and a “Neanderthaler” (p. 87).

(2) Have “a sense of impatience.” Why? “When society becomes godless and the church corrupt, the forward purposes of God appear to be bogged down and obstructed, and the person who lives by faith feels the frustration” (p. 89). Their natural cry will be, “How long, O Lord?”

(3) Have “a sense of failure.” With the march of a godless society and the evidence of church corruption, “the prospects of good people succeeding are significantly dimmed and the temptation to feel a failure is ever present” (pp. 91-92).

Guinness suggests ways of “escaping cultural captivity” by “untimely people” with their “resistance thinking.” Among other things this will involve “the challenge of the difficult” with “a radical obedience.”

I especially liked Guinness’s emphasis on the church that loses its perspective on history and the eternal, as a loser: “Only the wisdom of the past can free us from the bondage of our fixation with the present and the future. . . . In [C. S.] Lewis’s words, ‘The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of history blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books'” (pp. 104-05). However, in the words of French philosopher, Simone Weil, “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal” (p. 105).

To redeem the time and to be prophetically untimely, Guinness believes that cultural “progressives will always prove stagnant while resistance thinkers will be fresh and creative” (p. 116).

What are you called to? To be a resistant thinker or a cultural absorber?

Gems from Guinness

“The place of the prophet as the one who speaks the word of the Lord is too important to give up, even with the threat of counterfeits” (p. 21).

“I have been in megachurches where there was no cross in the sanctuary and no Bible in the pulpit, and where the sermons refer more to the findings of Barna and Gallup than to those of the Bible and God” (p. 110).

“When was the last time a sermon ended and you just wanted to sit there and ponder what God had just said to you?” (p. 111).

“The fact is, 99 percent of what we know about the future is the past. Far better too the astuteness of Billy Graham who, when criticized for ‘setting the church back fifty years,’ answered that he was sorry he had not set it back two thousand years” (p. 116).

“Of all the cultures the church has lived in, the modern world is the most powerful, the most pervasive, and the most pressurizing. And it has done more damage to Christian integrity and effectiveness than all the persecutors of the church in history” (p. 51).

“In swapping psychology for theology in their preaching and enthroning management and marketing in their church administration, the evangelicals were making the same errors as liberals had earlier. Whatever the newly sharpened statements about biblical authority, the real authority of the Bible has been eclipsed in practice by the assumptions of the modern world” (p. 60).

“Without the decisive authority of the word of God that defined the true prophet, false prophets were simply captive to the culture they reflected. They were popular, they were entertaining, they were soothing, they were convenient, they were fashionable—and they were utterly false” (p. 63).

“What followers of Jesus need is the freedom from the forces of the modern world that prevent independent thinking and living with integrity” (p. 71).

Many years ago, Dean Inge of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, spoke what has become “the epitaph for many trendy church leaders, ‘He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.’ As with great art, faith that lasts is faith that answers to standards higher than today’s trends” (p. 78).

“Our ‘failures’ may be [God’s] success. Our ‘setbacks’ may prove his turning points. Our ‘disasters’ may turn out to be his triumphs. What matters for us is that his gifts are our calling” (p. 94).

“What, for instance, would John Wesley or Charles Haddon Spurgeon have made of evangelicals who read their horoscope as well as their Bible? How would Jonathan Edwards and D. L. Moody have responded to evangelicals who believe in reincarnation as well as the resurrection?” (p. 98).

“C. S. Lewis counseled, ‘It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between'” (p. 104).

Questions about his view

There are very few areas of this book with which I disagree. I consider the diagnosis and remedy have hit the mark. The book is brief but punchy!

While referring to Old Testament and New Testament examples of people who challenged the status quo, this book is not a profound exposition of the Scriptures but is an example of the need for and practice of cultural apologetics – a defense of the faith that addresses the cultural challenges, biblically. It is an insightful assessment of how the evangelical church’s popularisers have bought into cultural values of the “emerging church,” the “seeker sensitive church,” “the doing church.” the “intentional” and “on-purpose” church (p. 64). This has led to a demise in biblical Christianity in such churches.

As a minor point of discomfort, I question Guinness’s use of a person such as Friedrich Nietzsche, German atheistic professor of philosophy in the 19th century, who called himself “the Anti-Christ,” as an example to follow in some areas. How could Nietzsche’s world and life view provide some illumination on Guinness’s thesis about the worldliness of the church today? Perhaps this is Guinness’s way of showing how “world-denying” and “world-affirming” (“all truth is God’s truth”) views need to be happening in a healthy, biblical church! However the author is clear on the antidote: “It only takes the real Word to speak to wake up the church and the world” (p. 109).

There is a possibility that his support of the C. S. Lewis dictum, “against the world, for the world,” may seem to promote integrationism, like psychology’s amalgamation of secular philosophies with the Word of God.

“How long, O Lord?” will it be until You descend on a decadent church and provide a heaven-sent revival of orthodox, biblical Christianity, empowered by the authentic Holy Spirit’s ministry?

Also recommended

There’s a popular-level book that provides a parallel emphasis to Guinness’s articulate assessment. This provocative piece of “resistance thinking” shows where the evangelical church is going: Gary E. Gilley, This Little Church Went to Market (2005). Tim Challies wrote of Gilley’s book: “He concludes that churches built on seeker sensitive model will be built on the wrong foundation, will teach the wrong message, will focus on the wrong need and will misunderstand preaching and worship. In other words, these churches will bear little resemblance to a New Testament, Christian church.”

References

Gary E. Gilley 2005, This Little Church Went to Market: Is the Modern Church Reaching Out or Selling Out?, Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, UK.

Os Guinness 2003, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear.This document last updated at Date: 20 May 2016.

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