Pagan Christianity

paganchristianity“Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola and George Barna is an interesting read. I read it a few months ago, and quite honestly, I’ve been wrestling with it ever since. I haven’t blogged or posted anything, ’cause I simply don’t know what to think.

The book is written to describe the origins of many of our church traditions. By the title, you’d accurately presume that most of our traditions are heavily influenced or even completely based upon Pagan practices. This is true. The authors make a strong case and truly have their “ducks in a row” in regards to documenting these things. Here’s the problem though – just because something has it’s origin outside of the church, doesn’t make it wrong or even unbiblical. For me, these ideas expressed in Pagan Christianity, have helped me to consider and think about what practices are truly “necessary” according to the Scriptures. Acts 2:42-47 describes the things the early church concerned themselves with:

Teaching/Learning, Fellowship, Breaking of the Bread, Prayer, Filled with awe by signs and wonders (by God), Shared with one another and took care of each other, were intentional about being together, Praised God

Now, somewhere along the road, the church became much more and people began to focus on other things. Some of those things have benefited the church over the years, but that doesn’t mean they are necessary. The message of the Gospel will never change, however, the methods must change with culture.



Below is a list of the origins of many of our quote/unquote “Christian” traditions as described in the book. The authors give much more detail and do a very thorough job, but this is just a basic list. There’s a lot here so you might just want to “skim” it.

1. The church building – was first constructed under Constantine in AD 327. They were patterned after Roman basilicas/Greek temples. Before that, Christians met in homes, community centers, and Jewish temples.

2. Sacred space – was a borrowed idea from pagans in the 2nd-3rd centuries. Burial places of martyrs was considered “sacred” and when churches were built above these cemeteries – they became “sacred” too. Sacred space for the Christian is everywhere since the Holy Spirit resides in us.

3. The Pastor’s chair – came from the cathedra, which was the Bishop’s chair or throne. It replaced the seat of the judge in the Roman basilica.

4. Tax-Exempt status – came in AD313 for clergy and 323 for churches with Constantine. Pagan priests had enjoyed this privilege prior to that.

5. Stained-Glass windows – were first introduced to the church between 1081-1151 AD.

6. Gothic Cathedrals – were built according to the philosophy of Plato in the 12th century.

7. Steeples – are rooted in ancient Babylonian and Egyptian architecture and were popularized in London around 1666.

8. Pulpits – came from the Greek “ambo” which was used to deliver monologues. They arrived in churches as early as AD 250.

9. Pews – evolved between 13-18th centuries in England. (Participants became spectators.)

10. Order of Worship – Evolved from Gregory’s Mass in the 6th century and revisions were made by Luther, Calvin, Methodists, etc. Early church meetings  were marked by spontaneity, freedom, every-member functioning, and open participation.

11. Centrality of the Sermon – Martin Luther in 1523.

12. Candles – were used in Roman ceremonial courts in the 4th century and made their way into the church at the same time.

13. Lord’s supper taken quarterly – was practiced first in the 16th century under Zwingly. He also introduced the communion table.

14. Congregation standing and sitting when clergy enters/exits – borrowed practice from Roman emperors in the 4th century – brought to church by John Calvin.

15. Somber attitudes – were practiced by John Calvin and Martin Bucer based upon the medieval view of piety.

16. Guilt/Condemnation for missing a Sunday – came with the 17th century New England Puritans.

17. Long Pastoral Prayer before the Sermon – 17th Century Puritans

18. Altar Calls – were instituted by 17th century Methodists and popularized by Charles Finney.

19. Church Bulletins (and written liturgy) – came to the church with Albert Blake Dick’s stencil duplicating machine in 1884.

20. Solo hymns, Door-to-door witnessing, and Evangelism Campaigns – were started with D.L. Moody (1837-1899)

21. Decision cards – were introduced by Absalom Earle and popularized by D.L. Moody.

22. Bowed heads, eyes closed, raise your hand to respond to the Gospel – was first done by Billy Graham in the 20th century.

23. Solo/Choral music during the Offering – 20th century Pentecostals.

24. Sermons – were borrowed from the Greek sophists. John Chrysostom and Augustine popularized the Greco-Roman homily and made it a central part of Christian churches.

25. Long sermons, notes, sermon outlines – 17th century Puritans

26. Pastors (as an office) – did not exist until Ignatius of Antioch in the early 2nd century. They didn’t prevail in most churches until the 3rd century.

27. The Clergy/Laity split – didn’t occur until 100AD with the writing of Clement of Rome. By the 3rd century, Christian leaders were universally called clergy. Prior to this, clergy and laity were equal in standing/reputation/etc.

28. Ordination – evolved between the 2nd and 4th centuries and was based upon the Roman custom of appointing men to civil office.

29. The title “Pastor” – wasn’t popular until the 18th century under the influence of Lutheran Pietists.

30. Wearing your “Sunday Best” – began in the late 18th century with the industrial revolution. The emerging middle class sought to be like their wealthy contemporaries.

31. Clergy attire – began in AD 330 and was based upon Roman officials garb.

32. The Clerical collar – was invented by Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod of Glasgow in 1865.

33. Choirs – were first introduced in the church in the 4th century as Christians copied the idea from Greek dramas and temples.

34. Boys choirs – were also borrowed from pagans in the 4th century.

35. Funeral processions and Orations – were borrowed from Greco-Roman paganism in the 3rd century.

36. Worship Team – was first used in Calvary Chapel in 1965 and was patterned after secular rock concerts.

37. Tithing – was not a widespread practice until the late 18th century. The tithe was taken from the 10 percent rent charge used in the Roman empire and then justified using the Old Testament.

38. Clergy salaries – were instituted by Constantine in the 4th century.

39. Collection plates – can be traced to the alms dishes of the 14th century. “Passing” the plate began in 1662.

40. Ushers – can be traced back to the 3rd century as a “church porter,” but truly began with Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

41. Infant Baptism – was brought into the Christian faith in the late 2nd century due to the superstitious beliefs of teh Greco-Roman culture. By the 5th century, it replaced adult baptism.

42. Sprinkling replaced Immersion – began in the late Middle Ages in Western churches.

43. The “Sinner’s Prayer” – was first used by D.L. Moody and popularized by Billy Graham’s Peace with God tract and Campus Crusade’s Four Spiritual Laws.

44. The term “Personal Savior” – spawned in the mid-1800s by the Frontier-Revivalist influence and was popularized by Charles Fuller (1887-1968).

45. Lord’s Supper – was condensed from a full meal to just bread and a cup in the late 2nd century as a result of pagan ritual influences.

46. Sunday School – was created by Robert Raikes from Britain in 1780 in order to educate poor street children. They were not given religious instruction, but a basic education.

47. Youth Pastors – developed in urban churches in 1930s-40s as a result of seeking to meet the needs of a new sociological class called “teenagers.”



Now, that’s a lot to take in. Viola and Barna (the authors) are very intentional about saying that just because these traditions are not rooted in Scripture, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice them. For me at least, they do however, raise the question, “What are the practices which are necessary in our culture?” And what would a church look like if it focused only on those things deemed necessary? If a church wants to focus on “teaching/learning” as the Bible describes, what is the best way to do so? In years past, Sunday School was the answer, but what about today? What avenue is best in our culture?

What about a building? Could a church function and be healthy without a building? The answer is absolutely “Yes!” It did quite well without a building for it’s first 300 years. But in our culture, a building is just assumed. Could a church actually be more healthy without a building? What provisions would need to be made? What else would need to happen to function without a building?

Anyway, as you can see, these ideas and their implications are huge. I haven’t gotten it all processed out, and probably won’t for a while. I just wanted to share some of it here and see if you guys have other ideas or thoughts. Please respond. I’d love to know what everybody else thinks.

4 Replies to “Pagan Christianity”

  1. Well, I can understand some of this stuff, but a lot of the items in that list just aren’t practiced by most churches, or they’re specific to only certain denominations….or were at one time and have died off.

    Others in the list seem to just be “changes” with no link to anything pagan. A lot of the simple “changes” are changes going back to the way something might have been done in the early church.

    #26 seems to be flat wrong. They didn’t call them “pastors,” but the bible specifically talks about the office and refers to them as the “overseers.” It also talks about the office of deacon/elder at the same time. Timothy was one, for instance, and that was WAY before the 3rd century.

    But yeah, I can see why you might struggle with the concept of this book. I think if a person has doubts about any “tradition,” it should be weighed in light of the Bible. If it doesn’t seem Biblical, it’s either wrong or unnecessary. I do think the church (globally, as a whole) is in a transition time of moving away from useless/human traditions and focusing more on the church as it was designed to function.

  2. Ryan,
    You’re absolutely right! Many of these “changes” were simply made as people tried to take the Gospel to their generation.

    In regards to #26 – I probably should have explained it a bit more. You’re right – the offices of deacon/elder were instituted by the Scriptures. The book is actually referring to the modern practice of “Sr. Pastor” which (the authors argue) originated with Ignatius’ “One Bishop Rule.” They seem concerned about the power given to a human. Biblically, we see a group of deacons/elders which provides for accountability. Many modern church structures lack this provision.

    Thanks for the feedback – I enjoy the interaction and appreciate your input. The specific clarification on #26 was definitely needed too.

  3. Hey Steve… thanks for posting this. I’d like to read this. I’d also enjoy sitting and talking about some of these points. We’re asking some of these questions, including the building question.

    As for a few of them, to say that these aren’t rooted in biblical practice seems to be a bit of a stretch.

    #27 – Although there was no difference in standing… there’s definitely a sense of those who are leaders and those who are not. Heb 13 — “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” That sounds like a separation of duty to me. They lead… you submit.

    #38 – Sure, i guess Constantine might have introduced, “salaries”… but even Paul was telling Timothy that elders (pastors) should be compensated for their teaching and preaching. 1 Tim. 5:17 — “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”

    #11 – And sure, maybe the sermons in the bible weren’t quite as polished as the ones Luther made so central, but Peter and Stephen delivered some mammoth sermons in Acts. There’s definitely a movement today to negate the presence of preaching (and sermons) in the bible… but it’s hard to read Acts and not get blown away by the sermons delivered.

    Thanks again for the post… and congrats on the NEW BABY GIRL!!! I’m looking forward to catching up soon. I’d love to sit over lunch or coffee and talk about some of these things.

  4. Kevin,
    Sorry, I’ve taken so long to respond. We’ve been a bit busy with Kesleigh’s birth. I know you understand.

    Anyway, I appreciate your input. I think these are some of the greatest questions we could be asking as church leaders. I’d also love to sit down and discuss some of this (or just sit down and hang out with you with no real agenda – I miss you man.)

    Before I respond to the specific things you brought up, let me be clear – I don’t know what I think of all of this either – I’m wrestling with it in much the same way as you – I’m simply trying to accurately report the things that these authors (George Barna and Frank Viola) have said. I would recommend that you pick up the book and check it out yourself – understanding the context of how thee things are said makes a difference.

    #27 – Clergy/Laity split – There is no question that the earliest Christians had an understanding of leadership as a function, but not necessarily as an office. The authors seem to be speaking more specifically about what they call the Christian hierarchy (Bishop over Presbyter over Deacon over Laymen). They also describe how the itinerant apostolic workers (like Paul) were replaced by local successors. Then Ignatius of Antioch elevated one of the elders in each church to the office of bishop. Ignatius is quoted saying, “Plainly therefore we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself. . .It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love feast.” This bishop became the main administrator and distributor of the church’s wealth and the man responsible for teaching the faith.

    The author’s object to the fact that under this type of rule with all the power/responsibility placed in the pastor, the church body is rendered inactive and passive. “God’s people merely watched the bishop perform.”

    #38 – Clergy Salaries – Speaking as a salaried church worker, I think you’ve got a great point with the 1 Tim 5:17 passage. However, it also seems clear that most early church leaders were bi-vocational. Acts 20:33-35 is a great example. The authors of the book suggest that most were unpaid and unofficial early on simply because they were being persecuted. The “honor” was given like a modern honorarium for specific things. When Constantine made it legal – the professional pastor with a building and salary was officially born. They also say that since 1 Tim 3:7 says that elders were to be well thought of in the community, it is likely that they held regular jobs too. There are a couple of really great advantages to bi-vocational pastors too – 1. He cannot be manipulated by finances and will be more free to do what God has called him to do. 2. It keeps him “in the world” a bit more than most Pastors are and allows him to stay in touch with the reality of culture without being stuck in the never-ending cycle of church culture.

    It is also interesting to note that the custom of Jewish rabbis was to take up a trade so as not to charge a fee for their teaching. The new Christians would have Jewish mind-set that typically followed this example. It wasn’t until the rise of the Greek (paid) orators and the fact that many of them were becoming Christians that their practices came into the church. (This also influenced the centrality of the sermon.)

    #11 – Centrality of the Sermon – I’ll quote a few lines from the book here:
    “So central is the sermon that it is the very reason many Christians go to church. . . .the contemporary Christian mind-set often equates the sermon with Sunday morning worship.”

    The authors describe the modern sermon as typically having 4 features:
    1. A regular occurrence – delivered faithfully from the pulpit at least once a week
    2. Delivered by the same person – most typically the pastor or an ordained guest speaker
    3. Delivered to a passive audience – essentially it is a monologue
    4. It is a cultivated form of speech – possessing a specific structure – typically intro, 3-5 points, and conclusion.

    They assert that Biblical preaching simply didn’t look like this.
    1. It was sporadic.
    2. They were delivered on special occasions in order to deal with specific problems.
    3. They were extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure.
    4. They were most often dialogical (audience participation)

    The Greek/Roman came to have “an insatiable appetite for hearing someone give an eloquent oration. This was so fashionable that a “sermonette” from a professional philosopher after dinner was a regular form of entertainment. The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed rhetoric as one of the greatest forms of art.”

    Many of the “church fathers” including Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, Lactantius, and Augustine were pagan orators/philosophers before becoming Christians. They simply brought the contemporary culture with them into their new faith and used it to reach others for the cause of Christ.

    In all of these questions, the authors seem most concerned, not by the presence of sermons today, but by their over bearing nature. Their main emphasis seems to be one of the church as a place for every member to function. The open meetings became full of liturgy when only the “ordained” could participate. The discussion/teaching time of the early church, became a one-way preaching/sermon time. The functions that laity once participated became functions which required an elder or ordination. The body suffers.

    Anyway, I probably got a little off track in this response, but I was hoping to convey the main ideas in the book.

    By the way, the “mammoth” sermons you refer to in Acts aren’t near as long as most sermons today.

    OK – I hope I did an adequate job here. Again Kevin, I’m not sure where I personally stand with all of this – I just looked over the book and tried to give you the answers that I think the authors would give.

    You really should pick up the book yourself so you can read and reread sections, wrestling with it all. That’s what I’ve been doing since I got it – and even though it’s a bit difficult, it’s still kinda fun to wrestle with if you’re a weirdo like me. (I hate to say it Kevin – but I think you’re a weirdo too.)

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