“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.
I just wanted to let everybody know about a new resource for small groups. Smallgroupexchange.com launched earlier this month and has tons of helpful materials. If you’re not too sure about something, they’ve got articles to help. There are also plenty of ideas and materials you can purchase (with reviews) to guide your study. They even have free training videos for small group leaders.
The smallgroupexchange folks have also asked me to do some writing/reviewing for their site. Wow! What an honor. You can check out my small group exchange bio here or one of my articles (What should we Study? & Leadership is Service). While you’re there, you should check out Heather Zempel’s articles. She’s a great writer and small group guru who has been a family friend to Miranda for her whole life. She’s quickly become my friend too. She also has a great blog called Wineskins for Discipleship.