I am about to review a book I have never read.
I am going to read it as soon as it arrives from Amazon, but the purpose of the review is not to deal with the actual contents of the book (which I am fairly certain I already know, since the authors involved have made their positions clear in other books). My purpose is to deal with their central theme, which is well known. And I want to comment on why that theme shows up in nasty places right before those places became nasty.
The book is called “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola and George Barna. Viola may not be a common name to the average Christian, but pastors and church leaders have been reading his works for years. He is one of the world’s strongest advocates for the House Church movement. He is also a “New Testament Scholar” and prefers to encase all of his theories in his particular views on what New Testament Christianity really is (was). Barna, until recently, is most famous for being the Christian equivalent of Gallup and his polls. Barna’s organization (the Barna Group) studied every trend within Christianity they could get their statistical hands on. In fact, they are credited with studying more trends than they actually did. Too many preachers and teachers like to throw the “B” word into a sermon (i.e. Barna) to lend their own theories credibility. Last year, in this blog, I exposed one such “statistic” as fraudulent. The preacher was quoting Barna as saying that 50% of all Pastoral marriages are ending in divorce. Barna had never researched this (according to my documentation last year), but was credited with it nonetheless.
Lately, Barna has left the research business to spend time on his soapbox. He has every right to do so, for he has observed North American Christianity for several decades and personally found it deficient in many respects. In his book “Revolution”, he sticks it to the organized church and announces he is firmly on the side of the unorganized, House Church movement. I assume this is how he and Viola got teamed up.
Now for my review. What Viola and Barna are going to say is that the modern organized church, lead by pastors, owes more to pagan roots than the Bible. The key to that statement is the phrase “lead by pastors”. Viola sees very little New Testament support for the pastor and says that our modern iteration of pastorally-lead churches comes out of the pagan influences of Greece, Rome and the Germanic Empires of the Dark Ages rather than true and unadulterated biblical Truth. Therefore, we should all leave the modern organized church and join loosely structured communities of believers, such as House Churches. He will use some significant Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 14 to suggest that there is a given New Testament structure for what the church should look like. He will also advocate a Plurality of Leadership model where no one person is allowed to be in charge. Barna will give weight to these theories by explaining that the Pastor-lead model of the church has created unnecessary hardships to people, done damage to the Priesthood of all believers and prevented people from realizing the calling that every individual in Christ has.
My review amounts to this: It’s a well-intentioned load of crap.
Now, here is my explanation of that very succinctly stated conclusion. First, there is no New Testament vision or structure for the Church. Sure, the 1 Corinthians 14 passage seems to suggest a free-for-all small gathering of believers, each one commissioned with the role of adding to the overall content of the meeting. (And I would note that even in that passage there are guidelines to follow and recognized leadership roles that suggest a hierarchy). But then we look at a passage like Acts 15 where a Council at Jerusalem is telling the Gentile church that they need to avoid meat that is killed by strangling. They impose Kosher rules on non-jewish Christians. And they expect their pronouncement to be obeyed. They send it with Paul and Barnabas, whom it is assumed carry their authority. This is a Presbyterian form of Government. Then in the letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul gives them instructions about how to lay out the structure of the church. They appoint people. They make unilateral decisions. They tell people the will of the Lord as it was communicated through Paul. That suggests an Episcopal/Pastoral form of Government.
I could go on and on. There are so many different types of structure in the New Testament that it is ludicrous to suggest that there is one structure we are to follow. And who says that the structure needs to be contained in Scripture to be biblical. Perhaps God wants the structure of the Church to reflect the culture it is in. An Asian church will respect elders. An American church will want to vote on everything. An African church will focus on the Evangelist and the Healing gifts. The South American Church will demand strong leaders. Each of these is what we have now, and each is a reflection of the general culture. I don’t think that makes them unbiblical.
Today’s pastor is not the pastor of the New Testament. Today’s pastor often plays the various roles of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor and Teacher. I would love to just be a New Testament pastor. But we have not raised up the other callings enough in local churches (though we are trying here at Gateway). We just use the term “Pastor” as shorthand for “Leader of the Pack”.
Now for the nasty part. In church history, the concept of the House Church and the criticism of the organized church takes two forms. The first is good. During times of Religious Persecution (where everyone is required to be part of one national church) the House Church movement is a protest, both effective and necessary. Someone needs to stand against tyranny. But the second place the resistance movement shows up is a precursor to pre-cult formations. For instance, many people respect and revere the books of Watchman Nee This Chinese saint and sage wrote many of the finest books on Christian Living we possess. But later in his life, he preached against the organized church. At the same time, he also denied the Trinity doctrine (Note: Witness Lee has now inherited the Watchman Nee cult group that arose in China and Asia as a House Church movement during Nee’s life). During the same century, one of Christianity’s most profound Healers – William Branham – was used to bring healing to tens of thousands. But he also began to teach against the organized church and against the Trinity. Throughout history, almost every movement that breaks away to fight any organized church also embraces the Unity view of God. And almost always this results in the formation of cults which are much more hierarchical than the system they taught against. Ask any Branhamite or Witness Lee follower and you will see this is true.
Why is that? God has always been about establishing authority. Even within the Trinity, there is a person of the Godhead in charge: the Father. The way God wired us, if a leader is not designated, the strongest person becomes the leader. This is always true. Look at any group of people. If someone is not named as the leader, the one who has the strongest personality is always the one who heads the group. And when that person makes a mistake, the only recourse is rebellion. This is why God designates leaders in churches. Then when they mess up, God can correct them or remove them. God can use groups of people to do that also (as in the American Tradition) or can use Bishops to do it (as in the European Tradition).
As Churchill said about democracy, the current church system may be the most messed up – except for all the other ones that have been tried from time to time. As for Viola and Barna, here is their value. They point out the glaring weaknesses of today’s church. We really need to raise up more leaders and use more accurate titles for them. Not all pastors are pastors. That needs to be recognized.