Now I’ve Read the Entire Book – Pagan Christianity

March 13, 2008

After reading every word of PC, I feel a little better that my pre-review was pretty accurate. That also bothers me because it means that Viola and Barna are getting type-cast and predictable.

By way of background, there are a few things you need to know about the book. It doesn’t just attack the role of the pastor, but almost everything about today’s church. It attacks instruments in the service, worship services themselves, youth pastors, most contemporary ministry, charismatic churches, all clergy, all tithing, all contemporary study of the Bible, all Bible college, seminary and monastic education and practices. It even says that dressing nicely on Sunday is unbiblical. Wow! That’s quite a list. Add to that their attacks on Sunday School, Communion, Baptism, teaching, public prayers, layout of the Bible, any logic whatsoever in a lecture, breathing, happiness and apple pie (I made those last three up…I was on a roll), and you can see that Viola and Barna really don’t like anything to do with today’s church. It is 300 pages of why today’s church is wrong and needs to disappear and allow the Organic Church (unorganized, no leaders, no money, no influence etc.) to take its place.

Primarily, this is a book of inconsistencies. Because of these ones in particular, he has little credibility:

1. Viola and Barna Can’t Live What they Preach: They teach that no one should make a living off of the body of Christ. But Viola makes a living off of his books and lectures…to the Body of Christ! And no one is given more money from Christians these days than the Barna Group. They would counter that they don’t pressure people to give them money…they offer something for their services. So does today’s pastor and youth director and counselor. Viola castigates anyone who calls themselves a spiritual “expert”. But his biography in the back of the book says that he is the “nationally recognized expert in new trends in the church”. They say that the church is unbiblical because all it cares about is marketing and image. But I find this curious. I’ve been saying that for years; but one of the books given to me to counter that notion was a volume titled “Marketing the Church”…by George Barna!!! In Pagan Christianity, he fails to mention that title in his resume. Viola also sees higher education as an impediment to true Christianity, but he himself has a college degree and makes mention of it on his website.

2. Overdependence on One Chapter: Viola is actually the writer of the book…Barna only adds his name to it and a short introduction. The book actually came out in 2002, but sold sporadically. Barna has now “seen the light” and wanted it to be more prominent, so he added his name to it. Notice that it took an individual leader with credibility and stature to give the book prominence. I thought they were against leaders. Oh sorry…they are just against leaders they don’t like. Back to my point…they emphasize in many places that today’s pastor takes Bible truths out of context and preaches their favorite soapboxes. Yet, most of the structure for the church they emphasize comes out of 12 verses in 1 Corinthians 14! They say that the existence of the pastor is negated because it is only found in Ephesians 4, yet they make much of a House church worship structure that is really only mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14. Inconsistent.

3. Reliance on Verses, not context: Viola criticizes today’s church for reliance on chapter and verse designations (that are admittedly a Middle Ages creation). But everywhere in the book, he uses chapter and verse designations. Not only that, but his treatment of most bible passages in his book lacks any explanation of the historical context whatsoever. And even though Viola seeks to give historical perspective on almost every practice in the church, he completely glosses over several key passages of Scripture and gives no background of the church to which it was written (the most egregious example is Ephesians 4…which he attacks for poor exegesis, but he gives no historical background to the Ephesian church).

4. Use of the Old Testament: Viola has a dual way of dealing with the Old Testament. If an Old testament practice is still being used in the church, he admits it is biblical, but then says it is not Christian. He defines Christian as something written about in the New Testament. But the early Christians, who only had the Old Testament, would hardly agree with him. But, when the post-new testament era church added something to the practice of the Body which diverges from the Old Testament, he says it is not biblical but pagan. By doing this, he eliminates everything he doesn’t like or agree with.

5. Preaching from the Choir: Not that Viola accepts the legitimacy of choirs, but he sure does a lot of preaching from them. In his hundreds of footnotes, the vast majority are from those who already agree with his stance on the house church movement. He tries to overpower the reader with quotations, but many of them are from the same sources. These sources are not necessarily recognized historical scholars, but rather modern apologists for an unorganized church. When he does quote historians such as Will Durant, he uses some of their pithiest slogans and little of their research.

6. Out of Context: He hates when preachers take the Scriptures out of context, but he does it with several of the most famous people he quotes as support. His favorites are F. F. Bruce, Karl Barth and A. W. Tozer. These three men (all Seminary-trained theologians btw….something Viola can’t stand), are quoted as supporting Viola’s argument against a modern pastorate. Yet, when I looked up several of the passages he mentions, none of the men are saying that we should eliminate the pastorate. If Viola could find one credible, non-house church writer that agrees with his stance, it might hold more water.

7. Overemphasis on Catholics: Viola…there was a Protestant Reformation; Remember? Many, if not most of his criticisms in the book are leveled against Roman Catholic practices. Though I think he is overly harsh with some things, I recognize his point. But so does the entire Protestant world! When he says that Luther, Zwingli, Bucer and Calvin did not go far enough with their reforms, few Evangelicals will disagree with him. But in this book, you would think that no churches have improved upon the early days of the Reformation. For instance, I haven’t heard a 3-point Hegelian sermon in a decade. I haven’t seen a pastor in a boxed-in pulpit in 30 years. Yet, he makes a great case to eliminate both. Wake up Viola…have you been to a church lately? Many of them meet in schools, warehouses and on beaches. Most church members wear jeans to church instead of sunday clothes. The fact that he lives in the South probably clouds his vision.

8. Behind the Times: To be fair to Viola, some of the things he says are very good and ought to be changed. But the time to say them was 40 years ago. Today we have spontaneous singing in church. Today we have people in congregations writing new songs. Today, we have meetings where everyone brings a teaching or a prayer or a prophetic word. Has he not heard of the Emerging church or the Charismatic church or the Cell church or the Third Wave movements? Many of his proposals were being brought forward by Gene Getz, David Mains and Ray Stedman a quarter of a century ago. Ralph Neighbor talked about these views of the Scripture eons ago. There is nothing new about his viewpoints on the Bible, preaching, worship and ministry.

In short, I could give a dozen book recommendations that would be more helpful and more accurate than this one.



  1. And today we have legions of Christians feeling like there is something wrong with the church. They can’t clearly identify the problem, but something doesn’t feel right. Perhaps something is missing, or maybe there are too many programs and fads in church.

    On the other hand, there are legions who see nothing wrong with the church. They are happy with things the way they are. They are cultural Christians; as long as the church resembles other contemporary institutions, they feel comfortable.

    The positions of Barna and Viola do not surprise me. A bit over the top, maybe, but not surprising.

    I have an idea what I think the problem is, but I will keep it to myself for now; it needs more prayer and searching through the Bible.

  2. Anon: I agree with you that a big change is in store for the church. I don’t think that Viola is completely wrong about some of the things that need to change. I agree with you that they are on the right track concerning the problems but not necessarily the solutions.

  3. The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at http://www.ReimaginingChurch.org. It’s also available on Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://frankviola.wordpress.com/

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