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Pagan Christianity?

Written by Jordan Peacock : July 1, 2008

If the title or contents of Pagan Christianity? provoked or offended you, than it’s purpose was half accomplished. While far from inflammatory, it’s writing style can come off as melodramatic and over-the-top. This is deliberate. Frank Viola and George Barna have concerns over many modern and traditional church practices, and they want you to take the concerns seriously as they discuss the benefits and hindrances of everything from church buildings and paid staff, to sermons and tithing, to methods of worship, baptism and communion. Steeped as we are, however, in the traditions as given us, a firm shake may be needed for us to realize the questions actually need answering.

This book goes to great lengths to show that each aspect of the Christian religion covered is without sound Scriptural basis, at least in it’s most common forms found today. The intent is not to utterly these elements and practices from present Christianity, but rather for individual Christians to read the book, and come to terms whether, for example, the sermon as it has come to us adds or detracts from the faith, without conflating it with a perceived spiritual mandate.

A valid concern is that this book is too focused on the early church (first century or two after Christ) and on house churches that retain the open and egalitarian nature of the early church. Again, while this is definitely looked toward with preference against much of the accumulated traditions that have arisen since, there is also the understanding that we are not to merely mimic the early church.

Therefore, adhering to the principles of the New Testament does not mean reenacting the events of of the first-century church.

Finally, a call is made for discernment. Even today we bring our own culture’s perspective, assumptions and worldview to the faith.

But in the light of tradition we need to sort out those cultural influences that contribute to the integrity of Christian worship from those that detract from it.

Many of the practices discussed have strange and convoluted histories. An example would be tithing, a practice that shows up a few places:

  1. Abraham - voluntarily gives 10% of his spoils after a battle. There is no indication whether this was or was not a common practice, but the modern equivalent here would be winning the lottery.
  2. Ancient Judiasm - had several mandatory tithes, totally ~24% of one’s wealth. This paid for the temple and the Levites (who did not own land) as well as for national festivals and the poor. With the superseding of the temple in Christ, these tithes stopped as well.
  3. Tithes were not resumed until 300 years after Christ (in a few locations) and generally throughout Christendom 800 years after Christ. Actually, they weren’t tithes, they were taxes. In feudal Europe, the rough tax for peasants paying their lords were ~10%; when the Roman Catholic Church bought out these properties, the taxes (rebranded as tithes) were due the church.

At no point does any of this negate the constant call for giving; joyfully, sacrificially, and in faith. Nevertheless, the concept of a ‘tithe principal’ in Christianity is dubious at best, and instituted as a financial crutch for the institutional church more than as a spiritual practice.

These are the types of explorations that take place in Pagan Christianity? The answers are not always clear, and they are deliberately left largely to the reader. The intent of the book is to pose the questions, to knock the reader upside the head firmly enough that they have to consider where and how to balance themselves.

In addition, the book is brief in many of it’s historical explorations, but the research has been done. For those interested in a deeper read, the footnotes in the back of the book can launch a broad and deep journey into the bowels of church history.

*** Recommended for those willing to change and be changed.

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.


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Comments

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    Just a note:

    Therefore, adhering to the principles of the New Testament does not mean reenacting the events of of the first-century church.

    and

    But in the light of tradition we need to sort out those cultural influences that contribute to the integrity of Christian worship from those that detract from it.

    are quotes from the book and should be treated as such. Thanks Mark :)
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    A review of the book from Ben Witherington (a NT scholar) calls into question whether good research has really been done. From his perspective there seems to be a lot of reliance on sources that agree with them, and an almost total ignorance of sources that challenge their views.

    I'm not necessarily defending all church traditions, but they do seem to overstate their case, and use dubious historical method and scholarship to do so.
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    Thanks for the link, I'll definitely check it out.
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    Ben Witherington's review is highly recommended as a counter-reading alongside the above book. Thank you, Ben (Sternke) for pointing that one out.
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    i've also read the Witherington blog and was going to recommend it myself. his admonition towards those who are "anti-establishment" is particularly poignant and apropos. It should be no surprise that someone such as Barna would continue to be in the camp that he is in. What is unfortunate is that too many people will read this book and not get any counter-arguments to balance the biased opinion of Barna and Viola.
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    I´ve also recently read Witherington´s review, and I am not impressed. BW is clearly annoyed and preoccupied with his ecclesiological and theological presuppositions, and he doesn´t seem to even have read the book properly, judging from the way he describes their arguments. Viola´s book is not a thesis within the university, but a book (also) for people outside of the theological world. It appears oversimplified sometimes, I think, but I definitely agree with his overall thesis, provocative as it is. I think everyone should read this book. Why does representatives for the established churhes get so annoyed with this book? Maybe the feel threatened? Why? To just read critical reviews from the establishment and ignore the book won´t do. Especially, I think EC and NW-people should read the book. I am praying for some mixture of EC/NM and the stance that Viola represents.
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    I think we need ways to have conversations about church practices and organizational structures and how they contribute or detract from our mission. I'm not sure the 'pagan'/traditional polarity is the best way to do that. Many of the things Viola derides may have been well-intentioned efforts to reach the culture of the time.

    Moreover, rooting out the 'pagan' in Christianity can lead to some troubling places. The story of Jesus is narrated in terms that made sense in the religious climate of the day, and includes many elements that could be rejected as 'pagan'. John appropriates the Greek logos</> whereas Matthew and Luke employ a common virgin birth trope (or, a la C.S. Lewis, God orchestrated things in these terms). And so on.

    Often, attempts at ecclesial primitivism (disclosure: my Restoration Movement pedigree is impeccable) evince a kind of magical thinking in which faithful duplication of NT practice will turn our frogs into princes and compromise (with 'paganism,' or 'liberalism', or whatever your favorite bogeyman might be) will get us turned into newts. I believe faithfulness to the biblical witness is available to us; a pristine primitive church is not.

    On the other hand, we need to be able to challenge traditions and structures as no longer viable, or even as having had unintended consequences in terms of our faithfulness to Pauline ecclesial practice. A hermeneutic of charity would suggest that we assume such practices and structures to have arisen out of good faith, but this does not preclude our recognizing, after the fact, that some of these practices and structures were nevertheless colonized by principalities and powers that we would do well to reject. Unfortunately, such things often become calcified, and pursued for their own sake, and layered with labyrinthine theological justifications. A screed like Viola's, even if I reject the terms of the debate, can at least point out the cultural contingency of ecclesial practice.
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    Sorry about the italics. Apparently I incorrectly closed my tag after a la.
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    That sense of "does it work?" "does it not?" "did it work and it does no longer?" is how I took the book, but as I read and come across other people's reactions I can see how some see (and perhaps it was written to express) an attitude that throws out the babies with the bathwater.
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    It's possible that Viola's work is intended in that spirit, and that the "pagan" epithet is a lighthearted jab, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The polarity of reactions to the book would seem to suggest as much.
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    I agree with you Jonas. A fellow scholar has ripped Ben Witherington's review of Pagan Christianity to shreds. Read it here http://www.paganchristianity.org/zensresponds1.htm
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    I also like "Jon´s" comments on Witheringtons review, in the comments-section connected to the review. I think BW i stuck with details, while largely ignoring the big picture. Is the church of today and/or AD 400 something vastly different then the early Jesus movement? As far as I can tell, most would say so. If this is the case, we do well to evaluate whether there are seeds for this development within the early tradition (the Scriptures) (=the orthodox position), or whether there are actually (more) seeds for opposing the "development" (=the radical reformation stance). I think Viola has done a good job presenting indications that the later position is more true. And actually, I think BW himself has done some work in this direction, for example his Making a Meal of It, which argues that originally the Lord´s supper was (or at least was taken together with) a real meal.
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    I´m sorry, apparently we were speaking bout the same person (Jon Zens), didn´t notice that.
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    I take issue with the accuracy of #2 above. The Old Testament tithes never totaled 24 percent of one's total wealth. Gold, silver, and money of various sorts, though widely held and circulated in the ancient world were never tithed. Neither was land or any other capital assets. The various tithes were only on food products, and were only made after all profit and loss had been calculated for an entire year. Profits of other sorts, like money earned, or of assets sold or of payment for services rendered were not ever subject to the tithe. If you didn't raise animals or produce then you really had no tithes, though in some periods you would been subject to a temple tax which was a different sort of thing. This was why the pharisees whom Jesus criticized raised tiny gardens of mint and cummin. It was so they could "keep the tithe."
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    I took that from the book, and I'm not sure which source(s) they used, but it's similar to the concept put forth here[http://tithing.christian-things.com/howmuch.html] (just found it on a google):

    The Bible teaches that God’s standard for giving is ten-percent.

    False. Neither the Old Testament or the New Testament teaches this. This is extra-biblical logic again. First of all, the food tithe in the Old Testament was not ten-percent. It was actually more like 23% annually on average. There were three tithes in the Law of Moses. The first tithe was paid only by agrarian families three times yearly to the Priests in Jerusalem. The second tithe was saved by the agrarian families to support this annual trip. It was called the festival tithe. It was for a family vacation. The third tithe was given every three years to the local storehouse, so it amounted to about 3% annually. This was the poor tithe collected for those in need. This is the tithe that Malachi wrote about. None of these tithes were money. They were only food. Those who earned their livings by other occupations did not pay a tithe of anything. However, they did give offerings required by the Law some of which were in silver, gold, bronze and copper coins. Nowhere does the New Testament change this legal obligation of tithe food for some agrarian Israelites in the Law to money tithing for all Christians.
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    That's right. The percentage is right, and the article is correct. It was the statement above that it was a percentage of total wealth that I took issue with. And the article you quote gets it right that it was not based on total income either, but only on food products. Incidentally, if a farmer was in debt at the end of the year perhaps to a mortgage or on equipment and his food crops had to or could be sold to pay on his debts or other operating expenses, then again he had no tithe. He only had a tithe if he made a real profit after all debts and expenses. In other words the tithe was only for the debt-free. How much freer would Christians be today if the Church (broadly speaking) would be honest on this point?
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    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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    Thanks. Still waiting for my copy on that one though. :)
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    As a pastor of onew of Viola and Baran's alleged pagan churches, I read the book three times. I find it refreshing to see the research done, but the commentary and pompus pride that drips from Viola's side comments a