Book review: Pagan Christianity?

by Frank Viola and George Barna


No, this isn’t a “bash the Christians” book. It’s a “bash the church” book (lowercase “c”). The authors’ goal is to redirect Christians back to the original teachings of the New Testament, where the “Church” was never a building.

“Pagan,” as used by the authors, pretty much just means “different from what the New Testament teaches.” Their goal is to encourage Christians to embrace the original New Testament church.

Church buildings are wrong. Sacraments are wrong. Collection plates are wrong. Pulpits are wrong. You’ll get a earful, and if “wrong” means “not the way it was first done,” then the authors have a well-researched point. But an important distinction needs to be made: The New Testament church, in this book, should not be confused with the “first century church.” No extraneous Christian teachings are acceptable to Viola and Barna, who either ignore or condemn them. Even if some of these teachings are contemporary with New Testament writings. For example, church fathers Ignatius, Clement of Rome and Tertullian are criticized for introducing a clergy, and the Didache’s instructions are never mentioned by the authors, who insist that early Christian worship sessions had no structure. Perhaps the authors subscribe to the view that all of the New Testament Gospels and epistles were written in Paul’s time.

Part of the intrigue of this book, for me, is that I grew up in a nondenominational church similar to what the authors approve of as “organic,” and that ignores all Christian instruction outside the Bible. This church has a bit more structure to their worship than what Viola and Barna recommend, but it does meet in homes and all members participate equally in the service. It’s a “back to Jesus” movement patterned after the New Testament.

So, my church background may qualify me more than many reviewers to address both the pros and cons of the book’s arguments. And as such, I do have one criticism, which drops it from a 5-star to a 4-star rating: The passion of the authors overflows, which should be a good thing, but here it’s overwhelming. While they convincingly show that many Christian church customs differ from the first Christians, their underlying assumption that this is somehow bad gets pushed a little too hard for my taste, simply because in my experience, different church atmospheres and practices are appropriate for different people. We’re all unique, and different things bring us closer to God.

But enough nit-picking. The book has a serious message for all who wish to pattern their manner of worship after the Bible.