Remarks on Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity

© by Dan Graves

Dear Sister,

Cover of Pagan Christianity

Cover of Pagan Christianity

Here are some thoughts drawn from my reading of Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity. There are more things I could address, but time does not permit.

This is not written to knock Frank Viola’s evangelical work. If he can stir lifeless and dispirited Christians into action, God bless him and further his work. The fact that I find his observations slanted does not negate any good God might use him for. As John Newton wrote, “We serve a gracious Master who knows how to overrule even our mistakes to His glory and our own advantage.” A willing spirit is far more important in God’s work than exactitude of scholarship, although sound scholarship is important. No lasting thing can be built on untruth. Serious errors develop when we diverge from the full counsel of the scripture.

The thing that struck me first was how polemical Viola’s writing is. He is out to make a point, not to establish the truth. Therefore the examples given and the quotes chosen are slanted and evidence that does not fit his position is flat-out ignored or brushed off.

The second thing that struck me—and it is more subtle—is how much emphasis he puts on form, doing things the “apostolic” way (as he defines it), as if Christian freedom does not exist and as if new methods cannot succeed as society changes under Christian influence. Fundamental doctrine dare not change. Methods may.

A third thing is how little he appeals to scripture to support his positions.

A fourth is how very much like Jehovah’s Witnesses he sounds. They flail at everything in the church as pagan and so does he.

A fifth is how he lashes out at everything, only grudgingly conceding a little good here or there in 2,000 years of church history. This is really lashing out at Christ who is and was head of the church and whose people all those generations of Christians were. When I read church history, I am continually blessed, but like Katherine in Anne of Avonlea, this man crushes every spark of happiness, any blessed innovation. I hope the Lord is more merciful to Viola’s work than Viola is to the work of others.

Yes, the church has failed. Yes, Constantine was one of the worst things that ever happened to it. I’ve said so for years. Yes, Gregory the Great was a superstitious man. But Constantine greatly improved the tone of emperors and Gregory loved the Lord and His people and did all the good he knew how to do in terrible times.

Church Buildings & Form of Worship.

The Lord knows our churches are dead (and I agree with Viola that the church is people). But why are they lifeless? Is it because the people meet in a church building? History does not bear that out. We just came off three to four centuries of explosive evangelistic Christianity in which Christians met in buildings. Souls were won in those buildings. Missionaries went out of those buildings. Laymen were active in those buildings. Great revivals swept nations from those buildings. The problem is not the form (church buildings and their altars), but the fact that society has changed; people have changed; we’ve lost touch with Christ our root and head.

Yes we need living room meetings. Many churches today recognize this and encourage both church-building attendance and home cell groups. Even some small churches I’ve known have tried to do this. John Wesley and the early Methodists used both. If Viola were fair, he’d at least mention these facts, and maybe he does in his other books. He’d also show that the apostles met in the temple as well as from home to home. In fact, there are many examples given in the scripture of Jesus and the apostles meeting in buildings other than homes.

Synagogues were never commanded by God. Nor was the leadership structure that developed in them. In fact, the scripture commanded the Jews to meet at “the place God chooses for you.” Nonetheless, synagogues grew up and Jesus taught from synagogue to synagogue. When Paul entered a new town, he always took his message to the synagogue first. My point is, if something is helpful, the people of God have freedom and every right to develop it and use it. Jesus and Paul did. Likewise church buildings are useful.

Acts tells us that the disciples met daily in the temple and in Solomon’s porch. When Paul was kicked out of the synagogue at Ephesus, he took his teaching into a gymnasium (school). Several times the scripture mentions the apostles (and Jesus) meeting in upper rooms. Some of these were large rooms built over two or three shops or houses—big rooms for big get-togethers. We know that on one occasion there were 120 people in such a room. Even if people were smaller back then, this was definitely not a living room! During the early centuries, Christians in Rome also met in catacombs. And before Constantine’s time, there were a number of homes that had been converted into church buildings: 18 in Rome alone. Early in the third century, a hundred years before Constantine, a home on the Euphrates River was converted into a church complete with a platform for the speaker and a baptistry. (Eerdman’s).

As to having church in living rooms, it has some serious drawbacks. (1)Usually the load falls on just a few homes which have the cleanliness, capacity and hospitality to host a church. (2)There are some people you just don’t want in your home. Some pseudo-converts (sexual molesters, thieves, adulterers, drug users) can bring great danger to homes and should not be given entrée. James Dobson, after many years of experience working with nut cases, cautions that it is best to deal with these individuals in neutral settings outside the home. (3)Homes can be too cozy. Why do you think Paul and John had to warn so much against sexual immorality? The temptation was there because men and women were already used to each other coming into their homes and the barrier was broken to keep the unscrupulous out; when opportunity arose it was taken. (4)Large meetings cannot be held in homes. I’ve read about Christians who meet in woods when larger groups need to get together, but this is not be practical in a North American winter or during the Brazilian rainy season. (5)Cults flourish in little “out of sight” meetings. This was true even in apostolic times.

Many modern church leaders acknowledge that it is a mistake to spend lots of money on church buildings that are little used; and they stress the construction of multi-purpose buildings. (Do a google search on “multi-purpose church buildings” and you will see several articles.) The church of the Nazarene in Greenville/Belding built one twenty years ago. Its sanctuary even converts into a basketball court. (Personal Knowledge). This seems to be a better solution than abandoning church buildings altogether.

In defense of church buildings we should add that on average churches were more frequently used fifty years ago than they are today. (Hey, more than even 25 years ago). And earlier churches were used for more purposes, too. In New England and in frontier communities, some served as schools during the week and as community buildings at other times. Again, it is not the building per se that is wrong, but society which has changed.

Without giving proof, Viola denies that persecution kept early Christians from building churches. And yet persecution was a strong reason. During those first three centuries, Christians goods were confiscated. (Hebrews). Their scriptures were confiscated. In spite of this, even before the church emerged from persecution, it built buildings. It was not the buildings that made it go bad but the civil service nature of the leadership, government interference and other factors both before and after Constantine. The Gnostics arose long before Constantine. So did the Donatists and Novatians. Some groups, such as the Nicolaitans and the Judaizers, existed even while the apostles were still alive, for John and Paul respectively denounce them.

Even in spite of persecution, early Christians used buildings other than homes. We read of Cyprian having a platform he preached from. That doesn’t sound like the set up of a living room. By the way, he died a martyr. In one of his videos, Ray Vanderlaan showed an early synagogue in Asia Minor that had Christian symbols on it, indicating it was converted into a church. (Faith Lessons) We know that the church recently found at Megiddo, with its elaborate mosaic floor, was built before Constantine. It went out of use early in the fourth century, before Constantine took the throne, possibly because of Diocletian’s persecution.

Viola says that having the pews face the pastor sends the wrong message. He’s hung up on form. When Peter or Paul or Apollos, or Timothy or Jesus or any other early Christian leader spoke to large assemblies, you can bet that the people faced them, whether on benches or cots or logs, or standing or sitting cross-legged on the floor; the function was the same regardless of the form. They might just as well have been in pews.

The earliest Christians were Jews and I think it very likely that they adapted the arrangement they knew—the synagogue—when they developed meeting places (Edmundson, who knew the literature of the first century church as well as any man of his day, bears this out in The Church in Rome in the First Century ca. p. 180.). The pagan philosopher Lucian writing before 190—when he died—described the Christians of Palestine as having a synagogue (“Death of Peregrinus” in Anne Fremantle’s Treasury of Early Christianity). Synagogues had a raised platform, like our churches; they had a railing; they had a special place for the Bible; they had benches. They had paid officials. (Pictorial Bible Dictionary). Evidently Jesus and Paul were not as enlightened as Viola, because not once did they denounce this arrangement or the order of worship (which has many similarities to that of a modern church). To the contrary Jesus and Paul apparently engaged in that form of worship themselves.

Another point to be made here is that the order of worship does borrow at least in part from the Bible. For example, the scripture tells us to enter God’s presence with thanksgiving in our heart, enter his courts with praise. Consequently, we usually place songs and testimonies near the beginning of a service. The Bible says to do everything to the glory of God. Jesus did, praying before eating, for example. Therefore most churches, somewhere near the beginning of a service, have an invocation asking God’s blessing on what is to follow. It’s the logical place to put such things. At the end of whatever service there is, what is more logical than to have a hymn and and parting blessing, especially if one never knows, in times of persecution, whether one will see the other persons again or not? Jesus sang a hymn with his followers before going to the garden and the cross.

I conclude that it is not the form (building or worship order) but the Spirit that matters. Take away the Spirit and a living room will be dead. Come to Spirit-filled church that meets in a church building and the church will be alive.

Finally, while on the subject of church buildings, I would point out that church-building churches in the west have fared better than house churches. House churches rarely survive a decade. Some churches in buildings have met for centuries. During those centuries, the quality of faith and worship has waxed and waned, but revival and renewal is not unknown, and quite often those churches have grown and bloomed for decades under wise leaders. I’ll go with the track record of the church-building congregation over house churches, unless or until that becomes impossible.

House churches are said to be the way to go. Although I do not know if Viola holds up Chinese churches as a wonderful example, I know some house church advocates do. However, I ask, when is a house church a house church? Here is an example:

CHINESE AUTHORITIES RAID, DESTROY CHURCH BUILDING WHILE 10,000 PRAY [HCJBDaily] 31 July 2006 Update from HCJB World Radio

On the afternoon of Saturday, July 29, a large house church building in Hangzhou, China, was destroyed, and many Christians were arrested and wounded during the confrontation. Eyewitnesses reported that several thousand anti-riot police, military police and government workers along with 300 military vehicles surrounded the church around 1:30 p.m. while 10,000 house church members were inside praying. Police then used electric shock batons and anti-riot shields to disperse the crowd and beat several hundred whom attempted to protect the building. The building, built on private land purchased by a local Christian couple, was nearly completed when the government declared it “illegal” and moved in to destroy it. The local government has repeatedly denied the Christian’s formal requests to build despite the fact that the church met all requirements. In 2003 three house church members were imprisoned for reporting similar destruction of a large house church in Nayang. (China Aid Association)

If that is a house church, the Yellow Sea will fit in a bathtub.

Bible Arrangement.

Viola disparages chapter and verse divisions in the Bible. He says they exist chiefly so scholars can proof-text. Well, what’s wrong with proof-texting? The scriptures clearly show Jesus and the apostles doing it. Paul in Galatians and the author of Hebrews in his early chapters are good examples of this. Scripture after scripture is cited to make their points. Off the top of my head, I recall that Jesus quoted a short scripture to prove God is the God of the living not the dead, and to show that scripture calls men gods. That was proof-texting.

Why doesn’t Viola go all the way? Why doesn’t he disparage giving names to books? The original scrolls didn’t have them. Why doesn’t he disparage word breaks and use of vowels? The original Hebrew didn’t use vowels. Later scribes added them. The original Greek manuscripts didn’t divide words. Neither did the Septuagint which Jesus and the apostles used. John 3:16 should read like this: ForGodsolovedtheworldthathegavehis…

When Paul wrote Timothy to rightly divide the word of truth he meant just that: to rightly divide the words of the scripture they used. To this day I run across scholars mentioning they aren’t sure where to break a few words in Paul’s epistles because more than one reading is possible given the way words run together.

We’ve done lots of things to improve book publication in general; why cannot the church apply the same techniques and other techniques to the Bible? What difference does it make if the verse divisions were made during a ride on horseback? What if they weren’t perfect? When has anything a human has done ever been perfect? Not only scholars but the person in the pew have found chapter and verse divisions most helpful. Once again Viola allows utterly insignificant matters of form to trump matters of importance such as usefulness.

Sermons.

Viola blasts the preaching of sermons. He admits Jesus and the apostles preached sermons, but says they were Holy Spirit inspired. He gives a ridiculous caricature of a sermon, something that might come off a bad televangelist show. This is unfair. I’ve heard a lot of good sermons in my life, even by preachers who weren’t very good. And some of the sermons I’ve heard, by men like Ravi Zacharias, Jack French and David Jeremiah have been as powerful as a two-edged sword. If a preacher is filled with the Holy Spirit, his sermons are going to be worthwhile. If he’s not, they’re going to be lame.

We are supposed to imitate Christ and to follow the example of the apostles. Reading the Bible, I see many occasions on which a Christian man, some leader such as Jesus, Peter, Paul or Stephen, stood up and preached. Any young man who feels the call of God is going to read the New Testament and feel led to imitate the behavior of those men along with a wide variety of other apostolic behaviors. Hebrews, a carefully reasoned sermon, calls itself an exhortation. (Edmundson)

Pastors.

Viola claims pastors are unscriptural. He says that they rob God’s people of their proper role. He acknowledges that the people in the pew are allowed to sing but ignores the fact that we can give testimonies; and he pooh poohs all the other work people can do in the church building, such as teaching Sunday school and running youth groups, saying these things are just there to support the pastor. My lands! As if the Bible didn’t command us to support our leaders and make their job less burdensome for them!

He declares that we should not have built the practice of having pastors on one scripture (meaning only one New Testament scripture that mentions pastors or shepherds). To this I reply (1) If God gives a teaching only once in His word, it is still God’s teaching. (2) The Old Testament spoke of leaders such as kings as shepherds, so it is fair to transfer the teaching by analogy. See especially Jeremiah 3:15 which promises God will send shepherds to teach and instruct. That is a promise fulfilled in the New Testament.(3) While only one New Testament scripture may speak of under-shepherds, many scriptures point to the role. It is clear from the instructions that Jesus gave Peter—telling him to feed his lambs— that Peter was meant to be a shepherd. It is clear from the instructions that Paul gave to Timothy and Titus that certain men were given leadership roles and paid for it (“share all good things with those who teach you”). It is clear from the account of the “super-apostles” that Paul wrote about that, already, in his lifetime, the churches were supporting teachers. Paul did not take such support because he wanted to give something freely back to the Lord, but he insisted that legitimate teachers were allowed to take it.

Again I note that if we are to imitate Christ, and if He is a good shepherd, then clearly those to whom he gives the ability and gifts to do so are to act like good shepherds under Him.

By a few strokes of his pen, Viola would wipe out the work of centuries of godly men, who went to their knees asking the Lord if they should become pastors, and the Lord answered, “Yes.” I just read of John Newton, that he prayed daily for six weeks, fasting several times and consulting his friends (who prayed too), as to whether he should become a pastor. The Lord showed him he should. Evidently the Lord was mistaken. (http://www.johnnewton.org/Group/Group.aspx?ID=32677)

I’ve read many similar cases, some in which the men whom God was calling even tried to run from Him but He forced them to finally yield to His will and become pastors. Evidently, if Viola is right, they should have kept running from God because pastors are unscriptural and rob God’s people of their proper role. Viola’s position just doesn’t square with scripture or with church practice or the history of the ministry from the earliest days of which we have any record.

Church Heirarchy.

Clement, writing before 96, tells that the Apostle John appointed bishops after the deaths of Peter and Paul. (Edmunson p. 164) Biblical and non-Biblical sources show that James, the brother of Jesus, was already acting as a bishop (Edmundson, p.43).

Conclusion:

My conclusion is that we should find the godliest church we can in our area and do everything in our power to make it work. At the same time, we should be part of a strong Christian group if we can find one or build one.

I may address other aspects of the Viola polemic in future letters if I find time. It is extremely time consuming to write these things. I did not have time to look up every reference I’d like to cite, but I, too, have read Will Durant’s histories and dozens of other books which I could quote if time allowed.

I hope Mr. Viola’s efforts to waken Christians succeed. He turns me off by his lopsided and unbiblical handling of the facts.

Books Authored or Co-authored by Dan

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The Archbishop Who Killed a Man.
Anecdotes from Christian history.
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Doctors Who Followed Christ.
36 notable Christian doctors.
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Scientists of Faith.
48 notable scientists who were Christians.
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The Earth Will Reel.
A study of the Bible’s Geological prophecies. Revised 2017.
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Great Women in Christian History.
37 women who changed their world.
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This Day in Christian History.
366 days in Christian history.