Do you know why you do what you do at church and where your practices came from? Frank Viola and George Barna have teamed up to describe the origins of a multitude of church practices in Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. (This book is a reworking of Viola’s earlier book Pagan Christianity.)
A great many of our church practices are justified as faithfulness to “biblical” Christianity, yet none of the following practices were part of the first century church:
- Worship in a dedicated building - Began late third century to early fourth century.
- Order of worship – The medieval mass dates back the sixth century and Pope Gregory the Great. PC traces the various mutations in orders of worship through Protestantism to the present but a formal order of worship does not appear to have been a concern for the early church.
- Priests and clergy – The concept of priest or clergy, in contrast to laity, does not exist in the New Testament. These are categories that emerged in the second through fourth centuries. After tracing the evolution of this through Protestantism, PC hits especially hard on the negative impact this has had on “every member functioning” and how it has created a highly dysfunctional (and destructive) environment in which pastors must function.
- The Sermon – Early services appear to have been times of orderly but wide open sharing and singing. As mutual sharing died out in the third century and a specialized class of clergy began to emerge, classically trained clergy began to import Greco-Roman forms of rhetoric into the worship service, delivered by a professional.
- Dressing up for Sunday worship – Dates back to the nineteenth century.
- Sunday school – Dates back to the eighteenth century.
- Special attire for the clergy – Probably started late second century in some places but was institutionalized by the fourth century. White robes were the standard in keeping with the tradition of Greek teachers (white symbolized the gods.) Clerical collars are only about 150 years old.
- Organs – There were no musical instruments in the church until the Middle Ages. Organs began to appear by the thirteenth century.
- Choirs – Began under Constantine in the fourth century.
- Communion as a wafer and a thimble of wine – First century communion was a festive communal meal. By the fourth century this practice was actually prohibited and “the meal” had become a sacred ritual. The transition to ritual appears to have begun in the second century in conjunction with the rise of the clergy.
- Tithing – Cyprian of Carthage (late third century) was the first to mention paid support for clergy and the first to make explicit reference to Old Testament tithing practices (i.e., Levites) as justification. Constantine institutionalized this practice and it has continued down to this day with various mutations.
The book is largely a deconstruction of what most churches refer to as “biblical” practice. I have done my own research on some of the issues presented in the book and I believe the book to be an accurate, though cursory, presentation of how our practices came to be. The book also gives insight on just how much the Greco-Roman world influenced early Christian practice and often to the detriment of the biblical vision for the people of God.
Pagan Christianity is not making a case that we need to return to the explicit practices of the first century church, as though there is some transcendent prescribed model there to which we must conform. There isn’t. Nor does Pagan Christianity discount that in some sense the church must adopt culturally specific practices to become incarnate within a given culture. It must. However, when our practices actually thwart the church from becoming “every member functioning” communities, it is time to re-examine the usefulness of our culture-bound practices and be willing to surrender them for the work of God in a given culture.
Viola is a house church planter and occasionally he offers insights into how a contemporary house church might look in contrast to the centuries of culture baggage we perpetuate. Barna seems to be following up his book Revolution with this one to fend off the criticism many have leveled at what Barna calls revolutionary Christians. I know that some who read this book, especially those with strong loyalties to tradition, well not like it. But the cry of the Reformation was “the Church reformed, always to be reformed.” About 500 years ago the Reformers challenged the church to its core by going back to the Bible to discern what God would have them do. Maybe Viola and Barna are all wet but I would challenge readers to read this well documented book and investigate the authors' claims for themselves. Are we who call ourselves “Reformed” and “biblical” willing to look our history and our present practice in the face and be obedient to whom God calls us to be?
My only real complaint with the book is the continual use of the phrase “Jesus’ headship” to refer to "Jesus’ leadership" role in the church. I wrote extensively on this earlier in the year. Ironically, in light of this book, the idea of “head” as “one who rules” is foreign to the Greek language. For the Greeks, the head symbolized prominence and was physiologically understood as the source or origin of life for the rest of the body, but it was not the ruler or the control center of the body. “Head” as “one who rules” is a Roman understanding of the metaphor read back into the scripture. (See my Household of God series starting with the post in the last section called Household Code Lost in Translation: Kephale and the next eleven posts.) But this was a minor distraction.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it. I think we all should confront the origins of our practices and place them in context. I already know three people I will be buying copies of this book.
(Viola has been fielding questions about the book at the book's website, which you can find by clicking here.)