pagan-christianity-violaYou know, I think I finally nailed where I part ways with Frank Viola on “Pagan Christianity”. It came out in conversation.

I was discussing the book with a friend on Sunday, who, like me, liked the book but had a few misgivings. And I said, “Apart from the euphemistic way he uses the word ‘Pagan’, which really grates with Pagans, what’s most problematic for me is that he shows insufficient appreciation for just how unessential many first century Christian practices actually were.”

What I mean is this, I think Viola is unquestionably correct in identifying many contemporary Christian practices as noncore, nonChristian even, and thus nonessential. Where I think he errs is, in insisting there’s a pristine Christianity waiting to be restored.

Consider, a huge chunk of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters to various Christian communities. And a huge chunk of that consists of Paul castigating Hebrew Christians for pushing nonessential Hebrew practices onto Gentile Christians. But does Paul ever castigate Hebrew Christians for practicing circumcision and kosher diets amongst themselves? No. Curiously, no.

What this suggests is, Paul was keen to differentiate between what was essential and what was not, but he regarded what was not as culturally “optional” rather than intrinsically anti-Christian. What this suggests in turn is, neither should we assume that everything which is “Pagan” is intrinsically anti-Christian. We need to look deeper before we decide that, before we write off Gentile (that is, Pagan) Christianity altogether.

Thus, though I agree buildings and podiums and pews and ordination ceremonies and Christmas celebrations have nonChristian origins, I disagree that Christian communities are less than authentic when they don’t ditch everything, at least not automatically. Instead I would say, let’s look at this through the lens of critical contextualisation. It may be that we can use some of these things redemptively. Then again, maybe not. I may still land in the same place as Viola when its all said and done!

But the difference is, I tend to stress “essentials first” rather than “essentials only”. Though I can appreciate the value of microchurch, I am not so keen on saying there is a biblically mandated size restriction; and though I can see the pitfalls of ceremonialism, I am not so keen on poo pooing symbolic expression and embracing iconoclasm. I think, so long as it’s helpful, everything is permissible.

13 thoughts on “Is paganChristianity unChristian?

  1. Thank you for this Matt, you have put my own critisisms of Viola’s book into words. Like you I tend towards essentials first rather than essentials only.
    I am also happy that for some folk the non-essentials whatever their origins are helpful and meaningful, the issue is knowing why and that is where too many folk fall down! Ritual for God’s sake can be beautiful, ritual for ritual’s sake is empty! You say “I am not so keen on poo pooing symbolic expression and embracing iconoclasm. I think, so long as it’s helpful, everything is permissible.” I am in full agreement there.
    As far as his use of the word Pagan is concerned I have huge reservations for what seems to me to be insulting at best to folk who would never claim to be Christian and whose rituals and ceremonies are important and meaningful in the right context.


  2. I gather from Frank’s commentary that he was unaware of contempory Paganism. Personally I found it ironic that many of the things he was espousing for Christianity were more typical of contemporary Paganism than contemporary Christianity. Missionally I have found it problematic, as I’ve had to explain to a few Pagans that, no, Pagan Christianity is not aimed at them.


  3. I appreciate your post –
    This helps me continue to process my feelings on “microchurch” and and anti-ceremonialism that I’m at once drawn to and leary of.
    Essentials first is a great phrase for me to mull over …


  4. Paul was able to differentiate between many things. He expressed how even to assume the title of a “Christian”, or follower of himself, or even Jesus for that matter was indeed fleshly.
    It’s very clear in his letters to the church of Corinth:
    “Brothers, I couldn’t speak to you as to spiritual, but as to fleshly, as to babies in Christ.”
    “I fed you with milk, not with meat; for you weren’t yet ready. Indeed, not even now are you ready, for you are still fleshly.”
    “Now I mean this, that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” and, “I follow Christ [I am a Christian].”
    “Is Christ [God] divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?”
    Paul hadn’t realized the fullness of Christ in his self yet; he made it clear in his letter to the Philippians.
    “Php 3:13 Brothers, I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold…”
    This is why Paul and many others followed Jesus. Wouldn’t anyone do the same thing?
    Jesus had more followers than all the Spirit-filled men that ever lived in the history of mankind — perhaps it is he who has a very large part in this age.
    Many don’t realize that Jesus never wanted to be worshiped, but nevertheless he was thronged wherever he went.
    Joh 6:15 “Jesus therefore, perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, TO MAKE HIM A KING, withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
    1Co 12:3 …”No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” but by the Holy Spirit.”
    Jesus was someone for them and us to grab onto; one to follow and learn how to realize God. Remember, God is invisible and He says, “I am He.”
    Therefore, there is nothing wrong with wanting to assume the title of Christian, or to claim to be a follower of Jesus. Paul, as you pointed out, even said it was better just to eat less and agree.
    But the higher teaching (what he taught his disciples in private . . . the meat) — Christ consciousness — ( and once one realizes it ) is the number one goal of every person whether we are aware of this or not.


  5. I’ve read “Pagan” and thought it was insightful and right on target. It is controversial, but sometimes it’s necessary to shake things up a bit when the Body of Christ has veered off course. (Think Martin Luther). I believe the purpose of “Pagan Christianity” is not to pick apart the traditions and practices of the established church, but rather to show how they harm the Body of Christ and prevent it from functioning as our Lord intended. It’s not to say the authors expect us to wear togas and sandals and throw out anything that smacks of the twenty-first century. But in order to dismantle the deeply entrenched system that we’ve come to call “church”, it’s necessary to demonstrate where these things came from, and that they’re not directives from God’s Word. For example, although there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with believers gathering in a building set aside for that purpose, it’s not the ideal setting for the church, based on the nature of the church. The church is a family, not an organization. Families typically gather in cozier settings that are more conducive to the life they live together. The New Testament stresses that we have become God’s building, His dwelling place. Having a building associated with the church obscures this picture. Consider how the world defines the church, and even many believers: it’s a place you go, not what you are. Call it semantics, but there’s a huge difference between attending something and being that something.
    I think some might be reading more into Viola’s use of the word “Pagan” than he certainly intended. Getting hung up on this can certainly detract us from the central message of the book, which was to help us see that many of the practices that have become the norm for us are hindering the Christ-as-Head, face-to-face community that we see in the pages of the New Testament. I believe Viola is also “essentials first”. His passion is to see Christ first, Christ all in all-not a method, a man or a teaching. When we truly catch sight of His eternal purpose, which is wrapped up in the church, many of the peripheral issues will simply fall away.
    Also, Barna/Viola’s “Pagan Christianity” wasn’t a stand-alone book. The sequel is called “Reimagining Church”, it’s the constructive part of the discussion. He also has a new book that’s the practical follow-up to both books. It’s called “Finding Organic Church.” And his article “Why I Love the Church” explains the motivation behind all three books. .
    You can also find a substantial Q&A about “Pagan” here: .


  6. well put matt. essentials first cf essentials only is well said.
    a question lingers: can do your “essentials” take expression, given an Incarnational commitment in which Life is enfleshed, enculturated, as the revelation of God? in other words, can you have “essentials” apart from cultural expression – whether 1st century or 21st century?
    steve taylor


  7. Dustin, the very gospel you quote climaxes with Thomas worshipping Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28)
    Earlier, again in the very gospel you quote, a man healed by Jesus “worshiped him.” (John 9:38)
    Elsewhere, in another gospel, it is said “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)
    I gather from your comments that your a doubter, which is fine, but you need to realize that I’m doubting you’ve read all of John at this point, given you’ve made use of it so selectively.


  8. Jill, for the most part I agree “Pagan Christianity” was on target. If you missed it I’ll say it again, “I think Viola is unquestionably correct in identifying many contemporary Christian practices as … nonChristian”
    My criticism is not based on any loyalty to cosy church tradition, quite the opposite in fact. I am hardly a traditionalist, LOL. What I am asking is, is Viola too loyal to first century church tradition? I am wondering if he leaves enough room for contextual innovation. At every step Viola does seem to be saying there IS something wrong with using buildings, etc, etc. That de-murkifying isn’t enough. I have read “Reimagining Church” and that doesn’t change the thrust of my argument. What you need to understand is, I am favourably inclined towards house church, I am just not so sure we should be so “inflexible” about it.


  9. Steve, no I don’t think you can you have “essentials” apart from cultural expression – 1st century or 21st century – and that’s why I consider some degree of “Paganism” unavoidable. Indeed, I am wondering if the emphasis on organic paradigm shifts owes more to contemporary organic Paganism than Frank realizes? Ah, now that’s a comment that’s bound to be misunderstood by conservatives and progressives alike 🙂


  10. Augustine wrote and I think that you have quoted it here on your blog somewhere: In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, but in all things charity/love.
    I think that people have different essentials as well as different ideas within those essentials even if they are the same. For instance, interpreting Scripture.
    Ephesians which is known as the Letter of Unity talks about one Spirit…, but for some reason the Spirit has not, as someone mentioned somewhere else, given us agreement on many of these things.


  11. Dear Matt,
    Please re-read all of my posts including this one.
    Then please explain to me how I am a doubter.
    1. Does it not say in the Bible that Jesus was Lord ‘only’ by the Holy Spirit?
    2. Did not the pharisees condemn Jesus for claiming that he was God and Jesus’ response was, “isn’t it written that ye are gods?” What did he mean by that?
    3. Was Jesus God come in the flesh? Yes! But only by the Holy Spirit. He did what he saw the Father do and was one with the Father.
    So again, I think you are misunderstanding or not reading my posts.


  12. There’s a fundamental orientation or methodology question here which goes back to the Reformers (and probably earlier). For all it’s faults Anglicanism was right, I think, against some of the Puritan activists: the principles for deciding on what is legitimate in church rites and ceremonies: rather than only allowing what scripture explicitly authorises, it permits (in principle -I have to say in practice it’s fallen far short at times) anything that ‘be not repugnant to Scripture’.
    And then there’s the fundamental issue of ‘re-pristination’ of Christianity: so many calls fail to recognise the enculturated nature of what we read in the NT. The title of the missiology book ‘Constants in Context’ (Bevans and Schroeder) is pointing to the important point that constants (ie what the gospel is) are only ever apprehended in context. To ‘repristinate’ by reference to, for example, Paul’s letters would mean hallowing first century eastern Mediterranean cultures. And I say ‘cultures’ because the next problem would be to decide which version to follow; a problem that becomes acutely apparent when trying to discern a correct church government.
    And, as I’m writing a sermon for Epiphany, I think that we would do well to note the Magi …


  13. Yes, precisely. There were no pristine “essentials only” churches, not even in New Testament times. They were culturally coloured from the beginning.
    I am not sure if I side with the Anglicans or the Reformers though. If the Reformers unnecessarily scorned secondary matters, the Anglicans unnecessaily elevated them. Neither really differentiated to the degree I would.


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