An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity

I managed to get a cheap copy of this book, I am really enjoying reading it. It it first came to my attention through the blogging of John La Grou at Microeclesia who has just finished a lengthy 10-part review of it.

Frank Viola, a proponent of the house church movement, has summarised a lot of the ‘pagan’ origins – though its clear his use of the term pagan is very broad – of what we associate with Christianity – or perhaps better Churchianity. These include:

  • The Sunday service order of service – evolving from Gregory’s Mass with revisions made during the Reformation
  • The sombre approach to a church service – an idea taken from a mediaeval view of piety
  • The ‘modern’ sermon – origins in the Greek sophists
  • The church building – initiated by Constantine circa AD 327, the first buildings were based on Roman basilicas and Greek temples
  • The pulpit – borrowed from the Greek ambo, a pulpit used by Greeks and Jews for delivering monologues
  • Hierarchical leadership – based on the leadership models of Babylonians, Persinas, Greeks and Romans
  • Wearing the Sunday best for church services – began in the late eighteenth century, the emerging middle classes wanted to look like the welathy aristocracy
  • Clergy costume – based on the clothes of the Roman officials
  • Backward collars – invented in 1865 by Donald McLeod

Viola is spot on when he describes most of the practices we associate with ‘church’ as being unconducive to participation in the services. They promote the idea of a one man (and it usually is a man) ‘ministry’. As Viola comments:

..the architecture of Protestant church building points all of its arrows in the direction of the person who delivers the sermon. The building is suited for a pulpit domination. And it equally puts constraints on the functioning of the congregation.

This arrangement makes it nearly impossible for one worshipper to look into the face of another. Instead, it creates a sit-and-soak form of worship that turns functioning Christians into ‘pew potatoes!’ To state it differently, the very architecture prevents fellowship except betwee God and his people via the pastor! And yet despite these facts, we Christians still believe the building is sacred. (p 134).
The result is the body becomes all mouth and ears, it encourages a split between clergy and laity.

It seems to me, though, that at times Viola is guilty of the genetic fallacy; it is wrong to condemn a practice based on its history, however dubious that history may be. The origin of something does not necessarily have any bearing upon its truth. Clothes are the direct result of rebellion against God – does that mean that wearing clothes is wrong? Practices must be damned or praised on their present merits not their previous history.

Why should we return to New Testament models of church services or (non)buildings? Are the models intended to be normative or are they merely descriptive? Is Viola embracing some form of reverse chronological snobbery? It also assumes that we know what the first century church was like! The few glimpses we have in the New Testament hardly provide a blueprint; though they do provide some helpful pointers. And it does seem far away from what we have in the institutional churches today.

Elsewhere Viola has described what he perceives to be a NT church service, it is broadly one that is modelled on 1 Corinthians 14. And I have great sympathy for this model. But how do we know if the this Corinthian model was used at Rome, Athens or Jerusalem? I suspect that the first-century practices are not quite so uniform as Viola thinks.

Leonard Sweet (The Church in Emerging culture: Five Perspectives, Zondervan, 2003) devised a matrix (above) to show ‘four general conditions in which Christian faith may be lived and practiced’ (p 19). Viola obviously belongs in section 1 – he wants no change in method and no change in message. We do however, need to be open to Holy Spirit change!

Viola’s book is well written, readable and well researched, he makes much use of many secondary sources. He has some excellent insights, not least being the need to overcome the clergy-laity divide and the need for church services to become much more participatory. He has shown the Greek and Scholastic influences in church service and building design. It should be required reading for all those in so-called ‘full-time Christian ministry’. May Viola’s book help us to consider prayerfully what we do when we go to the church building. It may well help expose unhelpful traditions and help us to be more open to what the spirit is saying to the churches today.

Viola is interviewed here


John L said...

Steve - good thoughts on Viola. I'm now reading a more academic treatment called "House Church & Mission." One point is clear - we really don't have a comprehensive understanding of the 1c church and its practices. Viola takes broad academic liberties.

That said, after reading Viola, two issues stand out, demanding more attention:

(1) the lay / clergy split - "professional clergy" were largely foreign to 1c ecclesia; and

(2) non-participatory community - the CEO / MC model of "church leadership" would have been foreign to a 1c Christ-follower.

We're stuck in an inherited model that promotes endless distinctions between "amateur" and "expert." This isn't the vibrant, radical, participatory NT community we read about.

J. R. Miller said...

Hi, an excellent alternative to Viola's book is "The Ancient Church As Family" by Dr. Joe Hellerman. His work is well researched and addresses many of the "pagan" influences on our faith. Dr. Hellerman's contribution is a blend of good history AND respectful discourse.