Pagan Church Buildings
A couple of years ago Frank Viola and George Barna published their apologetic of why basically everything about the current state of the church is wrong. It is the 2008 book, Pagan Christianity. I heard a lot about it, but didn’t read it. The primary reason I didn’t read it is because books like this and people who talk about things like this exhaust me. They spin an endless web of why everything finds its root in something devilish and therefore you should renounce it. My wife calls this sort of thing, “Finding the devil in a dollar.” I have even heard that speech. The one about how the symbols on dollars and U.S. government institutions are insignias of the New World Order, or atheism, or devil worship, on and on it goes – and then the speaker receives an offering. These are usually the same people who tell you not to eat cereal because it too contains something on the box about the devil. To me, Pagan Christianity, is that same genre.
The premise of the book is that out of meticulous historical research Frank Viola has exposed the pagan roots of almost every current facet of the Western church. His findings have disturbed a lot of people, especially laymen who walk into Christian bookstores, find the cover interesting, and then start reading it. I received a copy of this book, as a gift from Pastor Bill Tussey of Cheseapeke Southern Baptist Church in Chesapeake, OH, on Thursday. On Friday he took me to Kentucky and bought me some fudge. So far I have found more enjoyment in the fudge.
I have read only the two prefaces/intros, and the first two chapters. It is the second chapter I want to address. I may find more to address later. The chapter, “The Church Building: Inheriting the Edifice Complex” exposes the pagan roots of church buildings. It points out how misguided the church has become in thinking of the church as a building rather than a group of people. To some extent, I would agree with this. Pastors battle this sort of thinking from their pagan pedestals called pulpits (33) from time to time. If there has ever been an exhaustive historical argument for why the church should scrap its buildings and return to homes, chapter “dos” of Pagan Christianity is it.
Viola and Barna point out that Jesus is the fulfillment of all localized worship. They teach, in accordance with Scripture, that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament priesthood, sacrificial system, and the Temple. They also teach, in accordance with Scripture, that the church is not a building, but a group of Jesus followers who have the distinction of being His body. It is also true, that often in Scripture, Paul refers to the church (people) as the Temple of the Lord. They argue that we have grown too accustomed of thinking of a church as a building rather than a church as a community of people. Gotcha.
My issue with the book is the extreme to which they take this idea. They say because of the truths outlined above, as well as some very detailed historical citation, mostly from the Constantine era, that the church (people) are way out of step with Scripture for owning church (buildings). Here are my points of response to this chapter:
1. While it is true that the New Testament does not speak of the church owning buildings, it sure doesn’t forbid it either. I think that if the church were expressly forbidden from owning property, this would have been spelled out plainly in the sacred text and would not have been left simply to the often misguided unfolding of history. In fact, from a Biblical standpoint I could argue that if there needs to be a property ownership revolution, I do not think it needs to be to bury the buildings, but rather for the true Biblical reform of acknowledging that if you are of the church (people), then the church (people) owns your things. In the first century church, they had all things in common. For this principle, consult Acts. The New Testament question was not so much what the church owned, but rather what it didn’t. Perhaps this should be our revolution.
2. Perhaps the New Testament doesn’t forbid buildings because churches (people) were not trying to purchase property for churches (buildings) at the time the New Testament was written. I will concede this point. But here I would also point to Barna and Viola’s footnote (48) on page 18, “Schaff’s opening words are telling: ‘After Christianity was acknowledged by the state and empowered to hold property it raised houses of worship in all parts of the Roman Empire. . .” I do think this is telling, but not in the way Barna and Viola do. I think this is telling because up until Constantine church (people) were not allowed to own churches (buildings). We see this sort of thing even now in communist countries. Where the church is forbidden to own property, they secretly meet in homes. Yet this does not mean that given the chance, these churches (people) would not build a church (building) to better help them fulfill their ministry. The first century church (people) didn’t own property because they simply couldn’t; not because they didn’t believe in it. It was a matter of law, not conviction. We sure can’t answer this question conclusively, but given the chance to acquire property and reclaim a pagan block in a city as a witness for Christ, would they? I have no reason to think they would not.
3. There are so many logical fallacies in this chapter it is almost humorous. One is the assumption that if a church owns property then it can’t be healthy or biblical. I would contend that if American churches (people) were forbidden to meet in American churches (buildings) that the church (people) would continue and thrive, even without their building. I agree with Viola and Barna that churches don’t have to have buildings to function, but I sure don’t see them as the pagan stumbling blocks that Viola and Barna seem to think them to be. Another fallacy is thinking that just because Constantine was misguided in his personal life and in his purpose for church buildings that he has poisoned the pot for every subsequent church building in every subsequent era of history in every geographical location in the world. I think Barna and Viola give the big “C” way too much credit. When my mom and dad built their house a guy cussed, smoked, and played Twisted Sister tapes on a battery powered boom box. Do they need to renounce their home? I am sure that the brick rancher was not invented for Christian purposes. Does that mean Christians should not live in brick ranchers? Egyptians forced Israel to make brick under hard labor? Should the church (people) renounce bricks? Should Christians renounce music because the musical instrument was invented by a son of Cain? Just because someone got something wrong way back when does not mean there cannot be course corrections. Barna and Viola wrongfully assume, ironically on page xxx, that the church is incapable of any sort of course corrections. They give Constantine a lot of credit, but fail to do the same for the church (people).
4. Viola and Barna pick to death church architecture, furniture, and arrangement. They even discuss how the pulpit, pulpit chair, and the steeple are leftover pagan relics. The good news here is that our church (people and building) doesn’t use either of the three. We don’t have either of the three not because we were denouncing their pagan origins, but because we wanted to go green (just kidding). Honestly, I could care less if the steeple is an obelisk from Egypt that symbolizes man reaching upward toward God. There isn’t a steeple on this planet that inspires me to scrap vicarious atonement and fly. To me, steeples are steeples, and at the very least a person can see them and know that a church (people) meets in that church (building). I hope the steeple, at the very least, invites them to come in. That being said, I would relegate most of this chapter, and as I read it, probably the rest of this book to Paul’s discussion of stumbling blocks and strong and weak believers in Romans 14. I find such contention about furniture, buildings, and historical intricacies weak and distracting. Yet, I would embrace my brother and never judge him as anything less than born again just because he has a problem with a building.
5. I think it is very presumptuous for Barna and Viola to assume that there is something more spiritual about a church meeting in a home with no program, chosen leader or agenda as opposed to one that meets in a building. I have worshipped in arenas with every chair facing the center and it has been heavenly. I have attended church meetings in living rooms that were hellish. Church meetings in assembly buildings or homes can be equally stale or equally edifying. The injunction for worship is not location or arrangement, but Spirit and Truth (John 4). Viola and Barna seem to ignore this New Testament Biblical precept completely. Honestly, I find the home church movement in America well intentioned, but mostly full of disgruntles, not pioneers as Viola and Barna paint them to be. I think, for the most part, they are not as free as Viola and Barna imagine, but they are led by patriarchal fathers who refuse to do the hard, but Biblical thing and try to live and worship with the church (people).
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions (1 Timothy 1:3-7).