This book - a reworking of Viola’s earlier Pagan Christianity - was always going to be controversial. It is essentially an exploration of the origins of numerous contemporary church practices, along with mostly unfavourable conclusions. However, we're not just talking about pews and power-point here. Barna and Viola strike at the heart of many cherished and central church practices.
The preface by Viola sets the tone for what's to come:
"Contemporary Christianity has fallen into the errors of both the Pharisees and the Saducees. ... We break the Scripture just as much by burying it under a mountain of human tradition as by ignoring its principles."
Predictably, not everyone has responded well to such assertions! My assessment of the negative reactions would suggest that the most vocal opponents of the book (huge numbers of whom seem never to have read it!) come from the ranks of church leaders. This should come as no surprise really, as they have the most to lose if Barna and Viola are correct. However, the strength of feeling in some of the responses has been surprising. I responded to a largely negative review on the Out of Ur blog here, but you can see more of what I'm talking about with Bob Hyatt's annoyed (and somewhat patronising) responses to Viola.
But, here's the funny thing, I can't find one thought in the book that is new. That's not to say that their thoughts are as well-made or nuanced as those of earlier writers. For example, I'm not sure that the preface serves the book well with statements like 'the church, in its contemporary, institutional form, has neither a biblical nor a historical right to exist.' However, anyone who's read any anabaptist theology, or picked up anything by Dunn, Moltmann, Snyder, Barth, Jon Zens or Wolfgang Simson (quite a mix there!) on local church life, won't be too surprised by what they read. I suspect that what angers people about Pagan Christianity is its thoroughness. It pulls no punches and provides no wiggle-room. It also provides few alternative, constructive, ideas, but we'll come back to that.
So, what do the authors actually say?
What do they say?
Firstly, I've discussed some of what they don't say in my defence of Pagan Christianity. They essentially argue that most of the practices followed by the New Testament church have their roots outside of the New Testament. To be more specific: church buildings, Pulpits, altars, tithing, clergy vestments, Pastors, sermons,Worship leaders, the Order of Worship and so on have developed from non-biblical traditions, not from the early church or the New Testament. Like I said, it's thorough!
However, the point that has been missed by most of the angry reviewers that I've read is that they are not arguing that just because something is adopted from the church’s surrounding culture, it is therefore necessarily wrong. They state, for example, that 'some pagan practices are neutral and can be redeemed for God’s glory'. The point is simply to consider whether what we know of as 'church' is what Jesus had in mind.
The chapter on tithing was great and - like most of the chapters - contained a host of footnotes that helpfully point interested readers to fuller discussions of the topic elsewhere. (Beyond Tithing, by Stuart Murray, would be a great start.) They argue, like Murray, that tithing is not a new covenant practice, that it now burdens the poor and that it serves to prop up an unbiblical institutionalized church and the salaries of unbiblical clergy. However, I did think it was an unfortunate missed opportunity that they didn't take the time to promote Jubilee as a biblical and practical alternative.
I was pleased to find a chapter on Sermons. As per usual, they cut straigh tto the jugular and state that 'the sermon does not have a shred of Biblical merit to support its existence.' In fact, 'the modern sermon does damage to the Body of Christ', perpetuating the clergy/laity divide and silencing all but one of the body of Christ. I couldn't agree more! You can read more articles questionning the sermon on interactivepreaching.net.
Another chapter worth highlighting is that on Pastors. Ths is the longest chapter in the book and no doubt the one that most riled the critics. Viola and Barna argue that the modern pastorate is no more than a Reformed Catholic priest. And a Catholic priest is an unscriptural office that added a ton of hierarchical power to an “office” that possessed absolute moral and spiritual authority. They go so far as describing the modern pastor is the 'thief' of every-member functioning in the Body of Christ and claiming that '[n]othing so hinders the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose as does the present-day pastoral role.'
I have mixed feelings about this chapter, which isn't surprising considering that it strikes at the heart of contempory church organisation. Ultimately, I share their conclusions. I don't think the New Testament knows anything like the contemporary Pastor. However, that's not to say that the New Testament lacks any notion of leadership, even if that notion may be completely different to how the word is usually understood. The nuance involved here - and the implications - surely warrant spending longer on buiding the solution than desconstructing the problem.
What don't they say?
The book is largely a deconstruction of what most churches refer to as “biblical” practice. However, it rarely discusses any missional motivations behind the development of doctrines or cultural absorbtion. Whether these activites are in the NT is one thing. Whether they are right for now is another. Whether they were ever right is another question altogether. I have no problem with pointing out errors made by the Church in history; I'm an anabaptist after all. I can condemn Constantine with the best of them! However, it is sometimes right to give the benefit of the doubt, especially when we were not there, or are unaware of all the circumstances.
An objection that the book doesn't seem to foresee is the question of Pagan Doctrine. If the early Church could get it wrong so quickly on such important practices, what makes us think that it stopped there? After all, the same people that kowtowed to Constantine agreed on the Canonizing of the books in our Bible. So, can we really limit this to the area of ecclesiology, without taking the step of re-examining the pagan roots of our Christology, Soteriology or Eschatology?
As the chapter on Pastors highlighted, the book offers more criticisms than constructive paths forward. In some ways, this makes sense. It affords the authors the time and space to delve into the historical roots and practical problems of the issues they consider. However it gives the book an unecessarilly negative tone and leaves readers wondering, "So... what now then?" Even if one is going to go on to write more books in the series - which is in fact the case, but is info that this book doesn't give you - is it really responsible to deconstruct, if you're not at least gonna give some clues about how to reconstruct.
How they say it
Let me finish by adding my biggest frustration with the book. I cringed more times than I can remember doing with any other book, due to the dogmatic and over-certain tone of the authors. I was aware that Viola has a reputation for saying it as it is. And it's certainly possible that my reaction to this style is simply that I'm too wishy-washy and ungrounded. However, I can't think of a sillier openning sentance in any book I've read, than this:
'Not long after we left the institutional church to begin gathering with Christians in New Testament fashion...'
Regardless of whether or not these words accurately reflect the reality of the situation, this is no way to start a polemical book. One might as well start a debate by saying, "You're an idiot. And I will now prove why." However, I'm English, whist Viola is from the States, so I suspect that I misread his tone at times, possibly even misreading jokes as serious statements.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that Viola is coming across as more dogmatic than he intends. Each chapter ends with a question and answer page, presuming intended to give the book a more dialogical feel. Viola has even been fielding questions about the book at the book's website, here.
What do I say?
Read it! Even if you decide that you don't buy all of the arguments in the book, there is a wealth of historical research gathered together in one place here. At the very least, it'll help you understand why some of us prefer meals over sacraments and discussions over sermons.