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Examining Church Traditions
Not long ago, author Frank Viola asked me if I’d ever read his book
“Pagan Christianity.” Well, I just did and, mercy! What an eye-opener!
I had the privilege of attending two of Viola’s sessions at a conference
last Labor Day weekend. A woman there who had read the book
quipped, “After I read it, I realized I wasn’t even a Christian!” I like
the book because it’s loaded with footnotes and is quite scholarly in
its approach, yet it’s a very easy read.
BE WARNED: Any objections to Viola’s information are objections
with historical, documented facts. To base one’s objections on the fact
that many aspects in our daily lives have paganism at their roots
(days of the week, months of the year, holidays, for example), what
one must bear in mind is that what we dub a certain day of the week
has nothing to do with fulfilling the cause of Christ. Do yourself a
favor and filter all such objections through that line of thought.
I used this as a resource book as it refers to the pagan roots of
The Sermon, The Church Building and The Pastor. You’ll be
amazed! I think these and many others topics will be of interest
to thinking Christians everywhere.
When you read the Scriptural accounts of the Book of Acts, have you
ever wondered how we ever got from groups of Christians that met
“from house to house” to what we have today?
Are there certain verses in the Bible that don’t sound anything like
church-as-we-know-it? Have you ever wondered why this is?
No matter what your denomination is, let’s take a brief look at what
Viola’s research has revealed on a few of our mutual “churchy” topics.
It’s a bit long. Eat it in small bites. Print it out, chew on it, share it,
PART 1: THE SERMON
Whenever we read a Biblical account of either Jesus, or Paul or
anybody in Scripture teaching others, overall, it appears to be a
dialogue rather than a monologue. In other words, there was generally
some sort of interaction and not merely passive listening. Sure, there
were discourses where Scripture reveals no verbal exchanges at all,
but time and again we see examples of people speaking TO the man
of God, not being spoken AT by him. In other instances, the hearers
may have turned and questioned one another, only to have Jesus
respond as He knew their thoughts or overheard their murmurings.
Acts 17:11 says the hearers “searched the Scriptures daily” to see
if what the apostle Paul was teaching them was even based upon truth.
Surely, there was discussion, research, more discussion the next day
and questions for Paul about the previous day’s teaching. That would
certainly have been the case had I been there. How about you?
So, from whence does the concept of one person at the front of a
building talking to rows of noses originate?
Can you imagine the pressure on one individual to serve-up a minimum
or 52 life-changing messages and inspired prayers each week to fill the
gaping mouths of spiritually-starving church-goers? It’s even more
pressure-packed for those who lead Protestant churches that meet on
Wednesday nights and twice on Sundays. One becomes a studying,
preaching machine in those cases. Many ministers (trust me on this)
resort to pulling a sermon out of a book or manila folder rather than
seeking God for a “now” word for this particular congregation.
Question: With all these life-changing messages going forth, where are
all the lives that have been changed? I’m not talking about the Baptist
who becomes a Catholic or the 3-year absentee darkening the door to
Sunday School. I’m talking about the disgustingly degenerated
Howard Stern-type who changes his life and starts serving the cause
of Christ (my own testimony). I’m talking about the drug-addicted porn
star who repents and, though occasionally reading her Bible with a
glass of bourbon, eventually forms her own outreach ministry to help
others bound in that lifestyle (Google Shelly Lubben).
In “Pagan Christianity,” Viola writes: “remove the sermon and you
have eliminated the most important source of spiritual nourishment for
most believers (so it is thought). Yet the stunning reality is that the
sermon has no root in Scripture! Rather, it was borrowed from pagan
culture, nursed and adopted into the Christian faith.”
He writes: “The earliest recorded Christian source for regular
sermonizing is found during the late second century. Clement of
Alexandria (150-215) lamented the fact that sermons did so little to
change Christians. Yet, despite its recognized failure, the sermon
became a standard practice among believers by the fourth century.”
Viola describes the wandering teachers of the 5th century called the
Sophists “who were credited for inventing rhetoric (the art of
persuasive speaking). They recruited disciples and demanded payment
for delivering their orations.” They were identified by the special
clothing they wore. Some had a fixed residence where they spoke
regularly to the same audience. Others traveled and made a good
living at this. Their messages would often generate applause. Some of
them lived at the public’s expense and others had statues erected in
The pagan Greeks loved rhetoric. Winning an argument through
persuasive speech was, to them, more important than speaking the truth.
About the 3rd Century, as Christianity got organized under Constantine,
itinerant ministers traveled right off the pages of Christian history (but
they are returning!). In came the liturgy, the pews, the hierarchical
system. Whenever these Sophists converted, they brought their gifts
right along with them. As Viola writes, “Only those who were trained
in Greco-Roman rhetoric were allowed to address the assembly.
(Sound familiar?)… the Greco-Roman sermon replaced prophesying,
open sharing, and Spirit-inspired teaching. The sermon became the
elitist privilege of church officials…Such people had to be educated in
the schools of rhetoric to learn how to speak…As early as the third
century, Christians called their sermons by the same name that Greek
orators called their discourses…homilies. Today, one can take a
seminary course called homiletics to learn how to preach.”
Viola continues, “…neither homilies (sermons) nor homiletics (the art
of sermonizing) have a Christian origin. They were stolen from the
pagans. A polluted stream made its way into the Christian faith and
poisoned its waters. And that stream flows just as strongly today as it
did in the fourth century.”
In the section entitled, “How Sermonizing Harms the Church,” Viola
makes five really valid points:
1) It “makes the preacher the virtuoso performer, degenerating the
congregation into a group of muted spectators”; it “freezes and
imprisons the functioning Body of Christ.”
2) It “stalemates spiritual growth” and “blunts curiosity and produces
passivity.” It cripples the Body of Christ. He writes, “It smothers open
participation. This causes the spiritual growth of God’s people to take
a nosedive.” If you don’t use it, you lose it, they say. If we aren’t
moving the muscles of the Body of Christ, they atrophy.
3) It “preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality…it creates an excessive
and pathological dependence on the clergy.” It turns the preacher or
priest into a “religious specialist – the only one having anything worthy
to say. Everyone else is treated as a second-class Christian.”
4) It “deskills” us. It fails to equip the saints to do the work of the
ministry, despite what ministers may say and truly believe. The
proof’s in the puddin’. If the New Testament Church could function
without the presence of a clergyman – relying solely upon the leading
of the Spirit, why can’t we? It’s happening all over the world and
5) “The typical sermon is a swimming lesson on dry land! It lacks
practical value…Modern pulpiteerism fails to get beyond merely
disseminating information to the role of equipping believers for both
experiencing and utilizing that which they have heard.” This might
describe why so few ministers still believe and teach on the gifts of
the Spirit as being still in existence today. They cannot teach on what
they do not know.
PART 2: THE CHURCH BUILDING
Even among the House Church crowd, one of the initial goals of any
group is that they should find a building ASAP. Why? Quite often, as
I talk with people about the things of God, I hear something like this,
I wasn’t talking about “going” anywhere; I was talking about their
relationship with King Jesus and all they can say is, “I go”? Many
Christians have reduced their relationship with Jesus to their attendance
at a Church building. Likewise, many people feel their attendance at
home equals a marriage or a family. Once again, as it is in the natural
realm, so it is in the Spiritual realm. Just as one must participate in
family life – because one IS part of the family body, so all of us must
participate in BEING The Church as we are all part of the Body of
Christ; a living organism, not an organization.
Viola asserts that, “…ancient Judaism was centered on three elements:
The temple, the priesthood and the sacrifice. When Jesus came, he
ended all three, fulfilling them in Himself. He is the Temple who
embodies a new and living house made of living stones – “without
hands.” He is the Priest who has established a new priesthood [you
and me]. And He is the perfect and finished Sacrifice. Consequently,
[these things] all passed away with the coming of Jesus Christ.”
Didn’t the pagan Greeks and Romans also have temples, priests and
offer sacrifices? Yes, they did. The New Testament Church did away
with all these elements. The early Church was filled with former pagan
priests, temple prostitutes and the like. As Viola states, “Christianity
was the first non-temple based religion ever to emerge.” The Church
was and IS the people of God, not a building.
The first person to ever use the word “ekklesia” (called out ones) in
reference to a building was Clement of Alexandria around AD190. He
was the first to use the phrase “go to church.” How does one GO to
what we ARE?
“Christians did not erect special buildings for worship until the
Constantinian era in the fourth century,” Viola writes. As any Christian
knows, WE are now the temple of God. You Do know that, right?
There are no sacred places required; no Holy Lands any holier than the
ground you’re standing on right now. There are no more sacred priests
required as our sacred High Priest has established a Kingdom filled
with Priests and Kings…you and me. There are no more sacrifices
required as Jesus died once for all time. Nothing else is needed. Ever!
Christianity conquered the Roman Empire. It was, quite literally, a
House to House invasion. So committed to the cause of Christ were
these people that, as their groups grew, they tore out walls and
expanded rooms to accommodate them all. Obviously, these early
saints had not embraced the concept of multiplication as a core value.
The herd mentality has no place in advancing God’s kingdom. We must
be Pioneers, not Settlers. To their credit, these early Saints never
referred to their remodeled homes as “temples,” the term that both
pagans and Jews used for their sacred spaces. “Christians did not
begin calling their buildings “temples” until the 15th Century!” In time,
the veneration of religious relics and prayer to dead martyrs – both
straight out of paganism – began to arise. Meals in honor of the dead,
“the Christian funeral and the funeral dirge both came straight out of
paganism in the third century.” In fact, third century Christians met in
homes and in the cemetery. “They met in the cemetery because they
wished to be close to their dead brethren…because “holy” martyrs were
buried there, Christian burial places came to be viewed as “holy
spaces.” The Christians began to build small monuments over these
spaces – especially over the graves of famous saints. Building a shrine
over a burial place and calling it “holy” was also a pagan practice.”
He goes on to describe how the Christians decorated the catacombs
(underground burial paces) with Christian symbols. Even the cross as
a graphic element cannot be found prior to Constantine. “reverence for
the dead was the most powerful community-forming force in the Roman
Empire…In the late Second century, there was a shift in how the Lord’s
Supper was viewed. The Supper had devolved from a full meal to a
stylized ceremony called “Holy Communion”…the cup and bread were
seen as producing a sense of awe, dread and mystery.”
By the third century, with relics, reverence for the dead, holy spaces
and holy people in place – all straight out of paganism – the climate
was primed for Constantine to come onto the Christian stage with his
church buildings in an effort to legitimatize his faith. After all, the
pagans and Jews had theirs. Why not us, too? Many of these structures
were erected over the tombs of martyred Christians, something most
Christians were already accustomed to doing.
“In the fourth century, fountains were erected in the courtyard so that
Christians could wash-up before entering,” Viola writes. Constantine’s
church buildings were spacious and magnificent edifices…
[Constantine] profusely decorated the new church buildings with pagan
art!” The buildings were patterned after the basilica, the common
government building which “served much the same function as a high
school auditorium…wonderful for seating passive and docile crowds
that watch a performance…basilicas were designed so that the sub fell
upon the speaker as he faced the congregation. Like the temples of the
Greeks and Romans, the Christian basilicas were built with a facade
(front) facing east.” This Viola says, was because of Constantine’s
fascination with sun worship (NOT “Son” worship).
How did these new church buildings influence Christian worship?
“Because the Emperor was the number one “lay person”…a simple
ceremony was not sufficient. In order to honor him, the pomp and ritual
of the imperial court was adopted into the Christian liturgy.” The
carrying of lights on poles to the burning of incense were customs of
the Roman Emperors. So, Constantine introduced candles and incense
to the church service. Special garments, various gestures of respect,
choirs, processionals…all of these were introduced by Constantine to
appease the customs of the Roman imperialism and Greek paganism.
“The upshot of all this was an immediate loss of intimacy and open
participation. The professional clergy performed the acts of worship
while the laity looked on as spectators.” Viola concedes, “Constantine
brought peace for all Christians. Under his reign, the Christian faith
had become legitimate [as if it wasn’t already – at least in God’s eyes]
…for these reasons, Christians saw Constantine’s rise to Emperor as
an act of God. Here was God’s instrument that had come to their rescue.
Christianity and Roman culture were now melded together.”
The early Christians avoided any contact with paganism. Now, under
Constantine, paganism was everywhere. Christians were becoming
numb to its effect with time and, as the years passed, more and more
Christians knew of nothing else but Constantine’s church. Though third
and fourth century Christians tried justifying the ornate cathedrals by
attributing their origin to the Old Testament, they were mistaken. All
the trappings of the Mosaic laws and practices were forever destroyed
at the cross replaced by the ekklesia, The Church, “a non-hierarchical,
non-ritualistic, non-liturgical organism,” Viola said.
For any non-Catholic readers who are smugly blaming Catholicism for
our current state, Viola does a masterful job of explaining how the
Protestants added their own fuel to the fire. Most so-called Reformers
were former priests and old habits died hard, if they died at all. Where
the church building was concerned, though there were some variations,
the greatest change they made “was the idea that people could not know
God nor grow spiritually unless they heard preaching.” Again,
Christians were to resign themselves to sitting and listening every time
the doors were opened for as long as the preacher liked.
Oy, vay! Here we go again.
PART 3: THE PASTOR
I’ve spoken in the past regarding the role of “pastor” and where he
came from. The word appears only once in Scripture and it’s in the
plural form. If we take the Pastor OUT of the Christian equation, what
do we have? Take the Pope out of Catholicism and what do we have?
In both cases, the institution crumbles, right? In both cases, to quote
Viola, they are “better known, more highly praised and more heavily
relied upon than Jesus Christ Himself.”
Viola clarifies that he is not speaking about the individuals who serve
in the role of Pastor. “By and large, those who serve in the office of
Pastor are wonderful people. They are honorable, decent, and often
gifted Christians who love God and have a zeal to serve His people.
But it is a role they are fulfilling that both Scripture and church history
are opposed to…”
PLEASE REQUEST THE BALANCE OF THIS ARTICLE BY WRITING [email protected] and typing “PASTOR” in your SUBJECT bar. Thank you!
If you are interested in any other material by Frank Viola, log on at ptmin.org
and read more! You can also read other articles and excerpts from
his books on various topics of interest as well as archived Q&A.
Great stuff! Thanks, Frank!
A servant of God
PLEASE FORWARD TO AT LEAST 5 OTHER PEOPLE!
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