CH101 Book Reviews

Pagan Christianity

Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
by Frank Viola and George Barna
December 18, 2022

This book has grabbed the attention of many Christians since 2012...maybe earlier. Let me say up front - I rarely read "popular" books, so I am late to this party. I had never heard of Frank Viola, but when I saw George Barna was the co-author - that got my attention.

A fellow pastor and friend told me enough about the book to get my attention. He asked me to write a critical review, so I bought the book.
A short bio
I grew up in a mainline denominational "high" church environment, but did not become a Christian until I was 17 yrs old. I did a mission for almost a year in South America, served as a university pastor for 14 years, worked in a software company for six years, have been a small church pastor for a total 9 years, earned a Ph.D. in Early Church History from St Andrews University in Scotland and was a professor for six years. Almost all of the highlights in my spiritual life have happened outside the formal "church" environment. To use Viola's jargon, my church preference is "organic." Small groups and house groups has been some of the main spiritual input in my life.

In essence, I agree with many of the concepts Viola presents and which [I think] led him to publish such a book. What pushed me to focus my attention on this book were the numerous historical errors Viola makes in his book. In my opinion, Viola misrepresents both the New Testament and the early Christian movement.

In my opinion, Viola would have done far better to simply offer his ideas, observations (many of which are good) and opinions without attempting to enter the depths of "scholarship." He is not a trained scholar and does not have the breadth nor depth of reading and study to make many of the claims being advanced in this book. Several observations on the condition of the contemporary church are valid and needed, but unfortunately he has developed a predicate argument and then feels the need to "prove" the predicate. The result is that Viola comes off as a bomb-thrower, making accusations and definitive statements with very little historical/biblical context other than footnotes that cannot be trusted.

The bulk of this review is already written, but I have just stumbled onto a four-part review written by Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary and an immanent scholar. His work is excellent and I cite him in this review. I was pleased to see that Witherington offers some of the same criticisms of Viola that I make, but he opens his review with these comments:
I know Frank Viola, indeed for some years he has asked me loads of good and telling questions via email...It is interesting to me that this book appears to take no notice of various of these answers which I have given, nor are any of my works found in the bibliography at the end of the book. Perhaps I have missed something in the minutiae of the truly minute footnotes at the bottom of each page, but now I am wondering why exactly I have answered all those questions over the years. It's a pity. []

I am now editing my review and will be FAR more critical of Viola - he had the ear of a world-class scholar who was trying to "help" him understand primitive Christianity... and he ignored him! While I consider Viola a brother in Christ, I cannot ignore his arrogance and willful ignorance. Some will ask, "Why didn't you or Witherington approach Viola privately?" Good question. When you publish something for the world to see, a book like "Pagan Christianity," you must be openly corrected for the world to see. Notice Witherington's final comment above, "It's a pity." When I read Witherington's comments just yesterday I was saddened to realize that Viola made a choice: he turned his back on solid scholarship so he could throw bombs...and make some cash selling books.
There are 691 footnotes in Chapters 2-5! My first complaint is that the footnotes are in such a small font that reading them is FAR TOO difficult. Why is that important? For a man offering scathing critiques of the 21st century Christian church using arguments that include subtle psychological impact - like how the seating affects personal interactions (and this is a point I agree with) - to then present footnotes in such a small font easily leads the average reader (who would naturally NOT want to read footnotes) to quickly ignore the notes. What's my point? I think Viola is TRYING to give the impression of rigorous research when a closer look reveals otherwise. I find his presentation of notes to be deceptive. Let me get specific.

Many of the "scholars" cited for his historical "proofs" are not trained early church historians - they are theologians making historical comments. Many of the writers cited are outdated or they are/were generalists - a mile wide and an inch deep. Viola opens Chapter Two with a "call-out" quote from Philip Schaff and lists him as a 19th century "American Church Historian and Theologian." (p.9) While this is true, Schaff's comment is about the primitive church which was NOT his primary area of expertise. Schaff's work was respected in the 1880's, but he is now outdated. I have several leading historians in ancient Christianity on my shelves: Henry Chadwick, WHC Frend, Hans Lietzmann, F.F. Bruce, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, Larry Hurtado, Robin Lane Fox (I could list several more, see the Bibliography). ONLY two of these cite Philip Schaff and/or have him in their bibliography (Frend lists Schaff in his bibliography, but does not cite him and Hurtado lists/cites him one time).

Why is Schaff missing? Because Schaff is no longer seen as an expert in ancient Christian history. He was an expert in 1860, but not now. Yet, Viola cites Schaff at least 23 times. Another example is Justo Gonzalez. Viola cites Gonzalez, "Story of Christianity" at least 5 times in Chapter Two. Gonzalez authored a Church History text, but he is formally trained as a theologian, not an historian. I was involved in pushing Gonzalez to remove two egregious errors from the second edition of his basic history text. He had made comments about Athanasius that have NO historical evidence! [See my article on the "Black Dwarf" and the Gonzalez citation.] I am sure Prof Gonzalez is a sincere Christian and a scholar, but he is not an expert in early Christianity.

A footnote does not make a claim true.
I will give an example to illustrate: Viola cites Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians at least four times in Chapter Two. Because I know Fox to be a solid scholar and because I have this volume on my shelf, I decided to audit Viola's citations. I needed to know if I could trust Viola to treat his sources accurately. On page 19 Viola writes,

"Almost to his dying day, Constantine still 'functioned as the high priest of paganism' [footnote 56, he is quoting Gonzalez, who I cannot fully trust]. In fact, he retained the pagan title Pontifex Maximus, which means chief of the pagan priests!" [footnote 57 points to Fox, p.666]

Just as I had anticipated, Fox gives a balanced and nuanced presentation, completely ignored by Viola (he may have others doing his "research"). On page 665 Fox states: "It is all too plain that the Emperor had inherited many more problems than he created." Fox quickly lays out many of the thorny issues that were already vexing the Church before Constantine had ever become part of the Christian world. In his zeal as a new convert, Constantine wanted to convert the Roman Empire. Fox continued, "The prime obstacle to Christianization lay in the Christians themselves...A double standard had always been present in Christian ethics..." (p.666) Fox then proceeds to examine the difficult task for Constantine who, as Emperor, was officially Pontifex Maximus over ALL the religions in the Roman Empire. Just as the President of the USA is expected to protect the religious freedom of ALL faiths, this was the "official" role of the Pontifex Maximus. Fox continued, writing that Constantine "moved cautiously...he had to accept an army and a ruling class who were overwhelmingly pagan, and remained so throughout his reign. But his public language was unambiguous. Paganism was a false 'error' and sacrifice a 'foul pollution'." (p.666) Anyone who has done serious study of Constantine knows that he held religious freedom to be a very important part of the Roman Empire. He did not like how Diocletian and Galerius had attacked the Christians and he did not want to do the same thing to the pagans.

You can see how Fox, as a scholar, treats the situation with more balance, not simply blaming all the woes on Constantine. Did Viola even read the section of Fox that he uses as a citation? I seriously doubt it. And if he did, he shows that he himself is not a scholar by simply making a statement full of accusation without any attempt to give historical context.

Viola should just state his opinion without the guise of scholarship. He could have made his points without throwing bombs. As I stated above, I agree with many of his opinions, but his presentation appears meant to lead uninformed Christians into thinking his position using early Christianity is both scholarly and accurate. It is neither. That, however, does not mean that he has nothing of value to offer.

Chapter Two
The Church Building

Viola opens this chapter stating that "Many contemporary Christians have a love affair with brick and mortar." According to Viola, most Christians "unconsciously equate" the church building with "the church." (p.10) These are the kinds of opinion statements that make it difficult to take Viola seriously. If he simply said "some" rather than "most" it would have made a big difference. I have been a Christian for over 45 years and this does not describe the majority of the Christians I have known in multiple churches and in several denominations. Throughout the book Viola overstates his case without caveat. Does he have good points to be made here? Yes, but overstating his case is not proof.

He goes on to say that the primitive church did not meet in "church" buildings: "Christians did not erect special buildings for worship until the Constantinian era in the fourth century." (p.12) Viola cites Graydon Snyder as an authority on the matter, but Snyder's quote that there were no church buildings until the year 300 is probably incorrect. He voices the same position in the updated 2003 edition of his book.

This seems to echo a common accusation pointed at Emperor Constantine, laying blame on him for the corruption of early Christianity. But a quick Google search for "church buildings in the early church" yields a link to Christianity Today with an article by Everett Ferguson titled "Why and when did Christians start constructing special buildings for worship?" Ferguson is an excellent scholar and in this article he states, "In Rome, there are indications that early Christians met in other public spaces such as warehouses or apartment buildings." He then goes on to speak about a very important archeaological discovery of the earliest known "building certainly devoted to Christian use" in eastern Syria around 240AD. Ferguson is referring to the Dura-Europos home that was converted into a "church."

This is Viola's footnoted comment on Dura-Europos, "It was simply a private home remodeled as a Christian gathering place." (p.15) Viola makes it sound like this "building" continued to be someone's private home...with a baptismal pool. I guess the family used the baptistery as a bathtub! Yet L. Michael White (who is also cited by Viola) states, "The Dura Christian building is a true [house church], insofar as it was a converted private house, which after remodeling ceased to be used for domestic functions." [Michael Peppard, The World's Oldest Church, (Yale University Press 2016), p.16, emphasis added. There is a diagram on page 17. See Google books.] Interestingly, in the surrounding footnotes Viola does kind of admit to such houses being converted into dedicated churches, but his clear presentation in the main text is that there were no church "buildings" prior to the "Constantinian era." (p.12) This is another example of why Viola cannot be trusted to be objective with his sources.

Another archaeological dig in Israel has uncovered yet an earlier church meeting hall in a Roman outpost. This meeting place for a "church" is dated at the latest around 230AD by coinage found in the structure. The "chapel" had a beautiful mosaic floor with a marked spot for a Eucharist table. While this was not a stand-alone church building, it certainly was a "special" place dedicated for Christians to meet for worship and NOT a private house. The journal article is dated 2007. If Viola had just done a basic Google search he may have saved himself from making such a definitive statement. [See "Inscribed 'To God Jesus Christ': Early Christian Prayer Hall Found in Megiddo Prison," in the Bibliography for the citation.]

These two examples show that Christians were meeting in buildings other than private homes at least a generation prior to Emperor Constantine. Most church historians will tell you that our earliest literary evidence (or physical evidence in this instance) of almost anything is most likely NOT the first instance. In other words, these two examples from 230-240AD were probably not the first dedicated buildings for Christian worship.
This is from Snyder's 2003 edition,
"There were homes that were restructured to accommodate the Christian assembly...[they] must have multiplied rapidly as the size of the church catholic grew. It is amazing that we do not have more remains...

we probably do have the remains of such house churches but cannot recognize them." Snyder then proceeds to discuss the Dura-Europos church house. [Snyder, Graydon, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Mercer Univ Press 2003), p.128]

This comment by Synder sounds very similar to Hans Lietzmann, famous German Church Historian and professor at the University of Berlin speaking of the period after Emperor Gallienus issued his edict of partial tolerance (cir. 260-261AD) which restored confiscated churches to their rightful owners allowing the church to enjoy a time of peace and growth:

"No wonder that the old meeting places were now not big enough for the public worship of the increasing multitudes, and everywhere new and larger churches were built. Nor is it surprising that scarcely a trace of this building activity has survived to the present day." Lietzmann, Vol.II, p.58.

Where did Lietzmann get this idea? From church historian Eusebius, referring to the period of "peace" from around 270-295AD!

How could one describe those mass meetings, the enormous gatherings in every city, and the remarkable congregations in places of worship? No longer satisfied with the old buildings, they raised from the foundations in all the cities churches spacious in plan. HE 8.1.3-5

These more modern archaeological discoveries seem to be validating the report by Eusebius. But in addition to this, we have another clear literary record showing that Christians had buildings for worship before Constantine came to power. Towards the end of February 303AD Diocletian started what is now called "The Great Persecution" while he was in the city of Nicomedia staying in the imperial palace.

Again Eusebius reports,
" imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire, and giving notice that those in places of honor would lose their places, and domestic staff, if they continued to profess Christianity..." HE 8.2.4

So we learn here that Christians were already worshipping in church buildings in 303AD and the edict called for buildings to be destroyed all over the Empire (at least throughout that region). Constantine would later relate that, with Diocletian on the imperial terrace, he watched as soldiers battered down the doors of the church in Nicomedia, lit fires to burn the sacred writings, and watched as Praetorian guards took axes and "leveled the lofty structure to the ground in a few hours." [Odahl, Charles Matson, Constantine and the Christian Empire (Routledge 2010), 2nd ed., p.67.]

Nicomedia was a fairly large city and the church in Nicomedia appears to have been a fairly large facility. This lets us know how common Christian churches had become, that there would be a large church building within eyesight of the Imperial Palace. There must have been small church buildings all over the Roman Empire by this time.

It is clear that Viola's premise is not accurate. How about his criticisms of church buildings? Many of Viola's observations on the psychological impact that a church building has on the congregants are interesting and seem to have validity. We must always be on guard for small things that can inhibit worship. I am no fan of sound systems nor of the typical seating arrangements in church. I agree with Viola that staring at the backs of heads does not enhance the worship experience. (pp.34-36) When singing songs of praise and adoration I am encouraged by seeing and hearing others engaging. I like to HEAR the voices of the saints around me singing! Our sound systems and the worship team can overwhelm the voices of the congregation - it becomes more like a concert than a time of worship. There are some good observations and criticisms in this chapter about the nature of the buildings we use for "church."

Chapter Three
The Order of Worship

Overall I agree with many things Viola says in this chapter, but the hubris of his certainty is difficult to endure. He states that you can search the New Testament and "you will never find anything that remotely resembles our order of worship." (p.50)
The reader will quickly see that my main argument with Viola is that the NT does not give us a clear picture of exactly what a Sunday gathering looked like.

Then just a bit further down the page he describes the primitive church gathering as "every member functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy and open participation." This sounds like the kind of worship I like, but his references in the footnote are hilarious, 1 Cor 14:1-33 and Heb 10:25!

The text from NT Hebrews tells us not to neglect meeting together. Really? Using 1 Corinthians as a guide for what the church should look like is a bit like the USA looking to Cuba for how to run our nation. I believe in the working of the Holy Spirit, but looking to the Corinthian church as our model is not a great idea. Divisions and cliques (ch 1-3), a man having sex with his step-mother (ch 5), believers taking each other to court (ch 6) - and there's more! There was plenty of freedom and spontaneity! Viola wants less structure while the Apostle Paul tells this church at the end of that passage, "everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way." (1 Cor 14:40)

In the Question and Answer section Viola answers the concern of a lack of order: "Paul was confident the church would adhere to those guidelines [Like the churches in Galatia? And the Corinthians apparently were failing as well.]...Every church in the first century itinerant apostolic worker." (p.80, brackets are obviously my comments.) So Viola says that each first century church benefited from "an itinerant apostolic worker"? So he is pointing to a leadership hierarchy that he calls "pagan" in Chapter Five? [Spoiler Alert]  

In the next question/answer somebody asked about the pragmatism of Finney in revival results and part of Viola's response was, "God's eternal purpose was not in view at all." (p.81) This is the kind of arrogant statement that jades all the good observations Viola makes. It is surprising that Viola was 38 years old when this book was first published. I would have guessed he had been in his mid-20's to make these kinds of arrogant comments.

Viola only gives these two texts (1 Cor 14:1-33 and Heb 10:25) as his references for a very good reason - the New Testament does not give us a clear picture of what a meeting actually looked like. Why can't he just give his opinion without making such definitive statements that cannot be proven? Yet he continues..."the first century church meeting was not patterned after the Jewish synagogue..." (p.51) How does he know this? Which first century church is he talking about? The Pauline circle or the Judean churches that continued to be more Jewish until 70AD, following James certainly more than the Pauline pattern? Does he know what the first century church looked like in Alexandria, Egypt? No, he doesn't...because nobody does. Yet Apollos showed up from Alexandria already saved and trained in the faith (Acts 18:24-26). Apollos stands as a witness against much of what Viola writes in Chapter Four...but we'll get to that next.

I am not a fan of liturgy, overly structured meetings, or monotony, but the constant references to everything being "pagan" with vague evidence and citing his "scholars" is tiresome and judgemental - Comments of no real substance with a footnote that has no substance. Why even have footnotes?

On page xxxv we are given a definition of "pagan" which includes the following comment: "We are not using the word as a synonym for bad, evil, wrong or sinful." Thus far almost every use of "pagan" seems to be pejorative.

Chapter Four
The Sermon

Ok. First I want to say that sermons have such a wide variety...criticism is kind of like shooting at nothing. Practically speaking, I agree with many of Viola's criticisms. I have mostly sat under very good teachers and have been enriched by these men and women throughout my Christian life. By the time I had been a Christian for six years I had read the entire Bible cover to cover multiple times. I knew what the text said, but without easy access to commentaries many of these pulpit teachers were the only way I could learn historical context and nuance. Having said that, I have endured countless sermons that went an hour or longer. Most of these taught me very little. Sometimes I would sit and stealthfully read my Bible, listening with one ear. I have listened to men who dripped with self-importance, some who made silly and/or stupid comments, then would issue the warning that to disagree with them is to disagree with the Word of God [similar to how Viola sounds throughout this book!]. Sadly, I have been guilty over the years of similar sinful and stupid attitudes.

The local church needs to have a vision and ask God to either raise up the leadership from within, or bring the person who will share the vision of the church body. I realize Viola would discount my comment because he is fully persuaded that his view is the ONLY correct view, but my comments here are expressing some of the same views he has about how the local church is to function.
Back to "The Sermon."

Viola makes another dogmatic statement on Page 88: "There is nothing in Scripture to indicate it's existence [the contemporary sermon] in the early Christian gatherings." Viola continues by saying "Spirit-inspired" preaching was "sporadic, extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure."

Let's just THINK about this claim for a minute. So Paul was in Corinth for around 18 months (Acts 18:11) and he was in Ephesus for around three years (Acts 19:10). Does Viola really think that Paul would only speak sporadically to those congregations? IF he thinks this, he has NO evidence for his position. It would not surprise me if Paul had others share from time to time, but I would be greatly surprised to find out that he only spoke "sporadically." Do I think Paul's speaking was always "extemporaneous?" No. Viola has NO evidence that Paul's sharing while in Corinth or Ephesus was ONLY extemporaneous. How about "rhetorical structure?" Does he think Paul would just "wing-it" from the hip? His letters are not extemporaneous and they certainly contain rhetorical structure. Paul was a trained scholar in his day. But again, Viola has NO evidence that Paul (or anyone else who may have shared at a house church) did not use planned messages or rhetorical structure. The only reference he really has is from 1 Cor 12 and 14, a section which ends with "But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way." (1 Cor 14:40)

Viola lays out his theory (pp.89-93) with 32 footnotes claiming that rhetoric is "pagan," part of the "polluted stream" flowing from Greek philosophy. I would point the truly interested person to read a bit from Ben Witherington, a leading NT scholar of our day. One of his most profound contributions has been writing NT commentaries which are subtitled as "Socio-Rhetorical" commentaries: "Paul lived in a rhetoric-saturated environment with only limited literacy. The failure to come to grips with this fact is serious, especially when Greek-speaking church fathers like John Chrysostom knew perfectly well that Paul was following all kinds of rhetorical conventions in his proclamations and his letters. Was Chrysostom imposing rhetorical categories on Paul's non-rhetorical letters? Absolutely not...Furthermore, we are not talking about something that is incidental, accidental, or of minor import." (p.22) [Withington, Ben, Paul's Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Eerdmans 2011)] You can read most of his introduction on Google books.

Viola's callout quote to open the chapter is 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (NIV): "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words..." While Paul certainly says this in the opening of his highly structured and rhetorical letter, Viola never comments on WHY Paul says this. Some of the Corinthians were comparing Paul to Apollos and finding Paul lacking. Some had declared an allegiance to Apollos (1 Cor 1:12; 3:4) and Paul does not want to engage in this competition. Look it up in any decent commentary.  

The irony here is that Paul's comment in 1 Corinthians about not using "wise and persuasive words" IS itself a rhetorical device! This apparently slipped by Viola without notice.

The fact is that MOST of our documented evidence from the primitive church comes from well-educated men who spoke fairly good Greek and were literate. We have very little in the way of extemporaneous messages from the apostolic era. Did it exist? Certainly. Was it the norm for presentation in the house church? There is NO solid evidence to prove this. What also probably happened in the house church was one of the few literate persons read from the Greek OT or from copies of notes handed down about Jesus or His sayings, or from a Pauline letter. I cannot remember Viola saying anything about limited literacy and having someone read to the small house church.

How much does Viola know about Apollos, the already converted Egyptian from Alexandria? Viola has seven titles by F.F. Bruce in his bibliography. Bruce is one of my heroes: a tremendously good scholar AND a committed Christian. Noticeably missing in Viola's biblio (given the focus of this book) is Bruce's Commentary on the Book of Acts, and the small, but powerful text Men and Movements in the Primitive Church [For details, see the Bibliography]. This either points to a lack of good research or a purposeful neglect of contrary evidence.

Apollos is described by Luke with a unique phrase "aner 'eloquent man'...agrees with it's meaning in Hellenistic and Modern Greek." (Bruce, Men and Movements, p.68) It is likely that "Apollos's eloquence was contrasted with Paul's unimpressive delivery or...eschewing of 'lofty words or wisdom' among the Corinthians." (Bruce, p.68-69) Bruce Winter, another excellent scholar states that Luke's description of Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) "has rhetorical connotations, so that the Acts account of Apollos would have conveyed to the readers that this Christian Jew from Alexandria depended on his rhetorical skills," and also that "aner logios is an expression used by Philo to describe those who have been trained in rhetoric." (Winter, Philo and Paul Among the Sophists, p.176, especially n143 and 144, for details see the Bibliography) Further the use of katechemenos "he was instructed" in Acts 18:25 cannot be satisfied "by a reading knowledge; it rather implies listening to a teacher." (Bruce, The Book of Acts, p.359.)

My point? Viola's comments about "paganism" and the Greek philosophical tradition, making negative comments about various church fathers who had been classically trained - it is clear to me that he has no idea of the positive presence of the philosophical tradition in his New Testament. There are clear philosophical markers in Romans 1-2; in Hebrews we have shades of Platonic thought and indications of sharing ideas from Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher and theologian. Viola cites James Dunn, so here is a citation from Dunn speaking about how "Greek intellectual thought" influenced the New Testament: "Paul also shows no inhibitions in taking up what, in terms of usage, was a typically Stoic formulation - of the cosmos...Rom 11:36, 1 Cor 8:6, and Col 1:16-17." (James Dunn, New Testament Theology: An Introduction, see Bibliography), page numbers missing. You can see the citation on Google Books: in Part III.2 "The Inherited Theo-logy"

The Christian faith inherited being the people "of the writings" from Judaism when only around five percent of the ancient world could read and write. Christianity has always attracted great minds and highly educated men and women. All of this makes it clear why I was stunned to read Viola's charge that polished and eloquent presentations of the gospel that had rhetorical structure, and used sophisticated grammar...were signs of being "pagan." What is especially ironic to me is that Viola's book is structured, filled with rhetorical device and certainly is not extemporaneous.

To conclude this chapter, I do think Christian gatherings need to be more spontaneous, with more freedom to speak out and share from the heart. Our spiritual gatherings should not make the less educated feel like they have nothing to offer. I think we need to encourage extemporaneous sharing and praying in our meetings. And as I mentioned at the start of my comments on this chapter, all sermons are not created equal. Bad sermons are not easy to endure, but I have also been in poorly run small fellowship gatherings in a home. That can also be difficult to endure.

Chapter Five
The Pastor (Church Hierarchy)

This chapter on the role of pastors is one of the most important chapters in the book and possibly THE most important contribution made by Viola. I have felt for many years that we are not doing a great job of training pastors. In agreement with Viola, I do think most churches are far too dependent on the pastor. However, many pastors suffer from an addiction: they are addicted to being "the man up front." I know. I had this problem for several years. Some pastors do not trust anyone else to preach, to lead the large Sunday School class, or even to pray. ALL of this flows from a lack of seeing the "organic" nature of the community of believers. Over many, many decades this mentality among pastors has led to a majority of believers to think visiting the sick or praying for people who are struggling is the job of the pastor. This is not good. I believe this is part of the thinking that motivated Viola to write this book.

Unfortunately, as he does in every chapter, Viola has to be a bomb-thrower and make provocative statements without solid evidence to back his opinions. The overall thrust of this chapter is that the primitive church did not have a leadership hierarchy. On Page 109 Viola states, "Up until the second century, the church had no official leadership."

Before the "church" was birthed Jesus selected 12 men to be His apostles. He had more than 500 fairly close followers by the time He ascended (1 Cor 15:6), yet the twelve had a special place. Does Viola think these 11 men (after Judas' death) were just like all the rest? No difference at all? Does Viola think that when there was a decision to be made after Pentecost many of the people wanted to know what Mnason thought should be done? Of course not (Look Mnason up). No, they asked Peter what should be done. Jesus established hierarchy when He said "On this rock I will build my church."

"Up until the second century, the church had no official leadership." (p.109) If there is "no official leadership" then why in 1 Timothy and Titus does Paul give lists of things he expects in a bishop, elder or presbyter? The obvious implication is that these men and women are being singled out from the rest. When Paul is on his way to Jerusalem why does he call for the "Ephesian elders" in Acts 20?" Why didn't he just ask for a random sample of 10-12 people?..."just send the ones you doesn't matter...everyone is equal."

Before I continue, I need to again make it clear: there are important points being made by Viola that I believe to be valid. A "pastor" is a pastor NOT just because they are called "pastor" by others - it is not simply the "title" for an "office." A person can have a title and NOT be functioning as they should in that calling or role. That is a given.  

I want to offer two respected scholars who directly refute Viola's basic predicate argument that there was no hierarchy in the primitive church. I have already argued directly from biblical text, but these two scholars actually use the word "office" in their presentation. Viola likes to use "office" to differentiate his opinion; he is arguing that the "office" did not exist. (p.106-107, 125, 142) Page 143 gives yet another definitive statement on this issue: "...the real question is, should we support an office and a role that has no basis in the New Testament?" Phillip Payne and James Dunn are excellent scholars and they use the term "office" to mean both holding the "title" and having a "position" of influence.

Philip Payne does an excellent job of laying out the evidence in his book Man and Woman, One in Christ that women held leadership roles in Pauline churches. Payne points out that Paul's use of the participle ousan for Phoebe in Romans 16 [a form of the Greek verb "to be"] is "specifying Phoebe to 'be' a deacon...seems to imply a recognized office...this was not simply a leadership role over other women." (p.62)

Payne is specifically speaking mainly about the role of women in the Pauline circles, but Dunn offers global comments about the primitive church. (Unity and Diversity, pp.109-114) Dunn sees the Pauline circle of churches as a "charismatic community" without formal offices, but he gives some caveats: the position of apostle and that of deacon, Phil 1:1 (p.113).

Although Dunn does not hold to Pauline authorship, his comments on the Pastorals should be instructive for Viola:
"Elders...Overseers...and deacons appear now as descriptions of established offices." (p.114-115) "The presentation of 1 Tim. 3 suggests that deacons were subordinate officials...The role of Timothy and Titus in this hierarchy is not very clear either, though they certainly rank above the elders, overseers and deacons...charisma has become the power and authority of office" (p.115)

Viola's position on "nonhierarchical leadership..." (p.xxiii) is not supported by a simple reading of the New Testament and cannot stand up to sound reasoning. He wants the reader to see the primitive church through rose-colored lenses. His picture of the apostolic church is skewed towards the good; his vision of the church AFTER the apostles is skewed towards the bad. He seems to need this "biblical" vs "pagan" argument to convince lay people to follow his rather fancifully structured presentation that drips with rhetoric. The irony is stunning.

Chapters 6-12
The rest of the book is less controversial in my opinion. I will make some quick comments. The chapter on dress code is simply a critique of being pressured to "wear your Sunday best" to church. I am thankful for the current move around the church in the USA in support of casual dress. I have felt for years that some people were intimidated by the idea of having to "dress up" for church. "Come as you are" is a good long as you are not immodest.

The chapter on worship and singing has some good criticisms. In a general sense, I agree with most of what Viola says in this chapter.
However, I have been in home church worship where an aggressive person leads out too much and dominates. I have also been in such meetings where people bring a "new" song and basically nobody knows it - it's a solo. And what if most of the fellowship doesn't really like the song? I only bring these examples up because Viola paints such a wonderful and perfect picture. We all know that when people are involved, things will go wrong.

The chapter on tithing and clergy salaries is interesting. I wonder what he does with the income he gains by writing books? If that is his gift I can only assume that he gives it all away...obviously not to a church. He also travels around the world because he is an expert on the "organic" church - does he get honoraria? My guess is yes, but I don't know. But he does make some good observations about pastors serving with the pressure of their income on the line. Why am I going at Viola here regarding his income? Well, why should he be paid for his "ministry?" How is that different from a man feeling a calling to serve as a pastor? His writing is not "inspired" like that of the Apostle Paul, yet Paul typically did not accept full financial support. To be consistent Viola should not take money for his writing. Is that uncomfortable? Well, "what's good for the goose..."

Yet, I do think bi-vocational pastoring should be considered more often. I like having my own job, an income stream not dependent on the church where I serve. There is a sense that I cannot be pressured with money. Having said this, many pastors would tell you that they live on faith. There is something very good about that as well.

In addition, the biblical text DOES speak in favor of the pastor (or other servants) being paid (1 Cor 9:4-14; 1 Tim 5:17-18; Gal 6:6). The texts in 1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Timothy 5 are very clear - both are written by the very apostle who, by his own choice did not take consistent financial support (1 Cor 9:15-18).

Were all pastors in the primitive church 100% supported by their local congregation? Almost certainly not, but were none of them supported at all? Definitely not. Viola, as is his custom, makes definitive statements that are just not true. This is another example.

The chapter on Christian Education is interesting.
Once again, I agree with many of Viola's over-arching criticisms in this chapter, however I also see fundamental flaws. On Page 215 he begins the final section titled "Exploring the Heart of the Problem" in which he states that the Christian education system is "built on the Platonic idea that knowledge is the equivalent of moral character." (p.215) I have my own criticisms of our seminary systems, but my first reaction is that I know many men and women who serve as professors in seminaries and I do not think they equate knowledge with spiritual character. My second thought is that Socrates/Plato did not think this either!

Let me admit up front that I am NOT a Platonic scholar. Philosophical debate, like that on the New Testament, is immense and all over the map. I have read Plato's Republic and several passages from 4-5 other works. Around 20% of my Ph.D. bibliography focused on aspects of Platonic philosophy in the second century...but I admit to being a novice in this field. However, I know enough about Plato to know that Viola's comment equating knowledge and moral character is quite simply ignorant and misleading.

The Analogy of the Cave in Book 7 of Plato's Republic is where I would urge anyone to begin for understanding Socrates/Plato. This comment by Socrates towards the end of "The Cave" passage [in my opinion] is a simple summary of Plato on knowledge:

And if you assume that the ascent and the contemplation of the things above is the soul's ascension to the intelligible region...God knows whether it is true. But, at any rate, my dream as it appears to me is that in the region of the known the last thing to be seen, and hardly seen, is the idea of good...and that when seen, it must needs point us to the conclusion that this is indeed the cause for all things, of all that is right and beautiful, giving birth in the visible world to light, and the author of light and itself in the intelligible world being the authentic source of truth and reason, and that anyone who is to act wisely in private or public must have caught sight of this.   Republic VII.517B-C
[You can read this section on the Perseus Digital Library]  

For Socrates/Plato the pursuit of "The Good" is THE goal of the philosopher. As in the citation above, "the world of knowledge" is supposed to lead to "the idea of good." And keep in mind that Socrates was executed for teaching his students that there was one God, "the Maker and Father of this Universe." [Timaeus 28(c). Read this section from Timaeus].
Here is a brief explanation of Timaeus: "In the Timaeus Plato presents an elaborately wrought account of the formation of the universe and an explanation of its impressive order and beauty. The universe, he proposes, is the product of rational, purposive, and beneficent agency. It is the handiwork of a divine Craftsman..."]
[To see this citation]

For Plato knowledge was meant to lead to the contemplation of "the good." This deep, pondering..."gazing with the mind," should lead the soul to "see" truth.

On Pages 216-217 Viola cites a study done for Faith Communities Today by Hartford Seminary. Viola is basically arguing that seminaries are failing and puts some focus on the failure of highly educated clergy to deal with conflict: "The major finding of the study" was that congregations with seminary trained leaders experience more problems one being "more and different kinds of conflict," footnoted to p.67 of the study. [Read the full FACT 2008 study]

Because I had already found Viola failing to accurately represent his sources (and because I had my doubts about his statement), I decided to check the study. The document is 71 pages with six different sections: one on "Growth, Change and Conflict" and the final section on "Leadership."

- The section on Leadership gives some comparison numbers for several categories including conflict management, size of the congregation, location (rural, suburban or center of city) and the conservative/liberal bias of churches and their leaders.

- Viola's statements linking education and the lack of conflict skills is the only observation from the entire FACT 2000 study made by him. The study does give the education/conflict coorelation, but there are other factors in the study not mentioned by Viola.

- Seminary leaders represent 61% of the pastors in the study and those pastors are leading the largest churches, averaging 200-260 people. It just happens that churches founded more than 50 years ago tend to have the most difficulty having clear vision for the future and dealing with conflict. (p.60,62)

- These types of churches tend to be larger and more established, thus these churches would be more likely to have seminary educated pastors. (p.64)

- In addition the study states that "clergy with a seminary education...are very much less likely to be in congregations that deal openly with conflict and disagreement." The accompanying graph on this page reflects that these churches are less likely to support "traditionalism." (p.66)

On Page 67 (where the citation in question appears) there are at least three qualifying statements: "To appropriately understand these responses"..."It is possible"..."Or it may be"...and "More and careful study is needed." My opinion after a close look at this study is that conflict management in church is a multi-variant problem - Viola is only focused on seminary education. This is just another example of why he cannot be trusted when he cites a source.

It is also interesting how he has attempted to use this study given that it was done by seminary "scholars!" Throughout the book he is using footnotes to show the veracity of his claims even though ALL of the "scholars" he cites were trained in a system steeped in the classical educational system that Viola calls "pagan." For me, this is the height of hypocrisy.

The chapter on the sacraments is unfortunate. Viola feels the need to critique specific aspects that have developed in church history. He throws accusations as if they are wrong because they "developed over time." Yet his arguments are consistently presented as definitive when there is contrary evidence that he fails to address. His main problem in this chapter seems to be with how the observance of the Lord's Supper has become a "ritual." I basically agree with Viola's critique, but not HOW he presents his views.

The Good
I have stated around 8-10 times that I agree with some of Viola's criticisms. He has voiced in this book many of the problems that others have seen and talked about. I like the general description of smaller churches where there is more intimacy...more openness...more spontaneity...more of a team atmosphere rather than a top-down organization. That has been the overall tone of my spiritual life - it just didn't happen within the four walls of a "church."

Church Buildings: I have already argued that Viola's presentation is not historically accurate, but I do agree that too many resources are put into church buildings. While Viola thinks buildings are "pagan," I would like to see churches be more modest.

Church Pastors: I am also not a fan of millionaire preachers. Do I think God blesses His people? Yes, but do preachers really need private jets and live in mansions? I like the concept of bi-vocational pastors. Why not have a team of pastors each of whom work a side job? Like church buildings, I think some pastors should try to live more modestly. The lure of money is real.

Church Sermons: This is more tricky, but as I stated in my review, I have benefited throughout my Christian life by listening to well-educated pastors. We just need to do a better job of training pastors. Honestly, in my opinion, the best training is to sit under great teachers. But this is tricky because we ALL have different tastes in what we like from a Sunday morning sermon.

Christian Education: We DO need help with our educational system. Teaching young men and women HOW TO build a large church is not getting the job done. We need disciple-makers. Our churches should be run like a business when it comes to finances, but with respect to spiritual growth we need less emphasis on numbers and more focus on spiritual maturity. And yes, this IS easier to do in a small group a home church. But this can be done in the local church.  

The Bad
Viola clearly states in his Preface that this book is NOT written for scholars. He is certainly correct. As I have clearly stated, Viola makes definitive statements when there is contrary evidence, his choice of scholars is not strong, and his footnoting is sloppy. He misrepresents his sources in some footnotes or is so sloppy that it is difficult to know what the purpose of the citation is supposed to represent.

Viola presents the "church" of the first century as ideal - it was not. This premise is what the entire "organic" movement is based upon: "we do things the way the early Christians did it." This is the thinking of exclusive sects who think they are only ones REALLY doing it correctly.

Specifically (and Most Importantly) where Viola is Wrong:
1. that Christians did not have "church buildings" until the beginning of the fourth century - I have shown that he is historically wrong.
2. that apostolic church preaching was "sporadic, extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure." There is no solid evidence of this while simple logical questions reveal that this theory is wrong. He is the MOST wrong on the use of rhetoric - Paul uses rhetoric, the writer to the Hebrews does, I would argue that IF the gospels accurately represent Jesus that He used rhetoric. Hypocritically, Viola uses rhetoric throughout his book.
3. that the primitive church had nonhierarchical leadership. A simple reading of the New Testament shows that this is wrong. The true scholars he cites and the overwhelming bulk of NT scholars would quickly dismiss his statement as ignorant.
4. that the Greek philosophical tradition was "pagan" and has infected the "church." It is clear that both the Apostle Paul and Apollos had philosophical training. While Paul's training is not 100% clear, he seems comfortable quoting Greek philosophers. It seems more clear that Apollos was formally trained in rhetoric (which implies philosophical training as well). There are clear hints of Stoic thought in some of Paul's preaching and in some of his letters.

The Ugly
Comments like these are Ugly:

"There is nothing in Scripture to indicate its existence [speaking of the 'sermon'] in the early Christian gatherings." p.88

"There is not a single verse in the entire New Testament that supports the existence of the modern-day pastor!" p.106

"For this reason, we believe the present-day pastoral role hinders the fulfillment of God's eternal purpose." p.137

"...the Lord's Supper, when separated from its proper context of a full meal, turns into a strange, pagan-like rite." p.197

Comments like these are why I call Viola a "bomb-thrower." This shows his arrogance; he thinks his view of the church is correct and everyone else (since the first century) is wrong. Multiple times in this book he uses third person plural, "we." You see an example in the quote above from Page 137. Viola might use "we" to refer only to Barna (co-author) and himself, but I doubt it. Even if true, it "feels" like he is referring to his "organic" church tribe ("denomination"). When he does this he sounds like many other tribal groups that hold themselves apart as "the true church." I could give examples, but you can fill in the blanks.

Viola's aggressive method of critique, making definitive statements is arrogant, judgemental and hypocritical. He makes dogmatic statements that, even IF true, are not "seasoned with salt." Doing this puts him in the category of being in a sect or a cult.

He uses 1 Corinthians for many of his "proof-texts" (even though he rightly criticizes proof-texting in Chapter 11). Dogmatic comments like those cited above quickly begin to sound like the Corinthian church as they separated themselves with leader-idolatry, "I follow Paul," "I follow Apollos." (1 Cor chapters 1 and 3 - and Viola says there were not "official" leaders!)

The main crux of my criticism is that Viola writes with an edge of superiority and arrogance, not the grace of Christ. And some would argue that I am matching Viola in my review. For that I apologize. If I had been in his pre-publishing circle I would have tried to convince him to leave the appearance of "scholarship" alone. Professor Ben Witherington tried, but Viola ignored his scholarship and wisdom. When I read Witherington's comments in his review I decided to take off the gloves - not that Viola would listen to me.

It is sad to me that Viola takes shots at so many men and traditions: the church fathers, the Catholic traditions, the Reformers and the Revivalists. He takes shots at D.L. Moody and Charles Finney, seminary and bible college...choirs and youth pastors. Please do not misunderstand me, ALL God's workers have flaws and make mistakes. Some of his criticisms are valid (how many times have I said this?), but does Viola critique any of his fellow house church experts? Surely they have had some problems and issues.  

On Page 217 he refers to "body life" as "rough-and-tumble, messy, raw" where "Christians live as a close-knit community and struggle." This gives me some assurance that he acknowledges struggles and difficulties come even to those who are following the apostolic church "exactly" as it has been recorded.

I have been in 2-3 really good small spiritual fellowships that were good over my 40+ years, but I also personally know of three home church fellowships that are off track. One has embraced something like the "Hebraic Roots" movement, so they "joyfully" live under the "Old" covenant. They now see Jesus as Messiah, but not as deity. Another home church I know of was seemingly good for everyone and contributed to their growth, but they sat under the teachings of only one teacher and their spiritual diet was unbalanced. The man they followed is not in error, but is not balanced. A third group seemed to be very good for a close friend of mine, but again, the teaching was not balanced, leaning towards being "super-spiritual."

Even though this book contains many, many valid criticisms...I cannot recommend it to anyone except those who are already well-read and can quickly spot error. I think this book can be dangerous to young Christians (like I was in my early 20's) who do not have enough knowledge of the New Testament or enough life experience to know when they are being led by rhetoric and a lack of integrity. Young men with attitude and immaturity can easily be led to walk away from a good church seeking the "perfect" church...and take their arrogance and stubbornness into a new church body.

I bought a used copy of "Pagan Christianity" on Amazon - the statement cited above from Page 192 was highlighted with a yellow marker by the previous owner. The yellow highlight seems to confirm my suspicion that bomb-throwing is what sells this book.

A possible study would be for me to analyze ALL the highlighted statements in this used copy - I think it might reveal some interesting observations. The first clearly highlighted sentence in my used book is on page 106: "There is not a single verse in the entire New Testament that supports the existence of the modern-day pastor! He simply did not exist in the early church." Viola goes on to explain what he means with this statement, but such a declarative statement...with an exclamation point shows his rhetorical style. And it worked - the dogmatic statement has been highlighted in yellow by a prior reader. But Viola claims that rhetoric is bad and "pagan." My general hypothesis is that Viola's bomb-throwing is intentional.
THAT sells books...sounds very "pagan" to me.

R.A. Baker
Ph.D. Ecclesiastical History

I welcome comments, questions and disagreements:


Footnote Problems
One of my primary complaints with this author is his professed "research" for this book, using around 1,200 footnotes. I could not check every footnote so I checked the notes where I was either fairly familiar with the subject matter, have a scholar on my shelves cited by Viola, OR knew I could find the source on Google books to check the citation. I am offering an easy place to read about his misleading footnotes because he cannot trusted and a true seeker needs to know this.

1. Viola cites Justo Gonzalez, "Story of Christianity" at least 5 times in Chapter Two. Gonzalez authored The Story of Christianity, but he is formally trained as a theologian, not an historian. I was involved in pushing Gonzalez to remove two egregious errors from the second edition of his basic history text. He had made comments about Athanasius that have NO historical evidence! [See my article on the "Black Dwarf" and the Gonzalez citation.] I am sure Prof Gonzalez is a sincere Christian and a scholar, but he is not an expert in early Christianity.

2. In On Page 15 Viola comments on the home church of Dura-Europos, "It was simply a private home remodeled as a Christian gathering place." For the introduction of the Dura-Europos church Viola cites a 1990 book by L. Michael White (footnotes 23 and 25, p.15) yet a quick Google search led me to Michael White's 2016 update on Dura-Europos where he states, "The Dura Christian building is a true [house church], insofar as it was a converted private house, which after remodeling ceased to be used for domestic functions." [Michael Peppard, The World's Oldest Church, (Yale University Press 2016), p.16, emphasis added. There is a diagram on page 17. See Google books.] Interestingly, in the surrounding footnotes Viola does seem to admit to such houses being converted into dedicated churches, but his clear presentation in the main text is that there were no church "buildings" prior to the "Constantinian era." (p.12)

3. In the same discussion regarding church buildings, Viola cites Graydon Snyder, "Christians did not erect special buildings for worship until the Constantinian era in the fourth century." (Ante Pacem, p.12) From the second edition of the same book...the same scholar describes the house church discovered in Syria, "There were homes that were restructured to accommodate the Christian assembly...[they] must have multiplied rapidly as the size of the church catholic grew. It is amazing that we do not have more remains...we probably do have the remains of such house churches but cannot recognize them." Snyder then proceeds to discuss the Dura-Europos church house. His descriptions of the building do not sound like a family home, thus I must agree with White in note 2 above, after remodeling ceased to be used for domestic functions." [I am reading the 2003 second edition: Snyder, Graydon, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Mercer Univ Press 2003), p.127-134]

Bibliography and Sources (in order of appearance)

- Withington, Ben, Paul's Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Eerdmans 2011)

- Witherington's Blog and Review of Pagan Christianity []

- Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church (Penguin Books 1968)

- Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of Christianity (Fortress Press 1984)

- Lietzmann, Hans, History of the Early Church: Vols. I-IV, ET by Bertram Woolf (London 1960)

- Bruce, F.F., "'To the Hebrews': A Document of Roman Christianity?" ANRW 25.4 (1987), pp.3496-3521.
_____, Men and Movements in the Primitive Church, (Carlisle, UK 1979)
_____, NIV Commentary on the Book of Acts, (Eerdmans 1990)

- Bauckham, Richard, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans 2017)

- Dunn, James, D.G., New Testament Theology: An Introduction (Abington Press 2010) []
_____, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (SCM 1990)

- Hurtado, Larry, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans 2005)

- Fox, Robin Lane, Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine (Penguin 1986)

- Ferguson Everett, "Why and when did Christians start constructing special buildings for worship?" Christianity Today []

- Peppard, Michael, The World's Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (Yale 2016) [ You can also see a diagram of the house church on Google books.] Peppard is citing White's book The Social Origins of Christian Architecture (Trinity Press 2009)

- Vassilios Tzaferis, "Inscribed 'To God Jesus Christ': Early Christian Prayer Hall Found in Megiddo Prison," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 33, No. 2 (March/April 2007)

- Snyder, Graydon, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Mercer Univ Press 2003)

- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by Lawlor and Oulton, Vol. I & II (London 1954)

- Odahl, Charles Matson, Constantine and the Christian Empire (Routledge 2010), 2nd ed.

- Winter, Bruce, Philo and Paul Among the Sophists, SNTS Monograph Series 96 (Cambridge 1997)

- Payne, Philip, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters (Zondervan 2015)

- Plato, Republic (Penguin 1955), my copy. I used the translation from [the Perseus Digital Library]

- Faith Communities Today by Hartford Seminary, [Read the full FACT 2008 study]