By Frank Viola and George Barna
Barna Publishing, 2008, 302 pages
The history of Christianity varies widely depending on who is telling the story, but there’s little argument that as the early church became increasingly institutionalized, it gradually formulated doctrines and practices that were entirely unknown to the New Testament saints. Many of those traditions were adopted from Roman paganism and “christianized.” The corruption became so widespread and so severe that the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone became buried under deep layers of impersonal ritualism and legalism. While the 16th-century Reformers sought to return the church to the pure Gospel of grace, some unscriptural traditions remained. The Reformers who followed removed some of the other vestiges of Roman tradition and the church should always be reforming according to the standard of God’s Word.
But in this book, Viola and Barna argue that even later Reformers didn’t go far enough and that the church must jettison all man-made traditions and go back to gathering in homes with leader-less, spontaneous meetings where everyone participates. These “organic” home-churches are initially organized by mysterious “church planters” who periodically check in to assess the health of the fellowship.
This was an interesting book in some regards but I do have many criticisms. I think Viola and Barna got it VERY right regarding the gradual institutionalization of Christianity. Few books these days are willing to tell it like it was regarding Catholic synchretism. However, the authors are occasionally guilty of manipulating the historical narrative to suit their purposes. For example, the early churches met in homes not out of choice, as the authors infer, but because Christianity was illegal. Yes, perhaps some of the Protestant Reformers didn’t go far enough in removing ritual and traditions. But to argue that ALL organization, structure, and tradition are bad reminds me a bit of the Quakers and radical Anabaptists. Viola is advocating the elimination of structure, which then becomes a bizarre kind of anti-structure structure. And who are these mysterious church planters? Who trains them? Who do they report to? Something tells me that Frank Viola has a deep, personal stake in the growth of this “organic,” house-church movement. In essence, Viola is replacing church leadership with himself. Viola is also decidedly not in favor of direct evangelization (altar calls, personal witnessing) but that is exactly how many/most unbelievers encounter the Gospel.
Now, I certainly don’t advocate hanging onto tradition and structure just for tradition’s and structure’s sakes. The church we worship at on Sundays is quite different in many regards from the first Christian church we attended thirty-four years ago. And yes, “traditional” churches often give far too much importance and priority to the brick and mortar. But the Bible also says God is not the author of confusion and I believe this “organic,” spontaneous, leaderless house-church model would engender quite a bit of chaos. We’ve been seeing the church move farther and farther away from emphasizing doctrine and conducting itself “decently and in order” towards experientialism and emotionalism and this “organic” home-church movement is just another outgrowth of that.
My wife and I have been members of one of our church’s small groups for the last six months and we enjoy it quite a bit. It’s a chance to fellowship with brothers and sisters, apply the weekly sermon personally, and lift each other up to the Lord. It’s nothing like the “organic” house-church described by Viola and Barna.
Full disclosure: I’m a cessationist with regards to the apostolic spiritual gifts so I would definitely not be comfortable in a house-church meeting with several “a word from the lord” proclamations as the authors decribe.
Below is a short review of “Pagan Christianity” from Lighthouse Trails Research: