Replacing structure with chaos

Pagan Christianity
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:


11 thoughts on “Replacing structure with chaos

    1. Thanks, Wally. Yes, I’m very interested in ecclesiology as well, especially after rejecting just about all of the religious structure I was raised in. Why do we do what we do? Is it based on Scripture or something else? Probably most people don’t give it a second thought, like in “That’s just the way it’s always been done so that’s good enough for me.”


      1. Tom, you never fail to educate me LOL. I guess it never occurred to me there was a term for this! As to what you said…exactly. We talk constantly about what we believe church to be, yet most people I make inquiries of can’t do much to explain it in much detail to me. The only problem is that in depth intensive study can reveal that maybe “the way we have always done it” is off base a little bit. Then a person has a dilemma somewhat.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks, Wally, but – full disclosure- I learned this term only in the past year myself because of this interest in church structure we’re talking about. Well, there’s nothing wrong with traditions and standard procedures if they don’t contradict Scripture. In my case I found much of my church’s polity and doctrines contradicted Scripture resulting in the very jarring personal dilemma you mention.


      3. Well, I learned it 30 minutes ago, so you are one up on me LOL. I’d be interested in hearing what happened if you want to share, Tom. My disturbances have been pretty small really and some sort of petty. For instance, the KJV thing. That’s what we use, and they all swear it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Our Sunday School Superintendent does the first devotional of the day, and our newly elected guy started reading from the New King would have thought some folks would drop dead. I like to mess with em. I ask them why it’s best, and watch them sputter at me. Nothing major has happened, or at least nothing I can’t live with. I’d love to hear your experience, though

        Liked by 1 person

      4. That allegiance to the KJV runs extremely deep with some people as you know. I have little patience with it and avoid bloggers who espouse KJV 1611-Onlyism.

        Oh, I was referring to my crisis with Catholicism 35 years ago. It was very upsetting/disconcerting at the time – I kind of forgot how much so until now – but that was the Holy Spirit working on me through the Word. What a struggle. I hope this KJV issue isn’t a cause of contention at your church. Such a needless battle.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Actually, there is no contention at all with us on the issue. It’s what we do, and we are ok with it. No biggie, that just means the preacher preaches from it, and the teachers like me teach from it. Most of the serious students use other translations along with the KJV. We are actually very harmonious and in unity on mostly everything, and compromise comes easy when we are not. Somebody will always give way for another, and we move one. It’s quite amazing, really. I just like to push the envelope personally sometimes to tell the truth. I haven’t gotten in trouble yet, as I always have my homework done first. I’m sort of like the crazy cousin around the place.

        And I’m sorry if I cause you upset, Tom, sure didn’t intend that.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Glad you guys are on the same page for the most part. I’m finding that I like to push the envelope at our small group meetings where a good degree of religious correctness is the rule.
        No, no Wally, it was nothing bad on your part but thanks very much. It’s just that after 35 years I kind of buried the emotions of going through that spiritual struggle on my way to Jesus. But once I accepted Him the seas calmed.


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