Is the Pastorate Pagan?
George Barna thinks so. And that's not the worst of it.

I appreciate it when a writer shows all his cards at the beginning of a book so I don't have to guess at his presuppositions. Frank Viola does just that in the opening line of his newly re-released Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Barna, 2008). He starts like this: "Not long after I left the institutional church to begin gathering with Christians in New Testament fashion?" You can imagine the tone of the pages that follow.

Viola argues in his preface that the "practices of the first-century church were the natural and spontaneous expression" of believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit that were "solidly grounded in timeless principles and teachings of the New Testament." Regrettably, he maintains, most practices of contemporary churches - including everything from having a professional pastor to meeting in a church building - are at odds with New Testament teachings. Worse yet, those extra-biblical practices were adopted from pagan culture. This is unsettling, Viola sympathizes; but it is also "unmovable, historical fact." The remainder of the volume is an argument from Scripture and church history to support this thesis: "the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does."

In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that I'm a member of a historic denomination that worships with the liturgy. Not only that, it was only after dutifully searching the Scriptures and Church history that I moved toward - not away from - a more hierarchical tradition. So, I'm incurably biased. You judge the following for yourselves:

One of the contemporary church practices Viola denounces is "The Pastor" (chapter five). Although "by and large, those who serve in the office of pastor are wonderful people," Viola argues, nevertheless, "it is the role they fill that both Scripture and church history are opposed to." He makes the following argument from Scripture: 1) The word "pastor" appears only once in the New Testament, in Ephesians 4:11. 2) The word for pastor in Ephesians 4 is plural, which suggests there were more than one pastor at each church. 3) The word means "shepherd," and does not, therefore, refer to a formal office, but simply a function of the church. 4) Finally, the passage "offers absolutely no definition or description of who pastors are."

Wait; it gets better.

After a dubious journey through church history documenting the development from New Testament shepherds to contemporary pastor, Viola concludes that the "unscriptural clergy/laity distinction has done untold harm to the body of Christ" (136). Allow me to list his grievances. The contemporary pastor-role has:

February 14, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 84 comments


May 31, 2008  3:41pm

I thank the Lord for giving us the gift of brilliant preachers!

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May 28, 2008  8:40am

Jay, Frank Viola and George Barna are both Christian authors. The baseball player is a different person. You can read about both authors at

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jay newman

May 27, 2008  2:56am

wait... is this frank viola, the pitcher for the twins in the 80's and world series MVP in '88? cause if it is, that's just crazy.

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John T.

March 12, 2008  6:26am

Isnt it interesting how none of the so called "Pastors" who made a critique of the book, make any reference to the chapter on the tithe. Maybe its because "NEW CHRISTIANS" under the "NEW COVENANT" didnt tithe. OUCH now thats gotta hurt the most!!

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Dan McGowan

March 01, 2008  10:56pm

If, as some in these comments are suggesting, "the church" IS actually working and our two authors, Viola and Barna, truly are "out to lunch" - - then why the angst in so many of these comments? Something ain't working, folks, and at least Barna and Viola had the courage to take steps to bring some of the issues to light.

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Matt Brown

February 27, 2008  3:15pm

I haven't read the book yet. However, based on the past two reviews it seems to have some good and some bad. Concerning the pastorate, I feel it is wrong condemning it. Jesus clearly raised up twelve apostles to lead from among his followers. In Church History, Church leaders are clearly seen in all major cities of the world at the time - including James the Just, first leader of the Church in Jerusalem after Jesus ascended into heaven. Lay leadership and house churches sound great too, but it's silly to say the modern pastorate is rooted in pagan thought. I agree with all those commenting who have said all styles can work!

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Christopher Parker

February 27, 2008  12:48pm

No Pastor? Sounds like Quakers! In the 1600's they had this same debate . . . On the other hand, the Quakers also believe in continuing revelation - which could be a theological justification for an evolution of church form.

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February 27, 2008  12:52am

What I can't believe is that people are not just getting on with empowering all believers to live out their God-given role in the church. Why not just help them identify the ministry that God has designed them to fulfill and then care for them and support them as they do it?

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February 26, 2008  11:29pm

I like what these authors are saying and applaud their efforts to draw us as Christians closer to a Biblical model of how we do church, even if they are a bit 'bombastic' and sensationalistic. But the real issue is not the 'system' but the 'sin' that goes undealt with in many churches. The reason we are seeing an exodus from the institutional church is because people have real problems caused by real sin, that is rarely if ever dealt with by the leadership. Lamentations 2:10 says that 'false prophets have not exposed your iniquity so as to restore you from captivity.' The real problem with institutional Christianity is not how we structure our services but that we simply do not do the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. Their ministry was simple– preach repentance, cast out demons, heal the sick, and instruct in righteousness. For the most part, the American church doesn't do even one of these things. Not one. We are not doing New Testament ministry. This is why the sweeping majority of people in church on Sunday morning will tell you if asked, that they do not feel close to God. And it is our responsibility as shepherds to correct ourselves and embrace Christ and His ministry. Even if it means losing our own.

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February 26, 2008  6:15pm

This is a "hot" topic and I've enjoyed and appreciated the many posts here. I believe that one of the main reasons we are sharing passionatley our (bias) one way or the other is simple (maybe simplistic:-)) What if its true? What if much of this and other boooks are simply defining the end of an era? For many Laity (I use that word intentionally) for many the institutional church has lost its attractiveness. many of you have referred to culture, and one thing we all know is that this next generation is not endeared toward orgaisations and institutions. Relationships are the key (that may be a key aspect of the early church!) All that this book flags is that things are changing. the way we do church is already undertaking a major shift (read Revolution- Barnaand other emerging church material) the question for each of us currently in leadership and paid for by church tithes is will you engage in future possibilities??? (there being no building or paid staff etc) or will you fight to protect the status quo (your salary etc) Either way i believe we live in exciting times!

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