A new book written by two Evangelical Christians supports many of the views of Latter-day Saints about the apostacy from First Century Christianity. Frank Viola and George Barna have collaborated on an updated and expanded version of one of Viola’s earlier books, and titled it Pagan Christianity. It is published by Tyndale Press, an established Evangelical publisher. Barna is a prominent pollster and author for the Evangelical community, while Viola is a “travelling apostolic minister” in the “house church” movement that seeks to recreate the form and substance of primitive Christianity.
The thesis of Pagan Christianity is that the First Century Christian church did not have a professional clergy, did not have a single minister or priest running the meetings and giving the sermons, did not require tithes (but accepted donations), did not have a set order of worship but had songs, prayer, and exhortations as led by the Spirit, and was not in a hierarchical organization but rather had “church planters” like Paul who would aid the local churches to get going but did not administer them.
The book is exhaustively footnoted, and the footnotes are on the bottom of each page, but they in such a small typeface that I had a hard time reading them. Those I did read seemed to include a number that were not quite as authoritative for the specific points Viola and Barna were arguing.
Their argument that tithing does not apply to the Christian church is based on the notion that the Old Testament is not authoritative for Christians, sort of an odd idea since Christ seemed to think so. And of course we have Christ’s quotation of Malachi 3 and 4 to the Nephites to make clear to Latter-day Saints that it applies to Christians after his resurrection.
Viola and Barna are very specific that the organization and operation of the church changed drastically after the first century, when the “traveling apostolic ministers” were no longer in operation. They assert that having a paid specialist in rhetoric give a sermon every week is a pagan innovation borrowed from Greco-Roman culture.
In fact, they are so critical of the borrowing from Greek philosophy in the structure and operations of the church that I was anticipating that when I turned the page, they would be condemning Greek philosophy, too. But alas, it was not to be. Even though they denounce everything else that is Greek in the modern Christian church, they do not attack the Greek philosophical elements in the creeds, and in fact they rely on the creeds to keep their autonomous “house churches” from going apostate, since there is no higher authority to do it. This is a glaring logical inconsistency, but as a Mormon I can understand how it would upset Evangelicals to be told that their creeds, which they use to differentiate between non-Christians (Mormons) and Christians (everybody else) are largely a product of a pagan Greek viewpoint that intruded itself in the church after the proper organization was lost following the First Century.
The other glaring omission is the fact that real priesthood and authority were important within the First Century Church. Acts demonstrates Peter is the leading apostle. The revelation about baptizing Gentiles was given to Peter, and he and the apostles rendered a decision at the Jerusalem Council. Acts explains that the Samaritans who were baptized could not receive the Holy Ghost until Peter and John came and confirmed them with the priesthood, even explaining that one of the converts, Simon the Magician, offered Peter money for the priesthood power he exercised.
Viola admits that the “traveling apostolic ministers” were essential to the operation of the First Century Church and that it became corrupted with Greek practices after they were gone, but he wants to assert that these house churches can appoint new “traveling apostolic ministers” so he doesn’t have to deal with the fact that the original ones were ordained by Christ, and after the defection of Judas, his replacement Matthias was ordained by the remaining eleven.
In an interview about his book, Viola offers the following quote:
“I appreciate the words of A.W. Tozer on this score: ‘If Christianity is to receive a rejuvenation it must be by other means than any now being used. If the church in the second half of [the twentieth] century is to recover from the injuries she suffered in the first half, there must appear a new type of preacher. The proper, ruler-of-the-synagogue type will never do. Neither will the priestly type of man who carries out his duties, takes his pay and asks no questions, nor the smooth-talking pastoral type who knows how to make the Christian religion acceptable to everyone. All these have been tried and found wanting. Another kind of religious leader must arise among us. He must be of the old prophet type, a man who has seen visions of God and has heard a voice from the Throne. When he comes (and I pray God there will not be one but many) he will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking, smooth civilization holds dear. He will contradict, denounce and protest in the name of God and will earn the hatred and opposition of a large segment of Christendom.‘”
Viola and Barna have drawn a detailed map demonstrationg that there was a rebellion in Christianity after the First Century, that de facto replaced the church with a new institution based on pagan ideas. But he is unwilling to take the next logical step and admit that the new church was really a pagan church, not a Christian one, and it lacked not only the form but also the authority and spirit of the original. They are standing on the edge of the Jordan but are not willing to let go of the Pagan creeds and step in to cross to the promised land of fully restored Christianity which they recognize is on the other side, where the religious leader is a prophet.