by Gary Tebbe
Christianity and Culture
Pagan Christianity attempts to portray Christianity before it was distorted by later cultural developments.
“I believe the first-century church was the church in its purest form, before it was tainted or corrupted.” (p. xviii)
These are common sentiments far beyond the organic church/ home church movement. Different Christians have different notions of what the church was in its purest form.
For Frank Viola that means, “Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and non-hierarchical leadership.” (p. xix)
“The New Testament church had no fixed order of worship.”
“The early church meetings were not religious services. They were informal gatherings that were permeated with an atmosphere of freedom, spontaneity, and joy.” (p.247)
What emerges then is a certain form of worship that transcends culture. For Viola the New Testament ideal is an a-cultural pattern, untainted by Jewish or Gentile culture alike. This pattern of the church (egalitarian, unscripted, open, informal, unhindered) is above the particularities of culture, at least in these ways listed above. Accordingly when the church strayed from this supposed supra-cultural model then her worship became corrupted by extra-biblical pagan influences. Each man-made practice “stifles the practical headship of Jesus Christ and hamper the functioning of His body.” (p. 7)
The ideal of a pure normative form of worship that rises above the particularities of local culture is attractive. It is also an erroneous for both theological and historical reasons.
The Incarnation- God in the flesh
Theologically this forgets the message of the Incarnation. When God became a man, he became a particular kind of man. Jesus’ life was thoroughly “fleshed out” in the culture, traditions and institutions of first century Palestinian Judaism. He went to the synagogue, worshiped at the Temple, recited ritual prayers, memorized the Torah, observed the cycle of Jewish festivals, sang Hebrew hymns, spoke Aramaic.
Historically Christ’s first followers were cut from the same cloth. The first Christians were culturally Jewish through and through. Early Christian worship was thoroughly situated in Jewish culture. The first Christians observed many features of Jewish worship. You do not have to be a New Testament scholar to see the Jewish influence on New Testament church.
- The first Christians interpreted their Savior, their message and their experience as a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures
(Acts 2:16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel)
- They worshiped in the Jerusalem Temple as well as meeting in homes. Acts 2:46
- Two prominent apostles observed fixed hours of prayer in the Temple as devout Jews
“Now Peter and John were going up to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.” Acts 3:1 (see also Acts 10:9)
-They taught and ministered in and around the Temple. Acts 5:12, 21
- Paul the missionary felt it natural to begin evangelization in the Jewish synagogues of the Roman Empire. (Acts 13:14, 14:1, 17:1, 18:4, etc) In this he followed directly in the footsteps of Jesus who ministered in the synagogues of Galilee (Mat. 12:9, Mark 1:21, Luke 4:16, etc)
- Even the conflicts experienced by the early church reveal her cultural roots.
Peter needed a vision to get him to overcome his very Jewish reluctance to enter into a Gentile home.
Acts 10:28 “And he said to them, You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
God had to directly show him that evangelizing Gentiles in their homes was acceptable. As an observant Jew he would never have ritually defiled himself otherwise. Our point is to note how deeply immersed in his culture and Jewish faith was the apostle Peter, one of the most prominent leaders of pure, unadulterated New Testament Christianity.
- The leaders of the Jerusalem church tell the apostle Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law,” Acts 21:20. Their faith in Christ made thousands of these Jews zealous for the rituals and ceremonies of the law of Moses.
In fact the early church faced serious internal friction in determining what aspects of Judaism were appropriate for Gentile converts to observe. Must Gentile converts circumcise, should they observe the dietary laws, etc? The fact that such concerns were such an issue shows how deeply the founders of the Church were immersed in Jewish culture. All this had to be hammered out through prayer and discussion.
Significantly this original Jewish Christianity actually portrayed in the New Testament is very different from the ideal Barna and Viola present as authentic New Testament Christianity. Jewish Christianity was formal, ritualized and traditional in its expression.
Eventually though, their Faith, seen as a fulfilling of Judaism, began to cross over into the gentile world. The transfer of the Christian faith from one culture to another inevitably resulted in a distinct forms of worship. While the new gentile Christians built on the forms they inherited from their Jewish ancestors, adaptation was inevitable in a new cultural situation.
Take the analogy of language. Jesus originally spoke Aramaic. His disciples probably memorized his teachings and retold his life’s story in this language. When his life and teaching were finally written down in the four gospels it was done in Kione Greek, the trade language of the Empire.
Consider the leap of form that this required. The Greek words of the New Testament were previously used to communicate concepts of a pagan culture and philosophy. The inspired writers took these same terms and used them to communicate Christ and his message. Is the Greek New Testament “pagan” because it uses heathen words to express Christian truth? Is John’s gospel “pagan” because he uses the neo-platonic term “logos” to describe Christ in John 1:1?
In subsequent centuries the Christian Scriptures were translated from Greek into Latin. Now the terse tongue of the ruthless Romans was employed. Did the act of translation of the Christian message into a non-Christian idiom constitute compromise? Of course not. Even so, the translation and development of Christian worship in different cultural settings does not imply compromise.
In the early centuries the Christian Bible was rendered into languages as diverse as Armenian, Ethiopic, Frankish, Gothic, Sogdian (central Asia), Persian and even Arabic (yes, Arabic). These translations served the needs of Christian communities. The Faith itself had been translated into each of these cultures. The message remained the same, the cultural expression varied from place to place.
As Christ was first incarnated in Palestinian Judaism so Christianity was later incarnated in the various cultures of the ancient world (and the modern). Christianity does not depend on a certain external form of worship and as Mr. Viola describes to be faithful and authentic.
Laid back, informal, non-hierarchal, open-participatory “Organic Church” type meetings are not the only form of worship, are not necessarily the best form of worship, and certainly are not the most authentic form of Christian worship.
Heresy and Orthodoxy
Mr. Viola implies that the early church dressed heathen ideas with Christian clothes. A more appropriate description would be to say that the early church dressed Christian ideas in Greco-Roman clothes.
There were some who did the former, they were the cults of the day. Such were the various gnostic groups who merged Christian themes with pop-philosophy and various strands of paganism. However orthodox Christians opposed these distortions of the faith and clarified the moral and doctrinal core of Christianity. The truth was guarded at the center, like many people Viola expects to find truth at the fringes.
Yet these same orthodox Christians did express their faith in ways that were both at tension with and borrowed from their wider culture. They condemned some cultural elements that were incompatible with their faith like infanticide, abortion, immorality and idolatry. They appropriated other elements that were useful, like building their church buildings to resemble the pattern of the Roman houses they often worshiped in.
Using cultural forms to express your faith is no more a corruption or distortion of the Church’s life than translating the Gospel into Greek or Latin was a corruption of Jesus’ words.
What matters then is faithfulness to Christ. There is a doctrinal, moral and spiritual core to Christianity. That core can be faithfully translated into any number of different cultural situations. Christians can thrive in various different forms of church government and church worship. Some forms certainly may be better than others. But the process of adapting from the culture and translating into the surrounding culture is not necessarily wrong if the church remains true to its doctrinal, spiritual and moral core, if the Church remains true to Christ.
Missionary statesman Ralph Winter writes critically of Pagan Christianity in Mission Frontiers magazine,
Barna has now apparently bought into the thesis that we must flee all the many new ways Christians have devised in living out the gospel down through history... Such a book, with its meticulous historical hounding-out of things we do that are not in the Bible, is totally out of tune with the global church movement. There we see thousands of novelties created in living out of Biblical teaching. For missionaries contextualization (employing the language and culture as far as possible) is the name of the game and that is Biblical. (Mission Frontiers magazine April 2008 p. 5)
George Barna and Frank Viola claim,
“If the church is following the life of God who indwell it, it will never produce those nonscriptural practices this book addresses.” (p. xx)
Besides the presumption of claiming to know what God would and would not do, this implies that the church for 20 centuries has not been following the life of God. Otherwise they would follow the form of worship that Barna and Viola favor. I beg to differ.
Christians do not need “informal, non-hierarchal, and open-participatory” meetings to be following the life of God The most formal, hierarchal, clergy-led churches can be and have followed the life of God. Such churches can and do produce authentic, mature, triumphant saints and have done so for centuries.