by George Sidney Hurd
In their book Pagan Christianity, Frank Viola and George Barna make numerous radical claims. They argue that all Christian churches as we have known them, whether they be Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Evangelical, have no historical right to exist and must be abandoned since they are rooted in paganism.  They characterize all denominational and nondenominational churches as “institutional” as opposed to “organic,” as though anything with organizational structure is inorganic and detached from Christ, the Head of His body, the Church. The entire book is consistent with its thesis which is boldly stated at the outset:
“We are making an outrageous proposal: that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does.” 
Reading through Pagan Christianity, I couldn’t avoid seeing a parallel between Karl Marx’s condemnation of all Capitalist governments, advocating for their deconstruction and replacing them instead with governments based upon communal living or Communism. Marx even based his doctrine upon a phrase taken from Acts 2:44-45. His motto was: “From each according to ability; To each according to need,” 
In Pagan Christianity they condemn everything from the buildings we meet in, to the clothes we wear on Sundays, to the preaching of a sermon from a pulpit and our form of worship, saying that all these and many more practices are unbiblical, pagan and must be abandoned if we are going to return to the organic Church of the first century. The criticisms they level against Church practice are too numerous to address in a single article. Here I will only be briefly focusing on three of the primary ones, 1) the buildings we meet in, 2) church leadership, and 3) formal Christian education.
1) The buildings we meet in
The authors of Pagan Christianity are against Christians building any type of structure for the purpose of assembly. They say: “There does not exist a shred of biblical support for the church building.”  However, it should also be pointed out that neither is there a biblical prohibition against believers having their own place in which to meet. They claim that building a structure specifically for meetings is rooted in paganism, without considering the fact that the idea of a synagogue or place of assembly is of Jewish origin, rather than pagan.
The word “synagogue” is derived from the Greek compound word sunagoge (συναγωγή), comprised of sun, “together,” and ágo, “to gather.” Similarly, the word “church” is eklesía (ἐκκλησία), from ek, “out of” and kaléo, “to call or assemble.” Both words sunagoge and eklesía were used of both the Jewish synagogue itself and also the congregation of the Jews which assembled within the synagogue (Deut 4:10; 23:2; Psa 22:22 LXX).
The authors insist that it is wrong to call the place of meeting “the church,” since the church is the body of Christ and not a locality. However, both synagogue and church were used by the Jews to refer both to the individuals meeting, as well as the place of meeting. In the same manner, we see that from earliest times Christians used the term “church” to refer both to the Church, the body of Christ, as well as the place where the Church met.  Most understand that when we say, “we are going to church” we are not referring exclusively to the building, any more than we mean that the movie is the building when we say, “we are going to the movies.”
Frank Viola claims that the Church imitated the pagans when they went from meeting in houses to actually constructing buildings in which to meet. However, pagan sects also had their humble beginnings in homes. God’s people Israel didn’t have a temple nor synagogues either until the days of the kings. Are we to believe that the Israelites also imitated the pagans? Viola actually insinuates that Jesus Himself was opposed to the temple, saying: “When the Lord Jesus was on earth, He made some radically negative statements about the Jewish Temple.”  However, Jesus never spoke disparagingly of the synagogues, much less the temple in Jerusalem. To the contrary, He called it God’s house and a house of prayer and cast out the money changers for desecrating it (Matt 21:13).
The authors intentionally ignore the primary reasons why the Church met in homes in its early days. In the first place, they were a persecuted Church with limited finances at their disposal. Secondly, if they had built conspicuous church buildings they would have been destroyed or confiscated in times of persecution. There are indications that they actually did begin to build more elaborate structures in areas where the persecution was less severe. In Syria in the Dura-Europos excavation they unearthed a well-preserved church building dating from 235 AD., over 35 years before the emperor Constantine had even been born. It was a very large house, probably donated by a wealthy convert, and it had been converted to accommodate a congregation by adding on a meeting hall, replete with a baptistry and religious paintings on the walls. 
In the introduction to their chapter against church buildings, Viola quotes the church historian Philip Schaff, but intentionally left out the part in which Schaff states the primary reasons why the Early Church first met in homes instead of church buildings. The following is the quote they cited from Schaff, in which I include in bold parenthesis the part they intentionally deleted in order to make their case that the building of structures for worship was wholly due to pagan influences. It reads:
“That the Christians in the apostolic age erected special houses of worship is out of the question (on account of their persecution by Jews and Gentiles, to say nothing of their general poverty; and the transition of a whole synagogue to the new faith was no doubt very rare.) As the Saviour of the world was born in a stable, and ascended to heaven from a mountain, so his apostles and their successors down to the third century, preached in the streets, the markets, on mountains, in ships, sepulchres, eaves, and deserts, and in the homes of their converts. But how many thousands of costly churches and chapels have since been built and are constantly being built in all parts of the world to the honor of the crucified Redeemer, who in the days of his humiliation had no place of his own to rest his head!” —Philip Schaff, nineteenth-century American church historian and theologian.” 
So, according to Schaff, the primary reason why the Early Church didn’t have synagogues to meet in, as did the Jews, was on account of their persecution and their general poverty. While very few of us would approve of the extravagance of some church buildings, as well as the Catholic Church’s practice of incorporating pagan symbols into their cathedrals in order to absorb the surrounding pagan culture, the New Testament nowhere prohibits the use of Church buildings in which to meet.
In fact, the Early Church did not exclusively meet in homes. They also met in Jewish synagogues and other places which could accommodate them in larger numbers, such meeting halls like the upper room which accommodated 120 disciples at once, or the upper room where Paul preached till midnight in Troas (Acts 1:15; 20:7-8). From the Church’s beginning on the day of Pentecost, they rapidly grew from 3,000 to “a great multitude” and met daily in the temple at Solomon’s court (Acts 2:46; 5:12-16).
I have been a part of Open Door Christian Church in American Canyon for nearly 40 years. When I first united with them, they were meeting open-air every Sunday in a park. When the rains came, we moved into my house since I had the largest living room. When we could no longer fit in my living room, we rented an abandoned showroom floor owned by an auto dealer on Broadway where everyone driving by would stare at us as we worshipped. We finally found a storefront location where wheelchairs had once been sold. We bought the property and as we grew, we eventually added on an auditorium to accommodate everyone.
When did we depart from being an organic New Testament church according to Viola? When we moved into the showroom floor? When we met in the storefront, or was it when we added on the auditorium? When I arrived in Mitú Colombia in the year 2000 we also outgrew our home, moved into a storefront and finally into our present church building. Throughout the whole process we saw the hand of the Lord working in wonderful ways and never sensed that we were in any way out of His will. Yet, according to Viola, we do not have a right to exist.
The truth of the matter is that the Early Church simply met wherever they could, given their circumstances. They met daily - both in houses and in whatever larger facilities were available to them, including even the catacombs of Rome. One of the most vibrant and biblically sound churches I was ever a part of met in a rented public hall that often had drunken parties on Saturday nights and we had to arrive early to clean up the mess, often including vomit.
I am greatly indebted to the pastors/overseers in that church since they grounded me in the Word and gave me the tools that I needed in order to better study the Scriptures for myself. I was with them for seven years before moving to another location where I planted another church, renting a hall owned by the Mendocino Gem and Mineral Society.
Rather than being critical of the places where believers come together to worship, we should be encouraging believers to meet wherever and whenever they can, just as the Early Church did. If they are able to have their own building in which to meet, praise the Lord. If they meet in a rented building, even if it is in the chapel of a denominational church, just as the Early Church often met in the Jewish synagogues, praise the Lord. The important thing is that, by whatever means necessary, we obey the Lord’s command to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is (Heb 10:25).
2) church leadership
Frank Viola and George Barna are against any leadership in the church apart from Christ Himself, the Head. In their words, the organic church must “make corporate decisions together under Christ’s headship without a stated leader over them.”  They further state: “If God’s people are properly equipped, they can have meetings that have no leader but Jesus Christ.” 
However, it is not so much a matter of whether a church could survive without any leader but Christ. Indeed, most of the churches that Paul planted did not have appointed leaders at first. The real question we must answer is, “is it God’s design that the church be without human leadership?” To this the answer from the New Testament is clearly no. Obviously, there would have not been qualified leaders in Paul’s churches composed of recent converts, since one of the qualifications for a leader in the church is that they not be a recent convert (1Tim 3:6). However, when the time was right Paul returned and appointed leaders in each church, or else he sent delegates, such as Timothy or Titus to appoint them (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 2Tim 2:2).
While it is true that Christ’s body is an organism, every organism must have organization in order to grow, and God has an established order or organizational structure within the body of Christ which is conducive to its growth until we reach the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ:
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers (pastor/teachers), 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Eph 4:11-12)
Even within the Godhead there is a complimentary subordinate relationship in which the head of Christ is God the Father, just as the head of the woman is man in the marriage relationship (1Cor 11:3). In the same manner, within the body of Christ, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets and third pastor/teachers (1Cor 12:28-30). The apostles oversee the churches which they establish – Peter primarily oversaw the churches of the circumcision and Paul oversaw those which he had established among the Gentiles. The prophets received specific direction from God for the churches in general (Acts 11:27-30), and finally the pastors are to oversee and feed the separate flocks which have been placed under their care, just as Peter states:
“The elders (πρεσβύτερος, presbuteros) who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd (ποιμαίνω, poimaino, “to pastor”) the flock (ποίμνιον, poimnion) of God which is among you, serving as overseers (ἐπισκοπέω, episkopeo), not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4 and when the Chief Shepherd (ἀρχιποίμην, arquipoimen) appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” (1Peter 5:1-4)
Here we see that the elders or presbyters, the pastors or shepherds, and the overseers or bishops all refer to the same office. The same is demonstrated in Acts where Paul called together the elders or presbyters from the local churches that he had established in Ephesus, giving them final instructions:
“From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders (πρεσβύτερος, presbuteros) of the church. 28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock (ποίμνιον, poimnion) among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (ἐπισκοπέω, episkopeo), to shepherd (ποιμαίνω, poimaino, “to pastor”) the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:27-28)
Viola is against the pastoral role of leaders in the church as we know it today. He says:
“By his office, the pastor displaces and supplants Christ’s headship by setting himself up as the church’s human head.” He further says: “There is not a single verse in the entire New Testament that supports the existence of the modern-day pastor!”  But, what about Ephesians 4:11 which says that Christ gave pastors to the Church? Surprisingly, he responds saying: “This is the only verse in the entire New Testament where the word pastor is used. One solitary verse is a mighty scanty piece of evidence on which to hang the Protestant faith!” 
However, as we have already seen, the elder is also the overseer as well as fulfilling a pastoral role. Therefore, when Ephesians 4 says that Christ gave pastors to the church it only demonstrates that it is appropriate to refer to the elders as pastors.
In response to his claim that the pastor displaces Christ’s headship by setting himself up as the church’s human head, it only needs to be pointed out that the pastor or shepherd of the flock (ο ποιμην της ποιμνης, ha poimen tes poimes) is under Christ, the Chief Shepherd ((ἀρχιποίμην, arquipoimen). A Chief Shepherd necessitates undershepherds or pastors assigned to His flock.
Viola says that there shouldn’t be any human leader in a position of authority in the churches. This ignores the fact that the titles elder, overseer and pastor are all descriptive of a position of authority over those whom they are responsible to oversee or pastor (shepherd). That is why the author of Hebrews says:
“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Heb 13:17)
“Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” (Heb 13:7)
When Paul commissioned Titus to set the churches in order in Crete and ordain elders in every city, he said to him, “rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you” (Titus 2:15). Peter also warned against self-willed individuals who walk according to the flesh and “despise authority” (2 Peter 2:10). Yet this is precisely what Viola encourages. Since leadership is vulnerable to attack we are not even to receive an accusation against an elder/overseer/pastor, unless there are at least two witnesses (1Tim 5:19).
Viola also insists that in order to have a legitimate church there must be a plurality of elders. While certainly it is ideal to have more than one elder, nowhere in the New Testament does it say that there must be more than one elder in each assembly. Even when there is more than one elder or pastor, there must be one who leads. The churches are patterned after the synagogues. The synagogues also had a plurality of elders, but within that plurality there was also “the ruler of the synagogue” (ο αρχισυναγωγος, ho arquisunagogos, Acts 18:8; Luke 13:14).
Most local churches have no other recourse than to begin with only one elder, usually the one who plants the church, since there wouldn’t be any members thay yet qualify to be an elder/pastor/overseer. Apart from not being a recent convert, they must also be blameless and able to teach, among many other qualifications (1Tim 3:1-6; Titus 1:5-9). I would encourage anyone who insists there must be a plurality of elders to have a church to go through those lists of requirements and ask themselves how many they personally know who would qualify as an elder.
Are we to ignore the qualifications in order to have a plurality of elders? Does the New Testament say that unless there is a plurality of elders there cannot be a legitimate church? No. As we already saw, Paul began churches before even one elder had been appointed. And since there was often a plurality of congregations in each city, there is no way for us to know whether the reference to elders in the plural form always meant that there was more than one elder in every group. One thing is certain – Paul would not have placed unqualified elders in a church if only one qualified. Neither would he have shut the church down until he could find more than one.
Viola is against the pastor preaching to the congregation, claiming that the sermon is pagan in origin. However, the flock of God is not entirely self-taught. God has appointed elders as the pastor/teachers of the flock. It is for that reason that one of their requirements for the office is that they be “able to teach.” Paul’s command to Timothy is applicable to all who are charged with feeding the flock of God. He said:
“Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine (teaching), but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” (2Tim 4:2-4)
The responsibility of the pastor is to feed the flock, and one of the primary ways he is to accomplish this is through the sermon in which the word is preached, convincing, rebuking and exhorting. That is precisely what a sermon is. The word “sermon” is from the Latin “sermo” “to talk, to disclose.” Obviously, one cannot preach or teach without talking or sermonizing. Viola seeks to vilify nearly every office, function and practice of Christian church, claiming that it is somehow all pagan in origin.
Just as with the Jehovah Witnesses, Viola is against pastors receiving a salary. He says: “As far as clergy salaries go, ministers were unsalaried for the first three centuries.”  However, that is definitely not the case. Paul speaking of the financial support for the elders said:
“Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. 18 For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain, ‘and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” (1Tim 5:17-18)
Paul, speaking of the pastor’s wages, actually says that the pastor is worthy of double honor. Admittedly, many today abuse this, using the pulpit to accumulate wealth. But the fact that Paul had to warn against them using godliness as a means of gain presupposes that they were entitled to a salary (1Tim 6:3-5; Titus 1:11).
Viola is also against all formal education saying, “Bible colleges, seminaries, and even Sunday schools were utterly absent from the early church.”  But is this true? While, just as with church buildings, the Early Church, being under constant persecution, could not build Bible colleges and seminaries as we have today, they did sit under the teaching of the Apostles. The Apostles in turn, committed the responsibility of equipping other men for the teaching ministry. Paul said to Timothy:
“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me…” And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim 1:13; 2:2)
Whether or not they had an actual building in which to teach other faithful men the same teaching they had received from the Apostles is immaterial. What is essential is that pastors must first be taught the word before they can aptly teach others.
While little detail is offered in Scripture concerning the manner in which these faithful men were equipped for their teaching ministry, we do see Paul teaching the disciples in the school of the Greek orator Tyrannus in Ephesus for two full years after having been cast out of the synagogue (Acts 19:9-10). While it is not necessary for one to have a degree in order to be an elder, one of the primary qualifications is that they be able to teach the word, and Bible colleges and seminaries were formed for that very purpose.
In spite of their multitudinous quotes from other sources, it is apparent throughout that they approached the subject with the predetermined objective of finding pagan elements in everything related to the Christian church as we know it today. They often resort to deliberate misrepresentation of the sources that they quote as well as drawing conclusions based upon non sequitur reasoning. I cannot help but think that the real driving force behind most of their claims is an unresolved root of bitterness which, if not countered, will contaminate many in this present generation of self-willed believers who despise authority and as a result have unresolved issues with pastors or other leaders in the church (Heb 12:15).
I don’t see their criticisms as being in any way conducive to the growth of the true organic Church into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Rather I see it as being part of the overall destructionist movement in which an unprecedented number of Christians are abandoning the assembling of themselves together with others of like faith. As Paul said, we must endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). That will never come about as long as we focus in what is wrong with the Church instead of endeavoring to maintain the unity of the Spirit in spite of the defects and differences we may have concerning nonessential practices and doctrines.
 Viola, Frank; Barna, George. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices . Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition, Loc. 274:
“…those who have left the fold of institutional Christianity to become part of an organic church have a historical right to exist—since history demonstrates that many practices of the institutional church are not rooted in Scripture.”
 Ibid. Loc. 258
 Viola, Frank; Barna, George. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (p. 42).
 Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 3, ch. 11.
 Viola, Frank; Barna, George. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (p. 13).
 Viola, Frank; Barna, George. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. (pp. 9-10). Quoted from Schaff's History of the Church Vol. I, chapter 9 - 56. Sacred Places.
 Ibid. (p. 217).
 Ibid. (p. 266).
 Ibid. (p. 106).
 Ibid (p. 106).
 Ibid. (p. 178).
 Ibid. (p. 200).