Monday, July 07, 2008

Ben Witherington on Pagan Christianity

Ben Witherington has just completed a four-part review of George Barna and Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity. I should note from the outset that I have not read Barna and Viola's book, so my response to Dr. Witherington's review might not be fair to them. Nonetheless, the book appears to embody many contemporary criticisms of the "institutional church," and so I read Witherington's response as a critique of that overall mindset. Some quotes will illustrate where he is going with this:

From Part 1:
Like Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code, Constantine is painted as ‘Bad Bart’ the person who messed things up in Pagan Christianity. He is called on p.18 the father of the church building, which is giving him far too much credit. He did of course take Christianity off the illicit religion list, and he and his mother became the patrons of the building of various churches including in the Holy Land, but it is simply false to say that there were no church buildings long before Constantine. It will not do to make him the bad guy who ruined pristine and pure early Christianity.
From Part 2:
And categorical statements like “Let’s face it. The Protestant order of worship is largely unscriptural, impractical, and unspiritual.” (p. 77), is not only an uncharitable remark. It’s Biblically inaccurate.

An actual study of worship in the Bible would recognize that there is indeed both order and space in worship, both liturgy and creativity, both leading and following. When Paul describes worship in 1 Cor. 8-14 he is largely critiquing the lack of order and structure in the service there, not baptizing it and calling it good. 1 Corinthians is a problem solving letter, and when one takes the problematic model and makes that a template for modern Christian worship—that in itself becomes a problem.
From Part 3:
The sermon is not an invention of Protestants over the course of the last five centuries. No one who has actually read the sermons of Chysostom or Ambrose or Augustine or a host of other Church Fathers could ever make a silly assertion like that. And furthermore, I would stress once more, the use of rhetoric already was in play in the Diaspora synagogues, which is one of the reasons why Paul's rhetoric was sometimes well received, at least initially in such synagogues. The writers of the NT are almost without exception Jews, not former pagans, and almost without exception they use not only the Greek language they had long since learned but the Greco-Roman rhetoric that was a part of elementary education all over the Empire, including in Jerusalem!
From Part 4:
Certain persons certainly were appointed to regularly do certain functions in earliest Christianity. That is what the Pastoral Epistles not merely imply but say, and Timothy and Titus are clear examples of this. Of course this goes strongly against the 'everyone gets to do anything they feel led to do since they are part of the priesthood of all believers' approach, but then, as I have said, the priesthood of all believers language has nothing whatsoever to do with deciding who gets to be teachers, prophets, elders etc. Those issues are determined by whom the Spirit gifts and graces for such tasks, and whom are recognized by the church to have such gifts and graces.
Dr. Witherington's critique is very much needed as a counterbalance to the idea that the problem with the church today is that we're simply doing it wrong, and if we'd just do it right--meaning in houses, with no meeting structure, no clergy, and everyone participating however they want--then the problems would be solved. Witherington clearly demonstrates that what we do in church does in fact go back to the early church and biblical principles--even if there may be a need for examining how we've culturally adapted these practices; that "pagan roots of Christian practices" is largely a bogeyman; and that the idea of a pristine "early church" without any cultural baggage to muck it up is a product of wishful thinking.

The original series goes into a lot more detail, and it's well worth reading. Check it out.


  1. Keith,

    Thanks for the link to Witherington's critique. Excellent. Presently, I'm reading The New Christians by Tony Jones. There's some overlap, I sense, between Jones and Pagan Christianity.

    Grace. With that, I am...


  2. Witherington’s review is being critiqued quite effectively by another scholar. Parts 1, 2, and 3 can be read at this site,

  3. Thanks for the link, William. I did not uncritically endorse Dr. Witherington's review, even before reading Dr. Zens's critique of it. Witherington seems to think that institutionalization is not a problem, and I disagree.

    However, I am not terribly impressed by Dr. Zens's critique, either. It seems to take the form of scattershot quibbling, for one thing, rather than making one or more unified points. Moreover, many of the quibbles seriously miss their mark--and I choose for example a couple that are meant to address Witherington's review as a whole, which is the kind of criticism I would value:

    Your entire review is built on a huge but false assumption that you never support. This assumption is the linchpin for your entire argument. Here is the assumption: That the Christian meeting in the first century was a gathering for worship, i.e., a” worship service.”

    This assumption cannot be substantiated anywhere from the NT. There is no place in all of Scripture that teaches that Christians are to gather for “worship.” Other scholars agree. For example, in chapter 9 of his seminal work, “Paul’s Idea of Community,” Dr. Robert Banks discusses Romans 12:1-2 which says that our whole life is to be a worship until the Lord. He then makes this crucial point, “since all place and times have now become the venue of worship (Rom. 12:1-2), Paul cannot speak of Christian assembly in church distinctively for this purpose.”

    This is a classic case of false dichotomy. We can believe that all of life is worship before God, and nonetheless also believe that Christians may gather together to worship God corporately. If that's not the reason for gathering together, what is the reason?

    We have elevated and set in concrete that which there is absolutely no evidence in the NT – the pastor, the sermon and the pulpit – and in so doing lost the untold blessings of gatherings where Christ is exalted as all the parts bring forth uplifting contributions.

    The pastor is quite clearly mentioned in Ephesians 4, and can be identified with the elder and overseer of the Pastorals; i.e., the model of "no church leadership" is unsupportable. Acts has numerous accounts of sermons; most of these, true, are to unbelievers, but not all. And while in my church tradition participation by the congregation is more encouraged than in other traditions, I think most pastors find people in the congregation more reluctant to participate than itching to do so and being restrained. Frankly, I think many who share the point of view of Zens, Barna, and Viola are tilting at straw windmills.

  4. Hey Keith,

    This is off-topic but I wanted to pass along the following link:

    Tell me what you think of our new project.

  5. The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at
    It’s also available on Frank is also blogging now at

  6. Hi Keith,

    Interesting thread here. I thought your blog about Church from a few months ago made the biblical case for structured corporate worship quite nicely.

    I would further argue that the sermons in early Acts, prior to chp 10, since they were given to the Jews rather than Gentiles, were preached to "the church."

    It's worth remembering that Jesus preached to Jews and Luther preached to Catholics, and neither thought that they were speaking to unbelievers.

    We also see structure and assigned duties in the NT church, as early as Acts 6. In Acts 15 we see that the NT church even granted power to decide how others ought to live their lives, far removed from those making the decisions. Even Jesus's ministry with the apostles has hints of structure and assigned duties, with Judas handling finances(Jn 13:21-30) and Peter, James, and John serving, with mixed results, as His "prayer partners." (Mt. 26: 36-46)

    Specific lack of structure and accountability has led to innumerable problems, many of which we've personally witnesssed. Remember Pastor Bob's nephew who spent years in a "house church" that was basically a cult? And how about Mike Warnke's tax/authority dodge called "The Eastern Orthodox Church of Tennessee" which had absolutely no ties to the Patriarch of Constantinople. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point.

    Structure and authority in an organization are only a problem if those who hold power exercise it in a manner which furthers the structure and authority, rather than furthering the stated goals of the organization. That concept is widely known as Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, named for Jerry Pournelle who is credited with first identifying and defining it as such.

    In the Army there are two kinds of Drill Sergeants: Some use the structure and authority of their position to exert harmful influence over their charges because they have become addicted to power, and others (the good ones) use their power and authority to meld the individual and diverse personalities of the recruits into a cohesive unit with the skills needed to excell in battle.

    The same dynamic works in both clergy and lay leaders, whether in megachurches or home-based fellowships. A true shepherd cares for the well-being of the sheep,(Ps. 23 and Mt. 18: 12-14) rather than "lording it over them as the gentiles do." (Lk. 22: 24-26)

    We know the axiom that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," but rather than tilting at windmills to abolish authority, we ought to fight the good fight by standing guard against corruption. Otherwise we're likely to discover that, like life in a state of nature, Christianity without (biblical) structure is liable to be nasty, brutish, and short.

    Similar to the Bereans of Acts 17: 10-12, we should understand that there's nothing wrong with stepping under the umbrella of authority as long as we've checked out the bona fides of the guy holding it.

    Wow, I never thought that I'd be the guy writing in defense of structure and authority in the Church!

    Grace and peace, Dave