Ben Witherington III reviews Pagan Christianity

I found Ben Witherington III’s review of Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola and George Barna to be an interesting read:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Postlude.


3 thoughts on “Ben Witherington III reviews Pagan Christianity

  1. 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

  2. Has Christianity Gone Pagan?!
    Part One of a Response to Pagan Christainity
    David W. Miller

    According to two of the premiere spokespersons for the house church movement, the vast majority of the church today is pagan. The highly touted book, Pagan Christianity? (revised and updated), by Frank Viola and George Barna, is the new popular authority for what the house-church movement teaches about the institutional paganized church. Here is what Viola and Barna promote in a nutshell—there two groups—(1) institutional churches that do not follow the New Testament and (2) house-churches that do.

    Pagan Christianity? should remove the question mark from the title as it dogmatically proclaims that only the house-church movement, as understood by Viola and Barna, qualify as following the New Testament pattern. Furthermore, the book attempts to show that most of what the so-called institutional church practices is rooted in paganism, hence their shocking title, Pagan Christianity?

    Here is the “pagan” way of doing found in the pages of Pagan Christianity?:
    (1) Regular gathering for worship in a large building*
    (2) Designing the building as a cathedral*
    (3) Setting aside sacred places in the church buildings*
    (4) Having a steeple, a pulpit, candles and/or pews*
    (5) Having the church stand when the pastors enter the service*
    (6) Having an ordination service to ordain a pastor*
    (7) Teaching and practicing tithing*
    (8) Dressing up for church services
    (9) The pastor dressing up in a black suit or wearing a turn-around collar
    (10) Calling your church leaders “pastors”
    (11) Having just one pastor as the spiritual leader of a large church
    (12) Having pastors who have been educated in Bible colleges or theological graduate schools
    (13) Having a special chair on the platform for a pastor to sit in
    (14) Listening to a well-prepared sermon from the Word by one pastor
    (15) Having a youth pastor as one of the church pastors
    (16) Having a music minister or worship-arts pastor as one of your pastors
    (17) Having an adult choir, a boys choir (pp. 158-61)
    (18) Having a contemporary worship-praise team (pp. 164-66)
    (19) Having ushers help seat people
    (20) Making people feel guilty for skipping a Sunday worship service gathering
    (21) Passing out a church bulletin
    (22) Inviting people to come forward at the close of the service to publicly trust Jesus
    (23) Following an order of worship like singing, praying, a sermon, communion and giving
    (24) Taking communion with a small piece of bread and a tiny cup of grape juice
    (25) Baptizing new believers after taking time to explain the meaning of baptism
    (26) Holding Sunday School for children
    (27) Infant sprinkling of babies for baptism
    (28) Using the phrase “my personal Savior”
    (29) Using a New Testament beginning with Matthew and ending with Revelation
    (30) Using a New Testament that has chapter and verse divisions
    (31) Having a reverent attitude when attending the worship services
    (32) Conducting a funeral with a eulogy and funeral procession (pp. 161-62)
    (33) Listen to a topical sermon
    (34) Being a part of a denomination

    A Grossly Misleading Title

    Are all of the church practices in the above list rooted in paganism? Of course not! Even in the Viola-Barna book, only a handful–just the first seven (marked with an asterisk)–of thirty-three issues listed were given a connection to pagan roots, and most of those seven were related to buildings. Tithing was called “biblical, but not Christian,” but then said to be popularized by a pagan Roman land rental system.

    So upon closer examination, one discovers even Viola and Barna offer no direct link to paganism for most of their long list of wrong church practices. Most of what troubles them arose out of what they see as church tradition, not heathen paganism. A much more accurate title for their book would be, Traditional Christianity?. But such a title is not as sensational or as marketable as Pagan Christianity?—and Barna knows church marketing well—he wrote the book on that too!

    A Kinder and Gentler Paganism?

    After rightfully being blasted for using the term pagan to refer to churches with buildings and spiritual leaders called pastors, Viola and Barna have done some serious back peddling by redefining the term pagan to a kinder and gentler term in the 4th printing of their book. They write, “We are not using the word as a synonym for bad, evil, sinful, or wrong.” What? Such a benign definition of the term pagan flies in the face of what the word authorities say pagan means. For example:

    The Merriam Webster On-line Dictionary defines pagan as “1: heathen; especially: a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome) 2: one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods : an irreligious or hedonistic person.”

    The on-line free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, states: “The term ‘pagan’ is a Christian adaptation of the ‘gentile’ of Judaism, and as such has an inherent Christian or Abrahamic bias, and pejorative connotations among Westerners, comparable to heathen, and infidel … in Islam.”

    My massive 2214-page Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language gave these six meanings for the term pagan:
    1. one of a people or community observing polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks
    2. a person who is not a Christian, Jew or Muslim
    3. an irreligious or hedonistic person
    4. pertaining to the worship or worshipers of any religion that is neither Christian, Jewish nor Muslim
    5. pertaining to, or characteristic of pagans
    6. irreligious and hedonistic

    Rather than admit the title, Pagan Christianity?, is totally unfair and misleading, the authors attempt to redefine the word pagan, gutting the term of the heart of its meaning which is heathen, polytheistic, hedonistic and irreligious! But Barna-Viola are the self-appointed new Merriam-Webster and legitimize the term pagan as longer “a synonym for bad, evil, sinful, or wrong!”

    This tabloid title reminds me of the pastor who promoted a special message he titled, “What the Bible Says About TV!” He advertised this sermon all over town with flyers, radio spots and newspaper ads. The marketing worked, a huge crowd packed out the 400-seat church auditorium. The pastor began his message with these words, “I want to tell you today about what the Bible says about TV, not television, but Total Victory.” Feeling deceived, most of the people began to leave in anger. The pastor was left with under 100 people who were a part of his faithful flock. What the pastor thought was clever marketing backfired. No one likes to be deceived.

    After reading Pagan Christianity?, I felt like those people who came expecting to hear a message about television and the Bible …with one big difference–I sat through the whole message of the Barna-Viola book—yep, I read it all. With each page I found myself becoming more disappointed and even angry at Barna and Viola’s audacity to call the practices of the vast majority of spiritually healthy and holy Evangelical churches in American a form of “pagan Christianity.”

    The book, Pagan Christianity?, is well-intended, but full of serious error packaged in what appears to be persuasive documentation.

    My desire is to present a much-needed corrective response with a positive message of the biblical basis for the large Evangelical church in America.

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