A number of people have asked what I make of Frank Viola and George Barna’s bestseller, Pagan Christianity (available here from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk). I’m afraid I’ve not read it. Indeed I have to confess I don’t generally read books on household church – even though I’m a practioner of it!
Why is that?
I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s because when I was first interested in household church I did read a range of material and I found most of it narrow, petty, reductionistic and reactionary. Either it defined itself in terms of what it was against. Or it was obsessed with debates over the minutiae of what may or may not have happened in New Testament churches. It all seemed a world away from the missiological engagement in which I was interested. (I can’t say whether any of this is true of Pagan Christianity having not read the book!) Most of the groups involved seemed insular – more concerned with creating the perfect church than reaching the lost. Obviously I want to be biblical, but I believe there were a variety of church practices and models in the New Testament so that we can be flexible. We can adapt to our context (1 Corinthians 9).
Back to the Pagan Christianity. I have read Ben Witherington’s negative review of the book. I have neither the time nor the ability to interact with all the detail of Witherington’s review. But here are some general observations.
I trust Witherington to be correct when he argues that purpose-built buildings and sermons pre-date Constantine. Nevertheless Witherington implicitly acknowledges that special buildings were later than apostolic Christianity. The same is true of sermons (in the sense of monologues delivered to the gathered church community). It is also true that special buildings and sermons were not widespread until after Constantine. Even when we get to Augustine his ‘sermons’ are in the form of a dialogue. (In fact ‘sermon’ is the Latin word for ‘dialogue’.)
But the crucial point is this. I’m not what I call a ‘reconstructionist’ – someone who wants to recreate what happened in the first century. I want to be more missiologically driven. So I point to the evidence of the apostolic period (and the second and third centuries AD) to show that participation and household are valid ways of operating as a church, not to show that sermons and buildings are invalid ways. I’m not against sermons and buildings – though I do want to question their privileged status. If people can show that sermons and buildings are early then my position still stands which is: that participation and household church are legitimate and were in fact the norm in the apostolic period. I want the freedom to operate in a way that is appropriate to the missiological context and true to the word. In our context we use a mix of discussion and monologue to ensure that as a community we wrestle together with the meaning and implications of the text while also having the truth driven home to our hearts.