One of the biggest problems in churches today are pulpits. Pulpits and flower arrangements. Organs, pianos and worship teams too.
Not that there’s anything wrong in particular with any of these things — but there’s something terribly wrong that hundreds of thousands of people sit in the midst of these and so many other things and assume that all these things have something to do with Christianity.
Whatever Jesus and Paul started 2,000 years ago (called “Church”), none of these things were a part of it. The “original” Church as shown to us in the pages of the Bible has gradually morphed into something which would have been unrecognizable to first-century Christians. “Church” has become “encrusted” with ideas and practices and symbols and even furniture that only became part of what we consider “Christianity” through the passage of centuries.
Recently, many angry churchgoers and ministers targeted a book called Pagan Christianity by F. Viola. His premise seems to be that — IMHO — since Christianity has existed for 2,000 years and has been “hosted” in many different cultures, local practices and ideas have been “absorbed” into it, changing it substantially from what it was originally.
That doesn’t seem to be an outrageous idea to me. In the Bible, whenever it talks about a sermon, it never once mentions a pulpit. No historian can say precisely when churches started using pulpits, but obviously it had to be in one of the countries where people used pulpits — or maybe podiums or lecterns which are basically the same thing. That they started using them in “church” is really no big deal — but it’s best if people understand the difference between a church that was “good enough for St. Paul” 2,000 years ago and churches today which have been redesigned by various cultures and societies.
Astonishing as it might seem, what is considered the “center-point” of many church services today —the sermon — isn’t even used in the Bible!
The “sermon” with which most church-goers are familiar comes not from the New Testament, but from Greek culture. From the very beginning, in the apostle Paul’s day, he battled against Greek philosophy entering into the teachings of the Followers of Jesus Christ during the first century. But things really received a boost in the wrong direction when the Emperor Constantine legalized “Christianity”, (4th century A.D.) With his officially appropriating the religion of Christianity for his political and military goals, Constantine led the way for all sorts of paganistic and Greek ideas to enter into church thought and practice.
One of these Greek practices was “preaching” — public speakers trained in Greek “rhetoric” who were already popular as “orators” in their day (even prior to their conversion to Christianity) brought this highly popular and crowd-pleasing style of communication into already existing Christian assemblies. The “sermon”. Previously, Believers gathered together to share with one another, encourage and exhort one another and did it in almost always a dialogical manner where everyone present participated in the Gathering. It’s interesting to note that the apostle Paul, in 2.1-5, rejected this Greek form of preaching (“excellency of speech” and “persuasive words of wisdom”), refusing to follow the oratorical patterns used by his pagan contemporaries.
Guitars. This is a good example of how things become “absorbed” into “church”. I can remember when churches didn’t use guitars — many pastors even forbidding their use as “wicked” as a symbol of “rebellion”. That was in the ’60s. But guitars started being used in churches because they’d become an insanely popular instrument in American culture.
But guitars weren’t used in churches in Bible days 2,000 years ago. Guitars (such as we know them) didn’t even exist in Jesus’ day. So in many churches “hosting Christianity” in America in the ’60s, the use of guitars became normal. Churches “absorbed” guitars as an instrument of worship.
This seems quite understandable and presents no problem to me.
But what if things have been “absorbed” into Christianity that changed some essential spiritual quality? What if some ancient practices or customs became part of Christianity that made it — what? — less “Christian”?
For example: what if in the early churches in Bible days, not only did they not have pulpits, but they didn’t have “preachers”? I mean, “preachers” like what we’re used to today?
Truth is, 2,000 years ago, they didn’t have “preachers”:
“Clergyman (noun) — 1. clergyman, reverend, man of the cloth, a member of the clergy, a spiritual leader of a Christian church.”
Back in the days of the Early Church, churches had what were called “elders” or “presbyters” who “watched over” local churches. And churches in different towns weren’t “connected” like today’s “denominations”. And in any one town, you wouldn’t find more than one church — especially no “churches” competing with each other! And there was nothing resembling today’s “man of the cloth”.
So, where did they come from — these things which are part of churches today but weren’t 2,000 years ago,?
From the societies around them. Another example — church “governance”: the hierarchy of priests and vicars, bishops and archdeacons, cardinals, patriarchs and so forth weren’t part of churches originally. These hierarchies of governance and control were actually a standard form of governance in the (pagan) Roman Empire. Already familiar throughout the Empire, churches and their ministers across the known world were eventually organized (aggressively) into this familiar, political format.
Other cultural customs were absorbed as well. Local pagan deities worshipped in rocks and caves, streams and temples, were “christianized” by turning them from pagan deities into “saints”. [Surprised? Google “ancient deities became Catholic saints”.]
In light of historical information like this, I certainly do NOT have a problem with books like Viola’s which try to bring to light many of the pagan customs and ideas which have been absorbed into Christianity.
In fact — and I don’t know if Viola deals with this issue — even today’s ideas about Heaven and Hell are mostly pagan. Common images of Hell as a Inferno overseen by Satan, levels of horrific punishments at the hands of demonic tormentors, Purgatory, and Limbo into which unbaptized babies are cast — none of these are in the Bible or were taught in the original Christian churches. They were added from poets and preachers in the societies which “hosted” Christianity — authors such as Dante and Milton.
Now, if you’re a Christian — especially an active, church-going, tithing believer — wouldn’t you appreciate knowing the various pagan thoughts and traditions which Christianity has absorbed through the centuries? Wouldn’t you appreciate being able to know what is part of the Church Jesus is building versus religious systems built by human beings — many of which were altered by church leaders in order to maintain political or social power & influence or even protect church financial assets through tithes and offerings?
Oddly, IMHO, most contemporary church-goers seem angered by this kind of information. Most don’t WANT to know that a lot of what they’ve been led to believe and practice and obey as “Christianity” isn’t authentically “Christian” and sometimes even contradictory to Christ.
And this is why I asked, above, if many of today’s Christians may not be Pathetically Pagan?