Reconsider the Book “Pagan Christianity?” and the House Church Movement

Churches meeting in houses of Christians is neither more wrong nor right than as the advocates of house-churches teach. The advocates ofhouse church movement house-churches only cite scriptures of the church in someone’s household or to meeting in an upper-room. Books like “Pagan Christianity?” are promoting house-churches exclusively. The scriptures for house churches are not decisive as many make out. These advocates are often mislead by quoting scholars and coloring the first-century church without buildings. This is misleading to assert, “They didn’t build buildings. Therefore they must not have had buildings” when they had buildings. Even though there is no evidence yet outside of the Bible of early Christians building their own buildings, they still had “church buildings” and the Scriptures teach this. The Scriptures show that early Christians had buildings for the assembly other than houses as the following presents.

Congregations in Upper-Rooms

First, look at meeting in upper-rooms. Meeting in upper-rooms is like meeting in a bed-and-breakfast. These upper-rooms were additions to houses for guest rooms and meeting halls, and were not the living places of those who owned them. When Jesus instructed His disciples to find the place for the Passover in Jerusalem, they went and met in an upper-room. The Scriptures call these rooms “guest rooms” in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11. People used such rooms for feasts as seen in the scriptures of Jesus’s last Passover, and they used these rooms for funerals as in Acts 9:36–43. As renting halls,  Christians met in upper-rooms besides only homes. Upper-rooms are not houses in the sense of family dwellings. Acts 20:7–8 shows Christians assembling on the first day of the week for the Lord’s Supper in the upper-room as these Christians customarily did.

Congregations in Synagogues

Upper-rooms were not the only place for the congregation’s assembly. James 2:2 reports, “For if there should come into your synagogue…” James expected those he was writing to meet in synagogues whether he was writing to dispersed Christians. These Christians met in synagogues. Synagogue is from the Greek word sunagogei, which literally means “gathered together” and used to describe the place of gathering. The word “synagogue” is used 55 times to refer to buildings 55 times of its 57 occurrences in the New Testament with the other two references to the “synagogue of Satan” in Revelation. If Christians had their own church-buildings, the word “synagogue” would have been the term to describe their church-building. The first-century term for church-building is “synagogue.” The possessive pronoun in James 2:2 “your synagogue” demonstrates that these Christians possessed their own synagogues. Where would the Corinthian Christians meet when Paul established that congregation converting Crispus, the ruler over synagogue, and converting Justus whose house was connected to the synagogue (Acts 18:7–8)? Add to this that Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians exhorting, “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Cor 11:22a). This would be a little odd to say if they were meeting in someone’s house where that person’s family must eat. While the misguided authors of the book, “Pagan Christianity?”, disregard the practical influence of synagogue assemblies upon the church, the Scriptures show that the Christians were meeting in synagogues and assembling wherever was sufficient for their congregation.

Congregations in Houses

Acts 5:42 and 20:20 record the Apostles, not the church, teaching and preaching in the temple and “from house to house” unlike Acts 2:46 that tells of the church ate together from house to house. This verse does not imply that they assembled for the assembly in houses. The strongest passage for meeting in houses is the prayer-meeting for Peter’s imprisonment at Mary’s house in Acts 12:12. There are also references to churches in households, but these may and often do refer to churches in families since the Scriptures reference the Greek word for house, oikos, to refer to a family or household (1 Tim 3:4–5, 12; 5:4, 8, 14; 2 Tim 1:16; 3:6; 4:19; cf. 1 Tim 3:15). The idea that early Christians only met in houses is an assertion that some scholars passed down without any evidence and yet contrary to what the Scriptures present.

Church Civic Centers

Are steeple-topped houses with fellowship-rooms, “life centers,” and gyms first-century Christian concepts? No. However, these inclusions are matters of opinion for the leadership to determine if such are useful to the congregation’s works. Some may rightly wonder why some congregations may need more than one room of equal capacity instead of using the same room. Yes, forward-facing pews can take away from fellowship and prevent Christians from speaking among themselves in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. “Life centers,” “teen rooms,” and gymnasiums are costly to keep the youth away from worldly influence and under the influence of the church. While many may defend the expenses of many of these things, church elders can find these helpful to the congregation and the community if managed appropriately. However, the leadership must determine the church’s needs and where their meetings will be whether in synagogues, upper-rooms, porticoes, or houses, or church-buildings.

The House-Church Movement

The book, “Pagan Christianity?” (Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), advocates house churches only. The book has a long list of errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions that result from the discouraged method of interpreting Scripture known as “clipboard mentality” and “cut-and-paste” approach (Viola, P. 229–39). The book begins and stands upon misconceptions of Church history and the twisting of Scripture to make the assembly into a spontaneous open meeting. The authors build the book upon assumptions. These errors include claiming: that there existed no church-buildings or any special buildings for assembling until the fourth century (P. 14), that the Lord’s Supper was a part of a common meal, called a “love feast” (P. 192–97), that the assembly had numerous speakers including women teaching and ruling men (P. 55, 75, 78–79), house churches in an area should be governed as one body (P. 43–44), that the church of Jesus Christ is protestant (P. 47), and that the churches did not collect the New Testament Scriptures under the oversight of the Apostles (P. 226). The Scriptures refute all of these things. Because of the assertions that there were no special buildings of the church in the first three centuries, this demonstrates that Viola and Barna are not reading the Scriptures carefully.

Everything Pagan

While the book, “Pagan Christianity?”, does encourage Christians to recognize and possibly remove man-made traditions, Viola and Barna associate Christian practices to paganism in an extreme stretch. The authors present pulpits and pews as having pagan origins as though these have no practical use. For this reason, one could make the case that certain styles of roofing, flooring, grounds, and so much of culture have pagan origins too. The writers even give this extreme by saying, “The use of chairs and pile carpets in Christian gatherings has no biblical support either. And both were invented by pagans” (P. 75). Should Christians lay aside carpets and chairs too? If someone should make the case for pagan origins of the construction of homes, would any Christians have any house to assemble since “house-churches are pagan”? Paganism is not the motivation of using these tools, but people use these because of practicality. The authors do not compare their own statements when asserting, “The Christians picked up from the pagans the practice of having meals in honor of the dead” (P. 16). Skeptics would love to make such an association to the Lord’s Supper and accuse Christ and the Apostle Paul of inventing the Lord’s Supper from paganism. Why not also recognize that books in the form of a codex originated from a pagan poet and thus Christians should only use scrolls instead of bound books for our bibles? The book presents the same old practice of tearing down traditions and replacing these with other traditions.

Double Standards

The most striking thing about “Pagan Christianity?” are the blatant double standards. One quote in particular shows this.

John Newton rightly said, “Let not him who worships under a steeple condemn him who worships under a chimney.” With that in mind, what biblical, spiritual, or historical authority does any Christian have to gather under a steeple in the first place? (P. 43)

How can an advocate for house-churches condemn judging from those with house-churches and yet judge those who worship under steeples? Look again. The writer judges to those who worship under a steeple.

The Asserted Agenda

The underlying purpose of the book is to promote “open meetings” by reinterpreting Scripture. “Open meetings” are assemblies of “open sharing,” which means open participation where everyone has the opportunity to take a turn in bringing some act of worship before the entire church. This may sound appealing, but this is not the Christian assembly found in the New Testament. Their scriptural proof comes down to misusing a rebuke as a precedent in 1 Corinthians 14:26, which says, “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” The authors assert that this text to mean that each person had a role and everyone participated in the assembly, but rather the apostle Paul by Christ’s Spirit was condemning that practice. Paul revealed that rather than everyone “let two or three” speak and “let the first keep silent” (1 Cor 14:29–30, P. 82). Frank Viola’s book also presents the assembly as a number of gatherings in different houses and yet as one local church while 1 Corinthians 14:23 says, “the whole church comes together in one place,” which is the scriptural context of his assertions. In such meetings promoted by “Pagan Christianity?”, women are encouraged to take a role in speaking over men while 1 Corinthians 14:34 instructed, “Your women must be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be subordinate, as the law also says.” Christianity is a submissive religion where everyone must submit to another (Eph 5:21). Submission is not by force but by our own free-will in subordination to Christ. Like today, some of the Corinthians thought they were more spiritual than the apostle Paul on these matters and women took the Christian man’s birth-right (cf. 1 Tim 2:11–13). For this, Paul replied, “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (14:37).

An Example of a House-Church Meeting

Lastly, here is the picture that Frank Viola gives of such an “open meeting”, which should give you a good idea of what is being promoted:

About thirty of us gathered together in a home and greeted one another. Some of us stepped into the center of the living room and began singing a cappella. Quickly, the entire church was singing in unison, arms around one another. Someone else began another song, and we all joined in. Between each song, prayers were uttered by different people. Some of the songs had been written by the members themselves. We sang several of the songs several times. Some people turned the words of the songs into prayers. On several occasions, a few of the members exhorted the church in relation to what we had just sung.

After we sang, rejoiced, spontaneously prayed, and exhorted one another, we sat down. Then, very quickly, a woman stood and began explaining what the Lord showed her during the week. She spoke for about three minutes. After she sat down, a man stood up and shared a portion of Scripture and exalted the Lord Jesus through it. Next another gentleman stood up to add a few very edifying words to what he said. A woman then broke into a new song that went right along with what the two men had just shared. The whole church sang with her. Another woman stood and read a poem that the Lord had given her during the week…and it meshed perfectly with what the others have shared up to that point.

One by one, brothers and sisters in Christ stood up to tell us what they had experienced in their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that week. Exhortations, teaching, encouragements, poems, songs, and testimonies all followed one right after the other. And a common theme, one that revealed the glories of Jesus Christ, emerged. Some of those gathered wept.

None of this was rehearsed, prescribed, or planned. (P. 78–79)

This is not the assembly that the New Testament Scriptures describe. This desire for everyone to share in assembly most likely comes from the lack of daily fellowship either with Christians or God.

Where to Worship

Where Christians worship does not matter much, but rather how they worship and by what spirit they worship (John 4:24). Though Christians inherit steeple-topped buildings and forward-facing pews, they should be aware of possible changes in their synagogues to further encourage the heart of meaningful worship in assembly. A theatrical assembly cannot center their focus on God rather than man. Christians must return to the New Testament church, the ancient order, the gospel form of the assembly. They can consider turning the pews toward the center of the assembly or replacing them if they want. Christians can reorganize the seating so that they can speak among themselves in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19). Christians must retain the decency and order of the assembly whether prearranged and spontaneous (1 Cor 14:40). The elders must continue to oversee the flock (1 Pet 5:1–3). Congregation must continue to have two or three speakers speak and not everyone (1 Cor 14:29–30). These speakers must still speak one at a time as the Scriptures have instructed and let there be silence without disorderly interruptions. The fellowship and edification necessary from building one another up in love and good works will strengthen the church (Heb 10:24). Christian assemblies can still encourage visitors to “worship God and report that God is truly among you” (1 Cor 14:25). May God bless all Christians who strive to observe all things that Christ has instructed (Matt 28:20).

About Scott J Shifferd

Minister, church of Christ in Jacksonville, FL. Husband and father of four. Email: ScottJon82[at]yahoo.com
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of Christ and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reconsider the Book “Pagan Christianity?” and the House Church Movement

  1. Pingback: Response to “Reasons Why People Quit Church” | Seeing God's Breath

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