Pastors Are Pagan–Sermons Are Bad


Working on my graduating essay for my M.A., due in a few days, I became intensely frustrated this morning while reading a chapter on the pagan origins of the sermon in Pagan Christianity, by Frank Viola and George Barna. Fortunately I’m not alone. I googled for reviews of this book and came up with a series of reviews by the esteemed Ben Witherington III. His reaction to the chapter on the sermon?

“It was at p. 88 in the book where I was ready to pull all my hair out.” [source]

I don’t need to point out that I have no hair to pull out, but I certainly relate to the follicle of the sentiment.

This book is really, really awful. I mean, I’m sure Viola and Barna mean well—they want Christians to break free from traditions that bind them, restrict them and prevent them from a fuller life and expression of faith pleasing to God. Nothing at all wrong with that. But the book seems to be one giant “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Viola and Barna (V&B) argue that biblical Christianity needs to move to home gatherings since it was pagans who introduced institutional buildings. However, not only did the earliest Church in Acts gather in Solomon’s Portico at the Jerusalem Temple (see Acts 3:11; 5:12), but they continued to meet in synagogues (c.f., Paul’s confession of persecuting Christians who gathered in synagogues in Acts 22:19, and the instances in Acts 13, 14, 17, 18 & 19), and when that wasn’t practical, rented halls much like today church planters rent schools or theatres for gatherings (Acts 19:9).

But it’s the attempt to root the Christian sermon in pagan origins that really steams me. V&B try to argue that the Old Testament preaching of the prophets was spontaneous, never scripted and in response to important particular events. They seem to have forgotten, as Witherington points out, that the actual regular Tabernacle and Temple worship was anything but spontaneous, always scripted and very regular. V&B argue that the structure of contemporary Christian sermons is entirely pagan, having borrowed everything from pagan Greek rhetoric. But Witherington shows that rhetoric was part of the structure of the examples of preaching we find in the New Testament, as well as of at least some, if not all, of the New Testament literature. I remember studying the Greek of 1 Peter in seminary and being puzzled by the structure until learning that it followed a classical rhetorical pattern. Then Peter’s habit of organizing his thoughts in “threes” made sense. Like a contemporary “three-point sermon”.

Most of all, however, V&B tread into dangerous territory when they condemn following a script as unbiblical and pagan—as if spontaneous, extemporaneous talking off the top of one’s head, with audience interruption and participation is somehow more spiritual and authentic. Every case I know of in biblical sermons a) was based on a biblical passage or grouping of biblical passages, as a narrative, b) is recorded in the New Testament in a summarized form, showing a clear rhetorical structure, c)  is summarized word-for-word as inspired by the Holy Spirit and d) is actually God’s Word—how much more “scripted” can you get? The danger as I see it, aside from the points I’ll be making in my grad essay, is that by moving to loosey-goosey, informal, dialogical talks based on whatever circumstances seem or feel important to the group that particular morning, the authority and holiness that should be encountered when God’s Word is heard preached is drowned out by many voices and the lowest common denominator of understanding or of spiritual maturity in the group. V&B seem to want churches to fire their pastors, start meeting in homes and give even the most immature, untested, unrepentant, unknowledgeable, untrained people equal authority and equal talking-time when the church gathers together. Specially ordained pastors are bad. Church leadership is bad. Salaried pastors are really bad. Sermons are bad.

But as Dr. Witherington observes, much of what V&B claim as undeniable historical fact, in this book, is really what is bad. Or false. Their footnotes point to writers who already agree with their conclusion and who are out of step with the best of modern scholarship on the Bible and on church history. Witherington puts it well in these  two paragraphs:

The burden of the chapter on preaching is that modern preaching harms the church by making a particular individual the center of attention, making the audience passive, and stifling the gifts and graces of a large majority of folks. Of course this can happen, but in fact my experience is quite the opposite. Good preaching and pastoring enables the gifts of the other members congregation, it does not disable them. Good preaching and teaching points away from the vehicle to the source– God, of course.

But the problem with the main thrust of this chapter is it is based on the unBiblical notion that anyone should be able to teach, preach, prophesy on a regular basis ‘in church’. This is false–only some have the gift of teaching, preaching, or prophesying. If you bother to read the gift lists in 1 Cor. 12 or in Romans or in Ephesians, there are specific gifts parceled out by the Spirit to specific persons, not to everyone. Look for example at the form of the rhetorical questions at the end of 1 Cor. 12.29-30. The Greek is emphatic using the double negative— ‘not all are apostles are they?’ [answer no] ‘not all are prophets, are they?’ [answer no] not all are teachers are they? [answer no]. And the reason for this is not because someone is stifling the priesthood of all believers (which, once more, has nothing to do with who are leaders and who can be teachers in the congregation). Its because only those gifted and graced by the Spirit and recognized by the church as having such gifts should be doing those things on any sort of regular basis. Period. James says with good reason that not many should desire to be, and presumably not many should engage in teaching, especially if they haven’t been learning first! [source]