Affirming positives from Viola

From the Viola/Barna book Pagan Christianity?, I have in the last two posts shared some rather negative appraisals of certain practices and philosophies.  Below is a far more positive sampling of thoughts on immersion.  One might pick a little with a few of the seemingly absolute statements; please simply realize that I have not shared all the context.

Although not without negative implications viz. certain habits in much of evangelical Christendom, these points are as salient as they are correct and affirming of one very biblical practice.

Evangelical Christians believe in and practice believer’s baptism as opposed to infant baptism. . . .

However, it is typical in most contemporary churches for baptism to be separated from conversion by great lengths of time. . . .

In the early church, converts were baptized immediately upon believing. . . .

In our day, the “sinner’s prayer” has replaced the role of water baptism as the initial confession of faith.  Unbelievers are told, “Say this prayer after me, accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and you will be saved.”  But nowhere in the New Testament do we find any person being led to the Lord by a sinner’s prayer.  And there is not the faintest whisper in the Bible about a “personal” Savior. . . .

So when did baptism get separated from receiving Christ?  It began in the early second century.  Certain influential Christians taught that baptism must be preceded by a period of instruction, prayer, and fasting.  This trend grew worse in the third century. . . .

As stated earlier, the sinner’s prayer eventually replaced the biblical role of water baptism.  Though it is touted as gospel today, this prayer developed only recently.  D.L. Moody was the first to employ it. . . .  There is nothing particularly wrong with it. . . .  However, it should not replace water baptism as the outward instrument for conversion-initiation. . . .

Through our tradition, we have evacuated the true meaning and power behind water baptism.  Properly conceived and practiced, water baptism is the believer’s initial confession of faith before men, demons, angels, and God.  Baptism is a visible sign that depicts our separation from the world, our death with Christ, the burial of our old man, the death of the old creation, and the washing of the Word of God.

Wpagan xianityater baptism is the New Testament form of conversion-initiation.  It is God’s idea.  To replace it with the human-invented sinner’s prayer is to deplete baptism of its God-given testimony.

Frank Viola, George Barna, Pagan Christianity?, 2002-2012, pp. 188-196

A brief post of my own on immersion may be found here.  Its title is from the song referenced below.

I surely wish I could carry with me daily the perspectives and feelings of the words of the Kenny Chesney/Randy Travis song “Baptism,” whose lyrics may be found here.

B. Casey, 7/17/15


Negative effects of positive #s

Pagan Christianity? (2002, 2008, 2012), a book with a title clearly designed to shock the eye, systematically examines a series of routines inculcated in most churchespagan xianity, pointing out the pagan origins of many practices—and tacitly challenging the thoughtful, courageous reader to do something about them.  A few days ago I posted some of this book’s thoughts about the preacher’s role and sermons.  

Below are some strong words from Viola regarding tithing and clergy salaries, from pp. 171ff in the book.


[Malachi 3:8-10] seems to be many Christian leaders’ favorite Bible text, especially when giving is at low tide.  If you have spent any time in the contemporary church, you have heard this passage read from the pulpit on numerous occasions.  Consider the rhetoric that goes with it:

“God has commanded you to faithfully give your tithes.  If you do not tithe, you are robbing God Almighty, and you put yourself under a curse.”

“Your tithes and offerings are necessary if God’s work will go on!”

(“God’s work,” of course, includes paying the pastoral staff and footing the monthly electric bill to keep the building afloat.)

. . .

Tithing does appear in the Bible.  So, yes, tithing is biblical.  But it is not Christian.  The tithe belongs to ancient Israel.  It was essentially their income tax.  Never do you find first century Christians tithing in the New Testament.

. . .

Herein is the heart of God in Malachi 3:8-10:  He opposes oppression of the poor.  In scores of sermons I have heard on tithing, I was never told what the passage was actually talking about.

. . .

We are all priests now . . . all Christians should tithe to one another.

Long ago, I read an essay by one Charles Holt, who was from a Restoration church and was a friend of a friend.  The essay was titled “Stop Paying the Bills,” and it rather forcefully, even belligerently, argued that serious Christians should simply stop financially supporting their congregations (and, by extension, their sects / denominations).  That way, the un-biblical systems would break down, he figured.  And it’s true:  if enough people did this, some kind of change would be forced.  However, it seems to me that few pew-packers will be influenced by extreme rhetoric, whether or not it’s on target.

Of course, most Yellow-Pages-identifiable churches assume, and/or explicitly request, that their adherents contribute money regularly.  Some make the assumption/request in a more palatable manner than others.  For Restoration Movement churches, no exceptions to this norm, the offering/collection becomes another item in the list of musts—the list of ways that those who purport to serve God should act, in relation to the principles and laws in scripture . . . the problem being that no such principle or law can be found.  Side note:  Also in RM churches, one frequently encounters a feigning of separation—the silly declaration that the collection is “separate and apart” from the Lord’s Supper—when the reality was that it wasn’t separate at all, given how the acts were just performed.

I may be a little unique (read:  odd) in some ways, but I am run-of-the-mill in this:  I always, always experience a surge of resistance when church staff members spend time publicly encouraging a higher contribution level.  This M.O. seems so obviously self-serving that it embarrasses me for them.  “Give more money, please, so I can continue to draw my salary or maybe even get a raise . . . and remember that the Lord said, ‘Bring forth the whole tithe.’”  Aarrgghh.

However one feels about one’s specific church finances, the fact is, both the historical tithe proportion (10%) and the legislated action are Hebrew, not Christian.

For a couple of decades, I have not regularly contributed to a congregational “pot”—I find it to be a) a questionable use of limited funds, b) not requested by the Lord, and c) non-intentional and non-specific, and so, d) less meaningful.  However, although I share Holt’s underlying frustration, I think his advice is stated a bit too vehemently, so I’m not making it convenient for readers of this blog to access his essay.  The more calmly thoughtful, methodical approach offered by Viola in his Pagan Christianity chapter appears more likely to produce positive results in people’s minds, if not in their “church lives.”  (Hint:  in the last sentence lies an implicit challenge to you and to me.)

The simple fact that tithing is not a Christian thing ought to make all sober Christians stop and think about using their resources more purposefully, if nothing else.

1.  Charitable, free giving is one thing, and one may certainly freely give to his/her congregation as well as to other good things.

2.  The presumed perpetuation of legislated tithing is quite another thing, and the targeted words of 1Cor 16:1-4 aren’t directly related to tithing.

Next in this series:  
“Affirming positives from Viola”

For more on the offering collection, here are two links:, at which is found a longish essay, at which I decry the inhospitable pressure put on people by handing them collection plates

Negative effects of good words

An introductory word:  I have a couple of dear, trusted friends who are making, or have made, a living in “preacher” roles.  Each of them is honest and thoughtful enough to realize there are serious issues with the role.  In addition, I’ve respected other men’s sermonic offerings from time to time; plus, I rarely write off a potential new friend simply because he makes his living doing the preacher (a/k/a pastor) thing.  A couple of guys with whom I’ve become solidly acquainted through internet-based groups are as sincere as servants come, considering their hearts and their work with local churches and with the broader Body.  That there are good men preaching relatively high-quality sermons in the world is a given.  However (read on). . . .

Pagan Christianity? (2002, 2008, 2012), a book with a title clearly designed to shock the eye, pagan xianitywas written primarily by Frank Viola and also by George Barna, of religion survey fame.  The book systematically examines a series of routines inculcated in most churches, pointing out the pagan origins of many of the practices—and tacitly challenging the thoughtful, courageous reader to do something about the existing dissonance.

Reading this entire book has never been a goal of mine.  In fact, it rankles me enough to page through a chapter—not because I get mad at the authors, but because they are way too on target, and I get righteously indignant at the status quo—that I have intentionally skimmed, reading only selectively.

Rather than bringing forward Viola’s worthwhile research on the origins of the sermon, I’d like to share a few points he made in the fourth chapter on “How Sermonizing Harms the Church.”  In other words, this is not about the non-Christian beginnings of the method/genre but about the present-day effects.  The larger, italicized wordings below are abridged, but all of them are Viola’s:

1.  The sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering.  As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst.

2.  The sermon often stalemates spiritual growth.  Because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity.

3.  The sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy  mentality.  It creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy.  The sermon makes the preacher the religious specialist—the only one having anything worthy to say.

4.  Rather than equipping the saints, the sermon de-skills them.  It matters not how loudly ministers drone on about “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry,” the truth is that the contemporary sermon preached every week has little power to equip God’s people for spiritual service and functioning.

Much of the above could be applied to worship leaders and so-called praise teams, as well.  Now, twenty years ago, I would have been very surprised if you foretold that I’d end up writing that last sentence.  After having lived in five more regions, and after having visited probably 50-75 more churches, though, I now find it a truism:  the customary appearance of any “virtuoso performers” in the assembly tends to neutralize and hush the pew-packers, as opposed to energizing them.  Something in me still thinks that a well-conceived, wisely used praise team can be a good tool to enhance congregational worship; I myself have been stirred to worship through the visual and sonic leadership of praise teams.  It simply has not been my observation or experience that praise teams have an overall positive effect in churches over the long haul.

As if to answer an anticipcated objection, Viola follows the above section by affirming that preaching and teaching the Word of God are obviously “scriptural,” but that . . .

The contemporary pulpit sermon is not the equivalent of the preaching and teaching that is found in the scriptures.  It cannot be found in the Judaism of the Old Testament, the ministry of Jesus, or the life of the primitive church.

B. Casey, 6/28-7/11/15

Addendum 7/19/15:

I reviewed this post one last time before its scheduled publishing in a few days, and I found its title ironic.  If certain people (who are at this time deeply troubling my soul) were to see this post’s title, it would naturally lead them to think it was referring to something else, but the relationship of the two matters is happenstance.  

It is a shame when words intended for good—even those that may contain something amiss—are taken for bad and are used to further ill will among people.  If Frank Viola’s and my words about preachers’ words end up being taken as spreading ill will about people, they will have been taken poorly and incorrectly.  The sharing of the Viola thoughts above is a word against a practice and a habit, not against any person or class of people.  

Good words and good people are what they are.

Next in this series:  

“Negative effects of positive #s”
“Affirming positives from Viola”

For more on the preacher’s/pastor’s role:


In a book that is painting bold colors on the canvas of my gleanings and hunches about the practices of the early church, Frank Viola has made these statements about certain developments in the early years.  If you only have time to consider one of these quotations today, may I recommend the blue one. . . .

Strikingly, contemporary church thought and practice have been influenced far more by post-Biblical historical events than by New Testament imperatives and examples.   p. 5

Not only was the social environment of the Christian movement largely Gentile well before the end of the first century, but it had severed almost any other bonds of social contact within the Jewish Christians of Palestine. . . .  By the year 100, Christianity was mainly a Gentile religious movement. . . .   p. 6

Ancient Judaism was centered on three elements:  the temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifice.  When Jesus came, He ended all three, fulfilling them in Himself. . . .  Christ is the fulfillment and the reality of it all.  pp. 10-11

When Christianity was born, it was the only religion on the planet that had no sacred objects, no sacred persons, and no sacred spaces.  Although surrounded by Jewish synagogues and pagan temples, the early Christians were the only religious people on earth who did not erect sacred buildings for their worship.  The Christian faith was born in homes, out in courtyards, and along the roadsides.   p. 14

(Interestingly, the cross as an artistic reference for Christ’s death cannot be found prior to the time of Constantine. . . . The custom of making the sign of the cross with one’s hands dates back to the second century.)  p. 16

– Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity¹


¹ Viola uses the adjective “pagan” primarily to mean “those practices and principles that are not Christian or biblical in origin . . . . not . . . as a synonym for bad or evil.”

Labels for “church”

Recently, I saw an old acquaintance in a restaurant.  This guy is a seriously sectarian, old-school churchian who left our church for yellower climes.  He and I share a basic biblical orientation and Christian belief system, but not a whole lot beyond that.  I was pleased to hear him remark—running quite counter to the party line he generally adheres to—that he didn’t care much about the particular name for the church.  No, he said, the name on the sign doesn’t matter much.

On one hand, I agree with this point, taken in context:  what he meant then was that “as long as they’re doing the right things, they can use any of several names.”  (His idea of what the right things are is more significant to him than the Bible’s idea, of course.)  On the other hand, the name of a Christian organism can be very helpful, or descriptive, or even disrespectful.  Terms can be significant.

These days, new terms are being used to describe “church”:

  • Missional
  • Emerging
  • Simple
  • Organic
  • House

A popular author commented on the terminology of another author:

The phrase “the organic expression of the church” was a favorite of [author].  I’ve yet to find a better phrase to improve upon it.

By “organic church,” I mean a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grass roots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.

– Frank Viola, on the House Church Resource site (

I find Viola paragraph right on target in most elements but admit to pragmatic difficulty with the last idea.  It’s not clear to me how Jesus Christ, although present in a spiritual sense, serves as functional leader in a gathering of human bodies.  On one hand I want that to be the case in Christian groups of which I am a part.  On the other hand, it seems almost delusional to think it could ever be that a group of human Christians would be so tied to Jesus that all cues would be taken, in a spiritual plane, from Him.

“Family” also appears with relative frequency—often in an emotion-driven situation when people are preparing to leave an area, or feeling indebted because of care shown in time of deep need, or trying to express love and closeness.  I remember an older brother’s expressing tongue-in-cheek disappointment that I had read Ephesians 3:14-21 aloud from a version that did not employ the expression “family of God.”  Earlier this year, our preacher castigated the idea of church as “family” — not so much because family is a bad concept in the ideal, but because it sets us up to feel like failures when (not if) church doesn’t meet the “good family” standard, and because so many earthly families exhibit non-exemplary traits.

“Fellowship” is a ubiquitous term that appears to designate something the word really doesn’t mean (like “Pastor” and “church”).   These terms may or may not aptly describe what is going on under the surface, and the proliferation of churches with the name “fellowship” doesn’t necessarily mean that fellowship — partnership in a project — is a reality.

Being church is more important than labeling church, but terminology does matter:  at its best, a label enhances ideals, but at its worst, it may obscure reality and/or discourage biblical conceptualizations.

Work (6–what’s the center?)

Post # 664

As a couple of you have noticed, a little bit ago, I posted a couple of blogs on work that I decided to protect by password.  This might seem an odd move, but I had reasons, not the least of which was that I wanted to get some negative things off my mind.

So, although this is the 4th recent, work-related post visible to the public, it is the 6th total.  In this one, I want to consider a bit more what I was writing about here–the hub or center of things.

In the work environment,

  • if money is central, people are devalued, and there may be palpable effect on morale
  • if process is central, people and product are both devalued
  • if product is central, assessment and quality control may eclipse deeper, more long-term growth in people
  • if hierarchy is central, ideas and common sense may be subjugated to protocol
  • if ideas are central, those with left-brain gifts in planning may be left out in the cold, and nothing may ever be accomplished
  • if the “doers” are central, those with ideas may be marginalized even worse

Much of the above can also apply to churches.  In churches, if a pastor or preacher views himself as the center, that creates a dynamic and a set of expectations.  If a disgruntled member views himself as the center, that too creates a set of expectations.

In August last year, I listed ten possible “centers” for churches.  No. 3 in that list was Jesus.  It was intentional that He wasn’t placed first or last but in the middle—indicative of about how much consideration He seems to get in church goings-on.  The question remains, though:  what if Jesus is really at the center?  How does that alter our procedures?  Our pressing concerns?  Our outlook?

Frank Viola and Len Sweet recently published Jesus Manifesto, and I’m of the impression that this book has begun to sweep through the ranks of those who call themselves Christian but who are at various points along the way with regard to truly giving all allegiance, all thought-ties, all lasting adoration to Jesus.

Jesus as center.  It seems an appropriate way to address Jesus in worship, too. . . .

Jesus, be the centre
Be my source, be my light

Jesus, be the centre
Be my hope, be my song

Be the fire in my heart
Be the wind in these sails
Be the reason that I live
Jesus, Jesus

Words and music by Michael Frye

© 1999 Vineyard Songs

[Yes, another Vineyard song in the guitar-friendly key of D, but that’s beside the point.]

Unity in the orchestra

These words are from an orchestral conductor, followed by a comment from Sweet & Viola.

“I have confidence in my abilities, but it is more than that.  I love the music, and I love the musicians who devote their lives to the music.  So I always start by forming a relationship with the musicians . . . and sometimes it happens, sometimes not.  But when we all start experiencing together the music, it is beautiful, rich, inspiring.

When I hear the burning passion of the individual musicians for the music, then I try to create enough safety for the musicians to express themselves.  And together we come to a common understanding of the interpretation of the music.  So it’s not me.  I’m not the cause.  Neither are the musicians.  It’s the music—it is the music—that brings us all together to work its magic.”  – Jean-Francoix Rivest, conductor of Montreal Symphony Orchestra

And it is Jesus who brings all the instruments together to work His magic.  – Sweet & Viola, Jesus Manifesto, p. 104

While there is cheese and even hokeyness in the Sweet/Viola comment, there is also reality.  Perhaps beyond the metaphysical, quasi-spiritual “magic,” we can see the helpful parts of the analogy:  large musical ensembles are like the called-out disciples, and the Conductor Who unites us in a common understanding of the composer’s intent is Jesus.

Founder as foundation

Viola and Sweet, in their new book Jesus Manifesto, point out that in a few major world religions, the founder is important (see p. 82).  That makes sense.  Think Siddhartha Gautama, Mohammed, Confucius, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy. I don’t know about Scientology or Swedenborgianism.  In Animism or Atheism, in the sense that those are religions, relationship with the founder seems negligible.

In none of these other religions–and let it be stated that Mormonism is chiefly other than Christianity, along with Hinduism and all the others–is relationship with the founder crucial.  Think about that.

In Colossians, the centrality of Jesus is significant from the outset.  He is lauded and praised and given credit and honor and is generally placed at the core.  Paul’s placing of the Savior at the center seems to be an answer to something in Colossae’s situation.  In other words, whether it was Gnosticism, or some hybrid form of it, or the beginnings of the apathy that later surfaced in the nearby Laodicea, or a plethora of threats to authentic doctrine about the Christ . . . whatever it was, Paul wouldn’t have said the things he said about Jesus if it weren’t called for by the situation he was addressing.  This is an occasional letter–one addressed at a specific time for a specific purpose or set of purposes–not a formal epistle.

It has been noted by scholars that the wording in Colossians of a certain Christ-expression is emphatic, if not unique.  Chapter 2 verse 6 has this:  ton Christon Iesoun ton Kurion (caps added)–which, when literally, awkwardly translated, means the Christ Jesus the Lord.  The reiteration of the article “the” provides the special emphasis:  The Christ Jesus (who is) The Lord.  This word formulation, I suspect at this early stage of studying Colossians, is just one indication of the centrality of Jesus the Christ.  “Christ,” a scholar noted, has by this time in history become part of a formal proper name and not only an adjectival description of Jesus’ identity.

Given Jesus’ centrality, we must of course seriously consider how to begin — and stay in — relationship with Him.

Sweet & Viola insights (2)

It strikes me that the very title of Leonard Sweet’s and Frank Viola’s book — Jesus Manifesto — is indicative of the shift in the last 50 years or so in thinking about what it is to be Christian.

Bonhoeffer’s Christian Manifesto could in its time have formed the initial outpourings of a global rallying cry, but  “Christian” as an adjective might mean something now that it didn’t mean then.  Now, “Christian” implies all sorts of things, including WWJD and fundamentalist and narrow-minded and anti-abortion. Christian should simply mean “of Christ” or “belonging to Christ,” but it now means more.  Thus, the need for a book like Jesus Manifesto in order to center Christianity on what it should have been centering on since the beginning.

Sweet and Viola record the following definition of the Kingdom:  the manifestation of God’s ruling presence (p. 107).  Agreed?

They also note that Origen, one of the so-called “church fathers,” said Jesus is an autobasilia, i.e., He IS  the Kingdom.

A quote repeated by these authors is perhaps not a summary of their plea but nevertheless encapsulates something entirely harmonious with it:

O Christ, my life, possess me utterly.  Take me and make a little Christ of me. – George McDonald, Diary of an Old Soul

Sweet & Viola insights

The following pithy insights come from Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola.

Most Calvinists live like Arminians (they hold themselves and others responsible for their actions).

Most Arminians pray like Calvinists (they submit their requests to the will of God). p. 98

Garrison Keillor says that there are only two ways to cure our “raging narcissism”:  (1) have children, or (2) move to a foreign country where people don’t care who you are or what you do. (p. 100)

This last bit comes in a context of fun-making directed at the Christian marketplace.  Apparently, of 100 best-selling Christian book titles, only 6 were about the Bible, 4 were about Jesus, and 3 were about evangelism.  Most had nothing directly to do with theology or the church.  The other 87 books focused mostly on the self and are described as “personal, private, and interior,” according to Gene Yeith.

We should not be a on a journey of self-discovery, but rather, of God-discovery. (p. 100)

John 12:32, as Rorschached

Although I continue to be inspired by the pages I’m scanning of the Sweet/Viola book Jesus Manifesto, I do find periodic non sequiturs and unjustified assumptions.  For example, their introductory mention of John 12:32.

John 12:32 is a “verse” I’ve known for most of my teen-to-adult life.  It says, roughly, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.”  In order to understand more fully this “verse” in its context, one might need to take into consideration such things as

  • John’s life
  • his association with Jesus
  • the date of authorship
  • other historically contextual matters
  • literarily contextual matters such as
    • John’s purpose in writing his gospel
    • symbolism and themes of the gospel (logos? light? truth? etc.)

But even a cursory reading of 12:32 and immediate context (I won’t begin to deal here with any deeper contextual questions, analysis of John’s literary themes, or the like) shows clearly that “when I am lifted up” means when I am crucified.

There’s this gospel song titled “Lift Him Up.”   My parents used to sing it with groups of close friends, and we sang it at church a few times.  The first stanza queries,

How to reach the masses—men of ev’ry birth?
For an answer Jesus gave a key:
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

Fair enough.  Simple enough.  And profundity aplenty.

But the chorus repeatedly invites the singer/hearer to “Lift Him up!  Lift the precious Savior up!”  And thereby, for decades, congregants have run afoul of scripture.  John 12:32 is not about conceptually “lifting” the notion of Jesus and holding it/Him high, i.e., “exalting the Christ,” for all to see!  Exalting Jesus, calling attention to His lordship, etc., are generally good ideas, in my opinion, but John 12:32 has nothing directly to do with them.

Doesn’t it strike you as laughable that this song essentially has Christian congregations shouting “crucify Him!” because John 12:32 was treated as an inkblot to be “interpreted” subjectively, instead of understanding “lift Him up” in context?