You occasionally hear it from the talking heads or on the History Channel. Maybe you notice an article about it on your newsfeed. Or catch the random title while browsing Amazon or Barnes and Nobles. Pagan Christianity: What you do on Sundays is really from Ancient Egypt, Imperial Rome, or Royal Greece and certainly is not real Christian worship.
Maybe you listen for a few seconds, start to read that article, or read the back cover of that book. “Most of what present day Christians do in church each Sunday is rooted, not in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles.”1 “How Mistakes and Changes Shaped the Bible We Read Today.”2 Is walking down the aisle really derived from the Roman Imperial procession? Are Christian priests just pagan priests in disguise? Is there really any truth to these claims?
Now, if you are Protestant, these questions might not seem to be a problem. After all, the Reformation set all that right. We know the Catholic Church and its robes, candles, and hocus pocus3 corrupted Christianity, dragging Greek philosophy, Roman pomp, and who knows what else into the Church, right? But maybe you read a little further and find a question that touches on what you do in church on Sunday: “Why does the pastor preach a sermon at every service?”4 That’s something nearly every Christian worship service includes. And if you are Catholic, Orthodox, or high church Protestant,5 these claims sound downright scary. Is our Sunday worship really little more than worship of Anubis, Zeus, or Mars? Have we really just called pagan practices “Christian” for hundreds of years?
Our first response to claims questioning the authenticity of Christian doctrine (what we profess) and practice (what we do) should be an attitude of clarification. Anyone can claim that Christianity has pagan roots, but we need to ask for the specifics of what is being said. Only then can we properly address the concerns which are being raised. Take, for example, the claim that Greek philosophy and rhetoric corrupted the early Church. One factor often used to substantiate this claims is the fact that sermons are preached every Sunday, much like Greek rhetoricians would regularly give speeches to crowds of people. This might sound like a plausible correlation until you realize that people have been standing around giving speeches since the beginning of human history, not least of all in Judaism, the real source of Christianity’s propensity to engage in sermonic activity.6
After clarifying questions and arguments, we must engage these claims systematically and, given the nature of the issues being raised, historically. This means willingly doing the hard work that systematic historical study entails, not grasping for easy, ready-made, and theologically convenient answers. We cannot just rely upon “apologetics” resources—valuable though they may be—as the foundation for serious thinking about the Church in history. Nor can we rely upon celebrities and comedians as the basis for our thinking about the past.7 And if thinking seriously about the Christian past should not include easy answers, neither should this type of work involve easy skepticism. It’s easy—too easy in our information saturated age—to simply do an internet search for an “expert” who problematizes the institutions, religions, or persons whom we wish to tear down. Instead, we must learn from those who have put serious time and effort into understanding the past, complete with its complexity and meanings.
Easy answers, unfounded skepticism, and rhetorical fluff aside, there are significant historical events and developments which need to be accounted for when thinking about the history of the Church. At this stage in our thinking, we must engage the issue of development: Can we faithfully develop the faith of Christ and His apostles? Or is any development, any change from the Biblical status quo, necessarily a corruption? How we answer this question derives from the way we think about both history and culture. To illustrate, let us examine one of the claims noted earlier, that “most of what present day Christians do in church each Sunday is rooted, not in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles.”8
On the topic of history, we should not be surprised that certain portions of contemporary Christian worship are different than the worship and practice of the apostles. Given the considerable differences between the ancient Greco-Roman world in which Christ and His earliest followers lived and our current world, some type of change of doctrine and practice must occur in order to keep faith relevant and livable in a shifting world. The way that we “do” church in America every Sunday is simply not the way things were done in the early Church—nor could it be. Things as seemingly mundane as access to soap and clean drinking water make our world markedly different from the context of Christ, and we must recognize that our doctrine and practice have adjusted accordingly.
To provide another example: the earliest followers of Jesus did not possess buildings in which they held worship services, had offices for the apostles, and held Sunday school classes. Conversely, nearly every church today possesses some sort of building or office space.9 This represents a development of Christian practice, a development which some see as a corruption of true Christian faith and which others understand to be a perfectly legitimate development.10 My point here is not to go into the details about which historical metanarrative best fits the metanarrative of Christianity or how to best interpret the evidence of early Christianity—those are different topics for another time. Rather, my point is that we need to be aware that changes have occurred in Christian doctrine and practice, and then be willing to consider what those changes might mean for us today.
Many times, our views on the history of Christianity are shaped by our conceptions of culture. To return to our example, we wrestle with what it means to have Christian practice rooted in “pagan culture and rituals”. Obviously we would all be uncomfortable—if not downright distressed—to find that our faith arose from Greek philosophy, Roman State religion, or some other non-Judeo-Christian source. Most Christians are not comfortable with hearing that the Mithras mystery religion (a movement essentially contemporary with early Christianity) included a ritual involving a communal meal involving bread and wine and then learning that some scholars think that Christian Communion copied that practice. We do not want Christian faith to have co-opted pagan rituals and called them Christian. No, we want Christianity to be something unique and utterly distinct from the corrupting influences of the world.
But if we only view the impact of culture in those two ways—as either totally distinct or entirely reliant—we miss something fundamentally good about the Gospel of Christ, namely, that He has come to redeem the world. For Christians throughout the ages, the message of Christ and His Church has not been one of destroying pagan culture, but of taking the potentially good facets of that culture and renewing their value through service to the Church.
For example, we noted above that it is sometimes claimed that processions in church—walking down the aisle with the cross and officiates—was derived from the Roman Imperial procession. In an all-or-nothing view of culture, this demonstrates a problematic Christian reliance upon pagan culture. But in the redeeming view of culture, what better way to show that Christ is Emperor of the Universe and that his Word and Church have power on earth than be recapitulating the imperial procession—pregnant with those meanings—at every opportunity possible? In this way, practices which were previously pagan could rightly be used (often with important modifications) in Christian worship. Culturally, this is not a message of separation or accommodation, but one of redemption and recapitulation.
What we do, say, and think—in short, our culture—is chock full of meaning, both implied and explicit. The Christian Church has long recognized this fact and sought to negotiate the boundaries of cultural mores and redeem as many aspects of non-Christian culture as possible. Of course, not every facet of pagan culture was worth redeeming. We typically don’t see religious sacrifice, prayer to the gods for rain, or the consultation of spirits in churches today. But there are practices which were, at least culturally, part of pagan cultures which Christians adopted, changed, and reshaped into viable and appropriate ways of worshiping the true God of the universe. This message, that Christ has come to redeem the world, applies not only to human beings, but to our cultural creativity and action as well. So the next time you encounter a claim about how Christianity is really pagan in its practices, look for how the People of God have tried to redeem that which was lost by renewing it through the life of those who are found.
1 Frank Viola and George Barna. Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, Revised and Updated. (Tyndale, 2012). Back cover.
2 Bart D. Ehrman. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. (New York: HarperOne, 2005). Back Cover.
3 The term “hocus pocus”, along with its connotation of “magic” likely derives from the Catholic Mass, where the body of Christ is introduced with the words “hoc est corpum meum” immediately before the moment of transformation. A moment of magic then—“hocus pocus” *poof*—is thus poking fun at the doctrine of transubstantiation.
4 Viola and Barna. Back Cover.
5 Certain forms of Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Reformed tradition fit this description.
6 For example, see Deuteronomy (which is one or two long speeches), the Prophets of Israel, or teachings of Jesus. Holding forth to crowds of people is not a uniquely Greek phenomenon.
7 A good example (or rather, a bad example) of this comes from the recent debate between Bill Maher and Ben Affleck concerning Islam.
8 Viola and Barna, Back Cover.
9 This is often even true of church communities which use public spaces (community centers, schools, movie theaters) for corporate worship, as they often have office space somewhere. The general exception to this rule is the House Church Movement.
10 Viola and Barna, 9f.
Photo courtesy of Steven Kelley.