Question: "Are many practices and traditions in Christianity actually pagan in origin?"
Answer: In their 2008 book Pagan Christianity, authors Frank Viola and George Barna present the surprising origins of many of the practices commonly found in churches today. The authors of Pagan Christianity claim that many common church practices / traditions actually have their roots in paganism (non-Christian religions), not in the Bible. But is it accurate to claim that the practices of modern Christianity are pagan? Is what typically occurs in a church supported by what the Bible teaches about the church?
Many Christians recognize that some pagan ideas and practices have infiltrated the Christian church. Sadly, much of what Jesus Christ abolished by His death and resurrection, the early Christians re-established. Jesus’ sacrifice fulfilled God’s requirements, ending the need for any further sacrifices (Hebrews 7:27; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18). The early church, due to pagan influences, warped the celebration of the Lord’s Supper into a re-sacrifice / re-offering of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice abolished the need of a formal priesthood (Hebrews 10:12-14), creating instead a “kingdom of priests” (Revelation 1:6; 5:10). The early church, again influenced by paganism, re-established a priesthood that added a barrier between the “ordinary” believer and God (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15). These are just two of many possible examples.
Most Christians wholeheartedly agree that beliefs / practices such as these need to be rejected and the biblical truth upheld. Following are the primary issues Pagan Christianity raises.
(1) The Church Building. The New Testament records the early Christians meeting in homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19). Neither Jesus nor the Apostles encourage Christians to build temples / church buildings. In John 4:21-24, Jesus declares that a time is coming where worship will not be tied to any particular location or building. For the first few hundred years of the Christian faith, church buildings were very rare. It was not until Constantine and his succeeding Roman Emperors made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire that Christians began to build temples. In some instances, Christians, with the aid of Roman soldiers, took over pagan temples and “Christianized” them into churches.
Christians building church buildings resulted in multiple problems. First, people began to think of a church building as “sacred space.” This resulted in a separation between what goes on inside a church building, and what takes place outside of a church building. Among some, blatant evil and immorality was tolerated outside of the church as long as behavior inside the church was proper. Second, some people lost the idea of God’s omnipresence. The biblical fact that fellowship with God could be had anywhere was lost, and replaced with the idea that a church building and/or the altar inside a church building was the only place one could connect with God. Third, some people lost sight of the fact that believers in Christ are the church, and instead began to think of the church as the building.
But is the idea of a church building pagan? Since the Bible does not instruct Christians to build church buildings, does that mean it is wrong to have a church building? The fact that the Bible does not command something does not mean the Bible is opposed to that something. The Bible neither encourages nor discourages the idea of Christians meeting in buildings that are specifically designed for corporate worship. The question of a church building is one where it is crucially important to recognize the difference between description and prescription. The New Testament describes the early Christians meeting in homes. The New Testament does not prescribe that Christians should only meet in homes. A church building in which the biblical truth about the church is declared is in no sense unbiblical. The building is not what is unbiblical. It is the beliefs that are often attached to the building that are unbiblical.
(2) The structure of the church. In many churches today, there is a “set in stone” structure for how a service will proceed. The structure changes somewhat from church to church, but the core items remain the same: announcements, corporate worship, meeting and greeting, prayer, the sermon, a closing song. In some churches, the order of service is absolutely unbendable. In other churches, there is some flexibility. Whatever the case, the idea of a church meeting having such a rigid structure is not presented in the New Testament. When a church has such a rigid structure, it can stifle, rather than promote, true worship and fellowship.
First Corinthians 14:40 teaches, “but everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” Order and structure are not unbiblical. Rigidity and legalism are unbiblical. While a church should ensure that its services are reasonably organized, it is unbiblical for a church service to be so structured that it prevents any participation, freedom, or moving of the Spirit.
(3) Church leadership. The Bible undeniably teaches that the church is to have godly leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17-20; Titus 1:6-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Sadly, the early church took the concept of church leadership, and due to pagan influences, molded it into a priesthood. While most Protestant and Evangelical churches do not refer to its leadership as priests, in some instances, the pastor/preacher serves in much the same role as a priest. Pastors are expected to do all, or nearly all, of the ministry work. In some churches, the re-introduction of the idea of a priest into Christianity resulted in the biblical identity of all believers being saints, ministers, and priests, being lost. In church leadership, the result can be burnt-out pastors or overly authoritative pastors. The result in the congregation can be passivity and inactivity.
The idea that a Christian can unenthusiastically sing a few songs, lackadaisically shake a few hands, inattentively listen to a sermon, and reluctantly give an offering – and thereby fulfill his/her role in the church – is completely unbiblical. The church is intended to be a place of healthy fellowship, active participation, and mutual edification. First Corinthians chapter 12 likens the church to a human body. All of the parts of the body must be functioning for the body to do what it is intended to do.
(4) The sermon. The Bible clearly declares that God’s Word is to be taught (1 Timothy 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:2). There is undeniably a place for a godly man teaching other believers in a sermonic / oratory format. One problem is that many churches fall into the trap of one man being the sole teacher. Another problem is when churches, whether intentionally or unintentionally, convey the idea that passively listening to a sermon is all that God expects. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul encourages Timothy to entrust teaching to others who are gifted by the Holy Spirit for teaching. The presence of a non-participatory sermon is not the problem. The lack of opportunities for others to teach and/or the lack of willingness to teach can be a problem. One of the goals of the church is to make disciples, not pew-warmers. Many churches could do a much better job at recognizing the gift of teaching in others and training and encouraging them to use that gift. At the same time, no one should seek the position of teacher unless he really has been gifted by the Holy Spirit, a fact which can be verified by the testimony of others who can give witness to the presence of this gift. In fact, James 3:1 warns us, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
It is undeniable that pagan ideas and practices have crept their way into the Christian church. To varying degrees, every church has practices that are not completely based in Scripture, either in the practice itself or in the understanding of the practice. But again, this does not mean these practices are pagan or wrong. Churches would do well to continually re-evaluate their methods and motivations, to make sure they are biblically solid. While no church practice should contradict Scripture, a church practice does not have to be explicitly biblical to be a viable choice. Nor does a practice not being taught in the Bible make it pagan. A practice having a pagan origin does not necessarily make it unbiblical. The key to avoiding “pagan Christianity” is comparing every belief and practice with Scripture and removing anything that contradicts what the Bible prescribes for the church. For those issues on which the Bible is silent, the church leadership should prayerfully consider whether or not to continue them.