Combating Christian Paganism
While Christian paganism may seem to be a contradiction in terms, it sadly is not. Indeed, there are growing segments of the church which may be better described as pagan than as Christian. Many churches have abandoned biblical truth, and have instead simply latched onto the latest secular trends and fads.
Because belief in truth has been undermined in the surrounding culture, it is not surprising that truth is under attack within the churches as well. Unfortunately almost any non-biblical belief or agenda can now be found in various circles calling themselves Christian.
Want to introduce homosexuality into the churches? No problem. There are plenty of churches which have long ago given up on the biblical position on that issue. Want divorce to be just as easy as it is in the surrounding secular culture? Easy, that is well under way as well.
Want to try to combine New Age teaching with biblical beliefs? Yep, that too is being done in many churches. Want to argue that all religious traditions are more or less equal, and we must not be too exclusive in our beliefs? All sorts of church groups are running with that one. Sadly, much of the church today has simply succumbed to the spirit of the age.
Consider the words of one leading pastor: “There is an amazing ignorance of Scripture among many, and a consequent want of established, solid religion. In no other way can I account for the ease with which people are, like children, ‘tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (Eph. 4:14). There is an Athenian love of novelty abroad, and a morbid distaste for anything old and regular, and in the beaten path of our forefathers. Thousands will crowd to hear a new voice and a new doctrine without considering for a moment whether what they hear is true. There is an incessant craving after any teaching which is sensational, and exciting, and rousing to the feelings. There is an unhealthy appetite for a sort of spasmodic and hysterical Christianity.”
Powerful words. But they were actually written by the great English evangelical J. C. Ryle back in 1877! So this paganisation of the churches is not exactly new, but it seems to be getting more pronounced with each passing year. And I am not the only one to be greatly concerned about such trends. One of the fathers of modern evangelicalism, J.I. Packer is equally concerned, and has just penned a new volume in order to turn things around.
Called Grounded in the Gospel (Baker, 2010), Packer and Gary Parrett seek to stop the rot by calling Christians to return to sound biblical instruction, including the systematic teaching of Christian doctrine. A recent article in Christianity Today explains their concerns:
“Influential theologian J I Packer wants evangelical churches to recover catechesis, or systematic instruction in the essentials of the Christian faith. Packer believes the idea is an alien concept to most evangelicals. ‘We are drifting back into paganism, that’s the truth,’ he said in a lecture last Saturday at St Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, according to The Living Church News Service.
“The 83-year-old Anglican priest has co-authored a new book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, in which he makes the case that catechesis is a non-negotiable practice of churches and is of no less value than Bible study and expository preaching.
“During Saturday’s lecture, he said he yearns for ‘Bible-based, Christ-centred, declarative in style’. But recovering catechesis in churches will be a challenge, he added. Earlier, he called it the greatest challenge for the 21st century church.”
Packer said it’s “ridiculous to think that no more learning of the faith is necessary after confirmation has taken place. Ongoing learning is part of the calling of the church. It has to be taught in all churches at all times.”
To which I offer a hearty ‘Amen’. I have been continually dismayed and astonished over recent years at just what a dismal understanding so many Christians have of even the most basic of Christian teachings. Many believers could not explain key biblical doctrines, or probably even recite five of the Ten Commandments.
Indeed, how many believers even read their Bibles on a regular basis, let alone study it thoroughly and consistently? And how many are getting sound teaching and biblical exposition in their own pulpits? I suspect that only a small minority of believers today are exposed to regular, systematic biblical teaching.
What many believers are getting today of course is plenty of entertainment. They are getting all sorts of mushy, feel-good pep talks, therapy sessions, how-to-courses (how to feel good about yourself, how to lose weight for Jesus, etc), and lots of bubblegum teaching.
But where is the solid book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter exposition of the Word of God? Where is the systematic teaching of basic Bible doctrines? Where is the emphasis on Bible memorisation and the daily study of Christian truths?
In a society which emphasises image over content, entertainment over teaching, superficiality over substance, and emotions over thought, it is no wonder that the churches have been floundering. They have simply bought into the surrounding culture.
They have thought that a parade of celebrities will do the trick. They have thought that making people feel good is all that is needed. They have thought that telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear will suffice.
No wonder our churches are having so little impact, and so many in the world simply yawn – or laugh – at Christianity. No wonder we are making so little headway, and having so little influence. Why would the world want to come into the churches when all they find there is much of the same? If entertainment and amusement is all we can offer, well, the world can usually do a better job of such things.
Will a renewal of catechesis solve all of our problems? No, but it is surely part of a much-needed makeover of the church today. The importance of doctrine and teaching is splashed all over the pages of the New Testament. If the early disciples needed such systematic training and teaching in biblical truth, then we today certainly do as well.
I for one applaud the call of Packer to revitalise a dying, and increasingly pagan, church. The question is, will his call fall on deaf ears? Time will tell, but unless the Western churches decide to start getting serious about their faith – including the importance of biblical doctrine – then the future is looking rather grim indeed.
36 Replies to “Combating Christian Paganism”
I just sent a link to this article to my pastor.
Our church is considered to be one of the most alive in our ‘group’, which is kinda scary, because we are not really doing anything ‘special’ in terms of what is expected of a church as described in the New Testament. I think we actually have a long way to go before we can compare ourselves to one of those churches.
(As an aside, my spell checker suggested Gutenberg as a replacement for Muehlenberg – not bad company for a journalist)
Tim Pearce (aka Tim at challengenews.org, I’m the web master)
The problem with this generation of ‘Christians’ has much to do with ignorant & arrogance.
The Body of Jesus should span time, with the prophets as the foundation and Jesus as the first (above ground) cornerstone, then the apostles and then us.
This generation has decided that it knows better than the ones before and have simply chucked away all of the accumulated knowledge and error corrections that have gone before.
Using the analogy of a building, this generation seeks to build a roof on thin air and then wonders why they are in trouble.
We have to learn from our forefathers.
Stuart Mackay, UK
A great article, Bill. I reckon that the church’s attitude to Genesis is one of the keys. Are we prepared to accept what the Bible says about the origin of things or are we going to accept the world’s explanation for how we got here? It’s an an explanation that does away with God but the church adds God into their pagan story when He is not wanted and there is nothing left for Him to do. The slide for the west began in geology with the philosophy of uniformitarianism, which my geology text describes as “a return to the old greek way of looking at things.”
Packer has written a much needed message. I would be interested to know if he would insist that God created the world in six-days about six thousand years ago. If we can accommodate 6-days with 4.6 billion years then no other biblical text can possibly be safe.
I don’t think the future looks particularly grim Bill. Quite the opposite really. In the sciences and philosophy we are seeing a revival of a theistic worldview that is building an unstoppable head of steam. These take time to work their way out into the wider community.
In the Church I don’t think things are as dire as you think. There is plenty of running after vain ideas and being tossed to and fro, I couldn’t deny this, but I think you’ll find a huge amount of that sort of stuff is concentrated in churches that are dying anyway as they continue their abandonment of the Gospel and slide into irrelevance as they seek to be “relevant” to the wider culture. But all of these “relevance” approaches kill the churches they are tried in, while the faithful biblical ones soldier on, so there is a process of “natural selection” that whittles out the unfaithful churches and removes them in the long run.
These sorts of movements have always existed in the church and sadly probably always will as long as the church is not being severely persecuted and the price of being a believer is relatively low.
But take heart. God knows what He is doing even if we are left scratching our heads at times, and he has a sneaky habit of turning things around when they look most bleak.
Bill, over the past ten years I have heard 6 or more preachers from The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia preach, each fits the pattern requested on this post; this adds up to over 400 sermons.
I believe we do need to recover the catechism of our congregations. I have just finished the Heidleberg Catechism and Luther’s Small Catechism.
Stan Fishley (I think I may have met you at a Lutheran Church in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne in the early 2000’s) the PCEA every sunday works through a section of the Westminister CONFESSION prior to the children going out to Sunday school.
Enjoyed the article and also your commentary on Fox. Keep up the great work. Regards from Australia
Good work Bill. To my horror I discovered recently that the Baptist Union of Victoria had reappointed a Professor of New Testament of all things, who publically states and presumably teaches pastors, that the Christian attitude to homosexuality ought to be relaxed (and more). In other words, everything the church has taught on the matter for the last 2000 years is wrong. Only he and his like-minded apostates are correct. And that man is presumably being paid by Baptist Church contributions to spread such lies. What a disgrace to the cause of Christ!
I couldn’t agree with you more Bill. The feedback I am getting is that churches these days are more concerned with numbers for obvious reasons, hence they have to “give what the congregation wants” to keep them coming back.
It would appear that the practice of Christianity in some places of worship is a farce. Take for example words in the music that goes “I’ll give my everything for you.” Yet we get a mini sermon on giving berfore the collection bags go round.
In one church’s Christmas play organized by the youths, naturally, the music was so loud that young children had to be taken out for fear of damaging their eardrums.
Thanks Bill. Well, what an insightful evangelical was J C Ryle, or should I say he was listening to what the Spirit was saying to the Body. Too often we have taken on aspects of society to draw the crowd. Jesus drew the crowds by speaking the truth but we are too afraid now. We have program upon program to entertain and fulfill and when that is not longer satisfying we then turn what are specific and very direct teachings of Christ and make them what we want. Are we listening to the Spirit when we say that divorce is ok and that homosexuality is acceptable? I think not. I also believe that we have taken on too much “love” of Christ and “grace” of Christ to let sin be rampant even within the Body. Christ was loving, was gracious and still is but He is also truthful and honest and says be healed and sin no more, not “its ok as long as its not hurting others and makes you happy”. Call me old-fashioned I don’t mind, but I will stand on the Word and not what is trendy and popular.
I guess the churches are in a difficult position when the days the state used to support the churches are gone. Those who support traditional christinity are all gone or are in the last stages of their lives. To keep the younger generation coming, (sad to say even young adults what I call the ignorant generation), the churches have to pander to thier needs or they drop out or go elsewhere. That leaves the churches without the necessary financial support. And what of the pastors? Some of the pastors I have had to listen to have been barely out of school. What will their bibilical background and experience be? What is the answer in all of this?
Tim, I’d concur with you – that is precisely where I find myself. And the ‘special’ stuff is what really counts – riot or revolution, seeing our community come to Christ through an unequivocal and unbending preaching of Christ, his death and resurrection and our desperate need for salvation and redemption, just like the church in the book of Acts.
Francesca, you said… “Too often we have taken on aspects of society to draw the crowd. Jesus drew the crowds by speaking the truth but we are too afraid now.” Amen. We need to get back to the preaching of old. What God is looking for is not better ‘methods’ but better men/women to preach his word and move in the power of the Holy Spirrit.
Jason, you started by saying that things aren’t as dire as Bill makes it sound, yet you then (correctly) state that it will take persecution to weed out the apostacy of the unfaithful churches. That sounds dire to me… The situation in China (and many other parts of the world) is dire and the growth of Christ-centred faith in those places where it truly costs to be a follower of Christ is indeed flourishing.
While there is the beginnings of a revival in a theistic worldview is some area, it is only a step toward reclaiming the mass of ground that the body of Christ in the western world has lost in only the last 50 years. We have seen the loss of God in the classroom, in many governments, evolution accepted as truth and taught/preached as the norm, and religious freedoms constantly eroded to the point that, where, as once we enjoyed natural acceptance and influence in education, sciences, societal norms etc. we now are waging a war for Christian values to even be heard let alone accepted. Our media is full of humanism and our churches are full of apostacy, and Bill is dead right in saying that many churches don’t even preach doctrinally in a Christ-centred way, but preach emotionally in a man-centred way.
I contend that many churches who are seeker-focused, who preach a ‘new age’ type prosperity/wholeness positive mental attitude message, who are in fact denying the cross in much of what they preach, are in fact *flourishing*, some in their tens of thousands. Yes, in the very long run they will be called to account and shown for what they are but we are wise to listen to the (very few and very far between) prophets that warn us against our current state, for otherwise western Christianity is doomed to enter persecution before it regains some semblance of the righteous pure bride that Christ is seeking to return for.
Awsome we are talking about this even. I belong to mens christian group down south western australia, WACMEN. Western Australian Christian Men.
Its about getting men back into the church pushing out the way all the doilies and flowers along with the proper conduct. Check your church and count how many Trades persons are there? I dare you.
Much to think about in all the above. We do need more meaty preaching, expository and topical, and I know some young adults who are begging for it! On the other hand, it needs to be related to life and have a contemporary style, not just old fashioned and negative. I am now attending Hope City Church, Croydon, Vic, where Pastor Andrew Magrath has been preaching on grace very solidly and the church is booming.
Much as I agree with most of the comments, we have forgotten one thing. A leadership that does not share our views. Whilst that is the case, the church wil not or cannot do anything about its decline.
I have never been in any church in Australia where I have suggested that we needed to do things differently and been shunned as a result.
The most powerful and the most spiritual in the church often don’t want change because they have a kingdom to protect that gives them unbridalled control.
My general observation is that when a person joins a congregation, you are expected to support everything that is happening and every one in leadership. They never seem to consider that God is sending someone into their midst to bring necessary change.
Bill, referencing a comment above. Does old fashioned need to be equated with negative? I think not. Nothing stimulates, impassions and generates more energy in me, than preaching that communicates a consistent biblical worldview. A biblical worldview which is based on a uniform system of thought. Why.. because it explains the world I live in best. Be it education, arts, politics, law, history or popular culture. It need not be divorced from passion or emotion. It is just rare to experience passion and systematic teaching of Christian doctrine in any one local church. Tell me when you find one! For me I need a charismatic expression with its raw energy married to a reformed theology…it seems a tough ask out there.
Bill, it’s interesting you quoted the words of J C Ryle, from 1877 (I have them on my site, also) – but there is possibly some comfort to be gained here: clearly syncretism was around then – but orthodoxy survived! And probably it will in our own time also. Why? Because the thing about quirky pagan etc. doctrines is that they soon fade, and the groups promoting them do (sometimes, they dissolve into accrimony and in-fighting). Yes, they come back in some new form (Satan never sleeps) but Truth is still there – the Holy Spirit never sleeps either.
John Thomas, UK
Good article Bill, I agree with all yor points. Its important for all christians to understand what the gospel is, and we can’t do that if we’re not taught. I’m very pleased to say that all of the pastors and leaders in my church have been encouraging the congregation to do exactly that – both from the pulpit, and individually. One of the most successful avenues for accomplishing this has been running a comprehensive christian foundations teaching in all of our “cell groups”. Whilst not everyone in the church attends a cell group, at least half do, so they can also spread the message around to those who don’t…
If I may be permitted – a little advice for Roger – the way to change a church’s culture is not to do it as an “outsider” – you have to do it from the Inside. That usually means supporting the leadership and biding your time, and biting your tongue (I speak from experience here) when you don’t agree with something that is said. When you have gained the trust of the leadership, then your opinion may be welcomed, and if you pass it on in an encouraging manner, you may be able to influence the leadership and culture of the church in a positive way.
Your title really grabbed me, Bill. Gene Edwards (in ‘The Open Church’) discusses how paganism piggy-backed its way into Christianity right back at the time that the Emperor Constantine, a pagan himself, legalized Christianity. Since reading the book, I began to notice all the ways in which we as Christians have sold ourselves and our culture out increment by increment. Do we celebrate ‘Halloween’, a pagan festival, for example? How much does our Christmas revolve around a fictitious elf in a red suit and his little magic elves and reindeers? For that matter, what is ‘magic’ itself and how many childrens’ programs and books are centring on ‘magic’ more and more? Have some of us perhaps stopped noticing the ‘normalization’ of the occult? Been to the childrens’ sections of your local library lately? What are we watching on TV? Listening to on the radio? Now, as much as ever, perhaps more, the world around us needs us to be different. Now that our education systems, governments, medias and other information sources are trying to stamp out the very mention of Christ and true, uncompromising Christianity from existence, are we going to just sit and nod our heads dumbly or are we going to ‘come out from their midst and be separate’? Maybe we should be asking the Lord to reveal to us just how much we as individuals have let slip by and just how radical we need to be to be living as Christ inte
Paganism and church sadly are walking hand in hand and have been for many years. One only has to look at Christmas and Easter to see this in action. Reading this will probably get many Christians in defensive mode but it’s the truth. Easter, Ishtar or whatever language you want, this celebration is named after a goddess of fertility and we call it our most important weekend. Children were sacrificed to Ishtar yet the church call a Christian festival after her.
Christmas is no better, just do the research. Trees and trapping all stem from pagan worship.
The Bible has these Feasts that God gave us. They are all prophetic and all about Christ. The Lord’s Feasts including Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.
Amen on getting rid of compromise!
After reading Bill’s post I said, “That’s what we get isn’t it?”
At our church we get exposition of a book with the hard bits left in. It is amazing (or is it) how topical it is.
I particularly liked this statement: ‘If entertainment and amusement is all we can offer, well, the world can usually do a better job of such things.’ I too have been saying this for years.
IMHO, there are a number of reasons that Christians now so sorely lack the skills necessary to discern Biblical truth:
1) No-one has the desire/energy to pursue truth. With so much information at our fingertips, and with so much of it simply the conflicting opinions of ‘armchair experts’, truth has been reduced to a commodity.
2) As such, skepticism as to ‘who has the truth’ reigns. (Who can I trust?)
3) Truth and rationality have thus been reduced to personal opinions/feelings.
A couple of years ago I was in a Bible Study where there was no leader, and everyone simply shared their own opinions as to what the passage meant. Needless to say, no-one learnt anything, and I never went back.
While chocolate bunnies and guys in red suits have nothing to do with Christianity, we can get carried away with conspiracy theories. I have already dealt with the issue of Christmas in three comments under this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/12/22/christmas-when-god-visited-this-planet/
As to Easter, a good scholarly article (to start with) refuting the pagan origins theory can be found here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/bytopic/holidays/easterborrowedholiday.html
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
As a 23 year old, coming up in this ‘new generation’ of Christianity, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your articles.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, with very defined versions of Christianity and denomination. After highschool, I attended Hillsong College in Australia and discovered a whole new style of worship and church that I’d never seen before.
The book “Velvet Elvis” was the most popular book among my age group and my closest friends. Even though I just could not wrap my mind around his blatant ignorance of what the Bible truly is.
Through every experience and new idea that has been thrown my way in the past five years, I have truly realized the importance of my faith being formed around the Bible.
Growing up in this generation of reality tv, facebook, twitter, and the world literally being at my fingertips, it could have been detrimental to my faith. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Having a mentor and mother who instilled a passionate love and longing for the Word of God in my heart.
Yesterday was the first time I have ever read one of your blogs Bill, and it has been such a blessing.
THANK YOU for putting up such truth, and for giving Christians something to think about. Because if we don’t open our eyes and see, and open our ears to hear what is really happening in our world and what is really happening to this Christian faith that we love so much, I fear our worst nightmares just may come true.
Thanks again Bill.
Kelly Roland, Michigan, U.S.A.
Many thanks indeed Kelly
Always good to hear of like-minded souls out there.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
So what does everyone think about having Santa show up on Carols night to distribute presents to the kids? I was a bit shocked when I heard that the church I attend was doing this as I see Santa as a worldly, commercialised, and counterfeit figure not in keeping with a conservative church outreach, and was more so when I learned that as a leader I was expected to be supportive of it. Am I over reacting?
Great question bcoz i was thinking the same thing. I suppose the idea of giving is good, though my thoughts giving in the name of Jesus would be closer to the mark?
Some insight Bill please?
I am not overly fussed on all this. When our kids were young we went through the Santa stuff, but also made it clear about the reason for the season, and that there is no Santa. But allowing Santa in churches seems to be more of a worry.
But was this done at a outdoor public carols service put on by a church? I presume they did it to keep the kids entertained or something, and I think our church might even have done the same if I am not mistaken. But I don’t think it is necessary at all within churches.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
It was a church carol’s service at the church. I must admit I probably read too much into this, but I wasn’t the only parishioner to express surprise and question their attendance and involvement and, in a couple of cases, request to be serving in other ways than being a Santa’s elf or similar. I get the point that the pastor makes in that we want to be relevant to the community at large but I guess I see it as pandering to worldy conventions and not really truthful or Christ-centred which I think a Christian outreach such as a carols service should be – I’m sure there are good arguments for either side. But it would have been good for it to have been discussed in the leaders meeting so that we could have our input before it was arranged, particularly since we were expected to be supportive with it. I’m still not convinced it’s a valid thing to be involved in though.
I totally agree with you Garth re the inappropriateness of having Santa at any church function. I have been in similar situations as the one you describe. It is drawing a very long bow indeed to justify it on the basis of being “relevant to the community”. I say “cobblers” to that and say it is more a demonstration of just how compromised and worldly some churches have become. The best way to be relevant is to proclaim Gospel truth, not indulge in myths that obscure and detract from the true meaning of Christmas. Are we going to have the Easter bunny at Easter church services next? (No doubt this already happens.) It is a classic example of Christian paganism.
You write: ‘Packer has written a much needed message. I would be interested to know if he would insist that God created the world in six-days about six thousand years ago.’
Based on Packer’s praise printed on the cover of prominent theistic evolutionist Denis Alexander’s book: “Creation or Evolution, Do we have to Choose?” I can confidently say that he doesn’t believe this part of the Bible.
I agree with a lot of what Packer writes, but like many western Christians, he is blind when he, in effect, gives the authority of scientific consensus greater weight than that of God’s Word.
Great article. You are spot on.
What are we? the Church of Jesus Christ or mere entertainers? Where is the Holy Spirit? You know, the one that came at Pentecost. The Spirit that empowered believers, set them apart from the world.
Thank you Bill. The truth is needed now more than ever. We need revival!
I couldn’t agree more with Jamie, he’s looking for passion and raw energy married to a reformed theology. Hard to find! However, Acts 29 churches are seeking to do this world-wide and are looking to start something in Melbourne. Let me know if you want to hear more.
Since it can be quite risky to splash one’s personal email on a public website, for your own protection I have removed it from your comment. But if people want to learn more, they can send in a comment here (which I won’t publish) but I will send their contact details over to you. OK? Otherwise, if you have a website link we can refer people to, let me know as well.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I got this out of A.W Tozers book “Of God and Men”
Some of it is from different pages, but I put it together & I pray that God will raise up Men of God like this.
This man of God will not be frightened by threats of death because he has already died to the allurements of the world. He will make no decisions out of fear,
Take no course out of a desire to please,
Accept no service for financial consideration,
Perform no religious act out of mere custom,
Nor will he allow himself to be influenced by the love of publicity or the desire for reputation.
This man has learned to hear God’s voice & dared to obey it, This is a free man who has nothing to protect, no ambition to pursue, no enemy to fear.
For this reason he is completely careless of his standing among men.
If people listen to him, well & good, if not, he loses nothing that he holds dear, but weather he is accepted or rejected he will go on loving God’s people with a sincere devotion for them.
This man will be fully convinced that his own efforts will only result in mistakes.
This man will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking smooth civilization holds dear.
He will contradict, denounce & protest in the name of God & will earn the rejection & opposition of a large segment of Christendom.
He will preach messages that will be alive, alarm, arouse & challenge, it will be God’s voice to a particular people concerned with the state of their hearts than with the state of their feelings.
Undoubtedly the will of God brings final happiness to those who obey, but the most important matter is not how happy they are but how Holy.
Gone are the days when children were required to recite word perfect the answers of the shorter catechism. They had a good grounding in evangelical Christian doctrine. Now we have preachers who cannot give a proper definition of “repentance unto life” and they stand in the pulpit warning of the dangers of legalism.