Is the Church Pagan ?
Dr Daniel Juster, Director
From its infancy the church has struggled with the influences of paganism. While still attached to her Jewish roots, she was threatened by gnosticism, legalism and the integration of pagan practices. But those roots, nourished by the soil of Torah, contained inherent resistance to idolatry. The ten commandments begin with "You shall have no other gods before me. (to) bow down to them nor serve them."
Today, nearly 20 centuries later, many layers of custom and theology have been added. Is the church of today essentially pagan? How should we, as Yeshua's Jewish and Gentile followers who deeply appreciate the Hebraic origins of His kehila, view the charges of some that the church has become hopelessly pagan and must be rejected? Let us look at some of the basic criticisms.
The Claim that the Church is Pagan
This first claim is way over blown. Those churches that came forth from the Reformation were quite concerned to eliminate all vestiges of paganism. The Puritans were so concerned about this that they built sanctuaries with no pictorial art whatsoever. One of the main practices feared to be pagan is the fact that churches worship on Sunday, and keep Easter and Christmas. However, there is nothing in the Bible to say that churches cannot worship on Sunday, which is the first day of the week, and the day that Yeshua rose from the dead. No, Sunday is not a replacement for the Sabbath. This is a correction that should be spoken. However, to state that worshiping God on Sunday is paganism, is an amazing stretch. What the Roman Empire meant by Sunday religious rituals 2000 years ago is irrelevant. The issue is what Christians mean now by their worship on Sunday.
With regard to Easter, O.K., let's change the name because of its connection to the name of a goddess. It should be called Resurrection Day. It is often the right day according to the biblical calendar. It is the Feast of First Fruits during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This is the Feast Day on which Yeshua rose from the dead.
Christmas is more difficult. Let's indeed be done with all pagan elements that are incorporated by Christians during this time. However, some keep this day because they really believe Yeshua was born on this day. Some theologians have argued for this. I think they confused his birth day with the time of his conception and the miraculous events that preceded it. If He was born on Sukkot (Tabernacles) which is my view, He would have been conceived during Chanukah, the first day of which is Kislev 25. Chanukah sometimes overlaps December 25th. Yes, pagan winter festivals occurred then, but Chanukah is during the same time. To call all Christmas celebration pagan, again is a real stretch.
The Claim that Christian Traditions are Worthless Human Traditions
This second claim is important as well. It assumes that God was not involved in the tradition creativity in the history of Christianity. What is the work of the Holy Spirit? In part it is creativity. In some churches, no musical instruments are used because such instruments are human creations. However, even hymns and choruses are traditions of men. The style of a Pentecostal service has tradition in it. Synagogues have such traditions from human creativity too. Is it not better to recognize that we all have traditions and to evaluate these traditions by the Word of God? For example, the most traditional of Protestant Churches are the Anglicans. Let's only evaluate the Anglican Evangelicals, represented by men like John Stott. First they follow the Christian Holy Year. This year is built around retelling the story of the Life of Messiah. This is hardly pagan. Two Jewish feasts are kept - one is Resurrection Day, often on the right day. The other is Shavuot, or Pentecost. The church building is a recreation of the Jewish Temple in fulfillment motif. The central tradition is the taking of the Communion. The eternal light, the seven branched lamp stand, the altar table, the priestly garments are all based on a creative appropriation of the meaning of the Temple as fulfilled in Yeshua. My critique would be that the life of the Body needs to be expressed not just in a sacramental service, but in small groups, the gifts of the Spirit and more. However, some Anglican churches do just this. How is this pagan? There are many Christian traditions. Much of the criticism simply arises from a lack of understanding. There is no community that does not have traditions that are developed with human creativity.
The Claim that Christians in General are in Violation of God's Commandments
The claim is also made that Christians are pagan because they do not keep the commandments of God. They do not keep the Sabbath on the Seventh Day, the major Feasts of the Bible and the food laws. I recognize that the Sabbath will be universal in the Age to Come. The Age to Come may also include the universalization of the major feasts. However, the Bible explicitly names only the Sabbath and Tabernacles as universal. My view is that the apostolic decision in Acts 15 loosed Gentiles from responsibility for these commandments (Acts 15, Galatians 5). Yes, they can be celebrated by all. Yes, they should be respected as the context for much of our understanding of Yeshua. Yes, Messianic Jewish congregations should be respected for keeping them. Yet there is not one word in the New Testament that makes these a covenant responsibility for the Church as a whole. The Apostles and Elders only required what was understood in some first century Jewish circles to be universal moral law. Outside of Jewry, and in most cultures, it simply is not possible to keep all the feasts because there is no allowance for them. Employees and slaves, especially, could not keep these laws. The Apostles gave sufficient freedom so the Gospel could grow in very different cultures without unnecessary restrictions.
Correction is Needed
There are some matters in which correction is needed. One is replacement theology whereby the Church is robbed of its own role in the salvation of Israel and the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel and the nations. Others include: misunderstanding on issues of Law and Grace, abstract concepts of God which depersonalize Him, and not understanding Scripture in its original Jewish context.
Why is the topic of this article crucial to all of us? It is because the Church and Israel must be rightly aligned to fulfill God's purpose. This also means the right alignment of the Church with the Messianic Jewish part of Israel (which is also part of the Church). When there is pride and arrogance of one toward the other, this purpose is not fulfilled. Romans 11 is addressed to Gentile Believers who are to follow Paul's example in making Israel jealous. The salvation of Israel simply will not be effected without the whole Body of the Messiah. Messianic Jews will not gain the favor of the Christian community for this important purpose if they do not have a right evaluation of the Church.
One New Man
In Ephesians 2, Paul speaks of God making of the Jews and Gentiles one new man. To some, this means the homogenization of Jew and Gentile so they are no longer distinct. This is most certainly the wrong interpretation. No, one new man is like a man and woman in marriage. The unity of oneness and completion only is possible when the man and woman are walking in their calling as man and woman. In addition, the unity of Jew and Gentile is in a corporate context where the Church foreshadows the unity of Israel and the nations under the rule of the Messiah. In this reading, Messianic Jewish congregations ought not to think that all churches should be like them and visa versa. We must see that both communities have developed wonderful traditions by creative gifts in the Holy Spirit that meet the Romans 12:2 standard of that which is good. The completion of one new man is only found in the mutual appreciation of the Jewish and the Gentile together. Superficial analysis of the Church is not helpful in fulfilling the destiny of either Israel or the Church.