Survey Of American Christianity: Pagans in Christian Clothing (part 1)

This is the fourth installment to my blog series “Survey Of American Christianity”. This is looking to be a six part series. We are currently sitting at the half way point. It will get worse before it gets better, but I promise it gets better. So stick with me! This will also be a bit of a lengthy post, but It had to be to get everything in there. It could have been way longer, but I trimmed it down the best I could!

I will remind you that this blog post represents my opinions alone and does not represent the opinions of any group, organization, or ministry I may be affiliated with.

If you have questions or concerns about any of the content of my blogs, I would urge you to ask me directly! It is why this blog exists is to begin conversations. So don’t be afraid to do just that. So let’s get on with it…

Where It All Begins

It all began with Constantine. He was the first pagan ruler who ascribed publicly to Christianity. Constantine The Great was the Roman Emperor from 305 A.D until his death in 337 A.D. He played a vital role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. which decreed the tolerance of the Christian religion in the Roman Empire. Constantine was responsible for calling the Council Of Nicaea in 325, which produced the first ever creed that unified all Christians under one set of beliefs that outlined their declaration of Faith. After taking up residence in Byzantium and renaming it Constantinople (after himself) and making that the main center of Rome, he had the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built on top of the site believed to be the tomb of Jesus Christ. This church was considered the holiest of all places in all of Christendom. This is where the first church building came from.

Constantine is not only responsible for bringing together leaders to define our Christian faith at Nicaea, he is also responsible for the institutionalizing of the Christian faith, the order of worship, the architecture of the Church that we know today in many old cathedrals, the liturgical elements of worship that many still practice today, and the exponential growth of the Christian Church… All while remaining faithful to a pagan god.

For someone so powerful and influential to take the lead on building the foundation of what we know today as “The Church” actually ascribing publicly to Christianity while remaining faithful to his pagan roots, it is no wonder that many of our practices today have stemmed from the same roots. Let’s explore some of them together…

The Church As A Building

So many Christians have come to love the church building. We have this crazy obsession with having the best facility to meet in a couple times a week. We want the best of all things and we pour resources into buildings. I’ve been a part of multiple church communities while they were either in the process of building something new, or had just finished building. Something just doesn’t sit right with me when I hear people get so excited about a building that sits empty most of the time while people in the neighborhood are in need of so many things, but even more so, in need of Jesus Himself. We have become so intertwined with the idea of the Church being a building that we so often use it in our language.

“Did you go to church this week?”

“The Church is so cold this morning! I’m freezing!”

“Are they ever going to update the church’s carpet?”

We seem to have lost sight of things a bit. But where did building a “church building” come from? Well, to put it quite bluntly, the idea of having a building to worship comes straight from Judaism and paganism.

Ancient Judaism was centered on three elements: the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifice. In Greco-Roman paganism, these three elements were also present: Pagans had their temples, their priests, and their sacrifices. It was only the Christians who did away with all of these elements. It can be rightly said that Christianity was the first non-temple-based religion ever to emerge. In the minds of the early Christians, the people–not the architecture–constituted a sacred place. The early Christians understood that they themselves–corporately–were the temple of God and the house of God.

Surprisingly, nowhere in the New Testament do we find the terms church (ekklesia), temple, or house of God used to refer to a building. To the ears of the first-century Christian, calling an ekklesia a building would have been like calling your wife an apartment.

The first recorded use of ekklesia being used to describe a building was around 190 A.D. by Clement of Alexandria. Clement was the first person to use the phrase “go to church” –which would have been a foreign thought to the first-century believers. But even Clement’s use of the phrase “go to church” was in reference to someone’s home, not a dedicated building of worship. The early Christians would have considered a dedicated space of worship way too familiar to other religions of the day and would have called it out for what it was: pagan.

Frank Viola, in his book “Pagan Christianity”, writes this of early church buildings:

” When Christianity was born, it was the only religion on the planet that had no sacred object, 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 roadsides.”

Wearing Our Sunday Best

For many years before our time, Christians around the world have been dressing up in their finer clothes to attend church on Sunday mornings. This has always been what you do and not many people have stopped to consider why we do it. Granted, there are many people and churches now-a-days that have “dressed down” to a casual level for the most part. You can even walk into the church wearing jeans and a T-shirt and not get dirty looks from other congregants. But the issue here is not that it’s getting better, but rather that the reality of dressing up for church exists to begin with. So let’s look at the origins of this tradition.

It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that culture began to shift. Before the shift, it was a very distinctive divide amongst the general population based on how you dressed. The wealthy were the only people who dressed in their finest clothing at gatherings and events, and the commoners dressed either in what they wore in the fields, or their lass tattered clothing to go into town. But by the early nineteenth century, the mass textile manufacturing industry had exploded, and the middle class was born. By this time, finer looking clothes were made more affordable, and the middle class began wearing nicer clothes. With the middle class came the desire for bigger homes, nicer vehicles, larger church buildings, and a finer life. At first the Church as a whole resisted people dressing up for worship. John Wesley actually spoke against wearing nice clothing to worship, stating it was unbiblical. Because of his belief, the Methodists would actually turn people away because of their dress. It wasn’t until 1843 when an influential Congregational Minister named Horace Bushnell published an essay called “Taste and Fashion” that it would change the way people attended church forever. In this essay Bushnell argued that sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them. After this essay was published, Christians began elaborately decorating their church buildings and wearing their finest clothes every week.

So as with pretty much every other accepted church practice, dressing up for church is the result of Christians being influenced by their surrounding culture.

There are multiple issues with this tradition that effects the Church at large in a major way. First off, it represents the false division between the secular and the sacred. To believe that God cares at all that we wear our nice clothes to worship Him corporately is a direct violation of the New Covenant. We always have access to God’s presence at all times and in all circumstances. So why would God expect us to dress up once a week to worship together when we are ideally living a life of worship to Him every day?

Secondly, wearing attractive, fashionable, flashy clothing sends out an embarrassing message: the church is the place where Christians hide their true selves and “dress up” to look presentable. It destroys the idea that the church is made up of real people with messy problems. How many times have we heard of couples who were fighting all the way to church, but slap on a smile when they exit the car and act happy and perfect? This is a serious problem with serious consequences. It fosters the illusion that we are somehow “good” because we are dressing up for God. The reality is that in light of our fallen selves, we are constantly fighting our true depravity, and are in turn trying to cover it up. We aren’t dressing up for God, we are dressing up for each other. And that is very damaging and an extremely detrimental false witness to the Gospel.

Lastly, dressing up for church resists the very primitive and beautiful simplicity that made up and was the sustaining hallmark of the early church. The first-century Christians did not dress up for attend church meetings. They met in the simplicity of their living rooms. Today we attempt to facilitate this “family” vibe in artificial ways, but the fault is made clear.

In summation, the problem with dressing up for church is that it contradicts the very DNA of the Church: In the Church, all social and racial distinctions are erased. James wrote a strong rebuke to the church in the New Testament believers who were treating the rich saints better than the poor saints. He very boldly speaks against this behavior and reproves the rich for dressing differently from the poor (James 2:1-5). This passage also suggest that dressing fashionably in was the exception, not the norm. There is a similar passage in Mark 7:1-13. The Scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus and the disciples of being irreverent for not following the tradition of the Elders.

Frank Viola writes that ” to say that the Lord expects His people to dress in fine clothing when the church gathers is to add to the Scriptures and speak where God has not spoken. Such a practice is human tradition at its best.”

Evaluate What We Cherish

I believe it is a healthy practice to stop and evaluate the things we hold so dear to our hearts sometimes and make sure it’s something worth holding on to. And that is what we are doing here. It’s time to settle some of this once and for all and stop judging one another for things that are not only unbiblical, but damaging to the way we live out our lives in light of Scripture and the Gospel. Do I think my measly little blog post is going to make that much of an impact? Not really, no. But I have to say it somewhere because not enough people are saying it. So I have to speak up. Christians are at fault for many very terrible things that are turning people away from the Gospel. Not just outsiders, but people within our Church family as well. When one can find better community in a bar than in a church, there’s obviously something we’re missing. So maybe we can begin to correct ourselves, one step at a time.

Next week we will look at part 2 of this post and focus more on the “clergy ” side of things and look at how the actual leading of our worship and the position of those who lead it and where the practices originate.

Comment below and tell me what resonates with you in this post!


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