Friday, January 2, 2015

The Pagan Roots of "Pagan Root" Theories

Photo Credit: Kaley Dykstra
Every time I see a post on Facebook about how such and such actually comes from paganism, I cringe. What I see in these types of posts is a huge "holier than thou" wall that stands in the way of unity and understanding. I see commandments taught by men, the "appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body" (Col. 2:23). Instead of helping us grow closer to our Creator and Redeemer, these theories distract us by making us feel righteous and holy without the hard work of actually molding our character into the image of Messiah.

Let me explain why I do not accept "pagan root" theories as legitimate or Biblical.

Meanings change
"Pagan root" theories rely on the assumption that meanings are static--once the pagans assign a meaning to a day or a symbol or a word, the assignment is permanent. Slowly, over time, everything is becoming pagan as the pagans exercise their control over more and more of creation. I reject this notion.

Meanings change over time. This is true of words; it is also true of symbols and traditions. Even the word "pagan" at one time simply meant a villager or civilian. Many things that were once associated with pagan practice have long since been cut off from their roots. They carry a different meaning today.

It's the same with people. Just because a person was once a thief or liar or murderer doesn't mean that he is condemned to that life for all time. Ezekiel 18 makes this clear. A person can change the meaning of his own life. Why do we treat the rest of God's creation differently?

Here's a question to ponder: Where does meaning come from? If from God, did He not create all things good? If from the pagans, what gave them the authority?

The Chicken and the Egg
The go-to passage for "pagan root" theories is Deuteronomy 12:29-31, which instructs us not to learn the ways of the Canaanites nor worship our God in that way. It's not hard to see how one might take this to mean "avoid everything that the pagans did."

I believe that we've taken this passage out of context. We read as if these things are wrong because the pagans do them. Or to put it another way, the pagan came before the sin. In my mind this makes no sense. What about sacrifices and temples and other such things that the pagans do, that God Himself commands us to do? If it is the fact that the pagans do these things that makes them wrong, why are the sacrifices and temple, etc. excepted?

The sin comes before the pagan, and I can show this in the text: "You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods" (Deut. 12:31). The reason we are forbidden from learning the ways of the pagans is because they were doing things that God already told Israel not to do. This is not a new command, but a reminder and a fence to keep the commandments of God.

This is further reinforced when you look at the context. Almost every time you see "Do not act like the pagans," it is in conjunction with "Keep my commandments." In these passages, God is addressing an issue of authority. God is our sole authority, not the culture around us. Keep God's commands, not the commands of idols and men.

What is ironic is that by saying all that the pagans do becomes forbidden because they do it, we are actually giving the pagans authority over our freedom and God's creation. I say what the pagans say is not forbidden as such, but irrelevant--they have no authority over us either to command our way or restrict our freedom. They have no authority to claim any part of God's creation for their own. Only God's instructions matter.

God of Redemption
I don't want to minimize the reality of pagan practices, which we should avoid. What I want to do is challenge the way we define these practices. Paganism is not simply whatever the pagans do--it is what goes against the will of God. It is what runs contrary to the purpose of creation, the instructions of life, and the message of the Gospel. In fact, I would argue that the "pagan root" theories are themselves rooted in paganism in that they attribute power where it does not belong.

"Pagan root" theories are hurting the Messianic movement because they rob God of His authority as Creator and redemptive power. They are an act of surrender to the enemy, in exchange for a form of "holiness" which has no power to transform. They distract and divide us, keeping us from the real work of building the Kingdom of God.

It is true, sin has stained everything. But, my God is in the business of restoration and redemption. He can take a broken pot and mend it (Jer. 18:4-6). He can take a crooked stick and straighten it (Luke 3:5). He can take something evil and use it for good (Gen. 50:20). He can take something despised and give it a place of honor (1 Cor. 1:27-29). He makes ALL things new (Rev. 21:5). This is the work that I want to be a part of.


  1. Good article with food for thought ... this has come up in our family discussions lately, and I'm not ready to form absolute conclusions yet, but your point about "the sin comes before the pagan" is not something I'd really considered before. We've just listened to FFOZ "What About Paganism?" so your post is timely. : ) I sure don't appreciate the way "holier-than-thou" attitudes distance us from Christians, etc. It can get so extreme ... I remember once reading a paper on "graven images" that seemed to say that children's toys like dolls and action figures were out!

    1. Glad to hear you're looking into it. =) I had a chance to listen to that teaching some time ago as well, though my journey to the other side began well before that. It was seeing how extreme it could get (seeing the condemnation of Chanukah and the Star of David in particular) that really pushed me away from pagan roots theories. FFOZ's teaching served as a sort of confirmation.

      Of course, I know not everyone will agree with me, and that's ok. Whatever conclusion you come to, I know you'll uphold it with an attitude of respect and love--and that really is the biggest thing. Good luck in your studies! May the Father reveal His heart to you.