The Church Building
By Gaylon Embrey
29 August 2000
In this first sentence it might be wise to state clearly that I do not believe it is wrong for Christians to have a meeting house of their very own. "Ban the Church Building" is not, repeat NOT, the purpose behind these comments. The old argument that the command to assemble implies a place to assemble is a sound one as far as I can determine. If Christians meet together, obviously there must be a place where the meeting takes place, either rented, borrowed, or bought. There is a universal chorus of consent on this.
However, with the above argument made and out of the way, it is only fair to add a second point: it is not NECESSARY that Christians have a bona fide "church building." Jesus said: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20). The where does not matter in the least. It does not have to be any particular place, or any particular kind of place. It can be a cave, a dungeon, a hay barn or anywhere else true believers come together in the name of the Lord. Wherever it is, THERE Jesus will be. There seems to be general agreement on this point as well.
As we look into the New Testament (NT) record we quickly note how often the early disciples came together for spiritual reasons. Yet we do not read details of the exact type of place they used in each instance. Indications are that they met wherever it was convenient. After the first gospel sermon and the baptism of the three thousand, we read that they continued "daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people" (Acts 2:46-47).
Some time later, Peter and John were arrested, threatened and let go, whereupon they "went to their own company and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said unto them (Acts 4:23). On this occasion "the place was shaken where they were assembled together" (vs. 31). But alas, we are not told what kind of place this was.
At a much later time, but still in Jerusalem, after the death of James and the imprisonment of Peter, "many were gathered together praying,'' only this time we ARE informed exactly where the meeting took place--it was at "the house of Mary the mother of John (Acts 12:12).
As we follow the movement of disciples out from Jerusalem, the information on just where they did their "getting together" turns out to be rather incomplete. When Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch "it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with (not "at") the church, and taught much people" (Acts 11:26). But here we are not told where this year of "assembling'' took place.
Many of the cities into which Paul went had no church (Christian people), much less church meetinghouse, when he arrived. His pattern seems to have been to begin teaching the Jews in the synagogue. Then, when driven out of the synagogue, he would take the disciples wherever he could. At Corinth (Acts 18) he spent a year and a half, much of that time in "a certain man's house, named Justus, one that worshipped God, whose house joined hard to the synagogue."
At Ephesus (Acts 19) after three months in the synagogue Paul "separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus. And this continued by the space of two years. Whether the house of Justus and the lecture room of Tyrannus were considered regular "church places" where "church services'' were conducted is hard to say.
At Troas (Acts 20) on Paul's last journey to Jerusalem the disciples "came together to break bread" and "Paul preached unto them.., and continued his speech until midnight." But once again the exact location of the meeting is not described, other than being a place with an upper chamber, many lights and a third loft.
When Paul arrived at Jerusalem (Acts 21) he and those of his party went in unto James, and all the elders were present;" but again we are not told where, or in what kind of place, this high meeting was held. From this time on Paul's spiritual association with the brethren was pretty well identified because he was confined to prison cells of one kind or another. At the close of Acts (ch. 28) Paul is in Rome where he dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him; preaching the kingdom of God and teaching those things that concern the Lord Jesus Christ."
The above survey serves to point out what we all knew to begin with; namely, that the early Christians did not have a modern-style Church Building as part of their religious paraphernalia. It could be that this is accounted for by the unfavorable circumstances of that unfriendly age, or by the fact that they simply had not had enough time to get a "building program" underway.
While there were no Church Buildings in the beginning of Christianity on earth, there were natural reasons for their development later on. For one thing, the synagogue system was well established among the Jews of that time. In every city where they lived in sufficient number, the Jews had their synagogue-building in which they had regular religious instruction and worship. All of the first Christians were Jews. They were already adjusted to the practice of going to the synagogue each week. Therefore it is not unusual to find that as the number of disciples increased, and as there were more and more separated from the Jewish community, that they followed the pattern of the past and built for themselves permanent places to assemble. When you get right down to it, the nearest thing to the modern Church building in the New Testament is the Jewish synagogue. The word synagogue meant "a bringing together;" and, by metonymy, the building where the coming together took place. James actually used the word in his statement to Christians: If there come into your assembly (synagogue) a man with a gold ring..." (Jas. 2:2).
However, it is extremely doubtful that during the period of the NT writings the Christians had buildings with a design and character well enough defined to be identified with the Christian faith. Although citizens of the first century would not have recognized any particular style of structure as having something to do with the Christian religion, we of 20th century vintage certainly do. By the time we arrived on the scene the Church Building had long been an identifiable landmark on the religious road of life. As you know, different kinds of buildings have peculiar features by which we identify them. The majority of structures are built for families to live in; many are built for business purposes, to buy and sell in; some are built for purposes of government, to rule from; some are built to play in, some to dine out in, some to study in. Consequently, we see homes, apartments, stores, offices, courthouses, libraries, coliseums, gymnasiums, restaurants, schools, etc. Unless we are thrown off by some strange architectural design, we can tell at a glance the nature of any building we see, and usually know what takes place inside. A Church Building we recognize with special ease; not just because the sign out front announces it, but because of the tower, the steeple, the cross on top, the stained glass windows, the general countenance.
The question is: Just what is a church building anyway? What is its true nature and character? It is a religious building to be sure; but of what sort? Religious edifices come in a variety of kinds. There are mosques, shrines, cathedrals, temples and synagogues, as well as Church Buildings.
A shrine is defined as "a case, box, container, or receptacle for a sacred relic." But a Church Building is surely not one of these. At least I can't think of any sacred relics housed inside our buildings; other kinds of relics perhaps, but not sacred ones.
A cathedral is a building containing the "cathedral," which is the "throne of a Bishop." Now it could be that some people have a concept [of the church] that is compatible with this view. While modern Elders do not have an actual throne in their conference room, they do tend to rule mostly around and from the meeting house; but as yet the word cathedral is not in use among us. Neither is the word synagogue although, as we have seen it may come as close as any to being accurate.
Why all this talk about church buildings? Is it to suggest that they are somehow evil? No. But it is to suggest that the modern Church Building implicates error in more ways than we may realize. Not only has this "expediency" introduced us to many perplexing problems regarding its use and abuse, it has also greatly reinforced certain concepts which are not of NT origin. For this reason our Church Building needs to be completely renovated, in our minds at least. It needs to be looked over in a clearer light. Let us therefore notice briefly what the Church Building has come to be.
1. THE CHURCH BUILDING HAS COME TO BE A NECESSITY.
We argue that it is only an expediency, a nice convenient aid; but we act like it is an indispensable part of the divine program of righteousness. A group of Christians today, regardless of how small in number or how comfortably housed they may be in some "converted residence," automatically consider themselves to be deprived, deficient, and not yet fully developed as a "church" if they have no traditional-type building in which to meet. Even Christians who met in a rented public building (plenty large to accommodate all their group activities) think themselves to be in a bad fix, terribly handicapped and somehow incomplete. Under such circumstances TINY groups of disciples have been known to borrow and beg hundreds of thousands of dollars for a building fund claiming that no spiritual progress can be made without a respectable church "facility.'' Few people ever entertain the thought of surviving without one. Christians who can't do any better may have to get along temporarily without "a suitable place to meet," but it's only temporarily. Somehow, some way, SOON, the building must go up. It is now one of those "necessary expediencies."
In what respect is a building so necessary? Here is where the small and ever so subtle switch comes in. What makes the erection of a nice Church Building imperative is not really its function as a "necessarily inferred" place for saints to assemble, but it is rather the intrinsic value of the building itself in what IT can and will do for the cause of Christ. The need for having a Church Building is strongly argued along this line: "We MUST have a nice building if we are ever going to get outsiders to attend." Now then, you see, the building has become not just a place "where saints meet." It has become, instead, a tool for reaching the unbelievers, an ATTRACTION in its own right.
The next step is a small one. If the building exists not merely to accommodate saints who yearn to get together, but is likewise an instrument to attract strangers, then naturally it has to be built in a way to be "attractive." Being purely a physical thing, a building can be made attractive only by adding to its physical charm and beauty. Thus we have not just useful, functional buildings, but elaborate, and enormously expensive buildings. Brethren will spare no cost in this regard. By all means the Church Building must be impressive to the onlooking world. Since this is a big part of its purpose, the outlay of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, is therefore justified.
An example comes to mind. An old congregation with an attendance of 120 to 130 is meeting in an old building, but large enough to seat two or three hundred people. They decide they "need" a new building. A building fund is started. Eventually the new building is erected to the tune of over $500,000! Think about this. These disciples already had a nice, dry place to meet. Yet a half million dollars was spent because someone thought it was "necessary" to help the cause of Christ in the community. This case is typical of the kind of thinking being done these days on this subject. Therefore, a convenient, comfortable meeting place is not the point at all; the point is to have a wonderful structure with STATUS comparable to, and if possible excelling, anything the denominational competition can build. Hence, the result is not simply a place for Christians to meet, but is just another monument to human pride not an eyelash different from the tower of Babel. How much "vanity money" is put into massive church building programs each year? I do not have a calculator handy, but probably God can add without one.
2. THE CHURCH BUILDING HAS BECOME THE TANGIBLE EXPRESSION OF THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH.
Worldly organizations of all kinds--commercial, governmental, educational, or humanitarian--soon take on tangible form in the shape of those particular buildings where their kind of business is transacted. An insurance company, for example, is identified with and by the office building that has its sign out front. This building provides something visible that a customer can point toward when he says, "I do business with THAT company." The institutional concept of the Church gives rise to the same outlook. The church member points to the Church Building and says: "I belong to THAT Church." In this view "the Church" is considered to be an organization with features just like any other earthly organization, differing only in the area of interest and activity. Also, the Church Building is considered to be just that--The CHURCH building. It stands on the corner of Main Street, an imposing figure daily reminding men of the presence of the Church, as one of the institutional entities of the community. By no stretch of the imagination is it merely an expedient place "where Christians meet." It is much more than this and everyone knows it. To the whole world the Church Building symbolizes the Church Proper, the Institutional Church, the Church with the capital C, the CHURCH in the true tradition of denominationalism.
The more you look into it the more you see how much the official Church Building has strengthened the concept of the official Church. Actually the existence and perpetuation of the denominational Church depends to a large degree on the building which houses its operations. The Church Building is where the institutional Church centers its activities. Here is where nearly all "Church work" is done and/or directed. This further explains why the "Church plant" has become such a necessity in the estimation of all Church leaders. The Organized Church would be hard pressed to maintain itself without a visible structure of this kind to build its programs around. Take away all such buildings and you might end up with a fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ rather than people "affiliated" with a denominated Organization. Such was the situation in New Testament times. Back then what people SAW was not a marvelous building of such magnificence that they exclaimed: "Glory be to God." They saw the "good works" of Christian people, and that was what led them to glorify the Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
3. THE CHURCH BUILDING HAS BECOME THE LOCATION OF ALL SPIRITUAL SERVICE.
Inasmuch as the Church Building epitomizes the Church proper, it is only natural that "Church activity" be more or less confined to that province. Facts are facts. As matters now stand, at least in the mind of many churchgoers, the Church Building is definitely the primary place where the Christian serves God.
Take "worship" for instance. Now it is neither denied nor deniable that Christians do in fact worship God when they assemble in the meeting house. The problem is, many believers seem convinced that this is the ONLY place where "worship'' takes place. Evidence that this is a popular notion shows up in several ways. At the building brethren will sometimes pray for those who are seriously ill "that they might regain their much wanted health, and once again be able to come and worship there." Does this mean the sick cannot "worship" God where they are, away from the sacred Building?
Take a situation where members are somehow separated from the "house of worship." Example: A couple of couples, friends in Christ, take a vacation together. They arrive in a strange city on the Lord's Day. What do they do? Naturally they begin to "look for a Church." This is not a habit to be criticized, and I do not criticize it here. The only question is, WHAT, exactly, are they looking for? Are they looking for their brethren in Christ? If so, why then do they slip in and "worship" and hurry away without so much as speaking to their brethren? Are they looking for a particular religious Organization, scriptural in name, doctrine and practice, that must "conduct" their worship before it will be acceptable to God? If this is the case, they need to do a LOT of investigating before engaging themselves. Or, are these traveling "Christians" merely looking for a certain kind of PLACE?? From all appearances this seems to be the idea. For if they find a Church Building [then] they worship. If they do not find a Church Building (or its temporary equivalent) [then] they do not worship. They will explain if questioned that they tried hard but "just couldn't find a PLACE to worship that Lord's Day." Therefore they did not sing, they did not pray, they did not commune in memory of their Lord. Although they were Christians and were together all day long in many nice "places," they never did find the RIGHT place for worship.
Yes, I know many Christians do not share the above limited view of things. But is it not true that the above episode is not at all uncommon among professed believers today? In fact, there are some (even preachers) who teach that it would be UNLAWFUL for these vacationing saints to engage in full worship on their own, because they would not be a bona fide Church under those circumstances. One writer declared that they would have to "organize" a Church before they could engage in lawful worship. This would be a lot of trouble to go to for one day's "worship service," but such is the way of organized religion.
We all know better, but this has not kept us from locating, and for all practical purposes limiting, the place of spiritual service. To locate means to "designate the site of," and this is what the Church Building has done for us. It has located the "site" of religious endeavor. As I understand it, this in essence, is the idea of a TEMPLE. How close are we to a "temple" concept of the Church Building? The connection may be closer than you think. Under the first covenant God spoke to Israel many times about the "Place which the Lord thy God hath chosen to place his name there." The nation was told, "Three times a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God IN THE PLACE which the Lord thy God shall choose" (Deut. 16:16). This "place" was Jerusalem, where the temple was built in the days of Solomon. God plainly said at the time: "I have chosen THIS PLACE for myself for a house of sacrifice;" and again, "Now have I chosen and sanctified this house, that my name may be there forever" (2 Chron. 7:12,16). It was to this place, therefore, that the Jews went to worship. It was into "the holy place" within the temple that the priests "went always - accomplishing the service of God" (Heb. 9:6).
But under the second covenant all this changed, as Jesus made clear to the woman of Samaria. She recognized Jesus as one of the Jews who said, "In Jerusalem is the PLACE where men ought to worship." Christ then explained to her that the time was coming "when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father...But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth" (Jno. 4:21,23). This tells us there is no more a designated site to which a person must go to worship and serve God. Oh yes, there is a "temple of God" on earth even now. But, as we very well know, God's temple today is NOT a physical building made by human hands. It is constructed of "stones," but a very unique kind. Kick one of these "stones" and it will holler. For it is a "living stone." Peter declared, "Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house..." (1 Pet. 2:5). Paul told the Corinthians, "Ye are God's BUILDING." A little later he told them the kind of building they were: "Ye are the temple of God" (1 Cor. 3:9,16).
This brings up a very interesting question with reference to the "temple'' doctrine of the New Testament. Where is our "holy place" today? Back under the "shadow system" of Moses the literal temple contained a compartment known as the Holy Place. Into this actual place the sanctified priests had to go to accomplish the "ordinances of divine service," as they dressed the golden candlestick to keep it burning continually; as they offered incense morning and evening on the altar of incense; as they changed the shewbread each week and ate it before the Lord in the holy place.
There is no need here to try to explain all the symbolism in those various acts other than to ask, WHERE is the Holy Place wherein we as Christian priests can and must serve God today? In the minds of many I fear that our "Holy Place" is no less than the Church Building. At least this seems to be about the only place many Christians associate with the idea of "worship." The widespread popularity of this attitude is what makes me wonder if we have not made entirely too much of the Church Building. Not that it is wrong to worship there. This is not the point at all. When we come together in the meeting house to sing and pray are we not acting out our role as priests of the most high God? Are we not functioning in the tabernacle made without hands? OF COURSE WE ARE! But does this make the Church Building the one and only spiritual counterpart to the Holy Place of the Old Testament? OF COURSE NOT! When we leave the Church Building do we leave the only proper "Place" of acceptable worship? When we offer prayers morning and evening in the quiet of our home, are we no longer in the Holy Place? When we sing a hymn riding down the road in the car, are we outside the Holy Place? We need to decide about such matters, lest we should offer spiritual sacrifices to the Almighty in some UNholy place.
The point I labor to make is this. In spite of all we say about BEING a holy temple in the Lord, we still retain a strong Old Testament bent in deeming the Church Building to be sort of a sacred place, where men must go to find God. It isn't. It can't be. Remember, the building is only an incidental to begin with. As long as it is no more than that, there is nothing wrong with it. But unfortunately, through the passing of time and under the constant pressure of Catholic-Protestant Church influence, the Church Building has become the ACTUAL House of God, the official location of Church-action and temple-function.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the Church Building is where most church members do their studying, teaching, praying, singing and giving. Of course, Church officers encourage all members to be practicing priests and active servants of God all week long wherever they are. And they continue to encourage this until members start doing TOO MUCH on their own, outside and away from the Church Building. Then Church officials get skeptical and clamp down. For deep down they (or we) cannot quite get away from the idea that the Church Building is the place where saints ought to do most of their service. We do not always say it like this. What we say is that Christians need to do all their service to God "through the Church." But practically speaking, "through the church" and "at the Church Building" mean the same thing. This kind of thinking was apparently unknown among the Christians of the New Testament. They had no permanent edifice around which to build their activities and programs. Therefore their spiritual energies were expended everywhere they were and everywhere they went. They were drawn to EACH OTHER by a common faith and a great hope, but they were not hemmed in physically, psychologically, or otherwise to one designated site. Their "faith" was free to go with them where they went. Should it not be so today?
In bringing these thoughts to a close it might be well to say what was said at the beginning. Church buildings are not sinful in or of themselves. They are wonderful conveniences, and as long as they are kept in that perspective no harm is done. But Church Buildings are NOT necessary. If they should all disappear from the earth the true faith of Jesus Christ would not be greatly injured. It might in some ways be helped. Without Church Buildings we would not have nearly as much to fuss over and divide about. The money savings would be tremendous. Without Church Buildings to put names on, the denominated Church systems of the world would be difficult to maintain. Without Church Buildings we would all be forced to relate our faith directly to God and one another, instead of to a place. After a few years of doing without this little convenience, we might arrive at a faith much simpler, much stronger, much nearer the truth than the one we now have so much trouble with. ║
[Note: This article, while very good, does not address the money problems arising from the building of a meeting house other than to mention a “building fund” and its great expense and how much would be saved without such a fund. There is however an issue of the ownership of such a building. Can the church, as a corporate whole, own anything? What did the first century church own? We know they rented buildings as places to meet and teach. We know that those individuals who owned a building would offer it as a place to meet, as did Pricilla and Aquila “and the church that is in their house.” Nor does the article deal with all the trouble with owning a building that we have namely, all the financial woes of trying to pay for it (did the early churches borrow money and have mortgages?) and who gets the building when the church disbands or is taken over by heretics who “disenfranchise” the original members. Can the church of God be disenfranchised?
There are institutions that are quiet large in the U.S. who have charters in small groups all over the country who do not own or use meeting houses, such as The Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts. They meet in homes, rented buildings or borrowed school facilities, just like the early Christians did.
Could it be that the early church thought of themselves more as a sect of the Synagogue and therefore did not see themselves as established enough to build a rival edifice? That would have been laying down quite a worldly challenge. Were they just keeping a low profile? Or might it be rather, that they thought of themselves as “Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, [in the audience of] an innumerable company of angels, the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven…” and as such did not need to own a building. Maybe they remembered what Jesus said about the place of worship in John 4:21. Can we be today as spiritual as they were? We should ask ourselves why we feel so insecure without a permanent building. WE are the building. ~LW]