Status Quo: The Building

Recently we have begun a brief blog series looking at what might best be summarized as the general evangelical response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. While some states are starting to get back to business, it will still be important for us in the coming months to ask ourselves personally, professionally, and pastorally what have we learned. Recall that this series began with our initial observation of how the virus left us exposed, most notably within churches that were left scrambling with how to respond, then included a call for repentance as the only proper response to God’s judgment, and finally proceeded to critique the general desire of evangelicalism to maintain the status quo. We borrowed this little phrase as it is applied to the modern church from the venerable Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as he wrote the following, “We are so influenced by the need to maintain the status quo that we start with that rather than with the scriptural teaching.” Our aim in this series is to start with the Scriptures, rather than assuming the status quo. This brings us to the first of our three questions, particularly in light of the response to the present crisis: Is the church building necessary? Primarily, we are asking this question because when the building was “taken away” the gatherings effectively ceased. Furthermore, the sentiment among many has been a longing to return to the building. Some temporary means, such as broadcasting services from the building or preaching to cars in the parking lot have let us know that the building still plays a central role in the life of modern evangelicalism, but with this crisis, perhaps we should begin to ask the question of necessity. Turning to our passages from the Book of Acts, which we outlined last time, we may make several interesting observations. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the lack of church buildings. As we’ve pointed out in several posts on the meaning of ekklesia, in the Scriptures it never refers to a building. However, that doesn’t mean that the people of God never made use of physical structures, quite the contrary. We know that our Lord made use of the upper room during His last supper with His disciples. Seemingly they returned to this room, or one like it, after the ascension of our Lord, as we read in Acts 1:13, which we might consider as the first Christian gathering (after Christ’s death). Furthermore, we see our Lord’s earthly ministry revolving around the Temple and the synagogue, as He focused on the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

In Acts 2:42-47, we find in a classic summary statement that those who had believed the gospel and repented of sins were, “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” Here we see that both the temple and homes remained significant. Perhaps naturally the temple’s prominence in Jewish life did not evaporate immediately with the death of Christ, rather there was a significant 40-year period of relevance until its destruction in 70 A.D. While we have no record of the disciples or those to whom they had witnessed attending the temple to perform sacrifices or continue in the Old Covenant ceremonial practices there, we do see affirmation of them attending the temple, as in our verse from Acts 2. We may be reminded that the temple at this point was a massive complex drawing people to her courts, porticoes, and shops daily. Much more went on there than just sacrifices. In the very next passage of Acts, we find Peter and John on their way to the temple at the hour of prayer (3 p.m.).

Author David Peterson, in his book Engaging with God: a Biblical Theology of Worship, has an entire chapter dedicated to “The Temple and community in the Acts of the Apostles.” There he writes the following
The Acts of the Apostles continues to portray the temple as a place of revelation. Most obviously, the disciples met regularly in the temple courts to teach and encourage one another (Acts 2:46; 5:12) and to give public testimony to the gospel about Jesus (3:11-26; 4:2; 5:42). This was not simply for the practical reason that the temple was a place where crowds could be easily addressed, but because the disciples, like their master, wanted to take the word of salvation to the centre of Judaism itself.

EWG p. 138
Furthermore, Peterson writes
The temple also remained for a while a place of public prayer for Christians. As well as meeting ‘house to house’, where they ate together and praised God as the community of the Messiah (2:46-47), the earliest Christians apparently went up to the temple at the set hours of prayer (3:1), continuing their association with the traditional practices of their religion (cf. also 21:20-26; 22:17-21). Since the ‘ninth hour’ (RSV 3 p.m.) was the time of the afternoon sacrifice, the most natural way to read Acts 3:1 is to suppose the disciples participated in the prayers associated with the burnt offering and incense at that time (cf. Ex. 29:38-43).
In the book of Acts, there is an interesting emphasis on the temple in the opening chapters, highlighted as we have seen through the summary statement in chapter 2. However, that emphasis seemingly shifts in chapter 7 through the speech of Stephen which led to his death by stoning. After his death, the transition from Jerusalem to the outlying areas and gentile regions becomes more apparent. Significant for our purposes here are the words which Stephen spoke out against the Jewish attitude towards the temple
44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
    or what is the place of my rest?
50 Did not my hand make all these things?’ Acts 7:44-50
As it relates to the “church building” we could try to draw parallels between the temple of the Old Covenant and the church buildings used by God’s people of the New Covenant, however, the Scriptures inform us that the typological relationship from Old to New here is not of physical structures rather, the temple of Old finds its greater object in the person of Christ (Matthew 12:6-8; John 2:19; Rev. 21:22). Furthermore, we find the temple is the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within each individual believer (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16) as well as believers collectively (Eph. 2:21). Even if we ignored those distinctions, we would still be left we the reality that temple going was only one part of the first century believers equation, and even then only until its destruction in 70 A.D., as we also bear in mind that they continued to meet in one another’s houses. Historian Phillip Schaff comments
Although, as the omnipresent Spirit, God may be worshipped in all places of the universe, which is his temple, yet our finite, sensuous nature, and the need of united devotion, require special localities or sanctuaries consecrated to his worship. The first Christians, after the example of the Lord, frequented the temple at Jerusalem and the synagogues, so long as their relation to the Mosaic economy allowed. But besides this, they assembled also from the first in private houses, especially for the communion and the love feast. The church itself was founded, on the day of Pentecost, in the upper room of an humble dwelling. Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, vol. 1 p. 396
Should we quibble with Schaff’s statement on the church foundation at Pentecost we might well conclude that the first church of Christ, the twelve, met with him on boats, mountainsides, gardens, beaches, synagogues, temples, etc. Moving out of the Mosaic Economy, as noted in the quotation, and into Christianity resulted in gathering in believers homes. As we continue our brief survey of Acts we note that believers did meet in one another’s houses, but also there is evidence of meeting along a riverside and a beach. By in large, other Scriptures testify to the widespread use of houses as meeting places for believers (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 1:2).

Does this therefore mean that house churches are the prescribed location for believers to gather?

No. It is certainly an option, but the principle here for us to observe is that New Covenant believers are not confined to 1. a specific religious building 2. any specific location. Instead, where believers are gathered together – anywhere – in the name of Christ, the temple of God is present, the dwelling of the Spirit resides, and our Lord has promised his own presence as well. This was the point of Jesus’ statement to the Samaritan woman, “Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” John 4:21 Again, Phillip Schaff is informative regarding the early Christian perspective on church buildings
That the Christians in the apostolic age erected special houses of worship is out of the question, even on account of their persecution by Jews and Gentiles, to say nothing of their general poverty; and the transition of a whole synagogue to the new faith was no doubt very rare. As the Saviour of the world was born in a stable, and ascended to heaven from a mountain, so his apostles and their successors down to the third century, preached in the streets, the markets, on mountains, in ships, sepulchres, eaves, and deserts, and in the homes of their converts. But how many thousands of costly churches and chapels have since been built and are constantly being built in all parts of the world to the honor of the crucified Redeemer, who in the days of his humiliation had no place of his own to rest his head! Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, p. 396
Returning to our original question, “Is the church building necessary?” we must conclude that the early church, including our Lord during His earthly ministry and His disciples after His ascension did not think so. They did not confine themselves to buildings nor did they see the necessity of constructing such massive structures. Church buildings often confine believers to a specific location. Because of this we are dependent upon the building in order to conduct “worship”. As we have seen through this pandemic, owning a church building doesn’t guarantee anything. The state can close their doors, fine those who show up to them, and even in the case of NYC, threaten to close the buildings permanently. In this way, property ownership by the ‘church’ necessarily puts it in a relationship with the state – a subordinate one at that, which as we’ve seen can turn ugly fast. We can literally be left overnight with an expensive, empty building. There are other hindrances which we do not have time to flesh out, but they include “out there/in here” mindset (“Come see!”, as with the temple), major financial implications, and the symbol of status.
The pandemic had and still has the potential to be very detrimental to church buildings. It has exposed us to the reality that our dependence on the building has meant that without it, we have no place to gather. However, as we have seen, was that a hindrance to the early church? Perhaps this recent crisis could serve as an opportunity to review our status quo as ‘church’ landholders and property owners and cause us to reflect upon Scriptures to find out if buildings are truly necessary and even more pointedly if possession of them is wise.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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