On Tuesday I asked, where do churches come from? To which I answered, “Elaborate and decorated church buildings came from the time of Constantine. Functional church buildings came from a time prior—perhaps a century before.” I promised that today I would try to draw out some implications of this. Before we do this it may be wise to think about whether the early disciples would have built church buildings had they the opportunity.
Would the Early Church Have Built If Given a Chance?
To answer that question we will have to engage in some speculation as to why they did not build church buildings. Perhaps it was economic reasons. Or maybe it was because of their relatively small number. But that does not square well with history. There were indeed a decent number of believers living in Jerusalem shortly after Pentecost. Certainly, enough to necessitate a church building. And some of these (see Joseph of Arimathea) were quite wealthy. Yet, they chose to meet in the synagogues and houses instead of building a distinctly Christian building. Why?
My guess, and it is only a guess, is that they did not build a distinctly Christian building because they were not quite ready to “break with Judaism”. It is only after persecution that they were spread and subtly began to see the chasm between Christianity and Judaism .
But why did they not build exclusively Christian buildings (assuming they did not) in larger metropolitan areas where they were not yet persecuted? Perhaps it was for financial reasons. Perhaps it was for missional reasons or even social reasons. I doubt they were fundamentally against functional buildings designed exclusively for Christian worship. But, my guess is that the elaborate Constantine-type of buildings would have been appalling to the early disciples—but that is simply a guess.
Two Beliefs Driving the Early Church
I say this because there were two beliefs that seem to have driven the early church: A detachment from “this world” and a strong belief that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectation.
Because of their detachment from “this world” and belief that Jesus was coming any day building an elaborate dwelling place would seem foolish. They would soon be living in the New Jerusalem and all of their resources would be given to announcing the coming Kingdom.
Sojourners don’t build mansions.
Secondly, their strong belief that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament expectation would probably cause the early disciples to shy away from recreating the temple. In the Old Testament you went to a building to meet with God. But Jesus obliterated that. The curtain is torn. Jesus is our Immanuel. Temple worship is offensive to Jesus’ mission of rescuing a blood-bought community of redeemed believers. The temple was elaborate because it was a display of the greatness of the God that dwelled therein. God doesn’t live there anymore. The indwelling Spirit creating holiness and unity in diverse peoples is now the cosmic display of the manifold wisdom of God (see Eph. 3).
From Constantine to Church the Noun
Enter Constantine. He was concerned with creating a “this world” type of empire. Therefore, spending empire money on creating a place to worship was not foolish to him. Secondly, he was converted (which could be argued that he was not) out of paganism. The One that rescued Constantine was to be considered the superior God. You displayed that by building elaborate temples to show this.
Fast forward some 18 centuries and we have church buildings that might shame Constantine. Through the centuries the Church (now a noun) has labored to make all things bigger and better. One church recently began 130 million dollar renovation plan. Their justification for doing so?
As I look around downtown Dallas, I see spectacular temples of commerce, of culture and of government – many new, some restored to former glory, and all intended to stand for generations. The Kingdom of God needs a home to equal them – a spiritual oasis in the middle of downtown.” (HT: Ken Eastburn)
“The Kingdom of God needs a home to equal them”. No, it doesn’t. The Kingdom of God has within it a home that shames them, and it is not found in Dallas, Texas. It’s one thing to look at a 130 million dollar renovation plan and consider it extreme, but the average church has 40-60% of its budget sucked up in building and maintenance.
I am not against church buildings. Let me rephrase that, I am not against functional church buildings. I just do not buy the “Our God deserves the best” argument that I typically here to excuse elaborate expenses on church buildings. I agree that our God is absolutely awesome and deserves the absolute best from us. I just do not buy that “our absolute best” is a temple made with hands. Rather, I think it is lives marked with single-minded devotion.
Undoubtedly there are those leading churches with large buildings and those attending large churches that have a single-minded devotion. Just like Constantine I doubt very seriously that these believers intend to do anything wrong. And maybe they are not. But my heart breaks that our church buildings are state of the art while children starve to death and a large part of the world lives in the darkness of no gospel knowledge.
Maybe the Great Commission Resurgence should involve selling church property (like state of the art sound, lights, seats, etc.) to fund a missionary, support a family desiring to adopt, feed the hungry, or engage in other mercy ministries. I have said it once before and will say it again, something is wrong with this: