I speak often. I have the opportunity to speak in a public setting at least 4 times per week. Even so, I occasionally say something that I know I have never said before. (E.g. That’s it! Jesus is the astronaut!) Likewise there is one thing that I am certain the apostle Peter and the early disciples never said, “Grab the kids, honey, we are going to church”.
They never said this because to the early disciples you did not “go to church”. The early Christians met in synagogues until they were booted out. During this time they also met in homes and eventually these and the catacombs would be their only meeting place. For the first couple of centuries to “go to church” would have been unheard of. “Church” was not a noun. Maybe a verb. Maybe an adjective. Maybe an adverb. I am not so good at English usage. But what I do know is that church (ekklesia) was the word used to describe the gathering of believers.
I am typing this article from inside my church office which is housed inside the church building. Obviously, things have changed. But when? When and where did church buildings come from?
One school of thought is that represented by Felicity Dale:
The first time history indicates that believers met in buildings is in AD 321, when Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity but followed pagan tradition by building special temples for the Christians. A paid, professional clergy class arose. (Quoted from an Army of Ordinary People, p33).
There are many, especially those who advocate a simple/small/house church movement love to vilify the birth of church buildings. But is it that simple? Actually it is most likely that buildings used exclusively for Christian worship began to crop up before Constantine. The oldest known church building is the Dura-Europos, as Gonzalez explains:
“…as congregations grew, some houses were exclusively devoted to divine worship. Thus, the oldest Christian church, found in the excavations of Dura-Europos and built before AD 256, seems to have been a private dwelling that was converted into a church.
It is possible that there were a few exclusive Christian buildings that predate the Dura-Europos, but that is not essential to our discussion here. It is enough to say that during the third century (not fourth) Christians began creating/transforming buildings to be used exclusively for Christian worship.
There is, however, some credence to what Felicity Dale is saying. Church buildings were totally different from what they were in the century prior. As Gonzalez points out, “The churches built in the time of Constantine and his successors contrasted with the simplicity of churches such as that of Dura-Europos” (Gonzalez, 126).
So, to answer the original question: Elaborate and decorated church buildings came from the time of Constantine. Functional church buildings came from a time prior—perhaps a century before.
Now what are the implications of this…
Come back on Friday!