Should Believers own Church Buildings?

I’m going to use my last post as a springboard for the present one. There I discussed my understanding of New Testament offerings. Namely, that they were not commanded, nor were they given on any sort of consistent basis (The Corinthian and Galatian gift to Jerusalem notwithstanding). Rather, they gave “as any had need” (Acts 2:45).

This brings a major problem to the modern church: How are we going to pay for the building?

If we are going to have any such things, then we must have consistent income–something we never find in Scripture.

Here is where our system falls apart. It seems we have built our church buildings on the sand. Nay, we have built them out of sand. The fact that the early church only took up offerings for the poor, saints in need, and ministers (more on this in the next post) should cause us at least to ponder why we have poured so much into our buildings. I am not suggesting that buildings are sinful in and of themselves, but think about it. I have a sneaking feeling that some will read this and go on the offensive to argue for the legitimacy of their buildings. Why would we be so ferociously for something that has absolutely no foundation in Scripture?

First church building commissioned by Emperor Constantine

According to Viola and Barna in Pagan Christianity?:

“In the United States alone, real estate owned by institutional churches today is worth over $230 billion. Church building debt, service, and maintenance consumes about 18 percent of the $50 to $60 billion tithed to churches annually” (40).

Before I read PC I already had a bad taste in my mouth for the modern church building. I wasn’t against it. I simply had a hard time justifying it in my mind. After reading the actual dollar amounts my jaw dropped. Is that good stewardship of God’s money? Is that flowing out of the principles of giving laid out in the New Testament? I submit that it is not.

I’ve read arguments about how the church building is a “city on a hill”–that we need public places where all can see where we are and be welcomed there. However, such an argument is based on modern public relations theory rather than NT principles. The early church had no buildings and yet they were well known and for a time were even well respected in their communities. The Lord even added to their number daily (Acts 2:47). The argument that having buildings draws people to church simply doesn’t hold up. Actually, the American church is shrinking. According to the Barna research group, “nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.”

Don’t misread me. I’m not saying that teenagers leave because we have church buildings. I am merely saying that church buildings do not advance the Kingdom of God. If it isn’t advancing the Kingdom, we need to find out if it is inhibiting the Kingdom–a question to which we will now turn.

We need to continuously question and critique our practices and beliefs to see whether they are actually founded on biblical principles and are working for the good of the Kingdom. We should not be afraid to assign such tests to our buildings. I understand that it is a scary thing to do. As the Barna study reveals, we have invested untold amounts of time, energy and money on such structures. To go as far as simply questioning the spiritual validity of our buildings is to embrace the possibility (not actuality) that we have not been wise stewards. I challenge you, however, to be bold enough to ask the questions, search the Word, and be open to the possibility that we have been wrong. Questioning will only cause you to search for the truth, and truth is freeing.

Is it “biblical?” (Let me say, when I use the word biblical, I mean very specifically: Do we find this in the Bible?) The answer is no. We find no instances of church’s owning buildings until the time of Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD. Constantine is known for recognizing and endorsing Christianity as a legitimate religion. During his reign he sanctioned the building of structures in which Christians could worship. He commissioned architects to build the Christian buildings after the model of the Roman Basilica. “Basilica” stems from the Greek word, basileus, which means “king.” Thus, a basilica is the tribunal chamber of a king from which he would distribute his judgments and decrees. Constantine then set up church leaders in political seats and sanctioned taxes which went to supporting the Christian Church. In return, Constantine gained support of the growing Christian community. As we can see here, the church building was birthed out of a very corrupt relationship.

Since that time a distinct class of Christians emerged called clergy.  As the king sat in his judgment seat, the clergy sat in their seats and distributed their words. As a result, the Body of Christ became paraplegic. These men became the prominent, exclusive ministers of the church. Now, the ministry of the church is placed on the shoulders of a few or even one man. The body sits passively in their seats as the “ministers” direct them. Most of the “ministry” that is delegated to the membership includes such things as ushering or door-greeting. This is in direct contrast to the church meeting we find in the New Testament in which “each one brings a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” –where we stir up one another to love and good works and encourage one another. In all, there are 58 “one-another” exhortations for the church. The arrangement of the modern church building does not allow for it. In the modern structure one person does the teaching; one person brings the songs. If anyone wants to speak in a tongue, interpret, bring a revelation, encourage, exhort, uplift, etc it must be done during the “shaking hands time” or in a setting completely away from the gathering.

Moreover, the modern church building encourages an isolationist mindset. Churches are notorious for removing themselves from society, creating their own “Christian” versions of things (i.e. Christian bookstores, coffee shops, clothing lines, sports teams, etc.). This removes the Christian’s sense of responsibility and calling to be a missionary in the world. How can they be involved with their neighbors if they are at the church building every night of the week?

The New Testament shows us that the church met in homes. Again, don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I am not suggesting that Christians should only meet in homes. We have evidence that believers met in many different places. They even rented places on occasion when large groups came together. I am suggesting, however, that the modern church building is founded and shaped on principles that are foreign and contrary to those in Scripture. In chapter 4 of Reimagining Church, Frank Viola gives a beautiful and insightful picture of how the home fosters an atmosphere in which true, scriptural “one-anothering” can take place. While the home is not the only place this can happen, I do believe that the modern church building is a place where it, indeed, cannot happen.

Before you comment and tell me about how your church is nothing like this, let me say one last thing. I am fully aware that not all churches have passive members–in some churches many of the members are using their gifts and building up one another. That said, please do not take my statement on buildings as an attack against your church. My argument is simply that the modern church building does not foster the sort of gathering we find in the pages of the New Testament.

What are your thoughts on the church building? Do you think that the modern church building fosters an atmosphere of mutual ministry found in Scripture? What are you thoughts on the amount of money American Christians put toward their buildings? Do you think that is good stewardship? 

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10 responses to “Should Believers own Church Buildings?

  1. Mike,

    If you read my post you will see that I have several points other than the fact that it is not found in Scripture. I do not in any way argue that we cannot do ANYTHING unless it is in the Bible. So, you have missed my point and your argument about blogging is moot.

    “When someone says they aren’t trying to rant about the church it is a good indication that they are about to rant.” This is fallacious and unhelpful.

    I just recently finished serving as the youth minister of a traditional church.

    • Tylor,
      I have been reading your series while I am in Dubai, and I have to say, I am lovin it. I dont have a lot of knowledgeable things to say haha, but I love the search for making our churches more about the church…. Which is us! I have been meeting a lot of believers here who live in countries that oppress Christians. It’s so refreshing to hear people talk about sharing the love of Christ as their main goal rather than consuming themselves in religious “duty.” Like you, I’m not hating on the church, I’m just looking for truth! Keep it coming!

  2. Good thoughts. Couple of things to consider:

    The Christians of the first century are essentially Jewish, including Paul and co. They still saw the synogogues or the temple in Jerusalem as a special place to gather to worship God. Especially interesting here is the second temple which was financed by the Roman Empire (Herod). Further, the Jews had a temple or tabernacle as a central gathering spot for worship/sacrifices, etc. These were not seen as ‘furthering the kingdom’ though they were open to all peoples (with a few exceptions).

    After the massacre in AD70, Jewish and Christian persecution was severe (on and off with each emperor). I’d argue that buying property wasn’t an option as setting up a Christian/Jewish temple would be seen as treason to the Emperor cult. I’d also argue most of the early Christians were slaves, women, and the poor. Owning property was not within their means (for the most part, mind you) nor would it even be a viable option. I think that is the reason it is not ‘biblical’ in the same way that many of our current issues (technology, etc) are not ‘biblical.’ Though, of course, the OT is very thorough on the matter of owning land.

    As soon as Christianity was able, Christian synagogues were built and, as you said, they were called basilicas. I think you lean too far towards the root fallacy in your argument. The name basillica is based mainly on the architecture model, not that it is the seat of a king. In fact, during the Roman Empire, the word basillica (which is Greek in origin) may have just been carried over since Latin would be the language of choice. At that point, basillicas were used in courts of law, market places, and other meeting halls. Quick note: I don’t think it’s fair to say that Christians endorsed Constantine because he financed basillicas. Herod the Great built the 2nd Temple and Jews (and consequently Christians) hated him. I think that, at that point, Christians were just happy to be able to worship freely, but it wasn’t as cut and dry as it seems at first glace.

    That leads into my next question. What do we do then with Christian art? Should we consider art (and buildings, architecture, etc) something the church should be engaging in, even if it is quite expensive (though I think 18% of the entire budget is pretty slim to be honest).

    I’ll answer the rest later. I’m hungry. Good thoughts though, I think you’re heading in the right direction (one I have pondered, but couldn’t express it as eloquently as you nor as well researched).

    Peace,

    Sam

    • Sam,
      Would you say that believers simply used the Synagogues and Temple for worship? It seems to me that they were used, by Paul in particular, for evangelistic purposes. He reasoned with them for a while and then, if they rejected Jesus as the Christ, he shook the dust off and went to the Gentiles. But, I may have missed where other believers used it for worship—in which case I’m completely open to correction. (Question: were pagans allowed in the Synagogue?)

      I definitely agree that the first believers’ social status played into their inability to afford property. However, as I stated, neither Jesus nor the Apostles set up any sort of system of regular offering and what they do mention is offerings for those in need. If people want to build a building on top of doing those things, I suppose that’s fine. But, my observation is that churches go deep into debt and the regular offering is taught as a commandment and it is mostly used to pay for things which aren’t really helping people (e.g. buildings, maintenance, supplies, staff, vehicles, denominations, programs, etc).

      I realize my statements on Constantine might not be developed enough, but I didn’t say that the church endorsed him only because he built basilicas. He legitimized it as a religion and made them free to worship, which is definitely a good thing. But, I don’t think it was good that he sanctioned the buildings for several reasons. Two being: 1) he taxed the empire for it and 2) he set up a pagan structure of hierarchy and “sacred” places/people/objects.

      I will definitely have to go back and study more on the basilica after reading your comments. Though, I would say that the specific structure is one of the main problems I have with the church building. It prevents the kind of mutual ministry which Jesus and the Apostles set up.

      As far as your last question, I’m not really sure why that is an issue. Why should we have “Christian art” as opposed to “non-Christian art”? If a believer makes art which glorifies God, I think that it should be intermingled with other art. In terms of buildings and architecture: if we already have it, do the best we can to use it in a way that promotes mutual ministry, use it for a homeless shelter/food bank, or even sell/give it to be used for the community.

      A final note: I realize that I am treading a fine line. I don’t want to call church buildings inherently wrong or say that we should get rid of them. But, I think that the evidence shows, in general, they are a hindrance to the purpose of the church gathering and to the mission of the church. Whether a church needs to use it or lose it is up to them as they follow the Spirit.

      • The distance between your points and the conclusions you draw is vast. To say that because there were no buildings then, they are ineffective now. You contradict your thinking by posting on a blog. You are using aaaa communications technique foreign to the Bible to propagate your beliefs. I wonder if your thoughts might be less dogmatic, and more effective in challenging the church, in a dialoging format rather than here, in a competing monologue format? When someone says they aren’t trying to rant about the church it is a good indication that they are about to rant. What does the church/fellowship look like that you currently find yourself a part of?

      • I would think that they used the temple primarily for worship, including preaching and teaching. They were there essentially everyday (Acts 2:42) instead of just on the Sabbath as we see else where (eg., Luke 4:16ff). They worship service would be vaguely similar to Catholic services today, with highly ritualistic actions coupled with singing, Scripture readings, and prayer (see especially Justin Martyr’s works). I think that Paul was driven from the synagogues during the teachings section of the service. Paul’s indictment on the Jews (to which he still preached, just not exclusively any longer) was not an indictment on the building of the synagogue nor was the meeting in homes.

        Re: Constantine. There was always a religious tax, so it was just carried over into Christianity instead of the Emperor cult/Greco-Roman mythology. But yes, this gave Christians more power and money, and it corrupted. There was also the push back from the desert fathers during this time of opulence.

        Ignasius of Antioch (d. AD107) actually writes of a hierarchy centuries before Constantine. Read chs. 1, 4-6 of his epistle to the Ephesians (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0104.htm). He writes of submission to the bishop as submission to God.

        My reason for bringing up art was not to make a dichotomy between Christian art and non-Christian art. It was to see if you think things/objects should be “used” for a scientifically observable purpose (housing, shelter, worship) or “used” for a non-scientifically observable purpose (meditation, silent retreats, reflection). I’d be careful to say that one is more important than the other.

        Have you read Eugene Peterson’s “The Pastor”? I highly recommend it. He talks about shifting from a house church to a church building and all the mess that entails. He also built his church purposefully for fellowship (see here http://www.christourking.net/).

        Good follow up, appreciate this series! Keep up the good work.

        • I agree that Paul’s indictment was on the Jews rather than the building, but I still think he used the buildings specifically for evangelistic purposes. Once those purposes were finished, he moved on. As far as the temple goes, it was a free public place where they could meet. But, it was obsolete as far as its original purposes go. I have no problem with churches meeting in places other than homes. I just think that owning one, especially in the structure we have today, is unnecessary and often a hindrance to the kind of gathering we find in Scripture.

          I only read a little bit of Justin Martyr. What I read didn’t seem very Catholic to me–it just seemed set to a specific plan. More importantly, what we find in Scripture is very far from Catholic. To my understanding, much of the Catholic rituals are adaptations from pagan cultic rituals. I do see creeds, songs, and different rituals in the early church, but (as I talk about in my post on the function of pastors) the church as a whole was responsible for teaching, singing, reading, prayer, etc. And there was no priestly class as in the Catholic church.

          This may be better fit for discussion in the other posts, but I don’t have a problem with submission to the pastor (though, “submission” is a debated word). I do think that Ignatius takes it too far to equate one’s submission to the elder as to God.

          • I guess I just don’t see how synagogues (church buildings) were considered obsolete in the NT times. I’ll keep at it though.

            On Justin Martyr: I’m not sure what you read, but I was referring to his first apology (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm) specifically the last 4 chapters. His description of a president is very similar to a pastor/priest (blessing the sacraments). The ritual of reading scripture in every service is a huge deal in Catholic services (Scripture lessons). That, the president, and the weekly communion is what I was referring to by Catholic.

            Ignatius does go too far, but my point is that hierarchies existed just a few years after the death of John the Apostle. We have to take that into consideration when wrestling with what the Bible says about church structure. They’d be some of the first people to do it.

            I’ll move forward since I’m like 3 posts behind and start commenting on the newer posts now.

  3. This post started out as two or three lines. But anyone who knows me knows I can hardly close my mouth once I start thinking. Its getting me to think that’s the trick.

    I believe there are certain things about the modern church building that needs to change. Often the chairs become sacred, a room becomes holy, or even a spot on the pew can become the point of a small spat. I am being facetious of course, but we can be that petty. I don’t think however that we should look down on the benefit of a building. It’s practical to have a church community that meets in homes or other places until children come along. Once ministry to children becomes apart of the church community (as it should), putting everyone in multiple homes or locations becomes a burden and too impractical. I guess my point is, when you start to disciple your own people as a minister and those people have children, you have to place the children somewhere.

    I understand that many churches are also choosing not to separate their children’s and youth ministries from their adult ministries. They choose to train fathers and mothers to disciple their youth, without the need of a church building. I applaude these churches for their focus on training parents to train their youth. Students need more adults of faith and practice in their lives than that strategy provides though. Most of the time, the mother and father are separated, or one is a believer and the other is apathetic towards Christ, or sometimes, the only person of faith in the household is the child. When you come across a situation where the parents have no need for faith, where then do you take the children, the youth, or the high school grad who has no familial connection to the church? Fewer and fewer families come to the christian community as a complete unit. So where do we take the students who have no church group in a home?

    Its less of a “the bible tells me so” issue for me. The building is what makes my ministry practical and possible for many students whose parents have no mind for biblical structure of church organization and construction. If you ask me if giving for a building is a worthwhile endeavor, my answer is an emphatic yes. If you say that buildings do not advance the Kingdom of God, I would say, you haven’t been to our building, as many other communities would say. My church isn’t perfect. We can be inefficient in our soul purposes of loving God, his people and making disciples at times. There have been many experiences in every church I have been a part of that have made me ask the same questions you are asking now. Just ask any minister in and SBC church if petty non-biblical distractions come up (they absolutely do). What you say is true about many churches (some are no benefit to their community sadly), but arguing the absolute inefficiency of all church buildings and practices within is incorrect.

    In about your eighth paragraph you began to discuss the problem of having a single or a few prominent ministers in the church. Attributing the unscriptural in-church monarchy over biblical exhortation and worship practices to the church building is erroneous as well. Why can’t a church building be beneficial to the community in that way? That’s less of a problem with a building and more of a problem that comes from the culture within the church. The culture within church buildings has changed thousands of times. Why could it not be changed now? Let’s continue to talk about the problems of the modern church building. Let’s also talk of the future church building and it’s culture. What does the building look like? What is the buildings purpose? How can we use the building to further the Kingdom of God? I doubt the answer is that we cannot use it for the Kingdom. We may have to change some policies and upset a few folks, but just because the culture inside has soured, does not mean that we should abandon the building.

    The church building that my mother-in-law attends worship in is used on Sunday Mornings for worship and discipleship and Wednesdays to gather for prayer. Every other time they meet during the week is in the homes of the members. They have “Family Groups”. When bringing in new members to the community, the members first invite guests into the family group. After that the guest is invited to attend corporate worship. The individual family groups design missions, outreach, and public assistance on their own. They stick to an amount of work that is practical efficient enough for their group to remain missional, but they never forget that they are a part of a larger cooperate discipleship community that meets in building. They have a pastor and other clergy who keep things running and continue to minister to every family group and other individuals. When everyone comes together, they organize for much larger mission and discipleship efforts. Maybe that’s what the future looks like. Im not saying that there’s nothing to change about our buildings or what we do in them, but I am saying don’t throw out the babe with the bathwater.

    • Chase, thanks for the comment!

      I just have a few thoughts in response. Hopefully they are coherent.

      1) Your main concern seems to be with the issue of youth/children. However, it seems like you knew how I might respond :). I see the separation of children from parents as one of the most destructive things a church could do. As for youth/children without believing or involved parents, Paul told the older people to be their spiritual parents. Also, see my point about how young people are actually leaving the church. I’d say that this separation is largely why (and the modern church building set-up encourages that separation).

      2) I never argued that the church building is “absolutely inefficient,” and I never said that we need to get rid of them. If you see how I constructed my argument, I never even answered the question posed in the title. I do, however, argue that the modern church structure is completely inefficient. The NT church was open and participatory in nature. Each person was to teach, sing, speak in a tongue, interpret, encourage, exhort, etc. The modern church structure makes that impossible because everyone is forced to watch a handful of people on stage. The only contact they have with other members during the meeting is with the backs of their heads. In that sense, I would not say that the church building is “erroneous” to the monarchical/oligarchic nature of the modern church—it actually denies the mutual ministry which the New Testament sets for the church. You suggest changes in the arrangement of the inside. I certainly wouldn’t be against that!

      3) I would add, however, as I stated at the beginning and in my last post, regular giving is not found anywhere in the NT. In order to build buildings, pastors have to press their people for money—money which goes toward buildings…which are also not found in the NT. I would say that it is merely a distraction. It takes monumental amounts of money which could be spent on things we are actually told to do and it stifles mutual ministry (the only buildings I know of which are structured in a way to encourage mutual ministry are those of the Plymouth Brethren or Quakers; even in that case I don’t know why there’s a need to use money on a building when a home can be used).

      4) Based on all of this (and more), I would say that the modern church building is actually not as practical as we think they are. The main thing I see from them as far as efficiency is their ability to cater to very large audiences. But, I will address this in another post. 🙂

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