Today in most parts of the world where the Church of Jesus Christ has been established we see extensive use of buildings and facilities where believers gather and ministry is conducted. At times they can be quite large and impressive, and can prove to be a great blessing for believers. Nevertheless it would behoove us to examine the Bible to determine whether or not such an approach is scriptural. If not, we want to know exactly what approach is taught in the New Testament. The scriptural approach may be more fruitful and pleasing to God.
The Old Testament
The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was indeed the center of the worship of the God of Israel in the Old Testament. The Temple, in which the Ark of the Covenant stood, was a physical house for the name of the Lord (2 Samuel 7:13). But this would change dramatically with the advent of the Messiah Jesus Christ.
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. …A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)
According to Jesus, a time would come when worship of the Lord would no longer be centered at the physical Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, true worshipers would worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. In 70 AD, the Temple was in fact destroyed when Jerusalem was leveled under the Roman General Titus. Something else would take the place of the Temple for the worship of God. Jesus provided further clarification of this when in reference to his body he said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). The dwelling place of God would no longer be a physical building, but the body of Jesus Christ.
The temple of God is now the body of Christ
The body of Christ is now of course the Church on earth. He is present when two or three are gathered in his name to worship and serve the Father. We believers are now the temple of God on earth, and He lives in our midst.
1 Corinthians 3:16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?
Thus we do not see in the New Testament Church any important role for buildings as we see today. The word for “church” in the Greek is ekklesia, and means an assembly of called-out ones or believers. It has little to do with church buildings which figure so prominently today in Christianity. They are simply not present in the New Testament. The closest we see to this is in Acts 8 where the believers met in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The big congregation there was eventually scattered following the persecution which broke out against the believers after Stephen was killed. The persecution was allowed by God. Interestingly, the scattered believers took the gospel with them as they fled Jerusalem. Philip brought the gospel to Samaria. Others traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word among the Jews (Acts 11:19). Some scholars have taught that God allowed the persecution to force the believers out of their comfort zone in the big Temple in Jerusalem to take the gospel to “Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
We are to build up the body of Christ, not church buildings
In the New Testament, house churches were the norm. Believers would worship God and be taught the Word of God in meetings which took place in homes. Why is it that buildings and facilities have come to take on an indispensable role in the Church almost throughout the world today?
Man always wants to build something physically visible—it is a reflection and measure of his earthly “success.” The first reference to man building something was Noah’s Ark which of course was commanded by God for the salvation of Noah and his family (Gen 6:15). But the very second instance was the tower of Babel and the city around it where many could gather together.
Genesis 11:4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The LORD later did scatter them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Interesting, the Lord also allowed the believers who met in the Jerusalem Temple to be scattered all over the region. Is it possible that there are ministers who want to make a name for themselves for the glory of God by gathering a big flock in a big facility?
Zeal without knowledge
We may have much zeal for the Lord and for the kingdom of God. But when we lack knowledge we will fall short of God’s perfect plan for us. A servant of God who is called to be a pastor will almost certainly want to have a facility of some kind where his congregation can meet to worship God and be taught. This certainly makes sense on a human level. In western countries there is a measure of freedom whereby a congregation can acquire such a facility. Unfortunately, however, “freedom” is not always good for the Church. From history we might reasonably conclude that the Church thrives best when she is under persecution. It was only after being scattered from Jerusalem by the persecution in Acts 8 that the disciples began to fulfill the Great Commission. But with “freedom” comes economic prosperity. With material prosperity comes inevitable lukewarmness and backsliding in the Church, followed by God’s discipline. The history of Israel in the Old Testament should speak loudly to the Church about the painful cost of freedom and prosperity. Freedom, it turns out, is not free.
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: …I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Rev 3:14-17)
This is the danger faced by the Church in western countries where there is “freedom.” Freedom brings prosperity. Prosperity enables congregations to erect expensive buildings where they can worship God. Unfortunately the building of such impressive physical structures can signal the institutionalization of the Church after the pattern of the world. After that in time can come spiritual stagnation and barrenness.
The Church should rather be nearly invisible in terms of physical structures. We are not to parallel human institutions on earth nearly all of which demand the presence of a physical building and official organization along with its manmade rules. The Church should instead consist of very visible disciples of Jesus Christ who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Not this way from the beginning
The western model in which physical facilities play such an essential role for the Church is not God’s perfect plan. Nevertheless, He obviously allows them and uses them. But not everything God permits is His best for us.
Matthew 19:8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.
The prevalence of and tendency toward physical church facilities we see throughout Christendom “was not this way from the beginning.”
The urge to return to the Old Testament: man’s desire for religion?
We see a tendency for some New Testament believers to want to return to the Old Testament. In the time of Paul, we see a group of believers wanting gentile converts to be circumcised—a return to the Old Testament. Paul wrote Galatians to refute them. Today we see some groups wanting to celebrate Jewish Festivals, blowing the shofar, and so forth. They say that the Lord’s correct name is “Yeshua” following the Hebrew and not “Jesus” as we say in English. We might even dare to include the popularity of Christian pilgrimages to the “Holy Land” of Israel, the land of the Old Testament and less so the New Testament. (No where in New Testament scripture are believers commanded or encouraged to visit Israel as Muslims are to visit their Holy City of Mecca.) And we see the Church returning to the Old Testament model of localizing the presence and worship of God in a particular physical building set aside for that purpose.
Although we are well aware that it is due to the presence of worshiping believers that the Holy God is present in our midst, we nevertheless feel that the church building where we gather is somehow a holy house of worship.
Some well-meaning pastors even call their church buildings a “house of prayer”—following Jesus’ reference to the Temple in Matthew 21:13. However, the Temple no longer exists, having been replaced by the body of Christ. This is zeal without knowledge. Why do we have such an urge to return to the Old Testament?
Could it be that human beings having a physical body and living in the physical world containing physical objects have difficulty adjusting to the things of the Spirit? “…The true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
But this is difficult for human beings. They feel much more comfortable and secure having some location or actual object with which they can associate deity or supernatural power which can help or bless them. Thus we see the prevalence of not only formal places set aside for worship, but also of “holy” cities and objects associated with the various religions of the world—the city of Mecca, Varanasi in India, representations of Hindu gods, Buddhas, charms, fetishes, crucifixes and statues of saints, and so forth. Would it be unreasonable to include the “Holy Land” of Israel on this list?
Physical houses of worship
Every religion under heaven has its own very distinctive houses of worship. Hindu temples are adorned with gods, whether the elephant god Ganesh or the goddess of destruction Cali (one with many arms), to name just two of many. Chinese Buddhist temples have long colorful serpents with the head of a dragon writhing on poles and slithering on their walls and rooftops. Mosques in Muslim countries are unmistakable with distinctive onion-shaped domes capping the house where their Allah is worshipped. And many who pass by historic Catholic cathedrals in Europe cannot help but be impressed by their grandeur.
Should Christian churches also be included in this category? Is the gospel of Jesus Christ on the same level as those religions—simply competing against them? Definitely not. But when we turn back to the Old Testament, we are returning to what amounts to a religion (albeit a valid one) with all its varied outward forms and ceremonies. We are forsaking the reality and returning to a mere shadow (Colossians 2:17). The use of specially consecrated buildings set aside for worshiping and serving the Lord can be seen as a return in the direction of the Old Testament.
In some countries church buildings can actually be an impediment
In some Muslim countries, church buildings are the symbol of Christianity. Seeing them can stir up hate toward what is for them a contemptible foreign religion. Thus church buildings are a favorite and convenient target for expressing that hate through the use of violence. In some Catholic countries, a sign outside a church building identifying it as evangelical is a stumbling block for Catholics who may otherwise want to come to the Lord. In some countries, church buildings symbolizing a religion which competes with local beliefs may actually be an impediment to the gospel. Church buildings do not save the lost. Rather trained disciples save the lost by sharing the gospel with them.
In post-Christian western countries, some empty church buildings have been sold and used conveniently as mosques and Buddhist temples.
As young missionaries in Indonesia back in the 1980s, we planted a church in a very challenging, unreached area of West Borneo. The Lord greatly blessed the work of our hands, and eventually we bought the largest building in town—an empty movie theater up for sale—planning to convert it into a church facility. But the townspeople rose up in hateful protest against us. The matter eventually brought a high-ranking state official down to conduct a public meeting where we were rebuked and put down in front of the townspeople. It was the spark that resulted in our eventual expulsion from Indonesia as persona non grata in 1987. Needless to say, it was a difficult trial for us.
Looking back now, I realize that it was not wise to confront the hostile townspeople by attempting to set up a church facility downtown directly in their faces. Instead of trying to make a “big splash”, it would have been wisdom to continue to make disciples quietly and multiply house churches and cell groups throughout the community.
Countless must be the stories of pastors, not only on the mission field but even at home in the west, who have undergone painful trials trying to build or secure a physical facility to house their congregations. Is this suffering really necessary? Is it really for the sake of the gospel—or could there be an element of pride involved, or at least a lack of wisdom?
Even some of those who have succeeded in building a facility now face the prospect of paying the bills to maintain the facility which is used only twice a week in many churches. This can test the motivation of any servant of God. Are we looking to bring the souls to church solely for the sake of the gospel, or because we also need help to pay the light bill each month and so stay in business?
Tough economic times today have resulted in difficult times for churches with heavy debts due to their building programs. Some churches can no longer meet the payments and their buildings have gone into foreclosure. Ironically the people may now be meeting in homes—as we see in the New Testament.
Of course, there are congregations around the world today owning physical facilities which continue to thrive. May the Lord continue to bless the growth and ministry of such congregations for the sake of the gospel.
What should we then do?
This article of course is certainly not a call to shutter our church buildings. Too many resources have been invested in them. They of course are not necessarily evil, and can and have resulted in benefits for the gospel of the kingdom of God. It can be a thrill for a servant of God to minister before a large assembly of believers. But church buildings may not be God’s perfect plan for the Church. Instead, let this article be food for thought, especially for those who want to start out in ministry. In a communist country, a “church” can have thousands of people without owning or using a large physical facility. They meet instead in homes and other improvised spaces where there can be Acts-style community and fellowship. In Vietnam some meetings are held on river boats. It is not necessary to follow the traditional western model in which ministry is centered in a building. Dare we not instead follow the model found in the New Testament and trust God to make us produce fruit that really lasts? Will not the Church be better prepared for the hard times which may come—whether through outright persecution or loss of income or other difficulties?
A telling story from China
In China where the underground “house church” model has appeared to be very fruitful, there is the story of one thriving house church which decided to follow the western model by building a huge facility capable of seating up to 50,000 people. The communist authorities eventually shut down the facility using hundreds of police and armed thugs in a blatant show of force and violence.
Quoting from the report in the Daily Mail Online based in the UK, “House churches have been around for decades, but their growth has accelerated in recent decades, producing larger and larger congregations that are far more conspicuous than the small groups of friends and neighbours that used to worship in private homes, giving the movement its name.”
Is it possible that this congregation would have been better off continuing to follow the New Testament “house church” model instead of the model of its western counterparts? Was the persecution they suffered at the hands of the authorities really “necessary”?
We have often ministered in Indonesia and Brazil, the fourth and fifth largest countries in the world in terms of population. In each country, some charismatic pastors actually put church facilities and assets in their own name. One can only imagine the temptation on the part of such pastors to use such an arrangement for their own personal gain.
One pastor in Jakarta, Indonesia had purchased assets in his own name using church funds. He even used a fake ID which had his religion as “Muslim” so that he could purchase land available by law only to Muslims. In 2010 a satellite church using sound equipment purchased by him with church funds had pulled away from him. But since the equipment was in his name he felt he had a legal right to it. While a service was in progress on a Sunday morning at the satellite church in November that year, his henchmen burst into the meeting and attempted to take down the speakers and remove the sound equipment. (It’s probable that the pastor of course had Scriptures to support this action.)
Could this simply be an isolated incident on the part of a crazed minister, or is this what happens when the Church strays from the Scriptures?