There is an ‘idolatry’ connected with church buildings that has a long history. The prophet Jeremiah, for one, surfaced it during his challenges to the nation of Judah. He was addressing a people who were surrounded by danger and impending invasion by mighty empires externally. But for Jeremiah their greater problem was that they had forgotten who they were. They had forgotten their covenant with Yahweh, who had called them to be his people. They were ignorant of, or ignoring the practice of, the Torah—yet they had this confidence that since they had their temple on Mount Zion that nothing could ultimately harm them.

In that context, Jeremiah would stand in the gate of that temple and declare: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” He then went on to say that if they would find their true defense in God, then they must remember God’s call to them to be a totally different kind of people, which included a radical kind of justice and caring, as well as an absolute focus on God as God is, i.e., the one and only God who had called them to be a Light to the nations.

Fast forward into the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus stood in that same (by now destroyed and rebuilt) temple, and in essence said that the temple in Jerusalem could be destroyed, but that he would rebuild it in three days—that he, himself, would be the new temple, the new dwelling place of God among men. Upon the completion of his earthly ministry, he consigned this presence of God among humankind to his church, to the community of those called out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.

Note: never, anywhere, is there a mention of any buildings being  special ‘sanctuaries’ or of designating themselves as the church. The church was a community of God’s people in Christ, aliens and exiles, but with their unique calling to be the dwelling place of God by the Holy Spirit. They met in all kinds of venues, but they were contagious in their knowledge of, and thrill at what God had done in Christ, at his calling to them to be his missionary people. The focus was on making disciples, i.e., persons who were demonstrations of God’s New Creation wherever they dwelt.

It was only several centuries into the church’s existence, and after much persecution, but also after awesome expansion, that the community called the church became a dominant influence in the Roman Empire. Then a subtle and tragic subversion entered (initiated, probably, by the Emperor Constantine) that the church needed ‘sacralized’ building, or temples, such as the pagan religions had. They would now be legalized, and even encouraged by those in authority.

But when the true church became identified with a sacralized place, a sanctuary, it’s trust shifted from costly obedience to the teachings and mission of God to the maintenance of sanctuaries and the priesthood: so much for the self-understanding of the church as a nation of priests, where every believer was called to be a vital witness to God’s love in Christ 24/7. Buildings began to be referred to as God’s house, which is a total contradiction. God’s people are God’s house. Real estate is never God’s house.

God’s people are, indeed, to gather regularly to “teach and admonish one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” but the gathering can happen anywhere. Church communities can secure a meeting place where they can be a staging area for mission—but it is always temporary, and never the reason for the church’s existence. They can meet in parks or rented space—anywhere. But the people of God know who they are. They live lives of obedience and worship.

Howard Snyder, that wonderful author, once said: “If you want to know how strong your church is, sell the building.” I told him that one could get killed proposing that in many churches.

“Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord’ … “

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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