Church Buildings--Who Needs Them?
"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet.
Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."
Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."
John 4:19-24 (NIV)
"If you had asked, ‘Where is the church?’ in any important city of the ancient world where Christianity had penetrated in the first century, you would have been directed to a group of worshiping people gathered in a house. There was no special building or other tangible wealth with which to associate ‘church’, only people!"
Walter Oetting, The Church of the Catacombs
The ‘church building’ exists as a largely unquestioned cornerstone of modern Christianity. Suggest that the church building is unscriptural, unnecessary, and perhaps detrimental to our faith, and people will either think that you are joking, or that you have lost your mind and become a heretic. And yet, this is exactly what I claim. On the basis of Scripture and history. Somehow, the early Church managed to thrive and overtake the world with the gospel, all without the benefit of a church sanctuary. No cathedrals, no temples, no sanctuaries were built by Christians for hundreds of years. Today, most Christians cannot conceive of life without their ‘church building’. In fact the modern concept of the church as a building subverts the true meaning of church in the New Testament—a group of believers—flesh and blood. Some will argue that the early Christians met in the Temple (true, for a short time in the part called Solomon’s Porch) and that Paul spoke in synagogues (true also, until they kicked him out, or tried to stone him in each city). But these things belonged to the Jews. After a short time, the synagogues were no longer open opportunities for evangelism. The Jewish temple was destroyed around 70 AD. To try to use these things to prove that the Church should erect buildings betrays a lack of basic understanding of the New Testament. The church mainly met in the homes of believers. Of course, being led by elders, and not a ‘pastor’, they were able to do this. Leadership by one man, rather than by a group of elders is another roadblock to many even considering the house-church model.
In the early part of the 4th century, Roman emperor Constantine funded the building of Christian ‘temples’. By this point, the church had been adopting a hierarchical structure based on the Roman form of government. Instead of plural elders, churches were governed by a Bishop. Constantine extended special governmental privileges to the clergy. The marriage of church and state was consummated, and the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ was born. The church slid into decline.
I would like to list some examples from the Bible showing the pattern of meeting in houses, followed by various quotes from historians and theologians. Finally, I will list some practical benefits of reviving the New Testament form of meeting, followed by sources for further reading.
So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart,
praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:46-47 (NKJV)
As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
Acts 8:3 (NKJV)
Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ.
Romans 16:5 (NKJV)
The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
1 Cor 16:19 (NKJV)
Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house.
Col 4:15 (NKJV)
… to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Philem 1:2 (NKJV)
"When the church was very young, it had no buildings. Let us begin with that striking fact. That the church had no buildings is the most noticeable of the points of difference between the church of the early days and the church of today. In the minds of most people today, "church" means first a building, probably something else second; but seldom does "the church" stand for anything other than a building. Yet here is the fact with which we start: the early church possessed no buildings and carried on its work for a great many years without erecting any."
Ernest Loosley When The Church Was Young
"You mistakenly think we conceal what we worship since we have no temples or altars. Yet how can anyone make an image of God? Man himself is the image of God. How can anyone build a temple to Him, when the whole world
can’t contain Him? Even I, a mere human, travel far and wide. So how can anyone shut up the majesty of so great a Person within one small building? Isn’t it better for Him to be dedicated in our minds and consecrated in our innermost hearts - rather than in a building?"
Mark Felix in "Octavius"
2nd Century A.D.
Francis Schaeffer, in his book "The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century" writes concerning dedicated church buildings in this way:
"It is interesting, however, that the church was in their home. Lightfoot says that there were no church buildings as such before the third century. Since Lightfoot made that statement, however, archaeologists found a most interesting place in Rome. Roman houses - unless they were the great mansions- were relatively small. What archaeologists found was a place with the facade of two houses still untouched, but with the internal walls torn out to make a larger room. And from everything that was found there, the archaeologists believe that this was a church
building. This structure is dated at the end of the second century. But whether one accepts Lightfoot’s starting point in the third century, or whether one dates it at the end of the second century, it really makes no
difference. There is no biblical norm as to where, and where not, the church should meet. The central fact is that the early concept of the church had no connection with a church building. The church was something else: a group of Christians drawn together by the Holy Spirit in a place where they worked together in a certain form..."
Reformer Martin Luther wrote in 1526:
"The right kind of evangelical order cannot be exhibited among all sorts of people, but those who are seriously determined to be Christians and confess the gospel with hand and mouth, must enroll themselves by name and meet apart in one house, for prayer, for reading, to baptize, to take the Sacrament, and exercise other Christian works. With such order it would be possible for those who did not behave in a Christian manner to be known, reproved, restored, or excluded, according to the rule of Christ (Matt. 18:15). Here also they could, in common, subscribe alms, which would be willingly given and distributed among the poor, according to the example of Paul (2 Cor. 9:1-12). Here it would not be necessary to have much or fine singing. Here a short and simple way of baptism and the Sacrament could be practiced, and all would be according to the Word and in love. But I cannot yet order and establish such an assembly…In the meantime I will call, excite, preach, help forward it, until Christians take the Word so in earnest, that they will themselves find how to do it and continue in it."
Quoted by E. H. Broadbent in The Pilgrim Church
"Theologically, the church does not need temples. Church buildings are not essential to the true nature of the church. For the meaning of the tabernacle is God’s habitation, and God already dwells within the human community of Christian believers. The people are the temple and the tabernacle… Thus, theologically church buildings are superfluous. They are not needed for priestly functions because all believers are priests and all have direct access, at whatever time and place, to the one great high priest. A church building cannot properly be "the Lord’s house" because in the new covenant this title is reserved for the church as people (Eph. 2; 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 10:21). A church building cannot be a "holy place" in any special sense, for holy places no longer exist. Christianity has no holy places, only holy people."
Howard A. Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins, Chapter 4
"The church is never a place, but always a people; never a fold but always a flock; never a sacred building but always a believing assembly. The church is you who pray, not where you pray. A structure of brick or marble can no more be the church than your clothes of serge or satin can be you. There is in this world nothing sacred but man, no sanctuary of man but the soul. "
John Havlik, People-Centered Evangelism
"Whether we are considering the smaller gatherings of only some Christians in a city, or the larger meetings involving the whole Christian population, it is in the home of one of the members that the ‘ekklesia’ is held—for example in the ‘upper room.’ Not until the third century do we have evidence of special buildings being constructed for Christian gatherings."
Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community
Some practical benefits of meeting in homes:
1. No extra expenses such as church mortgages, utilities, grounds upkeep, property tax.
2. Highly duplicable. You can start a house church wherever people live, without having to secure land, building permits, loans & etc. No start-up costs.
3. Face-to-face interaction—great for discussion and body ministry.
4. Personal atmosphere.
5. More accountability than in a large-group setting.
For further reading:
The Problem of Wineskins by-- Howard A. Snyder
Paul’s Idea of Community by-- Robert Banks
The Church Comes Home by--Robert Banks
When The Church Was Young--Ernest Loosley
The Torch of the Testimony--John W. Kennedy
Going to the Root--Christian Smith
Rethinking the Wineskin--Frank A. Viola