Issue #649 -------
February 26, 2015
What is a church? Our honest sexton tells,
'Tis a tall building, with a tower and bells.
George Crabbe (1754-1832)
Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006), who became the tenth Poet Laureate of the United States in the year 2000 at the age of 95, wrote, "If I must build a church, though I do not really want one, let it be in the wilderness out of nothing but nail-holes." Both Kunitz and Crabbe (see the quote at the top of this page) manifest a common misconception with respect to the church, although in the statement by Kunitz there is a hint of an implication that he may have a better appreciation of the true nature of what Jesus intended when He declared He would build His church (Matt. 16:18). For many centuries, far too many Christians have been taught (if not directly, then at least indirectly) that "church" is a place, a structure, a building, even an organization or institution, when the New Covenant writings simply identify the "church" as those people called out of the world and into relationship with the Father through the Son. The church is not a building; the church is a body of believers. Yet, how often have you and I spoken of "going to church," or doing something "at the church"? We have been conditioned, through the centuries, to perceive "the church" as a place to which the people go, rather than being the people who go there. This misconception has, sadly, caused confusion among disciples of Christ Jesus that has resulted in legalistic, patternistic behaviors and ultimately division. In some ways, Satan's greatest victory occurred when he convinced Christians to congregate inside buildings, for soon they began practicing their faith there, rather than in the world about them. In effect, they have hidden their light under a roof and inside walls, which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus called His church to do and to be (Matt. 5:14-16).
I personally, after much study and contemplation, am thoroughly convinced that many of our struggles with one another in the Body of Christ are a direct result of the legalistic legislation and regulation of what we may or may not do inside the walls of our church buildings. May we eat there? May we have class rooms for Sunday School? Who may stand behind the "Lord's Table" and pass the trays? Who may pray aloud there? How may we sing there; may musical instruments be used? We could go on and on about such "weighty matters," none of which would even be an issue, or a matter of debate, were there no "sacred structures" to which people went to conduct a "worship service." The early church, during the first couple of centuries of its existence, did not meet in "church buildings." They met daily in the temple courts to encourage one another, and met daily in various homes of members to break bread with one another (Acts 2). There was no special structure to which the church would go, and within which the church would conduct a formal "worship service" according to some divinely ordained pattern (with strict laws regulating the "five acts of worship"). The people of God simply lived their faith daily before those around them, loving others as they loved God, and meeting together daily whenever and wherever they could for the purpose of encouraging one another and stimulating one another to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25). They were a living organism (a body of believers), not a legalistic organization; they were Spirit-filled individuals, not a sectarian institution. They did not go to church, they were the church. There was no sanctuary to which they went; they were the sanctuary in which the Spirit of God dwelt. Paul informed the Athenians, "God does not live in temples built by human hands" (Acts 17:24). He lives in the heart. This was a concept hard for many to accept back then, and it is a concept hard for many disciples to accept today, for we have become quite comfortable meeting and worshipping God in structures "built by human hands."
Long after our Lord Jesus established His church (which was His Spirit-filled and -led people), men began to build structures for the sole purpose of providing a meeting place for the disciples of Christ in a given area. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with them doing this. These buildings were not extravagant edifices, but simple structures (at least for the first few hundred years). They weren't regarded as sacred sites in which sacraments were performed according to a host of legal requirements and restrictions. Sadly, such is not the case today. Over the past two millennia our focus has largely shifted from people to place, from saint to sanctuary. As a result, when people think of "church," they think of cathedrals rather than children of God the Father. This inevitably led away from Body life to building law. Instead of disciples of Jesus living lives of godly love and compassion among the people around them, showing them Jesus in their daily actions and interactions, they "practiced their faith" within the walls of their "sacred structures," and in so doing increasingly removed themselves from "the marketplace" of life, and became sheltered within their sanctuaries, where they performed religious acts governed by increasingly rigid regulation. Shut away in their "churches," they lost sight of who and what they were called by the Lord to be.
On February 10, I received an email from a Ph.D. in Florida who has been a reader of my work for quite some time. He wrote the following: "Al, I think many Christians have their personal spiritual identity tied to brick and mortar, and they do not realize the implications to their personal faith. Church buildings, cathedrals, etc. have negatively impacted and promoted organized religion, and suppressed the search and practice of ancient Christianity, and one's individual relationship with God. All sorts of misguided, man-made rules have had their origins in the building itself, and this has hindered the spread of Christianity in so many different ways for 2000 years." I believe this brother has a point. I'm sure he, and most of you, would agree that a church building itself is neither good nor bad; rather, it's how we perceive this building and what we do with it. If we view it as a useful tool to help us better function as the children of God in a particular location, then it can be used to accomplish great good. It may provide a place for a large number of believers to assemble for the purpose of learning more about God and His will for our lives, and may be a place where we can sing together, pray together, etc. We can make it available to the community for any number of good causes, as many disciples are doing to the glory of God. On the other hand, there is the danger that, as I heard one old preacher say, "the church no longer owns the building, the building owns the church." It can quickly become a "money pit," draining the church members of their finances, money that could have gone to meeting the needs of those around us. Having a building also has a tendency of planting the idea in the minds of the church members that our faith is practiced "at the building," rather than daily in our communities. Thus, we tend to "go to church" so as to "do church" according to long-held and cherished "patterns of worship."
If there were no church buildings, would the disciples of Christ in a community be fussing and fragmenting over whether or not we may eat in the church building? Would we be having debates over whether or not a church building may have a kitchen? Would we be fuming over whether or not a woman could stand at the Table and pass Communion trays to people in pews? Etc. Etc. As the people of God migrated from the marketplace to the meeting place, they increasingly formulated legislation governing every aspect of what could and couldn't occur in these church buildings. And the warring began. Think about it: most of what disciples of Christ fuss, fight and fragment over is with respect to what differing sects within Christendom believe can and/or can't occur within the church building during the "worship service" on Sunday. The "issues" of today were likely never contemplated in the early church, for most of our issues are building-centered, rather than Body-centered.
So, when and where did the early Christians first decide to build and dedicate a specific structure for the purpose of providing believers a place to assemble? Obviously, after 70 A.D., with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, meeting in the temple courts was no longer a viable option. They continued to meet in homes for quite some time, but as the number of disciples increased in various locations, meeting in homes became somewhat problematic. In some places they would rent upper rooms, which could accommodate more people, but that could also get expensive. Thus, it is no surprise that at some point the people of God (as they had done with the tabernacle, the temple, and with the synagogues) would begin considering building some kind of simple structure that would meet their needs. Dr. Everett Ferguson, who was professor of church history emeritus at Abilene Christian University, in an article for Christianity Today magazine (Nov. 12, 2008), wrote, "The earliest identified Christian house church is the Dura-Europos church, founded between 233 and 256 on the Euphrates River in eastern Roman Syria. It was a house that came into Christian possession and was remodeled in the 240s. Two rooms were combined to form the assembly room, and another room became a baptistery -- the only room decorated with pictures." One might still consider these "house churches," rather than the type of structures with which we are familiar today. "The great era of church buildings began with Constantine's patronage of the church in the fourth century. He commissioned basilicas to signal his support of the new religion" [ibid]. "Constantine built these assembly buildings for Christians not only in Constantinople, but also in Rome, Jerusalem, and in many parts of Italy, all in A.D. 324. This triggered a massive 'church building' fad in large cities all over the Empire" [Gene Edwards, The Examiner, vol. 6, no. 5].
Wayne Jackson, in an article that appeared in his publication Christian Courier which was titled "Are Modern Church Buildings Digressive?," stated, "...there is no example of 'literary evidence nor archaeological indication' of a church building prior to the time of Constantine." Although, as already noted, some houses were remodeled to accommodate a larger group, it took the support of Constantine to open the way for the building of structures specifically and solely designed to serve as a "house of worship" (i.e., a church building). What began as simple structures, in time grew to become elaborate cathedrals. The larger they became, the more the leaders legislated what could and could not take place within them. The larger they became, the more formal the "worship services" became. The larger they became, the more institutional they became. Traditions arose that, over time, became so accepted that any change in "the way it's always been done at our church" was viewed as "heresy." As Gene Edwards stated it, "It is a funny thing about religion: once 'deified,' certain elements never change" [The Examiner, vol. 6, no. 5]. How true! And those who seek to move beyond those "deified" traditions associated with "church buildings" risk their very lives by so doing. Not a few such persons were martyred by church officials for "defiling" their sacred church buildings. And, yes, we do the same today (although we maliciously malign them rather than martyr them). If you don't believe it, try making some change in a traditional practice that takes place in your church building during a worship service on Sunday morning!! Too often our buildings, and some practice that occurs within them, even though neither are ever mentioned in Scripture, trumps Truth. Your proposed practice might be completely consistent with God's Word, yet it violates traditions that have solidified into church LAW with regard to what happens in these structures. Thus, you are condemned on that basis, with no appeal to Scripture. You might even point out to your critics that the early disciples would have had no problem with this proposed practice, so why do we? That's right -- we have church buildings, they didn't. Thus, they would be unfamiliar with our "issues," for such issues are building-bound. Remove the building (and the traditions and tenets that have evolved within and about them) and you remove the issues.
So, what is the solution to all of this? I personally believe it comes down to perspective. The building of some structure to accommodate the assembling together of Christians can be a very useful expedient. It can be used any number of ways to facilitate our encouragement of one another, as well as our outreach to our communities. But, like almost any good thing we do, there is always the potential for misuse and abuse. If the building is perceived by those who construct it as simply an expedient, a useful tool, then it can be a very good thing. If, on the other hand, it comes to be perceived as a sacred object or a holy place, it can prove quite dangerous to our spiritual walk. If this structure is so sacred that children of God can't eat a meal in it, then our perspective is wrong. If a woman can utter a prayer or speak about God in her home, with others present (including men), but she can't do the same "in the sanctuary," then something is amiss in how we perceive this building. Also, if a huge percentage of a congregation's contributions go to maintaining the building, rather than addressing the needs of those around them (or within their congregation), then not only their perceptions, but also their priorities, are off. I knew of a devoted missionary to a third world nation, for example, who appealed to a congregation for a small amount of financial support, and he was turned down because they were adding a gymnasium to their building. Frankly, that bothered me on a number of levels.
In the final analysis, my view is that each group of believers in a location must decide for themselves, with much prayer and introspection, whether to invest finances, time and energy into a physical edifice, or whether to devote their finances, time and energy into edification and evangelism. Some may be able to do both, and to maintain the proper focus and balance. I've seen this done successfully, and it is encouraging to behold. I've also seen the opposite, where a building sucked a congregation dry of its finances, time and energy, and where it was perceived as "holy ground" governed by such strict LAW that a number of the members actually entered "the sanctuary" with fear and trembling, for it was a place where one could be castigated and even cast out for even the slightest transgression of "the building code." May God give us the right perspective with regard to church buildings, otherwise what could be for us a blessing may in reality become a curse!
From a Well-Known Leader/Author:
Al, I must say that you have gone beyond your normal A+ content in this issue of your Reflections. It is an A++++. Not only with respect to Dr. Perryman's article, but also some of the exceptional "readers' reflections" which you shared. This selection was excellent. It is so encouraging to see such open-mindedness! Thank you for your labor of love, brother. Truth is an amazing thing!
From a Minister in New Mexico:
Al, as you know, I am reading your book on the Lord's Supper ("One Bread, One Body: An Examination of Eucharistic Expectation, Evolution and Extremism") for the second time. I just read the part in which you explained your personal conviction, and wanted to share mine. Jesus said, "As often as you do this, do it in memory of Me." As often as we do what? I envision a couple of possibilities. Did Jesus mean as often as one celebrates the annual Passover? If so, the direction is to now remember Him, rather than the rescue of the Israelites from Egypt (the original meaning of the Passover celebration). If this isn't what Jesus had in mind, perhaps He was asking His followers to remember Him every time they ate together. We generally eat three meals together every day. Is there ever a time it would be inappropriate to remember Jesus and what He has done for us?! I don't think so. With this in mind, perhaps we should take time to do what our Savior asked of us during every meal. Maybe only a moment of silence; maybe vocalized thoughts about what our Savior has done for each of us because of His love for us. Then again, maybe Jesus meant any time we sit down together, whether with our immediate family or our extended family, at an evening meal. After all, Jesus was eating with His disciples after dark (not at breakfast or lunch). So, I'm still in a quandary, wondering if Jesus had in mind an annual remembrance, like the Passover, or a continual recollection of His death, burial, and resurrection any time we take time to consume a meal. You're right to emphasize partaking in community, as in the Agape Feast. But, remembering is a very personal, individual activity and responsibility that each one of us should practice continually. Acts 20:7 has very little to do with our personal, individual responsibility to remember our Savior.
From Dr. Perryman in Nevada:
Al, I finally got a chance to sit down and check my email. Thanks for posting my article in your Reflections. You do a great work with Reflections, and we need more with the courage to push back against the works of legalism. The time has come in our world when Christians should be uniting instead of fracturing. The opportunities for spreading the Gospel have never been greater. I hope my article as well as yours continue to help folks find their way!
From a Reader in Georgia:
Wow! Dr. Perryman sort of nailed it, huh?!! The legalists don't even know what all the rules are, but they'd rather be judged by that unknown than the power of God's grace accepted by our faith. Dummies!! Thanks for sharing this article by Dr. Perryman. Great article!
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Brother Al, I am reading your new book From Ruin To Resurrection. It is very interesting, but in some ways disturbing too. Thank you for your scholarship and courage. You're a great teacher!
Challenging one to examine one's theological understandings and traditional practices, putting them to the test of God's Word, can certainly be uncomfortable in a number of ways. In each of my four books this is precisely what I have sought to do: challenge my brethren in the One Body to simply contemplate their convictions, even questioning them, for the purpose of better grasping the Lord's will for our lives. In too many areas of faith and practice we have simply embraced, often without much thought, the traditional perceptions and practices of our religious predecessors. Thus, we are, far too often, preserving and promoting tradition rather than proclaiming and practicing Truth. Challenging the former, for the purpose of better perceiving the latter, and then making the necessary changes in our lives, can indeed be disturbing, for it calls us forth from our religious ruts, and that is rarely a painless process. I applaud, however, those who have the courage to do so. They are truly the Bereans among us, rather than the Thessalonicans (Acts 17). -- Al Maxey
From a New Reader in Florida:
Your Reflections article "When An Elder's Wife Dies: May He Continue Serving the Congregation as a Shepherd?" (Reflections #64) was very insightful. I sent it to a friend who is going through this very thing at this time. Thank you so much for this study. Also, would you please add me to your mailing list for your weekly Reflections.
From a Reader in Texas:
GREAT truth from Dr. Barry Perryman in your last issue of Reflections (Reflections #648). Thank you, Barry, and thank you, Al, for sharing this study.
From a Reader in Florida:
I just noticed that Luke, in Acts 6:3, uses the Greek term "aner" (as opposed to "anthropos") when describing the qualities for deacon selection. The apostles specifically state, "choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom." Does the word "aner" only and always refer to men as opposed to women? Thanks.
Although the matter is confused somewhat by the fact that seven men were chosen, the term "aner" does NOT always have reference to males only. Yes, in many cases it does, but in a number of cases in Scripture it does not. The Exegetical Dictionary of the NT informs us that this word "can denote any human being," and can be translated "person, people" [vol. 1, p. 99]. It also is the term used to signify one who is "respected ... and mature, in contrast to an easily deceived child" [ibid]. Thus, what the apostles were actually asking for were "mature, respected people" within the Family of God who would be capable of taking on the task of meeting the needs of these widows. Although seven men were ultimately selected, had there been only women chosen, or a mixture of men and women, the expectations of the apostles, as per their instruction, would still have been correctly met. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Texas:
Brother, in the readers' section of your last Reflections you made the following comment to the reader from Georgia: "Far too much of what we do today religiously is actually based on misunderstanding and misapplication of a select few verses in the Scriptures (taken out of context), which have then become over time cherished traditions, which have then devolved into church LAW (which we then use to regulate the redeemed and limit the liberated)." When I read what you wrote here, it occurred to me that part of the problem in misapplying Scripture is that too often these people use only a few verses. I realize that God only has to say something once for it to be true, however He also seems to give much more time and attention in Scripture to those things He considers important. If one's position is based on only a very few verses, this may well indicate that this matter, relatively speaking, is not all that important to the Lord. Thanks for your ministry for the Lord, brother!
It's even worse when these people take these one or two verses out of context, and then employ them as "proof texts." The sad reality is even worse than this, however. Most of what disciples have fought and fragmented over is not even mentioned in the Scriptures, but are "truths" assumed or inferred from the silence of Scripture on the matter. This brings to my mind the old saying, "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we legislate." -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Alabama:
If only we could get all of those who have left the Churches of Christ because of the legalistic teaching of a vindictive, condemning God to come back, just think how many people that would be! Around Birmingham, there are many I know personally who have given up on the Churches of Christ because of the discouraging teachings about Christ and God. The God we have too often heard preached is NOT one of LOVE, but one who is just waiting for you to err so He can send you to hell. Who can really love a God like that? The only time most Churches of Christ teach love in our assemblies is when we sing. Maybe we should listen to the words of our songs more than the words of our sermons! Yet, thankfully, things are changing in Churches of Christ, and we need to be telling people about these changes and encourage them to come back.
From a Minister in Texas:
I agree with your take on "Liberty vs. Libertarianism" (Reflections #647). However, one question: have you ever known of a "weaker" brother who knew he was the "weaker" brother?
Yes, I have. Quite a few, as a matter of fact. They even admitted it. I've also known far more individuals who were very strong-willed, "my way, or the highway," individuals who pretended to be "weaker" brethren in order to impose their will upon a congregation. The key to distinguishing between the two is understanding what Paul meant by "weaker." Paul is actually referring to those who are "unsettled" in their beliefs with regard to certain matters, but who are willing to examine them with open, honest hearts (i.e., they are teachable). This is a far cry from those who are very much settled (indeed, who are virtually calcified) in their convictions, but who play the "weak brother" card to get their way. I have dealt with this in some depth in my article "Professional Weaker Brethren" (Reflections #25). As noted, I have known quite a few people in the Family of God who have told me they were "unsettled" in their beliefs about something, and that they needed to study it further, but that they would not "make an issue" of it. One person in a congregation where I preached a number of years ago was very much unsettled in her conviction about whether or not it was wrong to have a Christmas party "in the church building." Yet, whenever such a party was held, she simply did not attend, nor did she condemn others for doing so, nor did the others belittle her for her convictions. We respected one another's views, and we did our best to be sensitive to each other, yet in a way that did not limit or restrict our freedom in Christ. -- Al Maxey
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