Is church a building? 13

This is an issue that’s been brewing in the comments to the Turnstile Church post, and it also matters when we start to think about the effectiveness of doing church online.

My basic position is that even though the church is not a building, it is usually found in a building. The fact that Christians function as a church only when they regularly meet in a building makes it a reasonable shorthand for people to refer to that building as the church.

  1. The universal Church is organized into particular geographical churches. Although Paul’s advice applies universally to all churches, his epistles were addressed to city churches with particular problems and characteristics. We see a similar distinction in the seven churches of Revelation. These were specific churches with their own personalities and faith trajectories.
  2. Church government requires face-to-face assembly. Paul’s instructions to Timothy about church welfare requires that church leaders have a high degree of familiarity with the people under their care (1 Timothy 5). Elders are told to correct a wayward brother first privately, but then, as a final resort, publicly (Matthew 18:17). The assumption is that the public announcement is about a person that the other members of the church know.
  3. Christian worship requires physicality only found in a church. In worship we are to sing together. God blesses us through the laying on of hands. The sacraments require physical presence for their proper administration. We extend the right hand of fellowship and greet each other with a kiss. There are other examples that might be worth the attention of a future post.
  4. Christian worship has a time and space dimension. Although eternal himself, God created a system of worship that was tied to a calendar through holy days, especially the Sabbath. Similarly, although omnipresent himself, God created a system of worship that was contained within at least four walls. Although we can worship God anywhere and at all times, he has clearly shown us that our highest form of worship is within sabbath (time) assemblies (space) of other believers.

Hebrews 10:25 recommends church attendance with these words:

Not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.

As I once pointed out here, the Greek word translated as assembling is episynagoge. It means that Christians are to physically assemble together in one place. The root is synagogue, which itself means a physical gathering point, usually a building.

Yes, church also can refer to all Christians, living and dead, but it most commonly references distinct gatherings of believers who meet each other face to face for regular, physical worship of God. I assume that is our starting point, against which we’ll later assess efforts to redefine the church in ways that take it out of those chronological and physical constraints.

13 thoughts on “Is church a building?

  1. James Downing Jun 22, 2009 10:12 am

    While I understand your point, I am still uncomfortable with the distinction of any particular building as “church”. A building can be where the church meets, but if believers aren’t assembling there, then there is nothing special about those bricks that keep building designated as a church. The opposite also holds true: If believers meet in an abandoned Hardee’s, then that run-down fast food joint is where the church meets.

    Now, I agree that it makes sense to refer to a building where the church meets as church, but I also think it is important to point out that the building in itself is not important. The assembling of saints is what matters.

    • James Duncan Jun 22, 2009 4:09 pm

      Downing,

      I mostly agree with you (as you seem to mostly agree with me). I was careful not to describe the church building in any fixed way. Like you say, if believers meet for church in Hardee’s, that becomes church. Many believers only have tents or huts or caves to meet in, so those also become church. Obviously, homes can become churches too.

      I do think there is something about a sacred space that has been reserved for use in worship that demands that we treat it with a bit more reverence than a Hardee’s restaurant, even when it’s not being used for worship, though I might have to develop that idea in another post (or, once I think about it, perhaps recant it).

  2. JT Jun 22, 2009 9:48 pm

    Duncam,

    Another good post. I appreciate it when you set up these discussions with a nice starting point. There really isn’t anything I can disagree with in the original post.

    One of my pet peeves is hearing Christians say, “Welcome to God’s house!” He cannot be bound by walls. His house is all those who call upon His name for salvation. He does not have a physical presence in a church building any more than He has a physical presence at Hardee’s. I’ll assume that you’d agree.

    I’m looking forward to the upcoming Church vs. Hardee’s posting.

  3. Ben Jun 22, 2009 11:26 pm

    James,I couldn’t post a comment under the orientation entry for some reason. But I wanted to take you up on your offer. I would love to come by your office to find out what church you go to. Do I need an appointment? When can I come by? I don’t want to bash your church or your pastor. Just would like to know what kind of church does appeal to you. So when can I come by? My office is just a few miles from yours.

  4. MW Jun 22, 2009 11:51 pm

    Check out this sermon. This is Mark Driscoll from the Advance 09 conference I went to. The title was “What is the Church.” It’s the first video on the page. Check out the other ones too if you get a chance. They were all awesome!

    I think ya’ll will enjoy it.

    link to advance.vintage21.com

  5. MW Jun 22, 2009 11:58 pm

    I’ve really been wrestling with the Sabbath lately. I have no solid stance right now due to my struggle, But here is my question. If Christ was the fulfillment of the Sabbath than why is it that we still keep a Sabbath day. We got rid of all the other laws and rituals that Christ fulfilled but not that one. Driscoll says It doesn’t matter what day you meet because of this. He says that what matters is that you are meeting weekly.

    The church has held to a Sabbath from the beginning but I there is no argument for the Sabbath in the New Testament. I’ve been looking. The closest one I’ve found is Hebrews 13. It’s not all that good of an argument for the Sabbath though.

    What do ya’ll think?

    • James Duncan Jun 23, 2009 7:30 am

      MW, my quick answer:

      The Sabbath is found in Genesis 1, so it predates the law and wouldn’t be affected by abolishing the requirements of the law.

      It’s timeless.

      (BTW, my time is going to be constrained over the next few days by life stuff, so my participation in this discussion will be sporadic.)

  6. Tommy F Jun 23, 2009 10:20 am

    JDuncan:
    I agree that the Sabbath predates the law, but the NT is oddly silent about which day is central: Saturday or Sunday. And shouldn’t the fulfillment of the law to relate to the 4th commandment?

    MW:
    The Hebrews 13 discussion about the Sabbath rest would be the obvious place to find a directive after Jesus’ ministry, but that passage appears to be discussing other issues rather than when to gather for worship.

    I am convinced that the spiritual purpose of the Sabbath is important and central, but the actual location on a calendar is not. My view is that the Sabbath can occur on a Sunday (OT & Gospels), Saturday (Acts) or any other day.

  7. JT Jun 23, 2009 12:44 pm

    I’m with you on this one, Tommy.

    Also, insisting that you meet weekly (as Driscoll said, per MW’s comment), seems a bit odd. If we are looking for examples from scripture – the early church met daily.

  8. MW Jun 24, 2009 12:47 am

    Yeah, I think I would agree with you too Tommy. I can’t find a NT argument for a day. I like the idea of resting one day of the week, but I just can’t find anything that supports the specific day. That is why I can’t really argue with Driscoll on this one. I can’t find any evidence to back up a different argument. Even Piper tends to believe this. My struggle actually came from a sermon that He gave. His family practices the Sabbath on Sunday but I’m pretty sure he believes that there is no specific day to practice it.

    Downey:

    I agree. I actually messed up His quote. After going back and listening to it again he said that they met “regularly,” not weekly.

    There is another issue that seems to be missing in the NT and that is tithing. It seems that tithing takes on the same form of the commandments when Christ summed it up in love. We don’t see tithing anywhere in the NT after Christ. What we see is the people giving everything. Christ said that the “new” command was to love. That seems to kill legalism by centering the focus of the law on love not a check list. I see the same issue with tithing. Tithing was a checklist, but the New Testament church was LOVING each other like crazy (see acts 4) and due to their love for one another they were giving far beyond the law of 10%.

    I actually hate hearing the word tithe now. I want to see pastors challenging the church to be like the 1st century church and give as much as they can to one another and to the church. I think that is awesome!!

  9. Pastor Brian Jun 24, 2009 11:49 am

    The church is not now, not has it ever been a building. The church IS the people of God, the called out, the ekklesia. That alone is the church.

  10. MW Jun 24, 2009 12:08 pm

    No, but we don’t make having youth pastors into a sin issue. So that doesn’t really connect to the argument.

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