Biblical Evidence & Defenses for Expensive Church Buildings

Biblical Evidence & Defenses for Expensive Church Buildings September 9, 2015
Interior of Cologne Cathedral (photo by Pedro Szekely, 10-28-11) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license]

This is a rather common complaint of Protestants of a certain sort (usually “low church”). Here are some comments made by “Grubb”: a friendly Baptist regular of this forum, in an older discussion thread (here and here), and my response. He also makes more “positive” statements about churches in the same context, and admits some ambiguity and nuances in his own position, and decries excesses of materialism (much as I argue below), but I am responding primarily to sentiments such as the following (and using his comments as a “springboard” to larger concerns of mine, as I often do):

* * * * *

The early Christian churches were often outside or in people’s homes. Were they less holy, because they didn’t have statues and stained glass? Obviously not. One’s surroundings can impact how he feels and may even impact his ability to worship well, but the building isn’t more holy because of the statues or stained glass. It may seem more reverent, but the presence of God makes a place holy, so any place the body of Christ gathers together is holy.

* * *

I’m pretty sure you can’t have fancy ornaments, statues, and stained glass and be “without excess” and “without ornament”. “Austere” and fancy ornaments are mutually exclusive. While I’ve been in beautiful churches and worshipped well, I’ve also been in simple churches and worshipped equally well. While a beautiful cathedral may display some of God’s glory, it can’t hold a candle to an autumn sunset, an ocean sunrise, a blooming dogwood, a summer rain, a giant oak tree, a simple rose, a field of daffodils, or any of God’s other wonderful, marvelous, and beautiful creations that attest to his magnificence more than any church building ever could. Maybe we should look to nature rather than a building to see God’s brilliance on earth. It’s a lot cheaper too.

* * *

First of all, I am a virtual nature-mystic (in the Romantic, Lewis-Tolkien sense), so you need not convince me of the beauty of the natural world. I would be a lot more inclined to accept your reasoning if indeed with all the riches we have built up, we didn’t lavish them on ourselves in houses (veritable mansions for richer folks, yet few children to fill them up) and in countless wonderful, expensive structures (including automobiles, yachts, personal jets, etc.) devoted to the glory of capitalism.


Since we do that, I say it is all the more appropriate to devote some of our ingenuity and riches to building beautiful buildings devoted to God and the worship of God (rather than of mammon), and receiving Him and hearing His Word taught. If you spoke out against all buildings whatever (at least “fancy” and “excessive” ones) as materialistic and unnecessary, you might have a decent point. Somehow I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.


So we have a scenario where it is perfectly acceptable to build mansions to the glory of man and mammon, but not (beautiful) churches to the glory of God. We must give God our aesthetic mediocrity and worst efforts rather than our best. We can personally live in luxury in fine mansions in idyllic settings, but must worship in “gymnasiums” or “glorified barns”. Really makes a lot of sense . . . Nuh-uh. I don’t buy it.


I’m willing to tolerate men’s love of money and what it results in, architecturally-speaking (actually, I am very fond of good architecture of many “old-fashioned” types), but when people start going after church buildings as excessive and unnecessary, I cannot accept the glaring double standard.


And then you would have to explain away the Temple as a waste of resources too. Why did God command that? Did He not know that all that money could have gone to feeding the poor? God obviously was not a bleeding-heart liberal Democrat . . .


At least King Solomon had the sense of proportion and priority to think of building a temple for God at the same time he was building his own royal palace (2 Chronicles 2:1,12). Likewise, King David gave graciously out of his own riches, to the Temple (1 Chronicles 29:1-5) and urged others to do the same (29:6-13) and knew from Whom all riches derived in the first place (29:12,14,16), and recognized that the Temple is at least as important as a palace: “the work is great; for the palace will not be for man but for the Lord God” (1 Chron 29:1). The prophet Hosea saw something like the selfish, materialistic hypocrisy that I discuss above, too:

For Israel has forgotten his Maker, and built palaces . . . (Hosea 8:14)

* * * * *

Good to hear from you.

And you, my friend.

Have you read The Treasure Principle? This is one of the items God is using to help me view money and stuff in a more Godly sense. I agree with you on the things you speak against: luxurious houses, expensive cars, jewelry, and a posh life style.

I haven’t read the book you cite, but I’ve read Ronald Sider (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) and other works that advocate a simple lifestyle, and make a critique of modern-day attitudes towards money and riches. Many go too far and get legalistic. I’ve advocated and lived a simple lifestyle for many years (mostly by necessity, given my non-lucrative profession!), but I try to avoid the legalistic excesses of condemning capitalism altogether (as Sider and certain similar groups and guys like Jim Wallis tend to do, or come close to doing).

There is a difference between THE Temple that Solomon built and David helped fund and the church building of the New Testament. The Temple Solomon built was actually God’s house. God in some form was in the Ark, and the Ark was to be in the Temple.

Every Catholic and Orthodox church is “actually God’s house” too, since Jesus is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Thus, today’s churches (i.e., the ones that preserve apostolic succession) have God present in a way that goes beyond even the Holy of Holies, because God is physically present, as a result of the incarnation, where God took on flesh. This is one reason why we have very ornate churches and altars, because God is present. It’s exactly the same principle of the Temple: if God is present, then it is clearly appropriate to be ornate, so as to celebrate His presence, just as we do every earthly king.

You, denying the Real, Physical, Substantial Presence, obviously would see no need to build a beautiful church because you deny that special presence of God. And that’s why your brand of Christianity (I used to argue exactly the same way) denies the notion of “sacred space” or “holy places.” It’s the anti-sacramental and quasi-Docetic, semi-Gnostic “anti-matter” mentality. These churches are holy precisely because Jesus is there, not just spiritually (as He is everywhere, in His omnipresence) but physically.

That’s the crucial difference. That’s why we believe in sacred space, and act accordingly when present in it. Since you reject this Substantial Presence of God, for you, one church is as good as another, and (as a straightforward logical deduction, though virtually no Protestants would admit this or feel comfortable with it) there is no essential distinction between worship in a pig sty or city dump, and worship at Chartres Cathedral. We both believe God is everywhere; that is not at issue.

Every synagogue wasn’t commanded or intended to be as lavish as the Temple of the Ark.

I didn’t say they should be. It was an analogy: if a gorgeous, ornate Temple was commanded to be built by God, by the same token, we can make beautiful buildings for God as well. It’s not a “waste” or mere materialism. We certainly have the resources to do so, but we prefer to spend our money on other things.

What is the Temple of God in the NT era? Anyone who follows Jesus whole-heartedly. Paul said, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” (I Cor 3:16-17) and again, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you.” (I Cor 6:19a)

That continues the Old Testament temple concept in the sense that God is now spiritually inside of us through the indwelling, just as He was in the Shekinah cloud and in the Tabernacle and Temple in the Old Covenant. But eucharistic physical presence takes it a step further and continues the Temple concept and develops and expands it, making God’s presence even more profound for us than it was then, for them.

Every time a Catholic or Orthodox receives the Eucharist, we are closer to God in a tangible way than even the high priest was in his yearly visit to the Holy of Holies. The second fallacy in your argument is that it presupposes that an earthy, physical Temple and ourselves as temples of the Holy Spirit are mutually exclusive, with one replacing the other. But this is untrue and unbiblical, as I already showed in a past dialogue between you and I.

After Pentecost (i.e., after they became themselves the “temples of the Holy Spirit”), the Bible informs us that “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1). So now you have two temples, not mutually exclusive (secondly, Jesus referred to His Body as a “temple” when standing before the Temple building: John 2:19-21).

The only reasons that this worship ceased were: 1) the split between Judaism and Christianity and subsequent ill relations, 2) the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., and 3) the inclusion of Gentiles in Christianity. But there was nothing intrinsically improper in a (Jewish) Christian worshiping there. I added in our last dialogue:

The notes in my RSV explain that the ninth hour was 3 PM “when sacrifice was offered with prayer (Ex 29.39; Lev. 6.20; Josephus, Ant. xiv.4.3).”

Acts 2:46 described the early Christians:

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts,

The “biblical evidence for church buildings” was originally presented elsewhere. As far as I know, these aren’t mentioned in the New Testament. The early Christians continued to worship at the Temple, and in their own homes. So why do we have our own church buildings when it is not a NT concept? Well (as in the present case) it is a straightforward deduction from what we know. One could argue it as follows:

Biblical Evidence for Church Buildings

1) The Jews, from whom Christianity derived, worshiped in synagogues.

2) The Jews, from whom Christianity derived, worshiped in the Temple.

3) The early Christians worshiped in their homes, and clandestinely in caves or catacombs, as the case may be.

4) These are not buildings expressly constructed for Christian worship.

5) However, it stands to reason (by analogy) that Christians, whose belief-system developed from Judaism, would also eventually (especially after official persecution ceased) have buildings of worship, just as the Jews did.

6) Therefore, deductively and analogically, the Bible sanctions Christian church buildings, and the “biblical evidence” for same is the above.

"hi Dave,Thank you for keep exposing that protestant spirit among some Catholic trads. I used ..."

Pope Francis: Popes Can be RESPECTFULLY ..."
"I respect that the Pope intends for these restrictions to lead to greater unity.However, I ..."

Pope Francis’ Traditionis Custodis is for ..."
"Indeed , I have seen that time and again in Corporate America where I work"

Catholics (?) Trash, Judge, & Mind-Read ..."

Browse Our Archives