Because the church building was regarded as sacred, congregants had to undergo a purification ritual before entering. So in the fourth century, fountains were erected in the courtyard so the Christians could wash before they entered the building.79

Constantine's church buildings were spacious and magnificent edifices that were said to be "worthy of an Emperor." They were so splendid that his pagan contemporaries observed that these "huge buildings imitated" the structure of pagan temples.80 Constantine even decorated the new church buildings with pagan art.81

The church edifices built under Constantine were patterned exactly after the model of the basilica.82 These were the common government buildings,83 designed after Greek pagan temples.84

Basilicas served the same function as high school auditoriums do today. They were wonderful for seating passive and docile crowds to watch a performance. This was one of the reasons why Constantine chose the basilica model.85

He also favored it because of his fascination with sun worship. Basilicas were designed so that the sun fell upon the speaker as he faced the congregation.86 Like the temples of the Greeks and Romans, the Christian basilicas were built with a facade (front) facing east.87

Let's explore the inside of the Christian basilica. It was an exact duplicate of the Roman basilica that was used for Roman magistrates and officers. Christian basilicas possessed an elevated platform where the clergy ministered. The platform was usually elevated by several steps. There was also a rail or screen that separated the clergy from the laity.88

In the center of the building was the altar. It was either a table (the altar table) or a chest covered with a lid.89 The altar was considered the most holy place in the building for two reasons. First, it often contained the relics of the martyrs.90 (After the fifth century, the presence of a relic in the church altar was essential to make the church legitimate.)91 Second, upon the altar sat the Eucharist (the bread and the cup). The Eucharist, now viewed as a sacred sacrifice, was offered upon the altar. No one but the clergy, who were regarded as "holy men," were allowed to receive the Eucharist within the altar rails.92

In front of the altar stood the bishop's chair, which was called the cathedra.93 The term ex-cathedra is derived from this chair. Ex-cathedra means "from the throne."94 The bishop's chair, or "throne" as it was called, was the biggest and most elaborate seat in the building. It replaced the seat of the judge in the Roman basilica.95 And it was surrounded by two rows of chairs reserved for the elders.96

The sermon was preached from the bishop's chair.97 The power and authority rested in the chair, which was covered with a white linen cloth. The elders and deacons sat on either side of it in a semicircle.98

The hierarchical distinction embedded in the basilican architecture was unmistakable. Interestingly, most present-day church buildings have special chairs for the pastor and his staff situated on the platform behind the pulpit. (Like the bishop's throne, the pastor's chair is usually the largest of them all.) All of this is a clear carryover from the pagan basilica.

In addition to all of this, Constantine did not destroy pagan temples on a large scale. Neither did he close them.99 In some places, existing pagan temples were emptied of their idols and converted into Christian edifices.100 The Christians used materials stripped from pagan temples and built new church buildings on pagan temple sites.101


The advent of the church building brought significant changes to Christian worship. Because the emperor was the number one "layperson" in the church, a simple ceremony was not sufficient. In order to honor him, the pomp and ritual of the imperial court was incorporated into the Christian liturgy.102

It was the custom of the Roman emperors to have lights carried before them whenever they appeared in public. The lights were accompanied by a basin of fire filled with aromatic spices.103 Taking his cue from this custom, Constantine introduced candles and the burning of incense as part of the church service. And they were brought in when the clergy entered the room.104

Under Constantine's reign, the clergy, who had first worn everyday clothes, began dressing in special garments. What were those special clothes? They were the garments of Roman officials. Further, various gestures of respect toward the clergy, comparable to those used to honor Roman officials, were introduced in the church.105

The Roman custom of beginning a service with processional music was adopted as well. For this purpose, choirs were developed and brought into the Christian church. (See chapter 7 for more on the origin of the choir.) Worship became more professional, dramatic, and ceremonial.

All of these features were borrowed from the Greco-Roman culture and carried straight into the Christian church.106 Fourth-century Christianity was being profoundly shaped by Greek paganism and Roman imperialism.107 The upshot of it all was that there was a loss of intimacy and open participation. The professional clergy performed the acts of worship while the laity looked on as spectators.108

As one Catholic scholar wrote, with the coming of Constantine "various customs of ancient Roman culture flowed into the Christian liturgy... even the ceremonies involved in the ancient worship of the emperor as a deity found their way into the church's worship, only in their secularized form."109

Constantine brought peace for all Christians.110 Under his reign, the Christian faith had become legitimate. In fact, it had risen to a status greater than Judaism and paganism.111 For these reasons, the Christians saw Constantine's rise to emperor as an act of God. Here was God's instrument who had come to their rescue. Christianity and Roman culture were now melded together.112

The Christian building demonstrates that the church, whether she wanted it or not, had entered into a close alliance with pagan culture.113 As Will Durant, author of The Story of Civilization (a sweeping, eleven-volume work on world history that earned him a Pulitzer Prize), put it, "Pagan isles remained in the spreading Christian sea."114 This was a tragic shift from the primitive simplicity that the church of Jesus Christ first knew. The first-century Christians were opposed to the world's systems and avoided any contact with paganism. This all changed during the fourth century when the church emerged as a public institution in the world and began to "absorb and Christianize pagan religious ideas and practices."115 As one historian put it, "Church buildings took the place of temples; church endowments replaced temple lands and funds."116 Under Constantine, tax exempt status was granted for all church property.117

Consequently, the story of the church building is the sad saga of Christianity borrowing from heathen culture and radically transforming the face of our faith.118 To put it bluntly, the church buildings of the Constantinian and post-Constantinian era essentially became holy shrines.119 The Christians embraced the concept of the physical temple. They imbibed the pagan idea that there exists a special place where God dwells in a special way. And that place is made "with hands." 

As with other pagan customs that were absorbed into the Christian faith (such as the liturgy, the sermon, clerical vestments, and hierarchical leadership structure), third-and fourth-century Christians incorrectly attributed the origin of the church building to the Old Testament.121 But this was misguided thinking. The church building was borrowed from pagan culture. "Dignified and sacramental ritual had entered the church services by way of the mysteries [the pagan cults], and was justified, like so many other things, by reference to the Old Testament."122

To use the Old Testament as a justification for the church building is not only inaccurate, but it is self-defeating. The old Mosaic economy of sacred priests, sacred buildings, sacred rituals, and sacred objects has been forever destroyed by the cross of Jesus Christ. In addition, it has been replaced by a nonhierarchical, nonritualistic, nonliturgical organism called the ekklesia (church).123


Following the Constantinian era, church buildings passed through various stages. (They are too complex for us to detail here.) To quote one scholar, "Changes in church architecture are the result of mutation rather than a steady line of evolution." These mutations did little to change the dominant architectural features that fostered a monopolizing clergy and an inert congregation.124

Let's quickly survey the evolution of church architecture:

After Constantine, Christian architecture passed from the basilica phase to the Byzantine phase.125 Byzantine churches had wide central domes and decorative icons and mosaics.126

Byzantine architecture was followed by Romanesque architecture.127 Romanesque buildings were characterized by a three-story elevation, massive pillars supporting round arches, and colorful interiors.128 This form of building arose shortly after Charlemagne became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day AD 800.

Following the Romanesque period was the Gothic era of the twelfth century. Gothic architecture gave rise to the spellbinding Gothic cathedrals with their cross-ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and flying buttresses.129 The term cathedral is derived from cathedra. It is the building that houses the cathedra, the bishop's chair.130

Colored glass was first introduced to church buildings in the sixth century by Gregory of Tours (53 8-594).131 The glass was set into the narrow windows of some Romanesque churches. Suger (1081-1151), abbot of St. Denis, took colored glass to another level. He adorned the glass with sacred paintings. He thus became the first to use stained-glass windows in church buildings, placing them in his Gothic cathedrals.132

Great panels of tinted glass came to fill the walls of Gothic churches to emit brilliant, bright colored light.133 Rich and dark colors were also employed to create the effect of the new Jerusalem. The stained-glass windows of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have rarely been equaled in their beauty and quality. With their dazzling colors, stained-glass windows effectively created a soulish sense of majesty and splendor. They induced feelings associated with the worship of a mighty, fear-inspiring God.134

As with the Constantinian basilicas, the root of the Gothic cathedral is completely pagan. Gothic architects relied heavily on the teachings of the pagan Greek philosopher Plato. Plato taught that sound, color, and light have lofty mystical meanings. They can induce moods and help bring one closer to the "Eternal Good."135 The Gothic designers took Plato's teachings and set them to brick and stone. They created awe-inspiring lighting to elicit a sense of overwhelming splendor and worship.136

Color is one of the most powerful emotive factors available. Thus the Gothic stained-glass windows were employed skillfully to create a sense of mystery and transcendence. Drawing inspiration from the grandiose statues and towers of ancient Egypt, Gothic architecture sought to recapture the sense of the sublime through its exaggerated heights.137

It was said of the Gothic structure that "the whole building seems chained to earth in fixed flight.... It rises like an exhalation from the soil. No architecture so spiritualizes, refines and casts heavenward the substance which it handles."138 It was the ultimate symbol of heaven joining the earth.139

So with its use of light, color, and excessive height, the Gothic cathedral fostered a sense of mystery, transcendence, and awe.140 All of these features were borrowed from Plato and passed off as Christian.141

Basilica, Romanesque, and Gothic church buildings are a human attempt to duplicate that which is heavenly and spiritual.142 In a very real way, the church building throughout history reflects man's quest to sense the divine with his physical senses. While being surrounded by beauty can certainly turn a person's heart toward God, He desires so much more for His church than an aesthetic experience. By the fourth century, the Christian community had lost touch with those heavenly realities and spiritual intangibles that cannot be perceived by the senses, but which can only be registered by the human spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:9-16).

The main message of Gothic architecture is: "God is transcendent and unreachable—so be awed at His majesty." But such a message defies the message of the gospel, which says that God is very accessible—so much so that He has taken up residence inside of His people.


In the sixteenth century, the Reformers inherited the aforementioned building tradition. In a short period of time, thousands of medieval cathedrals became their property as the local rulers who controlled those structures joined the Reformation.143

Most of the Reformers were former priests. Hence, they had been unwittingly conditioned by the thought patterns of medieval Catholicism.144 So even though the Reformers did some remodeling to their newly acquired church buildings, they made little functional change in the architecture.145

Even if the Reformers wanted to bring radical changes to the practice of the church, the masses were not ready for it.146 Martin Luther was quite clear that the church was not a building or an institution.147 Yet it would have been impossible for him to overturn more than a millennium of confusion on the subject.148

The central architectural change that the Reformers made reflected their theology. They made the pulpit the dominant center of the building rather than the altar table.149 The Reformation was built on the idea that people could not know God nor grow spiritually unless they heard preaching. Thus when the Reformers inherited existing church buildings, they adapted them toward that end.150


Ever since the inhabitants of Babel erected a tower to "reach to the heavens," civilizations have followed suit by building structures with pointed tops.151 The Babylonians and Egyptians built obelisks and pyramids that reflected their belief that they were progressing toward immortality. When Greek philosophy and culture came along, the direction of architecture changed from upward and vertical to downward and horizontal. All of this suggested the Greek belief in democracy, human equality, and earthbound gods.152

However, with the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, the practice of crowning buildings with pointed tops reemerged. Toward the end of the Byzantine period, Catholic popes drew inspiration from the obelisks of ancient Egypt.153 As religious architecture entered the Romanesque period, points began to appear on the surfaces and corners of every cathedral built in the Roman Empire. This trend reached its pinnacle during the era of Gothic architecture with Abbot Suger's construction of the cathedral at St. Denis. Unlike Greek architecture, the characteristic line of Gothic architecture was vertical to suggest striving upward. By this time, all throughout Italy, towers began to appear near the entrances of church buildings. The towers housed bells to call the people to worship.154 These towers represented contact between heaven and earth.155

As the years passed, Gothic architects (with their emphasis on verticality) sought to add a tall spire to every tower.156 Spires (also called steeples; spires is the British/Anglican term) were a symbol of man's aspiration to be united with His Creator.157 In the centuries that followed, the towers grew taller and thinner. They eventually became a visual focal point for the architecture. They also reduced in number, from the double-towered "westwork" to the singular spire that so characterized the churches of Normandy and Britain. In the year 1666, something happened that changed the course of tower architecture. A fire swept across the city of London and damaged most of its eighty-seven church edifices.158 Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was then commissioned to redesign all the churches of London. Using his own stylistic innovations in modifying the Gothic spires of France and Germany, Wren created the modern steeple.159 From that point on, the steeple became a dominant feature of Anglo-British architecture. Later the Puritans made their church buildings far simpler than their Catholic and Anglican predecessors. But they kept the steeple and brought it into the new world of the Americas.160

The message of the steeple is one that contradicts the message of the New Testament. Christians do not have to reach into the heavens to find God. He is here! With the coming of Immanuel, God is with us (see Matthew 1:23). And with His resurrection, we have an indwelling Lord. The steeple defies these realities.


The earliest sermons were delivered from the bishop's chair, or cathedra, which was positioned behind the altar.161 Later the ambo, a raised desk on the side of the chancel from which Bible lessons were read, became the place where sermons were delivered.162 The ambo was taken from the Jewish synagogue.163 However, it has earlier roots in the reading desks and platforms of Greco-Roman antiquity. John Chrysostom (347-407) was noted for making the ambo a place for preaching.164

As early as AD 250, the ambo was replaced by the pulpit. Cyprian of Carthage (200-258) speaks of placing the leader of the church into public office upon the pulpitum.165 Our word pulpit is derived from the Latin word pulpitum which means "a stage."166 The pulpitum, or pulpit, was propped up in the highest elevated place in the congregation.167

In time, the phrase "to ascend the platform" (ad pulpitum venire) became part of the religious vocabulary of the clergy. By AD 252, Cyprian alludes to the raised platform that segregated the clergy from the laity as "the sacred and venerated congestum of the clergy."168

By the end of the Middle Ages the pulpit became common in parish churches.169 With the Reformation, it became the central piece of furniture in the church building.170 The pulpit symbolized the replacement of the centrality of ritualistic action (the Mass) with clerical verbal instruction (the sermon).171

In Lutheran churches, the pulpit was moved to the front of the altar.172 In Reformed churches the pulpit dominated until the altar finally disappeared and was replaced by the "Communion table."173

The pulpit has always been the centerpiece of the Protestant church. So much so that a well-known pastor who spoke during a conference sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claimed: "If the church is alive, it's because the pulpit is alive—if the church is dead, it's because the pulpit is dead."174

The pulpit elevates the clergy to a position of prominence. True to its meaning, it puts the preacher at center "stage"—separating and placing him high above God's people.


The pew is perhaps the greatest inhibitor of face-to-face fellowship. It is a symbol of lethargy and passivity in the contemporary church and has made corporate worship a spectator sport.175

The word pew is derived from the Latin podium. It means a seat raised up above floor level or a "balcony."176 Pews were unknown to the church building for the first thousand years of Christian history. In the early basilicas, the congregation stood throughout the entire service.1 (This is still the practice among many Eastern Orthodox.)178

By the thirteenth century, backless benches were gradually introduced into English parish buildings.179 These benches were made of stone and placed against the walls. They were then moved into the body of the building (the area called the nave).180 At first, the benches were arranged in a semicircle around the pulpit. Later they were fixed to the floor.181

The modern pew was introduced in the fourteenth century, though it was not commonly found in churches until the fifteenth century.182 At that time, wooden benches supplanted the stone seats.183 By the eighteenth century, box pews became popular.184

Box pews have a comical history. They were furnished with cushioned seats, carpets, and other accessories. They were sold to families and considered private property.185 Box-pew owners set out to make them as comfortable as possible. Some decorated them with curtains, cushions, padded armchairs, fireplaces—even special compartments for pet dogs. It was not uncommon for owners to keep their pews sealed with lock and key. After much criticism from the clergy, these embellished pews were replaced with open seats.186

Because box pews often had high sides, the pulpits had to be elevated so as to be seen by the people. Thus the "wineglass" pulpit was born during colonial times.187 Eighteenth-century family box pews were replaced with slip pews so that all the people faced the newly erected high platform where the pastor conducted the service.188

So what is the pew? The meaning of the word tells it all. It is a lowered "balcony"—detached seating from which to watch performances on a stage (the pulpit). It immobilizes the congregation of the saints and renders them mute spectators. It hinders face-to-face fellowship and interaction.

Galleries (or church balconies) were invented by the Germans in the sixteenth century. They were popularized by the Puritans in the eighteenth century. Since then balconies have become the trademark of the Protestant church building. Their purpose is to bring the congregation closer to the pulpit. Again, ensuring that congregants will be able to clearly hear the preacher has always been the main consideration in Protestant church design.189