THE CHURCH BUILDING:
INHERITING THE EDIFICE COMPLEX
by Frank Viola and George Barna
"In the process of replacing the old religions, Christianity became a religion." — ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN, TWENTIETH-CENTURY EASTERN ORTHODOX PRIEST, TEACHER, AND WRITER.
"That the Christians in the apostolic age erected special houses of worship is out of the question.... As the Saviour of the world was born in a stable, and ascended to heaven from a mountain, so his apostles and their successors down to the third century, preached in the streets, the markets, on mountains, in ships, sepulchres, eaves, and deserts, and in the homes of their converts. But how many thousands of costly churches and chapels have since been built and are constantly being built in all parts of the world to the honor of the crucified Redeemer, who in the days of his humiliation had no place of his own to rest his head!" —PHILIP SCHAFF, NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CHURCH HISTORIAN AND THEOLOGIAN.
(WE ARE TAKEN THROUGH THE HISTORY OF THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE EDIFICE COMPLEX FROM THE HOUSE CHURCH, BY THE AUTHORS; AS YOU CAN SEE WITH DOZENS OF HISTORICAL REFERENCES - Keith Hunt)
MANY CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANS have a love affair with brick and
mortar. The edifice complex is so ingrained in our thinking that if a group of believers begins to meet together, their first thoughts are toward securing a building. For how can a group of Christians rightfully claim to be a church without a building? (So the thinking goes.)
The "church" building is so connected with the idea of church that we unconsciously equate the two. Just listen to the vocabulary of the average Christian today:
"Wow, honey, did you see that beautiful church we just passed?" "My goodness! That is the largest church I have ever seen! I wonder what the electric costs to keep it going?"
"Our church is too small. I'm developing claustrophobia. We need to extend the balcony."
"The church is chilly today; I am freezing my buns off in here!" "We have gone to church every Sunday this past year except for the Sunday when Aunt Mildred dropped the microwave oven on her toe."
Or how about the vocabulary of the average pastor: "Isn't it wonderful to be in the house of God today?"
"We must show reverence when we come into the sanctuary of the Lord."
Or how about the mother who tells her happy child (in subdued tones). "Wipe that smile off your face; you're in church now! We behave ourselves in the house of God!"
To put it bluntly, none of these thoughts have anything to do with New Testament Christianity. Rather they reflect the thinking of other religions—primarily Judaism and paganism.
TEMPLES, PRIESTS, AND SACRIFICES
Ancient Judaism was centered on three elements: the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifice. When Jesus came, He ended all three, fulfilling them in Himself. He is the temple who embodies a new and living house made of living stones—"without hands." He is the priest who has established a new priesthood. And He is the perfect and finished sacrifice.1 Consequently, the Temple, the professional priesthood, and the sacrifice of Judaism all passed away with the coming of Jesus Christ.2 Christ is the fulfillment and the reality of it all.3
In Greco-Roman paganism, these three elements were also present: Pagans had their temples, their priests, and their sacrifices.4 It was only the Christians who did away with all of these elements.5 It can be rightly said that Christianity was the first non-temple-based religion ever to emerge. In the minds of the early Christians, the people—not the architecture—constituted a sacred space. The early Christians understood that they themselves—corporately—were the temple of God and the house of God.6
Strikingly, nowhere in the New Testament do we find the terms church (ekklesia), temple, or house of God used to refer to a building. To the ears of a first-century Christian, calling an ekklesia (church) a building would have been like calling your wife a condominium or your mother a skyscraper!7
The first recorded use of the word ekklesia to refer to a Christian
1. For references to Christ as Temple, see John 1:14, where the Greek word used for dwelt literally means "tabernacled," and John 2:19-21. For additional references to Christ as a new house made of living stones, see Mark 14:58; Acts 7:48; 2 Corinthians 5:1, 6:16; Ephesians 2:21-22; Hebrews 3:6-9,9:11,24; 1 Timothy 3:15. For references to Christ as priest, see Hebrews 4:14; 5:5-6,10; and 8:1. The new priesthood is mentioned in 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6. Scriptures that point to Christ as the final sacrifice include Hebrews 7:27; 9:14,25-28; 10:12; 1 Peter 3:18. Hebrews continually stresses that Jesus offered Himself "once for all time," emphasizing the fact that He need not be sacrificed again.
2. Stephen's message in Acts 7 indicates that Ike temple was merely a man-made house originating with Solomon; it had no connection with the tent of meeting that Moses had been commanded to set up on a Divinely revealed pattern and that had continued until David's time." See Harold W. Turner, "From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship" [The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979), 116-117. See also Mark 14:58, where Jesus says that the Temple of Solomon (and Herod) was made "with hands," while the Temple that He would raise up would be made "without hands." Stephen uses the same wording in Acts 7:48. In other words, God does not dwell in temples "made with hands." Our heavenly Father is not a temple dweller!
3. See Colossians 2:16-17. That Christ came to fulfill the shadows of the Jewish law is the central theme of the book of Hebrews. The New Testament writers all affirm that God does not require any holy sacrifices nor a mediating priesthood. All things have been fulfilled in Jesus—the sacrifice and the mediating priest.
4. Ernest H. Short dedicates an entire chapter to the architecture of Greek temples in his book "History of Religious Architecture" (London: Philip Allan & Co., 1936), ch. 2. David Norrington states, "Religious buildings were, nonetheless, an integral part of Graeco-Roman religion" in his book "To Preach or Not to Preach? The Church's Urgent Question" (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1996), 27. Pagans also had "holy" shrines. Michael Grant, "The Founders of the Western World: A History of Greece and Rome" (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991), 232-234. For more on pagan rituals, see Robin Lane Fox, "Pagans and Christians" (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1987), 39,41-43,71-76, 206.
5. John 0. Gooch, "Did You Know? Little-Known or Remarkable Facts about Worship in the Early Church," Christian History l2, no. 1 (1993): 3.
6. See 1 Corinthians 3:16; Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 2:20-22; Hebrews 3:5-6; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 2:5,4:17. All of these passages refer to God's people, not to a building. Arthur Wallis writes, "In the Old Testament, God had a sanctuary for His people; in the New, God has His people as a sanctuary" The Radical Christian (Columbia, MO: Cityhill Publishing, 1987), 83.
7. According to the New Testament, the church is the bride of Christ, the most beautiful woman in the world: John 3:29; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-32; Revelation 21:9.
meeting place was penned around AD 190 by Clement of Alexandria (150-215).8 Clement was also the first person to use the phrase "go to church"—which would have been a foreign thought to the first-century believers.9 (You cannot go to something you are!) Throughout the New Testament, ekkksia always refers to an assembly of people, not a place. Ekkksia, in every one of its 114 appearances in the New Testament, refers to an assembly of people. (The English word church is derived from the Greek word kuriakon, which means "belonging to the Lord." In time, it took on the meaning of "God's house" and referred to a building.)10
Even so, Clement's reference to "going to church" is not a reference to attending a special building for worship. It rather refers to a private home that the second-century Christians used for their meetings.11 Christians did not erect special buildings for worship until the Constantinian era in the fourth century. New Testament scholar Graydon E Snyder states, "There is no literary evidence nor archaeological indication that any such home was converted into an extant church building. Nor is there any extant church that certainly was built prior to Constantine." In another work he writes, "The first churches consistently met in homes. Until the year 300 we know of no buildings first built as churches."12.....
Instead, every believer recognized that he or she was a priest unto God. The early Christians also did away with sacrifices. For they understood that the true and final sacrifice (Christ) had come. The only sacrifices that they offered were the spiritual sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving (see Hebrews 13:15 and 1 Peter 2:5).
When Roman Catholicism evolved in the fourth to the sixth centuries, it absorbed many of the religious practices of both paganism and Judaism. It set up a professional priesthood. [Actually nothing wrong with a professional ministry as I prove under my studies on "Church Government" - Keith Hunt]. It erected sacred buildings.13 And it turned the Lord's Supper into a mysterious sacrifice.
Following the path of the pagans, early Catholicism adopted the practice of burning incense and having vestal (sacred) virgins.14 The Protestants dropped the sacrificial use of the Lord's Supper, the burning of incense, and the vestal virgins. But they retained the priestly caste (the clergy) as well as the sacred building. [Again contrary to the authors, a "ministry" of full or part time men is not wrong, as I prove with my church government studies - Keith Hunt].
FROM HOUSE CHURCHES TO HOLY CATHEDRALS
The early Christians believed that Jesus is the very presence of God. They believed that the body of Christ, the church, constitutes a temple.
When the Lord Jesus was on earth, He made some radically negative statements about the Jewish Temple.15 The one that angered many Jews most was His announcement that if the Temple was destroyed, He would build a new one in three days! (See John 2:19-21.) Though Jesus was referring to the Temple that existed in the architectural sense, He was really speaking of His body. Jesus said that after this temple was destroyed, He would raise it up in three days. He was referring to the real temple—the church—which He raised up in Himself on the third day (Ephesians 2:6).
Since Christ has risen, we Christians have become the temple of God. At His resurrection, Christ became a "life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:45, NIV). Therefore, He could take up residence in the believers, thus making them His Temple, His house. It is for this reason that the New Testament always reserves the word church (ekklesia) for the people of God. It never uses this word to refer to a building of any sort.
Jesus' act of clearing the Temple not only showed His anger at the money changers' disrespect for the Temple, which was a picture of God's true house, but it also signified that the "Temple worship" of Judaism would be replaced with Himself.16 With Jesus' coming, God the Father would no longer be worshipped in a mountain or a temple. He would instead be worshipped in spirit and in reality.17
When Christianity was born, it was the only religion on the planet that had no sacred objects, no sacred persons, and no sacred spaces.18 Although surrounded by Jewish synagogues and pagan temples, the early Christians were the only religious people on earth who did not erect sacred buildings for their worship.19 The Christian faith was born in homes, out in courtyards, and along roadsides.20
For the first three centuries, the Christians did not have any special buildings.21 As one scholar put it, "The Christianity that conquered the Roman Empire was essentially a home-centered movement"22 Some have argued that this was because the Christians were not permitted to erect church buildings. But that is not true.23 Meeting in homes was a conscious choice of the early Christians.
As Christian congregations grew in size, they began to remodel their homes to accommodate their growing numbers.24 One of the most outstanding finds of archaeology is the house of Dura-Europos in modern Syria. This is the earliest identifiable Christian meeting place. It was simply a private home remodeled as a Christian gathering place around AD 232.25
The house at Dura-Europos was essentially a house with a wall torn out between two bedrooms to create a large living room.26 With this modification, the house could accommodate about seventy people.27 Remodeled houses like Dura-Europos cannot rightfully be called "church buildings." They were simply homes that had been refurbished to accommodate larger assemblies.28 Further, these homes were never called temples, the term that both pagans and Jews used for their sacred spaces. Christians did not begin calling their buildings temples until the fifteenth century.29
THE CREATION OF SACRED SPACES AND OBJECTS
In the late second and third centuries a shift occurred. The Christians began to adopt the pagan view of reverencing the dead.30 Their focus was on honoring the memory of the martyrs. So prayers for the saints (which later devolved into prayers to them) began.31
The Christians picked up from the pagans the practice of having meals in honor of the dead.32 Both the Christian funeral and the funeral dirge came straight out of paganism in the third century.33
Third-century Christians had two places for their meetings: their homes and the cemetery.34 They met in the cemetery because they wished to be close to their dead brethren.35 It was their belief that to share a meal at a cemetery of a martyr was to commemorate him and to worship in his company.36
Since the bodies of the "holy" martyrs resided there, Christian burial places came to be viewed as "holy spaces." The Christians then began to build small monuments over these spaces—especially over the graves of famous saints.37 Building a shrine over a burial place and calling it holy was also a pagan practice.38
In Rome, the Christians began to decorate the catacombs (underground burial places) with Christian symbols.39 So art became associated with sacred spaces. Clement of Alexandria was one of the first Christians advocating the visual arts in worship. (Interestingly, the cross as an artistic reference for Christ's death cannot be found prior to the time of Constantine.40 The crucifix, an artistic representation of the Savior attached to the cross, made its first appearance in the fifth century.41 The custom of making the "sign of the cross" with one's hands dates back to the second century.)42
At about the second century, Christians began to venerate the bones of the saints, regarding them as holy and sacred. This eventually gave birth to relic collecting.43 Reverence for the dead was the most powerful community-forming force in the Roman Empire. Now the Christians were absorbing it into their own faith.44
In the late second century there was also a shift in how the Lord's Supper was viewed..... By the fourth century, the cup and the bread were seen as producing a sense of awe, dread, and mystery. As a result, the churches in the East placed a canopy over the altar table where the bread and cup sat. (In the sixteenth century, rails were placed upon the altar table.45 The rails signified that the altar table was a holy object only to be handled by holy persons—i.e., the clergy.46
So by the third century, the Christians not only had sacred spaces, they also had sacred objects. (They would soon develop a sacred priesthood.) In all of this, the second and third century Christians began to assimilate the magical mind-set that characterized pagan thinking.47 All of these factors made the Christian terrain ready for the man who would be responsible for creating church buildings.
CONSTANTINE—FATHER OF THE CHURCH BUILDING
While the emperor Constantine (ca. 285-337) is often lauded for granting Christians freedom of worship and expanding their privileges, his story fills a dark page in the history of Christianity. Church buildings began with him.48 The story is astonishing.
By the time Constantine emerged on the scene, the atmosphere was ripe for Christians to escape their despised, minority status. The temptation to be accepted was just too great to resist, and Constantine's influence began in earnest.
In AD 312, Constantine became caesar of the Western Empire.49 By 324, he became emperor of the entire Roman Empire. Shortly afterward, he began ordering the construction of church buildings. He did so to promote the popularity and acceptance of Christianity. If the Christians had their own sacred buildings—as did the Jews and the pagans—their faith would be regarded as legitimate.
It is important to understand Constantine's mind-set—for it explains why he was so enthusiastic about the establishment of church buildings. Constantine's thinking was dominated by superstition and pagan magic. Even after he became emperor, he allowed the old pagan institutions to remain as they were.50
Following his conversion to Christianity, Constantine never abandoned sun worship. He kept the sun on his coins. And he set up a statue of the sun god that bore his own image in the Forum of Constantinople (his new capital). Constantine also built a statue of die mother-goddess Cybele (though he presented her in a posture of Christian prayer).51 Historians continue to debate whether or not Constantine was a genuine Christian. The fact that he is reported to have had his eldest son, his nephew, and his brother-in-law executed does not strengthen the case for his conversion.52 But we will not probe that nerve too deeply here.
In AD 321, Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a day of rest—a legal holiday.53 It appears that Constantine's intention in doing this was to honor the god Mithras, the Unconquered Sun.54 (He described Sunday as "the day of the sun.") Further demonstrating Constantine's affinity with sun worship, excavations of St. Peter's in Rome uncovered a mosaic of Christ as the Unconquered Sun.55
Almost to his dying day, Constantine "still functioned as the high priest of paganism."56 In fact, he retained the pagan title Pontifex Maximus, which means chief of the pagan priests!57 (In the fifteenth century, this same title became the honorific title for the Roman Catholic pope.)58
When Constantine dedicated Constantinople as his new capital on May 11, 330, he adorned it with treasures taken from heathen temples.59 And he used pagan magic formulas to protect crops and heal diseases.60
Further, all historical evidence indicates that Constantine was an egomaniac. When he built the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople, he included monuments to the twelve apostles. The twelve monuments surrounded a single tomb, which lay at the center. That tomb was reserved for Constantine himself—thus making himself the thirteenth and chief apostle. Thus Constantine not only continued the pagan practice of honoring the dead, he also sought to be included as one of the significant dead.61
Constantine also borrowed from the pagans (not the Jews) the notion of the sacredness of objects and places.62 Largely due to his influence, relic mongering became common in the church.63 By the fourth century, obsession with relics got so bad that some Christian leaders spoke out against it, calling it "a heathen observance introduced in the churches under the cloak of religion . . . the work of idolaters."64
Constantine is also noted for bringing to the Christian faith the idea of the holy site, which was based on the model of the pagan shrine. Because of the aura of "sacredness" that the fourth-century Christians attached to Palestine, it had become known as "the Holy Land" by the sixth century.65
After Constantine's death, he was declared to be "divine." (This was the custom for all pagan emperors who died before him.)66 It was the senate who declared him to be a pagan god at his death.67 And no one stopped them from doing so.
At this point, a word should be said about Constantine's mother, Helena. This woman was most noted for her obsession with relics. In AD 326, Helena made a pilgrimage to Palestine.68 In AD 327 in Jerusalem she reportedly found the cross and nails that were used to crucify Jesus. It is reported that Constantine promoted the idea that the bits of wood that came from Christ's cross possessed spiritual powers.70 Truly, a pagan magical mind was at work in Emperor Constantine—the father of the church building.
CONSTANTINE'S BUILDING PROGRAM
Following Helena's trip to Jerusalem in AD 327, Constantine began erecting the first church buildings throughout the Roman Empire, some at public expense.71 In so doing, he followed the path of the pagans in constructing temples to honor God.72
Interestingly, he named his church buildings after saints—just as the pagans named their temples after gods. Constantine built his first church buildings upon the cemeteries where the Christians held meals for the dead saints.73 That is, he built them over the bodies of dead saints.74 Why? Because for at least a century beforehand, the burial places of the saints were considered "holy spaces."75
Many of the largest buildings were built over the tombs of the martyrs.76 This practice was based on the idea that the martyrs had the same powers that they had once ascribed to the gods of paganism.77 The Christians adopted this view completely.
The most famous Christian "holy spaces" were St. Peter's on the Vatican Hill (built over the supposed tomb of Peter), St. Paul's Outside the Walls (built over the supposed tomb of Paul), the dazzling and astonishing Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (built over the supposed tomb of Christ), and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (built over the supposed cave of Jesus' birth). Constantine built nine churches in Rome and many others in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Constantinople.78
TO BE CONTINUED