DO WE NEED CHURCH BUILDINGS?
As you know, the Jews during the Biblical period regarded the temple in Jerusalem as the one and only place on earth where God could be properly worshipped. Every male Jew of twelve years and upward was expected to go up to Jerusalem to meet God at least three times a year (Passover, Pentecost and Feast of Tabernacles).
But what many people today do not realize is that there was a rival temple on Mount Gerizim near Shechem, right in the geographical centre of Palestine, where a kind of mockery of the Jewish worship was being conducted in all seriousness by the SAMARITANS, who made the blasphemous claim that God lived in their temple and could only be properly worshipped on Mount Gerizim! How this must have riled the Jews of those days, and annoyed them to the point of exasperated fury!
The Samaritans were a mixed race, descended from the Scythians, Medes, Parthians, who had been forced to live in Canaan by the Assyrian conquerors some 700 years before, to replace the northern tribes of Israel who had been carried away into exile. These gentile immigrants from the east had assimilated the worship of Jehovah whom they regarded as the local god, and had their own version of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) which they followed fanatically. They set up the temple on Mount Gerizim in imitation of Solomon's temple, with Holy of Holies and Ark of the Covenant, and were a perpetual thorn in the flesh of the pious Jew. No wonder a terrible feud developed! Jewish pilgrims who took the direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem through the central province of Samaria were liable to have their throats cut. They had to take the longer route down the coast, or travel the great Roman road on the east bank of the Jordan.
Jesus apparently bore no such grudge; he seems to have liked the Samaritans and spoke favourably of them in several of his parables. He never hesitated to travel through their country, enjoying its quiet lanes and villages. True, the Samaritans once refused hospitality to his disciples; but whenever he himself had personal dealings with them he got on well, and they listened gladly to his teachings. The first person on earth known to have acknowledged his Messiahship was the woman of Samaria referred to in John's Gospel chapter 4.
She and Jesus were talking together at Jacob's well near Sychar or Shechem, under the very shadow of Mount Gerizim. When the conversation grew a bit too personal and embarrassing, she deftly changed the subject, bringing up the old bone of contention. "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain," she said, "but you Jews say that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." To which Jesus replied: "Woman, believe me, the hour has now come when men shall neither in this mountain nor yet in Jerusalem worship the Father. God is Spirit, and they who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth." The woman said, "I know that the Messiah is coming, who is called Christ; when he comes he will tell us all things." Jesus replied: "I who speak to you am he."
Here, then, was the end of the feud between the Samaritans and the Jews as to the correct place for worshipping God—or it would have been if our Lord's words had been understood, appreciated and accepted. For with his coming as the Messiah or Christ, a new era was beginning in which the whole basis of worship was to be changed. No longer would it matter where people actually were when they worshipped God. It would make no difference whether they climbed Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, or Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, or stayed just where they happened to be. A new mode of worship was being inaugurated by which men could approach the Father in their own hearts, "in spirit and in truth."
The change had been effected by the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ. Jesus was Immanuel, God-with-us. Previously the world had been getting more and more remote from God. To obtain contact, the worshipper had to perform rituals and ceremonies which symbolized or "corresponded to" spiritual things. These rituals connected him up with heaven, and by way of heaven with God. The focus of the whole elaborate system had been the temple in Jerusalem, where God was supposed to live in a dark little chamber behind a curtain. The temple was believed to be literally the House of God. Nobody could enter, except the priests who were regarded as God's personal attendants; and even they could not enter the Holy of Holies—except the High Priest on a particular day. The common people remained outside in the courts, where they sacrificed their sheep and oxen according to the prescribed rituals. With the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ this system of ritual was rendered obsolete. God had built up for himself a DIVINE HUMANITY, by which he could communicate direct with all of his children. Jesus was the link, the bridge, the mediator. He was "reconciling mankind with himself."
When the Jews asked Jesus for a proof of his authenticity, he said, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." We are told he spoke of his body. He was the living temple, the tabernacle or dwelling place of God with man. When Jesus hung on the cross and thus completed his life's work, the curtain of the temple building tore from top to bottom, exposing the Holy of Holies to public gaze. This was a spectacular sign from heaven that the old temple-worship was finished for ever. In the Book of Revelation chapter 21, John expressly says of the New Jerusalem which was to supercede the Old Jerusalem, as Christianity was to supercede Judaism: "I saw no temple therein, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it." Jesus Christ is the living temple, God's dwelling-place with man. We can approach God by contacting the Lord Jesus Christ. "For the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them and be their God; for the former things are passed away."
All this took place nearly two thousand years ago, but still not everybody has caught up with it. Admittedly the word "temple" is not often used nowadays, but people still call their church "the House of God" and many of us seem to feel in some mystical way that God lives there. You visit him on Sundays and kneel hushed in his awesome presence, and you leave him behind when you return to your daily work. Such a view of religion is not often held consciously, but very often unconsciously, and it is the complete antithesis of the basic principle of Christianity. Our church building is not the House of God; it is a House of Prayer, a House of Worship—a convenient place where we can meet together for corporate prayer or worship. Jesus Christ is the Temple or House of God, not this building or any other building, and we must worship God in Jesus Christ. Where is Jesus Christ? Why, within your own heart, unless you have driven him out. If you have driven him out of your heart, you are not likely to find him anywhere. Unless you worship him in your own heart, you cannot worship him in any church, be it the most magnificent cathedral in the world.
There has been a healthy movement in recent years to get back to true Christianity stripped of all accessories, away from what is called "ecclesiasticism," away from professionalism in the ministry and all the paraphernalia of organized religion. Christianity is essentially a layman's movement, a people's movement. Jesus himself was a layman, in contrast to the professional Scribes and Pharisees; so were the early disciples and apostles —with the possible exception of Paul, who unwittingly introduced some elements of Pharisaism into the Christian Church. The present drift away from the churches —loss of members, empty theological colleges—is largely a reaction against a religion tied to an Establishment, with elaborate church buildings, an ordained clergy, a choir, and so on—all utterly irrelevant, it would seem, to everyday twentieth century life.
How did our Establishment come into being? I think it originally grew up in imitation of the secular state, the Imperial Civil Service by which the Roman Empire was administered when Christianity was first adopted as the official religion. And there it has stuck, despite the fact that the Roman Empire has long since disappeared from the pageant of history. Incidentally, the architectural style of our conventional church buildings has no particular religious connotation; it was merely an imitation of the gothic manor houses of the Middle Ages.
What are we to do, then? Scrap all our churches, abolish the ministry, and go back to the Book of Acts, concentrating on lay-led meetings in one another's homes? This could be good, and we may well come to this when the world is more spiritually advanced than it is today. I can foresee that this will be what Christianity will look like in, say, a hundred years' time. Every vital spiritual movement in the world today seems to be working in that direction, towards a New Jerusalem with "no temple therein," but with the Lord's Divine Humanity as the tabernacle of God with man.
But there is another aspect of the matter, which may excuse us for wanting to preserve our weekly worship in specially consecrated buildings, led by specially trained men who have made the ministry their vocation. In our present immature state we probably need it, as is evidenced by the fact that members who move away from a church generally end up by ceasing to worship altogether. Jesus did not oppose organized worship as such. He himself attended synagogue regularly, he went there "as was his wont on the Sabbath Day." He prayed in public as well as in private. He was baptized by John in Jordan; and, of course, he instituted the Holy Communion. So long as these formal acts are regarded as means to an end and not ends in themselves, they can be immensely valuable.
The whole subject of the relationship between the externals and the internals of religion is very interesting. Just as the stone walls and' locked doors of a church building protect the altar Bible, the Communion vessels and the rich carpets of the sanctuary (and, I may add, the tape recorder and P.A. system) so the externals of religion can protect and preserve the more precious worship of the heart. The fact that we discipline ourselves to attend service in a certain building at a definite hour, and take part in certain ritual which has evolved during the ages, can help to preserve and protect our spiritual consciousness. To depend entirely on one's own resources to maintain one's spiritual vitality, is beyond the capacity of most of us. Structure can get in the way, but without any structure there is a tendency for our thoughts to dissipate and degenerate into trivia and superficial or sentimental nothingness. We need to get together with our friends from time to time, to "fill our tanks at the filling station," so to speak; to recharge our flat batteries.
Suppose someone asks you where your church is; you probably reply by giving the address of a certain church building. But this is the wrong answer. It is like saying, "My church is the temple in Jerusalem, or on Mount Gerizim." The correct answer would be: "My church is where I and my fellow members are at this moment, doing our various jobs in the world." A church consists of people, not of a building. You could add: "On Sundays we meet together in such-and-such a building, where one of our members, called the minister, leads us in a meaningful ritual and teaches us about the Lord and the heavenly life, while other members lead us in singing which expresses our spiritual emotions. All this renews our flagging zeal. Then we come back to our everyday occupations, and try to co-operate with the Lord in the extension of his Kingdom."
You see how utterly different this concept of the Church is from the priest-focused, temple-centred ecclesiasticism which Christianity came to replace. It should have ended with the destruction of the two temples in Palestine by the Roman legions shortly after our Lord's crucifixion. Unfortunately many of us have still to learn that "God is Spirit, and they who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth." During our daily work, while walking along the road, or driving the car, or waiting for a bus or plane. In our kitchen or family playroom or on the golf links. Thankfulness to the Lord when all goes well. Realistic penitence for foolish behaviour, things messed up and sins committed. A cry for inner support during trouble and temptation. An outpouring of love and gratitude for help received. Intercession for a friend who is sick or in special need. Praise to God all the time; prayer every moment of every day.
May we value our organized church for the enlightenment and help it gives us to worship in this way. If, to be quite honest, it does not help us very much, let's try to find out what has gone wrong. Perhaps we shall discover that the fault does not lie wholly with the organized church but is partly our own. Let us always remember that, if the organized church is to reach us and benefit us from the outside, the church must exist first of all in our own hearts.