Why the Church is Not “God’s House”

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Why the Church is Not “God’s House”

Growing up, churches always intimidated me. Not the Church, as in the worldwide body of believers or the doctrines we all attest. I’m talking about the building. As a kid, going there was always such a chore: we often had to dress up, we couldn’t run and play in the building (the parking lot was fine, though), and in the sanctuary, we were supposed to be very quiet. Silence was preferred. If we went to church during the week, unless there was an event in the sanctuary, I wasn’t supposed to go in. For me, the sanctuary especially always had this eerie quality, like the Elephant Graveyard from the Lion King. It was supposed to be special and therefore was dangerous for me to tread.

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The rationale given was that the church was God’s house and therefore I had to be especially reverent in it. I’ve been told that my parents’ goal was to instill in me a reverence for God but in the end, all that was accomplished was a wariness of the church structure. We have come to treat the church building as sacred and special, as if God’s presence is somehow more intense there than it is other places, which naturally makes churches rather intimidating.

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I’m guessing I’m not alone in feeling intimidated by churches and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is okay to be intimidated by holiness; it’s probably a healthy thing, in fact. But my question is are churches supposed to be holy, special places? Or have we venerated something that was never meant to be venerated in the first place?

COOKIE QUESTION: What is the etymology (word origin) of the modern word “church?”

Temple

The Old Testament certainly affirms the idea of a special, sacred space for meeting with YHWH, obviously centered around the tabernacle and later Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, YHWH is rather specific that it is only at his chosen spot that the Israelites are supposed to offer their sacrifices, fulfill their vows, pay tithes, and do the other activities required of YHWH’s cult, or religion. While these activities aren’t what we consider “worship” today, for which sheep are undoubtedly extremely grateful, they constituted a large part of what worship in the ancient context entailed.[1] Of course, the temple wasn’t unique to the Israelites and to understand how YHWH’s temple was understood, it is essential to understand Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) temple ideology.

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Before getting to the temple itself, we need a basic grasp of ANE “cosmic geography,” or how the cosmos was understood to be put together, since, as John Walton accurately states, “the temple was the central and fundamental component of the cosmos.”[2] To dramatically oversimplify, three levels composed the universe: the heavens (where the gods lived), the earth (where humans lived), and the nether or underworld (where the dead “lived’). Heaven and earth were separated by the sky and as long as the gods lived in their heavenly temples, they were inaccessible to the humans on earth.[3]

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Thankfully for us mortals, this barrier wasn’t impermeable. Certain places could act as portals between the mortal and the divine/heavenly, termed now “sacred space,” usually identified through an oracle or some other sign. Once identified, sacred space would always be sacred and it is not uncommon to see the same spot to have several temples of completely different cultures built over each other![4]

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Once a sacred space was identified, the temple was built to entice the god, preferably a powerful god or goddess, to take up residence. As such, temples were less places of worship and more the palace of the deity. The bigger, grander, and more luxurious the temple, the more powerful deity could be convinced to claim the city.[5] To help the god/goddess come down, the Mesopotamians built ziggurats (stair-stepped pyramids) as staircases and even built luxuriant apartments at the top for the deity to relax when not holding court in the temple below.[6]

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If a god/goddess was successfully brought to the city, he or she would take up residence in their temple, using their idol as an avatar, and it and the people would enter into what John Walton calls the “Great Symbiosis.” The humans would provide for the needs and wants of the god while the god, mostly out of self-interest, would bring justice, order, fertility, and strength to his or her city.[7]

Everything associated with the temple was about keeping the god happy, which is what worship in the ANE boiled down to. The gods were fed with sacrifices, entertained with music, women, and men, egos stroked through ritual retelling of their exploits, clothed in the best clothes, and even bathed routinely.[8] The gods were such divas that a special class of people, priests and prophets, had to be developed to keep up with their capricious whims and keep them happy![9] And of course, being gods, they demanded only the absolute best of all of it, from their buildings to their wine.[10]

With YHWH and Israel, things were slightly different. YHWH had no need of the Great Symbiosis as he has no needs that man can fill and is entirely self-sufficient. Neither was YHWH subject to the random whims of the surrounding gods such as suddenly wanting a garden in his temple or needing a grander statue. While YHWH could be exacting in justice, his reasoning was always rooted in violations of his already stipulated law.[11]

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So if YHWH’s temple and adjoining cult wasn’t about keeping him happy in the Great Symbiosis, what was it about? Covenantal relationship. This might be the most shocking part of YHWH’s temple: he chose to be with humans simply because he wanted to. Exodus 25:8 sets the tone for YHWH’s temple, “let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” Unfortunately, it is problematic for the pure and holy God to interact with defiled and unholy humans but that is what the whole of the tabernacle and later temple was about: making such a relationship possible! The laws and sacrifices focused on purifying humanity so that they could relate with God and vice versa.

Of course, this was an imperfect system. Relationship with YHWH was essentially constricted to the temple, although the astute were well aware that YHWH could not be contained by the temple.[12] However, except in rare cases,[13] meeting with YHWH was limited to the temple. While the presence of the deity was limited to his/her single temple, the deity could still be accessed one of two ways: the god’s branch offices (shrines or high places) or through the petition of a lesser, family god (usually an ancestor) that could be reached from the house shrine to said family god.

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However, in Israel, no such option was supposed to exist. Israel was supposed to be strictly monotheistic, not acknowledging other gods. Additionally, it seems that the high-place branch offices were not supposed to exist;[14] interaction with YHWH was supposed to occur only at the temple.

So how did they worship? That depends on what you mean by “worship.” The cultic rituals and rites were taken care of by the priests and the people were responsible for little more than contributions and showing up for the three required feast days (Passover, Atonement, and Tabernacles). Even then, it is debatable if they were actually expected to come every year, especially those living far away.

But if you mean worship in the sense that we worship, then temple wasn’t a factor. Offering prayer, singing hymns of praise or supplication, reciting and teaching the law, all those things were supposed to happen in people’s homes, not at the temple.[15] Indeed, most Iron Age Israelite homes had special areas dedicated for such activities.[16] But YHWH’s presence wasn’t “there,” at least not in the manifest sense as at the temple. The temple was where YHWH was and where the people’s relationship with him was maintained and fostered. But following him, serving him, and learning more about him? That happened in the home and in daily life.

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During the Exile, this separation of the two ideas took on even more concrete understanding with the development of the synagogue. Synagogues were, and still are, much more akin to our modern church than the temple ever was. They functioned as the centers of Jewish community life throughout the week and among their central functions were prayer and study of Torah. Indeed, they were called houses of prayer, houses of study, and houses of meeting. But they were never called houses of YHWH. YHWH was not at the synagogue; not like he was at the temple. It was only there [at the temple] that the community’s relationship with YHWH could be maintained through the cult prescribed in Torah and the synagogue could never replace the temple. Even after its final destruction in 70 AD, synagogues did not replace the temple as being the place that YHWH was manifest.[17]

Rather it was only at the temple that YHWH dwelt and interacted with his people. He had his people construct first the tabernacle and then the temple for the express purpose of being able to live and be among his people. In this way, the temple was a precursor to the incarnation of Christ, who came to make his dwelling among us.[18]

The New Testament Church

Christ’s coming heralded a new dynamic in his relations with people. As God made flesh, Jesus was the temple made living, breathing flesh. The idea of the temple found its ultimate reality in Christ, who in doing so replaced the temple. Jesus called himself the temple,[19] declared himself to be greater than the temple,[20] and dismissed the (earthly) temple as being ultimately obsolete.[21]

That was all fine and dandy while Christ was walking around on earth but what about after he returned to heaven? Jesus solution wasn’t for us to build a temple or special shrines where he would manifest his presence. Instead, his solution was the ekklēsia, or as it is translated in your Bible, “church.”

Ekklēsia literally means “assembly,” usually with the connotation of being an assembly for a purpose. In Greek legal literature, it was the term used to designate the citizens of Athens when they gathered to make official decisions for the city as part of their democracy. The Septuagint translators use this same word to render the Hebrew word referring to the sacred assembly of Israel into Greek and the New Testament writers co-opt this term to refer to Jesus followers.[22]

While this term is used to describe the church in a particular place, it does not ever mean church as a particular place. When associated with a geographic location, such as Ephesus, it simply means “the assembly of believers in Ephesus,” not Ephesus as the place where the believers meet.[23]

An additional meaning to this word is the universal assembly of believers in all locations, i.e. the worldwide church. This speaks to the unity and siblinghood all believers share as a follower of Christ, regardless of where they are or who they are.[24]

The “church” is not, nor was ever, intended to be a place; rather the church is fundamentally the people united in service to Jesus Christ. But while the church was not supposed to be a place, it was supposed to be a temple.

Paul calls the believer’s body the “temple of God” in 1 Corinthians 3 and 6 and more explicitly, he calls the church “a holy temple in the Lord” in Ephesians 2:19-21. More than that, the church is repeatedly, through Paul’s writings, called the “body of Christ.” If Christ was the replacement of the temple, the idea made reality as already established, then the church, as the body of Christ, is in fact that same temple made flesh and blood. The divine Christ is made manifest in the world through us, together. As Jesus said in Matthew 18:20, where “two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” This is temple language, only it isn’t applied to a place, but to a gathering of people!

Fundamentally, this is why early Christians never bothered with building physical churches until over two centuries into their existence. They didn’t need sacred space because wherever they gathered, usually in each other’s homes, that place became sacred space because the ekklēsia was there. They made the place holy; the place did not make them holy.

Even when they did build churches pre-Constantine, it was most likely out of convenience rather than any desire for a place to meet with God. In some places, as their numbers grew enough, meeting in houses became impractical and so meeting halls were constructed, usually over the very houses they would typically meet in![25] It wasn’t until Constantine that churches began to be treated as temples and being built on so-called “sacred space.”[26]

Churches Today

Clearly when we talk about churches now, we think of them like temples. They are the “house of God” where we are supposed to act reverently because that particular space is special and holy. When we gather at the church, we act and behave differently than we do elsewhere because it is the church. Even the terms we use for parts of the church, like “sanctuary” and “altar” are temple language.

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But the building isn’t a temple. It’s just a building we meet at and is no more holy than our own homes. God’s presence is no more there than he is anywhere else. This isn’t to say that having churches is a bad thing; indeed it is quite practical to have dedicated meeting halls, especially for larger assemblies of people. Rather, this is to highlight that the church building simply isn’t special.

Now of course God’s presence is at church in a special way when we meet for Sabbath services but that isn’t because we are meeting in “God’s house.” If we decided to meet in our homes, as the early Christians did, God would be there just as strongly. Do we tiptoe around our houses because that is where the house of God is? No! But is God any less there in our homes than the church building when we gather together? Again, no! We don’t think this way but that makes it no less true.

This is less about denigrating church buildings than trying to shift our focus and attitude when it comes to meeting together. We reserve certain activities for the church and other, more “secular” activities for outside the church because it isn’t appropriate to do in “God’s house.” But “God’s house” is wherever his believers are. Having a Bible study in your house? God is there just as much as he would be in the sanctuary. Meeting with a church friend for lunch at Chipotle? God is there, just as much as he would be in the sanctuary. Playing softball on a Sunday afternoon, God is there, just as much as he would be in the sanctuary. Going to watch a movie with friends? God is there, just as much as he would be in the sanctuary. Everywhere we gather together becomes the temple of God because God is manifest in us just as much as he was in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple.

This doesn’t mean that we have to restrict ourselves to only doing certain “sanctified” activities, although some of us may want to revisit what we do. Rather, this is the highlight that for the believer, there is no such thing as secular; everything we do, everywhere we go is by definition holy. Understanding ourselves as the living temple of God demands that we approach everything in life, from the grandest of the grand to the most mundane of mundane, with an attitude of holy awareness.

So, as you go to church this Sabbath, think on what makes this moment holy. When you sit down for potluck, realize that this moment too is holy. When you watch a movie with your friends, realize that this moment is holy. Every time you cross paths with a fellow believer, embrace the moment as a holy meeting with God and becoming his living, breathing temple.[27]

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Bibliography.

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd-Kindle ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. Vol. 1. 2 vols. 2nd-Kindle ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Garfinkel, Yosef, and Madeleine Mumcuoglu. Solomon’s Temple and Palace: New Archaeological Discoveries. Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum, 2015.

Shafer-Elliott, Cynthia. “The Role of the Household in the Religous Feasting of Ancient Israel and Judah.” In Feasting in the Archaeology and Texts of the Bible and the Ancient near East. Edited by Peter Altmann and Janling Fu. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2014.

Silva, Moisés. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 2. 5 vols. Second edition. ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

Walton, John H. Ancient near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Kindle ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006.

Walton, John H. “The Temple in Context.” In Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament. Edited by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2018.

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Notes.

[1] Ancient “worship” is a far too complex subject for this article. So when I talk about OT “worship,” I mean these cultic activities unless otherwise specified.

[2] John H. Walton, “The Temple in Context,” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, ed. Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2018), 349.

[3] John H. Walton, Ancient near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006), ch. 7.

[4] Walton, Ancient near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, ch. 5.

[5] Yosef Garfinkel, and Madeleine Mumcuoglu, Solomon’s Temple and Palace: New Archaeological Discoveries (Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum, 2015), 101.

[6] Walton, Ancient near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, ch. 5.

[7] Walton, “The Temple in Context,” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, 350.

[8] Walton, “The Temple in Context,” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, 350-51.

[9] Walton, Ancient near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, ch. 5.

[10] Walton, “The Temple in Context,” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, 350.

[11] Ps. 50. Walton, Ancient near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, ch. 6.

[12] 1 Kings 8:27, Isa 6:1; 66:1.

[13] Such as Elijah in 1 Kings 19. But only if God initiated the contact.

[14] Deut. 12:1-29; see the epitaphs of the kings too which condemn them for not removing the high places.

[15] Deut. 6.

[16] Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, “The Role of the Household in the Religous Feasting of Ancient Israel and Judah,” in Feasting in the Archaeology and Texts of the Bible and the Ancient near East, ed. Peter Altmann and Janling Fu (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2014).

[17] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd-Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 572-79.

[18] John 1:14

[19] John 2:19-21

[20] Matt. 12:5-6

[21] Matt. 24:2; John 4:21-24

[22] Moisés Silva, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, Second edition. ed., vol. 2, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 134-37.

[23] Silva, 137-41.

[24] Silva, 137-41.

[25] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd-Kindle ed., vol. 1, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 226.

[26] Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 268.

[27] Cookie question answer: Basically from the Germanic word “kirche,” which referred to the place of Christian gatherings. This in turn might be a shortening of the Greek word “kuriakon,” which means “house of the Lord.” The Greek word does not appear in the Bible. from https://www.etymonline.com/word/church

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About the author

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School studying archaeology and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to the Old Testament. Writing is one of his big two passions, along with travel, so he happily contributes to Compass while maintaining his own blog on theology, godlikesus.wordpress.com. Have a question about the historical backgrounds of the Bible or Biblical archaeology? Email Jonathan at [email protected] and he would be happy to answer your questions.