Remember, the Bible Never Mentions A Building Called ‘Church'

The Church was never meant to be a place.

Recently, I wrote this piece, encouraging people who love God but who for any number of reasons find themselves outside of a traditional church.

A number of Fundamentalist Christians objected. So I thought I’d take a few moments to share why the Church as a building was never the point to Jesus and the early Church:

Jesus teaches Kingdom, not building. The Gospel biographies are filled with evocative, vivid parables, all about the Kingdom of God. They were Jesus’ central teaching. But this kingdom He speaks about is not a where but a when.

It is the state of the world when people acknowledge God; when God is honored and worshipped and respected—the Kingdom is present.

Throughout the Gospels, you can find Jesus teaching on the characteristics of His Kingdom people as they reflect the character of God in the world. The Church was never about brick and mortar. It was always greater than that. It was about a way of being in the world.

Jesus tells Peter he is the rock of the Church. He affirms His disciple Peter’s faith and character, and says that he will be the foundation of the Kingdom community as it grows.

Jesus isn’t hiring Peter—a fisherman by trade—as a subcontractor to erect a building with a steeple. He only notes Peter’s devotion, and tells him to continue the Kingdom work he’d already begun. He is to steward the people of God: no building campaign, no weekly services.

Jesus never promises that with size or organization that there would be more of His presence.

How the Church Is Built

People are the building blocks.

Jesus feeds the 5,000. A crowd has been listening to Jesus teach on a remote hillside, and the nearest Chick-Fil-A is still 2,000 years away. The gathering there is a mix of the invested, the curious and the skeptical. No sanctuary or liturgy; only Jesus speaking about God in real-time and then sharing a meal with those gathered on the hillside.

That would be the model throughout the New Testament: Gather. Eat. Share. Remember me. Live.

The book of Hebrews says that we don’t need a middle man. Writing to Jewish believers in Jesus, the author makes it clear that a human high priest is no longer needed as a liaison between ourselves and God—that God was not encountered only in the temple.

Jesus’ ministry was about de-centralizing religion, so that the people carried it, not the synagogue or temple or the sanctuary.

Jesus gives us each direct access to Divinity.

I grew up Catholic, believing the priest was an intermediary for me and that a variety of saints gave me special connection to God. This isn’t what the New Testament teaches. The priest, rabbi, minister or pastor is not magic. They can be helpful, but they’re not essential and they’re not supernatural. And yes, because of this, you can have access to God wherever you are—no matter how modest or ordinary the surroundings might be.

The Church grows without a building campaign. The early believers were essentially in-house churches, where immediate family, extended family and friends were already living in deep, meaningful community together. They didn’t have to rent out space and a sound system and start service planning.

They were already living life together organically and so they didn’t need to create a destination to foster community. These groups absorbed the new converts, but there is no evidence of the healthy evolution of these communities into organized churches. The only mention we have is in the book of Revelation, where large, opulent churches are being chastised for their corruption and apathy.

God With Us

Jesus says where two or three are gathered He is present. Two or three—not 40 or 150 or 6,000. Not an auditorium with a speaker, a band and dozens of rows of chairs.

This is Emmanuel “God with us.” Jesus never promises that with size or organization that there would be more of His presence. He didn’t leave building instructions or establish an organizational structure or provide liturgical templates. He affirmed that his people and his presence were the only necessary ingredients. They would come to the table together, and He would take a seat there with them. Your kitchen table, a bar in a tap-room, a bench at the park, a coffee shop. He is present there.

He said so.

The Apostle Paul tells us we are the Temple. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to tell Christians in that city that God’s presence is not just above and around them but within them. They are the very “Body of Christ” on earth, they are the “temple of the Holy Spirit”—living, breathing sanctuaries.

The idea of them needing to visit a specific place to have proximity to God was now ludicrous. They were the place. They needed only to go inward. This is the heart of the Church then. It still is; not where they gather, but as they gather.

Jesus tells the disciples to remember Him. At their final meal before His death, Jesus offers bread and wine as a symbol of his coming sacrifice. He then asks them to remember him when they break bread together in the future.

He is not telling them to establish a weekly worship service or to create a rigid liturgy or to institute a sacrament. He is commanding them not to forget Him; to live together and to eat and to remember. No sanctuary is necessary for this. This is a fully portable experience.

The truth is Jesus was teaching something very different from what the word “church” means to us today. We’ve grown up in the building and the system and the tradition, so we believe that this is the Church. But the Church as a place you visit for an hour on Sunday where God shows up, or where community can solely be found—simply isn’t Biblical.

Jesus’ ministry was about de-centralizing religion, so that the people carried it, not the synagogue or temple or the sanctuary.

Again, you may find that building comforting or edifying, and you may find inspiration and wisdom there. That may be spiritual community for you. But don’t assume that this building has the market cornered on any of those things, and don’t cheapen the spiritual journey of those outside of the building, by acting as if everything found there cannot also be found beyond it. It can. Over and over the Bible makes this clear.

Jesus and Rest

This week, a Christian guy sarcastically called out a quote from my previous piece saying, “Oh, I get to grow closer to God, just by taking a nap? Cool!”

I reminded him of the disciples finding Jesus asleep in the back of the boat in the middle of the storm, about the many times he withdrew to the solitary places to rest, about Peter hearing from God in a dream, and of the words of the 23rd Psalm where the writer describes God’s provision:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.

In other words, “What I most need is God to tell me to trust and take a nap.” I think that’s a holy directive.

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So yes, this Sunday, you might be in a building somewhere in a traditional worship service.

You might be talking faith and life with a group of friends in your home.

You might be taking a nap alone on a grassy field by a steam.

You might be with a couple of people, breaking bread and remembering that God’s presence is promised there, and living life with reverence and gratitude.

All equally sacred. All equally holy. All you being the Biblical Church.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so cavalier or so quick to debate people’s understanding or experience of Church—especially when it so closely matches Jesus’.

A version of this article was originally posted on johnpavlovitz.com. Used with permission.

Top Comments

Jared Howell

1

Jared Howell commented…

First I will say that I do agree with much of what you said as generally applying to the Christian life, not the church.

Now that that's out of the way, I have to plead with you to rely on biblical sources when you're addressing a core piece of the biblical Christian life. You continually made claims of biblical support without actually providing biblical support. If Jesus said something, cite it. If Paul says something, cite it. If the bible says something that you are basing your argument off of, CITE IT. You mentioned a few scriptures but none of them supported your main claims regarding the organization and structure of the church.

The entire premise of your article was based on a fundamental ignorance of the difference between the "Kingdom" of Christ and the "Church" of Christ. These are two very different things.

You said, "Jesus tells Peter he is the rock of the Church. He affirms His disciple Peter’s faith and character, and says that he will be the foundation of the Kingdom community as it grows." You supported this by linking to Matthew 16:17-18 in which Jesus says he will build his Church (Ekklesia) on Peter. Jesus is clearly speaking of his church, not his kingdom. This word for Church means "assembly." The irony of course is that this "assembly" destroys your argument for isolation later in the article.

"The book of Hebrews says that we don’t need a middle man. Writing to Jewish believers in Jesus, the author makes it clear that a human high priest is no longer needed as a liaison between ourselves and God—that God was not encountered only in the temple."

This is a straw man. No one arguing from an orthodox position with any kind of competence believes that we need churches or pastors as a middle man. They are simply arguing that we should obey biblical standards and teachings.

"They were already living life together organically and so they didn’t need to create a destination to foster community. These groups absorbed the new converts, but there is no evidence of the healthy evolution of these communities into organized churches."

This is in direct contradiction to the example we are given in Acts 2:44-46, which says that all the believers were together and GATHERED in the temple courts as well as in their homes. So yes, they did gather at home, but only after they all gathered at the temple. Sounds like a destination to me.

As for your multiple appeals for an unorganized church, the NT is filled with Paul's exhortation towards structure and organization as well as the example of the early church and the apostles. (See Acts 2:44-46, 6:1-7, 14:23; 1 Timothy 3:1-13, 5:17; Tutus)

I believe the NT does support a specific place for church: wherever the saints are gathered. You cannot be the church in isolation, you cannot use your gifts for the edification of the church in isolation.

The biblical view of the Church is the organized gathering of the saints led by elders under the headship of Christ. This corporate gathering will be obedient to Christ in observing the sacraments of baptism and communion as well as discipleship and discipline towards holiness.

We must not believe the lie that the Christian life was meant to be lived in isolation and creative arbitrarity. While there is much room for creativity and "thinking outside the box", we have not been given the option to "think outside scripture" when approaching Christ's church.

Tony Myles

16

Tony Myles commented…

I sense this piece is really a matter of justifying a funk that a lot of people find themselves in. For that funk, I truly am sorry. Let's own the bias going in, though. I believe the author hints at this in the beginning.

The Bible does mention many "places" that the church are to gather in. There are honestly too many to list, but here are a few:

- Deuteronomy is full of various festivals where the people of God are to meet in a certain place at a certain time. Since they were nomads during this era, that meant logistics like setting up the Tent of Meeting from place to place.

- During David and Solomon's era, God established that He had a special "resting" among the people in Jerusalem. Why would Solomon construct such an elaborate Temple if not to draw in God's people to a central location? 1 Kings 6 and 2 Chronicles 3 are not absent from our Bibles, correct?

- One moment chronicled in Jesus' teaching (Luke 4) is him speaking the words of Isaiah the Prophet in a regular meeting that we might liken to church. Even when the religious leaders of his day were far from perfect, He likewise encouraged people He healed to honor them (Luke 17:14)

- The Early Church gathered together regularly (Acts 2-4). They needed a place to do this, such as, "Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts," (Acts 2:46)

- The Epistles were read in the presence of communities of people who had gathered together to hear the inspired words of God through one of His apostles.

- Revelation 1-2 talks about churches that gathered in a specific place to be a community together.

I agree that the "Church" is "people + God + each other + the mission of God." I have a hard time stomaching that this means we should reject the idea of regularly coming together to further this. The original template of Creation shows a "six-on-one-off" rhythm - that we should set aside a particular day to not merely rest but restore ourselves to the Lord and each other.

In today's culture, I can't think of a better need for the church... now more than ever, we are around all kinds of information but little accountability to action; we are around all kinds of online community, but lacking in face-to-face proximity; we would rather get a text than answer a call; we'll look for people to validate how we feel instead of do the hard ugly work of being a part of an imperfect community trying to love and lead us into our next ugly imperfect growth step.

Hebrews 10:24-25 says it best: "And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near."

Some would argue that you can be a Christian without a community. Jesus seemed to think otherwise which is why He drew people together around Him. Yes - He started a movement and not a monument; but yes - He also instructed His people to seek the Spirit together in a place; He even said that He was going to prepare "a place" for us.

Being a Christian without community is like an eye doctor trying to prescribe his own prescription for glasses. We can talk about how wise we are, but when our vision is blurry we can't accurately tell what is needed and only further the handicap.

Consider...

it would be an honor to lead God's kingdom to another victory. Each of us has enormous potential and unique skills and spiritual gifts, but none of us is as powerful individually as we are as a team. Being a part of the church is not for personal Glory but to showcase what God can do in this world when we pull together as his body.

Some of you have been told in the past but you can't do. Being a part of the church is meant to show you what God can do. You can embrace who He originally made you to be, even if it means chiseling away at your "layers" by other messed up people who will say something "wrong."

We can do this together. We are the Church, and if I am able to tell you one thing as a part of that it is that we must do everything in our power to root ourselves instead of being a flighty leaf that floats around if we want to produce real fruit. God believes in us and His Church; we can borrow His faith to believe in each other and believe in His church.

This is not an extracurricular. This is our identity. We are a family, and a family gets together.

BE the Church. Gather as the Church. Grow as the Church.

It is who you are. It is your destiny.

16 Comments

Marty Fields

7

Marty Fields commented…

Silly. Total disconnect into subjectivism.

Jon

6

Jon commented…

This is some abysmal ecclesiology and quite a slap in the face to Christians around the world who travel far and risk much to gather for corporate worship. Too bad they haven't read the enlightened blog posts of middle-class Western liberals like John Pavlovitz...Then they'd realize staying in bed or grabbing some coffee is just as good as risking their lives to receive the Word and sacrament with fellow believers. *sarcasm*

Seriously, read any of the posts on Pavlovitz's website and it's clear that he's not just a "progressive Christian"—he's anti-Christian. In nearly every single post he ridicules Christians as well as the historic doctrines of the Christian faith. It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't still try to call himself a Christian teacher/pastor, for by doing so he leads many astray. This is a wolf in sheep's clothing if there ever was one.

If Relevant loves the church (that is, the body of Christ), it needs to stop promoting the writings of flagrant false-teachers.

Christopher Thompson

4

Christopher Thompson commented…

we keep on hearing the same old overused Hebrews 10:24-25. this is not the only verse in the bible. church cannot help anyone, we need the holy spirit more than ever in these lasts days and perilous times to guide us, direct us lead us John 14:26, John 15:26. we also need to walk in the spirit Galatians 5:16-18, Galatians 5:25. we have the spirit of truth John 14:17, John 16:13, 1 John 4:6, 1 John 5:6. we cannot look to anyone else we must look to Jesus. we all have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Philippians 2:12 no one else can do that for us.

Nick Welch

12

Nick Welch replied to Christopher Thompson's comment

To paraphrase you in the form of a question, the church can't help anyone? What? Where do you get that? Paul says, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. - 1 Timothy 3:15
Pillar and buttress of truth sure sound helpful to me.

Christopher Thompson

4

Christopher Thompson commented…

when it comes to the gifts and talents, not everyone is called to build the church, not everyone is called to serve and give in the church. some people are called to their workplace, some people are called to their neighbourhoods, other people are called overseas to do missionary work. not everyone gets to use their gifts and talents. church leaders are very selective who they allow to use their gifts in the ministry. when people are serious about serving jesus. they send them off to bible college, to study theology, and leadership training. so some of these replies are very small minded and short sighted.

Tafari Hibbert

1

Tafari Hibbert commented…

I appreciate your point that the building itself is not the church but I think you have totally missed the mark on understanding of the local expression of church as a manifestation of the global church. Transforming lIves in the areas they find themselves by showing the love of God. What's more the bible clearly shows believers gathering together to here teaching from the apostles in large groups as well as meeting in homes. Both aspects are important. Moreover we are a body that functions together. Without each other we do not fully show forth the love of Christ. In summary I understand what you are saying but I think you are misinformed or this a personal reaction and not reflective of biblical truth

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