The Church has an idolatry problem. Well, it has many idolatry problems. I am neither talking about the celebrity pastor culture nor the issue of statues or art used as a means of veneration of what it represents. Nope! I am speaking of offering our souls and bodies to the buildings wherein the Church worships.
Albeit this problem is true of many denominations, I am going to use the Church of England as my example. This article will still translate well into other denominations of similar history and organisation. The issues of the Church of England are legion, of course, and pose quite a big problem when you consider the impact on this church. I will try to delineate some of those problems as we go forward.
Let’s start by considering what the Bible says about Idolatry in the relevant Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20. The first and the second commands seem to cover it; you can read them for yourselves in Exodus 20:1-6. The Ten Commandments had to be written on account of human weakness – even though the same laws were written into the hearts of men. Even pagan philosophers realised their idols were just that and doubted the false gods of Rome and Athens. The commandments helped barbarised people to have some degree of outward purity whilst exposing their inner corruption. The freedom spoken of in verse two is a foreshadowing of the cosmological liberty brought to us through Christ who frees us from the bondage of sin and death.
The whole exodus event is the interpretative key of the Torah. We must be clear here; the one speaking is the Son who is representing to us perfectly the Father, and our allegiance to Him must be total and complete. The images used in the temple worship of Judaism is a foreshadowing of the incarnation of Christ and a concession to the weakness of the minds of men. Notice, they neither capture the divine essence nor hold it in any way. God’s love for us is depicted as jealous, possessive, and consuming, as should our Love to GOD be thus.
Bear in mind that the decalogue appears in two forms in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. How they are divided up differs between Catholics and Lutherans on one side and Orthodox and Reformed on the other. There is a clear need to give exclusive allegiance to YAHWEH alone. Christians can not and should not make images of the divine essence or things depicting the ineffable and unknowable (apart from Christ) Father. Where the Church has done so – we have gone too far in our art. We should not ‘serve our art’ as a god. This preamble to the wider Mosaic Law is the heart of the law of Moses. Just as it incorporates much of natural law (as demonstrated in the very similar Hittite codes) and previous revelation into the Mosaic Covenant, so this charter carries over for us, as Christians, into the new and everlasting Covenant. These ten words tell us of the holiness of GOD and show us what conduct results in a better fortune in this world and the next. When GOD speaks in this pedagogue – He is speaking to ‘YOU.’ This is about your personal holiness, and so these form the basis of ten disciplines for life used by the Church to tutor our souls. It is also worthy to note that one of the key events of the salvific history was the freeing of slaves and its culmination is the freeing of slaves.
All that said – what does this have to do with buildings? Well…the Church of England is awash with buildings, as is the Church at large, and fellowships of every kind are always trying to acquire one. However, these buildings of the Church of England are often not suitable for the Christians of today. Sometimes, these buildings are not located properly or are so old that they do not even have toilettes or running water. They are monuments and testaments to the faith of previous generations; many a gift of beauty in architecture and craftsmanship and a testament to the contribution of Christians to the cultivation of civilisation. All that being true – they are also often the focus of a ‘cultic devotion’ to keep them open and become the obsession of the many fellowships who have inherited them. Many of these congregations are small in number – too small to look after them. Many of these congregations allow their obsessions about bricks and mortar to become so overpowering – they actually think these temples of the Church are the Church themselves. They organise countless efforts to do endless repairs, all the while neglecting everything else. Their faith is reduced to being a conservator of the bricks and mortar – and a Sunday ritual – with a biscuit and a cup of tea on top. These congregations literally offer their souls and bodies to their buildings when the buildings are otherwise useless.
So, how can we tell if our fellowship is serving our buildings – and not our GOD? 1) When the life of the Church fellowship is orientated around the maintenance of the bricks and mortar – and not around discipleship and evangelism, and the pursuit of biblical justice – especially for the persecuted Church. 2) When the fellowship is too small to justify the existence of the building. Are you filling your church building? Is your fellowship so alive you are using it every day for worship, discipleship, evangelism, and the pursuit of biblical justice – especially for the persecuted Church, or does it sit largely empty and dusty – apart from a Sunday? If your church falls into these two categories – chances are, you might be sacrificing to the wrong god. The Church of England has fallen into this trap as it sees itself as a cultural treasure – an institution worth preserving, even if there are no Christians to keep it ticking over (which is why the Church of England has so many heretics, apostates, and atheists as clergy). They will literally take anyone to keep their institutions and ‘heritage’ writ large across the cultural landscape. They, like all Christians, need to explore creating a Christian settlement and colony, Benedict style.
If all of this is true, and I know that, without pride, it is so with the Church of England – what can we do? Well, we should see them for what they are – monuments of past glory, no longer present, but a bequeath and a resource for us to use now. In some cases, the buildings can be real estate – to be sold, in some cases rented out for others to use, in some cases the land could be worth more than the building and be used in a more resourceful way than merely having an old dusty, impressive, but empty and cold building on top of it. Some buildings could be used for businesses or charitable purposes, a night shelter for the homeless, a youth centre, etc. Some could be offered to the secular culture to preserve if they treasure it, and if they do not – LET THEM GO! Take the money and redirect it into evangelism, discipleship, the formation of Christian communes and the pursuance of biblical justice – especially for the persecuted Church.
Christians should never prioritise ‘building works’ over ‘Kingdom works.’ We need modern buildings suited for our time and fewer of them built and maintained. Multiple congregations could work together even if worshipping at different times. This heritage is indeed a treasure and if it can be preserved without being a distraction, then, of course, it should. However, if our congregations are not able to do both, then the building and all its beauty should go; not the true living sacrifice to YAHWEH. We should find ways to commercialise the non-sacred spaces of our churches, where this is viable, and let the ‘service user’ ease the financial burden of the church. Ideally, make the building pay for its own repairs. We should not trample on the sacred spaces – the sanctuaries – and chapels – in a desperate bid to pay the bills; if it’s that expensive, perhaps, give it up.
This is our new reality, Church! Christians are not the whole of society anymore, but a minority and it’s time we start thinking and acting like it; not in some defeatist way, but by consolidating our vast resources to begin the process of building outwards. See these buildings as a gift for us to fight the battle again, the selling of these buildings and lands would give millions of pounds which could be spent on paying for a new state-of-the-art building; purpose built for the Church today, or the paying of full-time evangelists and ministry workers who help to build up and form the Church. It could be the money that launches a campaign project or a movement dedicated to helping the persecuted Church. It could be the money that is donated to one of the many Christian charities doing great work for the poor and least well off, especially those who have lived sacrificially in ministry – and are now in poverty in their old age. These buildings are a source of power and resource; they should not be allowed to be made into beautiful slave prisons, trapping the Church; and sapping all of its energy.