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The church in scripture.
June 9, 2011 8:08 AM   Subscribe

ScriptureFilter: I recall there being a passage in one of the gospels which states quite clearly and unambiguously that building and attending physical churches was not the proper way to worship. I believe it also said something about the only true church being the one we build in our hearts. I have been looking for this passage for the past few days and have been unable to find it. Did I imagine it?

Bonus question: I also remember seeing at one point a good breakdown of the scriptural arguments about the role that the/a church should play in Christianity, but googling has only turned up very pro-church documents. Are these selective readings or have I entirely constructed the idea that the New Testament is more conflicted on this matter?
posted by 256 to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
There's the woman at the well, which may or may not be what you are looking for. It's not quite buried, but Jesus does talk to what, I think, you're asking.

As for the bonus question, that's a bit scattered and very denominational in the answer. The Catholic (big-C) church would say something very different from some/most protestant churches.

Generally, I think protestants refer to the church as the world-wide communion of believers. The church building is just a building, it's the body that makes the church.
posted by k5.user at 8:19 AM on June 9, 2011


Are you thinking of Matthew 6, which speaks against public prayer? I'm on my phone so I'm not going to post a quote, but the gist is "don't pray in the synagogues like the hypocrites, pray in your closet."
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:21 AM on June 9, 2011


Sounds like Biblical Apocrypha, Gospel of St. Thomas stuff:

"... Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

Here's a close bit:
Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."
Is this what you are looking for?
posted by adipocere at 8:21 AM on June 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


As Bulgaroktonos points out, you're probably thinking of Matthew 6 -- ironically, the chapter in which the Lord's Prayer appears:
  1. Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
  2. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
  3. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
  4. That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
  5. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
  6. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
  7. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
  8. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

posted by Doofus Magoo at 8:34 AM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry, but I don't think there is any such verse in the gospels (or anywhere in the Bible.) At least not any passage which states "clearly and unambiguously that building and attending physical churches was not the proper way to worship."

You're probably remembering the gist of something taught and believed by those who gave you your religious ideas, who probably would see the words of Jesus as supporting their position. Rightfully, I think.

Jesus did argue that one should pray in private, one-on-one sessions with God. (Matthew 6:6)

He did say that the Kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21)

He did say that wherever two or three Christians are gathered in his name, there he is. (Matthew 18:20)

Pretty revolutionary concepts for late antiquity.
posted by General Tonic at 8:39 AM on June 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Pretty revolutionary concepts for late antiquity.

And pretty much contradicted by Jesus saying Peter was the rock upon which his church would be built.

""You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it""

I don't know what greek or aramaic word was used originally for CHURCH, but there ya go.
posted by spicynuts at 8:43 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Did I imagine it?"
You may be getting a bit mixed up. There is no deprecation of corporate worship in a building -- indeed, that's where most of the New Testament-era worship occurred. Hebrews 10:25 even admonishes the believers not to neglect meeting together.

On the other hand, Scripture is clear that "church,", i.e., the the body of Christ or the bride of Christ, comprises people, and not buildings. Read 1 Corinthians 12:12 through the rest of the chapter for more info.

Lastly, I'd say Scripture is naturally going to be very "pro-church," since the church is merely the collection of believers who follow Christ. When you start defining "the church" as a monolithic hierarchical structure like the Roman Catholic Church, however, you're going to be getting far from anything that existed or was described in the New Testament era.
posted by BurntHombre at 8:43 AM on June 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Perhaps you're thinking of 1 Pet 2:4-9, which compares Christ and the congregation of followers to a literal building. The point here being that Christ is the cornerstone, or foundation of the congregation.

This is not to say that physical structures of worship are precluded from proper worship; to the contrary, 1 Tim 3 discusses proper conduct at meeting places. Verse 15, specifically, refers to "how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household", which given the context is clearly not an allusion to the worldwide congregation at large.
posted by sprocket87 at 8:54 AM on June 9, 2011


I don't know what greek or aramaic word was used originally for CHURCH, but there ya go.

The word used in Matthew 16:18, which we translate as "church" is ἐκκλησίαν, or ek-klay-see'-ah (Ecclesia, ekklesia, etc.). It basically means a public gathering of people. I think, at the time, the writer of Matthew meant "my group of followers."
posted by General Tonic at 8:55 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


What you're looking for doesn't exist. There's no clear mandate to avoid church gatherings - the Matthew 6 verse is as close as you can get, but that's certainly not the story in the rest of the NT. I'd second BurntHombre that most of the New Testament is built on the history of the early church - in particular, the book of Acts. 1 Corinthians has a ton about the importance of fellowship with other Christians and the act of corporate worship.

Also, the line that spicynuts quoted IS the place that Catholics build their doctrine of the papacy. However, Jesus naming Peter "The Rock" (in the context of that passage, specifically, but also throughout the gospel account) comes off more as sarcastic - he's a weak, cowardly, argumentative guy at that point in the story. He remains that way until after Jesus' death (think: three denials/betrayals of Jesus).
posted by guster4lovers at 9:05 AM on June 9, 2011


However, Jesus naming Peter "The Rock" (in the context of that passage, specifically, but also throughout the gospel account) comes off more as sarcastic - he's a weak, cowardly, argumentative guy at that point in the story. He remains that way until after Jesus' death (think: three denials/betrayals of Jesus).

I've never read that as sarcastic at all but rather as right in line with Jesus' principles. Here's a guy who for all intents and purposes looks like a loser and acts like a loser and yet Jesus sees the truth of him to the extent he gives to Peter this responsibility.
posted by spicynuts at 9:10 AM on June 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


I've always kind of thought that the physical christian church (buildings) relates to Jesus as a WW2 theme park with rides would relate to the actual Normandy Landings. Humanity has a way of making things cheap AND thrilling, and obfuscating the essentials of an idea in favor of its marketing. Spiritual Disneyland, sort of.

To me, at least, it has always been relatively clear that Jesus was referring to his memes, even though he didn't have the word at the time. Those memes could easily be preserved and passed on in a chorus of followers, without either buildings or books. The essentials are pretty simple, really, and the dominant paradigm he rejected was the Darwinian "me first" that characterizes non-human life in favor of one which practices "you first.. in the interest of our species".

Most of this got lost in the earliest years of the movement, and probably correlates closely with the normal dynamics of organizational birth, maturity, corruption and death that any outfit experiences. The church (sic) is a human institution, made by humans, for humans, and run by humans. It has human genes and you'd expect it to behave like a human byt the time it had been around for 2000 years. And you would not be disappointed. It's as human as you can get, and I don't mean that as a compliment. It's a Ponzi scheme using personal salvation as its marketing tool. What it could be is a far cry from what it is.

It's just impossible to reconcile the monkish life the man clearly advocated with the clothing the Pope sports on Sundays and/or the lifestyles of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, back in their day.

If you find this reference biblically, anyone, I need it for my anti-religious screeds! I've looked for something similar, unsuccessfully, in the NT.
posted by FauxScot at 9:30 AM on June 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you're looking specifically at the GOSPELS, the word "church" (ekklesia in Greek), in the singular or plural, only occurs 3 times in the Gospels, all in Matthew. Matthew 16:18 (as above), and Matthew 18:17 twice. ("If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector." NIV)

It occurs a bunch of times in the rest of the New Testament. There is a resource called "Strong's Concordance" which is put together by a group with a pretty fundamentalist theology but the Bible matters a LOT to them, so it's quite exhaustive. It's keyed to the KJV for the English and the standard Biblical reference dictionaries for the Greek and Hebrew; ever Greek and Hebrew word used in the Bible gets assigned a "Strong's Number." Ekklesia is "Strong's 1577." From that link you can go poke at every single occurrence of the word "church" (ekklesia) in the New Testament. If you think of other words you might have been thinking of (like "synagogue") you can do the same.

(Anal-retentive people produce useful reference works!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:42 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Acts, Chapter 7:

48 Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet,

49 Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest?

50 Hath not my hand made all these things?

51 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.

(KJV)
posted by endless_forms at 9:43 AM on June 9, 2011


I have been looking for this passage for the past few days and have been unable to find it. Did I imagine it?

Yes, you probably did. There are certainly passages that people have interpreted that way, but the actual text never says such a thing. John 4:23 is generally held up as one such passage, but putting the verse in context one can see that Jesus was actually rejecting the Samaritan woman's argument that worship was controversial and saying that no, the Jews were right and that at that time, worship was properly conducted in the temple in Jerusalem, but that the time for temple worship was coming to an end. The passage endless_forms cites is actually a quotation from Isaiah 66 and dates from a period when God's people were specifically instructed to worship in the temple, so while it may say something about the theology of such worship, it hardly means that corporate worship in physical buildings is inherently problematic. Cf. Psalm 40 for a meditation on the ultimate meaning behind sacrifice and public worship combined with an affirmation that they are important.

Are these selective readings or have I entirely constructed the idea that the New Testament is more conflicted on this matter?

I'd be willing to argue that you have. The New Testament is replete with examples of Christians worshiping in the temple and local synagogues (Acts 2:46, Acts 3, Acts 5:12, Acts 5:42, Acts 9:20-21, Acts 13:5, Acts 13:14, Acts 14:1, Acts 17:1-10, you get the idea).

Here's the thing: though it is patently obvious that the early church met in public places for corporate worship on a regular basis--weekly if not daily--the church as an organization didn't really start to acquire its own buildings until after the New Testament canon was written. Why? Because for most of that time, they met in Jewish synagogues and the temple in Jerusalem. It took a few decades before the Jews finally kicked the Christians out for good. It wasn't until the final destruction of the Jewish temple in AD 70 that the two traditions seem to have parted ways for good.

However, we have found actual buildings specifically designated as Christian churches which date from the early third century. Most of the oldest ones were repurposed from other uses, though the oldest building which seems to have been specifically constructed as a church dates to around AD 300. All in all, that seems a reasonable amount of time to go from regularly meeting in buildings originally built by others to having building's of one's own, given the cost and expense of construction in the ancient world.

All of that being said, are church buildings critical to the Christian Church? No. No, they aren't. I don't think you'll find a single tradition that says that they are. They're important, they're useful, they're convenient, but they aren't essential. The church has existed, does exist, and will continue to exist in places where designated church buildings do not. The advantages of such buildings are such that the church builds them when and where it can, but it should be perfectly happy without them when and where it cannot. You'll also find a lot of people, particularly Protestants though some Catholic orders as well, arguing that the ornateness of church buildings can actually detract from Christian worship by distracting people with pomp rather than feeding them with Word and Sacrament. But even the hardest-core Reformed types still built and used church buildings.

Tl;dr version: there is no Scriptural prohibition about the Christian church using, meeting in, or owning real property, in the context of worship or otherwise, and there is no major stream of Christian tradition which has thought that this is inherently problematic to the extent that it should not be done.
posted by valkyryn at 9:54 AM on June 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


"I also remember seeing at one point a good breakdown of the scriptural arguments about the role that the/a church should play in Christianity, but googling has only turned up very pro-church documents. Are these selective readings or have I entirely constructed the idea that the New Testament is more conflicted on this matter?"

Every denomination (and non-denominational preacher/group) has a "selective" reading on this; and every denomination finds, no surprise, that the Bible supports their particular form of church structure (or lack thereof). If you wanted to dig into that a bit, you might look at the historical formation of the Anglican/Episcopalian church (kept bishops, hence Episcopalian), the Presbyterian church (tossed out the bishops, hence "presbyter" or priest), and the Quakers or Amish (no official leaders). Each cite to extensive Biblical support for their position. Also somewhat illuminating is the breaking off of the Methodists from the Anglicans (instead of just being a sort of sub-group of Pietist-ish Anglicans), more or less over the refusal of the Anglican Church to send adequate bishops and ministers to the American colonies, and Wesley's decision that he had to take ordaining into his own hands to solve the problem, and his Scriptural support for his right to do so.

Most mainstream denominations do admit that their organizational structures are as much a matter of practicality and history; the Bible has only a limited (and sometimes contradictory) amount to say about how a group of believers ought to be organized, and nothing whatever specific to the 21st century and the existence of 501(c)3s and things like that. :) So the goal of most denominations is to be in line with their interpretation of Biblical guidelines for community and worship and so on, and to attempt to interpret those limited statements in a way that fits with their wider theology. Sometimes it's a "the Bible doesn't say not to" rather than a "the Bible says it must be X way," but most often it's a "the Bible says X, which we interpret to mean that in the specific situation we are facing, Y would probably be a good idea, if not the only allowable solution."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:57 AM on June 9, 2011


Something else to consider: most of the people who don't like church buildings also have a pretty dim view of corporate worship in general. But there's really no case to be made that either the Old or New Testaments suggests that the proper worship of God does not include corporate worship. You have to just completely ignore vast swaths of Scripture, all over the place.

Once you've conceded that Christians are supposed to worship together in large-ish groups, unless we are to require that believers only worship outside, worshiping in some kind of building seems almost unavoidable, and the ownership of said building seems to be more a matter of logistics than theology.

That being said... people can get weird about this stuff. There's a small minority in American Protestantism, fringe groups really, that absolutely refuses to create any kind of business entity to conduct church affairs. That particular site seems to be basically one guy and his friends, though there are plenty of Baptistic churches that lean that way. What it boils down to is a drastic misunderstanding of what business entities really are, what they do, and what they mean. I mean, you'll find churches where the building is actually owned by a Board of Trustees because they've somehow gotten it in their heads that it's wrong for the church to own property in its own name, as if that matter somehow. Or because they're engaged in some wrong-headed tax dodge which doesn't do what they think it does. But mostly just because none of them are or have consulted a competent attorney (or theologian), i.e. they're wingnuts.

I'm not going to vouch for any wingnuts here. Odds are decent that if you can come up with an interpretation of Scripture, someone has gotten there before you, and there's some small country church out there that believes it. When Rome said that the Protestant Reformation was a recipe for chaos... they weren't entirely wrong. But that isn't the same thing as saying that mainstream Christianity believes something or that the idea itself makes any sense at all. It only means that people are weird.
posted by valkyryn at 10:22 AM on June 9, 2011


[few comments removed - you can not threadjack by not threadjacking, thanks]
posted by jessamyn at 10:53 AM on June 9, 2011


It looks like the general consensus so far is that, no, there isn't such a passage in the bible. I'm not an expert on the bible, either, but maybe this? (John 2:13-22, English Standard Version)

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


So, to me, this would suggest a transition from the Old Testament-style worship that's connected to physical places, to something more spiritual. I think. Although I could be misinterpreting it.
posted by Busoni at 11:01 AM on June 9, 2011


Take a look at Acts 17:22-29 where this statement is found: "God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things."
posted by partner at 11:09 AM on June 9, 2011


Take a look at Acts 17:22-29 where this statement is found: "God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things."

Again, that's a reference to an idea already pretty well established in the Psalms and Prophets, not a new idea, and again, it's connected to corporate worship in a physical location being misunderstood, not being unimportant or inappropriate. See Psalm 50.

More to the point, if you read the whole speech, Paul seems to be arguing not that corporate worship in a physical building is inappropriate but that God is not limited to a physical building, because he, you know, made all of earth and heaven.

This was significant for two reasons. First, the pagan gods such as the Greeks worshiped (somewhat tongue in cheek by that point, but whatever) were associated with specific temples but also with specific areas, powers, or activities. Zeus associated with storms and thunder, Poseidon with the oceans, Ares with warfare, etc. Clearly, Paul is concerned that his audience understand that the Christian God isn't that kind of god. Second, the Jews believed--and rightly so!--that their God was associated in some special way with worship in the temple in Jerusalem, even though they recognized that he was God of all creation. But the New Testament takes the position that the time of that association is over and that God now dwells with his people wherever they are. The word "dwelt" in John 1:14 is the same word used to describe the Old Testament Tabernacle, which was where God "dwelt" before he "dwelt" in the Temple, before Jesus came. So Paul was also at pains to emphasize to his audience that he wasn't just preaching Judaism either.

This was something new and different. But he wasn't saying that corporate worship in physical buildings was inappropriate, and it wouldn't have made sense for him to say that, because he himself did it all the time.
posted by valkyryn at 11:39 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is totally off-the-wall, but there's a verse in the wonderful Ricardo Arjona song Jesus Verbo No Sustantivo (Jesus is a verb, not a noun) that basically says exactly this:

Jesús es mas que un templo de lujo con tendencia barroca
El sabe que total a la larga esto no es mas que roca
la iglesia se lleva en el alma y en los actos no se te olvide
Jesús hermanos míos es verbo no sustantivo.


Which roughly translates to:

Jesus is more than a lavish baroque temple
He knows that in the end it's no more than rock
You carry the church in your soul/heart and in your actions, don't forget it
Jesus, my brothers, is a verb, not a noun


I don't support you heard that song somewhere along the way? (Or else maybe Arjona took it from the same place you remember seeing it...)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 5:48 PM on June 9, 2011


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