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Pagan Temples Called Churches
17 August 2013
 
 
It was almost exactly three years ago that I reviewed the book Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola and George Barna.

In that article, I gave a general overview of the book, without going into too much detail. But now I feel the time has come to dig a little deeper.

Around the world there are huge problems with the religious buildings commonly called churches. In the United States, there is an obsession with these structures. A Google search for "church building fund" returns a mere 45.5 million results! What local congregation would be complete without a building fund, organ fund, stained-glass window fund, sound system fund, or, for older buildings, a renovation fund.

In other countries of the world, like Egypt, church buildings are shooting galleries where Muslims go for target practice. Even though the Christians there know that they are sitting ducks — in a very literal sense! — they have been so brainwashed by 1,700 years of false teaching and practice that they are willing to needlessly die — not for their belief in Yeshua (Jesus, Isa), but for their belief that inside a church building, under the supervision of a priest or pastor (and that's a whole nother issue I'll get to in my next article), is the ONLY legitimate place for Christians to gather together.

Both of these contrasting scenarios, in the U.S. and in Egypt, are duplicated in most countries around the world. And both scenarios are TOTALLY unnecessary — because church buildings themselves are TOTALLY unnecessary! The same long-term brainwashing which has created sitting-duck Christians in Egypt has so deluded almost all of Christendom that it's practically impossible for a group of Christians to imagine that they could follow Yeshua without a building.

The first pagan practice which the authors of Pagan Christianity? tackle is this huge issue of church buildings. When I read this book a few years ago, I must have used an entire colored pencil or two in highlighting all of the valuable information contained in it. Because the chapter on church buildings is too long to share here in its entirety — 38 pages — I will share only the highlights, which I made with my very own colored pencil. In order to understand the complete picture, I STRONGLY urge you to get a copy of this book as soon as possible and read the whole thing for yourself.
That the Christians in the apostolic age erected special houses of worship is out of the question.... As the Saviour of the world was born in a stable, and ascended to heaven from a mountain, so His apostles and their successors down to the third century, preached in the streets, the markets, on mountains, in ships, sepulchres, eaves, and deserts, and in the homes of their converts. But how many thousands of costly churches and chapels have since been built and are constantly being built in all parts of the world to the honor of the crucified Redeemer, who in the days of His humiliation had no place of His own to rest His head!

The Temple, the professional priesthood, and the sacrifices of ancient Judaism all passed away with the coming of Jesus Christ. In Greco-Roman paganism, these three elements were also present: Pagans had their temples, their priests, and their sacrifices. It was only the Christians who did away with all of these elements. It can be rightly said that Christianity was the first non-temple-based religion ever to emerge.

Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word ekklesia always refers to an assembly of people, not a place. Ekklesia, in every one of its 114 appearances in the New Testament, refers to an assembly of people. Christians did not erect special buildings for worship until the Constantinian era in the fourth century. The first churches consistently met in homes. Until the year 300 we know of no buildings first built as churches.

When Christianity was born, it was the only religion on the planet that had no sacred objects, no sacred persons, and no sacred spaces. Although surrounded by Jewish synagogues and pagan temples, the early Christians were the only religious people on earth who did not erect sacred buildings for their worship. The ritual bareness of early Christian worship should not be taken as a sign of primitiveness, but rather as a way of emphasizing the spiritual character of Christian worship.

While the Emperor Constantine (ca. 285-337) is often lauded for granting Christians freedom of worship and expanding their privileges, his story fills a dark page in the history of Christianity. For far too long, historians have accepted the claim that the conversion of the Constantine caused the triumph of Christianity. To the contrary, he destroyed its most attractive and dynamic aspects, turning a high-intensity, grassroots movement into an arrogant institution controlled by an elite who often managed to be both brutal and lax.

Church buildings began with him. Shortly after becoming emperor in 324, he began ordering the construction of church buildings. He did so to promote the popularity and acceptance of Christianity. If the Christians had their own sacred buildings — as did the Jews and the pagans — their faith would be regarded as legitimate.

Constantine's thinking was dominated by superstition and pagan magic. Historians continue to debate whether or not Constantine was a genuine Christian. Almost to his dying day, Constantine still functioned as the high priest of paganism. In fact, he retained the pagan title Pontifex Maximus, which means chief of the pagan priests! In the fifteenth century, this same title became the honorific title for the Roman Catholic Pope.

By erecting church buildings throughout the Roman Empire, some at public expense, he followed the path of the pagans in constructing temples to honor God. Because the church building was regarded as sacred, congregants had to undergo a purification ritual before entering. Constantine's church buildings were spacious and magnificent edifices that were said to be "worthy of an Emperor." They were so splendid that his pagan contemporaries observed that these "huge buildings imitated" the structure of pagan temples. One anti-Christian opponent wrote that Christians were inconsistent because they criticized pagan worship yet erected buildings that imitated pagan temples. Constantine even decorated the new church buildings with pagan art.

The advent of the church building brought significant changes to Christian worship. The pomp and ritual of the imperial court was incorporated into the Christian liturgy. Constantine introduced candles and the burning of incense as part of the church service. Worship became more professional, dramatic, and ceremonial. The church buildings were wonderful for seating passive and docile crowds to watch a performance.

All of these features were borrowed from the Greco-Roman culture and carried straight into the Christian church. Fourth-century Christianity was being profoundly shaped by Greek paganism and Roman imperialism. The upshot of it all was that there was a loss of intimacy and open participation. The professional clergy performed the acts of worship while the laity looked on as spectators. The Christian building demonstrated that the church, whether she wanted it or not, had entered into a close alliance with pagan culture. This was a tragic shift from the primitive simplicity that the church of Jesus Christ first knew. By the fourth century, the Christian community had lost touch with those heavenly realities and spiritual intangibles that cannot be perceived by the senses, but which can only be registered by the human spirit.

Our word pulpit is derived from the Latin word pulpitum which means "a stage." The word pew is derived from the Latin podium. It means a seat raised up above floor level or a "balcony." The pulpit elevates the clergy to a position of prominence. True to its meaning, it puts the preacher at center "stage" — separating and placing him high above God's people. So what is the pew? The meaning of the word tells it all. It is a lowered "balcony" — detached seating from which to watch performances on a stage (the pulpit). It immobilizes the congregation of the believers and renders them mute spectators. It hinders face-to-face fellowship and interaction.

The modern concert-style church building was profoundly influenced by nineteenth-century revivalism. It is essentially an auditorium. The building is structured to emphasize the dramatic performance of the preacher and the choir. Its structure implicitly suggests that the choir (or worship band) performs for the congregation to stimulate their worship or entertain them. It also calls excessive attention to the preacher whether he is standing or sitting.

Church buildings continue to maintain the unbiblical division between clergy and laity. And they encourage the congregation to assume a spectator role. The arrangement and mood of the building conditions the congregation toward passivity. The pulpit platform acts like a stage, and the congregation occupies the theater. In short, Christian architecture has stalemated the functioning of God's people since it was born in the fourth century.

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, So what's the big deal? Who cares if the first-century Christians did not have buildings? Or if church buildings were patterned after pagan beliefs and practices? What has that got to do with today?

If you assume that where the church gathers is simply a matter of convenience, you are tragically mistaken. You are overlooking a basic reality of humanity. Every building we encounter elicits a response from us. By its interior and exterior, it explicitly shows us what the church is and how it functions. If you look at the church building setting, you will understand why the contemporary church has the character it does. If you look at the living room setting in a house, you will understand why being a church in a house setting (as were the early Christians) has the character it does.

The church building is based on the ignorant, unenlightened idea that worship is removed from everyday life. This disjunction between worship and everyday life characterizes most of modern Christianity. Worship is seen as something detached from the whole fabric of life and packaged for group consumption. No matter how good Sunday was, Monday morning still comes to test our worship. This false separation of secular and sacred — this "stained-glass mystique" of Sunday morning church — flies in the face of truth and reality.

The church building is not designed for intimacy nor fellowship. Instead, it creates a sit-and-soak form of worship that turns functioning Christians into "pew potatoes." The architecture emphasizes fellowship between God and His people via the pastor! After 1,700 years, Constantine is still living and breathing in our minds.

Most contemporary Christians mistakenly view the church building as a necessary part of worship. Therefore, they never question the need to financially support a building and its maintenance. The church edifice demands a vast infusion of money. In the United States alone, real estate owned by institutional churches today is worth over $230 billion. Church building debt, service, and maintenance consumes about 18 percent of the $50 to $60 billion tithed to churches annually. Contemporary Christians are spending an astronomical amount of money on their buildings.

All the traditional reasons put forth for "needing" a church building collapse under careful scrutiny. We so easily forget that the early Christians turned the world upside down without them (see Acts 17:6). They grew rapidly for three hundred years without the help (or hindrance) of church buildings.

Church buildings (as well as salaried pastors and staff) require very large ongoing expenses rather than one-time outlays. Contrast this overhead with the overhead of a house church. Rather than such overhead siphoning off 50 to 85 percent of the house church's monetary giving, its operating costs amount to a small percentage of the budget, freeing more than 95 percent of its shared money for delivering real services like ministry, mission, and outreach to the world.

Most of us are completely unaware of what we lost as Christians when we began erecting places devoted exclusively for worship. The Christian faith was born in believers' homes, yet every Sunday morning, scores of Christians sit in a building with pagan origins that is based upon pagan philosophy. There does not exist a shred of Biblical support for the church building. Yet many Christians pay good money each year to sanctify their brick and stone. By doing so, they have supported an artificial setting where they are lulled into passivity and prevented from being natural or intimate with other believers.

We have been taught to feel holier when we are in "the house of God" and have inherited a pathological dependency upon an edifice to carry out our worship to God. The church building has taught us badly about what church is and what it does. The building is an architectural denial of the priesthood of all believers. It is a contradiction of the very nature of the ekklesia — which is a countercultural community. The church building impedes our understanding and experience that the church is Christ's functioning body that lives and breathes under His direct headship.

If every Christian on the planet would never call a building a church again, this alone would create a revolution in our faith. John Newton rightly said, "Let not him who worships under a steeple condemn him who worships under a chimney." With that in mind, what Biblical, spiritual, or historical authority does any Christian have to gather under a steeple in the first place? If we believe that God's idea of a church meeting is for every member to participate in ministering spiritually to one another, then church buildings as we know them today greatly hinder that process.
Now that we are done considering the hindrance of pagan temples called churches, in my next article we will take a look at the problem of pagan priests called pastors.
This article is 23rd a series of articles on this Web site related to Modern Christianity and the Church which also includes (scroll to see the entire list):
1.
9  Nov  2008
2.
27  Nov  2008
3.
12  Jun  2010
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9  Sep  2010
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10  Sep  2010
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11  Sep  2010
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12  Sep  2010
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15  Sep  2010
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16  Sep  2010
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27  Sep  2010
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2  May  2011
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22  May  2011
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4  Jul  2011
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20  Aug  2012
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20  Mar  2013
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2  Jul  2013
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7  Jul  2013
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9  Jul  2013
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10  Jul  2013
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11  Jul  2013
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Pagan Temples Called Churches
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27  Dec  2013
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