"However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands." (Acts 7:48, NAS)
Do you feel like your church has lost its purpose? Have people in your congregation (perhaps even your pastor) started to raise money for a church building, or a capital campaign? In the meantime, does it feel like the ministry to the poor is being neglected? Is there very little talk about how to care for widows and orphans in the flock? Do you hear an appeal to give to the building fund more often than you hear someone in the pulpit ask you to dig deep into your pockets to help those who are struggling to get by?
This is the third post in a three-part series on being "Disillusioned With Church." I recommend you start with the first two and then come back and read this one (Disillusioned With Church, Disillusioned With Church, Part II). Today I will be writing to those of you who are disillusioned with church because you feel like "the church has lost its purpose. It is not doing what it was meant to do in the world." I will not try to cover all of the reasons you might feel this way. Rather, I will address two subjects in particular: Church buildings and the poor.
Today there are many churches that are swept up in the notion that they must build a new facility, or must expand on their already existing building, in order to more greatly serve God. The idea goes something like this: "We need a 'home of our own' in the city. We need a place that will help us to continue to reach out to those around us. If we build then we will have a place where people can come with regularity throughout the week and not just on Sundays. It will help us to strengthen our existing programs, and even add numerically to our church body." Sometimes (a bit more ridiculously) it is asserted that God wants a house - and that the church building will serve Him in such a way.
I think that frequently the motives are good. There is a genuine interest in having a stable place in the community, and for the congregation. However, that which begins with good motives often has disastrous consequences. People begin to think of the "church" as a building. Vast sums of money are funneled into developing this church building and then maintaining it. And very sadly - this often takes the eyes of the congregation off of those on whom God actually wants the church to spend its money. It is a grand diversion - of enormous scale. The poor in and around the church are neglected. And, most unfortunately, sometimes they are even compelled and manipulated to give the small amount that they have to help the church erect its sanctuary.
This is a modern problem, but it was an ancient one too. Stephen confronted this faulty thinking almost 2,000 years ago. (You will remember that Stephen was the first martyr of the church. He was a man who was commended in Acts 6 as being "full of the Spirit and wisdom, (...) full of God's grace and power" [this biblical quote, and all others in this post, are from the NIV unless otherwise noted]). In Acts 6 Stephen was appointed to help care for the needs of the widows in the church. It was his appointed task to be mindful of the poor. He helped oversee "the daily distribution of food" to those who needed it (Acts 6:1, NIV).
Stephen came under attack, in part because he did not see eye-to-eye with some of the Jews when it came to the Temple. These Jews "stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law." "They produced false witnesses, who testified, 'This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place'" (Acts 6:12-13). Now, we should note that the Jews were not entirely fair in their accusations. The testimony against Stephen was false. Nonetheless, from the account in Acts, it is clear that Stephen did not think the Temple was in fact God's home - at least not in any ultimate sense. One can see how this would have angered those who thought otherwise, and who had bought into the Temple system with their wallets and with their lives.
According to Stephen, the desire to associate something tangible with the worship of God could be traced back to the desert, around 1400 years before Jesus. He said that the Israelites, "told Aaron, 'Make us gods who will go before us. (...) That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made" (Acts 7:40-41). When Stephen used the terminology what their hands had made it must certainly have jarred his Jewish audience, who would have seen it as a subtle attack on their Temple - which was obviously made with human hands. What seemed subtle at first was much more overt when Stephen said plainly a few verses later, "The most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands" (Acts 6:48). When Stephen used the same verbiage for the Temple as he had just used for the golden calf his meaning was unavoidable. Stephen was saying, "Your need for something tangible - a physical 'house of worship' - is essentially the same thing as the need for a golden calf in the desert. Your mentality towards the Temple is nothing less than idolatry."
Stephen explained that many of the services the Israelites in the desert thought they were offering to God were in fact services in worship of their idols. He reminded the people of what God had said through the prophet Amos, "Did you bring Me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel?" (God asks, "Was that really for Me that you were doing all of those things?). The answer was a loud, "No!" "You have lifted up the shrine of Molech and the star of your god Rephan, the idol you made to worship" (Acts 7:42-43). This is sobering. What it means is that the service that the Israelites thought they were rendering to Yahweh they were in fact rendering to other gods.
The Exodus text is plain that the Israelites thought they were worshipping the true God, even in the incident of the golden calf. Exodus says that after the golden calf was made, "They said, 'These are your gods, Oh Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt" (Exodus 32:4, personal translation). (It is noteworthy that according to the Hebrew a plurality of idols was made at the time). Then, Aaron said, "Tomorrow will be a feast to Yahweh" (Exodus 32:5, personal translation). The Israelites thought they were celebrating a feast to Yahweh with the golden calf and the accompanying idols - but in fact God says in Amos that they were really celebrating other gods: Molech and Rephan.
But, the Jews of Stephen's day likely felt that Amos' words did not apply to them. After all, Amos was the prophet to the renegade northern tribes who worshipped in unsanctioned places, not to the faithful tribes of the south who worshipped at the true Temple. Amos' words could be applied to false centers of worship, like Bethel, and Gilgal. But surely they could not be applied to the "real" worship of the living God taking place in Jerusalem. So, the Jews of Stephen's day probably joined the chorus with Yahweh when he said "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring Me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps" (Amos 5:21-23).
But, what would have been unthinkable is to have these prophetic words applied to them and to the Temple. Yet this is exactly what Stephen did. He quoted from Amos 5 and applied the words to the Jews, living in Jerusalem, and to the "official" system that God had ordained. This must have shocked his hearers, who thought that God's words of condemnation in Amos were for the apostate tribes of long ago, not for the Holy City of the present time.
But, if they had only understood the very next verse in Amos they would have seen how it applied to them, and to the Temple, as well. What did God want? Not religious feasts. Not assemblies. Not offerings. Not singing and harp playing. What then? The next verse reads, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24).
Yes, if the Jews Stephen was addressing had been at all wise they would remember that Isaiah had said virtually the same thing 700 years before - and addressed it to the Temple system in Jerusalem. Isaiah quoted Yahweh as saying, "The multitude of your sacrifices -- what are they to me? (...) I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations -- I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts My soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers I will not listen" (Isaiah 1:11-15).
Why - what could possibly have upset God so much that He seemed to despise the worship being offered Him at the Temple? Well - Isaiah and Amos were on the same page, indicating that this is how God feels about all houses of worship that fall into a similar trap (both the ancient ones, and the modern ones). God says in Isaiah, "Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" (Isaiah 1:15-17).
What does God want? As in Amos so in Isaiah - justice and mercy. He wanted His people to care for (instead of oppressing) the fatherless, the widow, and the poor.
What does God want? Micah asked, "With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Micah 6:6-7). Today we might ask, "What shall we bring before God that will really please him? Should we have longer worship sessions? Build better sanctuaries that lift our hearts toward heaven? Pray longer prayers - maybe even have a list where people are committed to praying around the clock? Fill the church with beautiful gifts dedicated to Him?" The answer: "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
This is a timeless truth - whether we are talking of cathedrals or humble parish buildings, of synagogues or temples, of sanctuaries or of family-life centers. It is true whether we are talking about thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil or bringing a 'sacrifice of praise' into our modern houses of worship. God put it this way in Hosea: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). Jesus repeated it to the Jews of His time: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'" (Matthew 9:12).
Stephen drove his point home by quoting from the last chapter of Isaiah: "'Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for Me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?'" (Acts 7:49-50).
The Jews of Stephen's day should have learned from his life what it meant to live as God wanted. They should have observed from him what it really meant to live a life full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, full of the grace of God, and full of power. They should have learned that all of this leads to a life of care for those who desperately need help. They should have learned from Stephen that God does not care about buildings, but about people. Instead they rejected him, and his message - and stoned him to death.
It was not only Stephen and the prophets who testified against the abuses of the Temple. Jesus was concerned about this too - as well as various other building projects taking place in His time. In Luke 20 Jesus rebuked the Pharisees saying, "They devour widows' houses (...). Such men will be punished most severely" (Luke 20:47). He then looked up and "saw a poor widow put (...) two very small copper coins" into the temple treasury. He observed, "She has put in all she had to live on" (Luke 20:1-4). As the disciples gawked at the splendor of the Temple building, and how "it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God," Jesus saw something else. He saw an institution that was systematically exploiting the poor. He saw a place that enabled the religious establishment of His time to thrive because widows were manipulated into giving everything they had. He saw a place that was not taking care of the down-and-out, but was rather taking advantage of them. And He prophesied, "As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; everyone one of them will be thrown down" (Luke 21:6). Jesus' treasure was not in the Temple, or in the beautiful stones, or in the "gifts dedicated to God." It was in the widow - and all the other poor - who had been led to believe something very wrong about what God really wanted. It was in those whom the Temple should have been protecting, helping, encouraging, and assisting - but from whom it was instead sucking the life blood.
Jesus said something similar earlier in Luke. In chapter 11 He chastised the teachers - the experts in the law. He said, "Woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. Woe to you, because you build the tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. (...) Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all" (Luke 11:46-51).
I used to think that Jesus' words here were unfair. I mean, weren't the teachers of the law trying to rectify what their fathers had done? Weren't they trying to say, "Our fathers were wrong to murder the prophets, and so now we will honor the prophets by building them monuments"?
Then I realized that it seems that Jesus had in mind a set of building projects that was exploiting people. I used to think that Jesus was talking about how the teachers of the law were laying legalistic burdens on people's backs. But then when I connected the dots I realized that maybe Jesus was - at least in part - referring to actual burdens. This makes more sense in the context of not lifting "one finger to help."
First century archaeology reveals that there really were major building projects underway, during Jesus' day, to honor the prophets. We know from this passage that Jesus didn't have any use for them. It seems that no matter how noble the intention, the consequence was that common folk were being oppressed in the erection of the buildings.
What if Jesus was saying, "The prophets spoke of care for the widows, the orphans, and the poor. And yet you teachers of the law reject the message of the prophets in your ostensible honoring of them. In this, you are not opposing what your fathers did. Rather, you are joining with them by taking advantage of people whom the prophets were trying to protect. Don't forget, Zechariah's blood was shed at the Temple - the greatest of all monuments. This generation that thinks it is honoring the prophets with all of these building projects will actually be responsible for their blood. For, they are continuing their fathers' rejection of the prophetic message in, and by, and through the very building projects they think are honoring the prophets!"
In the modern era we often face the same issue. Only now it is not the Temple or the tombs of the prophets but the local church sanctuary and the multi-purpose center that we believe God wants us to build. I think of Saint Peter's Basilica. Perhaps the greatest "capital campaign" for a church over the last several hundred years was organized to fund this monument at the heart of the Vatican. Pope Leo X thought that it needed to be built. But, there was no money for doing so. On March 15, 1517 - ingeniously - his campaign asserted that indulgences would be granted for those who gave to the project. He did indeed raise untold sums of money this way - often on the backs of the ignorant poor who believed their sins could be absolved if they would simply give. Martin Luther was appalled. Of course, he was outraged at the doctrine that selling indulgences implied. But, he was also provoked at what he saw that it was doing to the poor. His 86th thesis (of the famous 95 Theses) reads, "Why does not the Pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one Basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?" (For the source of this quote see here: 95 Theses).
So, what should we do? Should we be disillusioned? Has our particular local congregation lost its way? Has it started to care far too much about buildings, and far too little for the poor?
Some of you may find this to be an enormous non-sequitur, but I think it is only fair to say here that it is not always wrong for a church to build a building. Perhaps we should be disillusioned. Perhaps not. The most important questions on this topic are not "what" but "why," "how," and "at whose expense?"
Why? There may be perfectly legitimate reasons for building. For instance, a local church may be fully resolved to care for the poor in a more intentional way. It may truly ascertain that erecting a building is the best possible way to care for the community (especially those who struggle financially within the congregation and around it). Or, a truly rigorous cost benefit analysis may show that the church can actually save money in a relatively short time if it builds a building. And, the true intention may be to use that money to care for those with whom Christ identifies and for whom He continually advocates. These are all good reasons. There may be others. But if the "Why" is simply to have "a home of our own" or to provide a consistent place to pray - well - better to meet in a tent and to pray by the river. Let the reasons be strong before campaigns are started. In my opinion those who wish to lead the church in such a project should demonstrate clearly, at the start, how it will help the congregation pursue "justice, mercy, and walking with God."
How? The church may be willing to employ (at reasonable and good wages) people in the community who really need help. The church may see that this is a way to help fathers earn bread with which to feed their families. But, it is when the church begins to exploit the poor that it runs into major trouble. A church building campaign in a poor community should ensure that it is being not only just but also merciful to the laborers involved. It should not take advantage, but should go over and beyond to care for those working.
At Whose Expense? I think that this is one of the most important questions of all. The church must do everything it can to dissuade giving by those for whom it should be caring. If there are those within the church community who possess considerable means, and who truly think the best way to advance the church goal of caring for the poor is a building, well - then let them give out of their surplus. However, even these men and women should be very careful not to divert funds that God would have them use for the poor. This would rob the poor of what God wants them to be given in order to build a building.
So, should you be disillusioned? Parishioner discretion is advised. If you feel that you are being compelled to give to a building be sure to discern whether the building really makes sense from a justice and mercy standpoint. Ensure that money meant for the poor is not being spent on a sanctuary, or a family-life center. One of the best possible reasons a church could wish to build is to care even more proactively and fully for the oppressed. On the other hand, many churches throughout history have mistakenly believed that building projects were self-justified. They took advantage of the poor (or failed to care for the poor as they should) in order to build. And in the end Stephen, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Martin Luther - and most importantly Jesus Himself - testify that their service, though originally meant for God, was in fact contrary to His purposes. Let us be careful that we do not think we are worshiping Yahweh with our golden calves.
Soli Deo Gloria,