Visiting part of Europe recently brought the opportunity to see some amazingly beautiful churches and monasteries. Some of the buildings were probably more ornate than any other structure I have seen. Gold, lapis lazuli, marble, jade, coral, gilded cedar, silver, garnet – all of these could be seen even in the one church. Yet at the same time, there were beggars waiting out the front, hoping for the generosity of visitors.
All these riches were dedicated to God, but the needs of these people were not met. This brought me to thinking about what God would think of this? Would he be pleased that people expressed their reverence in such grandeur? What would people think about God when this is done before caring for the needy?
Such amassed wealth can feel uncomfortable, and I know that some of my friends view this as an indictment of Christianity. At times, it seems people give to the Church even without caring for their family. The Bible has something to say about this, in one instance Jesus speaks strongly of the matter: ‘Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.’ (1 Timothy chapter 5 verse 8, NIV translation). In a similar way, it seems clear that we ought to care for people and having the wrong focus on using our wealth is sinful.
However, worshipping God is important and it seems that grand church buildings are a way some try to express this. For me it often continues to feel strange and I think the Bible shows us that there is a tension in this kind of worship. While this is true of all forms of worship, as the human heart is prone to turn away from what is good, building structures for God appears fairly frequently in the Bible and I think there is a tension shown for us to see.
In the early part of the Bible, God instructs his followers to build altars of undressed stone, saying: ‘If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.’ (Exodus 20:25, NIV) God starts out making sure that his people recognise that he is greater than anything they could do for him. Certainly, anything we do to honour God was not something he needed. Additionally, it is not something that is necessary for us to be able to worship him. However for a time it was proper to worship God at the tabernacle and temple because God instructed for them to do so.
When God instructed his people to build the tabernacle as a meeting place for his people to come to him, he gave very precise instruction for how it should be made. It appears that God wanted to teach the Israelites about himself and the kind of rightly ordered reverence they should show. His holiness was made clearer to them by the structures of worship.
I think there is an aspect of this that grand churches continue to do, though they are easily misinterpreted. For instance, rood screens were meant to remind us that we come to God through Jesus and his forgiveness, but it looks more like a fence to keep people out. Perhaps these things are most useful where there is already an established cultural understanding, but that seems hard to reconcile with the need to be open to all as Christianity is.
After the tabernacle Solomon built the temple. I don’t think it is especially clear that this was wholly good. His prayer at the dedication of the temple appears sincere, but his life seems to veer away from genuine faith. It seems unclear whether Solomon was truly building it out of devotion to God or as a way of trying to control God (1 Kings chapters 3-11).
I think the reader is meant to feel this tension as it works its way through all of Solomon’s life. God gave Solomon incredible gifts and abilities, but it seems to me that Solomon is pressed between his understanding of God and his own vain glory. I suspect this is a tension that is also present for many others who devote their resources to God and his glory. It is hard to keep a right heart.
God allowed the temple to be looted and reconstructed and it appears that it might have been partly as a warning to the Israelites to not let them think that they were right with God when they were not. The first time it was looted, under the king Rehoboam, was just after they had turned away from God and started practicing human sacrifice and cult prostitution (with the high places and Asherim poles) as recorded in 1 Kings 14. However, it is hard in the present to see whether God uses a similar method of warning us.
Perhaps a more direct comparison can be found in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus describes himself as the Temple, and he allowed himself to be killed because of our sin (John 2:19, Mark 14:58, Mathew 26:61). His rising to life is like the reconstruction of the temple showing us God’s willingness to let us in.
Jesus is also making an important statement about one of his roles when he said he is the temple. Jesus claims to be the meeting point between God and humanity. Then what need is there for another temple? This is part of why Christians build churches instead of temples. A church does not have the presence of God in a way that another place could not. God lives in his people and Jesus also promises that ‘where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’ (Matthew 18:20). This is part of what makes me think that grand churches feel strange, because I do not think we need them at a fundamental level.
While Jesus being the temple could not be more splendorous in reality, the appearance is less grand at the time he said it. If we try to display Jesus in a way that is like most of Jesus’ life on earth, it seems we ought to build churches that emphasise his humility as the Son of God. However, that is not the complete story and might understate what is true about Jesus.
Jesus has already won in the most massively marvellous cosmic way possible, having obeyed God in defeating death and sin through his death and resurrection. Jesus will return in obvious glory, and he has already won the right to this glory. So how should we portray the humble and glorious King?
Whether you admire their wonder or shun them for their opulence when we have other duties (such as to the poor), we must do these with the right heart. Whatever we do we need to avoid becoming people who have tried to . God does not like it when we go against his instructions even when it might appear reverent. I do not think this issue is particularly clear one way or the other, though I personally lean towards not building grand churches.
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.