In a previous post, I mentioned a volume I referred to as The Red Book, a volume denouncing the practices of the historic church (both Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) in favour of its own prescription for a house church re-imagining of what its authors thought the first century church looked like. These authors I referred to as Valentinus and Marcion, changing their names, as C.S. Lewis changed the names of the authors of a volume he called The Green Book. In this post I would like to examine their teaching about church buildings.
For proponents of the house church, the use of a building specially set apart for the worship and glorification of God is problematic, if not anathema. Accordingly, a chapter of The Red Book consists of a demonization of the whole concept of church temple. “The story of the church building,” they write, “is the sad saga of Christianity borrowing from heathen culture and radically transforming the face of our faith.” It makes the obvious point the “the Church” (Greek ekklesia) refers to the people of God, wherever they may meet, not whatever building they may use for their meeting, and that “the Christianity that conquered the Roman Empire was essentially a home-centered movement.” That is, from the earliest days, the Christians largely met in the homes of other Christians. Obviously, in the first century, the Christians did not have the resources to build structures dedicated to the worship of Christ, nor, since their Eucharistic worship then was incorporated into a common meal and the numbers participating in this were small, did such structures seem necessary. But the numbers soon grew.
Meeting in homes for the Eucharist became unnecessary in the second century because by then the Eucharist proper (i.e. the blessing of bread and cup) had become separated from a full meal. The separation was probably effected in the first century by the apostles themselves. St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyred in about 107 A.D., refers in his letters to both “the Eucharist” and “the agape” (i.e. the love feast) as two distinguishable and separate events. Since terminology usually lags at least somewhat behind phenomenon, the phenomenon of the separation of Eucharist from meal clearly took place earlier—that is, in the first century. That it took place with apostolic authority may be implied from the total lack of any evidence of controversy about the separation, for if the apostles had not sanctioned such a separation, separating it would have evinced strenuous protest. Since we have no evidence of any such protest anywhere, we may confidently assume that the separation of Eucharist from love-feast took place under the authority of the apostles. The Eucharist could then take place in any locale, and homes with dining room facilities were no longer necessary for Eucharistic worship.
This is not to say that Christian worship instantly abandoned the domestic locale. Building church temples especially dedicated for worship was not high on the list of ante-Nicene priorities, especially when the Christians were happy to fly under the Roman radar. A secular Roman report tells us that the Christians of the early second century met before dawn on Sunday morning “to sing a hymn to Christ as to a god”, and then met later that day for an evening meal—evidence of an early morning Eucharist and an agape later on. Possibly the same house was used for both; possibly not. More people could fit in a room for the former than for the latter.
But soon the Christians did begin to build structures set apart for the Eucharist and the sacraments of the Church. The Red Book even mentions one of them—the so-called Dura-Europus in modern Syria, a former house in which its owners knocked down a wall or two to transform a domestic dwelling into a place set apart for Eucharistic assembly and baptism. Valentinus and Marcion state that “remodelled houses like Dura-Europus cannot rightfully be called ‘church buildings’”, but it is difficult to see why not, since such remodelled houses clearly no longer functioned as homes as they did before. A store-front church is a church, not a store, and the Dura-Europos structure was a church building, not a house.
Valentinus and Marcion are emphatic that Constantine was “the father of the church building”, so that “for the first three centuries, the Christians did not have any special buildings”. (We have seen that for Valentinus and Marcion, Dura-Europus did not count.)
To put it bluntly, this is a lie. The Dura-Europus structure was, unsurprisingly, not unique. Wherever money and political situation allowed, the Christians soon built structures of their own, dedicated to the worship of Christ. We know this because the pagan emperor Galerius referred to them in the so-called “Edict of Toleration” in 311, issued also in the names of Constantine and Licinius. Church buildings which had been seized by pagans were ordered to be returned to the Christians: “Concerning the Christians,” the Imperial decree ran, “we before gave orders with respect to the places set apart for their worship. It is now our pleasure that all who have bought such places should restore them to the Christians, without any demand for payment”. Clearly, the Christians had erected “places set apart for their worship”, which had been seized by pagans in times of persecution and which now the government was demanding be returned. It is simply untrue therefore that the Christians “did not have any special buildings”; they had enough of them even before Constantine called off the dogs of war to figure in this edict of toleration. In fact, the church historian Eusebius writes that even in the third century, there were “famous gatherings in the houses of prayer, on whose account the Christians, not being satisfied with the ancient buildings, erected from the foundation large churches in all the cities”. The Church Father Lactantius writes that the persecuting Emperor Diocletian was disturbed that there was a Christian basilica near the Imperial palace at Nicomedia. Dura-Europus was therefore but one of many such church buildings erected in the third century, well before the peace of Constantine.
What led these early Christians to create buildings set apart for worship? Like any such question beginning with the word “why”, we can only guess at the answer. Certainly numbers had something to do with it. As the renovators of the Dura-Europos house discovered, you can fit more people into a building specially designed for worship than you can into your living room, and after the first century, the numbers of Christians kept on increasing. Also, a building set apart for Christian worship would have been “owned” by the Christians corporately, not by a single individual: even though one individual held the deed of ownership of the building (to use modern terms), all the Christians worshipping there would have regarded it as “theirs”, and held a stake in it. Thus no one person could dominate and personalize the gathering, putting their idiosyncratic “stamp” on it. The strong sense of corporate identity which the Christians had led them to create buildings which were corporately “owned”.
This is the unacknowledged problem with all house churches. When a person makes a building his home, it looks like his—since it is his home, its decoration, lay-out, and interiors all express his personality and tastes. The owner of the building is thus uniquely positioned to dominate the gathering, even if he (or she) is not a domineering sort of person. When the church meets at Bob’s house, Bob’s views, opinions, and convictions have a tremendously important role to play in whatever that church decides. This is all the more so in the absence of an ordained and authoritative clergy who themselves submit to an already-established Tradition. The modern house church that meets at Bob’s place inevitably becomes Bob’s church, and such idiosyncratic personalization of “church” is the essence of heresy. Even if Bob is not strictly speaking heretical, the fullness and catholicity of the Faith will be lacking, because for all his good intentions and piety, Bob, or any other individual, cannot express the fullness of the Faith. Only the universal apostolic Tradition can do that. The modern house church movement thus has a personalizing tendency already built in. This unfortunate tendency is minimized when the church meets in a public building that all share equally.
I think, though, that the main reason the Christians of the second and third centuries began to create church buildings was not simply to avoid personalization of the Faith (possessing an ordained and authoritative clergy who themselves submitted to an already established Tradition, there was little danger of that). Buildings were not just structures to house people and keep the rain off their heads. Erecting a building was a statement—a challenge, if you like. When the Jews erected synagogue buildings, this building was an assertion of the legitimacy and truth of Judaism. A pagan temple was a statement of the power and glory of the pagan deity worshipped there. Statements can be made in stone as well as words. And if the Christians of the second and third centuries (and later) were going to commend their Faith to the world, these statements in stone needed to be made. To refuse to make the statement—to refuse to build church buildings and to continue to worship only in homes—would’ve been to tell the world that the Christian Faith did not possess the legitimacy of Judaism or of paganism. It was a matter of credibility before the world—that is, of evangelism.
That is why Constantine (who as far as Valentinus and Marcion are concerned could do nothing right) was indeed right in building large churches. It is true that something was lost as far as intimacy was concerned when the church building now could hold not just seventy persons but seven hundred. For what its worth, Constantine’s building projects were not that numerous compared to the number of actual church buildings, and lots of smaller church buildings remained. He was concerned to build spacious and beautiful structures in Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and other important places; he was less concerned to splurge limited funds in tiny towns in out of the way spots. There were still plenty of small churches, which afforded a corresponding intimacy. But the world’s attention was on the larger places, and making architectural statements there was a necessary part of commending the Christian Faith to a still largely pagan world. This is all the more important when one reflects that a church temple erected especially for worship will continue to be used for that purpose for generations, which would not be the case if one met for worship in a private home. Meeting for worship at Bob’s house will cease when Bob moves away or dies; meeting for worship in a specially-built church temple will continue long after we and Bob have gone—a further manifestation of the abiding truth of the Faith.
For us today, the existence of buildings set apart for the worship of Christ serves yet another purpose—that of carving out a place, in a militantly secular world, where everything speaks of the glory of Jesus, and where prayer is encouraged by our surroundings. One can, of course, pray anywhere, and one does not need icons or outward beauty in order to commune with God. Christians have prayed (and are praying) in terrible gulag conditions. But if you’re like me, you appreciate all the help you can get. Since we are animal as well as spiritual, our outward surroundings do effect us, often profoundly, and an environment in which everything points us to God is helpful as we strive to lay aside all earthly cares and commune with the King of all. The church building itself therefore becomes part of our self-offering, something beautiful which we offer to God, an architectural hymn, a way of singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. Constantine was not the first one to sing this song. But he sang it very well, and we can still appreciate its fading echoes as we strive to sing the same song.