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A house not made with hands: we are not intended to accumulate treasures on earth.


GOD does not provide much money to many Presbyterian congregations because they spend it in a way He does not want. To grow more in grace, they should devote their funds to helping needy people rather than on erecting or maintaining expensive buildings.

The concept of a special building for Christian worship was alien to Christ's early followers. All the "churches" greeted in the name of the Apostle Paul (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15 and Philemon 2) were gatherings of flesh-and-blood believers, not material edifices designated solely for public worship. None of the 109 instances of "church" in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible refers to a physical structure.

The New Testament excludes the thought that a Christian temple is a structure of wood, bricks, stones, or concrete. First Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19 state that it is a believer's body that is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 2:19-22 speaks of the Christian temple as being founded on Christ, the apostles and the prophets, with no mention of a stone foundation or wooden superstructure. All three passages apply the word "temple" to flesh-and-blood Christians rather than to a material edifice. In 1 Peter 2:4-6, the "stones" of which the church is built are Christ and believers--people, not bricks.


In the first half of the third century, many Christians still regarded the concept of distinctive religious buildings as the mark of idolatry, as witness these quotations from Origen, a seminary professor and the most important father of the early Greek church. He wrote that one of the distinctive traits of Christians was that we do not honour the Deity by means of temples, because such buildings "are adapted rather to demons, which are somehow fixed in a certain place which they prefer to any other, or which take up their dwelling ... after ... certain rites and incantations." And elsewhere: "there will be no need to build temples, for nothing ought to be regarded as sacred, or of much value, or holy, which is the work of builders and of mean men."

The earliest known building given over exclusively to Christian worship was erected after AD 240. It was modest, a renovated private dwelling, not an expensive cathedral. Older Christian writings contain instances of Christians worshipping only in the Jerusalem Temple, barns and private dwellings, none of which were owned or maintained by the church.

The New Testament mentions collections of money, but the purpose was not for houses of worship but for the relief of needy Christians: Acts 11:28, Romans 15:25-27, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8-9, and Galatians 2:10. Jesus taught that helping the poverty-stricken is a Christian duty: Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 14:13 and 18:22. Early writers were of the same mind: 1 John 3:17 and Origen condemn people--especially Christians--who have money but close their hearts against brothers and sisters in need, James 2 is particularly concerned for the relief of the less fortunate. The apostolic command to help the needy was repeated (1) by Origen, (2) by Justin, who was martyred for the faith around 165, (3) in a first-century letter from the church at Rome to that at Corinth (1 Clement), and (4) repeatedly in The Shepherd of Hermas, a lengthy instruction in Christian conduct from the early or middle second century. The repetition of the command to assist the needy in so many sources of such early date shows how importantly it was regarded by Christians who knew not only Jesus' written teaching but also how it was practised and applied under his first successors. Yet these same Christians never commended erection of a physical palace of worship. Hermas in particular counselled Christians to buy souls instead of lands, and not to accumulate lands and buildings.

The Acts of Thomas relates the missionary efforts of the apostle Thomas in India. Compiled around AD 200, these acts narrate that he was an architect and all-round construction contractor. As such, he was retained by a king to build a magnificent palace. The king did not supervise the project but sent Thomas to build it some distance from his majesty's residence, and sent installment payments without seeing how they were applied. The apostle did indeed provide him with a sumptuous new home, but not in the sense the king had thought or intended. Thomas spent his majesty's money by giving it to the poor, the sick, orphans, and widows--without erecting a physical building. According to Thomas, such use of the king's money would provide his majesty with a beautiful palace in heaven. When the king learned how his money had been spent on disadvantaged people instead of stone, bricks, mortar and superstructure, he became very angry and imprisoned Thomas. Severe punishment loomed for Thomas until the king's brother had a near-death experience in which he viewed the wonderful place waiting in heaven for those who spend their money on the poor instead of on material buildings. The brother reported his vision to the king, and they both saw the proper use of money.

According to Christ, we are not to accumulate treasures on earth but treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20), feed the hungry, provide clothes to the needy, and welcome strangers (Matthew 25:34-46). In fact, Matthew 7:21-23 states that we will be blessed only for doing what God has specifically commanded. All other works and activities done in His name--no matter how great or well intentioned--count for nothing in the kingdom of heaven. God has specifically commanded us to assist the poor, but He never told Christians to build even a small chapel, let alone spend money on one instead of them.

Presbyterians and other Christians should spend their own and their church's money on what God said He wants. Instead of lavishing it on a house of worship, "let us do good to all men, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10).

David W. T. Brattston is a freelance Christian writer living in Lunenburg, N.S. His articles on early and contemporary Christianity have been published in Britain, Canada, Australia, and the United States.
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Title Annotation:FEATURES: Opinion
Author:Brattston, David W.T.
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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