In our last two essays, we have shown that going to church is a necessity for a believer. But we have also seen that the church as we know is not capable of fulfilling its role as the centerpiece of Christian community because it is dependent on government protections. We ended with the question, “Does the revolutionary gathering of the unstoppable, indivisible kingdom of God take place in our government-sponsored and approved church buildings?” To answer that question, we must clarify what we mean by “go to church”. Or, to be more precise, what we don’t mean by “go to church”.
Our theological traditions have spent a lot of time travelling the via minimus, “the minimal road”. The best example is an understanding of salvation from the conversion of the thief on the cross. Anything more than the thief’s proclamation cannot be required for salvation, because the thief was saved. The via minimus is a road worthy of examination, but its unrelenting focus on the minimum requirements of the faith stands in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, who continually held out a vision of a full commitment, and an overflowing abundance.
Alternatively, theologians travel the via maximus, the “maximal road”. In this framework, theologians try to say as much as can possibly be said about a subject. This too is a road worthy of examination, but its very comprehensiveness tends towards theo-philosophical hubris and overlooking the mystery and majesty of God. It is not uncommon for a book on the Trinity to start off with the words “The Trinity is a mystery that no one can understand” at the commencement of an 800 page treatise showing that they really think they do.
In the next several essays, we will primarily, but not exclusively, follow a different path. It is an ancient way of thinking primarily used by the early Orthodox church called the via negativa. It a way of thinking in which we examine those things that cannot be true. The via negativa is based on a common observation: it is much easier to identify problems than to propose solutions. This is true in life, which is complicated enough, but even more true in theology. The via negativa doesn’t try to fill in the details of how the church should function. Because the whatever the church is must be able to survive and thrive all over the world: in the tribal culture of Papua, in traditional Yemeni culture, as well as in Los Angeles. The via negativa helps us outline what the church is not, giving us space to use our creativity and adapt to our context, as we work together with the Holy Spirit to form what is and should be.
There are two primary ways to understand church that exist in the religiously free world today. But both are rooted in flawed historical and theological understandings.
The first is to understand “church” as the place where I meet with God, preferably alone in nature. This tradition goes back to the Desert Fathers, one of whom said, ‘I cannot be with you and with God”. It is based ont he truth each believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). It is a tradition endorsed by the Gnostic Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, who said “Many stand outside at the door, but it is the solitaries who will enter the bridal chamber.” (75) and “I am the All. Cleave a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up a stone, and You will find Me there.” (77). It is the call to worship God alone in the quiet place, on the mountain, in the wilderness. For God is everywhere, and inside of me. Wherever I choose to seek, there God may be found. That is necessary and beautiful revelation. After all, the Gospel of Luke says
Luke 5:16 (NIV) – But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
The majority of us don’t spend enough time alone with God in prayer. But this time in seclusion, while necessary for the formation of our soul and the development of our relationship with God, is not an alternative to the communal life of the church body, any more than eating food is an alternative to drinking water. They are both essential to our health. We cannot live a life isolated from our family in Jesus, the body of Christ. We need other people’s perspectives to counter our own biases and misunderstandings. As humans, we are social beings, and we cannot avoid the influence that other humans have on us, for good and for ill. We need to live in and spend a significant amount of time with people that share our beliefs. Beliefs that we hold by faith, in spite of what we see. We need to be a part of a community that struggles to embody love and mercy. Nor can we fulfill our roles in the kingdom from a place of isolation. Ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20) cannot be hermits. The via negativa says that church is not just me and God meeting alone, however majestic the location.
Others understand “go to church” as the Christian equivalent of going to the Temple. This is a natural development because the Temple was central to the thought world of first-century Judaism. The church of the New Testament is described in relation to the already-familiar Temple. This is how most people today think about church. It is a building Christians go to offer their sacrifices (of money), to hear a sacred person speak and offer blessings, and to participate in worship ceremonies. Some parts of the Temple ceremony were made obsolete by the sacrifice of Jesus, of course. There are no more animal sacrifices, no more yearly pilgrimage, no more high priest, and many of the annual festivals are no longer held. But the overall structure remains the same. There is a professional clergy whose livelihood depends on the sacrifice, although the priesthood is no longer hereditary. Worship has a visible public location. (Interestingly, it does not bother anyone that it is not a singular location, like the Temple. It seems as if there is some conflation in our thinking between the Jerusalem Temple and the synagogues that replaced it.) Although Christians have all heard the occasional “The church isn’t the building, it is the people”, COVID has demonstrated the depth of our belief in that statement. Corporate worship did not happen once the buildings were shut down.
So, we are forced to reconsider our premise. Were Christians intended to build their concept the church based on the operation and philosophy of the Temple in the Hebrew Scriptures?
Galatians 3:24-25 (NIV) – So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
The Law was our guardian, guide, and teacher. But in this case, Christians are operating under the assumption that the Hebrew Scriptures are showing us how things should be done. I would argue instead that the primary purpose of the Old Testament is to reveal the necessity of a Savior who makes a new way by showing us the consequences of going about things the wrong way.
For example, few of us hold to the idea anymore that a nation should be Christian, and that the expansion of that nation through war and violence is good. That took more than a thousand years to figure out, even though the failures of Israel as God’s nation are clear and plentiful, suggesting that this was part of the lesson the Scriptures were meant to teach.
What would happen if we analyzed the Temple in the same way? The Jerusalem temple is the place where God dwells and where humans can meet with God. This is system is not exclusive to the Hebrews. Almost every religion has its temples and holy places. But we are not amazed by the holiness of the Israelites, are we? It seems obvious that neither the Temple nor the Tabernacle in all their perfection had any discernible affect on promoting holiness or restraining immorality among the nation of Israel, and God, through His prophets, frequently comments on the fact.
Then the Temple gets destroyed, and rebuilt, and destroyed again, and rebuilt again. It is newly rebuilt when Jesus arrives on the scene. How does it function in the gospels? The Temple functions entirely as a stumbling block, except for a few isolated incidents where it highlights the faithfulness of holy person (like Anna). Jesus was murdered, in part, because he claimed that if the Temple was destroyed, he could rebuild it in three days. The Temple was where people met God, not in Jesus. Ironically, the Temple which bore no graven image, became an idol in itself.
Jesus was crucified, in part, because he congregated with Samaritan women and said, “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” (John 4:21b) The Temple was a symbol of national and racial pride, which gave Jews the right to exclude, not only the Gentiles (foreigners), and their near cousins, the Samaritans, but also the poor and sick of their own people.
Jesus was crucified, in part, because he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple, crying out: “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19:46) The Temple was where the professional clergy had to work to earn their livelihood.
Jesus was killed, in part, because he said to the crippled man, “Your sins are forgiven.” The Temple was the place where the clergy offered sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin. What was their role if not to mediate between God and man? And, more practically, how would the priests eat if there were no sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins?
Why was the Temple such a stumbling block? Was the problem just the Pharisees? By all accounts the Pharisees, on the whole, wanted to honor God and made great personal sacrifices to do that. The problem wasn’t that particular group of people. It was that the particular group of people was human. If men were angels, the system would make little difference. But humans are prone to sin. We are prone to greed, and desire for power and fame, and revenge. Christians not excepted, except for Jesus, who, though he was tempted in the desert, remained faithful. So the Temple system itself combined with the foibles of humanity leads inevitably to failure. If God’s Temple build for God’s people who were given God’s law could not succeed in that system, then surely we need to give it up. The lesson that we are to draw from the Hebrew Scriptures is that the Temple system does not do what God wants it to do. That truth is highlighted again and again in the New Testament.
Hebrews 10 goes on at great length about how the sacrificial system was never effective, and is no longer necessary because Jesus is our new high priest and our sacrificial lamb. The Temple is obsolete, both geographically and philosophically. Go read that chapter, as you find the time.
1 Peter 2 transforms the imagery of the failed(!) Temple system
1 Peter 2: 4-5, 9-10 – As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual Temple to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. …. 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Remember that this same Peter spent a lot of time preaching in the Temple after the crucifixion. This difficult truth took time to take root, as did the idea that the Jewish God was actually the God of all the nations. But, as he grows old in the ministry, Peter writes that all Christians are now professional clergy, all are royal leaders, all are people with a new identity in Jesus, and that all people are welcome in this new family. This people is defined by God’s mercy, not their ancestry. They are defined by their acceptance of all kinds of people, and their rejection by (not of!) other people. Much like universal suffrage expanded the right to vote to all people, Peter’s universal priesthood expands that role to all people, and thus obviates the necessity for a priestly class. 1 Corinthians 3, 1 Corinthians 6, 2 Corinthians 6, and Ephesians 4 go on at great length how the Spirit of God now dwells in His holy temple, which is the individual believer and the group of believers gathered as a body.
When the body gathers, who offers instruction?
1 Corinthians 14:26 (NIV) – What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
According to Paul, the answer is “each of you”! Whose responsibility to build up the church, “each of you”. But this is a hard teaching, as so many of Jesus’ teachings are. It runs counter to the system of the Temple, which is part of the human way. In the human way, the priests become the powerful, arbitrators of God’s favor. They become wealthy. Who, after observing the wealth and power collected by the Catholic Church over the millennia can think otherwise? And then, in the human way, some other path to power presents itself, and the Temple is overthrown by the kingdom. It is an endless cycle fueled by thirst for wealth and power, and aided by the misguided, but honorable intentions of the faithful.
It is unsurprising that once the Christian church became powerful with the sponsorship of Emperor Constantine it quickly reverted to the system of the world, which is embodied in the system and philosophy of the Temple. Again there were professional clergy, who mediated between God and man. Again there were the mass of attenders whose duty was to offer sacrifices. Again the Temple became a symbol of national pride, and a source of wartime aggression. Again, the Temple became a place that was accepted by men, but in its pride, rejected those it considered unworthy. Again the Temple was God’s house that could be looted and destroyed, or constructed in an unbelieving nation whose inhabitants could be forced to attend. Again the Temple became a place where a profit could be made, power could be found, and again the Temple became a place often ruled by people who sought power and profit.
By accepting the Temple system, Christians have been forced to take these verses in 1 Peter and 1 Corinthians as theological ideals, true in the same sense that we are “new people” or “seated in the heavenlies”. We can’t really be priests or leaders because we still have a priestly class, though it is no longer hereditary. So we our priesthood and leadership mean that we are “imputed” with priestly honor and kingly titles.
Christians take Paul’s injunctions as suggestions for a particular congregation in a particular culture, instead of mandates for the church. This, I believe, is a failure to understand that Paul’s injunctions around corporate worship were as counter-cultural to that context as they are to ours. Those commands are not ad hoc, they are a direct consequence of the theology of the church Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 11-13. The theology of the church that Peter and Paul are building, together(!), is based on the imagery of the Temple, but rejects the Temple as a religious system.
Now let us look at the modern church building. Does it resemble the New Testament understanding of the gathering of the body? Does every person bring something to teach at each gathering? Does every person function as a priest? Does every person act as an ambassador for the kingdom of God?
It does not seem possible to embrace the physical Temple model with its centralized service and the decentralized spiritual Temple at the same time. Either the pastor teaches, or we all teach. Not both. Either the Temple and its own workings require the majority of the offerings of the saints, or the spiritual sacrifices offered by believers are primarily given to people (believers and not) to aid them in their times of need or to bless them for their service. Either the Temple has a professional staff or all believers are priests with vocations as tent-makers.
More practically, a public building whose activities are officially sanctioned by the government can hardly be said to be “rejected by man”. In what sense, then, do our monasteries and cathedrals and church building projects uphold the ethos of the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head?
Isaiah 53:2 (NIV) – He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
Jesus, the true Temple, had no attractiveness to enhance his ministry. But the Temple was gorgeous, and attractiveness is what the Temple-like ministry of the church building is all about. For if there are no people sitting in the building, then there is no ministry, and if there is no ministry, then there is no money to support the ministers. This paradigm places well-intentioned pastors in a difficult situation with conflicted motivations, much as the Pharisees and Sadducees of the first century. Since pastors are people, then we know what to expect over the long term if people are placed in such situations. Sin.
So the Temple will become a big, beautiful, and powerful building, or the spiritual temple will be small, dispersed groups of people with nothing to commend it except the Spirit. It can’t be both.
Do you ever get the sense when you read the New Testament that Jesus was just trying to multiply the number of Temples? To baptize the synagogue model already in place? Or were he and his disciples starting something new?
Conflicted motivations are inevitable if we choose to follow a Temple model of religion. Humans are humans, with the needs and motivations that humans have. This is why a nation cannot be Christian (until Jesus returns) and this is why a church building operated as the Temple cannot be the center of Christian community and be faithful to the teachings of Jesus. It will always devolve to active professional clergy serving as mediators to a largely passive congregation. These clergy will always be forced to compromise because of their need for public acceptance and sponsorship.
The via negativa shows us that the way of the Temple is a way that we cannot go. While the community of believers may own a building, that building may never become a Temple where worship must take place. While their may be (and should be) ministers who earn their livelihood from the gospel, their role is not to be Temple priests. While their may be (and should be) sacrifices given because of the gospel, those sacrifices are not to be Temple subsidies. The via negativa does not define for us what we should do. But we have taken a very short, but very important, first step. We have identified a single wrong path out of an infinite number of wrong paths. It is a wrong path that has been blessed by God for more than a thousand years. It as a wrong path that played a crucial role in my own faith. It is the reason I am able to write these things today. But as Balaam’s donkey has taught us, blessings do not come because of the worthiness of the channel. God does not only provide blessing through the good things of the world, but also the bad. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. So we must continue to endeavor to find a path that is closer to the truth.