Churches: We Are Not Mini-Temples
Unmasking the most pernicious, entrenched and pervasive error in Protestantism
“He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
Some people are surprised when they see a formerly hardcore protestant, reformed guy go Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic. It used to surprise me too. I was puzzled by the frequency in which this happens. I’ve seen the progression many times.
Seeker Sensitive > Emergent > Young, Restless & Reformed > Truly Reformed > Aaaaand he’s swinging a thurible.
Amazingly, almost every time, it’s rarely a rejection of core reformational doctrines (like the 5 solas) which are the cause – at least not at first, that can follow later. These kinds of transformations are less about rejecting core doctrine and more about leaning further into preconceived notions about how the church should function. Of course, how the church functions is actually part of doctrine too, but it’s rarely under the microscope and error in this realm is less easily detected. Spending decade after decade in local churches that function and pattern themselves after a mini-temple model makes people assume that’s just the way it is and the way it should be. The presuppositions in this realm go unchallenged and are assented to uncritically.
So on one level, I understand these transformations because hey, if local church is all about being the best temple in the neighborhood, XYZ Covenant Reformed Church is truly Miller Lite. No one does the temple vibe better than the Eastern Orthodox. Might as well opt for a fine brewed craft beer right? This isn’t just a problem with the odd fellow who smells the bells and swims the Tiber – that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It actually clues us into a far larger cancer within the church. That is the reason for this article.
The lesson here isn’t that we need a more dingy, somber outlook so we won’t be enamored by the shiny objects. We actually need more quality art produced by the church universal. In its proper place and function, I personally love architecture, fine clothing, and beautiful paintings full of rich symbolism. If we want to build a beautiful museum or auditorium let’s do it – but this is a byproduct of a healthy theology around the dominion mandate. These aren’t blueprints for the underlying patterns of what makes a great local church. We also aren’t saying that we need to abandon the local church and head for the exits. The lesson here is we have an unbiblical temple mindset, even in our regular-old “solid” local churches. This model is consciously or unconsciously drilled into our heads week after week by church leaders. This is precisely the reason why “high churchy” options seem all the more attractive to those currently doing “high church lite” but with a temple model understanding of what the local church is. We need a wake up call.
The morally degraded state of affairs in America and the marginalization of Christianity is exactly what you would expect given much of the theology, organization and practice of her churches.
Brothers and sisters, we as the Church of Jesus Christ, are not in the business of planting, advancing and sustaining mini-temples. We are in the the business of planting, advancing and sustaining Christian civilization. The Fellowship of Christian Reconstructionist Churches nails this on the head.
If you’re hearing this for the first time and you have no idea that this problem exists, even in good “solid” local churches, read on. By design, it’s not supposed to be obvious. But it’s effects are monumental and tragic.
In this article we will be surveying seven ways the local church as a temple mindset can lead us astray and steps we can take to remedy the problem. But first, let’s orient ourselves with a brief refresher on a few points of ecclesiology 101.
In the New Testament, the word “church” is translated from the Greek word ekklesia meaning “called out ones”. This is where the word “ecclesiastical” comes from. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word qahal was frequently translated as “ekklesia” in the Septuagint. So the underlying word for church populates both the old and new testaments showing the fundamental unities of the one people of God through history.
The church universal has primary reference to the identity God’s people. It is the collective, singular body of Christ of which the whole number of God’s covenant assembly belong – those who have been “called out”. It includes both those already in glory (the Church Triumphant) and those on earth (the Church Militant). Taken together, there is only one body of Christ and it is permanent. There is the visible church, which includes all who have been baptized into the household of God (circumcised in the Old Covenant – Baptists don’t get hung up here), and there is the invisible church, which includes all those who possess true saving faith in Christ. The point is, membership in the church universal has direct relation to the covenant mediated by Christ.
In the New Covenant, upon Christ’s ascension, the Church is given a mission and mandate to evangelize the world and teach the nations to obey Christ. We must not forget the centrality of the missional aspect of the Church. Churches aren’t stagnate mini-temples. They go out and set up social orders for the Kingdom. We will get to the Kingdom shortly. But first…
YET THE MOST HIGH DOES NOT DWELL IN HOUSES MADE BY HANDS, AS THE PROPHET SAYS,
“‘HEAVEN IS MY THRONE,
AND THE EARTH IS MY FOOTSTOOL.
WHAT KIND OF HOUSE WILL YOU BUILD FOR ME, SAYS THE LORD,
OR WHAT IS THE PLACE OF MY REST?
DID NOT MY HAND MAKE ALL THESE THINGS?’
The temple is a closely related term to “church” according to its spiritual aspects and differs mainly in emphasis. Its primary emphasis is on where God’s presence resides. In the Old Testament, we observe an emphasis on the earthly temple or tabernacle made of stone “with hands” (Heb 9:11-28). This was a temporary shadow of the true temple which was to come in Christ. The plan all along was for God to once again reside with his people by building “a house for my name”. Later we see that the Church, made up of God’s people are referred to as “living stones” which make up the heavenly temple made “without hands” where the Holy Spirit would be poured out and reside permanently.
We must remember that the New Testament was written during an era in redemptive history which we no longer live in, that is the overlapping age of the Old and New Covenants. The new covenant had made the old obsolete, but vestiges of the physical temple and its systems still remained for now and the old Covenant age remained for now (Heb 8:13, Matt 24:3,34). In the early days of the early church in Jerusalem, Jewish Christians still attended “temple” as well as met in homes (Acts 2:46). This temple was the 2nd temple completed under the reign of Herod which was subsequently destroyed in 70 AD as foretold by Christ. That temple and its systems were being phased out. Meanwhile we must take notice that an individual local church is never once referred to as a “temple”. Church / local church / local synagogue are biblical categories. Temple / local temple is not. Synagogues were not “local temples”.
“BEHOLD, THE DAYS ARE COMING, DECLARES THE LORD, WHEN I WILL RAISE UP FOR DAVID A RIGHTEOUS BRANCH, AND HE SHALL REIGN AS KING AND DEAL WISELY, AND SHALL EXECUTE JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS IN THE LAND. IN HIS DAYS JUDAH WILL BE SAVED, AND ISRAEL WILL DWELL SECURELY. AND THIS IS THE NAME BY WHICH HE WILL BE CALLED: ‘THE LORD IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’
JEREMIAH 23: 5-6
We must spend a little more time here because we need to disentangle the amalgamation of the concepts of the local church and the kingdom by modern Bible teachers as if they were synonymous terms. This fusing wreaks havoc on the church, contributes to reductionism present in Christian circles and buttresses the local church as a temple mindset. This conflation is an easy mistake to make since the church and the kingdom are so closely related. The local church and the church itself are related to the kingdom but they are not the same thing and the difference matters immensely.
Whereas the “church” focuses on the identity of God’s people, and the “temple” focuses on the presence of God, the “kingdom” is fundamentally an emphasis on the inherited, royal, reign of the Messiah over the earth and the nations within it. This reign of the Messiah begins with the ascension (Matt. 28:18) and ends when the kingdom is handed over to the Father at the consummation (1st Cor. 15:24). It is distinguished from the broader sovereignty of the Godhead over all creation which has always existed and will never end.
The Kingdom is introduced to us in seed form in Genesis 3:15 after the curse placed upon mankind. Immediately after the fall, man is given the promise of a coming Messiah. This passage is commonly referred to as the “Protevangelium” or the first presentation of the Gospel, the good news of the kingdom. The Kingdom of this Messiah would be engulfed in the war to end all wars as part of the conflict which is the fundamental antithesis of history: The battle between the offspring of Satan and the offspring of Christ. The Kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of Christ. Satan’s Kingdom vs. God’s people.
We learn more and more about this promised Kingdom progressively with greater and greater revelation in scripture. Genesis 49:10 reveals to us that this Messiah King would emerge from the tribe of Judah and rule until the obedience of all nations would be his and no longer Satan’s. Psalm 110:1 famously asserts the promise that Christ would rule from heaven at the right hand of the Father until the nations of the earth became his “footstool”. No other Old Testament verse is cited in the New Testament more frequently than this one. The story of Israel in the Old Testament through the escape from slavery in Egypt, the Kings and the Prophets is the story of the remnant of God’s people persevering amid the menace of the people of Satan until the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah to establish this Kingdom to destroy Satan’s rule, reverse the curse, defeat death, make atonement, and establish justice for the people (Hosea 6, Isaiah 65, Psalm 16, 40, 53, Jeremiah 23 etc).
Israel was told that the kingdom would come with the arrival of the Messiah upon his ascension to heaven (Daniel 7) and that it would be established in the last days (Daniel 2) 490 years after the command to rebuild the temple (Daniel 9). The remnant of Israel yearned for this kingdom to arrive and those who understood the times were watching the prophetic clock. The timing of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem was not entirely unexpected by those paying attention. By the time of John the Baptist and Christ’s earthly ministry, it was clear that the Kingdom (to be established at his ascension) was very near as it was constantly proclaimed to be “near”, “at hand”, “coming soon” for the generation of people of that day.
What Christ revealed about the nature of the kingdom would perplex the disciples. They rightly understood that the heavenly kingdom would establish the rule of the Messiah over the nations. Unfortunately, prior to Pentecost, the disciples were wrong about the means of the kingdom’s arrival (not by revolution, but through regeneration), the speed of its growth (not immediate, but incrementally throughout history like a “mustard seed”), and the nature of it’s existence (not through power and domination but defined by inner Godliness applied to the world).
In Matthew 28, we are notified that that all authority in heaven and on earth over the nations had been handed over to Christ. The Kingdom had come, but there was much work to be done hence the establishment of the Great Commission. A new age had dawned where Satan’s defunct kingdom would be looted and destroyed. With the resurrection, Goliath’s head had been cut off, now his armies needed to be routed by the Holy Spirit working through his church in the great commission as dead hearts are regenerated.
When Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world” he was making a statement about the origin of his kingdom which is greater than the power of any earthly kingdom (Rome etc). He wasn’t limiting the scope of his kingdom to the gates of heaven. This rule of the heavenly kingdom over the earth is affirmed in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Psalm 2 makes clear that rebellious rulers should be afraid of this Messiah. We see this played out in the book of Acts when Rome turned against Christians when they proclaimed that Jesus is Lord – meaning even earthly kings like Caesar needed to bow the knee to Christ.
IT IS HE WHO SHALL BUILD THE TEMPLE OF THE LORD AND SHALL BEAR ROYAL HONOR, AND SHALL SIT AND RULE ON HIS THRONE. AND THERE SHALL BE A PRIEST ON HIS THRONE, AND THE COUNSEL OF PEACE SHALL BE BETWEEN THEM BOTH.
NOW IF HE WERE ON EARTH, HE WOULD NOT BE A PRIEST AT ALL, SINCE THERE ARE PRIESTS WHO OFFER GIFTS ACCORDING TO THE LAW.
As our Great High Priest in heaven, Christ is the head of the church (Colossians 1) but his reign is not said to be limited to headship of the church. According to the gospel of the kingdom, Christ is both Priest and King. Yes the church is part of the Kingdom over which Christ is King. But Christ is king over every institution whether the church, the family, nations, rulers and all individual people everywhere. They are all legally obligated to render obedience to the Messiah who’s reign is total. Christ’s kingdom has difference spheres but he has only one kingdom. This kingdom is a conquering kingdom that we are promised will defeat the kingdom of Satan. Anyone not with him is aligned with Satan (Matt 12:30).
The Kingdom of Christ is both fluid with regard to its ability to grow and fixed with regard to its establishment. It grows like leaven (Matt 13:33) as the church fills it with new converts and sanctifies them toward Godliness as part of the great commission work of looting Satan’s kingdom of it’s citizens. It’s fixed in that it has already been established by Christ once and for all with a framework that is all encompassing over all areas of life. The job of the church is to disciple the nations in order to transfer sinners into the kingdom of Christ. This is why we should see local communities of Christians naturally set up social orders since the Kingdom they inhabit is comprehensive and not compartmentalized to temple-type activities. The Kingdom is a social order. The Church as the people of God is not itself a social order but its function is to set them up. The church exists to serve the Kingdom.
This is why Stephen Perks says it best when he describes the true nature of the Kingdom – what it was always supposed to be.
The kingdom of God is a counter revolutionary prophetic social order structured by the covenant of grace—the true society that God intends for mankind. This social order is what all Christians are commanded to seek now, on earth, first, before all else. It is not something that we merely look forward to in the resurrection, but something we are to seek to make a reality on earth now. Without this being the central goal of our life the assemblies of Christians, i.e. the Church, becomes merely a Christian mystery cult—which alas is what has happened today. Therefore, the most important thing we are to seek as Christians in this life is the establishing of this social order as a real community, a real society. Nothing else in our life comes before this according to Jesus, since he tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Now, so far we’ve covered the church universal, the temple, and the kingdom. What about the local church?
The Local Church
Many times in scripture, individual local churches are referenced in distinction from the one universal church.
Similar to the church universal, the “local church” has primary reference to the identity of members of the one body of Christ, though in a specific region. The local church is a communal, geographic expression of the one covenanted body of God’s people specific to geographic location and local community.
The local church differs from the church universal in several other ways.
Firstly, unlike the church universal, the local church is made up entirely of those in the church militant and thus is not inherently permanent. Unlike the church universal which lasts forever, individual churches may last for hundreds of years or more yet they may dissolve, be wiped out, die off or apostatize.
FOR JUST AS THE BODY IS ONE AND HAS MANY MEMBERS, AND ALL THE MEMBERS OF THE BODY, THOUGH MANY, ARE ONE BODY, SO IT IS WITH CHRIST. FOR IN ONE SPIRIT WE WERE ALL BAPTIZED INTO ONE BODY—JEWS OR GREEKS, SLAVES OR FREE—AND ALL WERE MADE TO DRINK OF ONE SPIRIT.
1ST CORINTHIANS 12:12-13
Secondly, unlike the church universal, the local church cannot be referred to as “the body”, or even “a body” itself. It is a localized expression of the one body of Christ confined to a geographic location and community. The universal church is not comprised of thousands upon thousands of individual “local church bodies”. To the contrary, there is one body with many members. “Members” does not refer to local churches but to individual Christians.
Thirdly, unlike the church universal, membership in the local church is not mitigated directly but indirectly. In other words, no one local church has been given any unique standard for local church membership based on any criterion other than the criteria for membership in the church universal. Local churches are not a law unto themselves and are nowhere permitted to admit into membership those whom Christ rejects or reject those whom Christ admits. If a person is denied membership into the local church, the local church is obligated to declare such a person as excommunicated and disfellowship from them. Similarly, local churches must not create any standard of membership requirements which demand more than what is required for membership in the church universal. Local church membership is about recognizing Christians who are already in covenantal union with Christ, not creating a new covenant with stipulations beyond what Christ himself requires.
Fourthly, unlike universal church membership, local church membership is not necessary for salvation, nor is it a requirement for salvation. Without going into detail, there are a litany of scenarios why a truly regenerate believer might not currently be a recognized member of a local church. If someone despises the local church, wants no part in it, and thinks he’s better off with a “just me and Jesus” mindset could this be indicative of an unregenerate heart? Of course! Generally speaking is it wise, helpful, normative and good for Christians to be recognized members of a local church? Absolutely. Is it a requirement for salvation? Of course not.
NOW THEREFORE, IF YOU WILL INDEED OBEY MY VOICE AND KEEP MY COVENANT, YOU SHALL BE MY TREASURED POSSESSION AMONG ALL PEOPLES, FOR ALL THE EARTH IS MINE; AND YOU SHALL BE TO ME A KINGDOM OF PRIESTS AND A HOLY NATION.’ THESE ARE THE WORDS THAT YOU SHALL SPEAK TO THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL.”
EXODUS 19: 5-6
From the very beginning, even before the establishment of the levitical priesthood, God planned for his people to be a kingdom of priest-kings, a royal priesthood, ruling with a mission to flourish in all the earth in his presence. We see this initially pictured in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve as they ruled in God’s presence, (the “garden of Eden” being the “temple” as distinguished from the rest of Eden) and communed with him directly under God’s authority. After their rejection of God, a blood atonement system was immediately instituted with the sacrifice of animals to hide their shame with animal skins. Angels guarded the garden-temple so that none could enter lest they die. This is similar to the levitical priests who were responsible for guarding the tabernacle to kill any who came near to God’s holy presence. As Joel McDurmon helpfully discusses in his book “A Consuming Fire”, after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, the rest of scripture is the story of how God’s people could come back near to God into his most holy presence without dying. After the expulsion from the garden, we see animal sacrifice repeated with Abel, Noah, Abraham, Job (they continue to act as priests) and others even before the levitical priesthood and the attendant sacrificial system was initiated. But even during the days of the levitical priesthood, the whole nation of Israel, not just the levites, were to be a kingdom of royal priests. In order to realize this promise however, Christ’s New Covenant would need to be ushered in. With the levitical priesthood now superseded by Christ, all believers in Christ are restored to our originally purposed function as priest-kings.
Pastors & Elders
In the new covenant, though Pastors and Elders may carry similar duties to some activities which the levitical priests carried out (teaching, dispute resolution etc) they are not collectively-speaking a priesthood order as Melchizedek or Levi was. They are not appointed by a familial line as per the Levites. They do not function as a new covenant equivalent of the levitical priesthood according to the ceremonial aspects of the levitical priesthood duties. They possess no special access to God, carry no unique favor with God and are not specially authorized to do anything that other Christians cannot (we will get more into that later), though in practice, they may routinely perform certain roles for other legitimate reasons (sermons, baptism, administering the Lord’s Supper).
In the New Testament, an elder is not something that every mature Christian automatically becomes when they get old. In the sense that not every mature Christian was to be *appointed* an elder in the scriptures. The instructions to the churches to appoint elders from among themselves was nonetheless carried out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit according to the qualifications for elder and according to what seemed good to the churches to provide for the order and service of the kingdom.
“FOR WE ARE THE TEMPLE OF THE LIVING GOD; AS GOD SAID, “I WILL MAKE MY DWELLING AMONG THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM, AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.”
2ND CORINTHIANS 6:16
The Church runs into all kinds of problems by simply mixing up categories of the Temple, the Church universal and the Church Local then running with these confusions to their logical conclusion. Temple elements which were only ever meant to apply to the church universal creep into our model for how local churches function. Principles given to the Church universal are improperly applied to the local church. Subtly, we start to see Christians who think that the more their individual local church functions as a temple, the more faithful it is.
FOR CHRIST HAS ENTERED, NOT INTO HOLY PLACES MADE WITH HANDS, WHICH ARE COPIES OF THE TRUE THINGS, BUT INTO HEAVEN ITSELF, NOW TO APPEAR IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD ON OUR BEHALF. NOR WAS IT TO OFFER HIMSELF REPEATEDLY, AS THE HIGH PRIEST ENTERS THE HOLY PLACES EVERY YEAR WITH BLOOD NOT HIS OWN, FOR THEN HE WOULD HAVE HAD TO SUFFER REPEATEDLY SINCE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD. BUT AS IT IS, HE HAS APPEARED ONCE FOR ALL AT THE END OF THE AGES TO PUT AWAY SIN BY THE SACRIFICE OF HIMSELF.
Before we know it, our whole pattern of emphasis and activity as a local church becomes that of replicating defunct patterns of the old covenant era. We are polishing the ornamental accoutrements which were shadows pointing towards the future “temple” of God which would be characterized by righteousness and peace. Maintaining these defunct outward forms can be distracting but they can also be used manipulatively to cement authority for the power hungry. Christ did not come in extravagant garb and pomp so that we would bow to him. To the contrary he had no form or majesty that we should esteem him, and no outward beauty that we should desire him.
If you’ve been watching the Netflix series “The Crown” which follows the ascent of Queen Elizabeth II, you’ll notice that a lesson the Royal Family learns about the preservation of power is that the ostentatiousness of their clothing, buildings, wealth and rituals was in many ways their true remaining source of power. The carefully cultivated perception of power can itself be immensely powerful. Fearing budget cuts and the dissolving of funding, they thought their popularity would increase if they let the TV cameras into their everyday life to show how “normal” they are. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The people didn’t respect and fear their “normalcy” but their perceived transcendence. The crown realized it was the veneer of authority, buttressed by all the bells and whistles which had become the reason for what power they held on to in the modern age. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see how this same tact can be used by the church and its leadership to play the power games.
We can all point to the Roman Catholics, The Eastern Orthodox and the Anglo-Catholics as the most egregious culprits in conflating churches with temples, but the truth is the rest of Protestantism suffers from the same problem in substance, it’s just less obvious.
Next we will survey seven examples within local church contexts where this subtle temple mindset creeps in. The degree to which this mindset exists in various local churches varies, but they exist to one degree or another in most protestant and reformed churches today.
1. Local churches that treat their buildings as if they were physical temples
“This is a house of God, you can’t do xyz in here!”
“We can’t engage in commerce in here, don’t you know Jesus’s flipped the tables for this?”
THE GOD WHO MADE THE WORLD AND EVERYTHING IN IT, BEING LORD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, DOES NOT LIVE IN TEMPLES MADE BY MAN, NOR IS HE SERVED BY HUMAN HANDS, AS THOUGH HE NEEDED ANYTHING, SINCE HE HIMSELF GIVES TO ALL MANKIND LIFE AND BREATH AND EVERYTHING.
We know that the temple where God resides is comprised of the whole number of believers. This is not in a physical building but a spiritual building where God resides with his people by the Holy Spirit living within them. So while Paul likens the universal church in the model of a temple, we must not get this confused and assume local churches are each a little mini-temple. We must not conjure up images of Levitical temple practices. Our conduct is to be holy in our dealings. We don’t siphon off the local church building as a district where we need to be “extra holy”.
Ever walk into the building your local church meets in seeing items for sale on the resource table or even a coffee shop and think piously “Jesus would have driven out these money changers with a whip!”. You’ve just demonstrated you have a local-church as a mini-temple mindset. The house of the Lord is not a physical building, it’s the people.
2. Local churches that compare Levitical tithing to the funding of their local church
Here’s a touchy one.
Most protestant church budgets look pretty much the same. The average local church has about 50 to 200 people made up of families who give regularly. How is this budget allocated? Typically 60% will go to staff salary, benefits, office expenses etc. 25-35% will go to pay for the church building with rents, mortgages, debt payments, insurance and so on. That leaves 10% left for everything else. At the end of the day, the flow of the money is going inward to a small subset of activity within the local church when there is such a vast need for Christians to offer financial assistance with medicine, Christian education, private welfare – all tied to Christian discipleship and accountability. Activities that help the church to have a tangible impact in transforming the social order of the day. Sadly what we have today does not come close to this.
With the order of the Levitical Priesthood, their job was to build and maintain the physical temple. It was a full time job. The weaving of intricate vestments, the sacrificial system with the inspection and burning of various elements including the butchering of countless animals, maintaining the temple itself, the expensive temple ornaments, the rituals, the collection of all the first fruits of the land and guarding the temple perimeter etc. All of this had to be paid for at great expense.
Whenever we talk about regular tithing, we have to remember that this was collected to support this whole operation, the ceremonial aspects which are now dissolved in the New Covenant. As a few astute folks will rightly point out, some duties of the Levites were not simply tied up in ceremonial ritualism and those may be similar to some duties which continue to be performed by paid officers of the church today. They would also take a large part in teaching the people from the word of God, advising civil magistrates in the law and a whole host of other duties.
But the tithe was rendered to the temple system which pointed forward to the church universal, not the local church. Yet if we follow the logic of so many local church pastors, they act like the tithe for today is owed to the local church. Unlike under the Levitical order, Christians today actually have freedom to determine where their tithes will go.
3. Local churches functioning as temple events not social orders
American local church life is highly limited and centered around the activities of attendance of a Sunday gathering where one can sing in worship, receive communion and be “washed” with the water of the word in a sermon. Much like the temple mindset, it is about going to an event, partaking in ceremony (meaningful as it may be) and then reconnecting into the rest of life. Yes you have some attendance at prayer groups and the like but relationships in the church don’t revolve around shared activity in Christian businesses, schools, media, medicine, nutrition, loans, welfare programs and the like. Not enough to create an actual rival social order and Christian civilization.
People don’t realize that in 3rd world country persecuted underground churches, Christians are rejected from the world systems and are forced to create these interconnected networks for all of life which are the lifeblood of the church. When it comes to church discipline, getting kicked out of these networks is far more painful than the need to walk down the street to the next local church who will take you. You’re not getting booted out of one of many mini-temples, you’re getting booted from an entire civilization which you depend on.
This is also exactly the way of the early church which Acts tells us was comprised of people meeting together in homes and synagogues (not temples) doing everything together. Synagogues were not modeled after the temple. They were places of biblical teaching and exhortation, feasting, education, dispute mitigation, welfare centers, civic engagement, hospitality and so on. When Jewish Christians were kicked out of the synagogues they brought that same culture and pattern to the local churches. Their gatherings, their pattern of activity and the way they “did” church looked little like ours today.
It’s not uncommon for big name preachers in reformed circles to bemoan Christians in America for holding their Christianity too casually while comparing them unfavorably to Christians in third world countries or other past generations who they point out as beacons of pure devotion. They think we’re all a bunch of spoiled brats who want the cushy Christian life. To some degree, they are right. But all the while they are themselves complicit in perpetuating the very culture that creates this casual Christianity.
If you don’t want casual Christianity dominating your local church, then your local church needs to be about building Christendom. If you aren’t building Christendom, you are creating a culture that fosters casual Christians. Period. If this is the case pastors, stop shaming the flock and start leading.
The enemy of faithful, steadfast, consistent fellowship in the body is the lack of authentic Christian civilization where the local church have interwoven their lives together to such a degree that they actually depend on one another in every area of life. Where they are applying the law-word of God faithfully to every area of life. Businesses, the education of children, lending, welfare, adjudicating disputes, apprenticeships, planning regular corporate feasts, health and medicine practices, hosting civic events, co-operation and building up of inter-generational biblical trustee families etc.
When pastors continually bathe their congregations in reductionist teaching about theology, eschatology, the kingdom and practical application it undermines the will of the local church to build a mini-civilization. Building a mini-civilization can’t be faked. There are no short cuts. It takes time. It takes long term inter-generational commitment. It takes a faith for all of life theology, fueled by the Holy Spirit and governed by the skillful application of God’s law.
It cannot be completed with the local church as temple mindset.
4. Local churches that cause the kingdom to orbit around supporting temple activity
In the Old Covenant days of the temple, the Levitical Priests had very well defined duties too. The worship of the people Israel was entirely centered around the temple and the actions of the Levitical Priests. The Priests were to administer the temple rituals and guard the temple from any who did not belong. Can we really say that in practice, this is all that different from the culture of local churches today?
“The church’s fundamental duty is to preach the word, administer the sacraments and enact church discipline”.
If you are in a reformed church, you have probably heard this about a thousand times. What’s common about all three of these activities? These same churches prescribe that these duties be led and carried out virtually exclusively by ordained officers of the church. The main function, activity and focus of the church then orbits around the duties of the elders and their functions in “temple keeping”.
What did the temple priests do? Teach. Administer Rituals. Guard the temple from intruders.
We’ve simply copied this pattern to the local church with the focus of the officer of the church.
They teach. They administer rituals. They guard the table.
This is impossible to miss.
Even much of the work that is done in the service of helping these tasks be performed (setting up the chairs so people can hear the sermon, sound & video, filling up the Welch’s shot glasses with the fancy squirt bottle) take many of the service “jobs” available in the church. This is not to knock any of these tasks it’s to point out the dilemma this focus creates. A dynamic where most of the activity and service is either centered around being a temple priest or assisting the temple priests complete their work.
This also creates a culture where the what the church regards as “service” to the kingdom is almost completely subsumed by tasks carried out to serve the local church. As if the two were one and the same.
In addition, since ordained elders can only be men, it creates the perception, if not the reality that the service women do both in and out of the local church context is marginalized.
5. Local Churches that put the focus of worship on temple ritual rather than service
At the typical protestant local church, worship is commonly understood to be centered around the part of the Sunday morning event where the congregation sings songs of praise to God.
“AS YOU COME TO HIM, A LIVING STONE REJECTED BY MEN BUT IN THE SIGHT OF GOD CHOSEN AND PRECIOUS, YOU YOURSELVES LIKE LIVING STONES ARE BEING BUILT UP AS A SPIRITUAL HOUSE, TO BE A HOLY PRIESTHOOD, TO OFFER SPIRITUAL SACRIFICES ACCEPTABLE TO GOD THROUGH JESUS CHRIST.”
1ST PETER 2:4-5
During the days of the old covenant and the temple system, worship existed both in the temple with things like animal sacrifices and outside the temple in a more decentralized, less regulated fashion. Those who truly understood what the temple worship was pointing forward to understood that it was a shadow of the substance to come which centered around ethics and good works for the Lord (Hosea 6:6).
In local church culture we have done the opposite. We have made the concept of worship center around congregational singing and given less emphasis to worship as obedience to God’s law and the spurring one another on to good works.
I APPEAL TO YOU THEREFORE, BROTHERS, BY THE MERCIES OF GOD, TO PRESENT YOUR BODIES AS A LIVING SACRIFICE, HOLY AND ACCEPTABLE TO GOD, WHICH IS YOUR SPIRITUAL WORSHIP.
We come across verses like in Hebrews 12:29 and the call for acceptable worship offered with reverence and rather than thinking about how all of life should be shaped towards obedience to Christ in all its facets instead our minds are drawn to pews and new hymns vs. old hymns vs. exclusive psalm singing.
6. Local churches where only their temple officials can fence and administer the table
With the order of the Levitical Priesthood, it was the exclusive job of the Levitical priests to conduct the ritual elements of worship in the temple system including the ritual cleansings (think proto-baptism). No regular Joe or Jill Christian could waltz into the holy place or the most holy place and try to carry out the duties of the levitical priests. They, exclusively were to mediate between God and man. Should any “laity” seek to approach God’s holy presence improperly they were to slaughter the intruder. Their job was to fence access and administer the rituals. Sound familiar?
“How dare that non-ordained elder baptize that new believer!”
“The elders decided to ban John Doe from communion for one month as punishment for xyz sin”
“Sorry prospective church member, as baptists, we don’t count your baby baptism so we can’t admit you to membership here unless you get baptized as an adult”
Nowhere in scripture is it stated that only elders can administer baptism or the Lord’s supper. In fact, scripture makes clear that it is the church that owns excommunication (1st Cor 5) as the task of excommunication is given to the covenant community as a whole not the elders. This is confirmation of the fact that the keys of the Kingdom (Matthew 16) were given, not to Peter exclusively or as an office of apostle, nor to a special class of elders within the church, but to the church itself. How else would the church possess authority to expel evil persons from their midst?
With regard to local church membership, since it points to a universal, visible-church reality there can be no situation where a pastor or elder board would say something like, “Yes we know you profess the true religion but no we won’t recognize your membership among us here since you’ve been a paedobaptist your whole life. You can go to the Presbyterian church down the road, they’ll take you”. This is an elder acting as a Levitical Priest guarding the temple rather than the decision of a covenant community.
Now, as recognized faithful elders in the church, is it natural for these men to lead out in these areas? Sure. But again, the only reason so many churches practice things the way they do is because of misguided ideas about the Levitical temple practices foreshadowing activity in the local church rather than the universal church.
7. Local Churches that treat the Lord’s supper as if it were a temple ritual
CLEANSE OUT THE OLD LEAVEN THAT YOU MAY BE A NEW LUMP, AS YOU REALLY ARE UNLEAVENED. FOR CHRIST, OUR PASSOVER LAMB, HAS BEEN SACRIFICED. LET US THEREFORE CELEBRATE THE FESTIVAL, NOT WITH THE OLD LEAVEN, THE LEAVEN OF MALICE AND EVIL, BUT WITH THE UNLEAVENED BREAD OF SINCERITY AND TRUTH.
1ST CORINTHIANS 5:7-8
We have so lost the true meaning and function of the Lord’s supper that we have completely lost its purpose. The Lord’s supper is to be a regular meal which Christians partake of together to fellowship in the name of Christ in order to remember his covenant with us and enjoy unity together as a covenant community.
In the protestant church, we have completely disconnected it from an actual fellowship meal which Jude 1:12 refers to as a “love feast”. It’s about Christ’s love for us in laying down his body and shedding his blood for us and our love in turn for him and each other. His acts in enacting his covenant with us are represented by the breaking of bread as was his body broken for us and the drinking from the cup as his blood was shed for us. In scripture we read that in the midst of dinner, Christ took the cup and instituted the first Lord’s supper. It was a fellowship meal, not a ritual. Yes there is symbolism, but we have turned this love feast of fellowship and celebration of Christ and his covenant into a solemn and cold individualistic ritual.
The sum total effect of all of these practices cannot be understated. The temple model of local church warps our understanding of so many activities in the local church: Buildings, budget, mission, fellowship, service, discipline, giving and more. The result is to drive the church inward with a reductionistic focus. It reduces our impact on the world by creating an environment where Christendom is reduced to so called “temple” activities. To make us obsessed with the shadows and neglect the substance which was always about ethics. The bulk of our energies become devoted toward “spiritual” activities almost exclusively tried up inwardly in the local church. The culture that is created also lends itself towards the creation of certain “taboo” subjects which cannot be discussed because they are not seen as central to temple activities. The hyper-narrow focus of the temple culture also creates a perfect environment for an overreaching statism to run rampant. Into this self created vacuum pagan and secular worldviews will step in (education, science, history, medicine, business). The fruit of this approach in our culture today is obvious. In the spirit of the protestant reformation, we need to keep reforming and not remain stuck in this rut indefinitely.
Discuss these matters in your churches. Take steps in your own life to evaluate areas in which you may have this mindset. Rooting this problem out won’t be easy. There are entrenched parties within the church who are so devoted to this temple model, they may even call you divisive for simply bringing it up. Be prepared.
Phasing Out the Temple Mindset
So what are some practical actions that local churches can take in the short term in order to shed the local church as a temple mindset? These suggestions are by no means exhaustive. It’s a start and a means of getting your cognitive wheels turning. None of this will be easy. It may not be possible in some church contexts with heavily entrenched parties married to the status-quo. Some will take your proposed reforms as akin to calling their baby ugly. Use discretion but don’t get bogged down indefinitely.
Buildings & Finances
Flip the budget. Instead of 90% of spending going to local church temple-centric expenses, pursue a long term strategy that will lead you to 60% of spending going toward impact in the local community both inside and outside the local church (think privately distributed Christian school vouchers for single mothers or private food vouchers for the poor). This won’t happen overnight, but there are significant changes that can be made quickly which will catapult a local church towards that goal. A culture change will have to take place as well. The local church has a mission to the world which Christ already retains total authority over as King. Therefore, the local church must serve the kingdom, the kingdom doesn’t serve the local church.
Stop paying massive building rental or lease payments and begin meeting in homes. If you are a big church, break up into four smaller local churches based on geographical proximity. If there is a lack of gifted shepherds and teachers with time to spare, have them rotate amongst the smaller churches and have the congregants pray and do Bible studies on Sundays where no preacher is available.
Cancel any building plans which commit significant resources towards the purchase of a building that cannot be financially self sustaining. Don’t suck up funds for a building that is a net drain on limited kingdom resources. Otherwise continue meeting in homes or find an a Christian with an established business that will give out space for your church to meet
If you already have a “church building” sell it to the congregation or a group within the congregation for the purposes of converting it into a sustainable for-profit business. Community centers are usually the natural option. Other options for conversion can be private offices, health & fitness centers, private Christian schools & day cares, homeschool and homeschool co-op meet up center etc. Sublease to other businesses. What does your local community need and what will they pay to use? You can always still find a way to meet there during the week.
One of the most strategic and kingdom minded actions a local church who already owns a building can take is for members of the church to start a for-profit, self-sustaining Christian school business and work to provide as many free “church vouchers” for families who wish they could give their children a Christian education but don’t see how they can afford it. Hold the Sunday services in the school. Leverage the many men and woman with various giftings who are already part of the church to this end. Use it as a community hub (host civil meetings, sub-lease office space to business owners etc.). Re-think the idea that every congregation needs to build a “church building”. Not saying it’s never ok, but I think we can be better stewards generally speaking, more creative and more strategic. Be careful about having a “church” school rather than a private school business because this can cause problems with jurisdictional clashes between parents and church elders.
If a church does have a building and property, ensure it is open for civic events such as elections, debates & conferences, food banks, private or homeschool graduation ceremonies, little league sports. Anything that puts your church’s activity at the center of the community.
Church Membership, Baptism & the Lord’s Supper
Baptism is a function of the church so it can be a good symbol for an officer of the church to administer the baptism. It’s a good general practice. But don’t feel the need to have have all baptisms conducted by the senior pastor or an elder. Any Christian is a candidate to baptize any other new Christian in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The pastors and elders are not Levitical Priests who alone have been given sole ritualistic responsibility.
End any requirements for local church membership which go beyond requirements for membership in the Church universal. For the segment of Baptist churches that deny membership to practices paedobaptists who were baptized as infants, cease all such practices. Only deny membership to someone if they meet the 1st Cor 5 qualifications for dis-fellowship from the universal church.
Rather than having a ritualistic emphasis on the Lord’s supper, begin a communal meal with wine and bread, pray over it as you normally would at any Lord’s supper and then declare the rest of the meal a continuation of the communion meal, not two separate meals.
Pastoring, Eldering & Teaching
Encourage that there be no more than one paid staff member per church which will normatively be a pastor. Even then the pastor ideally would be bi-vocational. Not only will this free up more funds for the kingdom, the financial model of many churches create conflicts of interest where the pastor is resistant to certain courses of action not based on scripture but based on what may benefit him financially. This may include avoiding certain sins that need to be addressed or focusing on any one doctrine to the exclusion of others. Exceptions to this may include funding additional pastors to plant new churches especially in foreign countries where little support would be available.
Dispense with any teaching which reduces the great commission to evangelism only, reduces the mission of the church to the elder led functions only and reduces the comprehensiveness of the Gospel message and its applicability toward current events and issues.
Beware of the seminary to elder pipeline that often foists debt laden, inexperienced twenty-something year old men into local church eldership before they are ready. They are not only financially pre-disposed to maintain the status quo temple dynamic, they haven’t matured in the context of serving the kingdom outside the local church setting and are thus marginally qualified to serve those who serve the kingdom mainly outside of the context of the local church.
Share the load. Levitical priests were to be experts in a bazillion details regarding temple worship. One wrong move and zap, they were dead. Since they became experts, people revered them for their expertise. We aren’t in that era anymore. Don’t create a culture where you and the other elders are seen as the “holy men” of the church who have a monopoly on expertise in theology or the ability to teach others the word. Instead create a Berean culture where everyone is becoming adept at teaching each other in various contexts.
We could multiply suggestions, but these will get us started.
A Final Word
For the past year and half I’ve been a part of a church that is working on planting a social order.
What I’ve found surprising is that building a social order is entirely possible. The difficulty isn’t in being some kind of genius who can accomplish it but is in taking consistent and faith filled steps of obedience towards the goal each day.
If the prospect of building a social order seems daunting to you then you’re in good company. It’s supposed to feel that way. The early Christians were spreading the message of repentance and faith while announcing the arrival of Christ’s reign. The powers that be had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The Christians were then kicked out of the synagogue social-orders they grew up in.
They had to start from scratch in many cases. Move. Do hard things. Look to the future. Plan for victory. Care for people. Start new businesses. Forge new alliances. Educate their children. Pick up new trades. Show hospitality to strangers. Bear Burdens. They had to be in the world but not of the world. Reforming, not conforming. Parents and siblings were divided against each other.
Did they miss certain comforts of their old life? Undoubtedly. Were they tempted to feel isolated and abandoned at times? You bet. But as a result of all this, the community of Christians were forced into a singular focus, the Kingdom of Christ.
These weaklings just kept taking the next step of faith-filled obedience. They turned the world upside down and their reward is in heaven. We have a big calling, and we serve a God powerful to complete it.
The Church of Jesus Christ is a temple of the living God. There is one Savior, Priest, King and mediator who intercedes for us for us, his fellow priest kings who are living stones making up the Spiritual temple where God resides with us. This church has been given a mission to go forth and win the nations to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the gospel. It is not insular. It is not compartmentalized. It is not escapist. It is on the move and it is storming the gates of hell.
Her local churches are not local temples and they are not mystery cults marked by temple patterns, rituals shadows, and practices which foreshadowed life in the new covenant time. We are ethical / judicial communities of believers united by our Savior, our mission and our love for each other.
We are thankful for the temple of God that is the church universal. May our local churches be marked as local communities full of individual members who are each individual temples of the living God.
Brothers and sisters, it bears repeating, we are not in the business of planting, advancing and sustaining mini temples. We are in the the business of planting, advancing and sustaining Christian civilization.
Let’s get after it.
Sermon: The Local Church is Not a Mini-Temple By Jordan Wilson (Delivered January 19, 2020).
The Christian Passover: Agape Feast or Ritual Abuse? By Stephen Perks
A Consuming Fire By Joel McDurmon
Assortment of Ecclesiology Articles By Stephen Perks
The Work Of The Ecclesiastical Megalomaniac By David Chilton
The Incredible Shrinking Bride of Christ By John Andrew Reasnor
Regulating Fallen Temples By John Andrew Reasnor
Minimizing Heaven, Absolutizing the Local Church By Jordan Wilson
One Problem the Disciples Didn’t Have By Jordan Wilson
The Real Cause of Casual Christianity By Jordan Wilson
9 Ways We Get Church Membership Wrong By Jordan Wilson
Local Church Culture as a Breeding Ground for Megalomaniac Pastors By Jordan Wilson