The Church isn’t a Building. So What!

It is not uncommon to hear believers in America declare (sometimes quite adamantly), “The church is not a building.” Many follow that with the idea that it is the people, which is largely true. It is also sometimes followed by a statement expressing that just getting together with their friends at the local coffee shop can be the church, or how they can get up on Sunday morning, stay in their pajamas, grab their coffee and Bible and have church. In fact, the statement, “The church is not a building,” is often followed by assertions that are as dangerous as the idea that the church is a building.

The church isn’t a building, but is it anything I want it to be?

The idea that the church is only a building is really not held by many people. The issue is probably more of a language issue than it is a theological issue. In our language we have identified the building that the church meets in so closely with the church that we refer to it by the same word. But very few people actually think that the building, vacated of all church related purposes and people, would still be a church.

It is no different than a hospital, a school, or a fire department. I live near St. Anthony’s Hospital. I just referred to a large building complex as a hospital. But every American knows that a hospital isn’t a building. Take away the doctors, nurses, equipment, medical supplies, and patients and it is nothing more than brick and mortar. And when injured or seriously ill, none of us would go to that empty building thinking that is was a hospital. Three years ago I had an emergency and Donna, my wife, took me to Ed White Hospital, also near my house. I received excellent care. Today that hospital is gone and only the building remains. If I were injured, I would not go to that building.

A hospital is not a building, but that doesn’t mean it is me and two friends at a coffee shop. There are certain things required in order for something to be a hospital. And a building is actually not one of them. It could be in a tent, or an open field for that matter. But it must have certain things to be a hospital, such as doctors available to care for the patients and nursing staff to provide care. It must have access to medical equipment and medicine. Depending on where one is, it may require certain licenses. It must allow patients in need to stay overnight. I could go on, but I think you get the point: to say that it is not a building, as true as that is, doesn’t tell us anything about what it actually is.

What is necessary in order for something to be a church?

Some assert, based on Matthew 18:20, that all that is required for a church is two or three gathered in Christ’s name. This verse was never intended to be used that way. Its very context suggests some things necessary in order for a church to be a church. First, in order for a church to be a church, there has to be accountability and discipline. The two or three gathered in Matthew 18:20 may well be the two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:16) upon whose testimony the church congregation would make its decisions. Jesus promises that the discipline they enact is being done with His presence and authority (and of course should be done with the love described in the whole of Matthew 18).

Second, according to 1 Corinthians 12:13, the church is something outside of ourselves, of which we become a part by the work of the Spirit. “We were all baptized with one Spirit into one body.” That statement assumes that the church is something that involves more than just us, and of which we become only a part. And, just as a blob of chemicals or dust does not make a body without functional structure, so a church is not just me and a few others without some kind of functional purpose.

Thirdly, according to 1 Corinthians 12:21, the very essence of the church means that one member cannot say, “I don’t need those others members in order to be the church.” The essence of the church is that we are the community of Christ joined together to minister to the needs of one another. The essence of the church calls us outside of ourselves and our comfort zone to serve one another in love. Without that, it is not the church anymore than a building without medical care is a hospital.

I could go on to list other things the Scriptures teach that are a part of a church. I haven’t mentioned the obvious: the Gospel. Some things are not required but are optimal. Elders and deacons for instance are part of a healthy or complete church (Titus 1:5). A hospital may not have an MRI machine, but it is a better hospital with one than without one. We could go on, but I trust you get the point.

Is the church really not a building?

In saying the church is not a building some may be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Indeed the Scriptures declare that the church is a building in Ephesians 2:19-22. Not a physical building but a spiritual one. And the very image of a building is intended by the Lord to reveal our only being a part of something much bigger and more significant than ourselves. We are part of a building that is the dwelling place, the resting place, of God Himself—the church of the Living God.

So the next time you think, “The church is not a building,” pause to consider also what it actually is. Are you being joined together with other believers to become a holy dwelling place of God? Are you part of a church?

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Jerry

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  • Pete Mishler says:

    Excellent article, Jerry. I’d love to see this blog have easy icons to click for sharing on social media.

  • Jacob says:

    Jerry,

    I appreciate the post.

    From my own experiences there seems to be two cases in which this phrase is used. For instance:

    1) “The church is not a building” is often used when people are confronting or defending their own “personal” reasons for not attending a church faithfully. The root? Well, it could be a painful experience that happened in the past within the realms of Christianity (or) simply a lack of Biblical knowledge regarding the meaning of the church, as you so clearly stated what the church actually is. In addition, it could simply be a bitter and angry heart towards God in a season of rebellion, rather than submission and accountability.

    2) “The church is not a building” is often used by people who are tired of the “business as usual” approach, which is often and unfortunately found within the context of media-stream churches or mega-churches. It is an aggressive term against those who spend countless dollars on a physical building and material things to entertain an impossible generation to entertain. Also, it is used against churches who are self-serving, only concerned with what goes on within the four corners of their physical church, rather than being on mission.

    The root of it all could simply be fear. Regardless, there seems to be a lot of Christians stepping away from the “institutionalized” American church because of how many pastors are leading astray and neglecting their own sheep. A prime example would be Sovereign Grace Ministries. Obviously, we are responsible for ourselves, and its always best to look in the mirror, but there seems to be a lot of confusion and hurt that is not being addressed within the context of the church. As you stated many times in this post, every hospital has a careless doctor or two who could give a crap-less about you, but it shouldn’t stop you from seeking help. As the saying goes, one bad doctor doesn’t mean all doctors are bad.

  • Josh Allen says:

    Good stuff.

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