When reading the Bible (or learning about other religions), most Christians think of an idol as a figure. Typically, it is envisioned as a person, an animal, or sometimes a combination of the two. This sort of idol is a representation of a god that mankind can think of: something that our limited mind can put together, based on what we can see or imagine.
Verses like the following remind us that physical things cannot be God (who created mankind), since idols themselves are created by people.
The idols of the nations are merely things of silver and gold,
shaped by human hands.
Psalms 135:15 NLT
(Yes, some believe that they are worshiping god(s) through idols that they consider to be symbols – and not gods themselves. Still, I think that you’ll find that the Biblical view of God shows that He far transcends any image or form that we could generate ourselves, and that He specifically commanded His people to not make idols of created things – see Exodus 20:4-6.)
When it comes to things that people make themselves, here’s another verse, indicating that God does not need to live in a building built by us, either:
However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says,
‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?’
asks the LORD.
‘Could you build me such a resting place?
Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’
Acts of the Apostles 7:48-50 NLT
Putting these two verses together, it seems doubly important that we make sure not to turn a church building into an “idol”. Most would protest that the building where their congregation meets in (whether formal or informal; owned, mortgaged or rented) is not something that is worshiped, and hopefully that is the case.
However, when anything becomes more important than the God who enabled people to build it, it risks becoming an idol. I believe that some cultures benefit from professionally-built and accessorized buildings where followers of Jesus can gather, even as they draw those from the community together for powerful prayer, truthful teaching, and selfless service to others. But when the cleanness of the floors is more important than welcoming those with muddy feet, or when designs bring attention to church leaders rather than to the God that they serve, a building can become a funny-shaped idol.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is common, nor that it is a problem in the congregations where I have worshiped over the years. I’ve even helped with the construction of a couple of church buildings over the years (which is a great way to remember that it’s just a building, when you’ve seen the frame that holds the building up, and the wires that keep things powered up). However, I hope to help us pause and think about how we can ensure that we are using material things to draw attention to God (and introduce others to His glory and salvation), rather than worshiping material things (no matter how sanctified their purposes).
Let me suggest two ways that we can resist the temptation to make a church building into an idol:
- First, when God directs us to do so, many church buildings can be an excellent resource for various types of God’s work. They can be open to their communities for events (even those of a non-spiritual nature, when strategically selected). They can serve as a base of operations for reaching out to those in need, such as when the community shares food, clothing, and other supplies. Sometimes, they can even provide shelter for those without a place to stay. Don’t think that your church building is too small, too big, or too single-purposed not to be used for all kinds of things that God has in mind for it.
- Secondly, the more that God’s message is spoken outside of a church building, the more that we remember that His love for people extends far beyond an enclosed space built by construction workers (and/or volunteers). We can – and should – be politely telling other people about what God has done for us (and what He can do for them) in our daily walk with Jesus. We can – and should – praise God (with music or other expressions of gratitude) in all sorts of places! We can show God’s love by doing good for others: both within formal houses of worship, and from our homes, workplaces, schools, malls, streets, and fields.
To be clear, I am not opposed to followers of Jesus worshiping in a building constructed specifically for that purpose. (I regularly do so, myself.) I don’t want to be like Judas, who saw an offering as a chance to “give to the poor” (or take from it, himself), in John 12:4-6. That is, we can’t say that those who invest in a building (for hosting the work of God’s kingdom) aren’t doing so to glorify Him and bless others, when they are genuinely following God’s direction.
Instead, I believe that church buildings should be far more than just a place to sing and sit for an hour or two each week. If you find that a building has become an idol, see the suggestions above for ways to beat that temptation, and turn the building back into a resource for God’s kingdom again. We are stewards of all that God has given us, including those with four walls.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.