The Church, Property, and Buildings - a biblical perspective

When we turn to the scriptures for guidance about property, we find the opening chapters of Genesis set out important principles. The universe is God's creation. Human beings are to manage and care for what God has entrusted to them. But there are limits. To go beyond these limits, as Adam does, in the story of the Garden of Eden, is sin. Greed and the desire to possess disrupt the good order God intended.

Yet God intended that Abraham and his descendants should possess a land (Genesis 12:1-3). This is the promise which caused Abraham to leave his original land. The story of the patriarchs and, later, of Moses and the Exodus, is a story about this promise coming true. It was not that Israel should greedily possess the land; the land was God's gift as part of the covenant. When Israel possessed the land, managed and cared for it, they would be blessed and blessing would also come to the nations. Property, possession, is always for a purpose, never an end in itself.

The gift of the land came to be focused in Jerusalem. David conquered this Jebusite city in 1000 BC. It became the political and, over time, the religious centre of Israel. With the focus on Jerusalem, buildings became important; it housed the king's palace. But what about God? 2 Samuel recounts how David wanted to build a house of God in Jerusalem and the remarkable reply conveyed to David through the prophet Nathan:

That night the word of the Lord came to Nathan saying: 'Go and tell my servant David, "This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt until this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelirtes, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people, Israel, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?'"' (2 Sam 7:4-7). As a concession God grants to David's son, Solomon, the right to build a temple, a house of God. The initial hesitation reflects the danger that Israel might feel it possessed God in a building or that the sacred building would give some kind of magical protection to the city.

The prophets reminded the people (and the kings) that the temple was to be a place for worship and prayer, a place for blessing, ultimately, for all peoples (Jeremiah 7:1-7). The building, as a property, like the land, was to serve a purpose. When it failed to serve this purpose, it lay open to abuse and was expendible. Jeremiah's message was that this point had been reached at the time when Nebuchnezzar's army drove into Palestine. Jeremiah's proclamation was deeply unpopular. People loved the temple and believed it would stand forever. In 586 the temple was destroyed and the leaders taken away from their land into in Babylon.

In the decades that followed, mourning over the loss of the temple and the destruction of the city, turned to hope. The rise of Persia on the horizon of regional politics helped the change. Some, like Ezekiel, gave birth to new plans for the city and the temple. In an ideal vision Ezekiel speaks of a stream flowing from the temple building, out into the world, bringing healing and health to all (Ezekiel 47:1-12). It was building that would bring blessing to the people. Others reinforced the wisdom of Nathan's oracle, that God can never be thought to dwell solely in buildings (Isaiah 66:1-2).

The exiles returned after 50 years. Ideals and hopes had to be tailored to the very limited means of the new community, beset by conflict with its neighbours and internal wrangling. They erected a modest replica of Solomon's glorious temple and developed a tightly ordered administrative system which ensured their survival and the survival of their traditions. From these times of modest new beginnings came the final editions of much of the Old Testament, a blessing from hard times.

Through the upheavals which followed in subsequent centuries, Israel clung tenaciously to its temple city, negotiating its survival as a very small temple state with one regional power after another. Then Herod the Great, the puppet king installed by the Romans, the Herod of the Christmas story, lavishly rebuilt the Jerusalem temple, making it one of the architectural wonders of the Roman Empire. Mark tells us that Jesus' disciples stood in awe at its magnificence (Mark 13:1-2). But Jesus, like Jeremiah, attacked what the temple had become. Instead of being a place of prayer and blessing for all peoples, it had become a den of thieves (Mark 11:17). It had become a centre of religious powerbrokers, a building which no longer served as a blessing for the people. He announced the destruction of what was the pride and joy of many of his time and its replacement by a temple made of people (Mark 13:2; John 2:19-22; Mark 14:58).

Later, John's gospel pictures Jesus giving the woman of Samaria a similar message: 'The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.' (John 4:20,23). The temple, like the synagogues and, later, the churches, cannot contain God; they are to serve God's purpose in the world. When they fail to do so, they are expendible. Jesus' attitude towards the temple is widely seen as one of the reasons why the temple authorities had him crucified. For making the same point Stephen was stoned (Acts 7).

Jesus was notable for his attitude towards possessions and property. He called some to leave it all behind, as he had done. They left all and followed him (Mark 1:16-20; 10:17-22). Abandoning property and possessions was a statement of protest against the values prevailing at the time. Jesus called his followers to live according to God's priorities. God's priorities are what happens when God reigns. Jesus announced the kingdom or reign of God. It will be good news for the poor and hungry, the brokenhearted and the oppressed (Luke 4:16-19; 6:20-26). By selling all and giving to the poor, these disciples made a real statement about wanting to live by God's priorities. Even those who believed in Jesus, but did not sell up and move out, were to handle their property and possessions in this light (Matthew 6:19-23). In some ways Jesus was bringing people back to God's original priorities: land, property, possession are God's gift, not to be used for personal greed, nor to be kept from being a blessing to others.

For the first two centuries of its life the Christian church had few if any buildings of its own. Instead people met in houses large enough to accommodate worshipping groups. When they packed into upstairs rooms, there was always the danger that someone might fall asleep on a window ledge during the sermon and fall to the street below. Luke tells us that exactly this happened once during Paul's preaching (Acts 20:9)! Householders made available their properties to be a blessing for others.

It was not until after Emperor Constantine in the fourth century that Christianity received official status and that the building of churches began in earnest. Churches, church buildings, have become a symbol of Christianity in many parts of the world. The word, 'church', came to denote a building, a cause of continuing confusion. In the course of its mission the Church has accumulated considerable wealth, especially in land and buildings. Like Israel, what it possesses is a gift in trust to be used for the blessing of the peoples. As the Church of Jesus, the Church must constantly ask itself whether its possession and use of property reflects Jesus' priorities. Is the Church, by the way its uses its resources, good news for the poor and hungry, the broken hearted and oppressed?

The Church must face these questions in every generation. In our generation, escalating property values and cost of building maintenance mean that a considerable amount of the Church's resources is tied up in land and buildings, far more than is reasonably required to ensure investment security for the future. Such resources are tied up at a time when the Church seeks to respond to the call for ministry in new developing suburbs, and in needy areas of city and country. An imbalance is emerging between significant wealth bound up in buildings serving few, on the one hand, and people crying out for help with little or no resources, on the other. Almost without realising it, we have drifted into a situation of grave inequality which contradicts the gospel we preach.

Our possessions, which we have received on trust, are not able to be the blessing that God intended, unless we act responsibly to review our handling of property in the light of gospel priorities. This does not entail selling off huge amounts of property and investments, any more than Jesus called every person to sell up and move out in his day. The Church would never have got off the ground, had it not been for people who owned upper rooms and made them available. But it does mean radically rethinking our current use of resources, so that they can be made to serve gospel priorities more effectively. This is an urgent need; it is also a call to responsible compassion. It is means facing an issue which Israel faced, of old, and an issue with which Jesus confronted his contemporaries.