I was recently asked my thoughts on the following email:
Thought for the week: surely one of the moments of high drama in the Old Testament is when Moses beheld the burning bush with the voice of God telling him to “put off your shoes from your feet, for place on which you are standing is holy ground.” The whole concept of “holy ground” is one which is in danger of being lost in this age of multi-purpose church buildings and horizontal architecture. It is clear from scripture that there is supposed to be “holy ground” set apart for God’s worship and glory –and we are expected to treat such places as truly holy. That includes dressing appropriately, speaking respectfully, and having a holy demeanor when we are in God’s House.
Let us take care that our churches are not turned into little more than ecclesiastical malls–gathering places which are simply for our convenience–rather than what they truly are: the very dwelling-place of the Incarnate God.
It is most certainly the case that the Old Testament makes a big deal of holy places (holy ground, as in the story of Moses and the burning bush), holy objects (the arc of the covenant), holy people (priests), and holy buildings (the Temple). Temporal location matters in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, the people of God are commanded “you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go” (Deuteronomy. 12:5ff). The Place, it turns out, is Jerusalem, specifically, the Temple, the Place of God’s dwelling.
To say that God is present in a particular place does not in any way reduce His omnipresence. God is always present everywhere. However, He sometimes manifests His presence in more powerful and revealing ways. He might be said to be “specially” present in a location in that He makes His power especially evident in that place.
Even in the Old Testament there was the danger of God’s people turning the Temple into an idol, of worshipping the place rather than the person, of turning the religious element given for worship into an object of worship. God will never be contained within a building or a city. He is always transcendent.
Nevertheless, in the Old Testament, God certainly declares certain objects and locations specifically holy and set apart and it was necessary for God’s people to treat those objects and places with reverence and respect.
There is, however, a decided shift in the New Testament.
The Samaritan woman at the well asks Jesus an important question (or rather, brings up an important Jew-Samaritan controversy) in John 6.
“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (John 6:20)
Jesus’ response is instructive for us.
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 6:21-24)
Even here we can see a shift from the Old Testament system to the one which Jesus ushers in in the New Covenant. It’s no longer about the Place, it’s about the Spirit.
Here we must again ask, what made the ground holy where Moses was standing? What made the Mountain holy when it was engulfed in smoke, fire, and darkness? What made the Temple holy? None other than the real and special presence of God.
In the New Covenant, God manifests His special presence in several ways. He is present with the individual believer through the Holy Spirit. He is present when his people gather for prayer (“where two or three are gathered.”) He is present (in the sense that He is active) when the living Word is proclaimed. His Church (and I understand this to include local churches) are the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). One of the marks of a truly worshipping church is when an unbeliever is compelled to declare “God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25).
All this compels me to conclude that what is truly “set apart as holy” is not the building or location, but the people of God who are “indwelled” individually and corporately by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Now, there are many reasons to treat church buildings or other places with respect. To name a few that come immediately to mind:
1) To honor other believers
2) To place ourselves in the right mindset as we come to worship
3) To honor the owner or builder of the church and his original intention
4) Because (anywhere) coarse joking, immodest dress, disrespect, etc. are not fitting for the people of God
And I’m sure there are many more.
So, can I take the conclusion (“that includes dressing appropriately, speaking respectfully, and having a holy demeanor when we are in God’s House”) while rejecting the premise (the building is “the very dwelling-place of the Incarnate God”)?
Perhaps I can restate the whole thing: “We should dress appropriately, speak respectfully, and have a holy demeanor as we worship with God’s people, not viewing them as just another informal group of individuals, but as they truly are, the dwelling-place of the Incarnate God.”