One Billion for a Cathedral?
As I’m sure you are aware, “Notre-Dame de Paris” has suffered a devastating fire. It appears the iconic cathedral’s stone skeleton has survived, but it will take years and an estimated one billion euros to repair the damage.
There was a time in my life when I would have harshly judged those who wanted to dedicate such resources to the restoration of a church building. After all, the church is not a physical edifice. It is the Body of Christ, the redeemed. Christ is the Corner Stone and members of His Body are “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5), bound together by a common grace.
Every church building in the world could burn to the ground and the church would still exist. In fact, as far as we know, there was no such thing as a church building until over two-hundred years after the church began on the Day of Pentecost. Some estimates place the number of Christians in the world by this time at nearly five million! Therefore, church buildings are not necessary for the work and growth of God’s kingdom on earth. Spiritual fruit is not produced with earthly materials.
I have not changed my mind about the biblical nature of the church, but I have grown to appreciate lavish church architecture. Here’s why: Throughout my life I have watched city after city construct multi-million-dollar complexes to serve professional sports leagues. I have seen rich oil kings build skyscrapers in the desert sand and space companies deliver payloads to the International Space Station. These kinds of human endeavors are exciting and I, for one, can’t imagine life without the thrill of space travel. But as people seem to find the money for expensive efforts that honor the human spirit, is it wrong to celebrate a costly building that symbolizes Christian devotion and worship?
Evidently, God didn’t think so, or He wouldn’t have given His people instructions for the construction of Solomon’s temple. Lavish doesn’t begin to describe the funds, material goods and craftmanship involved in this project.
I understand why the people of Paris are weeping over the burning of Notre-Dame. It has stood for eight-hundred and fifty years and has been a part of French history, through thick and thin. At times it has become entangled with the darkness of human reason, and at other times it was associated with religious corruption. But it has also represented hope when all hope seemed lost, and reminded the faithful of God’s presence in their lives.
Perhaps there is a place, after all, for extraordinary and expensive representations of the Lord’s church.
I say this with these qualifications:
A building dedicated to the Lord should be used for the Lord. If it becomes a club house for the personal pleasure of those who have already received grace, it is not serving its purpose. We must remember we are blessed to be a blessing, and an attitude of entitlement in the church runs counter to Christ’s command to go to every nation and make disciples.
A building should never be worshipped. Architectural style can be admired, and the talent and devotion of those who create should be honored. But the Lord doesn’t want us worshiping brick and mortar or praising the creation more than the Creator. We are to worship Him, and if a building makes it easier to gather for this purpose, and function as a light to the world, that is a good thing.
A building dedicated to the Lord’s work should be free of scandal. Illegal, unbiblical or unethical methods for raising funds should be avoided at all costs. It was, after all, the marketing of God’s grace to construct a church building in the time of Martin Luther that ignited the Protestant Reformation.
A building should be seen as a tool, not a magic wand. Some people put more trust in methodologies or human means than God’s power. They believe a building built to certain standards will equal success for the church. Certainly, we should use wisdom when it comes to building for God’s kingdom work. It would be impractical to construct a church building in America without climate control or enough technology to maximize the opportunities we have when people are within the walls of the facility. However, if we think a powerful church will emerge as a result of human effort, we are building on the wrong foundation.
Please realize, I am aware I have glossed over some important issues relating to the restoration of Notre-Dame. The motives of those who wish to revive the cathedral are not all kingdom-focused, and I do have some significant theological differences regarding the things that will be taught and practiced inside once the repairs are made. It is also true a billion dollars could feed and clothe entire countries. If I had a billion dollars to personally spend on ministry, this is where I would invest it.
It’s just that, as I have grown older, and have seen billions of dollars spent on secular causes, I have become less resistant to lavish things done in the name of Christ. It sounds very pious to criticize the church for spending too much money on tools for ministry, but it seems many of the critics always have plenty of money for other purposes. Even believers who balk at tithing to the church have no problem finding the funds to support expensive hobbies and interests of their own.
Church buildings are symbolic of God’s goodness, His message of grace to the world and the hope He gives us for the future. No, the church is not a building.
But obviously, buildings dedicated to kingdom work can create a connecting place between God and His creation. I can think of a lot less productive things people do with money.