Some Thoughts on Arguments for ‘Beautiful Church Buildings’ Based on the Aesthetics of the Temple

Recently, my church has been studying the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31, and looking at the various pieces of furniture and their meaning. We had noted that there was an aesthetic quality to these tabernacle pieces. The incense was a kind of ‘theology by the nose.’ The bronze and gold and precious stones, etc were a kind of ‘theology by the eye.’

This led someone to ask a fair question, if aesthetics were so valuable in the tabernacle and temple worship, shouldn’t they be important in our modern day worship services? For instance, shouldn’t we have incense in our services?

For some background, I am a Presbyterian Pastor, which means we tend to play it conservative with the aesthetics of worship. But here are a few thoughts on the ‘If tabernacle, therefore Church’ argument.

1. Recognize the discontinuity between the tabernacle/temple and the Christian worship service. The argument above seems to look at the temple as though this was the place for weekly worship for an OT believer. It was not. Those that lived at a distance from Jerusalem would’ve only attended a temple ritual a couple of times a year (coming for the major holidays). Otherwise, at least after the exile, weekly public worship was done in a synagogue setting, which was much more restrained in architecture. In fact, some have said the synagogue is the actual precursor to Christian worship. So, in one sense ‘if tabernacle/temple, then church’ assumes a continuity that does not really exist. The tabernacle/temple existed to address a specific set of concerns that are much narrower than just providing a place for worship (see #4).

2. Recognize an OT believer’s limited access when at the tabernacle/temple. Most of the furniture in the tabernacle/temple was never seen by an Israelite believer. Think about it: most of it was in the sanctuary, and you had to be a Levite to go in there. So, as much aesthetic charm as there was to the tabernacle/temple, this was not a quality of the temple that was ordinarily experienced by believers. It was only seen by the Levites. In fact, only the high priest ever saw the ark of the covenant. In view of this limited access, nothing is being deprived or lessened for Christians today by not having very ostentatious gathering places.

3. If these connections are sound, one would expect the New Testament to utilize them. The New Testament is aware of OT worship practices. It constitutes the bulk of the NT’s worship and service language (think of how we are called “priests”, and we offer “sacrifices” of praise and service, and the work of missions is an “offering” to God). Yet, nowhere does the NT attempt to bring temple furniture into Christian worship. If you do a concordance search for “incense” in the New Testament, it will appear in two places: Hebrews 9, describing the OT temple and Revelation 5,8 describing a heavenly incense altar. So, if it is wise or productive to include these elements in a Christian worship service, one would expect the New Testament to say something about it. It does not.

4. These connections, arguably, misunderstand the function of the tabernacle/temple. Properly speaking the goal of the tabernacle/temple was not merely to be a place of worship, but a place of mediation. That is why only the priests could go in. All of the furniture, even with its aesthetic charm, was showcasing the benefits of having a mediator in your place (the bread, showing the securing of God’s presence; the incense, showing the pleasure God in us and our prayers; etc). So the furniture is less about a nice-looking worship place, and more about showing why you need a good mediator. This is why Reformed polemics have tended to be content to say, ‘these things were fulfilled in Christ our high priest, and therefore we do not carry them into the New Covenant era worship setting.’ They served the purpose of showing why we need Jesus, and what benefits he gives to us.

5. These connections, arguably misunderstand the focus-point of Christian worship. In the book of Hebrews, it is fascinating how we are taught to see ourselves as entering a temple in worship– but that temple is in heaven. Historically, churches have the sursum corda in the liturgy (“Let us lift our hearts to God in heaven”). This isn’t just piety, it’s expressing the directional/spiritual movement of the congregation in a Sunday service. We move, by faith, from the ‘courtyard’ of this world/age into the holy of holies in the presence of God in heaven, not earth. I just wonder if the attempt to put temple-like furniture in a sanctuary obscures that the worship service is a spiritual movement out of this age/world, and that the real liturgical service that God desires can only be rendered through a heart of faith?

6. A pastoral problem? Sometimes I wonder if aesthetic arguments are expressions of deeper frustrations with a worship service. If the songs are good, the liturgy is good, the preaching is good, and our heart is rightly processing these blessings it is hard to imagine aesthetics becoming a point of major concern.

Pastors and worship leaders need to be ever-committed to the craft of creating good liturgies, prayers, and sermons. That starts with respecting the inherent challenges in ‘living by the word’ on Sunday morning. We are not easy to listen to sometimes, especially when folks are tired or distracted by kids. For that reason, we need to work hard at our communication skills, and constructing simple and yet moving liturgies. The better our ministry of the word is, the less people will want something ‘more.’

That being said, congregations need to understand how difficult it is for the pastor and worship leaders to ‘live by the word’ on Sunday. We try our best to say things well, but we are finite, and sometimes even we know there’s more that could’ve been said, but we just didn’t know how to, or have time to due to other pastoral responsibilities that week. I assure you it is hard to create a different and fresh liturgy from scratch every week. There are many churches in which the pastor is doing the best he can, and you need to meet him half way, instead of complaining about how ‘dry’ the preaching is.

A final thought on the pastoral aspect. If aesthetics really is The Answer, one would expect that aesthetically rich-looking churches would be full and overflowing every Sunday, with revivals breaking out there all the time. Is that the actual lay of the land in Christianity? In fact, many of them are emptier than the simpler word-based services of evangelicalism. That ought to be a corrective  to our thinking. Aesthetics isn’t the ‘automatic blessing’ some take it to be. Even ‘good’ aesthetics can get boring and unedifying, without something more.

7. Christians and Outsiders are Better Than ‘Furniture.’ If there is a general movement in Scripture from OT types to NT fulfillment, such that the OT points to a greater NT reality, could this be the case on Sunday morning too? Is there a greater furniture in our church service than was had in the tabernacle and temple? 1 Peter 2 says that we are “living stones” being built into a spiritual house for God. Does such a consideration change how we think about a Christian worship aesthetics? What if instead of looking for artwork in the church, we simply looked for each other? What would happen to a church if, instead of looks for images of the divine on the walls, we saw each other as images of God, and means of pointing us on to God?

Further, what would happen if we saw in each other the reality of the showbread (God’s presence with my brother and sister), the altar of incense (God’s pleasure in that person over there for worshiping him today, God’s pleasure in my praying for that person)? What would happen if instead of making inanimate objects our chief concern in the church building, we made the people, their burdens, their joys, their sorrows the chief concern in our services (second to God’s glory)? I’ll tell you what would happen, you would have a church that really was worthy of the name “temple of the living God,” because you would see a community in which grace, truth, love, faith, and repentance were the actual dynamics of their life together. In essence, I’m saying: challenge yourself to make the people around you the thing you notice in the service when you need help focusing on God. And yes it is a challenge, I’m not a doe-eyed fool, but this is how the church grows up into maturity as the body of Christ. This would certainly commend God to the world.

8. Is there a place for aesthetics? Sometimes I do think the Reformed tradition has glamorized the destruction of aesthetics in worship, per se. We are iconoclasts through and through. However, I think there is a place for suggesting that some of the Reformers may have over-argued their case. We need to remember that Calvin’s critique of, for instance, Christian symbols (fish, bread, cross, anchor, etc) and stained glass was written by a second-generation Reformer. He was presenting a somewhat untested theory about why the medieval church had became so ill-informed and worldly. It is possible that he made generally good points, but over-argued some of his points, such that they don’t apply to any and all visuals today (This qualification does not apply to pictures of Jesus/God which are a clear second commandment violation).

A couple of points show this, Calvin critiques the notion that images are the ‘books of the laity,’ saying that the Word should be the source of instruction. As a critique of idol worship, this is fair and right. But as a critique of any and all pictures/diagrams/maps used for instructing in the word, this is not as sound (EX: are there pictures of Israel in your study Bible, or is there a picture of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31).

Calvin also seems to suggest that ostentation is a direct cause of distraction in worship. Yet, this theory has been ‘tested’ over many centuries and it is clear that there is no necessary connection between the two. Someone once told me that in the church they grew up in, they could be distracted by the pattern of bricks on the wall behind the pulpit. Distraction can be rooted in other things besides pretty designs, and also, pretty designs don’t necessarily distract.

In fact, an argument can be made that the deliberate attempt to make a worship setting dull and ‘plain’ can have a negative effect on one’s view of the ministry of the word. Example: ‘This place is dull-looking because what we are doing on Sunday morning is truly dull and boring.’ The visual learners among us will struggle because the building is non-verbally preaching to them a message that is at odds with the service itself.

So, perhaps there is a way to arrange a worship setting so that it commends the business at hand, which is the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. This works in much the same way that our good works are to commend the word of the Gospel, and not distract from it or replace it.

Perhaps there is a place for aesthetics in worship. But, these considerations need to be 1) controlled by the Word (that would mean no temple furniture, or man-made traditions). Being controlled by the Word means that what is done needs to be held loosely and in submission to Scripture. You need to be able to let it go if something isn’t exactly the way you want it. If you’re church is in a fight over the paint color in the sanctuary you have already failed. And 2) if a church desires to be intelligible to the world around it, these aesthetic considerations should probably be developed in ‘conversation’ (sorry if you hate that word) with the ‘common sense’ sensibilities of the world around us. This is especially true since, as Presbyterians, we believe that God has no strong architectural desires for a church building, but that he definitely does have strong opinions that an “outsider” should be able to understand a worship service (1 Cor. 14:16, 23-24). In the end, the aesthetics of a church building need to be such that the spotlight is on the worship service and not the building itself.

These are just a few thoughts that have been percolating in my head since I was asked the question a few days ago.


‘Ugliness that they accepted without question’

“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every moviem every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it. Dealing with it each according to his way.” -Claudia from Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

Common Grace: The Preserver of Beauty

“From this it becomes evident that common grace has performed a twofold service with respect to beauty. First, common grace has spared much paradise beauty and preserved it from loss, and continues to supply us along our life’s way with such a rich treasure of beautiful things in nature. Common grace has tempered the curse and in this

way left us with genuine poetry within nature. One and the same stem holds both the unfurled rosebud and the wounding thorn. Second, within the sinful human being common grace has preserved from complete loss the sense of this beauty in nature.” -Abraham Kuyper

The Beautiful, The Ordinary, and The Ugly in a Fallen World

“Nevertheless, beauty no longer adorns the whole earth. On the contrary, we discover alongside each other the beautiful, the ordinary, and the ugly. A lion is beautiful; a calf is ordinary; a rat is ugly. The same holds for the plant kingdom. The cedar enthralls us with beauty, the willow strikes us as ordinary, and the thistle turns us off… You find this same threefold categorization not only among plants and animals, but even among nonorganic nature. Some mountain ranges inspire worship. Then there are very ordinary humpbacked mountains that you scarcely notice as you walk past them. There are wild rock crevasses so barren and awful that they arouse an involuntary shudder; these are real specimens of the “formless and void” that once existed. Similarly you find next to the lushness of nature in one region the bare flatness of another region, and next to that terrain you find the barrenness of heath and desert. This is true of the atmosphere as well. Some days you enjoy the kind of sky and weather that make you smile and lift your spirit to the heights, followed by other days that are rather ordinary, when it does not rain and the sun and moon make their appearance. Then you face the days when the stormy winds splash the rain against you and the walkway underfoot becomes impassable. In those three phases the activity of common grace swings restlessly back and forth in terms of the beauty of nature.
Repeatedly God shows you and gives you a sense of what your lot on earth would be, and how ugly the world would be, if the curse had been carried out to its ultimate conclusion. And then God lets you behold an exhilarating natural phenomenon that makes you homesick for paradise. Then you sink again back into the ordinary where nothing excites you or repulses you, but instead where everything around you lacks any vitality and chills your enthusiasm.” -Abraham Kuyper
BTW NOTE: As an “ordinary means of grace” Presbyterian minister, I know I’m ‘in the tank’ on this, but I would not make the absolute contrast between “the beautiful” and “the ordinary” that Kuyper does here. But I think I can still see what he is getting at.

When You See Something Beautiful You [Inadvertently?] Confess Your Desire for the Return of Christ

“Glory [Heaven] is, in fact, nothing other than a higher degree of beauty. It is beauty in its consummation, but still in a way whereby present beauty and coming glory are connected to one another, such that both are revelations of one and the same principle.” -Abraham Kuyper
BTW NOTE: What Kuyper is saying is that present expressions of beauty reveal in lesser degrees the beauty that will be revealed at the end of the age. In principle, ‘beauty now’ and ‘beauty then’ are the same thing. So, those who admire beauty (in creation, in art, in a person, in music, etc) cannot help but indirectly express longing for the world that Christ will usher in at his return–even if everything else about them is marked by unbelief. This is another example of the inconsistency of unbelief.