Why do we do things in church the way we do? Although not by itself, our society’s religious history influences us.
In New Testament times, the believers were surrounded by many different religions. The Jews had the Temple in Jerusalem, and synagogues in many of the towns. There were many pagan temples. The synagogues were not an Old Testament idea, but by the time of Jesus they were well established and both Jesus and Paul were in the habit of going along to a synagogue meeting on Saturdays.
The New Testament believers met in homes, and at the Temple in early Acts. Even though they were surrounded by religious buildings, there is no record in the New Testament of Christians building or using purpose-built meeting places.1
Around 300AD the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the state religion, and possibly within months began building a church building for the Bishop of Rome (Pope).
By the middle ages in Europe, formal Christianity (you could call this Christendom) was dominant, church services were held in Latin, and the people were kept illiterate and in submission. The Bible was effectively locked up to all except a few. By contrast, in New Testament times many of the people were literate; the “noble” Bereans were commended for checking out the accuracy of what Paul taught against the Old Testament Scriptures2.
An ongoing consequence of this history is that we have practices that are not based on the Bible but church practice over hundreds of years. Why do we sit in rows, for example? There are some practical benefits, but a major reason is because it has been done that way for centuries. Even in otherwise evangelical Bible believing churches, this history shows itself. For example, in most churches only specially trained and authorised people are able to lead, teach or organise, a legacy of centuries of hierarchical church officialdom.
We need to examine what we do. Do these things help or hinder us in fulfilling the goals for our meeting together?
1. James 2 refers to seats (the rich man at the front and the poor man standing at the back, to the shame of those Christians). In Acts 20 there was a meeting on a 3rd floor room. You get the impression it was crowded because one young man was sitting on the window sill. He nodded off and fell out the window.
2. Acts 17:11