One of the most startling and disruptive facts of the history of the Christian movement is that the Church had no corporate holdings until well into the 3rd century after the advent of Jesus. In other words, no group of believers owned a building. When this is compared to the contemporary landscape of the Church, it is startling. And while there were certainly exceptions, this was largely not because they could not have buildings. This is the disruptive part. The total absence of corporate property and possession was not, for the most part, because of persecution or a lack of resource. It was because of theology. Furthermore, the shift to the Church actively seeking corporate holdings corresponded precisely with the sweeping theological shift that began in the early 3rd century.
As I ponder this, the question forced upon me is, “What did they believe that produced such a radically different form and expression of Christianity than we have today?” I do not claim to have a definitive answer . And particularly in this context, I will not endeavor to even offer a thorough one. Yet one thing, I believe, is clear. In a way so much more real and penetrating than what we know today, early believers viewed themselves as sojourners in this age. As wayfarers looking for the kingdom to which their citizenship corresponded, they felt no compulsion to invest the huge commodities of time and money necessary to have a structure that tied them to specific geographic locale. After all, if you are on a journey and the prospect of your destination is what consumes you, you don’t stop to build a house – even if you have the resources to. Those set on a pilgrimage aren’t looking to procure permanent dwellings as they travel.
My point is not to argue that we should no longer make use of buildings. Clearly they can be very functional and serve valuable purposes. I just desire to possess a biblical perspective on life in this age. I want to have my hope so wholly anchored in the return of Jesus (1 Peter 1:13) that the way of discipleship that was normal to the early Church begins to make sense to me. Apparently it did not make sense to them have buildings. And I believe this one fact may point toward a much more fundamental disparity between their understanding of the mission of the Church prior to the return of Christ and that which is common today.
Driving around a major metropolitan area one finds on almost every corner a property called a “church” that sits empty ninety-five percent of the time. These nearly-vacant buildings demand an enormous percentage of the budget generated from the tithes and offerings of the people who go there once or twice a week. This, as scores of missionaries struggle to find funding to be able to go and preach the gospel. How did this come to make sense to the body of Christ in modernity? I would suggest the answer, like two-thousand years ago, is also overtly theological in nature.