Pride is a protean thing, a true shape shifter. Whenever a creature desires to believe in his own superiority, this is a desire that can be projected onto anything. When it comes to the erection of buildings and sanctuaries, we can take aesthetic pride in the beauty of what we have done, or economic pride in the efficiency of what we have done, or moralistic pride in the humility of what we have done, and so on down the line.
But the problem with pride is the pride part, not the accomplishment part.
God put us into the world to accomplish things, and we are to be grateful to Him when He enables us to do these things. But when we veer off into pride, we can take pride in having done what God gave us to do, or we can take pride in doing something else instead. The problem is the heart attitude, always.
When God established His church in the first century, there were a number of unique things about it. The surrounding world was overwhelmingly pagan, and so the burgeoning Christian movement had to make certain decisions about priorities. The first thing that happened after Pentecost was not a building campaign. Neither was it a political movement. The initial explosion of conversions was followed by a century more of evangelism. The Christians met in all kinds of ad hoc circumstances. The catacombs are justly famous, but the New Testament also records multiple times how believers would met for worship in homes (e.g. Col. 4:15).
By the second century, the number of Christians was much greater, and almost from the beginning they challenged the pagan establishment on a number of issues. The Christians were adamantly pro-life, and rebuked the pagan tolerance of abortion and infanticide. If you want paganism without an attendant contempt for life at the margins, you want something that has never existed. The Christians modeled a different approach to compassion during plagues and epidemics, shaming the pagans by their compassion for others. The Christians also opposed the gladiatorial games. Killjoys from the beginning.
The same kind of thing happened with church buildings. We did not build the living stones structure because we had all these attractive brick and mortar buildings. It was the other way around. Life, community, fellowship, love, discipline, care for one another, are all the ways you build the actual church. When you have done that, it is time to move on and make an institutional declaration, one that challenges the principalities and powers. But if we are not doing it from homes, and gyms, and open air meetings, we are not going to do it when we have a nice, respectable place. When we get a nice sanctuary, we must always remember what got us to that place—and keep on doing it.
So let the stones cry out.
In his great psalm of confession, the psalmist says that he has acknowledged his sin to God, and goes on to say that he had not hidden his iniquity (Ps. 32:5). Because we live in a world full of sin, and because we as God’s people live our lives here, when we come to church one of two things must happen. Either we will come to understand our sin and deal with it properly, or we will come here to hide it.
Hospitals are institutions dedicated to health, but they are not places where we go to enjoy and celebrate how healthy we are. You do not go to the doctor in order to lie to him about all your symptoms. What would be the point?
The assembly of the church is a similar kind of thing. We want to come here for a genuine encounter with God, and this means that we must not come here in order to hide our iniquity. He knows about it already. He knows far more about it than we do. He knows everything there is to know about it. He knows when we come to church and do not confess our sins honestly at the beginning of the service. He knows when we move through the rest of the service pretending that we didn’t track in what He knows we tracked in.
When we do this kind of thing, we demonstrate that we are not really worshiping God, but rather are worshiping the good opinion of our fellows.
And this is why our steeple is going to have a cross on top of it. We erect that symbol because we want our town to know, and we want to constantly remind ourselves, that we have been called to a life of virtue by grace. And because it is virtue by grace, the foundational virtue that the grace of God cultivates in us is honesty. And that is how this building needs to be built—as a refuge for honesty.
So let the stones cry out.
When Solomon dedicated the Temple, one of the things that happened is that the glory of God filled the Temple, such that the priests could not even go in (2 Chron. 7:1-2). When Moses communed with the Lord at the door of the tabernacle, God appeared there in a pillar of glory (Ex. 33:9). When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, He together with Peter, James, and John were enveloped by a bright cloud of glory (Matt. 17:5).
Now it is important to remember this because we are seeking to build a church building that speaks of the glory of God, and we want it to speak about glory truthfully. I say this because glory is not something that fossilizes. When the Spirit departs, the glory departs, and the church building becomes Ichabod Memorial.
What will protect us? How will God deliver us? This is a folly that has ensnared many. Our preservation is in the name of the Lord, and the name of the Lord is only revealed through the gospel. The name of the Lord is revealed through the folly of preaching Christ crucified. We declare that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, and that Jesus, the God/man lived a perfect and sinless human life, on our behalf, and that He was slain on a cross, and His blood ran down. When His blood ran down, it was for the cleansing of all His people, and, good to His Word, after He rose from the dead, He applied that blood—your only hope—to the great altar in the heavenlies. And from that place, He prays for you, and He prays for you by name. He prays for this congregation, by name. Our task is to echo His praying, which is what it means to pray in His name.
So let us always glory in that gospel. Let us never exchange the glory of God for a fog of nuance. When Christians get nice things, like a building, they frequently get above themselves. The folly of God is wiser than men, and so our task is always to follow His folly, and not our own wisdom. And that means the cross.
A building speaks of permanence. So when we build a church building—especially if there is a lot of brick and stone involved—this speaks of permanence as well. But we have to be careful. For Christians, this material world is not the final state of things. However, this does not mean that the final state of things will be ethereal, or spooky, or wispy, or spiritual in any of those senses.
The solidity of a church building speaks of the ultimate solidity of the new creation, when matter will receive its final glorification in the resurrection, and when atoms will be packed together far more densely than they are now. Your salvation, and the salvation of all God’s people, is far more real than anything you have ever experienced.
All of this is submitted to God, but, Lord willing, our church sanctuary is going to have a steeple. And a steeple illustrates the perennial problem that believers have in this fallen world. A steeple can be illustrative of the humility of man before God, but it can also be a glaring example of the pride of man. We want the former, but the latter is never far away.
One the one hand, we know how small we are before God. A steeple expresses the finite yearning of creatures for the transcendent, and it points to the only place our salvation can come from—from Heaven above. This is a God-given humility. On the other hand, in the course of building it, we might come to notice that it is taller than those other steeples, and that the design is more fitting. This kind of thing can even reach pathological levels, where we take pride in how much more humbly we yearn for the transcendent than they do.
Pride is an insidious sin, and it is capable of working with any materials. Human pride can glory in having no steeple at all, and we could all worship in a tiny little box calling one another by the names of brother and sister, greeting each other with the phrases like grace and peace, and a holy kiss, sprinkling our conversation with words like yea and verily, with the women vying with each other over who had the plainest bonnet, and only be doing any of it because we thought we were better.
Can a beautiful woman take pride in her makeup? Well, certainly, but pride doesn’t go down the sink as easily as the makeup does. The only thing that deals with the pride of life is the gospel of Jesus Christ, with application of that gospel being made by the Holy Spirit of the Father, who straightens things out where it all begins, which is in the human heart.
So what do we want our steeple to mean? Among other things, we want it to be a summons to the prideful. We want it tall so that the purblind can see it. This is the place where we all come to die. So let the stones cry out.
We are physical creatures, living in a physical world. At the same time, God has put eternity in our hearts, which means that we are enabled to look beyond what is merely physical. Because we are material creatures, God always works with us through means. Because we are spiritual creatures with an immaterial soul that is not bound by matter, we are enabled to know what those means mean.
Those who look to the means alone, stopping there, are superstitious and blind. They think Jesus is the bread and wine. They think salvation is the sinner’s prayer. They think that God dwells in houses made with human hands.
Those who look to the meaning alone, bypassing the means that God has established in the world, are gnostics and rationalists. They are too spiritual to be confined to physical things. They think that Jesus does nothing in and through the bread and wine. They think salvation means looking down with contempt on the sinner’s prayer. They think that God dwells in the bone box on top of their body.
Everyone in the world thinks he understands. That is what it means to think. In order to think, you have to think something. And whatever it is that you think, that is what you think.
So if you are in the grip of an error, you do not understand that error. If you did, you wouldn’t be in error. Who can understand his errors? When Scripture poses this question, it poses a profound question.
Understanding error, and understanding the truth that stands opposite must therefore be a gift of God. Apart from grace, there is no way to comprehend what is happening in the culture around us, in the church at large, in our own congregation, in our own families, or in our own hearts. But when God’s grace is poured out, the people are woven together in likemindedness, and the people have a mind to work.