Architectural Parables

Pastor Michael Bowman

Architectural Parables: An Introduction

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“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4-5).

What does architecture mean? Maybe the question hasn’t occurred to you. It’s such a normative part of our lives we probably don’t often question it. Let me just start by saying that architecture communicates. Design and structure tell us something. It affects us intellectually and emotionally. It makes an impression. We might not always be able to articulate what it is communicating, but it does communicate. The Lord has spoken to us both in the book of Nature and the book of Scripture. In both General and Special Revelation. Our communication can be modeled on how the Lord communicates. Detailed information about the history of redemption and salvation comes through the special revelation of God. However, he has revealed general information about himself, his divine nature and power, through nature (Rom. 1:19-20). In the same way architecture, like nature, can communicate general truths when understood properly. 

Starting today, my plan is to blog through the architecture of our church so that we can better understand what it communicates. These are my own thoughts, I’m not necessarily speaking for everyone in the church. So if you think differently about it, that is ok. I simply want us to think about it, to have an intentional outlook on what we see Sunday after Sunday. I want the building itself to have it’s full effect on us. 

Before starting I should probably defend the whole idea of a church building. The saying goes that the church isn’t a building, it’s a people. Sure. It’s people that God dwells in as a spiritual house, each of us as living stones being built upon the cornerstone. Yes. Absolutely. Completely agree. But the building still matters. Notice that you wouldn’t even understand the idea of a spiritual house if there wasn’t, you know, houses. God cared about how the tabernacle was built, he cared about how the Temple was built. Yes, they pointed to a greater spiritual reality, they were not the most important thing, but they did point to a higher truth. So the physical building does play an important role. It becomes symbolic of the spiritual reality. You could say that the building doesn’t make the church, but churches do make buildings and so they matter.  

We may not always have a building, but as long as we do we should use it the best we can to learn more about the kingdom of God. The simplicity of our building’s architecture is helpful at this point. Much of what we believe about the church can really be seen in our architecture if you have the eyes to see it. The building itself speaks, but you must have ears to hear. My goal in this series is to open eyes and ears to what is already there, to the meaning in the architectural parables of our church. 

Architectural Parables: The Cross

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“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)

When you walk into the sanctuary of our church building, the first thing that draws your eyes is the large cross up at the front. It towers over everything else, going from floor to ceiling. It dominates the visible space by its sheer magnitude. That’s because it represents the dominating place the Lord Jesus plays in our life and worship. 

He is everything. Here is a great synopsis of the person of Christ and his relation to us as the church which can be found in part 1 of the preface to our Book of Church Order: 

“Jesus Christ, upon whose shoulders the government rests, whose name is called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace; of the increase of whose government and peace there shall be no end; who sits upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom to order it and to establish it with judgment and justice from henceforth, even forever (Isaiah 9:6-7); having all power given unto Him in heaven and in earth by the Father, who raised Him from the dead and set Him at His own right hand, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and has put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:20-23); He, being ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things, received gifts for His Church, and gave all offices necessary for the edification of His Church and the perfecting of His saints (Ephesians 4:10-13). 

Jesus, the Mediator, the sole Priest, Prophet, King, Saviour, and Head of the Church, contains in Himself, by way of eminency, all the offices in His Church, and has many of their names attributed to Him in the Scriptures. He is Apostle, Teacher, Pastor, Minister, Bishop and the only Lawgiver in Zion. It belongs to His Majesty from His throne of glory to rule and teach the Church through His Word and Spirit by the ministry of men; thus mediately exercising His own authority and enforcing His own laws, unto the edification and establishment of His Kingdom. 

Christ, as King, has given to His Church officers, oracles and ordinances; and especially has He ordained therein His system of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom; and to which things He commands that nothing be added, and that from them naught be taken away. 

Since the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven, He is present with the Church by His Word and Spirit, and the benefits of all His offices are effectually applied by the Holy Ghost.”

For us, the Cross is a symbol of Christ himself and all that he has done in uniting us to himself. Now of course there can be a danger in using the symbol of the cross. This might sound crazy because what could be more Christian than a cross, but we should be aware of how easily we are led astray. When our focus is purely on the cross itself and not all that it represents we might over emphasize Christ’s death to the expense of the whole gospel message. The whole of the gospel proclaims that Christ did die, and was buried, but on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and even now sits at the right hand of God the Father, from which seat of power he will one day return to judge the living and the dead. 

When we look at the cross, we want to think of all that Christ has done, all that he has revealed to us about God. Around the cross in our sanctuary there are 4 windows. You see through them into creation. When you look at the world through Christ, you can see it for what it is, and what it is supposed to be. Christ was the firstfruits of a resurrected world, a New Heavens and New Earth, and by faith we look for the day when that reality reaches its fulfillment in his second coming. For now we know that all who have been united to him are already a new creation being renewed after the image of the creator. 

Christ is the only head and king of his church. Everything we do, we do under his lordship and for his glory. The symbol of his person and work in our sanctuary is dominant because he is. It towers over everything else because he does. Everything we do, we do in the shadow of the cross. We do it all for him, through him, to him. He is our head and all that we do as his body is to reflect back to him his glory. It’s all about him.

Architectural Parables: The Elder Seats

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“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you…” (Titus 1:5)

    Under the large Cross at the front of the sanctuary, just behind the pulpit, you will find 4 large chairs (traditionally we have 4; during the days of Covid for several reasons we have moved 2 of them elsewhere). They have very high backs and play a prominent role in the front of the sanctuary. Practically, they work well for the Pastor or other participants in the service to use while waiting to come to the pulpit, but they mean much more than that. 

    These seats, which look somewhat like thrones, represent the Elders of the church. Though Christ is the only king and head of the church, he has given to the church officers in order to equip the saints for ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). They have been appointed under Christ to rule over the body, to shepherd the flock of God as undershepherds, and to oversee the ministry of the collected church body. There are some among that group that are especially set aside for preaching and teaching and the administration of the sacraments (1 Tim. 5:17). 

    In our Presbyterian lingo, we refer to the Elders/Overseers as the Session. The seats sit behind the pulpit because it is the role of the session to guard the pulpit. They decide who is to preach and teach in the church. They protect the flock from false teaching and teachers. They watch over the preaching to see to it that the word of truth is being rightly divided. It is the role of the session to fence the Table of the Lord and so they sit behind the table. In some traditions the Elders would actually sit on these kinds of seats throughout the service. I have heard of at least one tradition where every time the pastor would walk to the pulpit, he would have to walk by the elders as a reminder that they were watching over what the flock would hear.

    It is the role of the Session to carry out the discipline of the members. We often think of discipline in a negative light, but it’s actually a good thing. A Father who loves his children disciplines them. Elders who love their people will discipline them. Discipline is not limited to excommunication. It includes the teaching and discipling of the people. It includes exhortation and correction. It can include withholding communion and eventual excommunication for those living in unrepentant sin. The chairs sit facing the congregation because they are to be watchmen, looking out for the sake of the body, caring for the needs of the people God has placed under them. 

    These chairs speak of the authority structure that the Lord has established in the church. We are naturally rebels (in our age especially) and any kind of authority/hierarchy talk can make us uncomfortable. But God has given the Church Elders for her good so that she might attain maturity in Christ. When a church doesn’t have qualified men leading it as Elders/Overseers, there is a real sense in which it is not a church, not in the fullest sense. These are the managers of the household of God, established by him, for your good. Their seats at the front of the sanctuary are a reminder of this. 

Architectural Parables – The Pulpit

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“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:1-2)

Perhaps the most noticeable element of the sanctuary when you first walk in, besides the cross, is the large pulpit. It sits elevated on a platform. It is large enough that it overshadows anyone who stands behind it. It is placed in the center of the platform. Most of the worship service is led and directed from behind the pulpit. 

The Pulpit represents the Word of God. Obviously, it is where the Word of God is preached from each week. The sermon is preached from the Pulpit, the words of the preacher being symbolically upheld by it. It’s important that it is large. It directs the focus of the congregation. What is important is not who is behind the pulpit but what is being upheld by the pulpit. What is important is the Scripture. Many modern churches remove the large pulpit and replace it with a small table or podium which is used to hold a Bible or an Ipad. The preacher will walk back and forth on the stage. Symbolically, the preacher becomes the pulpit, they become the one that upholds the word of God. This can add to the problematic creation of celebrity preachers and one man shows because the preachers themselves are now the focus. The pulpit is important for that very reason. It obscures the one behind it. The person preaching doesn’t matter as much as what is being preached. The Pulpit can help us to express that idea and keep us from celebritizing the preacher. In comparison to the Word of God, the preacher doesn’t matter. 

My understanding is that one of the common changes in architecture during and after the Reformation in Protestant churches, was to put the pulpit in the center of the sanctuary. This represents the centrality of God’s Word in our worship. We do not live on bread alone but on the words that come from God on high. It is God’s Word that reveals to us the person and work of Christ Jesus. It is in the Word that we see his face. It is in the Word that we hear the gospel. It is in the Word that we learn to worship God in the way that he wants. It teaches us faith. It teaches us to sing. It teaches us to love Scripture, to read it, recite it, meditate on it, memorize it. It teaches us how to pray. It teaches us fellowship and love. In other words it teaches us all about what worship is and consists of. We seek to base everything we do in our gathered worship on the Word. It is the only rule to direct us how we might glorify and enjoy the Lord. 

The Pulpit is elevated compared to the rest of the congregation. When we hear God’s Word, we are hearing the very words of the transcendent God. Just as the Lord spoke on Sinai, he now speaks from his Word. When we hear God’s Word preached, it is the Lord himself that empowers it for the sanctification of his people and the conversion of sinners. It comes from the one who dwells on high, high and lifted up, so we look up when the Word is read and preached. 

The Word of God is our foundation. It informs everything we do. As you look to the pulpit, see the centrality of God’s Word to your salvation and worship. See the grace of God as he speaks to you. See the love of God as he has not left you blind and helpless in the world but has given you true revelation. Look to the truth and find in it freedom as sons of God.

Architectural Parables: The Table of the Lord

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“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:23-25)

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On the same level as the congregation, resting below the pulpit, is the Lord’s Table. This is where we come to receive the Lord’s Supper, or from where it is distributed. It is a real table much like the kind that you eat at in your home. This is the shared table of the people of God. At its head is Christ, it is His table. The words of our Lord are carved into the front, “Do this in remembrance of me.” 

The Lord’s Supper is a visible word. It speaks and preaches to us but in a different way than the Scripture does. The Lord has prohibited the use of images of himself in worship, but these images he has commanded. The image of bread as his body, and the fruit of the vine (wine or juice) as his blood. The Lord Jesus himself instituted this ordinance at the time of Passover, on the night in which he was betrayed. The elements speak to the death of Christ, the forgiveness of sins that he has paid for. This is a means by which the Lord shows his grace to us, strengthening us with the spiritual food of Christ’s body and blood. 

The Supper itself is done according to the Word of God. This is why we quote the Scriptures everytime we join together in the sacrament. God has directed us what to do and how to think about this meal and so it is necessary that it be connected to God’s Word. It is necessary that it rests under the pulpit. 

Christ himself is spiritually present with us in the Supper and meets with us there. It is a table that he meets us at. We join in a fellowship meal with him and with each other. He is the bread of life and being united in him, we are like the one loaf that pieces are taken from in the supper. The table is on our level. Christ came to us. He took on flesh and dwelt among us. We don’t need to ascend a mountain to reach God, God came down and now we ascend to him through the mediation of his Son. We are made partakers of Christ, participants in his body and blood (1 Cor. 10:16). 

As we come to the Table, we are united to the past, present and future in Christ. We look to the past at the institution of this sacrament, Christ’s words and work at the time of his death. It is the new passover meal that we get to take part in. We come together in the present, recognizing our sin and shame, but also recognizing Christ in the supper and knowing that his body was broken and blood spilled for the complete forgiveness of all of our sins. We also look to the future with eyes of faith, knowing that some day at the culmination of all things, we will once again sit with the Lord at a table. That will be at the final feast, the wedding supper of the lamb. When we partake at this table together it should remind us of that new day that awaits us, and it should help us to better proclaim his death until he comes. Come Lord Jesus. 

Architectural Parables: The Pews

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“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:24-25)

The majority of the space in the sanctuary is taken up by the Pews. They are fixed to the floor, as much a staple of the architecture as anything else. They are long and can fit both individuals and families. Plenty of room for you, your family, your friends and neighbors. We are an assembly of believers, an ecclesia, and so the pews play an important role in who and what we are. 

Our worship is congregational. It’s participatory. It may be all or mostly led by one person, but we all take part in it. When the call to worship goes out, the congregation needs to respond to it and actually worship. When we pray to the Lord, our hearts are all joined as one as we lift our petitions up before the throne of God. When we sing, we do it together. We use some instrumentation, and maybe some vocal help, but you’ll notice that in our sanctuary those helping in the music are on the same level as the congregation. They aren’t up on a stage in front of everyone. That’s because they are supposed to help the congregation to worship, but not take over for the congregation. What we do isn’t a concert. It’s not something that some people participate in up on the stage and we are supposed to join in. It’s actually something that we are all doing together.

When God’s word is read and preached, it is necessary for the congregation to actively listen, to receive it, and to respond and act upon it. When we participate in the Lord’s supper, a fundamental scriptural image of what we are doing is the coming together of the many into one. All of us are united in Christ like the one loaf of bread that is broken into many pieces and consumed. When the benediction is given, it is to be received by open hearts of faith. Everything we do we do as an assembled body. The congregation is an integral part of all of it. 

We are also all on the same level. There is no partiality in God. He looks at us through Christ and in Christ we all have equal standing with God. The size of the pews can also be a good analogy to our corporate nature. We come to Christ as individuals and also as families. We come to worship God with our families, friends, and neighbors. We don’t sit isolated in our own chairs but together on these long pews (I know sometimes you or others sit alone, so it isn’t a perfect analogy). 

The church is the household of God. As one family we all come together to worship God. Corporate worship is commanded, and in part, that is for our good. We were not made to be alone. We were made for fellowship and communion with others. That can happen in the church because we have all been united to Christ. We share one baptism, one Spirit, one Lord. Though we have different roles and gifts, we together make up the one body of Christ our head. So let the pews remind you of that union. Let them be a reminder to receive, pray and sing together all for the Glory of our common savior. 

Architectural Parables: The Sanctuary

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“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12:22-24)

The whole church is built around the sanctuary. The sanctuary, or sacred/holy place, is where we worship together. It is the primary place that we spend our time on a Sunday. In our building, it is also clearly set apart from the rest of the church. It is set apart by large glass doors that are open when people arrive but usually are closed when we begin the call to worship.

The sanctuary itself, the place of our worship, is holy. That’s not to say that it has some kind of spiritual energy about it that changes us when we walk in. It just means that we have set it apart for the particular purpose of worshiping Christ. This is a fitting image for the church. The Lord has called us out of the kingdom of darkness and into his marvelous light. He has set us apart for his kingdom and purposes. We are no longer part of the world. Though we are in it, we are no longer of it. 

So what we do when we gather for worship is to be set apart from the world. What we do on a Sunday is not supposed to be focused on the unbelieving world. That’s not to say we shouldn’t bring unbelieving friends to church, it doesn’t mean that we don’t want people to hear the gospel on a Sunday morning. It does mean that it should be a little strange to those who don’t believe. When an unbeliever walks in, they should both feel welcome while at the same time feeling that they are not a part of what is going on (but hopefully want to be). The purpose of our worship is to glorify God and he has called us to be holy. 

So the sanctuary is a place set apart, but that doesn’t mean that it is closed off. The doors are glass because we want to glorify God in such a way that we become a light to the world. We want people to see what we are doing, hear what we are saying and singing, and join with us in the worship of God. The doors themselves open wide because we want others to come in. We want people to flood into the presence of God through Christ and worship him in spirit and truth. We want to help usher many into a knowledge of the true God and show them the proper response of praise. 

So there is a sense in which we should think of the sanctuary not as set apart from but set apart for. We are not cold and indifferent to the world and those under the oppressive slavery of sin. We know what that is like, we’ve been there. The sanctuary is a place that is set apart for the worship of God, and it is for all who will come in through Christ. All are welcome as they come in through the proper gate (John 10:9). 

Architectural Parables – The Rest of the Church

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This is the last article in this series on how we can look at the architecture of our church and be reminded of spiritual truths. Before it all comes to a close, it’s probably necessary to address the rest of the building. We’ve discussed the sanctuary and everything in it, but what about everything else? What about the rest of the church?

Everything that we do is to glorify God and the purpose of our assembling together is to worship him. So it makes sense that the sanctuary, where that all takes shape and is centered, would be our focus. Everything else in the life of the church flows from worship. Worship is the heart of everything we do and it pumps new life into all other areas. If you look at the church this way, you can see all the other rooms of the church as flowing out of the sanctuary. 

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The Library is a place for growing in knowledge of God. It speaks to the life of the mind in the life of a Christian. The renewing of our minds is central to sanctification. Our library is used for group gatherings and group Bible/book studies as much as anything else. That’s a good reminder that seeking the renewal of our minds is not a solo journey but something to be done in community. 

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The offices are where a lot of counseling and discipleship takes place. It’s also where some of the nitty gritty administration takes place. This all happens in order to benefit our worship. To help others mature in Christ.

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The Narthex is the common area that takes us into the sanctuary. We greet one another here. We have fellowship with each other. It’s where we meet new people that walk through our doors. It’s where we find out how the week has gone, how we can be praying. 

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Undergirding it all is the fellowship that we have together as represented by our basement fellowship hall. That’s where potlucks happen. Where various Sunday school and Youth groups meet. It’s where we share meals and ideas. Where we laugh, cry, learn, share, smile, ask questions and so much more. It’s this kind of communal gathering that helps us to better bring a united voice in our worship. We know who stands with us, we know their voice, we’ve seen their love and forgiveness, and it encourages us all the more to sing praises to God. It strengthens our confession of faith to do it together.

That’s it. There is much more that I could write, but I won’t right now. I hope this has been helpful. Maybe you have never thought about what the architecture of our church means. As I said up front, these are my own thoughts. I don’t know if all of this was the intent in the church’s construction. Still, you can see now some of the meaning in all of it. I hope that it helps you discipline your mind in worship. With all of these reminders around you, focus in on the purpose of it all. Christ is all in all, worthy of all your worship. It’s all through his work, by his work that we gather in the building that we do. Maybe someday we won’t have a building, but for now we do so let’s use it to direct our worship to the one that deserves it. All glory to our Cornerstone.