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“UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY EKKLESIA” — Carving Out Church Structures in the Rockscape of Cappadocia

Imagine living in a cave in the stark desert of what is now central Turkey, and having cathedral-like structures in close proximity to your dwelling. Well, believe it or not, that was a way of life for many religious people in Cappadocia from roughly A.D. 600 to A.D. 1200.

Cappadocia is a barren, lunar-like environment, with cone-shaped rocks jutting up from the landscape. The area is mentioned several times in the New Testament, and Paul visited here on his third journey. Spiro Kostof observed, “explore the prickly stretch of cones and smooth folds and you will find hundreds of monasteries and churches buried in them, where Christian communities lived and prayed” (Caves of God, p. xxi).

In the 4th century, Cappadocia was home for three notable theologians who are still collectively known as The Cappadocians: Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. They contributed to the development of Christian teaching in general and Eastern Orthodox thought in particular.

Basil was instrumental in developing “Christian” monasticism, of which these cave church edifices in his homeland are a product. The monastic complex at Göreme was carved out and decorated between 900 and 1200.

Believing communities moved into the Cappadocia region in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. to escape Roman persecution, as the natural rock structures offered refuge. Years later the monastic colonies expanded. A form of “Christianity” removed from worldly distractions thrived in the caves, and an underground tunnel system already existed, which was developed in ancient Hittite times.

It seems to me that there is a tremendous irony at work here that we would do well to reflect upon. Here there were numerous people seeking to escape religious bureaucracy, the temptations of city life, and in general to remove themselves from the mainstream culture. In a word, they were longing for simplicity – and they found it in the Cappadocian desert, where they could carry out a monastic lifestyle.

But, here’s the irony: In this barren setting they could not conceive of a “life devoted to God” without a sacred building. So, cathedral-like structures were carved to meet this “need” in the rockscape where they lived. Thus, we are left with the odd phenomenon of religious buildings embedded in rock formations.

This graphic illustration solidifies with absolute clarity the human compulsion to construct specially consecrated buildings where devotees hope to meet with deity. People just don’t get it. Jesus is not about buildings – “holy places.” That’s why the Jews were livid when Stephen announced, “However, the Most High does not dwell in places made by hands.”

They had accused Stephen by saying, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place [the Temple].” “We have heard him say that this Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place.” In Stephen’s words the Jews saw that their Temple-system was rendered unnecessary, and that Jesus had brought an end to their religious power over people.

The Jews could not conceive of day-to-day life without their Temple-system. On the other hand, Stephen, reflecting Jesus’ voice, was proclaiming that Life in the Son could only be experienced outside of that sacred building.

Indeed, under the New Covenant Jesus inaugurated by the shedding of His blood, there are no longer any holy buildings. As He informed the woman at the well, “It’s no longer about this mountain or that one, or about this place versus that place, but the hour is here when Father is worshipped in Spirit and truth.”

Isn’t there a crystal clear implication here that we must not miss? Is it not obvious that if we revert back to connecting worship to “this building, this mountain, this place,” the very words of Jesus about Spirit-truth worship become impossible for us to live out?

This is not to say that a physical building is evil, but it is to say that when buildings are connected to “where God is,” the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman about the “new hour” that had come are denied. To drive home this point, think about this: how many people would stay home and refuse to “go to church” if there was no building (and no pastor)?

A universal feature of all religions, including Judaism, was that special buildings were erected in which to carry out religious duties and ritualistic functions. Across the board, the faithful would “go to the designated holy place.” In “Christianity,” that has been translated as “Let’s go to church.”

But, the really striking feature of the early ekklesia portrayed in Acts is that Christ’s Bride on earth had no “worship buildings.” The brothers and sisters broke bread from house to house. When Paul wrote to brother Philemon he said, “And to our beloved sister Apphia and Archippus our co-soldier, and to the ekklesia in your home.”

That sounds very strange to us now – but that’s only because we have reverted back to practicing an inordinate emphasis on “place,” and since Constantine in the 4th century, “church” has been connected to a holy building, a designated edifice on some corner.

Jesus Christ was the Temple (dwelling place) of God on earth, and still is the only House of God. All the fullness of God dwells in Him. That old physical Temple was destroyed on Golgotha and He raised it in three days. On the Day of Pentecost, He began to build a New Temple with Living Stones, the believers all over the earth in which He dwells.

Whether we live in the caves of Cappadocia, in homes, or in other kinds of domiciles, we do not need a “building” to attend a formal religious service in order to express Jesus Christ. It is God’s intended purpose to express Christ through us — and He is already in us, and we can share His Life together as sisters and brothers who gather around Him as one body with the One authoritative Lord in their midst.

How many times have you heard someone behind a pulpit say, “Parents, please do not let your children run around and make a lot of noise in God’s house.” Our Father’s house is not a building, but the people in whom He lives. Whether in the simplicity of a desert, or in the hustle-bustle of city life, Jesus will be found living out His life and unique expression in each and every believer world-wide.

Not only are no special buildings required, but in line with God’s eternal purpose in Christ, there must be no human structures that are set apart as designated religious worship places. This is the very kind of religious system that Jesus destroyed, yet people very quickly re-established “this building – this mountain – this place” in His name.

Jon Zens, September, 2012

Horace M. Kallen, “Buildings, Clergy and Money: A Sociological Examination of the Traditional Elements of Religion” [1947], Searching Together, 28:1-3, 2000, pp. 25-38.

Spiro Kostof, Caves of God: Cappadocia and Its Churches, Oxford University Press, 1989, 308pp.

Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, Mercer University Press, 2003, 311 pages.

Howard A. Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age, IVP. 1975, 217pp.

Frank Viola, From Eternity to Here: Rediscovering the Ageless Purpose of God, David C. Cook, 2009, 315pp.

Jon Zens, “Why Are So Many Resources Put Into Buildings?” A Church Building Every ½ Mile: What Makes American Christianity Tick? Ekklesia Press, 2008, pp. 29-32.

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Comments

  1. Orissie Faloon says:

    Great article! I never knew this about Cappadocia. They were no more entrenched than Christianity is today. That whole system is under the dominion of Satan. He is certainly sitting in the temple pretending to be God. Amazing! There is such a vast difference between Judaism/religion and the true temple and worship. Judaism has its temple, its laws, its priesthood, and material blessings. The true temple and worship has Christ and His body, the law of life in Christ Jesus, the priesthood of believers, and spiritual blessings.

    • Even though the whole system is skewed to the hilt, as I have stated on several occasions, I still think the Lord manifests Himself within that system in various ways and levels. He is not bound by any human system. The tragedy is that His presence among His people in those settings comes in spite of the system, not because the system encourages it.

      • Ginklestinker says:

        Jon, you are generous in your thoughts toward dysfunctional systems which, all to often, lead to the spiritual temple becoming a den of doctrinal thieves and robbers. Action is needed to clean it up and make it fit for purpose, by persuading people to follow Jesus alone. If we cannot drive out the impostors and hi-jackers from the facilities which were provided specifically for purposes as defined in the Title Deeds , then we have no option but to remove ourselves and start afresh, rather than to be dangerously cruising around in a fog of low visibility.

        • Only to say that the “cleaning up” comes only by a fresh revelation of Christ to people, not by our efforts to change a system.

          • Ginkelstinker says:

            Waiting for a fresh revelation? We have been given the example of Jesus in cleaning up the Temple(Luke 19:46). He also strongly denounced the blind leaders of the blind, who falsely teach the commandments of men (Matt 15:3-14). To the aspirations of Simon who saw the Gospel as a business/prosperity opportunity, Peter didn’t mince his words in any any (Acts 8:20-23). Much of the New Testament was written to show us how to combat false teaching and erroneous practises from creeping into the life of the congregation. We either have to put away from among ourselves the heretic or wicked influence(1Cor 7:13), or, if that can’t be done, we have to come out from among them and part company (2Cor 6:14-17). We have received these marching orders by revelation from the Word of God to our consciences. What further revelation are we to wait for before we respond and obey ? That is a little too much like the inertia of hyper-Calvinists. Justice delayed is justice denied .

          • We can show our love, share materials and perspectives with folks, and probably do other things, but my point is the Lord has to reveal His purpose in Jesus Christ to people. We can’t “make them” or “get them” to see the truth as it is in Jesus. The Holy Spirit has to take the things of Christ and disclose them to us and persons of interest.

  2. Pam Frazier says:

    I find this amazing Jon. Why do we humans feel compelled to put God in a building?. Even that early in this new “Way”? I had no idea. While they are beautiful structures built right into the rock, they are not our Father’s dwelling place! No more than the hundreds of “church” buildings found in every city and town. I really don’t understand this inclination. It’s as if we think we have to ‘capture” God in a building to ensure His presence is there. When all along it is right here in every brother and sister.

    • As i mentioned to Catherine S., it would seem that because humans are God’s image-bearers, they have an innate longing for that “place” of communion with the Lord — like the original Garden of Eden. As Paul points out in Romans 1, sinful people have channeled this longing into things and places — they worship the creation instead of the Creator. That “place” came in the fullness of time as a Person bearing and imparting Life. Christ is the House of God, the Dwelling-Place, the Fullness. People find it difficult to fill the human void with Jesus — a living Person. It’s a lot easier to put on a suit and tie, and go to a building hoping to discover God’s presence.

  3. Ginklestinker says:

    Thanks for an excellent article. Stephen was the first disciple to clearly proclaim the saving truth that Jesus Christ had come to cut a new covenant with his people. God used the sermon and death of Stephen that day to turn the heart of a most unlikely convert from death unto life; from darkness unto light. The Spirit can do it again and we should pray for our ignorant and hard hearted enemies, such as Al Qaeda and others. The church can do with the zeal of these fine, but currently extremely misguided, young men and women.

  4. I’m struck by how similar those structures carved in the stone are to so many of the mostly empty, decaying “church” buildings of today. Mankind never seems to learn. We always want a human king and a building to house him in, then we live in misery and regret for choosing that way over God’s way. Christ Jesus has knocked down the walls of the world’s religious systems and is calling us to be free in the power of His life! Hallelujah!!

    • Thanks, Catherine! John Howard Yoder spoke of “the universality of the religious expert.” But perhaps the most fundamental human longing is for a “place” where they can come before the higher power(s). Once you have the physical “place,” then you need the religious mediator (the clergy) to run the ritual in a proper fashion in order that the people (the laity) can placate the gods.

      Tragically, even in buildings designed to aid “worship” it is very possible that those in the pews are evading God, not finding Him. Clyde Reid made these astute observations in 1966: “Never before has the spiritual poverty of our present religious structures been so clearly revealed. We must look further and deeper than we have looked thus far [for the pathway to renewal]. In this spirit I suggest the following insight as one of the dimensions of our difficulty: We structure our churches and maintain them so as to shield us from God and to protect us from the genuine expression of Christ. The church as a group tends to emasculate impulses toward Christ, corral them, then render them safe and harmless so they cannot upset the comfort level of the body. We structure the services of worship as to prevent genuine worship. We use the clergy as buffers to protect us from the direct impact of religious influence. We invest great energy in the defense of doctrines which stand between us and God, rather than opening the way for a deeper relationship” (The God-Evaders, Harper & Pow).

      Of course, in Christ we do indeed know a Person who is the Presence of God, and He has opened up a new and living way for us to come to the Father. He is the “place” that fills the void in the human heart — but He does not dwell in special buildings, but in our hearts by the Spirit

      It would seem that within 10 years thousands of church buildings in America will close their doors, just from a financial stand point — let alone other important factors that threaten their existence. They will end up in the same state, but in a different form, as the cave churches in Cappadocia.

  5. Nick Mackison says:

    Excellent blog Jon! Even those groups who place an emphasis on walking in the Spirit often flock to sacred spaces like Toronto and Brownsville. The disease seems to affect all, root and branch.

  6. Good article, and I totally agree with you on this. I have a question in regards to connecting the building with “where God is”. It seems to me that in our time it’s mostly the unchurched people that think that way. I left the IC system mid 2007 but when I was there I didn’t think that. And I have had countless discussions with people still in church who always defend it by saying they know perfectly well that the people are the church and that the building is just a meeting place. We are too many now, and too far away (we no longer live in little villages and travel on foot) so it’s just convenient to have a place to gather. We used to say “let’s go to the church meeting” and over the years we just started saying “let’s go to church”. I realize that maybe the RCC still sees the buildings as where God is, seeing how that’s where their Jesus crackers are kept…but I’m talking about protestant churches.
    At any rate, I agree with you, but I wish articles like this would address the obvious replies we know will come from those who still “go to church”. I’ve read many and not really seen it addressed. Just saying, because it’s pointless to show these type articles to a church goer when I know that’s what they will say.
    Do you understand what I mean?? I hope so. :)

    Anyway, I DO like this article!

    • Gina — Sure, it’s true that many will say, “we all know that the people are the church, not the building.” But our practice shows that there is a real question if that is really true. In my article, I think I address quickly the heart of the matter — the importance placed on a “building” is highlighted by considering this question: how many people would refuse to “go to church” if there was no building (and no pastor)? Our language certainly gives a big tip as to our real beliefs. If people are the church and not a building, then why on earth do we constantly refer to a building as a “church”? Again, a very striking feature of the early church was the absence of special buildings where religious things were carried out — no temples, no cathedrals. Isn’t an emphasis on buildings actually a reversion to the long-standing religious model? Didn’t Jesus inaugurate something new where such places — temples, mountains — were rendered obsolete, and if re-instated would ruin Spirit-Truth worship of the Father?

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