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” , 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.