These days many local churches use their facilities for all kinds of activities; some have essentially become community centers which happen to feature a church service on Sunday. Some such congregations maintain relatively modest facilities and allow non-profit groups to use them. Many congregations have gone well beyond this and have built greater facilities for various purposes, including schools providing primary, secondary, and/or post-secondary education, gymnasiums and other recreational facilities, and “life centers” or similar facilities dedicated for non-profit or recreational use. What does the New Testament have to say regarding such things?
Local congregations in the New Testament met in houses or in a rented facility (e.g. Acts 19:9, Romans 16:3-5). They were commissioned to promote the Gospel of our Lord Jesus and to provide support for those who did so (1 Corinthians 9:1-15, Ephesians 4:11-16). The New Testament provides no evidence for association between local congregations and community organizations of any form. Physical exercise receives some commendation for Christians, but even then, it pales in comparison to the exercise of proper spirituality (1 Timothy 4:8). At no point in the New Testament is the local congregation authorized by command, example, or necessary inference, to facilitate the secular education or the physical exercise of its constituent members or their children.
Many attempt to justify the creation and use of such facilities by claiming that they represent opportunities for evangelism. According to this view, people in the community are given an opportunity to use such facilities, and a conversation about Jesus can thus begin. Yet, in the New Testament, we do not see Christians building facilities or creating their own sub-culture to imitate what they felt to be the best of the Greco-Roman world without its problems in order to induce people to hear the Gospel; the church in Corinth did not build “Christian baths,” nor did the church in Rome build a “Christian gym.” Instead, Christians would have gone to the gyms in the community and would have taken any relevant opportunity to promote the Gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). In John 6:26-27 Jesus provides a sharp rebuke toward those who might believe that fleshly inducements can be appropriately used as the means by which to encourage people to listen to the Gospel: they will come for whatever it is you have offered as an inducement, not to learn about Jesus. One may be able to get people to come and eat a meal, or use a gym, or meet with a local non-profit, but you will have converted them to eating meals, using the gym, or the local non-profits! The Lord Jesus did not call His people to create large church complexes to provide a range of secular services so that one might escape the world; instead, He called His people to go out into the world and spread His light into the darkness (Matthew 5:13-16, 28:18-20).
Others attempt to justify the use of existing facilities simply by pointing out how they are being used in an inefficient way. If the building is sitting empty and is not being used, so this view goes, why not allow others to use it? Such an appeal may make worldly sense but is not consistent with God’s revealed purposes. Inefficiency is never used as a Biblical standard for authority; if Christians are truly worried about effective use of the facility, then they should find more opportunities to use the facility for its intended purpose. A building can only be justified according to the New Testament as an expedient, a means by which a local congregation fulfills its work of evangelism, encouragement, and edification (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:24-25). Christians must assemble somewhere; the facility can be used for that assembly (Hebrews 10:24-25). Members of the church may need a place to meet in order to study the Scriptures, to make decisions about how the church as a collective will accomplish its work, or to meet for some other spiritual purpose; the facility can use used for such meetings (Ephesians 4:11-16). If a building is not being used for such purposes very often, the solution is not to use the building for purposes not authorized in the Scriptures, but to find more opportunities to use the building for the purposes God intended it! Such a congregation should consider more opportunities for Bible study, prayer meetings, lectureships, or similar spiritual works which would make better use of their facilities.
God’s intentions in Christ feature the salvation of people (Romans 5:6-11); the church represents the collective of the people of God (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 3:10-11). The primary focus of the church is its own edification, being built up to better reflect its Lord and Head (Ephesians 4:11-16). Thus a local congregation does well to focus on people, not facilities; the promotion of the Gospel, not secular education, not recreation, and not as a community center. May God be glorified, and let us use congregational facilities to accomplish His purposes as revealed in Scripture!
Ethan R. Longhenry