David Lipscomb on “Fine Houses for Worship”

When the Central Christian Church in Cincinnaiti, Ohio, completed its $140,000, 2000-seat French Gothic building in 1872, many–especially Benjamin Franklin and David Lipscomb–thought it was an outrage.  By 1892 there were rumors that the church needed to sell the building since many of its members had moved to the suburbs. The downtown, urban church could not sustain such a large, luxurious building.

Judging that the building itself was more a testament to human pride than it was to honor God, Lipscomb thought the concentration of such funds in a single building unwise–more than that, downright sinful. He preferred that instead of building one huge, lavish structure that it would have been better to build twelve modest buildings spread throughout the urban landscape.

His own history confirmed this for Lipscomb. When the “fine house” of Nashville–built in 1852 at the cost of $30,000–burned in 1857, Lipscomb rejoiced. Nashville then developed several churches over the years instead of one central congregation. Instead of one “fine house,” they had multiple “modest” houses, and the church grew in the city. Whereas in 1889,  Cincinnati only had 1000 Disciples in the city, Nashville had 2,500 (cf. Hooper, Crying in the Wilderness, 203).

Consequently, Lipscomb’s consistent counsel throughout the years was small, modest buildings rather than “fine houses.”  Smaller and more modest is better than large and lavish. This fit his own belief in the dignity and special character of the working/farming class. “The best community in the world,” he thought, “is that every man own his own land, small farms with industrious owners” (Gospel Advocate, 1875, 300). This is how1852 he thought about churches as well–relatively small, modest, every member involved, mutual edification, and shared leadership. Wealth, power and “fine houses” were corrupting influences that diverted the church from its mission to the poor and the lost.

Below is one article, among many, that articulates his perspective. In my next post, I will follow up with the theological ground that shapes Lipscomb’s perspective on “fine houses.” In the below article, Lipscomb states that building a “fine house” is to give up the “Christian spirit.” My next post will address that point.

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David Lipscomb, “Fine Houses for Worship,” Gospel Advoate 34 (28 January 1892) 52.

We understand the Standard calls in question our statement that there has been talk of selling the Central Church building up in Cincinnati, because too expensive to keep up. We are sure such has been the talk, and the reason was, so many of the wealthy members have moved to the suburbs and united with churches out of the city, those remaining are not able to keep the church up. We have heard of the talk down here. It come from persons doing business in Cincinnati, too.

We understand the Standard adds, that we seem to rejoice in the matter. We do not rejoice, but sorrow at the fewness or weakness of the disciples in Cincinnati, or elsewhere. This whole talk has been brought about by the society folks from Ohio and Missouri, decrying the destitution in Tennessee, in order to help fasten on us a society. We knew the cry was either hypocritical or founded on dense ignorance. We determined to expose it, so no honest man can hereafter raise the plea.

But, candidly, when the Central Church house was built and such a flourish made over it in the papers, we published that we believed it both a blunder and a sin, to put so much money in a house to be used only a few hours a week. We believed it would hinder instead of forward the cause of true religion in Cincinnati and elsewhere, hence was a blunder. We believed it a sin against God and his people to put such large sums of money in a building, when so many thousands and millions of our fellow creatures are suffering want and going down to hell for lack of the truth. We believed, and still believe, that this expenditure is not to honor God but to minister to human pride. This is sinful.

I still believe such a waste of means to gratify pomp or pride sin. I would have rejoiced if they had build a modest and economical house then. I will rejoice at anything that will now bring the church in the line of Christian propriety. Yes, I would rejoice if they would sell the house and build a dozen simple, modest houses for worship, that correspond to the principles and aims of the Christian religion. I would be glad if they would voluntarily do this without being forced to it; but, if they will not do it otherwise, I will be glad if they do it of necessity.

Once the disciples in Nashville built a fine house, when they ought to have built a half dozen modest ones. It was the occasion of trouble, and was burned up. I was in the pulpit at Philadelphia, church in Warren Co., with Bro. Nix Murphy, when I heard of it. I publicly expressed my joy at the result. I still think it was a blessing from God.

When I hear of a church setting out to build a fine house, I give that church up. Its usefulness as a church of Christ is at an end. The church at Dallas, Texas, has spent a large amount to build a house finer than any other house in the State. It has burdened itself with debt. It has shown its lack of the Christian spirit, and its promise for usefulness for the future is not flattering to my mind.

In  Arizona there is not a single preacher giving his time to reach the dying multitudes of sinners that people that State. A little handful built a house costing several thousand dollars, and have been compassing the whole land to get money to pay for it. People that star in that direction cannot convert sinners, and we believe it would be a blessed thing if the house were sold and the tempotation to travel in the wrong road taken out of their way. It is not Christian to spend the Lord’s money in this way, while sinners, ignolorant of the will of God, are dying all around them. My conscience has hurt me all th epast year at the appeals that have been made for this house through the Advocate without a protest from me. If half the money required to build this house had been spent in having the gospel preached in the State, a hundred fold more sinners would have been saved.

The brethren in Atlanta are proposing to build a thirty thousand dollar house. They do not ask my advice. None the less, I give it without cost. It will weaken instead of strengthen them. Half the money spent in preaching in the destitute suburbs of Atlanta, building a few modest houses, as needed, will save a hundred fold more sinners, and God will reward such work. He will not reward us for building houses to gratify our pride. Yes, brethren, I rejoice when you fail to build fine houses. I rejoice when you sell them. I rejoice when they are burned down and replaced with modest house that comport with the church of Christ.



8 Responses to “David Lipscomb on “Fine Houses for Worship””

  1.   jessepettengill Says:

    http://evangelcathedral.net/ You have to click on it JMH, you have to. ;-)

  2.   TJ McCloud Says:

    Thanks for this! I continue to cherish this and many other parts of David Lipscomb’s legacy more and more…

  3.   Steve Kenney Says:

    Yet I look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and thank God for Michaelangelo’s gift and praise God because of it. Those frescoes actually lead me to contemplate the narrative of Scripture.

    No one would accuse Dorothy Day of being caught up in extravagance, yet she believed that even the poor deserved to see beauty.

    I think there’s a balance here. Lipscomb is speaking to one end of that continuum. It we extend his thinking (and maybe we should?) don’t build at all. Simply meet in homes and convenient public places.

    I think there’s a place for buildings and even beautiful buildings. The question is whether they are effective to help people receive the kingdom.

    Please weigh in. This is a very timely discussion for our church as we contemplate changes in our physical plant.

    Grace & Shalom,
    Steve Kenney

  4.   Jeff Shepherd Says:

    This is rather timely for me as well, as I just sat down with my future ministry partner in Sofia, Bulgaria to discuss how to go about getting a facility. Neither of us is seeking to be extravagant, but there certainly is a discussion of what is appropriate and useful in a facility.

    Steve, I appreciate your point on art and beauty in a worship space. Perhaps it takes John 12 out of context, but at least the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume shows there are some things that trump spending on the poor. This must be, as you say, a balance, as several other scriptures come to mind, particularly prophecy against Israel, which condemn their religious practices without concern for the poor. I think there is a place for this in our church facilities, but not at appreciable expense.

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks, Jeff and Stephen. I appreciate the perspectives. I think I will leave substantial comment till tomorrow’s post which elaborates Lipscomb’s theological point.

      I understand the link between beauty, space and art. I think there is great value there. At the same time, i remember how the Sistine Chapel was financed by Warrior Pope Julius II but also recognize that God uses such extravagance for his own purposes in the lives of many. With Day I can agree that the poor deserve beauty too but at the same time it is possible that is also an rationalization for extravagance.

      It is probably better for me not to say this or that should or should not have been done but rather to simply think about what I am going to do with what is front of me. That is difficult enough.

      In general, I like simple, pragmatic, functional but also inviting (which includes beauty…which has many forms).

      More tomorrow…

      •   Cooper Says:

        Dr. Hicks,

        I just wanted to reassert an anxiousness for tomorrow’s post. In your classes at Lipscomb, I could hear the tension between money spent on church buildings vs. money spent on the poor. You often talk about the lavishness of Orthodox churches being rooted in a (to my ear’s) legitimate theology of “entering into God’s presence/ his throne room.” How, then, do you balance this theology with the competing Restoration rejection of worldly glamor and emphasis on “benevolence?” I’m also interested in how this might apply to a broader discussion of Christian art. When the Blue Like Jazz movie project was in its early stages, the producers were forced to make a grassroots appeal to Don Miller fans for money. While many believed in the project and the importance of making honest Christian art, many others derided the project as using funds that could have gone to a much more “honest” presentation of the Christian faith, such as poverty relief. I’m looking forward to a discussion that contemplates a balance not only for church architecture, but for Christian art in general.

        • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

          Coop,

          While I understand and appreciate the art which represents a particular theological understanding of liturgy, I don’t think we need extravagance to make or depict that theological point. I would be interested in an appeal for those to use their artistic gifts in service to the community rather than the community purchasing them at extravagant prices (thought the laborer is also worthy of the hire). It seems to me that it turns on a more communal understanding of gives and serving the community as a grateful use of gifts that might perhaps be otherwise employed.

          For example, the art that often appears in the Woodmont building–at several pieces that I know about–was donated by the artist, and created for the purpose of benefiting the community. More of that, and less of lavish spending would be my preference.

          John Mark

  5.   Cooper Says:

    Aha, thank you for your comments. I think that is an excellent “3rd way.” I’m still interested in how this might apply to “raw materials”- gold for a crucifix, travel expenses for a movie- but “community art” is an excellent start!

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