Why I Believe Church Pews Are Unbiblical

Why I Believe Church Pews Are Unbiblical

9781631990465mI’m starting a series of posts inspired by my recent interview with Dr. David Alan Black regarding his book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. He bases this book and the seven marks on Acts 2:37-47. You can see a video of that interview below.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dave while he was visiting Pensacola the weekend of September 6. The interview was recorded by Kyle Hall in the library at First United Methodist Church here in Pensacola. I want to thank Dave for visiting and Kyle for recording the video.

I have several goals in this series, including discussing how we can learn from people from other tradition streams. I intend to bring in quotes and ideas derived from two other books I publish, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations by Ruth Fletcher, a Disciples of Christ regional minister and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel by Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor.

But what does all this have to do with my belief that church pews are unbiblical?

The starting point for Dave’s book is that you can look at the book of Acts, and the activities of the early Christian church, and find things that are normative, or at least very valuable, to modern Christians. Dave isn’t alone in this conviction, but I want to start with the question of how we move from what we find in Acts to what we should do in modern churches. This topic is discussed in the first 4.5 minutes of the video.

We don’t find sound systems or their use in the New Testament. Neither do we find hymnals, organs, pianos, praise bands, orders of service, parking lots, or many other things that are automatically part of our modern life, and often of our church activities. Is it wrong to have something in church that isn’t actually mentioned in the New Testament? There are those who would think so.

On the other hand there are those who would say that church has changed so much that we need to come up with our own unique ways of doing things, that looking back to the early church isn’t going to be enough to deal with our complex world of the 21st century.

I think there is some truth in both points. There are, in fact, critical principles in the New Testament that need to be part of any church that wants to label itself Christian, or more important wants to consider itself a community of disciples of Jesus. (I’d prefer the latter personally.) On the other hand we have situations in the modern world that weren’t a part of the world of the New Testament.

The question is whether the way we choose to meet the challenges of the 21st century is worthy of the good news about Jesus. Do our solutions to modern problems, even when those problems are not directly reflected in some New Testament story or statement, fulfill the principles that Jesus taught? When we make a change does it help us love God and one another? Does it help us to make disciples wherever we go?

So I come to church pews. They aren’t mentioned in the New Testament. They wouldn’t have been needed, though doubtless the various Christian homes that hosted meetings had chairs of some sort. I have a problem with church pews.

Now my problem is that we can’t develop new tools and new practices to meet 21st century demands. The problem is that I don’t think church pews help us love God or one another more and I think they tend to prevent us from fulfilling the gospel commission.

Bicycles are also not mentioned in the New Testament. They’re really good and very helpful in many places. Neither are motorcycles mentioned, but what a blessing they are. I can’t count the number of times I’d head out as a teenager, living with my parents in Guyana, South America, riding on the back of a motorcycle behind an evangelist, holding my trumpet case in one hand. It was the 20th century, true, but it was a very non-1st-century scene. Well, in one way, not 1st century. But in another, the young person heading out to help the evangelist do his work is a very 1st century scene. The tools changed, but the mission didn’t.

But what about those pews? Yes, back to pews. What do pews do for the work of ministry. The very arrangement of our sanctuaries with pews lined up facing a platform where the more important people sit and from which they tell the less knowledgeable what to think tends toward hierarchy. If we’re going to fulfill the hope of Jeremiah 31:34, we need to get more people involved. Our problem is not that our churches don’t have enough order it’s that we don’t have the problems of 1 Corinthians 14. Too many people wanting to speak? On the contrary, just try to get them to do so.

The pews enable this bad behavior and congregational laziness. The people in the pews are there to listen, to receive, not to share and participate.

And then there’s the matter of stewardship. A church “sanctuary” (and what happened to worshiping in spirit and in truth?) is by nature going to be wasted space. There are so many things you can’t do there, because there are very few meetings, other than a totally platform-centered church “service” (who is getting served?), that can take place there.

The same space, made level and filled with movable chairs would be of value for many other purposes. Children could play games. Groups could meet and discuss, putting the chairs in a circle. One might even celebrate communion as a full meal. Yes, I know, we probably have a fellowship hall for that. But why do we do that? Probably because sitting down together and eating isn’t sacred enough to happen in the holy space filled with holy pews.

After we take the pews out, I wouldn’t mind having musical instruments, video, and plenty of parking for those who meet there, none of which are mentioned in the New Testament.

It’s not what’s mentioned and what’s not, but the type of people we are to be and the way we are to behave as disciples of Jesus.

Oh, we could also offer meals to those in need using that space. If it didn’t have pews, that is.

5 thoughts on “Why I Believe Church Pews Are Unbiblical

  1. I wonder how Dr. Black would address the fact that how he approaches spiritual growth, by way of immersing himself in the word, was unavailable to the masses of Christians for almost 19 centuries. During that lacuna the average Christian had no option except to learn from those who did have access to Scripture. That, in itself, led to a host of problems (meaning creeds, etc.). This makes me wonder about the efficacy of his method. Add to that the reality that all those who diligently follow his method come to vast disagreements with each other (while each, presumably, is guided by the Holy Spirit). Perhaps his relationship to his Lutheran doctoral supervisor is key: learn what you can for yourself and keep it to yourself. Dr. Black’s attitude about what he learns shows me that it is much more important than the substance.

    1. I intend to visit this more as I blog through the series. Where, for example, do I get off calling pews “unbiblical”? It’s quite true I don’t like them, but if you search this blog you’ll find places where I comment negatively on using the term “unbiblical.” Further, I attend a church with pews, where Dave preached two days after we recorded the interview. Yet more further (!) I agree with Dave on baptism. My view is immersion for someone who has made a conscious decision, though I also think it should be immediate. But I attend a church where the dominant practice is baptism by sprinkling as an infant.

      Speaking for myself, as I will be throughout this series of blog posts, I do not expect study under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to produce uniformity. In interviewing David Moffett-Moore oin prayer the other evening (video embedded below), I was struck by his point that there are seven billion people and God can relate to each one differently. My suspicion is that God is not aiming for uniformity. Now I’m a mere human. I’m likely to argue forcefully for my obviously well-refined and truly important ideas! 🙂

      1. The quest for uniformity is a dead end. Not one of Dr. Black’s “marks” is self explanatory. So, I think you agree with me that our opinions should be held “close to the vest.” Thank God Protestants don’t have a magisterium.

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