Let me start this article by saying that I do not believe at this stage that this issue under consideration should be made a test of fellowship. I will tell you why I feel that way later on in the article. Having said that, it is my personal belief that conservative brethren need to reconsider the appropriateness of this long-standing practice. The authority to have a building with which to worship and do a part of the work of the church is found in Hebrews 10:25. Since we are commanded not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, we must have a place to assemble. It is clear from passages like Acts 20:7 and the overall context of 1 Corinthians 11-14 that the early church assembled together for worship. Since we cannot assemble without a place, we have the generic authority to arrange for a place. God has not specified where or in what kind of place we must assemble; thus, we have options along those lines. We can rent a building, buy a building, have a building built, meet in a house, etc.
Now, if we arrange to meet in a facility that is built, bought, or rented out with the Lord’s money, we must use the facility for the purpose for which it was attained. Regarding local churches of Christ today, we attain buildings to carry out the God-given command to assemble and worship God. Our use of the building, then, should be restricted to that function, and things that make the function of worshiping God possible, or else we are doing more with the building than we are authorized to do. Does that make the building sanctified? Yes, in a sense the building is sanctified or set apart, in much the same way that the grape juice used for the Lord’s Supper is set apart. While there is nothing inherently holy about the fruit of the vine, when we buy it with the Lord’s money, we should use it for the purpose for which it was bought. Would anyone feel comfortable going to the back of the building where the grape juice for communion is stored and consuming a few glasses of it just to quench one’s thirst? Not too many brethren would. Why not? Because the grape juice was bought with the Lord’s money specifically to use in communion and to use it in any other way would be to violate the purpose for its purchase. It seems to me that the same reasoning is true regarding the building that is purchased with the Lord’s money.
What about using buildings bought with the Lord’s money for funerals? The question that needs to be decided is what kind of function is a funeral. To justify having a funeral in the church building, it must be concluded that the purpose of the funeral is to serve and worship God as a congregation in meeting the command to assemble. Remember, this is the purpose for the church building in the first place and the only authorization for having one.
Now then, what kind of function is a funeral? Is a funeral the kind of assembling of saints of which Hebrews 10:25 speaks? Is a funeral an assembling of saints for worshiping God? Is that the inherent purpose of a funeral? This is what gives me the most trouble about using the church building for funerals. I believe it is a stretch to say that funerals are functions meant primarily to glorify God. Webster gives us this definition for the word funeral:
“the observances held for a dead person usually before burial or cremation” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary).
Isn’t this exactly what a funeral really is? It is not a service where saints gather to worship and serve God; it is a service to honor the dead and thereby comfort the family that is grieving. Now I know that brethren through the years have concluded that since religious songs are sung, prayers are offered and since a gospel preacher will most likely (but not always), preach a portion of the gospel of Christ at a funeral, funerals in general are religious functions and that their primary purpose is to glorify and praise God. Thus, the building can be used for such a function. To me this is the sticky point. After all, I can’t judge the motives of congregations and the individuals that make them up. If a church has a funeral in their building and they conclude that the primary purpose that they are gathered is to worship and praise God, do I have the right to say otherwise? No, God will have to sort out motives in the judgment after a while and this is the reason I hesitate in making this a test of fellowship. However, I would remind brethren of how easy it is to convince ourselves of something for convenience sake. A church that is having funerals in the church building better make sure that they are using the building for its intended and authorized purpose. Someone should ask the simple question, “why are we having this funeral? Is it to honor the dead or to worship God?” The reason I will no longer conduct a funeral in the church building is because I am convinced that we have funerals to honor the dead, notwithstanding the fact that a few religious acts are performed during the process.
Here’s another question that brethren need to consider honestly and carefully. Does adding a religious element to a function change the real purpose of the event? As I have pointed out, a funeral is not really a gathering to glorify God. Some may attend the funeral with that in mind, but that is not the purpose of people gathering. Is the purpose of the gathering changed because a few songs are sung, and a preacher takes some time to outline God’s plan of salvation? And if such is the case, couldn’t we use the building for other secular purposes and legitimize it by setting aside about twenty minutes for singing and praying? If not, why not? No one could argue against the fact that at least a part of the events of a funeral have nothing to do with the work of the church or worshiping God, that is, remembering and honoring the dead (which I still maintain is not just a part of a funeral, but the primary function of it). If we can legitimately use the building for that, it would be hard to argue against our liberal brethren when they use the building for functions not related to the work of the church or worshiping God, if they include some religious activity.
When we use the building for any other reason than fulfilling the command to assemble to worship God, we are sinning by acting without divine authority. And when we start to force a religious connotation on functions just to justify having them in the church building, it seems to me that we are starting to travel down a slippery slope. Why take an unnecessary risk? It is not necessary regarding funerals because today there are a plethora of funeral homes in almost every city, many of which can hold hundreds of people. Why not use the building for its intended purpose and use funeral homes for their intended purpose and take the chance of incurring the wrath of God away?