Perhaps you have had a conversation a little like the one in this video? Either it is in the context of whether church buildings – or “the sanctuary” – is particularly special or perhaps during a discussion of the ‘where two or three are gathered‘ issue. I wonder who you side with?
First, let me rule out the worse argument. God does not “live in the church”. Even during the era where anybody spoke of God dwelling in the tabernacle/temple, Isaiah and Jeremiah recognised that God was not confined to a tent or building.
Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the LORD. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:1)
Am I a God at hand, says the LORD, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:23, 24)
Even Solomon, who eventually built the temple, got this point when he said “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27, cp. 2 Chron. 2:6, 6:18)”.
Quoting Isaiah, Stephen says the same:
Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
“‘Heaven is my throne,and the earth is my footstool.What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,or what is the place of my rest?Did not my hand make all these things?’ (Acts 7:44-50)
So, scripturally speaking, the argument that God is everywhere is on better ground. On one level, God is omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent and therefore we are always ‘in his presence’.
But, paradoxically, God did dwell in the tabernacle/temple (cf. Exodus 25:8,9; 40). However, given all that we have seen already, this dwelling place was not the extent of God’s presence. Rather, it was a visible reminder that God specifically dwelt with a particular people. He did not ‘live’ in the building but rather chose to express his glory there as a visible sign that he was with, and for, this particular people. It marked a focal point for his special presence and glory rather than the total extent of his general presence. When people talk about the ‘presence of God’, they usually do not mean his general omnipresence but rather his special presence as manifested in the temple reflecting his association, and confirmation, of this particular people as his own.
Nevertheless, Daniel, Ezekiel and Jeremiah all prophesied a time when the temple building would be no more and what was confined to particular people within the confines of the building would be extended. Jesus also prophesied the destruction of the temple building, which came to pass in AD 70. Even before the temple was totally destroyed, at the crucifixion, the temple veil tore in two. Access to God had been opened and the glory of God would soon no longer dwell in the building itself.
God’s special presence is neither limited to the temple building nor does he manifest his Shekinah glory everywhere. God has not confirmed one particular nation as his own – making a set structure impractical – nor does he confirm all people indiscriminately as his own, making the idea of his omnipresent dwelling impossible. Rather, as the NT states, God’s people – made up of different tribes, tongues and nations – are God’s dwelling place. As Paul says: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16).
All of that is to say the building is of naught. There is nothing especially sacred about the space in which we meet. God does not “live at the church”. In fact, five minutes in any church that meets in rented accommodation quickly bursts any illusion that the pulpit stands on holy ground or the meeting hall represents hallowed ground (unless, of course, you think the school assemblies that happen there the rest of the week are sacred too).
At the same time, God does not dwell with all people everywhere. Though He is omnipresent, God dwells in the hearts of those who believe by faith in Jesus. God indwells people by his Spirit. Just as the Spirit dwelt in the temple (even though he was clearly present and active outside of the temple), He now dwells in the hearts of God’s people (even though he still continues to be present and active in the world).
Buildings are just buildings whether they are allotted as church buildings or not. There is nothing sacred or special about them. God does not dwell in the church building. Rather, He dwells in his church. That is, He dwells in the heart of each and every believer. That also means He is no more present with us together than when we are alone. The Spirit fills our hearts with the presence of God and He can be no more present with us than when He is in us.
God is as present and active in my prayer time on my own as he is when I’m together with the church. God is as present and active in my life at home as he is when I gather with his people. God is present with me when I am on my own and He is present when me when I’m with other believers. The place where we meet and the time that we meet do not increase God’s presence. God is either with us, or He is not. God is either dwelling with his people, confirming us as His own, or He isn’t. God is either dwelling in our heart, by his Spirit, due to our faith in Jesus Christ or He isn’t. If we truly want the presence of God, it is found in faith with Jesus Christ. If we have that, we have the Spirit. If we have the Spirit, we have God’s presence, always present, dwelling in our hearts.