Those grand and glorious cathedrals built in the Middle Ages may have something to teach us about the way we live the Christian life today.
The medieval church ministered to a culture that had no direct, personal access to the Scriptures in their own language. The church leaders of that era were faced with the challenge of teaching biblical truth to a Bible-less people. One creative way they taught key doctrines was by building object lessons into their church facilities. The cathedral served as “The Poor Man’s Bible,” as historians now call it. Everything about the way a cathedral was built—firm foundations and transcendent towers, storytelling statues of stone, tile mosaics and stained glass windows depicting central biblical stories in full color, and even the way sunlight streamed through those windows—was designed to help folks discern, delight in, and declare the great, biblical doctrines concerning God and the gospel.
The art and architecture of these sanctuaries taught two central biblical truths: God’s just judgment against the sinfulness of mankind; and God’s gracious provision of salvation from his wrath through the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Cathedrals were intentionally built to teach theology to the people in the pews. And not just random bits and pieces of biblical teaching, but a consistent curriculum of repentance from sin and faith in Jesus as he is offered in the gospel. Indeed, the most distinct feature of these cathedrals was their cruciform or “cross-shaped” floor plan. The central doctrine the church building communicated was the gospel, the message of the cross. And since these church buildings were the most prominent and prized buildings, the hope was that through the preaching of the gospel inside the church building and through the presentation of the gospel in its art and architecture, the surrounding population would both see and hear the message of the cross.
Here in the 21st century we need more cruciform churches. Not lavish cathedrals but living communities of disciples being shaped by the cross into the shape of the cross for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors, the nations, and the next generation. Our best hope is to cooperate with The Architect, who promised he would build his church (Matthew 16:18) as we join him to form our families, small groups, and churches into “cruciform communities.” Such communities visibly show and verbally share the message of the cross because they are made up of people who have been vibrantly shaped by that message.
Unlike the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, this construction project requires both the building and its building blocks to be cross-shaped. The Apostle Paul taught that both our individual bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19) and the corporate Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:16-17) are temples in whom the Spirit and glory of God dwell because of what Jesus did on the cross. The biblical blueprint for a cruciform church calls for every Christian to live what I’m calling “the Cruciform Life,” a life shaped by Christ crucified (Galatians 2:20; Matthew 16:24).
Let us pray with Jesus that through the preaching of the gospel in and by our church communities, and through the presentation of the gospel in our vertical love for God and horizontal love for others, the world would both hear from us and see in us the message of the cross (John 17:14-21).
[This post was adapted from the Introduction to Cruciform: Living the Cross-Shaped Life. To learn more about the Cruciform Life read Cruciform and this blog.]