What should we call the building we, as the church, worship in? Amongst Protestants there are generally two words that come to mind: auditorium and sanctuary (this excludes the more traditional language of the Church of England because her vocabulary is drawn from the Medieval church). Sanctuary is more common today, but auditorium has a venerable history and much theologically to commend it.
Sanctuary has sacerdotal and high church overtones. It means holy place. It is used in the Bible to identify either the main building of the Temple complex, or the holy of holies. It was never a place into which the common worshiper entered. It was reserved for the priests. Those churches which have a sacerdotal view of the ministry, where there is a priesthood and a sacrifice, never refer to the common gathering area as a sanctuary. It generally refers to the area where they place the altar or the container for holy objects (though I think the container for the “real presence” is called a tabernacle — same concept though).
An auditorium, on the other hand, has none of those priestly associations. It refers to a place where one hears. Auditorium makes clear that the central act of worship in a Protestant worship service is the hearing of the word of God. For these two reasons, auditorium was our forefathers’ preferred nomenclature for the church’s main building. The older architectural style of American churches reinforced this vocabulary; there was nothing priestly about an old meeting house.
If these were the only considerations this would be a blog post advocating auditorium. But words and their associations change. Today auditorium is synonymous with theatre. It is a place of entertainment. It is a place where applause is given. Auditoriums use to be filled with auditors; but auditors no longer mean listeners, rather critics and evaluators. All the wrong associations for the church meeting house. It would be fine, perhaps, if it were not for the fact that it is exactly entertainment and autonomy that mar Protestant piety today.
Does that mean we must use the sacerdotal language of the sanctuary? Absolutely not, but consider: when Protestants use sanctuary as the name of their gathering place they subtly undermine sacerdotalism. What gathers in a sanctuary? Saints do. The whole is holy because of who gathers there, not just the spot reserved for priests. Here then is tacit witness to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Sanctuary is still not without problems, it is still not a holy place. But we can adjust to same qualifications we have grown accustom to using about the word church. After all, who has not made the clarification that a building is a church because it is the church that gathers there?
Perhaps the solution is to go a third way. I kinda like moot, but that’s because I like obscure old words. Tyndale faced the same problems. His first New Testament translation used congregation exclusively to translate ecclesia (church). It is a better word on all accounts but one, traditional usage. In the end it was better to use a word that was familiar, even if it had to be explained, than use a word that sounded alien. Of course congregation would be perfectly understandable after a half millennium of Protestantism, but translators still use church. So, after weighing pros and cons, and limiting myself to the two traditional words given me, I prefer sanctuary. But I’m not dogmatic on the issue, sometimes you will hear me call it an auditorium. But my meaning will always be clear (even if, on occasion, I call it a church moot).