Q: Can we in good conscience rent out our church buildings to secular groups or groups outside our fellowship? Haven’t these worship facilities been dedicated to God’s service?
A: When a building is dedicated to the glory of God for holding church services, this does not mean that the building itself is essential or absolutely germane to the true worship of our God. Jesus informed the Samaritan woman that in New Testament times she was not to get sidetracked on the geographical location for true worship. Jesus said to her: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
Our dedication of buildings implies gratitude to God for providing facilities in which we can gather for this true kind of worship and to ask the Lord’s blessings. To suggest that a dedication of a building rules out ever using the facility by an outside agency for the general good of a community is carrying the matter too far. There are times, for example, when a tornado or fire has hit a community destroying several churches. To offer the use of the building to a non-fellowship group may simply show good neighborliness without a compromise in the doctrine of fellowship.
In 1949 the sainted Prof. George Lillegard authored a document for our synod entitled “Cooperation in. Externals.” He offered a test of determining whether a situation truly is a matter of cooperation in externals as opposed to a breach in our fellowship doctrine and practice. He wrote: “The test of so-called externals in church work is whether they may properly be carried on with all manner of churches and religious or civic organizations.”
This same essay listed among some examples of “cooperation in externals” the following: “A Lutheran congregation may rent the church building of another denomination, or a Lodge Hall, without thereby becoming guilty of unionism.” (Our synod has at times rented Seventh Day Adventist buildings for holding Lutheran Sunday services in a new mission setting.) And vice versa—I imagine—would also be acceptable, provided that the congregation would give its approval.
Often a congregation may not choose to rent out its property to outside groups for fear of raising confusion in the minds of some both inside and outside the church. Churches which occasionally do it, normally have pertinent guidelines in their by-laws.