“Instead of spending money on expensive decorations, churches should give it to charity”. Likely, you have heard a similar reproach before. It would seem to be well justified and based on the Scriptures. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” says the great Forerunner (Luke 3:11). “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” the Savior also says (Matthew 19:21). Then why does the Church continue to construct imposing buildings with rich decorations? Let’s figure out.
The quotes above were addressed to people seeking repentance and spiritual perfection. In other words, they are instructions to specific people regarding their personal piety. This hardly makes them applicable to the Church. At the same time, in Scripture, God gives an example of a temple structure (Ex. 25-31), commanding: “Make an ark … overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a molding of gold upon it all around” (Ex 25: 10, 11), “You shall make sacred vestments for the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron” (Ex. 28: 2), “You shall make an altar … you shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around” (Ex. 30: 1, 3). The Lord Himself testifies that His temple should be magnificent.
Of course, the Church should consist of people striving for repentance and spiritual perfection, and its members are therefore obliged to engage in charity. But does beautifying the church interfere with this? Expensively decorated buildings are especially common in Russia, which also has a Church Department for Charity and Social Service. This department operates throughout the canonical territory of the Russian Church, opening shelters and rehabilitation centers, helping fight alcoholism, collecting funds to treat sick and disabled people, or translating services into sign language. These are only a few activities of one department in one of the Local Churches. There are other funds and departments as well. Charitable activities of individual believers and parishes are usually not regulated. This alone makes the conclusions that the Church does not care about the suffering, premised on seeing richly decorated buildings, look foolish.
The possible impression that the Church is “taking away” money from the poor for the construction and decoration of its buildings is also false. If a person wants to donate to those in need, he will do it directly, through a charitable foundation or via an appropriate department of the Church. If a person donates money to a specific church, then why shouldn’t it be spent on the improvement of the same church? Money in the Church is taken neither from the state budget, nor from taxpayers, but from donations of the parishioners. There can also be no connection between the number of churches and the number of educational or healthcare institutions, since the former is the work of the Church, and the latter is the responsibility of the state.
The Church creates real architectural and visual works of art in the form of its buildings, icons, and other sacred objects. If you open a tourist guide to any European city, you will always find a church among the main attractions. There is a good reason for it, because the impressions from seeing architectural masterpieces like St Isaac’s and Kazan Cathedrals in St Petersburg, La Sagrada Familia of Barcelona or the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík, have every chance to outshine all others. Of course, these churches could have been arranged much simpler architecturally… like any other building. But for some reason, no one accuses architects and secular authorities of unreasonable waste of funds. This indicates once more that such accusations against the Church come from naivety and ignorance, if not from falsehood.
Seeing the wealth of some churches, one might get the false impression that this is a ubiquitous phenomenon. In 2019, Vladimir Legoyda, Chairman of the Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society and the Media, provided information on the number of churches in the Russian Federation. The number was 21.8 thousand churches and chapels. According to the data of the Patriarchal Council for Culture, 4.7 thousand of them are dilapidated or in need of renovation. Really rich and large churches are located only in big cities and historically sacred places that attract pilgrims. Churches in small towns and especially villages usually cannot boast of rich decorations and most often need at least cosmetic repairs. In view of this, the talk about the excessive wealth of churches is also inappropriate.
King David says, “O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides” (Psalm 25: 8). Expensive church decorations testify first of all to the sincere desire of God-loving believers to meet the criteria that God Himself indicated. This desire does not hinder the charitable work of the Church in any way.