Should New Testament churches have ‘altars’ in their sanctuaries – whether it be furniture, a location, etc.?
The short answer: No, we should not have a physical altar in our churches. They are not only unnecessary for worship, the New Testament actually speaks against using them.
Now for the longer answer. One of the characteristics of New Testament worship is that it is very simple: you have the word of God, water, and bread and wine. For all these things (reading, preaching, and singing the word; baptism with water and a meal with broken bread and poured out wine) you have clear apostolic command and/or example (Matt. 28:20, Acts 15:21, 2 Tim. 4:2, 1 Cor. 11:23, Col. 3:16). As I’m sure you know, we only bring into worship what is required by command or example. So, the question would be: where are we commanded to use an altar, or where do we see the apostles using one?
But we can go one step further here and say: The New Testament speaks against using an altar during worship. Hebrews 13:10 says, “We have an altar of which they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle.” Remember the central theme of Hebrews is to show the New Testament believers that they ought not to go back to Judaism (or some form of it) because what they have in Christ is so much better. To go back to the shadows would be a great insult to Christ. It would be as though he had not come or had not done enough. So, you don’t need a Levitical priest (because “we have a priest” in heaven, Heb. 8:1); you don’t need the blood of bulls and goats because Christ has gone with his own blood into heaven and now appears and intercedes there for his people (Heb. 9:12, 24). When he comes to speak of the altar in Hebrews 13:10 he speaks of Christ when he says, “We have an altar.” The altar was what sanctified, or gave value to, the sacrifice. Because Christ is divine, the sacrifice he offered had infinite value. So, when a Jew would say to an early New Testament Christian, “You just have bread, water, wine, and the book; what value is there here? Where is your altar?” the response was – “We have an altar – we have something… no, better, someone, who gives infinite value to all we do, and he is on the throne of heaven.” That is our altar. He’s the one who gives value and life to all we do. The apostle goes further and basically says, “And listen! If you serve the Old Testament tabernacle – i.e., if you continue with these old ceremonial shadows – then you have no right to claim Christ on your side. You can’t have the shadows and the noon day sun at the same time. It’s one or the other.”
What’s interesting to me (and why your question is so relevant!) is that Christians are still being asked this question. The words are different, but the idea is the same. Not Jews now, but other Christians, may ask us about our Reformed worship – “Where’s your life? This is boring, old-fashioned etc…” Now, we certainly don’t want to be dull or old fashioned, just for the sake of it. That would be tragic. There’s nothing more wonderful, enlivening, or relevant than the gospel of Jesus Christ. But we do live in such an entertainment driven culture, so that to simply sit for 75ish minutes twice on a Sunday seems incredibly long and mundane to many people. And what do you do there? You sing ancient psalms that the church has sung for 3000 years, you read long parts of the same Bible week after week, you listen to a man lead you in prayer, you listen to what many would consider a tediously long (and “boring”) exposition of the same old doctrines. And the question we get hit with is, “Where’s the life in this?” It’s simply another way of saying, “Where’s your altar?” But here is the stark, sobering, and encouraging truth: If God by His Spirit does not come and give us life / value (altar) in these simple elements of worship, we will have absolutely no spiritual life. This ought to drive us – not to look at what others are doing to make the service more enjoyable – but to look to God in prayer, that He would pour His Spirit upon us and give us life.
Here’s what Edward Donnelly said in a sermon on Reformed worship:
“I think we must increasingly urge our fellow Christians to throw away all the crutches and to dare to meet God face to face with no props, with no back up system, to come to God in simple spiritual worship… The truth is this, if God doesn’t meet with us, we have nothing.”
Of course, the other side of this, the encouraging side, is this – If God does come and meet with His people (and He has promised to do so in the way He has appointed), then there is the most wonderful and glorious life and joy to be found in “the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). “Joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1).
So, in conclusion, the New Testament makes clear that the altar we have now is Jesus Christ. The Old Testament altar pointed to the coming Messiah. Now that he has come, not only should we have no altar, but to have one would be offensive to Christ. This principle applies to all distinctly ceremonial elements of worship (Levitical priesthood, sacrifices, feasts, altars, basins, musical instruments etc…).