The History of Church Seating

Carol BarnierIt's happening again. Another local church is talking about ditching the traditional pews in favor of something more plush and comfortable. I really feel uneasy about this. I'm pretty sure I read somewhere in Leviticus a warning about the ungodliness of a relaxed posterior and the slippery slope of comfortable worship. In fact, I've always believed that when Noah descended from the Ark, right after he kissed the ground and gave thanks, God handed him another set of plans for turning those spent boat planks into splintery, uncomfortable seats of holiness to be placed at all the sweltering hot outdoor summer revival meetings I attended as a child. The backs of my legs still bear the imprint of the wooden slats. Through the first eleven years of my life, I thought this is what was meant when the Bible says that God will put His mark on you.

Amazingly, the idea of sitting in church didn't even emerge until the Reformation. It's true! Up till that time, those poor German peasants worked hard all week long and then went to church on the day of rest to do what? STAND and listen to a sermon in a language they didn't even speak. You may not have known this, but when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, thesis number 58 was, "It's time to let us sit down in church, for crying out loud!"

It seems odd that the stand-at-church practice ever came into being in the first place. After all, the earliest churches were in people's homes. No cathedrals, no stained glass, no gymnasiums for the athletic outreach program. (Actually ... they considered an athletic program, but during the gladiator period, this required equipment that was beyond the budget abilities [and strength of stomach] of most home churches.) Nope, there were virtually no buildings of any sort. Admittedly, it's kind of hard to build big impressive structures when you're on the run from Saul and his little band of stone throwers. That's why archaeological sites only find foundations. They never got the chance to build the wall.

The separate seating of men and women was also a common practice for centuries, both in the Old and New Testament days. It's even practiced in some places today. Folks upholding this practice will tell you that there are many unexpected benefits to this arrangement. No single or widowed member would be ever again feel isolated. Teens would gather round and greet the elderly matron, perhaps even sitting with her during the service. A recently widowed gentleman would not be suddenly sitting alone, but rather would continue to be surrounded by the fellowship of his band of brothers. And, of course, the distractibility of courting couples would be minimized by the geographic separation. But, by far, my favorite of the reasons offered by these separate supporters was that, when speaking of sins more at home in one sex over the other, the pastor no longer had to cast his glance about the room like a tennis match judge, finding the faces for whom the message applied. They were all pooled together in one neat little package. Really. That's what they said. I'm not sure about this, but it does explain why my pastor wears a neck brace the day after a sermon on pride.

In some churches, you'll see kneelers. These little flip-down steps of wonder were put in place for the ease of congregants whose church liturgies involved more and more kneeling. No such devices can be found in the earliest church structures. That's because the preferred submission position was prostrate (face down, flat on the ground) and the early church architects felt a flip down panel accommodating this practice would require too much space between the pews. Besides, early attempts of this device revealed a flaw that sometimes catapulted would-be supplicants up and over the altar.

Kneeling became the preferred method of humility. However, for quite some time, congregations needed no such kneelers. They were of hardier stock and found the cold solid stone against their knees refreshing. But, then the Church Potluck was introduced and folks began having problems with the getting-back-up part. Enter the kneelers. Followed by revised kneelers not quite so close to the ground. Then, the padded kneelers. Then, the intricately needle-pointed padded kneelers. I think heated gel pads and a lift ticket are the next obvious mutation.

Now, seating is becoming more and more like expensive theatrical events. Stain resistant. Deeply cushioned. Padded armrests. Sometimes, even with cup holders. I fully expect this trend toward more technology will eventually include an electronic circuitry panel embedded into the backs of the seats in front of us allowing us to provide constant assessment and feedback of the pastor's efforts.

My current level of interest ... hmmm ... my mind did wander just a bit there. I'll give him a four. Clearly, he's trying. But that passage about Cain and Abel could have used a bit more action and drama. A video clip would have been nice. Well, maybe just a three then.

I'm thinking we've got this backwards. The technology should be on the side of the preacher. If we begin to whisper and be distracted or start nodding off, he would have several buttons of wonder at his disposal. First offense, the chair simply vibrates — sort of a you've-been-warned sensation. The second option would be sort of an elevator that lifts you up over the crowd a good three feet, so that others will know of your transgressions. For the really offensive congregants or those who've completely gone to sleep, I'm thinking a really mild tazer is in order. You know what they say. If you laid all the sleepers in church end-to-end along the pews ... they'd be a lot more comfortable.

I fear for this dangerous direction. This inevitable progression of technology and comfort should probably be nipped in the bud right now. All these concerns have motivated me to form a protest group to bring back the spartan environment of the early church. We're still working on a name for our organization, but we've got our slogan all figured out. "Superior holiness can be yours through better seating." God's judgment of our devotion might just be on the line. After all, the mark of God is most definitely not the imprint of a lovely-hued stain-repellent polyester weave.

Article copyright © 2010, Carol Barnier.
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Carol L. Barnier is a fresh, fun and popular conference speaker who strives to have the wit of Erma Bombeck crossed wih the depth of C.S. Lewis, but admits that on most days, she only achieves a solid Lucy Ricardo with a bit of Bob the Tomato. She is also the author of three books, mother to three children, wife to one husband, and daughter to one very patient pastor father. Learn more at