The Problem with Walls

Ecclesiastes 3:3 states that there is “a time to tear down, and a time to build up.”

Casemate (Wall) and Moat of Fort Monroe. Hampton, Virginia

At first glance this seems trivial, a statement of the obvious. But there is a deep truth within this simple statement. The key point is not knowing about building or tearing down, but knowing what time it is.

The Bible speaks favorably of the leaders who know what time it is. In I Chronicles 12:32, it speaks well of one group.

And of the children of Issachar, there were two hundred chiefs, men who had expert knowledge of the times and what it was best for Israel to do, and all their brothers were under their orders. “


One of the great stories in the Bible was the building of the wall in Jerusalem. The wall had been torn down by the Babylonians decades before. For about 120 years the walls remained torn down. But then along came Nehemiah and recognized that it was time to build up the walls of Jerusalem again. The enemy surrounded them, hemmed them in, even lived among them. It was time to build the wall to protect them from this enemy. They built the wall in just 52 days. It was an amazing accomplishment. If you read Nehemiah chapter 4, you will find an incredible story of how the wall was built. Men and women from all walks of life stopped everything else they were doing to come together to build the wall. They took turns resting for progress to go on continuously, and kept swords nearby to so that the enemy could not stop the work.

There is a time to tear down, and a time to build up.

The wall was expanded and improved over the next few hundred years. The walls became a point of pride with the people, and a structure to give confidence to defy the ruling powers. Around AD30, the church was founded within those same walls of Jerusalem. Approximately 40 years later, Roman legions came to crush a rebellion and tore down the walls. From that day to this, Christ’s church has not had a central home. A church in Charlottesville is no less home than a church in Jerusalem, in Rome, in Uganda, or in the Philippines.

There is a time to build up, and a time to tear down.

Walls have their place. Walls have their function. But walls have problems…

A. Walls are not very effective. Walls are meant to divide. To separate the good guys and the bad guys, US and THEM. Our territory and their territory. But walls aren’t very good at it.

If walls could keep evil away, they certainly would be valuable. But this is rarely true. The Great Wall of China was and is one of the greatest architectural wonders of all time. A big wall too tall for the enemy to go over, too thick for the enemy to go through, to long for the enemy to go around. It should have been the ultimate example of the success of walls, but rather is the ultimate example of the failure of walls.

Many times, invaders made it through this wall and attacked China. The enemy did not have to go over the wall, but they could. They did not have to break through the wall, but they could. They did not even have to go around the wall, although they could. All they had to do was bribe the guards to open the gates, or use subterfuge and open the gates themselves. You see the enemy was not simply on the other side of the wall, the enemy already was inside the wall even before the invaders arrived at the wall. (I have heard different views about this… but it is pretty clear that the Great Wall was not useful enough to justify its cost in money, resources, and human life.)

Watching the news in the Philippines, it seems to me that the US border with Mexico has become a hot topic in recent years. Different politicians talk about building taller and better walls. Set up more sensors and patrols. Yet whatever is done, people flow past the border by the thousands. Walls don’t work very well. There is a fairly simple reason for this. People are smarter than walls. History gives little comfort to those who trust walls.

There is a time to build, and a time to tear down.

B. Walls don’t change as times change. The walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt but most of the city is now outside of the walls. The city kept growing and the walls did not. The Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall in England now are inside the borders of the countries they were originally meant to defend. Territories move but walls don’t . Intramuros is an ancient part of the city of Manila in the Philippines. It is a walled city within a megacity. For centuries the walls were there to allow Spaniards to freely enter as well as Mestizos (those who were half Spaniard). But they were also there to keep those of full Filipino blood outside the walls. After several centuries, times changed and all peoples of the Philippines could come and go. Times changed but the walls remained.

There is a time to build, and a time to tear down.

C. Over time walls tend to become museum pieces… curious artifacts of a curious past. The Great Wall of China has proven a much better tourist attraction than it ever was a wall. On Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, they had a young man go over the wall with a skateboard. Not particularly effective as a wall, but effective way to lure visitors to China. The Berlin Wall is now a piece of Cold War history. Matter of fact, if you want you can go to E-bay and buy a piece of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall has become much more popular once it became useless. Right here in Virginia, you can drive down to Hampton and see Fort Monroe. The old fort has a beautiful wall or casemate, surrounded by a real moat. The wall and moat have no functional value anymore. The fort has expanded beyond the walls and those walls would not stop even the most pathetic military invasion today. The wall has now become a museum, the Casemate Museum. You can walk inside the wall and see a lot of American military history. You can see where the old cannons were. You can see where Jefferson Davis was imprisoned. The walls around Fort Monroe make a great museum… but a lousy wall.

Museums are not so bad. If you want to make museums, it makes sense to build walls and forget to tear them down.

But there is a time to build, and a time to tear down.


Churches like to build walls. We see the evil around us. We fear dangerous teaching, immorality, and evil motives. We say, “We need to protect ourselves from sin and suffering that we see around us. We need to build up walls to ensure that our people, our families, our children are safe.”

You know, I can’t tell you that this is always wrong.

There is a time to tear down and a time to build up.

But the problems that exist in building walls apply to churches.

Walls are not very effective. Walls rarely keep the world out of the church. Often they are actually more effective at keeping the church out of the world. They separate churchmembers from communities. But is that a worthy goal for a church?

Walls don’t change as times change. Walls that churches have built may have made sense at one time. But the world changes. Communities change. Neighborhoods change. Issues change. The walls that were built 40 years ago may not fit any more. Some walls have lost their purpose.

The walls of churches often become museum pieces. Sometimes this is literally true. All over the world there are beautiful church buildings that have been turned into museums, or homes, or restaurants. The great basilica of Saint Sofia in present day Istanbul, was the crowning glory of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was captured by the Turks and turned into a mosque. In the 20th century, it was turned into a museum. If you visit Turkey, you can tour it. The church building is no longer where a church is. It is the empty shell… the husk of what was once a church. The church built beautiful walls and died within them.

Sometimes churches build figurative walls in the community and don’t become museums. The walls they create produce the metal bars of a zoo. These churches, in an attempt to protect themselves from the dangers of the surrounding communities have built high strong cultural walls. Every Sunday the community can watch an odd collection of individuals go into the church wearing strange clothes and doing strange things and leaving a couple of hours later. An odd menagerie of curiosities… perhaps to be investigated by outsiders as anthropologists might investigate the strange behavior and customs of a stone-age tribe. Interesting yes! Inspiriring no…

There is a time to build up, but there is also a time to tear down.

I would like to offer a suggestion. That is…

I believe I know what time it is…


The people of Israel built tall walls to keep the enemy out. That is fine. But that is not what is called of us. As Christ’s church we have different orders. Our order is not to keep the enemy out. We are called up to

  • Be light that is not covered or hidden for the world to see. (Matthew 5:14-16)
  • Be salt that will provide flavor for the whole earth. (Matthew 5:13)
  • Be as lambs going out into the world amongst the wolves. (Matthew 10:16)
  • Be evangelists that go and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-21)

Some suggestions on tearing down walls:

  • Move the church outside of the confines of the church building. Let the world become the walls of the church.
  • Interact with the community. The people in the community. The families in the community. The social and governmental institutions in the community.
  • Discover what their felt needs are.
  • Seek to meet their felt needs AND their real needs.

Do not live in fear. Be strong and courageous. Tear down the walls and boldly go forth into the world and be part of God’s transforming plan.

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