The architecture of churches is much more symbolic than most people would believe. Great basilicas were built as upside-down ships or arks with the ribs showing through. Indeed, the central room in the church is rightly called the nave, a Middle English word related to the navy. Some cathedrals were built in the shape of crosses and stained glass windows were added with the intent of providing picture stories for the people, most of whom were illiterate.
Today there are still vestiges of such symbolic architecture. Many churches have seven windows on each side of the nave, numbers some consider “holy.” Churches with raised platforms in front often have three steps or three levels representing the Trinity. And so on.
And then there’s the pulpit.
Before the church had pulpits there were—scrolls. In Jesus’ day, the synagogues and the Temple had collections of scriptural scrolls. We read in Luke that when Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah he “stood up to read” (4.16). Then when he had finished reading he “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down” (Luke 4.20). These scrolls were large and bulky, so when the scriptures were read it was the custom for the reader to stand before the crowd. Although it may also be said that the reader stood in reverence, there was a practical reason as well. When the reader finished their reading, custom dictated that they sit as they began to expound upon the scriptures (cf., Luke 4.21).
We don’t really know how long this custom remained in Christianity, since for over a hundred years Christians generally met in homes; however, by the third century we read of a change. Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, writes a letter where he makes a reference to his pulpitum. It seems fairly clear, by the context of the letter, that this area was not a pulpit as we understand it, but was most likely a raised platform where the clergy sat. Indeed, this platform symbolized the elevation of those who had been ordained by the Church as clergy over the crowds who were just “laity.”
In the fourth century we begin to see references to the ambo. The ambo was a small table from which the scriptures were read and the sermon was often preached. When the famous “Golden Tongued” Chrysostom preached (ca. 347-407), he either sat at the ambo or stood in “the preacher’s usual place,” which was on the platform in front of the church (Dargan, Vol. 1, 88). The ambo was placed front and center of the meeting place. By the ninth century the little table had become a pulpit as we know it today, but relocated to one side of the church and regularly elevated high above the people.
The elevation of the pulpit seems to symbolize the elevated stature of the scriptures, not of the preacher. Indeed, the movement of the pulpit to the side was a move to show that the emphasis was less on the spoken word of the clergy, and more on liturgical events, such as the celebration of communion/the Eucharist which were held at center stage.
Beginning in 1517 and the Protestant Reformation, the church renewed its emphasis on scripture, the spoken word, and the sermon. In doing so, the pulpit was relocated, this time to a place of prominence at the center of the platform to symbolize the centrality of the spoken word.
In defense of the pulpit, which has often been viewed as a symbol of authority, one of its early purposes was rather noble. The pulpit’s size and its accompanying ornate carvings were meant to minimize the presence of the minister who stood behind it. This was so that the reading of scripture and the explanations were received not as if they came from the speaker, but as if they came from God above. The emphasis was on the Word, not the speaker. Alas, many ministers of the past, and of the present, have used the pulpit’s authority to flaunt their own agendas—agendas that are often contrary to the teachings of Jesus who said there was nothing more important than loving God and loving others (and who never once spoke a word of condemnation or judgment to those outside of the fold).
Today many ministers are abandoning their pulpits
and getting back to the ancient habit of walking
among the people as they speak, just as Jesus did. Oh,
the pulpit may remain in the background holding their
notes, their hymnal, and the scriptures, but it has
lost much of its prominence. I’m not sure
this is such a bad thing, since that which separate
clergy from laity need to be set aside. But
as a pastor who goes pulpit-less, there’s something
mighty comforting about having something to lean
on Sunday mornings.