English Español 简体中文 Português
9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Theological Critique of Multi-Site: What Exactly Is a “Church”?

In your mind, what are the necessary elements which must be present for a group of Christians to become a local church? I assume you don’t think that three Christians throwing a Frisbee at the park constitutes a local church. So what would?

What if the three friends leave the park, head down to the local diner, and pray before their meal? Are they a church then? What if they pull out their Bibles and exhort one another? Agree to meet weekly? Serve communion? Make some sort of covenant? Get the local city officials to recognize them as a church with a legal document? Stop meeting in a diner booth and find a building with a steeple? What’s the tipping point between “three Christian friends hanging out” and “three Christians who together constitute a church”?

In short, what constitutes a local church as a church? This is a question raised by the multi-site church phenomenon. The cleanest and simplest argument against multi-site churches, I think, is the semantic argument. Ekklesia means assembly, it’s said, and so one assembly is one church. But operating behind the semantic argument is the slightly more complex theological question of what constitutes a local church as a church.

Though exceptions may exist, multi-site churches generally do not refer to their sites or campuses as “churches.” For instance, Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota, a ministry for which I’m profoundly grateful, refers to its three “campuses” together as a single “church.” Campus A is not a church, or at least they don’t call it that. Campus B is not a church. Campus C is not a church. But campuses A, B, and C together, they say, constitute a church.

Again, this raises the question, what’s the tipping point between a campus (or site) and a church? How come it’s said that the group of Christians gathered at a campus is not a church, while the collection of campuses is a church? After all, all those people gathered together at a campus seem to be doing the sort of churchy stuff which makes a church a church, like singing and serving communion and hearing God’s Word. How come they don’t get to be called “a church”?

In what follows, we’ll first look at the multi-site answer to these questions. Next, we’ll consider the biblical case which multi-site advocates present for multi-site church. Then, I’ll offer an alternative answer to the question of what constitutes the local church, followed by a brief word concerning non-congregationalists. Finally, I’ll draw four conclusions about multi-site churches.

Throughout, I hope the reader trusts that, though I may offer these challenges in the area of church polity, I do praise God for the good gospel work many multi-site churches do for Christ’s kingdom. In fact, I’m typically humbled by their zeal for his work, and hope they will expend some of that zeal on correcting me where it needs to be done.

THE MULTI-SITE DEFINITION OF EKKLESIA

What do multi-site and multi-service advocates say constitute them as “one church”? As far as I can tell, it seems to be something like a common corporate structure. In the book Multi-site Church Revolution, the authors write,

A multi-site church is one church meeting in multiple locations—different rooms on the same campus, different locations in the same region, or in some instances, different cities, states, or nations. A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board (Zondervan, 2006, p. 18; italics mine). 

If I understand the argument correctly, this means that a group of Christians can cross the tipping point from “not a church” to “a church” only once they have a shared vision, budget, and leadership. No doubt, these writers would say that other elements are essential to be a church as well, like the preaching of the Word and the practice of the ordinances. But in addition to the Word and the ordinances, it appears, one needs leadership, a budget, and a corporate structure generally. That’s the necessary implication of saying that the folks gathered at any one location for preaching and the ordinances are not a church and that all the locations together constitute “one church.”

The website of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, says almost the same thing. 

We are a multi-site church. As part of the Treasuring Christ Together Strategy, we aim to multiply campuses. Therefore, from our Downtown Minneapolis campus which was established in 1871, we have launched a North Campus in 2002 and a South Site in 2006. Unlike new church plants, the campuses are all part of Bethlehem with a single vision, a single strategy, a single theological foundation, a single eldership, a single constitution, a single band of missionaries, and a single budget. (reference here; italics mine)

Notice, these are not “new church plants,” that is, not new churches. They are new sites or campuses. Making the case for multiple campuses, Pastor John Piper writes in his blog,

I think the essence of biblical church community and unity hangs on a unity of eldership, a unity of teaching, and a unity of philosophy of ministry. And then, within the church, it hangs on very significant clusters of relationships that are biblically life-giving and involve all of the “one another” commands of the Bible.

Now, Piper uses the phrase “biblical church community and unity.” I hope I’m not being unfair by assuming that what he means is, these are the things that constitute the different services and campuses of Bethlehem as “one church,” namely, a unity of leaders, teaching, and philosophy. He mentions “various clusters of relationships” as well, but it’s hard to see how those apply since, at least in principle, those are separate clusters of relationships—one or more clusters at one campus, more and different clusters at other campuses, and so forth. After all, he’s talking about the relationships which are life-giving, which would mean they are the relationships of people being together and known to one another.

What is a little unclear to me about the multi-site understanding of a church is what role gathering or assembling plays in constituting a church as a church. On the one hand, it seems like a multi-site advocate could say, “Of course a Christian must gather with other Christians. Scripture commands it (Heb. 10:25). And we would say that a Christian must gather at some location or site with other believers. If there were absolutely no one gathering anywhere, we couldn’t have a church.”

On the other hand, strictly speaking, they do seem to take the idea of gathering or assembling out of the definition of a church. Campus A and campus B are not gathered together, plain and simple. But they are still a “church.” In practice, multi-siters do gather, at least separately. But in definition, I think we have to say they’ve taken the assembly out of the ekklesia. At best, there’s a tension here, which is why I say I’m unclear. They can say that Christians have to be gathering together somewhere for a church to exist, but then they’re calling a “church” something which, strictly speaking, is not gathered.

If what I’m saying is correct, then the multi-site definition of ekklesia is not so much “assembly” or “gathering” as it is “leadership,” “ministry philosophy,” or “corporate structure”; or maybe it’s “Christians bound together by a common leadership structure and ministry philosophy, though not necessarily gathered.”

THE BIBLICAL CASE FOR MULTI-SITE

Let’s turn to the biblical discussion for a moment. In their biblical justifications for the multi-site conception of “church,” proponents will generally point to the flexibility of the idea of “church” found in the New Testament. For instance, Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, referring to the churches in the New Testament, write, “the variety of venues there indicates that the early church was quite flexible, meeting and worship in distinctive situations to meet the needs and opportunities of their time” (Vintage Church, Crossway, 2008, 244). Driscoll and Breshears point to “networks of churches scattered throughout a particular city (e.g. Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, and Philippi).”

The problem with this argument is, Paul does not write to a “network of churches.” He writes to the “church” (singular) in the city of Corinth and the “churches” (plural) in the region of Galatia. I’m not sure why these would be lumped together. Driscoll and Breshears also refer to “the churches in the areas of ‘Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia’” (1 Peter 1:1), which they characterize as “linked networks of congregations.” Of course, the text itself refers to “saints,” not “churches.” Either way, I am unable to see a multi-site “church” comprised of various “campuses,” “services,” or “sites” anywhere in this text.

The more compelling scriptural justification given by multi-site advocates comes from references to house churches in Romans and Colossians. So Paul writes Romans to “all those in Rome who are loved by God” (1:7), which must either refer to one church or a network of churches. Then, at the conclusion of the letter, he tells his readers to greet Prisca and Aquila and “the church in their house” (16:5), which might suggest that, if there is one “church” in Rome to whom he’s writing, that one “church” is comprised of many house “churches.” The same thing shows up in the letter to “the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (1:2). Paul later refers to one particular house church (4:15), which in turn seems to be a different house church from the church which met in Philemon’s house, since we know that Philemon also lived in Colossae (Phil. 1:2).

The basic idea here—the argument goes—is that the house church can be referred to as a “church,” while all those networks of churches can also be referred to as “a church,” just like an individual branch of Citibank can be called a “bank” while the corporate aggregation of those banks can also be called a “bank.” And this argument might work if the term for “church” were indeed flexible enough, or if the essential nature of a “church” somehow allowed for it, or if Scripture clearly used it in this way.

It is a little strange to me that multi-site advocates would make this argument from Romans 16:5 and Colossians 4:15 since they don’t actually refer to their different sites or campuses as “churches, the way these two verses explicitly refer to house churches as “churches.” Multi-siters don’t “flex” the word the way they say Scripture does. If the Roman gathering which meets in the house of Prisca and Aquila is a “church,” as Paul says, and if this house church is part of the larger “church” in Rome, why not call each campus or site a church? Furthermore, what theological explanation can be given for how the house church is a church and the city church is a church comprised of multiple churches? What would the difference between the two be? If the house church was really a church, why would they need to gather with the big city church? In short, there’s a lot of explaining which multi-site advocates need to do if they are going to use these two passages as illustrations of their point.

The larger difficulty for this line of argument, however, is that nowhere does Paul refer to the church (singular) of Rome or Colossae, nor does he refer to house “churches” in Jerusalem. Even if there is reason to think he was writing to a single church in Rome or Colossae, as some commentators argue, there’s absolutely no reason to think that said house churches also belong to (or constitute) the single city church. Maybe there is one major church in Rome to whom he’s writing, and maybe Prisca and Aquila happen to have their own little church on the outskirts of the city. Who knows! The point is, the Scriptures do not speak to any of this. It only speaks of “those in Rome loved by God” in chapter 1 and the “church in their house” in chapter 16. Everything else, we might say, we have to make up.

Another place where multi-site advocates look for scriptural warrant is in the book of Acts’ account of the church in Jerusalem. At least two arguments are made here. First, some will say that the church in Jerusalem must have met in different house churches given its size. They could not have all met together. The trouble with this point, of course, is that Acts says that the Jerusalem church did all gather together—all thousands of them (see Acts 2:44; 5:12; 6:1-2).

Second, multi-site advocates will say that the one church in Jerusalem is still considered “one church” even amidst its different gatherings in different houses. The two verses usually cited along these lines both come from Acts:

  • “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they [the Jerusalem church] received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
  • “But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3)

I do confess to having been a little surprised by this argument. Before technology enabled the multi-site church phenomenon, no one ever, so far as I know, read these verses this way. The most natural way to read them, I believe, is to say that the church in Jerusalem is still the “church” even when it’s spread out from house to house. In the same way, I would say a basketball “team” is still a “team” even when its members are spending the night in different hotel rooms or cities. And they are a team in the first place, of course, because they consistently come together and do the things which constitute them as a basketball team. 

Likewise, in Acts 2 the church comes together in the temple to do that which constitutes them as a church, and then it scatters to break bread and share fellowship in smaller groups. They’re constituted as a church not by what they do when they’re scattered, but by what they do when they’re gathered together. Then in Acts 8, we read that Paul goes from house to house persecuting the members of the Jerusalem church. It would be like saying, “The coach went from room to room, alerting the team that basketball game had been postponed.”

There is a key idea here worth recognizing. The word “church” in the New Testament, especially in Acts, does begin to be used to identify the members of a church, even when they are not gathered together and doing churchy things. So when Paul“landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church” (Acts 18:22). Does that mean he just happened to land on Sunday morning and was able to walk into their assembly and say hello? Or does it mean he went around and greeted a number of the church’s members? I assume the latter. The example of Acts 8 is even clearer.

Most of us today use the term “church” in the same way, as when we talk about praying for our “church” throughout the week. We may not be gathered with our church on Tuesday, but we’ll still refer to the church as an existing thing on Tuesday because at this point we’re identifying the church with its members. But can you be a member of a church on Tuesday, and so be a part of the “church,” even if you never gather with the church on Sunday?

Well, in the United States over the last few decades, yes, and in my own denomination, certainly. But in the Bible? This brings us back to the question of what constitutes the local church as a church. When do you cross the tipping point from a group of Christians to a church?

WHAT CONSTITUTES THE CHURCH AS A CHURCH?

What shall we say constitutes a local church on earth? The answer which the Bible gives, I think, is simple and straightforward: a local church is constituted by a group of Christians gathering together bearing Christ's own authority to exercise the power of the keys of binding and loosing. Three things, then, are necessary for a church to be a church: you need Christians, a gathering that bears Christ's authority, and the exercise of that authority in the keys.

Membership in a local church doesn’t make you a Christian. Faith and repentance do. Still, just because Christ has made us Christians, we should not assume that he gives individual Christians the same authority he gives to us corporately. In Matthew 16 and 18, in fact, we see that he grants the apostolic local church (apostles in 16; the local church in 18) the authority of the keys of the kingdom. This is not an authority granted to individual Christians or even to church elders. It’s granted to the church as a whole.

I’m not going to take the time here to both unpack and defend how I interpret the phrase “the keys of the kingdom” for “binding and loosing” (see my biblical and theological argument in the first half of chapter 4 of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love). But Michael Horton provides a tidy definition of the power of the keys, I think, when he writes, “Through preaching, baptism, and admission (or refusal of admission) to the Communion, the keys of the kingdom are exercised” (People and Place, WJK, 2008, p. 243). Similarly, I would say that the church on earth has the power of the keys to preach the gospel and to bind and loose people to that gospel, according to their credible professions of faith (an un-credible profession will result either in refusal of admission or church discipline).

So Jesus authorizes every Christian on earth to represent him and his kingdom authority. But he authorizes the local or institutional church to publicly affirm or deny who should be regarded as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. The local church is authorized to make these public affirmations or denials visible as it gives or withholds baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In that sense, the local church is like the White House press secretary who is formally authorized to declare what the president did or did not say, whereas the average citizen is not so authorized.

What’s interesting, furthermore, is how Scripture refers to the keys and their use through the ordinances in the context of gatherings, and gatherings which are specifically identified with Jesus. Consider the following examples.

Jesus:

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matt. 18:17-20)

Paul:

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit [perhaps meaning, his spirit as an authority-conferring apostle]is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:4-5)

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (1 Cor. 11:18-19)

Notice, first, that these believers are gathering in the name (by the authority) of Christ. In Matthew 18, they will use that authority to exclude an individual. The same is true in 1 Corinthians 5. Then in 1 Corinthians 11, they celebrate the Lord's Supper because they bear that same authority. Indeed, to eat in an unworthy manner is to “profane the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27), because they are doing what they are doing representing him and in his authority.

Second, Christians do comprise “a church” such that we are a church whether together or apart, just like a team is a team whether together or apart. This is a matter of identity, as we said earlier. But Paul can also use the term “church” a little more precisely and even institutionally, as he does in 1 Corinthians 11. He speaks of gathering “as a church” in a manner that we Christians are not “the church” or at least “a church,” apparently, when we are not gathered. In other words, this formal gathering has an existence and an authority that none of us has separately. It's like Paul is saying, "When you gather together as a team, play well." He's no longer speaking just in terms of identity; he's speaking technically in terms of what constitutes a team, or a church. It's the whole gathering which constitutes the church. You can't be a church if you don't gather and gather bearing his authority to exercise the power of the keys.

Missional and Communio authors understandably react against institutionalism in churches. Yet their critique of church as a place, an event, or a set of activities misses the distinction between a local church and a group of Christians gathered at the park. They miss the fact that Christ established an earthly organization with the formal authority to declare who does and does not belong to him, and the members of this organization don't have the authority to use the company credit card whenever and however they please. When can members use it? They can use it whenever they have formally gathered together in his name and the Spirit of Christ is present through Word and ordinance (cf. Acts 4:31, 6:2, 14:27; 15:30; 20:7). This is what both Jesus and Paul say.

NOT JUST CONGREGATIONALISTS

It's not only congregationalists who have historically seen the necessity of a gathering for a church to be a church. The nineteenth article of the Anglican 39 Articles reads, "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same." Article 7 of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession similarly reads, "The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered."

Portions of the argument being made here, in other words, are congregational. But the overall gist of what I'm saying is not. That's why the multi-site church offers us something relatively unique in the history of the church. Yes, there may be odd circumstances here or there whereby a group of people decided to call multiple gatherings one church. But whether we're talking early and medieval episcopalian structures, Reformation Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian structures, and certainly free church structures all along the way, just about everyone has referred to different gatherings as different churches, not different sites or services.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR THE MULTI-SITE AND MULTI-SERVICE CHURCH

What then shall we make of the multi-site church? I see four lessons.

1. Not a Church, but Multiple Churches. First, the multi-site church which never gathers all together simply is not a church, because gathering is one element constitutes a church. Instead, it’s an association of several churches—as many churches as there are campuses and sites. And in case it’s not clear, I thank God for the work of each one of those separate churches, as well as for my partnership in the gospel with all of them!  

Now, some multi-site churches do gather all their sites together three or four times a year. What do we make of that? Well, if in their separate weekly gatherings, each separate gathering is exercising the power of the keys through preaching and the ordinances, thereby binding and loosing people to themselves, then those separate gatherings are churches. When this is the case, then the quarterly gathering of all those churches is…I don't know…something else—probably an assembly of churches, who can then be said to be usurping the power of the keys insofar as they exercise them in that larger assembly.

If, on the other hand, those separate weekly gatherings preach the Word, but never take the ordinances, because they reserve baptism, the Lord's Supper, admission, and discipline for the quarterly meeting, then maybe there's some technical sense in which the quarterly gathering is a church. But then the whole thing strikes me as fairly anemic, not to mention disobedient, at least by their own rationale, since the New Testament seems to suggest that a church should gather weekly, not quarterly. Also, if exercising the power of the keys means affirming credible professions of faith, and preventing and excluding fraudulent professions of faith, how meaningfully can a church who meets four times a year do this? And can it do it with integrity since members of the different campuses, by design, cannot know one another?

Finally, notice that exercising the power of the keys in large quarterly meetings means that the exercise of the keys, to some extent, will be separated from the ministry of the Word. In other words, if my campus is being shaped by one preacher of the Word, and another campus is being shaped by another preacher of the Word, the quarterly gatherings of all our campuses as a "church" will be undertaking some of a church's most sensitive work, like church discipline or elder nomination, we won't quite share the "one mind" that a single service, single-campus church has by sitting under one preacher together week after week. 

2. Usurping the Keys. Second, insofar as different sites or services (that is, different churches) do exercise the power of the keys over one another, they are guilty of usurpation. If it's two or three gathered in his name who know Christ's presence and authority, what should we make of another gathering or body which then imposes itself on the first gathering? It seems to me that they are trespassing in a place they do not belong. Since the congregation's own apostolic authority is itself premised, I believe, on the priesthood of all believers, any group (whether another congregation, a body of elders, a bishop, or a corporate structure) which imposes itself on an assembly of believers is guilty of wrongly standing between a believer and God. Admittedly, this particular critique is a congregationalist's critique.

3.Giving the Leaders Apostolic Authority. The church's power of the keys is an apostolic power. It's the power to bind and loose, and it's effectual. For instance, a church which disciplines an individual effectually accomplishes the intended end. Its action does not depend upon the individual's consent. On the other hand, an elder's biblical authority, as I understand it, is not apostolic and not effectual. Neither an elder nor the elders are given unilateral authority in the Scriptures to include individuals in or discipline individuals from the church. To use the older terms, the church has the authority of command, while the elders only have the authority of counsel. One of the reasons for this difference lies with the fact that a gathering is of the esse (essence) of the church, while the elders are only of the bene esse (benefit) of the church.

Another way of stating critique 2 above (usurpation) is to say that a multi-site church effectively places the apostolic power of the keys, not in the hands of the church, but in the hands of the leadership. Listen to Piper again:

I think the essence of biblical church community and unity hangs on a unity of eldership, a unity of teaching, and a unity of philosophy of ministry. And then, within the church, it hangs on very significant clusters of relationships that are biblically life-giving and involve all of the "one another" commands of the Bible.

Piper's argument works if he wants to invest the elders of his congregation with apostolic authority. The "significant clusters of relationships" aren't doing any work here since those relationships are divided among different assemblies or services. No, the unifying force here is the elders and the overall corporate structure. The elders and their corporate structure are the common factor which all the assemblies uniquely share. (But don't they all share the gospel as well? Yes, but so does every other true church in the world. It's the corporate structure here which is making their “church” the Bethlehem “church.”) And since it's the elders and their program which constitute this "church," it's the elders who are now of an apostolic status. They have inserted themselves into the church's esse. This, I believe, is what every multi-site church has effectively done.

4. Multiple services? A thoughtful reader will have noticed that what I’m contesting about multiple campuses applies equally to multiple-services. In effect, there is no substantive difference between multi-site and multi-service. One spreads the congregations out geographically; the other spreads them out chronologically. It’s hardly surprising then that, after several decades of employing multiple services, church leaders would take the next step and promote multiple sites.

Am I saying that a multiple-service church is not a church? Correct. I’m saying that if you are pastoring a church with two services, you are in fact pastoring two churches. Those churches may well be twins because you’re pastoring both, but they are different ekklesias.  The funny thing is, a number of multi-service pastors with whom I’ve spoken will sheepishly admit that it often “feels” that way.

CONCLUSIONS

The advocates of multi-site and multi-service churches often respond to critiques against them by observing that church members cannot all know one another once a church reaches a certain size, so dividing up a church between services or sites does nothing to hurt church community that size hasn't already. Besides, the church in Jerusalem was really large.

But what I'm arguing here is that a particular church on earth is not constituted simply by relationships or fellowship. It's constituted by Christ's authority, exercised and given to a gathering. Therefore, this particular argument misses the point of what constitutes the church. A regular gathering of 20,000 people, gathered for preaching and the celebration of the ordinances, is in principle a church in a way that two services of 10 persons a piece who all know one another is not.

Now, I readily admit that that a twenty thousand member congregation will have difficulty exercising the power of the keys responsibly and with integrity, just like the "church" that meets four times a year. In fact, I'm even willing to say that a point can come in which a single gathering does fail to fulfill what Jesus intends for the church to do in Matthew 16 and 18, because twenty thousand people who meet once a week in a stadium are probably going to fail to exercise the keys with any integrity. Sure enough, we see massive disputes cropping up in the Jerusalem church by the time we reach chapter 6 that required new solutions. A large church can be just as negligent in practice as the multi-campus is in principle.

But there's the point. The multi-campus church in principle can no longer fulfill Jesus' Matthew 16 intention because the members of each campus are simply not gathered. The irony, of course, is that multi-siters are taking what we can see in the New Testament (very large churches) to claim that what we can't see (a multi-site church) exists. In so doing, they miss what the New Testament says constitutes a church—both on earth and in heaven.

Jonathan Leeman is director of communications for 9Marks and the author of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love (Crossway, 2010).

May/June 2009
©9Marks

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: ©9Marks. Website: www.9Marks.org. Email: info@9marks.org. Toll Free: (888) 543-1030.

Topics: Multi Site