A Non-assembled Assembly

Gregg Allison recently posted on the topic of multi-site churches. Honestly, I hesitate to say anything at all because
(i) we all agree that this issue is not the most important one in the world,
(ii) we’re clearly united in the most important issues, and
(iii) I’m a Dr. Allison fan.
I remember showing up on his front porch one evening at 10 p.m. to hand in a paper for the doctrine of Scripture class that I was taking from him. He was extremely kind and acted like what I was doing was not deeply presumptuous. He’s a gracious man. If you ever have the opportunity to take a class from him, I expect you’ll enjoy it and be challenged. He’s especially good at seeing both sides of an issue, and provoking you to think about both sides before defending your position. He’s that way in conversation, too. He’s an excellent interlocutor.

I do come down in a different place than he does on this issue, and I expect it will serve churches to think about the issue a bit further. So I’m grateful for his challenge. It helps us all think more carefully together. Let me try doing that with 6 points.
1) What Allison calls a “methodological error”: He says “we do not define a concept by defining a word.” For instance, the word “salvation” in the NT is much more than “deliverance than danger.” True, the NT concept of “salvation” is more than a dictionary definition of the word. But it’s not less. Would you ever use the word “salvation” that didn’t include some type of deliverance from some type of danger? In the same way, a church is more than assembly, but it’s not less. Allison is right to say that we should not restrict the definition of a concept to any one dictionary definition. But can we really define a concept by completely emptying a word of its dictionary meaning, as if to say, “The word ‘assembly’ in the New Testament does not actually require an assembly. Same with salvation–it doesn’t actually require a salvation”? Wouldn’t that make the “church” a non-assembled assembly? That sounds to me like a non-saving salvation. Neither would be good for much.
2) What Allison calls a “lexical error”: He says that “saying that the word ekklesia means ‘assembly’ commits a lexical error” since the word is used in the New Testament in places where no assembly is present, such as Acts 8:3: “But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged men and women…” Allison’s surely right to observe that the word “church” in a text like this one refers to the church scattered, not gathered. But the multi-site argument actually requires something more. It requires one to say that a church can be a church even if the sites never gather (again, an assembly that never actually assembles). As I look at the text, I would say that the word “church” is used like the word “team.” A basketball team (meaning the members of the team) can be gathered or they can be scattered. But the point is, they aren’t a team if they never actually gather. The gathering is one aspect of what constitutes a team as a team and a church as a church.
3) An implication of Allison’s view? If we really remove the concept of a gathering from ekklesia, why then do I need to gather with a church at all in order to belong to a church? Advocates of the multi-site model reply to this argument by saying, “We’re not denying that a Christian has to gather with some gathering,” but now it seems they are giving with their left hand what they’ve taken away with their right. On the one hand, they say that the different sites never have to gather and can still be a church (an assembly that never assembles). On the other hand, they say that individuals do in fact have to assemble, as if to say the word “church” does require an assembly after all. So is an assembly a requisite aspect of a local church? If not, why then do we ever need to assemble? I don’t want to unfairly represent Allison’s view here, but this is one question I would want to chase down with him. This is what it looks like: for multi-siters, the definition of “church” does include the idea of gathering for individuals, but the word does not include it for groups of individuals or sites. In other words, the definition of “church” has become a self-contradiction: it both does and does not mean “assembly.” As I say, it’s a non-assembled assembly.
4) In the Bible, the term “church” always has some assembly in view. If you agree (as I do) with Peter O’Brien that the universal church is a “heavenly and eschatalogical assembly” (see O’Brien’s essay in D. A. Carson ed., The Church in the Bible and the World), as Hebrews 12:23 seems to teach, it would seem that you could say there are no places in the New Testament where the word “church” is used without some connection to an assembly. That is to say, an assembly (among other things) is always necessary to constitute a church as a church (again, like the word “team”). The only possible exception I’m aware of is Acts 9:31, but here I would defer to F. F. Bruce’s observation that this is probably a reference to the Jerusalem church now scattered throughout these regions (it’s the first time the word “church” is used since Acts 8:3).
5) Allison’s translation of kata:  Allison translates the preposition kata in Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, and Philemon 2 as “distributed into.” Hence, Romans 16:5, for instance, would read “Greet also the church distributed into their house.” That would make it the equivalent of saying, “Greet also the church distributed into the South Campus.” The thing is, when BDAG lists Rom. 16:5 and 1 Cor. 16:19 in the section on kata, it translates “kata” simply as “in,” as every translation I’ve looked at does. Further, I don’t quite see any definition of kata in BDAG that works precisely the same way Allison is saying it does. But perhaps if we were looking at it together, he could explain what I’m missing. I guess the larger question I would have is, what would exegetically compel one to translate the preposition here in this way? Isn’t the more natural reading “in”? Isn’t that why most (all?) major translations have rendered it in this direction?
6) Multi-site in Corinth? Dr. Allison believes the textual evidence points to a multi-site church in Corinth. Paul clearly refers to “the church in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1), and in Romans 16:23 he refers to Gaius who is “host to me and to the whole church” (Rom. 16:23). If Paul is indeed writing the Romans from Corinth, then it would seem that the church in Corinth does meet in Gaius’ house. So far so good. But then Allison refers to four other gatherings in Corinth. He specifically lists ones meeting in the homes of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:19), Titius Justus (Acts 18:7), Crispus (Acts 18:8), and Stephanus (1 Cor. 16:15). The trouble is, the latter three texts don’t mention the word “church,” and the first text is referring to Aquila and Priscilla sending greetings to Corinth, not from Corinth. Paul originally met A&P in Corinth (Acts 18:2), it’s true, but they left Corinth with Paul (Acts 18:18), and eventually seemed to plant themselves in Ephesus for at least a time (Acts 18:26), which is where Paul wrote the Corinthians letter from. Hence, he sends their greetings. Bottom line: I simply do not see evidence for a multi-site church in Corinth.
I’m happy for push back here, friends. I hope I can be half as gracious as Dr. Allison has always been with me.
In case you missed it, 9Marks published an entire eJournal devoted to the topic of multi-site.
  • Dr. Allison presented a longer argument for it here.
  • I presented a longer argument against it here.
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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