Exegetical Critique of Multi-Site: Disassembling the Church?
Praise God for our brothers and sisters in multi-site churches who are reaching their communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ! Assenters and dissenters to this approach alike should be able to say with Paul, “What then? Only that . . . Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18).
But the fact that Paul’s primary goal was to see the gospel proclaimed does not mean he cared nothing for how a church is structured. Church structure may be secondary, but it remains important and a matter addressed in the Scriptures, which therefore requires Christian obedience.
The following critiques address what I believe is the most significant problem with a multi-site church structure—the belief that a Christian organization may be properly called an ekklesia (church), even though the believers who constitute it assemble in different places. This essay provides an exegetical critique of that claim.
CRITIQUE 1: EKKLESIA DENOTES AN ASSEMBLY
The word ekklesia denotes a literal assembly. Therefore, it should not be used to designate a body of Christians who are not characterized by literally assembling together in the same place.
This is true of the word’s use in the Septuagint as well as in secular contexts in the New Testament, such as in Acts 19:32, 39, and 40, where an actual gathered assembly is obviously in view. Unless evidence can be provided to the contrary, we should assume that when the word refers to the church in the New Testament, its meaning is the same as when it is used in the Septuagint and in secular contexts in the New Testament.
In fact, the only development that occurs in the New Testament with the word ekklesia is that the authors begin to use the term to refer to Christ’s heavenly-eschatological assembly, and possibly a use that refers to the church as an institution in the abstract. But even this heavenly-eschatological assembly refers to a literal assembly, as I will argue below. And any reference to the institution in the abstract (e.g., Acts 9:31) hardly implies that the particular manifestations of the institution are anything less than actual, concrete assemblies. In fact, since all other uses of ekklesia are concrete, one should assume that a particular expression of the church is capable of being referred to as an ekklesia because its members are characterized by actually assembling together. Thus, even the possible non-literal (or abstract) use of the word would not be grounds for structuring a church in such a way that the members do not regularly, physically assemble, as multi-site structure does.
CRITIQUE 2: EPI TO AUTO MEANS “IN THE SAME PLACE”
Further exegetical evidence that an ekklesia refers to a body of Christians literally assembled together is seen in instances in which the phrase epi to auto is used in conjunction with ekklesia.
The phrase epi to auto means “in the same place,” and is used to describe the local church gathering in both 1 Corinthians and Acts, the two biblical books that devote the most attention to the nature and life of the local church. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul implies that it is the act of gathering in the same place that enables a body of Christians to be labeled an ekklesia. He states that when the believers in Corinth “come together as a church [ekklesia]” (v. 18), they are “meeting together in the same place [epi to auto]” (v. 20, my translation). Again, in 14:23, it is “the whole church [ekklesia]” that “comes together in the same place [epi to auto]” (my translation).
Thus, the claim by some proponents of the multi-site model that “Corinth and other first-century churches were multi-site, as a number of multi-site house churches were considered to be part of one citywide church,” clearly does not measure up to the evidence. In regard to passages such as Acts 2:46 (“breaking bread from house to house”) as well as the several references to “house-churches” (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2), it should be noted that the former instance by no means supports a “one church in many locations” model, especially since verse 44 states that they were also meeting “in the same place” (epi to auto, my translation). Rather, it simply states that they broke bread together in various homes. In the instance of house-churches, it is significant that these are always considered “churches” and not mere “campuses,” “sites,” or any other word denoting a portion of a church. A citywide church consisting of multiple house-churches is not in view in Corinth and is never mentioned in Scripture.
Instances in Acts in which the whole church in a particular geographic location is designated as having come together in the same place by the phrase epi to auto include 1:15, 2:1, and 2:44. The latter two instances make it even more explicit that the entire church was in the same place by noting that “all” (pantes) were “in the same place” (epi to auto). Acts 5:12 and 15:22 are other instances in which “all” (pantes) or the “whole” (holç) church in Jerusalem met together. Acts 14:27 and 15:30 reveal that there were times when the whole church in Antioch met together as well. These latter instances are probably not references to regular Lord’s Day assemblies, but they do show that the whole congregation in this city was capable of coming together in the same location.
The ease and frequency with which Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the book of Acts speak of one church coming together “in the same place” suggests that this was the common practice of a New Testament ekklesia.
Some might object that all the members of a particular church in the New Testament would not have been able to fit together in the same place due to space limitations, but this is an argument from silence that it is contrary to the explicit scriptural examples given above. The text says that whole churches met together in one place, whether in a house or not. Besides, this objection contradicts the plain evidence of the text, at least for the church in Jerusalem, which we know numbered in the thousands and still managed to meet together:
- “And all those who had believed were together” (Acts 2:44).
- “And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico” (Acts 5:12).
- “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number . . . the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples” (ESV, Acts 6:1-2).
CRITIQUE 3: EACH EKKLESIA MANIFESTS THE HEAVENLY ASSEMBLY
Each ekklesia is a full-fledged, self-contained earthly manifestation of the heavenly-eschatological assembly. A local congregation should not, therefore, be subject to the governmental authority of another manifestation of the same reality unless explicit scriptural warrant is given for such a practice.
In Christ, there is really only one church, one assembly. This is so because all of those in Christ are assembled in the heavenly places even now. Thus, Ephesians speaks of the church as all those who are currently alive with Christ, raised up with him, and seated with him “in the heavenly places” (2:7). Likewise, Colossians speaks of Christ as the head of the body, the church (1:18) in a context that, as Peter T. O’Brien notes, “is moving on a heavenly plain.” The book of Hebrews makes some of the most instructive statements in this regard. In chapter twelve, “the general assembly and church of the firstborn” (v. 23) is associated with “the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22). Ultimately, then, the church is a heavenly-eschatological reality that is gathered in one location—around Christ in the heavenlies. It’s therefore not correct to say that the biblical use of ekklesia to refer to the universal church demonstrates a use of the term to refer to something other than an assembly.
The fact that each of the multiple congregations on earth is called an assembly (ekklesia) suggests that, as K. L. Schmidt notes, “Each community, however small, represents the total community, the Church.” Thus, for example, as Schmidt goes on to say, the phrase “te ekklesia . . . te ouse en Korintho” in 1 Cor. 1:2 should not be rendered, “‘the Corinthian congregation,’ which would stand side by side with the Roman etc., but ‘the congregation, church, assembly [i.e., the heavenly-eschatological assembly in Christ], as it is in Corinth.'” In this way, each earthly assembly should be viewed as a manifestation of the ultimate heavenly reality. No particular earthly assembly is in need of any other particular earthly assembly or campus or site to fill up what might be lacking in its status as a full-fledged, self-contained earthly manifestation of the heavenly-eschatological assembly. Thus, what proponents of multi-site church structures consider a site or campus that is still part of a church, the Bible considers a church in itself.
EXEGETICALLY OUT OF BOUNDS
In light of the exegetical evidence above, the multi-site church structure is outside the bounds of the New Testament’s teaching on the local church in at least two ways. First, it violates the biblical understanding of church as assembly (see points one and two above) by considering a group of believers a church even though they never actually assemble. Second, it violates the biblical understanding of a particular local assembly as a full-fledged manifestation of the one heavenly assembly (see point three above) by not considering each local assembly a church in and of itself, and by subjugating local assemblies to the governmental authority of other local assemblies without biblical warrant for such a practice. Simply put, multiple sites equal multiple churches, and churches should be self-governing.
Because multiple sites equal multiple churches there is actually no such thing as a multi-site church. There are simply multi-church groups or associations that are connected under one governing structure and that have chosen to call themselves a multi-site church. In this way, multi-site church structure is nothing new. It is simply connectionalism, and it has been around for generations.
It is my hunch that this confusion in terms—namely, calling something a multi-site church when it is in reality an association of multiple churches united under one governing structure—is the reason this model has been able to fly under the radar of congregationalists for the past twenty to thirty years. If the multi-site structure could be described to any number of congregationalists from the past, they would recognize it as something very similar to something in between presbyterian or episcopalian connectionalism, depending on the exact model of the multi-site church (one pastor only on video? different campus pastors?). But since many congregationalists lost interest in ecclesiology in the twentieth century, and are only now seeming to regain an interest in it, contemporary congregationalists have been unable to spot connectionalism when they see it; especially when it is given a misleading name.
Connectionalism has historically proven to offer a slippery slope toward liberalism. The history of connectionalism (as seen for example in Catholicism, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church U. S. A.) is not exactly a history worth repeating. In a top-down approach, when the top turns sour, it is only a matter of time before the majority of the bottom does as well.
When congregational churches go liberal, the damage is contained. Notice also the difference between the connectional model and the cooperation model. When the executive committees and the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention became liberal, the local churches which remained conservative were able to assert a conservative resurgence in the latter half of the twentieth century since the local churches controlled the executive committee and not the other way around. Multi-site leaders should seriously consider this lesson from history before continuing with this model, and others should do the same before buying into it.
In view of the fact that multi-site churches are outside the bounds of Scripture, why not plant churches and maintain close cooperation with an associational type of model? This practice has the potential to preserve many of the “benefits” of the multi-site approach, while simultaneously respecting the biblical nature of the local church as assembly. Multi-site churches could move toward turning each site into a church plant, and form, if they desire, their own association of churches that are bound not by church-governmental authority but by voluntary submission to a statement of faith and code of conduct. This might not provide the same level of control that a pastoral staff has in a multi-site situation, but it does have the advantage of (i) preserving the biblical teaching of the church as assembly, (ii) avoiding the slippery slope toward liberalism characteristic of connectionalism, (iii) guarding a church from being driven by pragmatism, and (iv) providing the same benefits which the proponents of the multi-site model seek.
In conclusion, while we should be thankful for the gospel work that goes on in multi-site churches, it still seems right to this congregationalist to view the local church as one assembly in one location.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the NASB, updated edition.
- A fact that most scholars acknowledge. See for instance K. L. Schmidt, “ekklesia,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 527, who writes, “In the LXX ekklesia is a wholly secular term; it means ‘assembly, whether in the sense of assembling or of those assembled.” All Greek words appearing in titles and quotations from other works have been transliterated .
- Because the meaning of a word is determined by its use, words often have a range of meanings. Therefore, ekklesia could in principle be used in other ways. One of the arguments I will make in this article, however, is that there is no use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament that does not have the idea of an actual assembly in view, whether the reference is to a gathering at a specific moment in time, an institution in the abstract the particular manifestations of which are characterized by concrete assembling, or the heavenly-eschatological assembly in Christ.
- I say “possibly” because these instances might actually be cases of the heavenly-eschatological usage.
- Similarly, one can speak of the institution of the family in a way that abstracts the concept from its particular manifestations for the sake of making a generalized statement, such as, “The family is devalued in contemporary American society.” Particular manifestations of the institution of the family, however, are concrete; they are made up of actual parents and children. In the same way, the institution of the church (the assembly) is made up of actual assemblies.
- So Everett Ferguson, “‘When You Come Together: Epi To Auto in Early Christian Literature,” Restoration Quarterly 16 (1973): 202-08; BDAG, 363, who gives this construction as one of three categories of the use of epi, “answering the question ‘where?”; W. Köhler, “epi,” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 22, who categorizes this construction as “Local.” Ferguson notes that this is also the way the phrase is used by the Apostolic Fathers. He writes that when the Apostolic Fathers use epi to auto in the context of church life the phrase always refers “to the public or common assembly of the church.” He goes on to state, “We might appropriately translate epi to auto in every case ‘in the assembly. Thus instead of a more general reference to unity or fellowship, there is a more specific reference to a definite expression of that unity: the assembly of the church, more particularly the worship assembly of the church” (“When You Come Together,” 206; emphasis added).
- For justification for translating epi to auto “in the same place,” see previous footnote.
- Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird, The Multi-Site Church Revolution: Being One Church…in Many Locations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 17; referring to an observation by Aubrey Malphurs in Aubrey Malphurs, Being Leaders: The Nature of Authentic Christian Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 22-26.
- This is not to rule out the likelihood that members of a particular church might come together in various places for any number of reasons (e.g., Acts 2:46), but is to say that when they “came together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18) it was “in the same place” (v. 20; 14:23, my translation).
- In light of the fact that the church in Corinth clearly came together in one location, Gordon Fee writes, “Given the limitations of size in even the most commodious of well-to-do homes, does this imply that the church was somewhat smaller than we might tend to think? Or is it possible that one of the houses was considerably larger than archeology has uncovered in Corinth to this point? We simply do not know” (Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, vol. 43, pt. 1, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], 683-84). David Balch argues that in the first century there were houses, shops, and other indoor spaces that “could have accommodated numbers far greater than 40 persons” (David Balch, “Rich Pompeiian Houses, Shops for Rent, and the Huge Apartment Building in Herculaneum as Typical Spaces for Pauline House Churches,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27.1 : 41). See also the insightful comment of C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Blacks New Testament Commentaries, ed. Henry Chadwick (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1968), 326, who states, “There is no reason, further, to suppose that these meetings always took place indoors.” According to Rom. 16:23, Gaius was host to Paul in Corinth and “the whole church [holes tes ekklesias].” Tom Schreiner holds that “ekklesia here represents the local church and that Gaius provided a place for the meeting of the entire assembly.” He goes on to say that “Gaius was obviously a man of some wealth to support the church in this way” (Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998], 808).
- On the church as ultimately a heavenly-eschatological assembly see Peter T. OBrien, “The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity,” in The Church in the Bible and the World: An International Study, ed. D. A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002) 88-119; idem, “Church II: Paul,” in The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament: A One-Volume Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004); Edmund P. Clowney, “The Biblical Theology of the Church,” in The Church in the Bible and the World, ed. Carson,13-87; idem, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 31-32, 118.
- OBrien, “Church II: Paul,” 196. Note especially Col. 1:13 (“dominion of darkness” vs. “the kingdom of His beloved Son”), 16 (“visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities”), and 20 (“whether things on earth or things in heaven”).
- Schmidt, “ekklesia,”506.
- Ibid., 506. That Schmidt has the heavenly-eschatological assembly in Christ in mind is evident from his discussion in ibid., 509-13.
- This would also seem to account for the reason that it is the congregation that is said to be vested with ultimate authority in governing the local body (see Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5). Since each assembly is a manifestation of the Kingdom of Christ on earth, each assembly is to function as a full-fledged representation of that kingdom; which includes the wielding of governmental authority by the subjects of the kingdom, the members of the church. One assembly is not dependent on another assemblys governing; rather, each is sufficient to govern itself.
- Connectionalism is a form of church polity in which multiple churches share a common church government. It is the opposite of congregationalism and a denial of local church autonomy.
- For an account of how Baptist congregationalists shifted from a serious emphasis on church government (especially church discipline) to a preoccupation with efficiency and progress see Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 131-34.
- For an account of this remarkable story see Paul Pressler, A Hill on Which to Die: One Southern Baptists Journey (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999); Jerry Sutton, The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000).
- Surratt, Ligon, and Bird list the following benefits to multi-site church structure: “Accountability, [s]haring of resources (stewardship), [i]nfusion of trained workers, [s]hared DNA (vision and core values), [g]reater prayer support, [p]reestablished network of problem solving, [n]ot needing to ‘reinvent the wheel, [and] [c]onnection with others doing the same thing (The Multi-Site Church Revolution, 51; original given in bullet points).