Historical Critique of Multi-Site: Not Over My Dead Body


Congregationalists and Baptists have spilled a lot of ink during the past five centuries arguing about church government. Whether they’ve been fending off Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or those within their own ranks, Congregationalists and Baptists have dug deep into both Scripture and their inkwells in order to discover, declare, and argue for a biblical church polity.[1]

But what could centuries-old arguments have to do with cutting-edge conversations like the one we’re trying to have about multi-site churches? See for yourself. In what follows, I’ll simply list a few well-worn arguments that turn up again and again in Congregationalist and Baptist writings and try to let the dead guys speak for themselves.

So what do they say?

1. Scripture is sufficient for the church. If any practice or church structure has no explicit biblical warrant, it’s out of the question.

Baptist J.L. Reynolds (1812-1877) wrote in 1849, “The Scriptures are a sufficient rule of faith and practice. The principles of ecclesiastical polity are prescribed in them with all necessary comprehensiveness and clearness. The founder of the Church has provided better for its interests, than to commit its affairs to the control of fallible men.”[2]

Reynolds goes on to cite Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who wrote, “Whatever ways of constituting the church may to us seem fit, proper, and reasonable, the question is, not what constitution of Christ’s church seems convenient to human wisdom, but what constitution is actually established by Christ’s infinite wisdom.”[3]

2. Ekklesia, the New Testament Greek word for church, means “assembly.”

Baptist John Gill (1697-1771), a master of the biblical languages, wrote, “The word ekklesia, always used for church, signifies an assembly called and met together.”[4]

J.L. Reynolds wrote, “The word Church (in the original Greek of the New Testament, ekklesia), means a congregation, or assembly.”[5]

Baptist John Dagg (1794-1884) wrote, “But whenever the word ekklesia is used, we are sure of an assembly; and the term is not applicable to bodies or societies of men that do not literally assemble.”[6]

3. Except when it refers to a secular assembly, ekklesia is always used in the New Testament to refer to either the universal or local church, with nothing in between.

J.L. Reynolds wrote, “In its sacred use, [ekklesia] is confined to two meanings, referring either to a particular local society of Christians, or to the whole body of God’s redeemed people.”[7]

Congregationalist George Punchard (1806-1880), noting that ekklesia can also refer to a secular assembly, wrote, “The Greek word ekklesia . . . is used in the New Testament, for the most part, to designate either the whole body of Christians, or a single congregation of professed believers, united together for religious purposes.”[8]

4. There are no examples of “churches” made up of multiple congregations in the New Testament. Ekklesia never refers to a church composed of multiple congregations.

Baptist William B. Johnson (1782-1862) wrote concerning several texts about the church in Acts, “The first nine quotations relate to the church in Jerusalem, and very satisfactorily shew, that the term church indicates one church, one body of the Lord’s people, meeting together in one place, and not several congregations, forming one church.”[9]

J.L. Reynolds wrote, “We read in the New Testament of ‘the Church’ in a particular city, village, and even house, and of ‘the Churches’ of certain regions; but never of a Church involving a plurality of congregations.”[10]

5. So, a local church is by definition—and therefore should only be—a single congregation.

Reasoning from the necessary bond between elders and a single flock, the Congregationalist confession of faith The Cambridge Platform (1648) says simply, “Therefore there is no greater church than a congregation, which may ordinarily meet in one place.”[11]

6. Each local congregation has authority over its discipline and doctrine

Seventeenth-century Congregationalist John Cotton (1585-1652) wrote, “A particular Church or Congregation of Saints, professing the faith . . . is the first subject of all the Church offices, with all their spirituall gifts and power.”[12]

Baptist founding father John Smyth (c. 1570-1612) wrote in his ­­Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles (1609), “That the church of Christ has power delegated to themselves of announcing the Word, administering the sacraments, appointing ministers, disclaiming them, and also excommunicating; but the last appeal is to the brethren or body of the church.”[13]

7. There is no court of appeal higher than the local congregation. Therefore, to set up any authority above the local congregation is to go beyond Scripture and remove from the local congregation its Christ-given prerogatives.

Seventeenth-century Congregationalist Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) wrote, “These instituted bodies of churches we humbly conceive to be, for the bounds and proportion, or measure of them, only congregational, which are the fixed seat and subject of all ordinances of worship, and who are . . . the sole seat of that government, and the acts thereof . . . from which, rightly administered, there can be no appeal, nor of which no act of repeal can be made by any supreme court on earth.”[14]

William B. Johnson wrote, “In both cases [Matt. 18:15-17 and 1 Cor. 5], the church whose member commits the offence or the trespass, is made the last resort in the final adjustment of the matter, without the right of appeal on the part of the offender or trespasser, to any other tribunal on earth.”[15]

In other words, the local congregation as such is the seat of the church’s human government. Anything beyond that is an unbiblical human invention.

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks.

[1] I’m speaking about Baptists and Congregationalists in the same breath like this because as far as church polity is concerned, Baptists are simply Congregationalists who don’t baptize babies.

[2] J.L. Reynolds, Church Polity or The Kingdom of Christ in Mark Dever, ed., Polity (Nine Marks Ministries, 2001), 305.

[3] Polity, 305. The Edwards quote can be found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 12 (New Haven: Yale, 1994), 265.

[4] John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (Paris, AR: 1984; orig. pub. 1769-70), 853.

[5] Polity, 311.

[6] J.L. Dagg, Manual of Theology. Second Part. A Treatise of Church Order, (Harrisburg: Gano, 1990; orig. pub. 1858), 77; emphasis mine.

[7] Polity, 311.

[8] George Punchard, A View of Congregationalism, its Principles and Doctrines (Boston: MA: Congregational Board of Publication: 1860), 41.

[9] William Bullein Johnson, The Gospel Developed (orig. pub. 1849), in Polity, 171; emphasis mine.

[10] Polity, 321; emphasis mine.

[11] The Cambridge Platform (1648) in Iain Murray, The Reformation of the Church (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 247.

[12] John Cotton, The Keyes to the Kingdom of Heaven (Boston: S.K. Whipple & Co., 1852; orig. pub. 1644), 67.

[13] William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1959), 101.

[14] Thomas Goodwin, Of the Constitution, Right Order, and Government of the Churches of Christ in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 11 (Eureka: Tanski, 1996), 6; emphasis mine.

[15] Polity, 173.

Bobby Jamieson

Bobby Jamieson (PhD, University of Cambridge) is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Most recently, he is the author, with Tyler Wittman, of Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2022).

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