Looking to the Bible On the Multi-Site Issue
Let me say first of all what a privilege it was to have been invited to participate in the panel discussion at Southern Seminary a couple of weeks ago. I count all the men on that stage as friends—some of them long and deep friendships, others new and deepening. Whatever else we talked about there, the most important fact is that we are all men who are deeply in love with Christ’s church and have given our lives, in one way or another, to serve her. We may disagree on the multi-site issue, but there’s a mountain of agreement and respect under that.
I know I’m a little late in posting this—life calls, ya know?—but I think it would be useful to lay out in more detail the case I was able to make only very briefly, and really only as a bald assertion, during the SBTS panel. That is, there is no example in Scripture, either in Acts or anywhere else, of a multi-site church as we think about that today. Whatever the size, whatever the circumstances, they seem to have met together, and you have to do quite a bit of speculation to get to any other conclusion.
I realize that for some people, it won’t change much in their thinking even if it becomes really clear to them that the NT church met together. There’s a real debate going on, apparently—even among Baptists, of all people—about whether the example of the NT is prescriptive for us. I think it is prescriptive, and I think that’s an incredibly important point, but I’m not going to argue it here.
This post is for those many Baptists who agree with me that we should take the NT example as prescriptive, but who are perhaps set on their heels a bit by the argument that it would have been impossible for “the church” in Jerusalem to meet in one place because they were just too large. I’ve heard that argument many times, but as I read the book of Acts and the rest of the NT, I just don’t buy it. The natural way of reading the story in Acts is that each church met together in one place, and there’s not a single instance (as least as far as I can see) where that doesn’t seem to be the case. Take a look:
1) In Acts 2:41, “about three thousand souls” became Christians and therefore a part of the church. It’s often asserted that there was no place in Jerusalem large enough to hold that many people on a regular basis. Acts 2:46 disagrees: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” Whatever else we might say about the number of people or the meeting space in Jerusalem, or other meetings in houses, the Bible says they—the whole lot of them—“met together.”
2) Acts 4:4 says that “the number of men grew to about five thousand.” It’s often said that we really ought to understand this as more like twenty-thousand, since the five-thousand is only explicitly “men.” Maybe; you have to do quite a bit of two-thousand-year-old crowd estimation there, which would seem to be a tricky task. But regardless of what number you finally come up with—5000, 10000, 20000—5:12 is about as explicit as it could be: “And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade.” All of them. Met together.
3) In 6:2, the apostles somehow manage to “gather all the disciples together” in order to take care of the food distribution problem. Gathered. All of them. Together.
4) In 8:1, the church in Jerusalem is scattered by the persecution. That apparently makes for much smaller assemblies, but regardless, even in Antioch where the church was made up of “great numbers of people,” (11:21, 26) Paul and Barnabas were able to “gather the church together” somewhere, somehow (14:27; also 15:30).
5) 9:31 is admittedly strange—the only place in Scripture where “church” seems to be used for something other than a local assembly or the universal church. I think there are a couple of options here. A) It could be referring to the one church of Jerusalem, now scattered throughout Judea and Samaria by the persecution. If so, it’s a one-off, and it never happens again. Or B) It could be a use of the word “church” similar to our usage, “the church in China.” We do not mean that there’s a single institution in China; we just mean “the churches, considered as a whole, in China.” I go for Option B, personally. But here’s the important thing: What we do not see in 9:31, no matter how you slice it, is a “church” of Judea and Samaria made up of multiple little non-churches. Even if the word is, just this once, blanketing multiple little assemblies with the word “church” (as we do with China, for instance), every one of those little assemblies is itself a “church,” not a campus, a site, or any other such thing.
6) This is just an observation, and I haven’t looked at it exhaustively, but the apostle Paul seems to have been pretty careful about all this in how he addresses his letters. Take Romans, for instance. We know from Romans 16 that there are multiple churches in Rome which are meeting in various houses, and Paul, who often addresses his letters “to the church” in a certain city, does not do so here: “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” he says (1:7). Same thing with Colossae, which also probably had multiple congregations (think about the letter to Philemon): “To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.” But in his letters to Corinth, which obviously had only one church (see Romans 16:23), he doesn’t hesitate: “To the church of God in Corinth.”
The point of all this is simply to say that the unbroken example of the NT seems to be that each church met together in one place. That was true after the scattering, when churches were smaller, and it was true before the scattering, too, when the church in Jerusalem was enormous.
To get to a multi-site church, then, I think you’d have to do one of two things: Either show that the NT pattern isn’t what I’m seeing here, or say that the NT’s example isn’t prescriptive. Over to you….