Three Lessons on Church Size from the Westminster Assembly
One of the many blessings of studying church history is learning that our predecessors in the faith faced many of the same challenges we do today. For example, did you know that the Westminster Assembly dealt with the topic of church-size and what to do when you outgrow your building? Despite its age, the Westminster Assembly’s “Form of Presbyterial Church Government” (1645)—the lesser-known cousin of the “Westminster Confession”—provides several useful lessons for thinking through congregational size. According to the Form, a congregation is a gathering of Christians who “meet in one assembly ordinarily for public worship” (Murray, 214). Such a number may grow until they can no longer “conveniently meet in one place” and appropriately administer “such ordinances as belong unto them” and discharge their “mutual duties” (214). At such a point, it’s “lawful and expedient that they should be divided into distinct and fixed congregations” (214).
From these statements, we can extrapolate principles that help us think wisely about church growth and church size. The Form suggests that the appropriate size of a church depends on (1) the ability of the church to obey Jesus’ command to “gather”; (2) the ability to appropriately administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and (3) the ability of members to discharge their duties to love and watch over each other. Although these are, of course, prudential concerns, it seems that the Westminster Assembly considered it wise for a church that has grown to such a size that any or all of these duties become unfeasible to split up into smaller congregations. Let’s look briefly at each of these three principles in turn.
1. A congregation gathers.
The first constraining factor on the appropriate size of a congregation has to do with the command to gather. The Form defines a congregation as “a certain company of Christians [who] meet in one assembly ordinarily for public worship” (214, emphasis mine). The size of the building is a natural constraint on church-size. Once a church can no longer gather as “one assembly,” it needs to divide into multiple distinct congregations. Notice that in all of this there is no mention of multiple services. Of course, the Form could have suggested building larger church buildings so as to accommodate more people. But there were other constraining factors as well.
2. A congregation governs.
The second constraining factor on the size of a congregation regards the ordinances. While the Westminster Divines considered prayer, preaching, and the offering to be ordinances, they had a special concern for the Lord’s Supper (216). Namely, they believe pastors and elders know the “spiritual estate of the several members of the congregation” so as to be able to appropriately guard the Lord’s table (217). Such knowledge of the congregation limits the appropriate size of a congregation. Too large of a flock becomes difficult to faithfully shepherd.
3. A congregation guards.
Lastly, the third constraining factor on the size of a congregation has to do with the duties of members toward one another, namely, to care for and guard one another. The Westminster Divines recognized that the closer members live to one another, the more opportunities they have to discharge their duties to one another: “Because they who dwell together, being bound to all kind of moral duties one to another, have the better opportunity thereby to discharge them” (215). Rather than an optional part of the Christian life, they considered this responsibility to be perpetual and binding on all Christians. It was obvious for the Westminster Divines that the size of the congregation affects members’ ability to serve one another.
In each of these three areas—the need to gather as one assembly, the need for oversight of the Lord’s Supper, and the need for members to discharge their duties to one another—we find several useful principles from the Westminster Divines for thinking about how large a church should become before it “should be divided into distinct and fixed congregations” (214).
Immediately, the question comes: “Well, how large is too large?” Neither the Form nor the Bible says, and we shouldn’t be dogmatic about any particular number. We simply cannot know. The Jerusalem church, for example, consisted of over five thousand men (Acts 4:4) and they were all able to gather as a church in Solomon’s Portico (Acts 5:12). Nevertheless, with all the emphasis on church-growth and multi-site churches, the Westminster Form helpfully re-balances our focus onto other important areas that perhaps matter more than size.
Iain H. Murray, Reformation of the Church (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965).