Mailbag #37: Congregationalism in China; A Defense of Building Bigger Buildings; Notifying the Recently Disciplined; Supporting a Widow Who Has Left the Church

Mailbag
05.10.2016

How can something like congregationalism work in China, with its networks of related house churches? »
The leaders at my church want to build a bigger building, yet it seems to me a waste of money. What should I do?»
After someone has been disciplined for non-attendance, should the church notify the person as a final act of congregational care? »
Twenty years ago, our church made a commitment to financially support our former pastor’s widow. She has since refused to attend our church. What should I do?»

Dear 9Marks,

I have a question about how congregationalism should be practiced in a foreign missions context. Since many foreign missions contexts make it difficult if not impossible to gather publicly in large numbers, believers have to gather in homes or smaller settings. Since the word ekklesia inherently means “assembly,” should each of these “house churches” be considered a separate church with preaching and the ordinances?

In a place like China, which is characterized by networks of hundreds of house churches, is it best for each house church to have its own pastor or for a pastor to shepherd multiple houses churches at once due to a lack of qualified leaders? In my mind, I’m finding it difficult to practically work out how congregationalism would specifically function in this kind of context. Any insights from 9Marks would be helpful.

—JB

Dear JB,

I asked a friend of mine to answer your question. His name is Josh, and he’s a pastor in China who led a multi-site church but then de-multi-sited it. Josh writes,

Thank you for raising this question. As a pastor in China, I do experience this kind of struggle and humbly admit that addressing it requires discernment on many practical matters. I even started a multi-site church model in a coastal city. But after realizing what the biblical “church” is, I reformed the multi-site church and gave the “church” back to each congregation. Let me share with you how I thought through this struggle.

First of all, I agree that ekklesia inherently means “assembly,” a regular gathering of believers, a congregation. Within a church, there is recognized leadership, discipline, regular mutual encouragement, and relationships. Scripture gives certain authorities to a congregation: they can affirm the leaders (Acts 14:23), discipline unrepentant members (1 Cor. 5), embrace repentant sinners (2 Cor. 2), and guard the soundness of the doctrine being preached (Gal.1:8).

Second, pastorally speaking, is multi-site actually helpful? Does it really resolve the problem of a lack of qualified leaders? I don’t think so. Having a circular preacher—like many multi-site or networked congregations in these settings do—on the one hand prevents him from sufficiently pastoring each congregation while on the other hand prevents each congregation from hiring and/or developing new leaders because everyone is satisfied by the status quo. The pulpit is fulfilled and a Sunday service is maintained. This method can sustain the gospel work, but it also prevents the churches from being healthy and biblical.

Finally, does it mean that all “church networks” should be dismissed? I don’t think so. Considering the scarcity of qualified pastors, while the aim is that each congregation have a full-time pastor, a church may choose to have lay elders and/or a part-time pastor pastoring the congregation, while also humbly listening to suggestions from other network leaders. There are many other options that these networks can explore for making better use of the existing resources without taking over authority from each congregation.

Churches can and should cooperate for the work of gospel, and determining the level of inter-dependency requires pastoral wisdom.

Dear 9Marks,

Our church is growing, and for that I am grateful to the Lord. We sometimes have to turn families away. However, we have lately seen a shift in our church’s vision from adding more and smaller congregations (satellite, multi-site) or even new church plants toward now starting a campaign to build a bigger building. I am an apprentice at this church and am struggling to see the benefit or impetus behind the new building as opposed to the older model we were moving towards for years. It is going to be enormously expensive and seems very luxurious.

My question is: how do I as an apprentice and member settle my questions about the new building and direction? How do I faithfully submit to the elders, or is this even a big enough issue that excuses me to seek other churches? I have already asked an elder and was very unsatisfied with the response.

Thanks in advance.

—Joe, Ohio

Dear Joe,

I’m not sure that you want to ask me this question, since my friends know me as opposing the multi-site model. But since you asked . . .

Let’s start with building a big building. Big buildings seem wasteful, almost ungodly, to a certain segment of evangelicals these days. I think that concern may be misplaced. My own church regularly thanks God for the saints who, in 1911, made financial sacrifices to build the building we presently inhabit. And I assume they had far less disposable income than we do. Just think: a century’s worth of Christians have now been gathering at 6th and A Street, NE, in Washington, DC, in a building that accommodates just over 1000 people, to hear the Word, sing praises, send missionaries, watch conversions and baptisms, nurture children toward the faith, and so on! Praise God for their foresight and sacrifice. I’d say the building has been well used for kingdom purposes.

Am I saying that churches never go overboard with their buildings? I assume some do. And do some once-full buildings now sit empty as sad, cavernous testimonies to saints who began to care too much about their own little program instead of God’s larger work of redemption? Sure. But in most of those situations, the problem wasn’t with the building; it was with dozens of other things. A building can be used well or poorly.

Would the money spent on a building be better spent feeding the poor or sending missionaries overseas? Well, unless you have some way of quantifying the kingdom impact of a large healthy church in your city versus all those other ways you might spend the money, I’m just not sure how you can claim that. A large healthy church can, over the decades, sends lots and lots of missionaries and care for lots and lots of people in need. Again, the real question is, will they remain biblically faithful? Small churches with buildings that are falling apart can go awry just as easily as churches with nice big buildings.

Certainly there are times not to build a bigger building, but a settled anti-new-building posture, I dare say, is probably short-sighted.

Now, on the question of multi-site, well, here are 22 problems I have with multi-site churches. But I won’t get into that now.

Okay, but let’s suppose that you still maintain a big building is a waste of money. Should you leave?

Keep in mind that, between planting and building a bigger building, we are dealing in a matter Christian freedom. And generally I would not encourage you to leave a church over a matter that the Bible leaves utterly free.

In fact, Joe, to push you a little harder, leaving a church over non-biblically specified matters like this could be a sign of a subtle legalism. To be sure, it’s fine to have opinions on whether it’s wiser to plant or to build. But to make it the sort of thing over which you would leave? Be careful there. Pastors and churches must use wisdom to make lots of decisions that aren’t biblically specified. But we must keep the line very clear in our minds between biblical principle and wisdom. And when dealing in the wisdom category, we must keep a looser grip. Make sense? Unless there are other issues at play that you’ve not disclosed, I do think this is an issue over which you should happily submit to your elders.

I hope all that’s helpful. Let them build, and maybe support the project financially. After all, I suspect you have enjoyed the benefits of the saints who sacrificed for the buildings you have gathered in ever since becoming a Christian!

Dear 9Marks,

When a church votes to remove a member for non-attendance, should the church write a letter to the former member informing them of the church’s actions? Is this an unnecessary step that adds “insult to injury” or is it a final expression of congregational care?

—Todd, New York

Dear Todd,

It is the final expression of congregational care. A key step in an act of discipline is communicating the fact of discipline to the person being disciplined. You love them by warning them about their disobedience to Hebrews 10:25, making note of Scripture’s own warning in verses 26 and 27. You also show integrity by communicating exactly what the congregation has done, and what the individual’s standing is now in relation to the congregation.

Obviously, you should also convey that your actions are expressions of love, and that you long for nothing more than for the individual to either reunite with your congregation or to find some other gospel-preaching congregation.

I hope that helps.

Dear 9Marks,

Over twenty years ago, our church deacons made an undefined/unwritten commitment to support the widow of a former pastor with a monthly financial gift. She no longer attends, but she still views herself as a member of the church. Since then, we transitioned to an elder-led polity. Based on our understanding of 1 Timothy 5, she is not a widow “indeed,” and thus we are not under obligation to continue her support. She assumed she would receive this gift “for life.”

Question: how should we view this commitment of the deacons 20 years ago? We have already met with her numerous times to call her to repentance for non-attendance, but to no avail. And so we have removed her membership. Of course we want to be compassionate and filled with integrity.

—Joe, Pennsylvania

Dear Joe,

Are you bound by the deacons’ commitment from twenty years ago? It’s not clear to me that you are, especially if they did not have congregational approval for their commitment. If churches were bound by all the hasty and ill-advised commitments of previous leaders, they’d be broke.

Are you bound by Scripture’s command to care for the widow and orphan? Of course you are. But that hardly means you’re bound to care for every widow and orphan within a 100-mile radius of your church. The question in my mind is, do you have a Good Samaritan—here she is in your path—responsibility? Well, if she is unable to work for a living, and if she has no other family who can care for her, and if she will go destitute apart from the church’s support, then, yes, you may possess that responsibility. If the financial gift simply goes to pay for her cable bill, then, no, I don’t see why you would possess that responsibility. In fact, if the money is just padding her cushion, it may be irresponsible not to use that money for some other cause.

Jesus commands the members of your church to give to the church. Are you prepared to say that what they are commanded to give should go to her? I pray the Lord gives you wisdom.