Early Christianity and Multi-Site Ecclesiology

Here is a link to a blog post that asks the question: “would the apostles endorse multi-site churches?”  The real value to this post is in the discussion which follows the post, in which lots of issues that are germane to what I’m trying to talk about on this site are brought up.  The actual post critiques multi-site churches because of ambiguity regarding elder/overseer roles, the place of the Lord’s Supper, uncertainty about being able to adequately be there for one another while existing in multiple locations, and because multi-site would seem to preclude congregationalism.

I think those are fair questions to ask of multi-site churches, but I think they come from inadequate assumptions regarding what church is.  If one begins with something called a “local” church, that looks like current Baptist churches today, and then tries to extrapolate theologically to a multi-site church, then the two won’t fit together very well.  I think it’s better to instead imagine the early church as a multi-site church and then see how that influences the way one reads scripture and understands churches today.

The modifier “local” is not found in the New Testament with regard to churches.  “Local” is a later accretion that is actually used in various ways in different theological traditions.  Here’s how Dave Browning (Lead Pastor of Christ the King Community Church) explained his take on the earliest churches:

I think the original model was organic, cellular, decentralized. Like, all through Acts, every time the church in Jerusalem is spoken of, it’s spoken of in the singular—church. Yet, we know that in the first week, you know, there were 10,000 people possibly involved in that story. And they were meeting house to house and in the temple courts and it says they were adhering to the apostles doctrine. So, it’s: apostles—plural, church—singular, locations—plural. That’s to me what the Jerusalem church was. And so, the whole business of, you know, the idea that there were multiple churches—plural, independent, autonomous from each other in Jerusalem. . . at least in Jerusalem that doesn’t make any sense at all, and the language doesn’t bear that out at all.

I think he’s brilliant to have come up with this.  No doubt it was influenced in part from his experiences with his own multi-site congregation and how that changed the way he understood scripture.  He needs to write the book on that stuff!  Why do we think of the earliest Christians as inhabiting multiple, independent, autonomous churches?  I think we read that back on the text.  No doubt questions regarding fulfilling one another commands, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and serving as elders/overseers in multi-site churches were faced early in Christian history just as they are today in multi-site churches, and the answers are there to be found.


9 responses to “Early Christianity and Multi-Site Ecclesiology

  1. Todd,

    I won’t have lot of time for response, but I thought I would make a clarification or two.

    One, I was writing to baptists about the phenomenon in SBC life. My argument is that baptist ecclesiology is inconsistent with multi-site churches. I realize Lutherans and Presbyterians have different ecclesiologies, and therefore they may be more open to the invention. I don’t know their traditions well enough to say.

    Two, you are making a pure assumption about the organization of the church in Jerusalem. The text in the early chapters of Acts says nothing about house churches. Rather, when I read Acts 2:41ff, I see the believers gathering together as one local church, i.e. they gather around the apostles in a physical location, Jerusalem. That is all that is meant by the term “local church.” It is in contrast to the universal church. So I don’t see one church, plural locations at all. I think you still need to defend this claim.

    Thanks for interaction, and I hope I have brought some clarity.

  2. John, thanks for commenting – I like your blog. I think you’re right, traditional Baptist or free-church ecclesiology is largely incompatible with the multi-site phenomenon. I think multi-site churches have innovated on this tradition and moved beyond it in an entirely new way. I also think that this is an entirely new invention that also is different than traditional Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other ecclesiologies as well.

    I also think you raise a fair point about assumptions. However, I would defend Dave’s arguement by saying that I think he is looking at Acts 2-5, that the early Christians met both house to house and in the temple courts, and that there were thousands of believers at that time, yet they were considered one church while spread out over the entire city. It’s no slam dunk, but I think it’s a very creative reading of the text that certainly challenges the notion that congregations should exist as “local,” autonomous churches.

  3. Todd,

    Would you show me the specific verses in Acts 2-5 where the people are meeting from house to house? Then I might have more of an understanding of what you are saying.

  4. John, sure you can imply it from Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 5:42, and then from an understanding of the history of pre-Constantinian churches. The reason I say it’s not a slam dunk is because I don’t think Luke is focusing much at all on ecclesiology or polity for the early church; I think it’s ancillary to his whole story. Even if one could lift an organizational model out of the early chapters of Acts, I’m not sure that it would be wise to say that that model should be normative for all churches in all places. The rest of the NT has a lot to say about ecclesiology and polity too.

    But, I do think the Dave’s argument is interesting and worth considering. I had never heard anything like that before, and it’s certainly changed the way I think about the earliest gatherings of believers.

  5. Todd,

    Acts 2:44; 5:12; and 6:1-2 seem to be instances in which the whole church in Jerusalem met together in the same place. Also, it seems to me that Acts 2:46 means they were all together in the Temple as well as being in one another’s homes throughout the week. Thus, they were one church (one assembly [ekklesia]) characterized by assembling together in one place AS WELL AS breaking up into smaller gatherings. Your thoughts?

    Grant Gaines

  6. Grant,

    Thanks for commenting. When I have read Acts 2:44, I never took it as meaning that they were always literally together (i.e. meeting in the same place). It always seemed to me that it was more like: “together in the same enterprise.” Though I guess it could mean that they were literally together like that. In Acts 5:12, it could again mean that they are literally together, but I can’t tell who the “all” is referring to there (i.e. the believers or just the apostles). It looks like some commentaries say it is the apostles, while others say differently. In Acts 6:1-2, it does seem likely that it was an invitation to all believers in Jerusalem. I think you are right though, it seems that the earliest church was gathered in large and small groups (at the temple and in houses). Acts 5:42 implies this as well I think.

    To me, it looks like “church” on several levels in the New Testament:
    1) A cosmic sense, like in Ephesians.
    2) a very broad and general sense, but literal and earthly, like when Paul talks about persecuting the church of God in 1 Cor. 15:9. (i.e. there were actual people that he persecuted. This is not “church” in an eschatological sense)
    3) a regional sense like in Acts 9:31
    4) a citywide sense like the church in Jerusalem in Acts 8:1-3 (or Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, etc.)
    5) a small sense like the house churches (Romans 16:5, I Corinthians 16:19, etc.)

    What do you think?

    • Todd,

      I take Acts 2:44 and 5:12 to mean “in the same place” because of the occurrence in each case of the Greek phrase “ἐπι το αὐτο” (see Everett Ferguson’s article “‘When You Come Together’: Ἐπι το ἀυτο in Early Christian Literature,” Restoration Quarterly 16 [1973]: 202-08). I’ve never thought about the fact that Acts 5:12 could be referring only to the apostles. I guess it could, but it seems more natural to me that the “they” and the “all” of v. 12, as well as the “them” in v. 13, are references to the “believers” in v. 14; especially if precedent is set for the whole Jerusalem church gathering in the temple in chapter 2.

      I like your breakdown of the uses of “church” in the NT. Here’s my rub with multi-site though: they take the citywide use and assume that because Paul refers to the “church” (singular) in a city, and because there was probably more than one house church there, that there was one local church (i.e., one governing structure) made up of multiple house churches. There are a couple of problems that I see with this. First, it shouldn’t be assumed that every city had multiple house churches. I don’t think the Jerusalem church did (text doesn’t say they were house churches, but simply that they spent time in each other’s homes), or the church in Corinth (Acts 14:23; Rom. 16:23). The second problem is that the NT authors seem to place the governing authority of a “church” in the collective authority of the assembled group (Matt. 18:17; 2 Cor. 2:6, etc.), not in any structure that extends beyond it (besides the unique authority of the apostles in the NT of course). This being the case, I think it is most natural to think of the “church in Rome,” for instance, in the same way that we might speak of the “church in Louisville, KY.” It’s not one church with one governing structure. It’s all the believers in a given locale. Within that city, there may or may not be multiple local churches.


  7. Pingback: Is there ONE RIGHT polity? « Multi-Site Ecclesiology

  8. Grant – I see what you are saying, and I think that’s a perfectly legitimate viewpoint. It may very well be that you are correct, and I think you list good reasons for why you believe that way.

    I do think though that too much is assumed in just saying that the earliest apostles were a special case as far as leadership and decision-making is concerned. I also think likewise for structures beyond a local church, and do so partly on the basis of Acts 15. This comment would get exceedingly long if I were to put everything in it about why I believe that, so I’m going to make a new post about it. Thanks for the discussion.

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