I think it’s helpful to survey the ecclesiology/polity for a few different faith traditions as a part of figuring out what an emerging multi-site polity might look like. I was immediately confronted with polity questions when I first started researching a large multi-site congregation and I started trying to figure out just what kind of polity/ecclesiology this was. Was it similar to Roman Catholic? Presbyterian? Lutheran? Episcopal? Or maybe something different entirely? It certainly went beyond the free-church ecclesiology that many of these multi-site churches came out of. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that multi-site ecclesiology shares something in common with each of those polities, but is in itself something entirely different. I also don’t thing that there’s just one multi-site ecclesiology/polity; however, I think some generalizations can be made that cover a lot of house church networks and multi-site churches.
So, with that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to look at the polities of several faith traditions and then see how it connects with a multi-site polity. This time, I’m going to look at Lutheran polity, specifically that of the ELCA. In actuality, Lutherans have lots of different polities – not just one. So, to make this concrete, I’m going to consider the polity of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Great latitude exists for Lutherans in church organization. Lutheran territorial churches and denominations run the gamut from congregationally-governed free-churches to episcopally-governed state churches. For Lutherans, it is God who gathers the people, and the church must then create the organizational type to best support its mission. Thus, much of church organization falls under the category of adiaphora for Lutherans. However, the one non-negotiable aspect of church polity is the “existence of an office of ministry to the gospel.” Though the forms that surround and support this office can change, this office must remain.
The ELCA has chosen to include the office of bishop within its structure, but it differs from episcopal polity churches in that it does not technically employ a hierarchical structure. The ELCA is one church that exists in three expressions: congregations, synods, and churchwide. These three expressions of church are interrelated with one another and engage in different aspects of mission. Though synods and churchwide are also considered to be church in the ELCA, it does not employ the term local to describe them. This term is reserved for congregations, similar to free-church polities.
A multi-site ecclesiology shares with the ELCA an understanding of church that sees it as something more than a local gathering of believers. For both of these ecclesiologies, church is something that has a larger organizational presence beyond a local gathering. For the ELCA, this is found in synods and churchwide, while for some multi-site churches, the idea of church extends to the worldwide network, each worship center within the network, and also the small groups or house churches which also convene on a smaller level. This is clearly transforming free-church ideas while not simply adopting other ecclesiologies.
So, can multi-site churches fit within ELCA polity? I think so. It doesn’t appear that there is anything prohibiting them, and Lutheran polity/ecclesiology is certainly flexible enough to accommodate them. In future posts I will ask similar questions of Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Free-churches.
ELCA/Lutheran polity sources:
Chapter three of the ELCA constitution, “The Nature of the Church.” It can be found here.
The Missional Church and Denominations, ed. Craig Van Gelder. Especially Dan Anderson’s chapter on the ELCA.
Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and it’s Confessional Writings, Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson (pp. 136, 204)