Yes, it’s true that this post has nothing to do with the Septuagint, but it has everything to do with Scripture and its application to our lives and more importantly to the organization of our churches. I am a member of a Southern Baptist Church and I attend Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY; therefore, I do not speak as an outsider, for Southern Baptists seem to be leading the way in this new invention called multi-site churches along with their slogan, “One church, X number of locations.” See the latest publication from Broadman and Holman on this very issue: Multi-Site Churches. What follows in this post spawned from some stimulating discussions with some friends of mine in the library. Although we are at Southern Seminary to learn technical and sometimes seemingly esoteric disciplines, lunch conversations always seem to gravitate towards matters of the local church, and this topic received a number of lunch conversations.
My basic assumption going into this issue is simple: the view that remains faithful to the clear Scriptural directives and can obey those directives practically should be adopted. Thus any view of the church which would necessarily lead to the disobedience of clear Scriptural directives because of the church’s structure itself should be abandoned. This assumption rests on the idea that the apostles gave clear commands to the local churches, which were able to be carried out and that these commands are not optional or somehow subsidiary to whatever church model one has adopted. Rather the apostles would only endorse a church model in which the members were in a position to obey the clear commands of the Lord Jesus.
This basic assumption works as a constraint on church models. Just because the apostles did not clearly delineate what every church throughout the ages must be like [i.e. x must be like this, but not like this], does not mean they left us to our own devices to “think tank” autonomously about church models. If the church model does not allow for the implementing of the clear commands revealed in the NT, then the church model ought to be abandoned.
What are these clearly revealed commands?
- Overseers, Shepherd the Flock of God (1 Peter 5:1ff; Hebrews 13:17). Immediately, there is a problem: which model of multi-site churches am I critiquing? The satellite version where a separate location hears a sermon from the pastor piped into the auditorium via satellite connection? Or the model which has different preachers (are they elders or pastors?) at the distinct locations? I think this command clearly rules out the first option, but what about the second model complete with its separate preachers? Well, the critique depends on the status of these men. If they are elders of churches, then how have they not become their own church, simply partnering with the other churches? If they are not elders, then what are they? Are they itinerant preachers? Not really. Are they glorified Sunday School teachers who preach every Sunday morning? In that case they are no more than church members of the larger church; therefore, they do not have the authority of elders nor the responsibility to Shepherd the Flock of God, which leads to the actual critique. How do the pastors/elders of multi-site churches carry out this command? If the pastor is only at one location for most of the time, then how is he in a position practically to obey this directive? He’s not. He has only put himself in a position to look after some of the flock on a regular basis, and he has certainly taken himself out of the equation when it comes to the teaching and preaching aspects of his calling (1 Tim. 3:1-7). It seems that the former variant of this model may overcome this obstacle, but it creates the second obstacle which places the pastor in an ill-suited position to shepherd. The latter model may account better for shepherding, but it necessarily removes the pastor from teaching and preaching regularly to his flock, over which the Lord has given him charge.
- One another Commands. Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:1ff), confess your sins to one another (James 5), pray for one another (Ephesians 6), exhort one another while it is still called Today (Hebrews 3), and the other 35 or so “one another commands” are given to church members in the NT. Do multi-site church models place members in a position to obey these commands? If church members are on one side of town, are they responsible for members on the other side of town in a separate location of the church? Yes, since the NT knows only of one church building itself up (Eph. 4:13ff). Does the multi-site church provide a context for individual members in the church to fulfill these NT directives? The objection to this argument will go something like this: John, are you yourself fulfilling these commands with every member in your one church in one location? Of course the answer is, no. However, am I in a position to do so? Yes. I have access to the news of the church. I know at least the faces of the people in the church. Of course I will rebut this objection with an objection: do the members at a particular location know all of the members of that one location? The answer is of course, no. Thus how will they ever be in a position to know and care for all of their fellow members in locations that they do not visit with any regularity, if at all. These commands in the NT should also limit the mega-churches in our midst too, but that is another issue.
- Church discipline/congregationalism (Matt. 18:16ff; 1 Cor. 5:1ff). Not all churches are congregational in polity, so this argument attends specifically to baptist churches. If the final authority rests with the members of the church, not the deacons or elders, then how will the entire church be able to meet in order to discipline its members? What if a church meets quarterly to take care of these matters? Well, how will members from one location be able to assess the member of another location in one evening? However, if church discipline happens among those who have regular contact and care for one another, this is not a problem. Congregationalism seems to rule out multi-cite churches. After all, ecclesia means assembly not church. Therefore, church is all about the congregating of believers in a physical location. It is not anything else than this. It is not somehow an idea with multiple manifestations. Each one of the gatherings should have elders, preach the word, and practice the sacraments and organize itself as a local church.
- The Lord’s Supper, “when you come together…” The Lord’s Supper has many points of debate, but the one aspect that seems undebatable is Paul’s instruction to partake of the Supper together as a sign of our fellowship with Christ and our fellowship with one another (1 Cor. 10:16-17). How do multi-site churches handle the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper? Do they partake of it separately or together? Well, it seems they would have to celebrate the Supper separately, which would be inconsistent with what the Supper means. Paul instructs us to celebrate the Supper in a worthy manner, meaning we are to be deferential to one another when we come together as the church to remember Christ’s work for us and to proclaim his death for us until he comes. We are to be together, but multi-site churches seem to preclude togetherness because the very model of the church depends on different locations of the one and the same church.
I’m sure I have made caractures of the multi-site position. I invite others to correct me where necessary and to dialogue with me and show me how multi-site churches carry out these commands of the Lord. If multi-site churches are able to abide by these commands, then I would be more in support of them. But as it is now, I do not think the multi-site church is in a position to obey these commands and thus one should reject the model.