Often in reading or in conversation, I hear people claim that multi-site church structure is biblical because in the New Testament a city-wide church was comprised of multiple house churches in the same way that one multi-site church today is comprised of multiple sites or campuses. I think there are serious flaws in this kind of statement. It is not the purpose of this post to give a complete argument as to what these flaws are; rather, I simply want to let one scholar who has specialized in the area of the New Testament house church shed some light on one aspect of the nature of New Testament house churches that I think is a fundamental difference between them and current day multi-site churches. The author is Vincent Branick. In his book, The House Church in the Writings of Paul, he writes,
While Paul affirms the existence of the private or single family house church, and while for Paul that house church remains the basic cell of the local church, he clearly wants those house churches to form a body with each other within the city-wide church. . . . The Pauline local church existed thus on two levels, both connected with households, 1) a household assembly of an individual family and those associated with that family, and 2) a city-wide level meeting in a private home but consisting of several families.
Branick goes on to point out the similarities that this had with the city-wide assemblies of Greek cities:
In gathering the house churches together for a city-wide assembly and calling this city-wide assembly an ekklesia, Paul most probably had in mind the city-wide assemblies of the Greek cities, assemblies called ekklesia.
Now I don’t necessarily agree with Branick’s view of what a “house church” was (e.g., I don’t think it was simply equivalent to a household), however, his point about the city-wide assembly needs to be heard. The problem with the argument that contemporary multi-site churches are simply a new expression of the structure of the New Testament house church network is that almost all contemporary multi-site churches are missing Branick’s second level of the New Testament church structure. The multiple sites or campuses of most multi-site churches never have a city-wide (or state-wide, nation-wide, or world-wide for some churches) assembly in which the members of each individual unit gather together in assembly at the corporate level. This is not a minor difference. Rather, this gets to the heart of the major problem with multi-site churches. An ekklesia (assembly) cannot be ONE ekklesia (assembly) unless its members are characterized by actually assembling together. If multi-site proponents are going to justify their view, they need to do it by arguing that New Testament patterns of polity are not binding on the church today, not by trying to root their practice in the structure of New Testament house churches.