Were Methodist Circuit Riders Practicing Multi-site?

This post contains excerpts from a paper I wrote for a PhD seminar at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Only the introduction and conclusion have been given here, since the purpose of this post is simply to relate the general argument being made.

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The question of whether multi-site ecclesiology is biblical is a much more important question than whether it has precedent in church history.  Nevertheless, proponents of this form of church structure have argued that there is both a biblical and historical basis for multi-site.  One of the arguments that is sometimes made is that there is precedent for multi-site ecclesiology in the example of Methodist circuit riders.*1*  For instance, the authors of what has become a seminal book on multi-site make the following statement: “In some ways, the multi-site approach is not new. . . . A case can be made that as church history unfolded, the church had many multi-site expressions, from mission stations to Methodist circuit riders to branch Sunday schools done by bus ministry.”*2*  These authors then refer to a pastor in Oklahoma City who “has Methodist roots,” and who “likes to comment that the move from horseback preacher to satellite broadcast is simply a shift from circuit rider to closed-circuit rider!”*3*  Another multi-site advocate that argues for precedent in Methodist circuit riders is multi-site pastor Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.  Driscoll argues that

throughout the history of Christianity there have always been networks, denominations, and movements in which multiple churches were linked together in various ways and to various degrees for the benefit of the forward progress of the gospel.  Historically, preachers have even traveled between churches to provide preaching and pastoral leadership.  One such example is the Methodist circuit riders, who would travel on horseback to preach at multiple churches.  Each of the meeting places had local identity and leadership, with the pastor serving successively at each site.  Francis Asbury (1745-1816), the founding bishop of American Methodism, traveled more than a quarter of a million miles on foot and horseback, preaching about sixteen thousand sermons as he worked in his circuits.*4*

Driscoll goes on to claim that contemporary multi-site churches are simply doing what the circuit riders were doing: “With increasing advances in technology, we are now seeing the principles of one church meeting in multiple locations exponentially applied.  The result has come to be called the ‘multi-site church revolution,’ which includes the controversial advent of ‘video venues.’  In many ways this is the circuit-riding preacher model renewed by technology.”*5*  According to Driscoll and other multi-site advocates, they are not using a form of church structure that they have invented, but, rather, that has precedent in earlier church history.  Multi-site church government is connectional church government—multiple congregations, or sites, connected under the umbrella of one governing structure.  This paper will demonstrate that Methodist church government is also connectional, and that, because of this, there is a similarity between the church of the Methodist circuit rider and the church of the modern multi-site pastor.

The thesis of this paper is that Methodist circuit riders were part of an ecclesial system that was, and still is, similar to multi-site church structure because both are marked by connectional church government.  This argument will be made in two steps.  First, by evaluating Methodist polity through the writings of one its founders, Francis Asbury, it will be shown that Methodist polity is episcopal, and therefore connectional.  Second, and much more briefly, it will be argued that though some slight modifications have been made to their system, this episcopal form of church structure continues to be practiced in the Methodist Church today.  This will serve as the basis for the claim that, while multi-site is not identical to Methodist episcopalism, the two are similar in their use of a connectional church government.

[The body of the paper is omitted.]

This paper has sought to show that Methodist episcopal church government is similar to multi-site church government in that both are marked by connectionalism—a form of polity in which multiple congregations are connected under one governing structure.  The writings of Francis Asbury reveal that early Methodism achieved this connectionalism due to their use of bishops, or superintendents.  These bishops had oversight over the entire church, and gave authoritative direction as it was needed.  Over time, and as the Methodist denomination grew, Methodists grouped their congregations into multiple jurisdictions.  Today, individual bishops are responsible primarily for those members in their own jurisdiction.  Together, however, Methodist bishops form a Council that gives oversight, along with the General Conference, to the entire denomination.  Thus, while today’s Methodist Church is not identical to the church over which Asbury was a superintendent, it is still properly considered an episcopal church.  The connectionalism that this type of polity achieves makes the church of the Methodist circuit rider similar to the churches within the multi-site movement.

In arguing that the connectionalism of Methodists and the connectionalism of multi-site is similar, I am not approving of multi-site connectionalism.  In fact, multi-site’s similarity to Methodism gets at the heart of the very problem I have with multi-site in the first place.  Multi-site has an episcopal-type (or, in some cases, a presbyterian-type) church structure, like Methodism, and it is this that I find to be unbiblical.  To show that multi-site is similar to Methodism in this way, is simply to illustrate the problem with multi-site ecclesiology.  What I’m arguing, then, is that congregationalists should make the same criticisms of multi-site ecclesial structures that they would of episcopal or presbyterian ecclesial structures.  Multi-site advocates are correct to claim precedent in Methodist ecclesiology, but it’s their similarity to Methodist ecclesiology that is the problem.

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*1*Some multi-site proponents argue that precedent for their form of church structure can be found in early English Baptists as well.  See Chad Owen Brand and David E. Hankins, One Sacred Effort: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 72; and Gregg R. Allison, “Theological Defense of Multi-Site,” 9Marks eJournal 6/3 (May-June, 2009): 14 [on-line]; accessed 14 November 2009; available in PDF from http://involve.9marks.org/site/DocServer/eJournal 200963MayJune.pdf?docID=641; Internet.  Brand, Hankins, and Allison base their claim on the work of G. Hugh Wamble in “The Concept and Practice of Christian Fellowship: The Connectional and Inter- Denominational Aspects Thereof, among Seventeenth Century English Baptists” (Th.D. diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, 1955).  I have done a study of the sources that Wamble cites and found the claim that multi-site is Baptistic to be false.
*2*Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird, The Multi-site Church Revolution: Being One Church. in Many Locations, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 91.
*3*Ibid.
*4*Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 244-45.
*5*Ibid., 245.

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