Dr. Allison is one of my professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I have the utmost respect for him. He and I have had plenty of friendly back-and-forth on this issue in seminars, so what I’m writing here is nothing I haven’t already talked to him about face to face on numerous occasions.
My response to his post is threefold:
1) Dr. Allison says we’re making a methodological error. According to him, we cannot simply say that ekklesia means assembly and think that this settles the multi-site issue, because “we do not define a concept by defining a word.” My response to this is that I agree with him, and that I don’t know anyone who claims that multi-site is wrong simply because ekklesia means assembly. There’s a whole biblical theology of the people of God as the “assembly of the Lord” (from OT to NT) that stands behind ekklesia and that plays a major role in the way I, at least, approach the question.
2) Dr. Allison says we’re making a lexical error. He states that ekklesia doesn’t always refer to a literal assembly, and then cites texts that demonstrate this, arguing that this gives folks warrant for using the word to refer to groups that don’t assemble. I actually agree that there are instances in which ekklesia doesn’t refer to an actual assembly–Acts 9:31 for instance. Where I don’t agree with him is in concluding that this serves as warrant for a multi-site structure. Obviously ekklesia can refer to the church in its scattered state. I see this being true on two levels. At one level, a local church is still an ekklesia even when they aren’t in their gathered state. So, Calvary Baptist Church is still an ekklesia on Monday morning when the people are scattered, but they are capable of being referred to as an ekklesia because they are characterized by actually gathering together. The other level at which I see ekklesia being used abstractly is when it refers to a group of Christians that don’t necessarily make up one church. Again, Acts 9:31: “The church throughout the region…” I think this is like saying, “the church in China,” or “the church in Southeastern Indiana.” I don’t think it means that there was literally one church in the region made up of multiple campuses.
3) Dr. Allison wants to see a city-church as one local church made up of multiple house churches. I agree with him that the phrase “the church in the house” is in some sense distributive, but I don’t think that this means that there was one church in Corinth distributed among many houses churches. First of all, I don’t think there is any evidence of multiple house churches in one city. Dr. Allison’s attempt to argue that there were multiple house churches in Corinth is very weak. He mentions 1 Cor 16:19, Acts 18:7, Acts 18:8, 1 Cor 16:15, and Rom 16:23. The problem is that most of these texts don’t refer to a house church at all. The only ones that do are 1 Cor 16:19 (Aquila and Prisca) and Rom 16:23 (Gaius). In 1 Cor 16:19, Aquila and Prisca’s house church would have been in Ephesus, not Corinth, which means that the only meeting place in Corinth that is mentioned in any of these texts is Rom 16:23, where it says the whole church met in Gaius’ home. But for sake of argument, let’s say there were multiple homes in which people met. That could have easily been something like what the Jerusalem Church was doing in Acts 2–“meeting in the temple and from house to house” (large group/ small group). It doesn’t mean that the church in Corinth would have only met in those house groups, because even as Allison points out, the “whole church” in Corinth is said to have come together at least on occasion (1 Cor 14:23; Rom 16:23).
In conclusion, I don’t think the arguments put forward in Dr. Allison’s post show that there is “strong biblical warrant for multi-site churches.”