One of the major arguments used to support multi-site church structure (one church in multiple locations) is that the idea of covenant is what constitutes a group of people as a church, not the idea of assembly. In other words, as long as a group of believers have covenanted together it really doesn’t matter if they all assemble together or not, they can still consider themselves a church. Pastor J. D. Greear has made this argument. In a 2009 article for 9Marks, he wrote:
Some argue that since a local church is by definition an assembly, a multi-site strategy fundamentally skews the nature of a local church. The essence of a New Testament local church, however, is not “assembly” but “covenant body.” . . . “Assembly” is a much-needed function, but “covenant” is the essence.
He recently tweeted about it again, which prompted me to write this post. Let me explain what I consider to be the main problem with this argument.
The main problem with the argument that the essence of a church is “covenant body” and not “assembly” is that the biblical pattern reveals that covenant and assembly go hand in hand. More than that, the pattern is that a covenant is in fact established in the context of an assembly of the covenant partners. In other words, those entering into covenant with one another do so in the context of an assembly.*1*
To give an Old Testament example, when God established his covenant (the Mosaic Covenant) with Israel at Mt. Sinai, he did so in the context of an assembly of all the covenant partners. All Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the presence of God in a solemn assembly to receive the stipulations of the covenant (the Law). And it was in the context of this solemn assembly that the covenant was made. This gathering at Mt. Sinai was later referred to in Deuteronomy as “the day of the assembly” (Deut 9:10; 10:4; 18:16). It was on this day that the people of God were constituted as “the assembly of the Lord” (Num 16:3; Deut 23:1, 2, 3, 8; 1 Chr 28:8; Mic 2:5). The day the covenant was established was also the day the assembly was established—in fact, it was established in assembly. And this original covenant assembly of all Israel at Sinai became the basis for the other worship assemblies throughout the year when Israel would gather again in the Lord’s presence (Exod 23; Lev 23). Here’s the point of this example. The reason Israel could consider itself “the assembly of the Lord” was not only because it was a “covenant body,” but also because it was a group that was characterized by actually assembling together in one place—the assembly component was just as essential as the covenant component.
This would be a good place to respond to one of the key points in Greear’s argument against the church-as-assembly view. Greear believes that “if the local church is essentially an assembly, then it only exists when it assembles and only when all the members are present” (see the article mentioned above). This is simply not true. Israel is frequently referred to as “the assembly of the Lord” or “the congregation of the house of Israel” throughout the Old Testament whether they are actually in an assembled state or not. The reason for this is that the congregation or assembly of Israel is characterized by assembling together on a regular basis (first at Sinai, and then at other times every year). This is common sense, really. When we say Israel is the “assembly of the Lord” we mean that they are the group that is characterized by assembling together. In the same way, a New Testament “assembly” (church) is called an “assembly” (ekklesia) because it is a group that is characterized by assembling together.
Now this discussion of the Sinai assembly is not some random Old Testament example that has no bearing on the nature of the New Testament church. Without going into a lot of detail, let me simply say that the New Testament word for “church” (Greek: ekklesia, “assembly”) is based on the idea of Israel as the “assembly of the Lord” in the Old Testament. As Tom Schreiner puts it, “The term ‘church’ (ekklēsia) reaches back to the OT term qāhāl, denoting Israel as God’s assembly.”*2* In fact, I would argue that there is an entire biblical theology of the people of God as the “assembly of the Lord” that starts with Israel at Sinai and that is fulfilled in the “assembly” Jesus is building now (Matt 16:18), the New Testament “church.” This New Testament assembly, like it’s Old Testament counterpart, is an assembly of all the covenant partners (i.e., the new covenant). Spiritually, all of those new covenant partners are assembled right now in the heavenly places in Christ (Hebrews 12:18-24; note the comparison here to the Sinai assembly). Physically, that one heavenly assembly is manifested on earth in the form of multiple local assemblies or churches, each of which is a microcosm or manifestation of the one heavenly church.*3*
So, the old covenant assembly of the Lord was constituted as one assembly by virtue of the fact that the covenant partners were characterized by assembling together in one place—assembling together was essential. And the new covenant assembly of the Lord in its ultimate form (the universal church) is constituted as one assembly by virtue of the fact that the covenant partners are assembled right now in the heavenly places in Christ—the assembly is essential. So, the question is, why would we expect anything less from each local manifestation/microcosm of the new covenant assembly? It’s true for the Old Testament “assembly” (ekklesia in the Septuagint), and it’s true for the universal “assembly” (ekklesia) of the New Testament; so why when we see the New Testament authors referring to each local manifestation of this as an “assembly” (ekklesia throughout the New Testament) would we not assume that being characterized by all assembling together is essential if a group is to consider itself a local assembly? Yes, each local church is a “covenanted body” (a microcosm of the larger new covenant body), but each local church is also an “assembly” (a microcosm of the larger new covenant assembly).*4*
The pattern from Scripture is that for a group of people to be constituted as one assembly (or church) they must not only covenant together, but must also be characterized by assembling together as well. Covenant is essential, but assembly is too.
1. Peter Gentry argues that “a formal and solemn ceremony,” which is what the Sinai assembly was, is what gives a covenant its “binding and quasi-legal status.” See Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, 152.
2. Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 694.
3. This is why, for instance, Paul can call the church in Corinth “the church in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2) and “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). As John Hammett states,“The local church is not regarded here [1 Cor 12:27] as merely a part of a larger body of Christ, but as the body of Christ in that place.” See John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 37. Hammett goes on to say, “This is another support for a proper understanding of the autonomy of the local church. No local church should be isolated, but no local church needs a larger body to complete it or enable it to function. It is the body of Christ, possessing full ecclesial status” (ibid.). Each local church is a local manifestation of the whole body of Christ and of the whole assembly of Christ. See chapter 4 of my dissertation on how the NT assembly is a fulfillment of the OT assembly, and see especially pages 76-90 on each local church being a manifestation in time and space of the ultimate heavenly church. The dissertation can be downloaded here.
4. I argue that local churches in the New Testament were in fact characterized by whole church gatherings in chapter 5 of my dissertation.