Multi-Site Churches

Assembly Is Essential Too: A Response to J. D. Greear

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.

Brief Excursus
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.


Review of Gregg Allison’s Book on the Doctrine of the Church

Sojourners and Strangers

Gregg R. Allison. Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Foundations of Evangelical Theology). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 496 pp. $40.00.

Gregg Allison’s new book is sure to be a standard work of ecclesiology for years to come. The title, Sojourners and Strangers, is taken from 1 Peter 2:11. With this title, Allison highlights the fact that the church lives within the tension of the already and not yet—the time between Christ’s first and second comings when our heavenly citizenship collides with our earthly experience.

Rather than provide a complete summary of this hefty volume, in this review I will first, give a brief sense of what the book does, and, second, offer two critiques of issues I find particularly important.


Click here to read the rest of the review on The Gospel Coalition’s website.

Mars Hill Now Calls Their Multiple Sites “Churches”

Today (August 8, 2011) Jamie Munson (Executive Pastor and President of Mars Hill Church) announced via blog post that Mars Hill Church

decided to put an end to the word “campus” in the Mars Hill Vocabulary.

What will they call their sites now?  Answer: “churches.”  Why the shift from using the word “campuses” to “churches”?  Answer: it’s “more biblical.”

Munson writes that

the Bible does give us a word to describe a body of believers gathered together on mission for Jesus: church.

Does this mean that Mars Hill has rejected the multi-site structure in favor of (what I would argue is) a more biblical church structure?  Answer: No.  Munson explains:

Though by definition we may be many different churches, the Mars Hill Network of churches remains a single, united church.

They’re different churches by definition, but remain a single church(?).  In other words, Mars Hill has recognized that it’s not biblical to call their multiple sites “campuses” (they’re more than that; they’re churches) but will still leave what they are now calling their multiple “churches” under one, unified church-governmental structure.  It’s still multi-site; only, now, it might be more accurate to call it multi-church.

It was only a matter of time before someone in the multi-site movement admitted that their multiple sites were actually multiple churches.  Props to Mars Hill for being the first (that I know of) to do this.  It’s honest.  But it’s also telling.  If Mars Hill is right, and multiple campuses are actually multiple churches, then we really are dealing with the age-old question of whether local churches are supposed to be autonomous or whether its okay for multiple churches to be governed by a hierarchy that functions at a higher level of authority than the local congregation itself.  It really is the old debate between Congregationalism (e.g., Baptists) and Connectionalism (e.g., Presbyterians).

In my opinion, this is the most significant development in the multi-site movement to date.  Will other multi-siters follow suit?  Time will tell.

Are Multi-site Churches Biblical? A Response to Gregg Allison’s Resurgence Post

Recently, Dr. Gregg Allison posted an article on the Resurgence website entitled “Are Multi-site Churches Biblical?”

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.”

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.


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.


*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 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.
*4*Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 244-45.
*5*Ibid., 245.