In this four-part blog series, we answer the simple but controversial question: is it possible to pursue multi-site in a biblically faithful way?

We’re attempting to answer four questions: 1. Is multi-site evangelistically effective? 2. Is multi-site a biblically sound model? 3. Is multi-site pastorally helpful? 4. Does multi-site encourage or discourage leadership development?

Today’s issue: biblical fidelity.

Is the multi-site model biblically sound? This is, of course, the most important question. Or is it, even in its best forms, a pragmatic adaptation to a consumerist culture that departs from the biblical vision for the church? Some say it must be because the local church is in its very essence an “assembly,” and since a multi-site strategy, by definition, gathers people in different locations each weekend, a multi-site model, no matter how well-intentioned cannot be a biblically faithful approach to church. Multi-site congregations are essentially a network of “churches” under a episcopal-type government–with the total number of churches corresponding to the number of assemblies. By this definition, of course, this means that a church that meets in two services on Sunday morning is really two different churches. Each assembly is its own church.

Grant Gaines recently recapped this view on his blog, in response to an article (and a tweet) of mine. I had argued that the essence of a New Testament local church is not “assembly” but “covenant body.” If the local church is essentially an assembly, I said, then it only exists when it assembles and only when all the members are present. Furthermore, in the event that a church had to temporarily suspend its weekend services (due to war or disease), by that definition it would cease to be a church. Neither of those things is true, because what makes a church a church when it is not in assembly is the covenant that binds the members together. Assembly is an indispensable function of the church, but covenant is its essence.

In reply, Gaines argued that we cannot separate assembly and covenant. Assembly is a necessary feature of every biblical covenant, beginning with the covenants of the Old Testament and continuing on to the church covenants of the New Testament. The surrounding society, he says, only recognizes the covenant of the church via its assembly. As he writes, “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.”

We find Gaines’ insight helpful—and, in fact, we completely agree. We hope (and believe) that nothing we have said argues to the contrary. When we covenant together, we covenant together to assemble (Hebrews 10:25). Furthermore, God promises actually to be present with his people, in a special way, when they do that. So we agree with Gaines: assembly is necessary for a church. If a covenant body does not assemble, it cannot consider itself a church.

Thus, when one multi-site critic says, “A multi-site church could spread its 97 members (for example) across 2 sites or 97 sites,” that is simply not true–at least for us. I can’t speak for all multi-site leaders, of course, but the last thing we want to do is undermine the necessity of assembly in the life of a church.

Let us offer two thoughts in response:

1. The question—our primary point of disagreement with ‘single service only’ advocates—is whether the New Testament mandates that we must all assemble in the same place, at the same time, every week. In our opinion, single-service-only advocates have not demonstrated that.

Actually, it’s easier to put forward evidence to the contrary. Throughout the New Testament, we see evidence of single local churches that apparently met in multiple locations. Roger Gehring’s landmark study on the early church, House Church and Mission, has amply demonstrated that this kind of house church network was prevalent in the first century. New Testament and archeological evidence show us that Corinth, Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Philippi, and Laodicea were referred to as one “church” even though the Christians there gathered in various houses. The new congregation in Jerusalem, for instance, is frequently referred to in the singular, one “church” (Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:4). However, they obviously met in different times and locations, at least on a weekly basis. Historians tell us there was no space in Jerusalem available to the disciples in which three thousand or more people could have met on a weekly basis–and to insist that was happening, yet the New Testament just never told us about it, seems a rather flimsy and convenient argument from silence. Apparently, however, many first-century house churches came together periodically to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as one citywide church (see 1 Cor 11:17–20; Romans 16:5).

Thus, we believe that to flatly and dogmatically say, as Leeman does, that “there is no clear example of a multi-site church in the New Testament” under-represents the NT picture. John Hammett, for instance, a vocal critic of many multi-site practices, has argued that based on the New Testament evidence of Gehring and others, multi-site churches can be viable under certain circumstances—and that critics should show more care to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate versions of multi-site.

Furthermore, at The Summit Church, we’re committed to meeting altogether in one place at one time periodically throughout the year—not every week, but on occasion–in fact, we assemble altogether about as often as ancient Israel did in its assembly. We think gathering all together, periodically, is an important expression of our assembly. This is one of the primary reasons we don’t extend our sites beyond the city of Raleigh-Durham: churches spread across multiple states can never assemble all in one place. We believe the assembly of all people in the same place is a powerful encouragement to the body and compelling testimony to the world. But, we see nothing in the New Testament that demands that we assemble all together, every week, in the same place at the same time in one service. If God had preferred that for his church, wouldn’t he have made that abundantly clear? Then why not give freedom and flexibility where the Bible gives it?

2. We continue to maintain that the essence of the local church is covenant, and assembly a necessary function of a church.

At this point, our argument with Gaines and Leeman becomes largely semantic. We say, “Assembly is a necessary function of the church,” and they say, “A church is characterized by assembly and is therefore essential.” We’re not sure what the real difference between those two statements is. Is it “a distinction without a difference?” We both agree that assembly is indispensable to church life, and a church that does not assemble is not a real church.

But we still maintain that covenant is the essence of a church. We found this assertion on two reasons:

The first is logical. As we noted, a church doesn’t cease to be a church when its members don’t meet together. There might even be reasons why it is forced not to meet together for an extended period of time (like a disease epidemic or war or the like), and during that season it would not cease to be a church. Of course, if a church had no compelling reason not to meet, it would be a disobedient church, and at some point it would be fair to ask if its members were really a church at all.

Think of it like a marriage: Say a man residing in North Carolina arbitrarily marries a woman who lives in Russia, and he never sees her, talks to her, or physically is with her. Technically, based on a piece of paper they are married, but everyone would recognize that as a sham marriage. They may be married in the covenantal/legal sense, but because they don’t do anything married couples do, it’s rightly seen as a charade.

Second, there are many other necessary functions that churches perform besides assembly, as important as that one is—like participating in the ordinances and preaching the gospel—that we don’t want to obscure by putting all the emphasis on assembly. Furthermore, other Christian bodies assemble weekly and they aren’t churches, like campus ministries. The essence of a church is a covenanted body that covenants to do several things—follow Jesus, practice the ordinances, exercise discipline, and, yes, assemble. Each of them is indispensable, not just assembly.

The New Testament uses many word to describe the people of God, and ekklesia is just one of them. The church is also the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, a building with Christ as the cornerstone. “Assembly” doesn’t seem to be the main point of any of these images. The “body of Christ” points to us joining Jesus on his mission, since he is the head. The “temple of the Holy Spirit” points to the reality of God’s presence in his people, not merely with them (or with only some of them). The “bride of Christ” points to the intimacy we now have with God that is unparalleled. Aren’t these necessary elements of church—joining Christ in his mission, with his presence to guide us, experiencing intimacy with him? This is not to downplay the importance of assembling, but simply to observe it is not the only thing.

To be clear, we are not arguing that multi-site is the only scripturally faithful way to do church. And, as we have said, nor do we want to imply that all those pursuing the multi-site model are doing it in a biblically faithful way. In fact, we are very uncomfortable with many, if not most, popular expressions of multisite. Rather, we argue that the multi-site model can be faithful to the scriptural teaching on the church and might, in many situations, be the most prudent way to pursue all the biblical ideas the Lord Jesus puts forward for his church. More on this tomorrow.

We want to emphasize that we remain deeply grateful for Jonathan Leeman, Grant Gaines, both in their conscientious reflection and the charitable tone they bring to these conversations. Our church has benefited immensely from them, particularly from Leeman’s books and his work at 9 Marks. We are a proud and grateful participant in the 9 Marks network. Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of the Healthy Church is a staple for our elders and church planters, and we would encourage you to make it one for yours, also.

Coming up, tomorrow: 3. Is multi-site pastorally helpful? And then, 4. Does multi-site encourage or discourage leadership development?