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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Inbox: A Multiplication of Woes

“I thought the definition of a church was ‘a multi-site group of local congregations all part of the Body of Christ’. But if that’s what the church is, then why would we need a flow chart in order to locate our authorities? There are elders, then there’s the Chief Shepherd: did I miss something?”
Before we get into the definition of a church, Anonymous’ reference to a “flow chart to locate our authorities” points out what may have been a lack of clarity in my graphic illustration.

Two Sorts of Flow Charts

There are two sorts of organizational flow charts: (1) the sort that illustrates the internal reporting structure of an organization (boxes for CEO, then CFO and a variety of better- or worse-compensated minions and minion-managers in tiered boxes below them) and (2) the sort that shows the overall structure of an organization in terms of the various incorporated entities that comprise it (subsidiaries, parent organizations, sister companies, etc.).

My graphic was not an attempt to depict the authority structure within a church as that was not really the subject of the post. It was, rather, intended to be the latter sort of chart, generically illustrating the various linked campuses of a hypothetical multi-site church. But since it failed to communicate my point to at least one reader (and probably more), let’s employ my extremely limited skills with PowerPoint to attempt a clearer illustration of the difference between the biblical church model and the multi-site church model.

The Multi-Site Model

First, the multi-site model. In the thinking of the multi-site folks, this entire diagram represents a single “church” comprised of a number of geographically separate “campuses”:


I should point out that, as Ed Stetzer says in a blog post for Christianity Today, “Most multisite churches today have a main campus, even though they don’t want you to call it that. It is a joke at every one I visit.”

So, many of the terms I’m employing, like “main campus”, “daughter campus”, “subsidiary” or “satellite” are terms of convenience, not designations those in leadership at multi-site churches would prefer or use themselves.

There are also significant differences between multi-site churches. Some may have a single pastor and elders at the main campus and videoscreens (with or without elder support) at a number of daughter campuses, subsidiaries or satellites. Some may have pastor(s) and/or elders at each daughter campus. There may be other possibilities, as the multi-site model is growing and evolving.

A Denomination By Any Other Name

But the essential idea is this: as Stetzer points out, there IS a “main campus”, whether one is discouraged from calling it that or not (he goes on to say, “At many multisite churches, the other campuses essentially serve as overflow rooms”, demonstrating the truth of his choice of words).

So the main campus calls the shots. The rock star pastors to whom Ed Stetzer makes reference do their rocking in person at the main campus.

It seems to me like a denomination by any other name. It has all the negative aspects of denominationalism (pastors, a central authority who is someone other than Christ, etc.), without actually calling itself that.

1.    Where each subsidiary campus has its own elders, pastors or teachers, they are effectively their own local church — unless the main campus or rock star pastor sets the doctrinal agenda, in which case they are effectively a denomination.

2.    Where each subsidiary campus has elders but most or all of the teaching is by video from the main campus, the elders have become subordinated to an intermediary and effectively neutered. Authority is clearly perceived to be vested in the head office. So the elders are no longer functioning in a position of direct responsibility to Christ and authority from him. That is a significant departure from the teaching of scripture.

3.    If there exist many cases in which the elders as well as the pastor are all concentrated in the main campus and the daughter campuses are mere overflow rooms, this will be a very short lived movement. Stetzer references an instance in which “a multisite church I know closed one of their campuses because they have 8,000 people in their church and 7,000 of them go to the main campus.” Satellite campuses dying by attrition or collapsing back into the main body of the local church are a pretty clear indication that things are not working as intended.

The Superiority of the Biblical Model

In contrast, the biblical model which, if we absolutely had to diagram an organism like a business, might initially appear similar. But this chart actually represents not one but five different local churches under their head, the Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ:


(There should probably be an angel in each of these somewhere if we take Revelation into account, and some sheep as well, but you get the general idea.) And you will note several ways in which it is preferable (in my humble estimation) to the multi-site model.

1.    Each local congregation is responsible directly to nobody but the head of the church, the Chief Shepherd. There is no intermediary, in the form of either a rock star pastor or a main campus.

2.    The teachers and elders are directly accessible. They exist at the same “organizational level” (if we must use that language) as the sheep they serve.

3.    Under such direction, when it operates biblically (which we know is not always the case), the sheep are ideally not viewers or consumers but participants and members (in the sense of members of a body, not signatories of some sort of membership contract).

I won’t rehash all of Jonathan Leeman’s 22 concerns about the problems that tend to result from multi-site churches. His concerns are frequently practical, and it may be that some of the multi-site churches he speaks of are coming up with ways to address those.

But my point is the structure itself is extra-biblical and tends by its very nature to quickly become anti-biblical. Is it the worst heresy since Arianism? Not at all. But an improvement on the New Testament model? Despite some initial results that are interpreted positively in most circles, I would say there are good reasons to be cautious.

The Definition of a Church

Anonymous used the definition ‘a multi-site group of local congregations all part of the Body of Christ’, which certainly describes one aspect of the word “church” as used in scripture.

It is used two ways, both well described at GotQuestions?org, so I will duck re-inventing the wheel:
“1) The universal church consists of all those who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). This verse says that anyone who believes is part of the body of Christ and has received the Spirit of Christ as evidence. The universal church of God is all those who have received salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

2) The local church is described in Galatians 1:1-2: “Paul, an apostle … and all the brothers with me, to the churches in Galatia.” Here we see that in the province of Galatia there were many churches — what we call local churches. A Baptist church, Lutheran church, Catholic church, etc., is not the church, as in the universal church — but rather is a local church, a local body of believers. The universal church is comprised of those who belong to Christ and who have trusted Him for salvation. These members of the universal church should seek fellowship and edification in a local church.

In summary, the church is not a building or a denomination.”
I think we can probably agree that the sense in which Anonymous uses “church” is the former one. But practically speaking, as individuals we have next to nothing to do with the organization or maintenance of the church universal. That was constituted by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and is very much outside of our control or input, though in a small and indirect way our personal efforts certainly contribute to it.

But all of our practical input into the Body of Christ must necessarily happen at the local church level. And it is the local church, not the universal church, that has its structure, leadership and purpose described in the New Testament, and which is both practically dependent upon and directly responsible to the head of the church, Christ himself.

Any new movement that inserts into a mediatorial position between the elders and the Chief Shepherd either a single, prominent man or a number of functionaries operating out of a “main campus” and calling the shots has departed from scripture in that respect at least.

They may function well in other ways, but in that respect they have lost the plot.

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