One church but multiple congregations?

What are the theological implications of having one church with multiple congregations? If a church is the gathering of God’s people - how can you rightly call a multi-congregational church a church? Isn’t it really a group of churches? This raises important issues about the identity of a church and the proper extent of authority over the church.

Here are 6 possible ways of thinking about the matter:

  1. Be very strong on the congregationalist view of church, and refuse to separate church identity and scope of authority beyond a single congregation that gathers weekly. Once it stops gathering weekly, it should not be called church. More: once it stops gathering weekly, it is inappropriate for a single leadership to presume to govern it: this is latent episcopacy. This is the 9 Marks view. They did a 9 Marks Journal edition all about Multi-Site churches that addresses this.

  2. Multiply services, but deliberately find ways to genuinely express the identity of these multiple services as a single gathering: this would mean you work hard at having combined services, say once a quarter, not simply as a matter of pragmatics… but as a matter of principle. (this is the outcome I’d favour).

  3. Put the services on a long-term trajectory for becoming separate and independent churches: this, I gather, it the Mars Hill strategy. They have a network of Mars Hill churches for now, but are prepared to divide them off to become independent after Driscoll dies.

  4. Free your definition of church from necessary gathering as one entire community or having a completely separate leadership. In this case you are arguing that there is enough elasticity in the definition of ‘church’ that a church with multiple non-overlapping services is still a single church. This is similar to Option 6 (below), but doesn’t argue that we are necessarily dealing with multiple churches. I think Don Carson is kind of arguing on these lines in his lectures on Basic Baptist Beliefs (and again in this transcript) - he says, for example that the ‘church in Ephesus’ was in fact multiple house churches with a single leadership that was still considered ‘the church’ in that city. The question here is at what point does this stretch the definition of ‘church’ beyond all recognition? A church with congregations in cities across the world?

  5. Recognise that you really have are multiple churches sharing common resources, but build in careful guidelines to preserve genuine cooperation. This view sees there being problems independent churches giving up too much of their identity and authority to a ‘share coop’ of leadership/financial management. And so it allows this partnership but carefully describes how this relationship works and how individual congregations can cede from this partnership if and when they choose. This also preserves formal, governing representative leadership among the congregations, undermining the control of the senior leader of the network.

  6. Recognise that what you really have are multiple churches sharing common resources and leadership and insist that there’s nothing wrong with that. This is Phillip Jensen’s view. You can read/listen to a series on the Biblical Church that Phillip did at the Cathedral in 2005 that argues along these lines. This might betray a latent Hooker Principle (as opposed to Regulative Principle) in Anglicanism.

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