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Jonathan Leeman

Theological Critique of MultiSite: Leadership Is the Church

By Jonathan Leeman


Abstract: Both the multi-site and multi-service church models remove "the gathering" from the necessary ingredients of what constitutes a particular church, since neither model requires all the members of a church to gather together in order for them to be a church. Instead, both models equate the local church with its leadership and its corporate structure, since it's the leadership and corporate structure that are the only things that the separate assemblies uniquely hold in common.[1] Leadership is the church.

Neither the multi-site church nor the multi-service church is a church. Both are an association of churches, since one essential component of what constitutes a church as a particular church on earth is a gathering. And in that regard, the multi-site and the multi-service churches are no different. One divides its gatherings geographically while the other divides them chronologically.

Notice, then, I'm not primarily talking about the semantic range of the Greek word translated as "church" in English versions of the New Testament—though that's another conversation worth having and I will raise it along the way. Rather, I'm bringing up the old theological conversation from the Reformation about what constitutes a church as a church. In a word, I'm not asking what ekklesia means. I'm asking what constitutes a particular ekklesia

If it can be demonstrated that, in the Bible, one essential component of a church is gathering, then I take it we must say that two services or two campuses which do not meet together are not a "church," or that any "church" which claims to meet only a few times a years is a disobedient church, at least if we believe that churches should gather weekly.

In what follows, we will consider two basic categories of problems with the multi-site and the multi-service "church"—what I call a theo/logical category of problems as well as a biblical/theological category of problems. In all this, I recognize that both multi-site and multi-service churches come in all shapes and sizes, but for the sake of simplicity I'm going to treat both generically in what follows. If what I argue is compelling, I trust the reader can make any necessary adjustments for particular differences.


Let's start with the theo/logical problem. By this pretentious sounding phrase, I simply mean that the problem is part logical, part theological. Hopefully I can make this clear, so bear with me.

There are two questions at stake which sort of merge and get muddled up, but we'll try to pull them apart. One question is, what constitutes a local church on earth? That's a theological question. Another question is, how can two separate entities be called one entity? This is a logical question.

Let me start with the logical question. Advocates of the multi-site and multi-service church are claiming that two or more gatherings of Christians, whether separated geographically or chronologically, together comprise one church. And so I want to start by asking a logical question, which is, in what can we say that two or more things (gatherings of believers) are in fact one thing (one church). This means that we need to set aside our preconceived ideas of what a "church" is. Yes, the semanticists will want to quickly jump in and say that the Greek word which we translate into church means assembly or gathering. But we're interested in a logical question for the moment, which means we need to set aside preconceptions. After all, multi-site and multi-service advocates use that term "church" to refer to something that involves more than one gathering. So let's start by asking, how can these two things really be one thing?

We could have the conversation using mathematical notation (warning: philosophical mumbo jumbo to follow for two sentences), as in, two different things [x and y] constitute one thing [O] only in so far as they share some feature or quality in common [q], such that their oneness is constituted principally by that quality [xq and yq are O in q]. So what's q for the multi-siters and multi-servicers?

Like I said, we could have that conversation that way, and maybe thinking in those terms is helpful for one or two of you, as it is for me, to get the ball rolling. But perhaps we can be a little more concrete with several analogies, analogies which I believe help us understand what a multi-site or multi-service church actually is. Here's the first: My wife and I are two different individuals, but together we comprise one family. How is this possible? It's possible because both of us share something which constitutes us as a family, namely, a marriage covenant. But notice that with this analogy, the separate things [individuals] are a different kind of thing than the one thing [a family].

Not so with the different branches of a large corporate entity, like the different branches of a bank. Walk inside any branch of Citibank, and what do you find? You find a bank. Each "branch" of the corporate bank called Citibank is a complete bank unto itself because each branch has all the essential attributes of being a bank. You can borrow money, save money, invest money, and do all those things we say constitute a bank. But the same is true of the whole corporate entity called Citibank—you can use it to borrow, save, and invest money. No, I'm not saying that the branch of a bank is exactly the same thing as a corporate bank. I'm just saying that we can properly think of both as banks. So do you notice the difference with the first analogy? The separate things [branches] are essentially the same thing as the one thing [the corporate bank]. Obviously, I'm not a family all by myself. I'm only a family in conjunction with my wife and the thing we share, a marital covenant. At the same time, the second analogy is like the first in that the branches of Citibank constitute one bank, as opposed to the branches of Bank of America, because of what Citibank's branches uniquely share in common: a logo, a management structure, corporate ownership, a menu of services, and so forth. For simplicity's sake, we can say that all the branches of Citibank together comprise one organization because they share the same corporate structure.

So far, so good? Okay, we need one more analogy in our repertoire—think of another kind of corporate entity, namely, any fast food franchise, like McDonalds. Like the first two analogies, the separate things are made one thing because of what they share in common. As with Citibank, the different McDonald's restaurants are made one organization because they share a common corporate structure—they share a logo, corporate ownership, menu, etc. But like the first analogy, the separate things are a different kind of thing than the one thing. You wouldn't ever call all the McDonalds franchises one "restaurant," just like you wouldn't call me and my wife "one individual." But you would call each of the different branches of Citibank a "bank" while also calling the conglomeration of all those branches a "bank."

Okay, enough with the analogies, already. What does all this have to do with the multi-site or multi-service "churches"? In one sentence, let me put it like this: (1) the advocates of a multi-site or multi-service model functionally use the word "church" like my wife and I refer to ourselves as one "family"; (2) they biblically justify their functional use of the word in this fashion like one might refer to different branches of a bank as one bank; (3) but what they really are is McDonalds, that is, they are different churches which comprise nothing more than one corporate entity, which they are misnaming a "church," as if we were to begin referring to all McDonalds restaurants collectively as a "restaurant." Let me explain each of these points in turn, and along the way I'll argue that the whole kit and caboodle is problematic.    

1. Multi-site and multi-service advocates use the word "church" in their life together just like my wife and I refer to ourselves as one "family." Read the literature or listen to the announcements of any multi-site or multi-service "church." They speak of themselves and all their component parts as one "church." The word "church" is used to refer to all the people who attend the different services or different campuses. The people at the main campus and the east campus together comprise one "church." The people at the 9:30 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service comprise one "church."

Do they treat each service as a "church" unto itself? Or each campus as a "church" unto itself?" No, the different services are different services, and the different campuses are different campuses, plain and simple, just like my wife and I are different "individuals." By the same token, the different "services" or "campuses" together comprise one "church," just like different individuals comprise one "family." And they do so, apparently, because they share whatever it is that constitutes or is essential to being "one church."

Never once, in other words, have I ever read or heard of a multi-site or multi-service "church" refer to their different campuses or services as different "churches." You do not hear them say, "You are welcome to attend the 9:30 a.m. church or the 11 a.m. church." No, you hear them say, "You are welcome to attend our church [or gather with our church] at 9:30 a.m. or 11 a.m." The same goes for everything you will hear from a multi-campus "church." They (dare I say?) never talk about attending the church's geographically different churches. They seem to always talk about attending the church's different "sites" or "campuses."

What do multi-site and multi-service advocates say constitute them as "one church"? A common corporate structure. In their book, Multi-site Church Revolution, the authors assert,

A multi-site church is one church meeting in multiple locations—different rooms on the same campus, different locations in the same region, or in some instances, different cities, states, or nations. A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board (Zondervan, 2006, p. 18; italics mine). 

The website of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, pastored by John Piper, says almost the same thing. 

We are a multi-site church. As part of the Treasuring Christ Together Strategy, we aim to multiply campuses. Therefore, from our Downtown Minneapolis campus which was established in 1871, we have launched a North Campus in 2002 and a South Site in 2006. Unlike new church plants, the campuses are all part of Bethlehem with a single vision, a single strategy, a single theological foundation, a single eldership, a single constitution, a single band of missionaries, and a single budget. (reference here; italics mine)

Notice, these are not "new church plants," that is, not new churches. They are new sites or campuses. Defending multiple services and campus, John Piper writes in his blog,

I think the essence of biblical church community and unity hangs on a unity of eldership, a unity of teaching, and a unity of philosophy of ministry. And then, within the church, it hangs on very significant clusters of relationships that are biblically life-giving and involve all of the "one another" commands of the Bible.

Now, Piper uses the phrase "biblical church community and unity." I hope I'm not being unfair by assuming that what he means is, these are the things that constitute the different services and campuses of Bethlehem as "one church," namely, a unity of leaders, teaching, and philosophy. Interestingly, he mentions "various clusters of relationships" as well, but it's hard to see how those apply since, at least in principle, those are separate clusters of relationships—one set at one campus, another set at another campus, and so forth. After all, he's talking about the relationships which are life-giving, which would mean they are the relationships of people being together and known to one another.

All that to say, the authors of Multi-site Church Revolution and Bethlehem Baptist Church, if I might treat them as representative of a multi-site and multi-service mentality, make a distinction between the separate things [sites and services] and the one thing [a church], much like our first metaphor of different individuals comprising one family. And both MSCR and Bethlehem seem to argue that the different gatherings constitute "one church" according to a common corporate structure (i.e. leadership, vision, budget, constitution, etc.). 

There's nothing terribly surprising about any of this, I don't think. But hold on: we're still building the case.

2. The advocates of a multi-site or multi-service model biblically justify their functional use of the word "church" to cover multiple services and multiple campuses like one might refer to different branches of a bank as one bank. In their typically-brief biblical justifications for the multi-site or multi-service "church," proponents will generally point to the flexibility of the idea of "church" found in the New Testament. For instance, Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, referring to the churches in the New Testament, write, "the variety of venues there indicates that the early church was quite flexible, meeting and worship in distinctive situations to meet the needs and opportunities of their time" (Vintage Church, Crossway, 2008, 244). Driscoll and Breshears point to "networks of churches scattered throughout a particular city (e.g. Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, and Philippi)." Of course, Paul writes to the "church," singular, in the city of Corinth, and the "churches," plural, in the region of Galatia. So I'm not sure why he would lump these together. The only Scripture Driscoll and Breshears actually quote is 1 Peter 1:1 in reference to "the churches in the areas of ‘Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,'" which they characterize as "linked networks of congregations." Of course, the text itself refers to "saints," not "churches." Either way, I've both squinted my eyes and tilted my head at this latter example, but have been unable to see a single multi-site "church" comprised of various "campuses," "services," or "sites."

No matter. The more compelling Scriptural justification given by multi-site and multi-service advocates comes from references to house churches in Romans and Colossians. So Paul writes Romans to "all those in Rome who are loved by God" (1:7), which must either refer to one church or a network of churches. Then, at the conclusion of the letter, he tells his readers to greet Prisca and Aquila and "the church in their house" (16:5), which just might suggest that, if there is one "church" in Rome to whom he's writing, that one "church" is comprised of many house "churches," like the different branches of Citibank, each a bank, together comprising one bank. The same thing shows up in the letter to "the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae" (1:2). Paul later refers to one particular house church (4:15), which in turn seems to be a different house church from the church which met in Philemon's house, since we know that Philemon also lived in Colossae (Phil. 1:2). Multi-site advocates also commonly aver that the church in Jerusalem must have met in different house "churches," given its size.

The basic idea here, so the argument goes, is that the house church can be referred to as a "church," while all those networks of churches can also be referred to as "a church," just like an individual branch of Citibank can be called a bank while the corporate aggregation of those banks can also be called a "bank." And this might work if the term for "church" were indeed flexible enough, or if the essential nature of a "church" somehow allowed for it, or if Scripture clearly used it in this way.

A significant problem for this line of argument is that nowhere does Paul refer to the church (singular) of Rome or Colossae, nor does he refer to house churches in Jerusalem. Even if there is reason to think he was writing to a single church in Rome or Colossae, as some commentators argue, there's absolutely no reason to think the said house churches also belong to (or constitute) the single city church. The idea must be imposed on the text. 

And, of course, the advocates of the multi-site or multi-service churches never refer to their sites or services as "churches," as we have already seen. They're happy to refer to the good old fashioned single service church (like my church) as "a church," and they're happy to refer to their own conglomeration of sites and campuses as "a church;" but they won't refer to a site or service by itself as a church, the way these house churches are referred to as churches. (Why not?!) In other words, there's a contradiction between their practice and the way they justify their practice, at least when they argue along the "flexibility of the word" lines (and, even then, the Scripture doesn't say what they're claiming it says). In short, they use the word "church" like the family analogy, but they justify it according to the bank analogy. And this is problematic since the component parts of a family (individuals) are not all families, while the component parts of a corporate bank are indeed all banks.

Now, in fairness, this isn't the only way advocates attempt to justify their structures biblically. Sometimes, multi-site and multi-service advocates will use a Scriptural example that looks like the family analogy to justify their structure. The two examples usually cited along these lines both come from Acts:

  • "And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they [the Jerusalem church] received their food with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:46).
  • "But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison." (Acts 8:3)

There two verses are used to argue that the one church in Jerusalem is still considered "one church" even amidst its different gatherings in different houses. 

Here is where the logical question (how are two separate things one thing?) and the theological question (what constitutes the local church on earth?) begin to merge. Think about the word "team" for a moment. If I'm on a basketball team, I don't need to be with my entire team in order for me to still be a part of the team. Along these lines, it's easy to see how "the church" could be spread out across different homes, just as we can easily say something like, "the basketball team spent the night in different hotel rooms" or even "different cities." As with the word "team" in this sentence, the author of Acts, Luke, is using the word church in these two examples as a matter of identity. All the people who belong to the Jerusalem church, considered corporately, bear the identity of the Jerusalem church, whether together or apart, just like all the members of a team bear that corporate identity, whether together or apart.

The key question here is, are the members of the Jerusalem church (singular) doing something in their homes that's sufficiently constitutive of them being the church, such that they would never need to gather as a whole? With a basketball team, for instance, the team would never be a team if it were never together, because one of the constitutive elements of being a team is togetherness, even if team members sometimes practiced in smaller groups or even as individuals. But the multi-site or multi-service church seems happy for the various sites or services to never (or seldom) meet, yet still claim that they constitute as one church. It's not togetherness, apparently, which is constituting the church. What is it? If you want to point to a passage like Acts 2:46 as a justification for multi-site, you have to be willing to say that whatever it is the Christians were doing by "breaking bread in their homes" is more than enough to constitute them as the one church in Jerusalem, whether or not they are also "attending the temple together" (Acts 2:46). We're told multiple times in the early chapters of Acts that the church in Jerusalem all met together (e.g. Acts 2:44; 5:12; 6:1-2); but the multi-siter must defend his position by claiming that these acts of togetherness did not constitute them as a church--something else did. 

Either way, let's move to the theological question: what constitutes a particular church on earth as a particular church? (We cannot refer to a "local church," of course, because that would presume that locality is constitutive of a church, which the multi-site church does not admit.) The church universal (or better, the church heavenly and eschatological), I would argue, is constituted by the new covenant of Christ. All those who belong to Christ's heavenly and end-time assembly do so by virtue of Christ's new covenant and our membership in it. But what about the church on earth? How do we make a distinction between four Christians bumping into one another at the grocery store and a particular church?

I will provide what I believe is the biblical answer in the section below entitled "The Biblical-Theological Problem." Here, I want to consider what the multi-site and multi-service churchmen provide as their functional answer. Notice, I did not say that I'm interested in their theological answer. I trust their explicit theological answer would make use of some of the elements that I employ below, like preaching of the gospel and distribution of the ordinances. No, I'm interested in their functional answer of what constitutes the church on earth. What is it? In part, it's a corporate structure, as we cited from their own pens in point one above. By refusing to call their individual sites or campuses "churches," even though each of these sites and services contains a gathering of Christians to hear God's Word preached and the ordinances distributed, they effectively say, "A gathering of Christians to hear the gospel preached and the ordinances distributed does not constitute a church. It constitutes a "site" or a "service," but not a church." Okay, what then constitutes "a church"? Well, here's what they write: "A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board" or "a single vision, a single strategy, a single theological foundation, a single eldership, a single constitution, a single band of missionaries, and a single budget." In other words, what constitutes those two separate gospel-believing gatherings as a "church" is their shared corporate structure.

(To return to our mathematical notation, corporate structure is the q which makes the different sites or services [xq and yq] one church[O]. And since x and y, by themselves, are not churches, while O is, q must be essential to being a church.)

Presumably, these advocates would also include the gospel in what constitutes the church, and maybe even preaching the gospel and distributing the ordinances. They don't say that in these statements about what constitutes their multi-site church. But, to be charitable, I trust they would affirm that multiple gatherings in a shared corporate structure that are bereft of the gospel is no church. Still, notice that they do say that the two separate gospel-believing gatherings are not both churches apart from that shared corporate structure, just like I as an individual am not a "family" apart from the set of relationships that constitute me as a family with my wife. A corporate structure, apparently, is of the esse of the church on earth.

To return to the two multi-site proof texts in Acts, I'm happy to say that the church in Jerusalem is still the "church" when they are spread out from house to house, just like I would say a basketball team is still a team even when its members are spending the night in different rooms or cities. But I'm happy to say that for the basketball team because, at some point, they will come together and do that which constitutes a basketball team. Likewise, in Acts 2 you have the church coming together in the temple to do that which constitutes them as a church, and then scattering to break bread and share fellowship in smaller groups. Fine. They're still constituted as a church not by what they do when they're scattered, but by what they do when they're together. Then in Acts 8, you simply have a statement about Paul going from house to house and persecuting the members of the Jerusalem church, just as if you said something like, "The coach went from room to room, alerting the team that basketball game had been postponed." That strikes me as the plainest reading of Acts 8 (and apparently Christians have read it that way for 2000 years). What's strange about the multi-site and multi-service church is that they are happy to do away with "gathering" as one component of what it means to constitute a church, even though there's clear biblical evidence that the Jersualem church all gathered—yes, all thousands of them (see Acts 2:44; 5:12; 6:1-2)! It sounds as if the multi-site and multi-service advocates point to these passages to say that their "team" (church) is a "team" even though they never gather as a "team" because being a team has nothing to do with to getting together. But is that what these two passages teach? Couldn't it be the case that it's whatever the Jerusalem church is doing together that constitutes them as a team?  

As I say, strange. We'll return to what the Bible says constitutes the church as a church in a moment. The bottom line here, is multi-site and multi-service advocates implicitly use the bank analogy to justify their practice from the Bible. This is problematic at the very least because it's not how they live, to say nothing of whether or not they can legitimately do this from the Scripture. When they do attempt to justify their practice with a family analogy from Acts, they have to read the text in a very peculiar and (I believe) non-sensical way.

3. What multi-site "churches" really are is a corporate entity of the fast food franchise variety; that is, they are different churches which together comprise one corporate entity, but which are then misnamed as a "church," as if we were to begin referring to all McDonalds restaurants collectively as a "restaurant." A McDonald's restaurant serves prepared food which you pay for, and that makes it a restaurant, plain and simple. What makes a McDonald's restaurant a McDonald's restaurant? Well, the same set of things that make a branch of Citibank a Citibank bank: it's corporate structure. It has the corporate logo, the corporate name, the corporate ownership structure, the corporate menu, and so forth. All by itself, it's a restaurant, just like the Burger King and Taco Bell franchises next door to the McDonald's are restaurants. It's a restaurant because of what it shares in common with the Burger King and Taco Bell next door: it serves prepared food which you pay for. But it's a McDonald's restaurant because of what it shares with all the other McDonald's restaurants, but doesn't share with the Burger King and Taco Bell next door.

Yet all this raises some perplexing questions about multi-site and multi-service churches. If I attended the East Campus on Sunday, or the 6 p.m. service on Saturday night, all my multi-site and multi-service friends would agree that I gathered with "the church," right? But still, none of them would want to say that I attended the East Church or the 6 p.m. Church. But isn't that like saying that individual McDonald's restaurant where I'm served food is a McDonalds, yes, but not a restaurant? Isn't it like saying that only all the McDonald's franchises together are "a restaurant," but that none of them individually is a restaurant?

Even before we try to figure out what constitutes the church biblically, I believe I can say this logically: If I can be said to attend "church" or gather with the "church" on Sunday by gathering with any one of its services or at any one of its campuses, then it must be the case that something at that service or at that gathering can be said to constitute the church all by itself—apart from the other services or gatherings. If I can go there and pay for food, it's a restaurant. If I can go there to "get church," then it's a church. If that's true, then what is the conglomeration of all the services or campuses? They are a conglomeration of churches, just like the McDonald's corporation is a conglomeration of restaurants. The multi-site or multi-service "church," then, is not a "church"; it's a corporation which is constituted by separate churches existing together in a corporate structure—a name, a logo, a budget, a constitution, a leadership vision, and the very things which its advocates say unite the so-called "church."

All that, as I say, is the theo/logical problem. It's a logical problem because it claims to be one thing, but it's another. It's a theological problem because it makes—I believe—an absurd statement about the essence of the church on earth, namely, that it must include a corporate structure that goes wildly beyond what's cited in the Scripture. Most theologians would agree that even pastors are not of the esse of the church. But now, a pastoral vision is? And a budget? Does even Rome go this far with its institutionalism?


What shall we say constitutes a particular church on earth? The answer which the Bible gives us, I think, is very simple and very basic: a particular church is constituted by a group of Christians gathering together bearing Christ's own authority to exercise the power of the keys. Three things, then, are necessary for a church to be a church: you need Christians, a gathering that bears Christ's authority, and the exercise of that authority in the keys.[2]

What Constitutes the Universal Church? The New Covenant

As I have already said, the gospel of the new covenant which Christ speaks about in the Last Supper is what constitutes the universal church—Christ's heavenly and eschatological assembly. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ purchased an end-time assembly of people for God through the new covenant of his blood. This assembly is not yet fully gathered, but it has, in fact, already begun to assemble in heaven (Heb. 12:22-23; Eph. 2:4-6, Col. 3:1, 3). So the church universal is constituted, you might say, by what Christ talks about in Matthew 26.

People often talk about the first particular church on earth then showing up at Acts 2 at Pentecost, which is true. But it's important to recognize that the foundation of the local church on earth was established much earlier, during Christ's ministry. He did this in Matthew 16, 18, and then conclusively in chapter 28. 

What Constitutes the Local Church? A Gathering with the Keys

In Matthew 16, Jesus hands Peter and the apostles the "keys of the kingdom" to bind and lose on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven. What is Peter to bind and loose on earth? Commentators and creeds differ on the answer. Some say doctrine. Some say people. For a variety of reasons, I think it's the latter. But no matter how you answer the question, most writers seem to acknowledge that, one way or another, the end result is that Peter and the apostles would have the power to bind and loose people.[3] The goal here, after all, is to build Christ's heavenly church, which they are to do on earth through this power for binding and loosing. Also, in Matthew 18, which D. A. Carson helpfully calls "an application" of the authority granted in Matthew 16, the church is told to treat an unrepentant individual as an outsider—to exclude him; and then Jesus again invokes the authority of the keys, seemingly as a foundation for the church's authority to do so. Notice two things about this. First, the authority given to Peter and the apostles in Matthew 16 is handed to the local church in Matthew 18. Second, the local church in Matthew 18 employs that authority to exclude an individual. Insofar as "binding and loosing" are opposites, I take it as self-evident that the authority to exclude implies an authority to include or to unite (plus, if chapter 18 merely presents one application of the authority given in chapter 16, there's no reason to limit the authority to that one example of application). This makes further sense of the context of Matthew 16, where Jesus gives the power of the keys to the apostles, again, for the purpose of establishing the church on earth.

What's often characterized as the "Great Commission" is the culmination of the really great commission that Christ begins to hand the apostles in chapter 16.  In Matthew 16, Jesus seems to implicitly invoke his authority—based on Peter's profession of him as the Christ and Son of the living God—when he hands Peter the keys of the kingdom. Then in Matthew 28, he explicitly affirms the fact that "all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me." In Matthew 18, he promises to be present whenever two or three are gathered in his name. Then in Matthew 28, he again affirms that he will "be with" his disciples to the end of the age. God is present with his people!

This one who bears ultimate authority then authorizes them, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20).

In his command to "make disciples," Jesus is not just authorizing them just to share the gospel, he's authorizing them to affirm credible professions of faith through baptism—to publicly declare, "This one belongs to Christ's body." The "Great Commission" is not just about evangelizing; it's about church planting and church building.

Notice, also, that Christ promises to dwell with these two or three gathered in his name in a way that he doesn't promise to the individual Christian. That's not to say that Jesus doesn't dwell with the individual Christian. It's just that, in these passages, Jesus, like Yahweh in the Old Testament, is promising to specially dwell with his gathered people. Jesus dwells with his church.

What then is the relationship between the keys of Matthew 16 and 18 and the ordinances to which we're introduced in Matthew 26 and 28? Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the symbols the church is to use in its binding and loosing. Once a church baptizes a believer into itself as a one-time event, as a sign of a person's union with Christ, it can then serve the individual the Supper as an ongoing confirmation. Michael Horton provides a tidy definition of the power of the keys, I think, when he writes, "Through preaching, baptism, and admission (or refusal of admission) to the Communion, the keys of the kingdom are exercised."[4] The church on earth has the power of the keys, then, to preach the gospel and to bind and loose people to that gospel, according to their credible professions of faith (an uncredible profession will result either in refusal of admission or church discipline).

An Institutional Charter

In these four chapters of Matthew, Christ effectively hands his people what I would call an institutional charter. What does the charter say? Drawing from Matthew 16, 18, 26, 28 and a couple other places in the New Testament, I would propose that it says,

I hereby grant my apostolic church, the one eschatological and heavenly gathering, the authority to act as the custodians and witnesses of my kingdom on earth. I authorize this royal and priestly body, wherever it's manifest among two or three witnesses formally gathered in my name, to publicly affirm and identify themselves with me and with all individuals who credibly profess my name and follow me as Lord; to oversee the discipleship of these by teaching them everything that I have commanded; to exclude all false and disobedient professors; and to make more disciples, identifying these new believers with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through baptism.

Jesus is king, and in these chapters he is granting the nobles a charter which authorizes them to build on his land.

One begins to see how extraordinarily foolish it is for so many evangelicals to presume that they retain this apostolic authority for themselves, which they do whenever they say that their Christian faith belongs to them and that they don't need a church to affirm it. Would any reader of this article, right now, presume to recruit someone for a professional football team and offer him a contract? Or for a position in the British prime minister's cabinet? Of course not. We know that we don't have the authority. Who then has the authority to formally affirm and unite someone to the body of Christ? Christ does, certainly. Beyond that? These three passages in Matthew tell us that he gave this authority to the apostles, who were uniquely commissioned with the apostolic message to establish the foundation of the church. Once that foundation was established and the apostles died, did that authority then pass along to every individual on the planet to determine whether or not he or she should be baptized into the body of Christ? Hardly. That authority is then passed on to the church. Only the apostolic church has the authority to baptize and distribute the Lord's Supper. Now, the church does not have the authority to deny baptizing one who offers a credible profession of faith (Acts 10:47). After all, the church's authority is mediated, not ultimate. Still, the church alone has the power of the keys, and the church on earth is, quite simply, particular churches.

Missional and Communio authors understandably react against institutionalism in churches. Yet their critique of church as a place, an event, or a set of activities misses the distinction between a local church and a group of Christians gathered in the grocery store or a camp. They miss the fact that Christ established an earthly organization with this charter, and its members don't have the authority to use the company credit card whenever and however they please. When can Christians use it? They can use it whenever they have formally gathered together in his name and the Spirit of Christ is present through Word and ordinance (cf. Acts 4:31, 6:2, 14:27; 15:30; 20:7). This is what both Jesus and Paul say.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." (Matt. 18:17-20)

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:19-20)

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit [perhaps meaning, his spirit as an authority-conferring apostle] is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:4-5)

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (1 Cor. 11:18-19)

Notice, first, that these believers are gathering in the name and by the authority of Christ. In Matthew 18, they will use that authority to exclude an individual. The same is true in 1 Corinthians 5. Then in 1 Corinthians 11, they celebrate the Lord's Supper because they bear that same authority. Indeed, to eat in an unworthy manner is to "profane the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:27), because they are doing what they are doing representing him and in his authority.

Second, Christians do comprise "a church" such that we are a church whether together or apart, just like a team is a team whether together or apart. This is a matter of identity, as we said earlier. But Paul can also use the term "church" a little more precisely and even institutionally, as he does in 1 Corinthians 11. He speaks of gathering "as a church" in a manner that we Christians are not "the church" or at least "a church," apparently, when we are not gathered. In other words, this formal gathering has an existence and an authority that none of us has separately. It's like he's saying, "When you gather together as a team, play well." He's no longer speaking just in terms of identity; he's speaking technically in terms of what constitutes a team, or a church. It's the whole gathering which constitutes the church. You can't be a church if you don't gather and gather bearing his authority to exercise the power of the keys.

Not Just Congregationalists

It's not only congregationalists who have historically seen the necessity of a gathering for a church to be a church. The nineteenth article of the Anglican 39 Articles reads, "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same." Article 7 of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession similarly reads, "The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered."

Portions of the argument being made here, in other words, are congregational. But the overall gist of what I'm saying is not. That's why the multi-site and multi-service church both offer us something relatively unique in the history of the church. Yes, there may be odd circumstances here or there whereby a group of people decided to call multiple gatherings one church. But whether we're talking early and medieval episcopalian structures, Reformation Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian structures, and certainly free church structures all along the way, just about everyone has always referred to different gatherings as different churches, not different sites or services.

What This Means For the Multi-site and Multi-service Church

What then shall we make of the multi-site or multi-service church? I see three lessons for the multi-site or multi-service church from all this.

1. Not a Church. First, the multi-site or multi-service church which never gathers all together simply is not a church, because gathering is one element constitutes a church.

Now, some multi-site churches do gather all their sites together three or four times a year. What do we make of that? Well, if in their separate weekly gatherings, each separate gathering is exercising the power of the keys through preaching and the ordinances, thereby binding and loosing people to themselves, then those separate gatherings are churches. When this is the case, then the quarterly gathering of all those churches is…I don't know…something else—probably an assembly of churches, who can then be said to be usurping the power of the keys insofar as they exercise them in that larger assembly.

If, on the other hand, those separate weekly gatherings preach the Word, but never take the ordinances, because they reserve baptism, the Lord's Supper, admission, and discipline for the quarterly meeting, then maybe there's some technical sense in which the quarterly gathering is a church. But then the whole thing strikes me as fairly anemic, not to mention disobedient, at least by their own rationale, since the New Testament seems to suggest that a church should gather weekly, not quarterly. Also, if exercising the power of the keys means affirming credible professions of faith, and preventing and excluding fraudulent professions of faith, how meaningfully can a church who meets four times a year do this? Can it do it with any integrity? Finally, notice that exercising the power of the keys in large quarterly meetings means that the exercise of the keys, to some extent, will be separated from the ministry of the Word. In other words, if my campus is being shaped by one preacher of the Word, and another campus is being shaped by another preacher of the Word, the quarterly gatherings of all our campuses as a "church" will be undertaking some of a church's most sensitive work, like church discipline or elder nomination, we won't quite share the "one mind" that a single service, single-campus church has by sitting under one preacher together week after week. 

2. Usurping the Keys. Second, insofar as different sites or services (that is, different churches) do exercise the power of the keys over one another, they are guilty of usurpation. If it's two or three gathered in his name who know Christ's presence and authority, what should we make of another gathering or body which then imposes itself on the first gathering, but that they are trespassing in a place they do not belong. Since the congregation's own apostolic authority is itself premised, I believe, on the priesthood of all believers, any group (whether another congregation, a body of elders, or a bishop) which imposes itself on an assembly of believers is guilty of wrongly standing between a believer and God. Yes, this particular critique is a congregationalist's critique.

3. Giving the Leaders Apostolic Authority. The church's power of the keys is an apostolic power. It's the power to bind and loose, and it's effectual. For instance, a church which disciplines an individual effectually accomplishes the intended end. Its action does not depend upon the individual's consent. On the other hand, an elder's biblical authority, as I understand it, is not apostolic and not effectual. Neither an elder nor the elders are given unilateral authority in the Scriptures to include or discipline individuals into the church. To use the older terms, the church has the authority of command, while the elders only have the authority of counsel. One of the reasons for this difference lies with the fact that a gathering is of the esse  (essence) of the church, while the elders are only of the bene esse (benefit) of the church.

Another way of stating critique 2 above (usurpation) is to say that a multi-site or multi-service church effectively places the apostolic power of the keys, not in the hands of the church, but in the hands of the leadership. Listen to Piper again:

I think the essence of biblical church community and unity hangs on a unity of eldership, a unity of teaching, and a unity of philosophy of ministry. And then, within the church, it hangs on very significant clusters of relationships that are biblically life-giving and involve all of the "one another" commands of the Bible.

Piper's argument works if he wants to invest the elders of his congregation with apostolic authority. The "significant clusters of relationships" aren't doing any work here since those relationships are divided among different assemblies or services. No, the unifying force here is the elders and the overall corporate structure. The elders and their corporate structure are the common factor [q] which all the assemblies uniquely share. (But don't they all share the gospel as well? Yes, but so does every other true church in the world. It's the corporate structure here which is making their franchise the Bethlehem franchise.) And since it's the elders and their program which constitute this "church," it's the elders who are now of an apostolic status. They have inserted themselves into the church's esse. This, I fear, is what every multi-site and multi-service church has effectively done.

Is this just theological obscurantism? I don't know, how healthy do you think churches today are?   
More concretely, I do believe this is a matter of obedience. A church is present wherever two or three are formally gathered together in Christ's name and the Spirit of Christ is present through Word and ordinance. A church is present only by the authority of Christ as given to the whole gathering, not by the authority of elders or significant clusters of life-giving relationships. And that means that a church is present only in the congregation, the assembly, the crowd, all those people sitting in the pews. A group of leaders which grabs the keys out of Christ's hands and uses them on its terms is guilty of disobeying Christ.

It's Not Just About "Relationships" and Size

The advocates of multi-site and multi-service churches often respond to critiques against them by observing that church members cannot all know one another once a church reaches a certain size, so dividing up a church between services or sites does nothing to hurt church community that size hasn't already. Besides, the church in Jerusalem was really large.

But what I'm arguing here is that a particular church on earth is not constituted simply by relationships or fellowship. It's constituted by Christ's authority, exercised and given to a gathering. Therefore, this particular argument misses the point of what constitutes the church. A regular gathering of 20,000 people, gathered for preaching and the celebration of the ordinances, is in principle a church in a way that two services of 10 persons a piece who all know one another is not.

Now, I readily admit that that a twenty thousand member congregation will have difficulty exercising the power of the keys responsibly and with integrity, just like the "church" that meets four times a year. In fact, I'm even willing to say that a point can come in which a single gathering does fail to fulfill what Jesus commands in Matthew 16 and 18, because twenty thousand people who meet once a week in a stadium are probably going to fail to exercise the keys with any integrity. Sure enough, we see massive disputes cropping up in the Jerusalem church by the time we reach chapter 6 that required new solutions. A large church can be just as negligent in practice as the multi-campus is in principle.

But there's the point. The multi-campus, multi-service church in principle can no longer fulfill Jesus' Matthew 16 command because the members of each campus are simply not gathered. The irony, of course, is that multi-siters are taking what we can see in the New Testament (very large churches) to claim that what we can't see (a multi-site church) exists. In so doing, they miss what the New Testament says constitutes a church—both on earth and in heaven.


In the final analysis, the multi-site and multi-service "church" are correct to functionally view the church on earth as one just as we view a family as one. I believe that's a correct metaphor for understanding the oneness of individual believers in a particular local church (which is why the church-as-family is a New Testament metaphor, unlike restaurant-franchise or corporate-bank metaphors).

Yet the multi-site or multi-service "church" presents us, from one perspective, with a marriage that's never been consummated. The vows have been spoken and every party has agreed to belong to one covenant, but one biblically-essential constitutive element has been neglected—the act of coming together as one.
From another perspective, of course, the marriage has been consummated. Each campus or service represents the covenant people who have come together. What we have in the multi-site or multi-service church is nothing more than an association of churches. Call it the church's marriage retreat weekend!

Jonathan Leeman is director of communications for 9Marks.

  1. I say that the leadership and the corporate structure are the only things that the assemblies "uniqely" hold in common because hopefully, of course, they hold much more in common, such as the gospel. Yet every church in the city, hopefully, shares the gospel in common. What uniquely distinguishes the two campuses of a multi-site church from other churches in the city is is leadership and corporate structure.
  2. I discuss the power of the keys in Matthew at length in The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love (forthcoming Jan. 2010, Crossway). I present only a very abbreviated version of the that discussion here.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Michael Horton, People and Place (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 243.

May/June 2009
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