The New Testament idea is for each church to be numerically small but to have a lot of them. So the answer is No! We are only arguing for numerical smallness in relation to each individual and particular church. So of course that raises the question regarding at what point is a church too large, and what should it then do about it?
I obviously don’t want to go down the route of putting an actual numerical cap on a church which would hold good for every example. That would be ridiculous! But I guess the general rule of thumb would be that when you get to the point as a church when numbers are too large for all to reasonable contribute, and when numbers are sufficiently large that individuals could get left out and needs missed, then you need to start seeking the Lord as to how go about becoming more than one church. In other words, when numbers are too large for you to function as a church according to the New Testament’s teaching (that is, all present being able to freely participate and eat a meal together) then it’s time seek the Lord’s wisdom concerning becoming multiple churches.
It should further be obvious that there is no fixed way to go about this dividing, hence my emphasis on seeking the Lord’s wisdom concerning each particular instance. Scripture is silent concerning any set procedure so one has to look to the Lord for specific guidance. Whether one takes the approach of two or three families leaving to start a second church, or actually dividing into two (or three) numerical equal ones, the important thing is that consensus is reached before the Lord. I don’t say it is easy, but to become numerically large will, in time, end a church’s claim to be biblically based and everything that has been gained by being so will be lost.
However, once such division (and this is good division) has taken place it is vital to remember that although you now have more than one church this doesn’t mean that existing relationships are terminated and lost or that there will be no crossover between the multiplied churches. Far from it! And although each new church is individually autonomous before the Lord (or you will just end up with a little house church denomination) they should remain very much involved with each other if only on the basis of shared relationships and past friendships. Indeed, things like midweek Bible studies and prayer evenings could be shared together and attended by those from both churches in so far as space continues to allow given that everyone isn’t necessarily present for such midweek activities.
However, gatherings on the Lord’s Day would occur on the basis of each newly formed church meeting independently in different houses, each maintaining their separate identity and autonomy before the Lord as did the original church from which they came. Yet the interdependence born of continuing shared relationships and friendships means that the two churches will also, in some regards, move as one. (The city-wide church, as some term it. For more on this see my article, ‘The City-Wide Church Problem’ found in the ‘articles’ section on this website.)
However, as more and more churches are thus spawned (and please God may such be the case) then it eventually becomes more and more impractical for those in them to all meet together in each others houses for the corporate midweek activities such as Bible study and prayer. At this point the churches involved would have to decide whether to carry on all together in such things and hire a larger building for them; or whether to break down into two or three smaller clumps of churches doing things together whilst remaining in peoples houses. The key is each church going with its own consensus, in relation to other churches, as to which route they wish to take. It really is wide open. But what must be emphasized here, and I really do mean emphasized, is that each of these churches remain autonomous and have their own leadership (recognized by each respective church), being therefore quite at liberty to decide things for themselves and be free of unwarranted interference from the outside. In other words, there is neither hierarchy within individual churches (eldership, as we have shown elsewhere, is functional and not positional, and not in any way in authority over the church), nor over the churches corporately.
Further, men with gifts and callings (apostolic workers, pastor-teachers, evangelists etc) that can be of benefit more widely than merely to the church they are personally part of will also be recognized by other churches and can be utilized by being invited to work among them. Such men will obviously play a part, as the Lord leads, in facilitating multiple churches working together to do things which individual churches could not do on their own. But again, what must be clearly held in mind at all times is that such men do not have authority over the churches, but merely function as servants to, and facilitators of, any churches and believers who consider they have something to offer and who therefore invite them in. Absolutely fundamental to any biblical understanding of what churches ought to be like, and how leadership functions within them, both individually and corporately, is that it is this approach alone, if practiced faithfully and carefully, which prevents both the emergence of just another denomination, even a house church one, and of hierarchically minded leaders trying to incorporate such churches into their own little kingdoms over which they want to lord it and have authority. And of course the beauty is of this biblically prescribed way of doing things is that even if some churches do eventually decide to go down the wrong road and create an hierarchy and have some big leader at the top, then they are perfectly free to do so, yet without necessarily contaminating those other churches which recognize any such development for the folly it would be. Once you realize that in a biblical church any leadership (eldership) is accountable to the church of which it is a part (just as are those who aren’t elders), and that any ‘trans-local workers’ (the term I sometimes use for the above mentioned gifts and callings to which Paul refers in Ephesians chapter four) are accountable to whichever church they happen to be serving in at any given time, then the necessary biblically prescribed safety measures are firmly in place. And of course all the time the primary danger from which this protects us is any idea that, when it comes to church life, there are those who have authority over others.
In Christian churches authority lies solely with Jesus, and that authority comes primarily through the written Word of God. Once it has been established what scripture says about something then it has also been established what the Lord is saying about it. Conversely, anything that runs counter to scripture is, by equal definition, not what He is saying. However, our great need, and this is yet another example of biblical concepts striking at the very heart of our unbiblical approaches, is that we study and seek to understand the Word of God very much more as a corporate exercise as the gathered church, rather than just leaving it to certain individuals. The only hierarchy that operates within a church (though scripture makes clear that this is not the case regarding society at large, the family unit or the work place) is Jesus and everyone else. It is most definitely not Jesus, then apostles followed closely by prophets and teachers, then elders next in line with the poor old Plebs, the rank-and-file, at the bottom of the pile. No, it is just Jesus and everyone else. Of some importance here is the fact that Jesus taught that when a matter of church discipline arises it be taken to the church corporately and not just the elders (or any other leaders around.) Concerning church government the simple fact of the matter is that we see in scripture that churches decided things corporately as opposed to just being directed and told what to do by leaders. Consensus, the opposite of hierarchy, is the biblical order of the day.
So we are not anti-expansionist in any way. Indeed, we continue to both pray for, and work toward, numerical growth. Any concerns that this house church stuff equates to being some inward looking cozy navel-gazing affair really is somewhat wide of the mark. Of course, that isn’t to say there aren’t house churches around that are just cozy little coteries of the elect, but then what has that got to do with us? I remind the reader again of my preference to think in terms of biblical church as opposed to merely house church. Remember, whereas biblical churches will indeed meet in houses, it is far from being the case that mere house churches are necessarily biblical in any other regard.