The City-Wide Church Problem

One of the most important aspects of any return to a more scriptural church life and experience concerns the question as to how a multiplicity of biblical churches in the same general area and location relate together. And we are immediately confronted with the scriptural phenomenon of churches in the same locality being referred to corporately as just one church, yet with the identity of each individual church, meeting in whatever home, being nonetheless fully preserved, with each such still being referred to as being individual and specific churches in their own right. We therefore conclude that the New Testament writers use the word church (ekklesia), in the singular, to denote both individual churches meeting in homes and the sum total of all such individual churches in any one geographical location.

This shouldn’t, of course, surprise us. After all, when Jesus said, “I will build my church…” He was clearly not referring to any particular or individual church, or even a particular group of geographically neighboring churches, but to what the theologians refer to as the Church Universal. That is, all believers past, present and future. (I prefer the phrase the Church Throughout Time.) Further, it is also clear that, in another sense, all believers living at any one moment in time together constitute the corporate Church, or what theologians refer to as the Church Militant. (Though I favor the phrase the Church Throughout Space at any Particular Time.) And no one who knows their biblical onions seems to have any great problem thinking of the word church in these differing regards. It just boils down to the simple fact that, biblically speaking, there are both individual churches, and what one might term the wider church, this latter being comprised of any multiplicity of individual and particular churches however widely the net may be thrown.

We therefore, in this regard, have the church throughout history, the world-wide church, the church of a continent, the church in a whole nation, the church of a whole region, and so on and so forth. But of course the main point is that there is a clear distinction between what I am referring to as the wider church, in whatever sense and however widely one cares to think of it, and a particular individual church, be it a biblically based one or not. And in scripture this concept of the wider church is often quite clearly apparent at the level we might refer to as being that of a city, town or village. By which I simply mean any local geographical constituency in which it is practically possible for multiple churches to relate meaningfully together on the basis of shared friendships, multi-lateral labors and mutual interests and involvements.

I would, however, digress momentarily and ask my reader at this point to bear in mind the differing ways in which terms such as these are used. For instance, because the word ‘city’ is used to describe different types of locales in different countries, then it is simply a fact that in America there are ‘cities’ which in England would merely be small towns or even just large villages. And of course cities on the scale such as we have today in places like New York, London or Rio de Janeiro were completely unknown in the ancient world. To therefore try and equate the church in Paris today with the church in Jerusalem in New Testament times is to miss this vital point entirely. The twenty-first century church in London would, numerically speaking, equate much more nearly to the New Testament concept of the churches (plural) of a region, such as Galatia, or maybe even a much larger area like Asia Minor. And it is this idea – often referred to by house church folk as the city-wide church concept – which accounts for, and explains, a rather curious seeming contradiction found in the pages of the New Testament. And it is a seeming contradiction that those who do not base their understanding of church life and practice solely on the New Testament, and who therefore have the tendency to read their unbiblical church life, structures and experience back into it, would probably miss entirely; but nowhere is it more striking than when we read Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church.

It is, of course, precisely from his first such letter that we get so much detailed information about how the New Testament churches met. That is, about the format they used and what churches back then actually did when those who comprised them met together. And when Paul teaches them that everyone present is free to take part, in whatever way, and that the Lord’s Supper is an actual meal they eat together, then it is clear that a church is meant to be numerically small enough for such practice to be the case. After all, the apostle was far from being some kind of a twit and would hardly have taught a format which could only be adhered to by a small number of people if churches were supposed to be, either initially or eventually, numerically large. Further, we know from elsewhere in the New Testament that each individual church was house sized and met in the homes of those who comprised them, and of course everything Paul writes concerning believers gathering themselves together as churches is totally consistent with this fact and fits totally hand in glove with it. The apostle writes, quite simply, on the assumption that each church is numerically small.

But herein lies the problem! In the light of what we know from the Corinthian letters themselves, and also from Luke’s account in Acts of Paul’s stay there, it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that there were few enough believers there who could have all fitted into one house and thereby constitute just one individual church. Yet Paul doesn’t write to the churches in Corinth, but simply to the church (singular). He clearly seems to write as if there was only one actual individual church and not a multiplicity of individual churches constituting what I have called the wider church. What, we may well ask, is going on here?

And I think the answer to that may well lie in the simple fact that in New Testament times believers thought rather differently than we do today and didn’t as strongly distinguish in their minds the difference between individual and multiple churches in any one geographical area. And we can well understand why! Remember, all these individual churches in Corinth (however many there were) had ultimately all come about because of the evangelistic and pastoral labors of Paul and his apostolic team. They had brought (at least) the first wave of converts to the Lord themselves and then taught them what it meant to be a church. Even if things had started out with just one small group of converts meeting with Paul and his friends as one individual church in one individual house, all who came into the Lord’s kingdom later on were, concerning church practice (and everything else, of course), taught exactly the same thing, and would have simply replicated, however many times over, that original church.

Further, because all involved were being brought in by the same believers who constituted that original church everyone therefore had a very great deal in common too by way of mutual friendships and relationships. Indeed, as more and more people came to the Lord then those in existing churches doubtless shared themselves out so as to ensure that there was always a balance in each newly established individual church between the latest converts and those who were more mature in the Lord. And of course when such is the case, when every believer has been taught exactly the same thing, be it concerning church life or anything else, and with each individual church therefore being the same in both structure and format (that is, the format and structure of simply being an extended family of the Lord’s people), then one can begin to appreciate how, with such an arrangement, multiple churches would nevertheless still be seen as being just one large family in that city, albeit with each individual family member being placed into a smaller family unit in which they were intimately involved in an ongoing way. We could, perhaps, think of it as a tribe: different family units but one societal whole!

In the light of this we can easily understand how problems might arise that were common to all the churches in the city. And we can begin to appreciate too how difficulties might arise which didn’t necessarily apply to every church, yet which would nevertheless be addressed by someone writing to all the believers in that city, and therefore to all the individual churches, as if they did. The point is that the whole, by which I mean the corporate totality and nature of all those believers in that locale, is a completely comprehensible and graspable whole, and although obviously numerically too large to constitute an individual church which meets in the prescribed interactive manner in one home, can nevertheless still be apprehended, addressed, and even coordinated together, particularly by the apostolic team that brought into all into being in the first place, as one single entity. Remember, Corinth was nowhere near the size of a modern day city such as London, and neither is there anything in scripture to suggest that the believers there constituted anything more than a tiny percentage of the population. It is highly unlikely that there were more than a small handful of individual churches in Corinth, and idea prevalent amongst many Christians today that in New Testament times wherever believers went and evangelized large proportions of the populace became believers, is complete myth.

And this, I think, explains why Paul would write to the believers in Corinth as though they constituted just one individual church when they may have been numerically too large for that to have actually been the case, rather comprising more than one individual church. Further, it is also possible that the factiousness which Paul castigates them for in the early chapters of his first letter was taking the form of believers actually gathering into individual churches precisely on the basis of whomever their particular allegiance was grouping them around. It is therefore quite possible that there was a Peter church meeting in one house, a Paul assembly in another and an Apollos church somewhere else, each having little to do with each other.

And so we can begin to grasp why, even though the problems Paul deals with in his letters may well have involved a multiplicity of individual churches, he nevertheless writes as if they were actually affecting just the one church – which, of course, in the sense that all the individual churches constituted what I have termed the wider church, they were. Therefore, whether teaching them the importance of meeting in such a way that all are free to take part, or laying down the ground rules for using the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or dealing with issues surrounding the meal he had taught them to eat together, that is, the Lord’s Supper, it would be unnecessary for him to distinguish between what applied to his readers as individual churches in individual houses, and which of those individual churches, and what applied to them as the corporate wider church. Much of what applied to them on the individual church level also applied to them on the wider church, or city-wide church, level and vice versa. It is simply the way someone would think, and therefore write, having brought the gospel somewhere it had never been known before, and then forming the converts together into a multiplicity of small churches that are the same in structure, format and practice, but which are nevertheless seen as individual and smaller independent family units of a larger city-wide area family unit.

What we have here, then, is the simple fact that in any one geographical area what I refer to as biblical churches should, whilst remaining individual, distinct and independent churches, nevertheless be able to relate together as one wider church when circumstances require. The Jerusalem church was certainly able to do this as seen in how they both convened to sort out the problem of the widows who were being neglected in the distribution of funds to them, and then later on in the resolution of the problem surrounding the Circumcision Party and whether or not Gentiles should be circumcised when they became believers.

However, what we have to address now is how, in seeking to apply these principles wherever a multiplicity of biblical churches come into existence in the same geographical area, the independence, autonomy and functioning, and therefore individual identity, of each church can be ensured to be preserved. Failure here will result not in multiple independent biblical churches moving together as one wider church where appropriate, but rather in one city-wide mega-church broken down into smaller units which, far from being churches in their own individual right, would end up more like the modern day cell church concept and not be biblical churches at all. And the difference between these two concepts becomes abundantly clear when we look at the mechanism whereby multiple biblical churches can conceive of themselves, and organize and mobilize together, as one church, whilst nevertheless retaining their individuality and autonomy before the Lord as a multiplicity of separate and distinct specific churches. Nature furnishes us with the examples of both commensalistic relationships between different organisms and symbiotic ones. In the latter the different species concerned cannot survive without each other, whereas in the former they can, yet nevertheless greatly benefit from the shared relationship, each thriving as a direct result of it, and with neither being quite everything it could be without the other. And in the New Testament it is just this kind of commensalism which characterizes the relationship between individual churches in the same geographical location.

And what makes this possible without the whole caboodle just degenerating into a house church version of a mega-cell-church or, equally dreadful, a localized house church denomination, is the understanding that church leadership in scripture is not seen to be positional or hierarchical, but merely advisory and functional. I remind the reader that in the early church decisions were made collectively, either by the believers in any one individual church, or by the sum total of believers in any multiple churches which the decisions necessarily affected. (The aforementioned examples of the crisis with the widows and the church council in Jerusalem about circumcision are examples of the latter.) Far from being through any supposed executive authority of leaders, church decisions in the New Testament were rather taken by the gathered saints, and the traditional and prevailing idea that church leadership, whether local elders or traveling apostolic ministries, had delegated authority (as it gets called) over the churches would have been alien to the New Testament believers. In other words, the governmental mechanism in the New Testament churches was that of collective and consensual decision making and not executive leadership mandate.

Now this leads me to a rather surprising observation. It appears to be virtually impossible to ascertain for sure from the pages of the New Testament whether the plurality of elders, which was the biblical norm, was only recognized in the context of individual churches, or groups of churches; that is, the wider church. By which I mean, the principle of the plurality of elders we see in scripture may well not only – or, indeed, even – have applied to individual churches, but also to situations precisely where a multiplicity of such churches existed in one geographical location and which related to each other in significant ways. Or to put it another way, any individual church that has within itself someone who has a gifting that could benefit the wider body of believers ought to share out that person amongst those other churches in the local area that don’t have anyone of their own with that particular gifting. And of course this would apply concerning men who are recognized as elders by the particular church they are part of. They would remain and function in their own assembly, to be sure, but should there be other churches around their area without anyone within them who was yet ready for eldership, then there could be some sharing around whereby the elder(s) might occasionally rotate around the other local churches to help them out and strengthen them.

However, these rotating elders, for want of a better phrase, would be part of those church gatherings they visit in the same way they would be part of the gatherings at their home church. This is not leading a worship service for the early churches had no such thing, and neither is it preaching a sermon or doing some big up front leadership thing. The gathering (remember, we are talking here about biblical churches) would, as always, be participatory and inter-active. Any input from this rotating brother would simply be to encourage those gathered and to build them up in the Lord, and to do so through the established biblical format for a church gathering whereby all are free to take part and contribute. He is not there to be in charge or to lead in any up front kind of way. Rather, he would be there purely to guide, encourage, advise and facilitate, and to do so in such a way that the personal example of their own lives is paramount in all they do.

And of course the important thing to keep in mind about these men is that whether in regards to the particular church they are personally part of, or the churches they rotate around in order to help out – and this applies to all traveling ministries – they are not in any way hierarchical or in a position of authority. They have a function; that is all! They are there to serve the churches; they are not there to rule over the churches! In other words, they are neither authorized nor responsible for making decisions on behalf of either their own churches or those they visit. As we noted earlier, decision making in the early church, as taught by the apostles, was both collective and consensual. Though the Word of God is, or ought to be, our final authority, it is always the gathered church, and not the individuals who comprise them, whether acknowledged leaders or not, that has the responsibility of discerning and ascertaining what it requires of them by way of any decisions that need to be taken. Even in regard to the ultimate and extreme responsibility of exercising church discipline; that is, the responsibility of deciding if and when someone should be put out of the church, both the Lord Jesus and Paul laid the responsibility at the feet not of leaders, but of the corporate and collectively gathered church to which the decision pertains.

Any idea of recognized leaders being considered to be in authority over a group of churches, even house churches, is the foundational error introduced by the Early Church Fathers after the death of the apostles, and is the self-same false teaching which is at the root of the whole continuing tragedy of church life based on something other than the teaching of scripture. It is salutary as well to remember that when Clement of Rome came up with the insidious notion of instituting priesthood over the churches it was precisely when only house churches existed, and when the unbiblical idea of revolving church life around public religious buildings was an idea whose time had still not yet come. So let’s be very clear that ‘house church’, in itself, is absolutely no guarantee against the error of denominationalism and institutionalism. (I draw the readers’ attention to my preference of speaking in terms of biblical church as opposed to merely house church. A biblical church will be a house church, to be sure, but the converse is far from being automatically the case. There are churches that meet in homes but which are unbiblical in every other regard.) But let me make this even clearer, for it is at the very heart of the question as to whether or not individual churches can safely relate and function together as one. And I will do this by reminding us of what the very essence, the very nature and definition of a church actually is: an extended family of God.

In exactly the same way that a particular and individual church is comprised of particular and individual biological and nuclear families, the wider church (or city-wide church, if that is your preferred terminology) is likewise comprised of particular and individual churches. And in precisely the same way that the particular families which comprise a particular church never lose their individual family identities within that church, the same is true of what we see in the New Testament concerning particular churches relating and functioning together as the wider church. Similarly, the fact of individual biological and nuclear families sharing the corporate oneness of constituting a particular church should obviously never override the already established authority structure of those individual families; that is, the husband as the head of the family, and the wife and husband together exercising authority over their children. And in exactly the same way the corporate aspect of individual churches moving together as one wider church should never undermine the already established structure of authority whereby each individual and particular church is collectively and consensually responsible for it’s own self-governing. Or to put it another way, the wider church aspect of things should never overrule or become preeminent over the individual identity and autonomy of each individual church which together makes it up. The Lord Jesus, though the head of the wider church in any given locality (and, of course, of the church throughout time and space in its any and every possible manifestation), is nevertheless still the head of each individual church, and nothing must ever encroach upon the responsibility of each individual assembly of believers ascertaining for themselves His will for them. That church decisions must be consistent with the teaching of scripture goes without saying, but the point here is the protection and maintenance of the autonomy of each individual church within the parameters of a true and biblical interdependence in regards to the other churches in the general location.

When it comes to church life the very reason leaders do not have positional or hierarchical authority over people is precisely because, whether pertaining to individual churches or a wider church scenario, the only hierarchy we see in the pages of scripture is Jesus and everyone else. Leadership, whether in the form of local elders or apostolic ministries traveling much more widely, is simply there to teach and equip churches, and to show them, amongst other things, how to actually do engage in collective decision making and to facilitate them in the process. Leaders are themselves part of the process, of course, but they are not the process itself. Remember, decision making lies solely with the gathered church and never merely with a few individuals, or even worse, with one individual, within it.

When families come together as a church the very experience of so doing enables them to become more and more the individual families the Lord wants them to be. Individual family structure and life, far from being diminished in any way, is actually upheld and strengthened, and individual family identity is enhanced and built up. So too should it be with individual churches relating together. As long as any shared leadership functions biblically and stays well clear of the false teaching that anyone other than Jesus has authority over the church, whether individual and particular churches or the corporate manifestation of the wider church in any given area, then all should be well. The two keys for success in this regard are always this: firstly, understanding that a church is an extended family of the Lord’s people and, secondly, understanding that leadership is functional and facilitatory rather than positional and hierarchical.

But there is another problem we have to look at now, and I cannot sufficiently emphasize how important it is to understand and grasp it. And it is the simple fact that, no matter how much we might desire it, no matter how much we might long for it or pray for it, we can never again return to how things were, in this regard, in New Testament times. Why do I say this?

It is crucial to realize what the most important fundamental difference is between us and the early church apart, perhaps, from the fact that we have the completed New Testament scriptures and they didn’t; and it is that back then, when it came to their corporate lives together, to their church structure, set up and format; that is, how they went about things as churches, every church was the same. Or to put it another way, unbiblical churches hadn’t been invented yet. Indeed, the process of changing church life into something virtually the opposite of what Jesus and the apostles taught didn’t really begin to happen until the end of the first century after the apostles were all dead and the New Testament was fully complete. And of course the point is that unbiblical church life is a bit like the Atom Bomb – once invented you can’t just make it go away. It changes everything and nothing can ever be quite the same again. In other words, you can’t un-invent it!

Think about it! When the early church grew and spread out and more and more individual churches came into being, each one was pretty much the same. Therefore, for them to mobilize together didn’t present any great problem! They all recognized the same kind of traveling apostolic ministries and they all understood the non-hierarchical nature of such leadership, including that of local elders. In short, they would have had no trouble agreeing on what constituted a truly biblical church, whereas we today have to make a distinction between those which are biblical in their set up and those which are not. They never had to do that because they had only ever experienced one type of church, and of course the point is that such a state of affairs can never be the case again in most parts of the world. Unbiblical churches are to be found just about everywhere; and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do to change that unfortunate state of affairs. And this leads me to an absolutely crucial and inevitable conclusion! Unlike their New Testament counterparts biblical churches in any given area today in most parts of the world can never claim to be the church of that area or function together as if they were. And for the simple reason that they are not the church, but merely a part of it alongside all the other unbiblical ones!

Even with the advent of unbiblical churches nineteen hundred odd years ago, it is nevertheless still true that every believer in a geographical area, regardless of which, or what sort of, church they attend (whether biblical or not), constitute the true church of Jesus Christ in that area. Irrespective of individual assemblies, believers in biblical and unbiblical churches alike constitute what we are calling the wider church of Jesus in that locale. Therefore, the wider church (or city-wide church) concept, as far as it relates to biblical churches, must be seen against this background and in this context. Biblical churches in any one area should still, of course, be able to relate and function together as one church when necessary, but they must never refer to, or think of, themselves as the wider church (or city-wide church) as if they and they alone are comprised of true believers and are therefore the only true churches. Such a claim would, of course, and in a great many places too, be patently untrue; and would actually constitute a terrible spiritual exclusivity and arrogance that must be avoided at all costs. The fact that many believers are in completely unbiblical churches does not in the slightest bit mean that they are not wonderful brothers and sisters who truly love the Lord, and fellowship between all such should be purely on the basis of knowing Jesus. Agreement on secondary doctrines, including which or what sort of church one is part of should, when it comes to brothers and sisters in the Lord recognizing each other as such and fellowshipping one with another, be irrelevant. In such regard a biblical church (or biblical churches if there is more than one in a given area) is simply part of the wider church of that area and not the wider church itself.

Those of us in biblical churches are obviously free to pursue the corporate aspect of wider church together such as we have been examining, but we do need to be clear that things can’t ever again be quite as they were in New Testament times. There are, of course, problems to be addressed when it comes to the question as to whether, or how much, we should be seeking to work together with unbiblical churches in our local areas, but there should be absolutely no doubt at whatever but that we maintain true fellowship from our side with all believers in those churches, irrespective of which ones they are. And of course the biggest problem in this regard is often the simple fact that most unbiblical churches don’t seem to want much to do with us anyhow, and seem to think we are the worst thing to appear in the kingdom of God for a very long time.

Yet even if we do postulate a hypothetical scenario whereby other local churches did want to work hand in hand with us, all sorts of problems still ensue. For instance, churches in any given geographical region tend to work together through committees of the clergy, or pastors, of the individual churches involved. And of course those of us in biblical churches have no such equivalent people who could attend such gatherings anyway. You could, I suppose, argue that elders might be the closest to what’s needed and that they could, if invited, therefore attend and sit on such committees; but then how do you get round the fact that they would then be identified with what is, by very definition, a hierarchical leadership situation which they know to be completely against scripture? The unbiblical church leaders, with whom they would then be standing shoulder to shoulder, consider themselves to be ‘over’ ‘their’ churches, and that is something we cannot be identified with in any way.

Other problems arise when considering the notion of working together with unbiblical churches, and for the simple reason that, or at least here in England, the church leaders you would have to then recognize could be anything from sanctioning immorality in general and condoning sex outside of marriage, to actually being themselves practicing homosexuals. They could be those who deny Jesus’ divinity and resurrection, or actual occult practitioners. (The local Anglican Vicar where I used to live prided himself on having a wife who could contact the spirits of the dead.) Further, they could well be charismaniacs of the ilk that want to hear you bark like a dog or roar like a lion in order to truly believe that you are filled with the Holy Spirit. And of course – and a very high percentage of Christian leaders in this country will think me a dinosaur and bigot for saying this and not want anything much to do with me as a result – an increasing number of church leaders, from Anglican Priests to Pentecostal pastors, are women, whereas scripture makes it as clear as crystal that church leadership is exclusively for men.

The point is simply that, in any such set up whereby multiple churches in an area come together as an ecumenical inter-church collaboration, one can hardly pick and choose who one does, or does not, end up working with. It’s a rather all or nothing affair! And of course in England the Catholic priest is always included in as well – so what do you do with that? (And now the rest of the church leaders in England have got me down as a bigot as well.)

And of course the main point is that the teaching of scripture would have very little to do with either the personal make up of the body of leaders or the shared agenda they are trying to implement together. Indeed, that agenda could consist of just about anything and everything except what the Bible teaches. (I have known churches in the area in which I live to hire out their building for Psychic Fairs and occult demonstrations.) Even when it comes to putting on evangelistic campaigns you would, for instance, in such an ecumenical scenario, have to agree not to tell new converts they needed to be baptized because that would offend the Anglicans and Methodists represented on the committee; and of course you would need to be fine with the idea of involving yourself in various good works and charitable enterprises, but on the condition that you didn’t say anything about Jesus and people’s need of repentance, and on the condition that you agree not to evangelize in case it upset and offended the people being helped. I could, of course, multiply the above examples ad infinitum, but you get the point!

In drawing to a close I would just add here that the city-wide church is, I think, the background against which the appointment of deacons suddenly makes scriptural sense. The Jerusalem believers appointed the seven chosen men to look out for the widows precisely in a situation that affected all of them. That is to say, it was a situation affecting more than one individual church meeting in someone’s home, and so was dealt with by the wider church and on a multiple church basis.

I therefore conclude that, when it comes to the issue of what I have called wider church, or city-wide church, we can really only think in terms of how biblical churches might mobilize together in an area. Outside of biblically minded church planters evangelizing and planting biblical churches in a part of the world where no believers or churches previously existed (and there are places like that here and there), the idea that we can re-create what happened in the early church in this regard is a dead duck; and for the simple reason that the vast majority of believers are in churches which the New Testament writers and believers would not even have recognized as such. However, as we see more and more biblical churches springing up in our various locales it is good to understand the ways in which such churches can mobilize together at the Spirit’s leading, but without hierarchical and positional area-wide leadership emerging and reducing the whole thing to just another unbiblical denominational church set up, albeit a house church one.