With the rise of multi-site church planting even among the more discerning evangelical ministries, raising an objection at this point is a little like giving away Cinnabons at a health convention. A real party killer.
So I for one am really glad that Thabiti Anyabwile, a wise and godly pastor-and Council member of The Gospel Coalition-has expressed so clearly what many of us have been thinking for a while now. And hats off to The Gospel Coalition for providing a forum for this healthy conversation. (See Thabiti Anywabwile, “Multi-Site Churches are From the Devil”). It’s well worth the read, regardless of where you stand on the question.
Many are calling multi-site churches a revolution-not so surprising for a movement that prefers revolutions to reformations. As the authors of The Multi-Site Church Revolution (Zondervan, 2006) define it, “A multi-site church is one church meeting in multiple locations…A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board” (p. 18). Sounds hierarchical, no? In fact, the book’s subtitle is One Church in Many Locations. It would be ridiculous to compare radical Protestantism to the Roman Catholic Church. However, at this point, there is at least a theoretical agreement. According to the latter, there is one supreme pastor and thus, one church, headquartered in Rome, with branch offices, as it were, throughout the world. This polity is explicitly and dogmatically committed to a hierarchical ministry, with a charismatically-gifted head who is accountable only to the Spirit who endows him with at least the potential for infallible interpretations of God’s Word.
One of the many things I appreciate about Pastor Anyabwile is that he is actually a Baptist-a Calvinistic Baptist, to be sure, but a Baptist. He is convinced that Scripture teaches congregational church government (i.e., the independence of local churches) as well as a “gathered church” model of membership that doesn’t admit covenant children through baptism. Personally, I wish he were not a Baptist or a congregationalist, but you know where he stands-it’s not within a movement but within a concrete ecclesiastical tradition. He didn’t invent these ideas, but is persuaded that they’re biblical. Furthermore, despite the age-old debates of significance between us, he and I would agree more with each other than either of us probably would with those in our own traditions who wanted to “go multi-site.”
I’m not at all saying that defenders of the multi-site model do not appeal to Scripture. For example, Gregg Allison notes that “the house-churches in that city [like Corinth] would come together as the ‘church in Corinth’ to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.” ["Theological Defense of Multi-Site," IX Marks Ejournal (May-June 2009), 11.] Similarly, J.D. Greear points out that the church in Jerusalem was one church meeting in multiple locations. ["A Pastor Defends His Multi-Site Church," IX Marks Ejournal (May-June, 2009), 21.] In fact, I agree with these specific interpretations.
So I share Thabiti Anyabwile’s concerns about the multi-site model. I especially concur with his statement that you can’t have elders in a particular church without a pastor (and deacons). If you do, it’s basically (though imprecisely a “papal” model), where the local church’s main under-shepherd is not the local pastor (or teaching elder) but a minister who is known and loved by the congregation only as an exalted icon. He is not the servant of Christ who feeds you regularly with the Word and sacraments and leads you in corporate worship; who visits your home, catechizes your teenagers, and drops by the hospital to see how you’re coming along after surgery. If not papal, the multi-site ecclesiology is at least quasi-episcopal, with the cathedral (seat of the bishop) and its satellite churches (diocese). One way to know whether your church is following the New Testament pattern is to ask yourself the practical question: If I were struggling, could I call the pastor? Does he actually look after his local flock, beyond public appearances to preach and teach? That’s a good question to ask whether you’re in a multi-site situation with live video feeds or in a traditional church with a pastor who says, “I don’t do visitations.”
Yet I also agree with the model’s proponents that the apostolic church was organized as a constellation of local congregations in larger cities or regions. They were not planted by a single megachurch with a single pastor, but by the presbyters (pastors and elders). Once “particularized” (i.e., properly organized as local churches), these congregations had equal rank with every other church, as well as equal responsibilities and accountability. This covenantal connectionalism spread out in concentric circles from the local church (with its three offices) to the presbytery (representative ministers and elders from all the local churches) to broader synods and assemblies.
The main outlines of a presbyterian polity can be seen in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, where a local church dispute was taken to the broader assembly of the church. It is striking that several times the report refers to “the apostles and the elders” as the decision-making body. Commissioners (including Paul and Barnabus) were sent from the local church in Antioch to the wider assembly, convened at Jerusalem. In fact, it was James rather than Peter who said, for his part, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God…” (v 19). Still, the final verdict awaited the assent of the full assembly. “Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabus,” to relate the written decision to that local church (vv 22-29). Clearly, “the whole church” wasn’t present exhaustively in terms of every believer, but it was present representatively (covenantally) through the pastors (in this case, the apostles) and elders who were sent from various churches.
At the Jerusalem Council, the unity that the Spirit had established at Pentecost was preserved visibly not by the sacrifice of the one to the many or the many to the one, but by the consent of the many as one. The covenant community functioned covenantally in its outward and interpersonal government, in mutual submission rather than hierarchical unity or independent plurality. Already in the following chapter we see the salutary practical effects of this Council in the mission to the Gentiles, when Timothy joined Paul and Silas. “As they went from city to city, they delivered to them for observance the decisions [dogmata] that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily” (Ac 16:4-5). Not merely godly advice that churches could either accept or reject, these emissaries were delivering decisions to be observed by the whole body. At the same time, they were not imposed hierarchically, but arrived at ecumenically by representatives of the broader church. The whole visible church was present federally (covenantally) at the Jerusalem Council.
Interestingly, even Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas and Pope Benedict XVI concur that presbyterian polity was the earliest.  Similar to the third-century Eastern father Cyprian, the Western father Jerome explained less than a century later, “Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders,” and Jerome goes so far as to suggest that the introduction of bishops as a separate order above the elders and ministers was “more from custom than from the truth of an arrangement by the Lord.”  The significance of Peter in the apostolic college was never denied by the evangelical confessions, yet it was pointed out that Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to all of the apostles equally, and it pertained to the confession of Christ as the Son of God (Mt 16:19 with 18:18-20).
Christ gave the keys to the church, to be administered by lawfully called and ordained servants, for the express purpose of both preserving the corporate body and its individual members against the ravaging effects of false teaching and practice, as well as false accusations. Members and officers must have access to due process in church courts. The point of a presbyterian polity is to spread the ministerial authority of the church out to the many, at the local level and with recourse to broader assemblies, rather than to place it in the hands of one pastor or circle of power. The ordinary ministers do not receive their gift and commission directly from God alone, but through “the laying on of the hands of the eldership [presbuteriou]” (1 Tim 4:14).
If Reformed ecclesiology is designated “Church as Covenant,” it is not surprising that the form of its outward organization is connectional. This is to say that “the church” refers not only to particular (local) churches, nor to the clerical hierarchy, but to local congregations, broader assemblies (regional and ecumenical), and to the whole communion of professing believers and their children in all times and places. The unity of the Spirit that were are called to preserve is not merely that of the invisible church, but of the visible church. It’s not coalitions, alliances, and other parachurch associations that bind us together, but the ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline spelled out in the New Testament. It’s churches, not movements, that are ordained by Christ to make disciples and exhibit this unity in the Word and Spirit.
The New Testament refers to the church as wider than a local congregation (Ac 9:31; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:4-16) and the churches addressed in the epistles (though in the singular) consisted of more than one local congregation (Ac 20:20; Rom 16:5; Philem 2). On one hand, I think it’s over-stretching to say that this connectional polity is essential to the very being of the church; on the other hand, we cannot say that we are planting and nurturing churches on the basis of our constitution if we don’t even wrestle with the clear principles spelled out in the New Testament itself.
A covenantal ecclesiology suggests a concrete praxis, which is neither hierarchical nor democratic. “Presbyterian” comes from the word presbyteros (elder), with the New Testament term for a broader assembly of elders as a presbyteriou (presbytery). So it’s always ironic to me when pioneers of evangelical revolutions appeal to Moses as the model (since, after all, he was Moses-and even he led together with the elders of Israel). Or when they act, at least implicitly, as if they were apostles instead of ordinary ministers who receive the apostolic Word. Or when ministries led by a super-preacher characterize presbyterian polity as “hierarchical.” Actually, presbyterian government is neither hierarchical nor democratic, but representative.
A covenantal conception of apostolicity-seems to me at least to imply a connectional yet non-hierarchical polity: something like a presbyterian polity. Elders are to be “worthy of double honor,” although for this reason, “Do not ordain anyone hastily…” (1 Tim 5:17, 22). Qualifications for ministers and elders are clearly laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, distinct from the office of deacon (vv 8-13). It is not because of his charisma, personality, communicative skills, or any other characteristics of his person, but in virtue of his office that Timothy is told by Paul, “Command and teach these things,” in spite of his youth. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:11, 13-14). So Paul can also remind Titus that he left him “behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you,” again listing the qualifications (Tit 1:5-9). Although there is a distinction in office, this in no way implies a distinction in standing or quality before God.
Even Peter can identify himself as an apostle in his salutation and yet immediately add, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours in the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1). In his first letter, Peter says,
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it-not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Pet 5:1-4).
Because the majority of the elders are not ministers of Word and sacrament, the distinction between those who exercise spiritual oversight and those who are served is not the same as that between clergy and laity in the usual sense. Just as the Jerusalem Council consisted of “the apostles and the elders,” broader and local assemblies are composed of ministers (teaching elders) and ruling elders together. 
As is evident in Peter’s example, all ministers are elders but not all elders are ministers. Together, they are “overseers” (episkopois), which is often translated “bishops.” This is evident from Acts 20, where the Ephesian elders are called episkopous (v 28), as also in Philippians 1:1. In calling Titus to “appoint elders in every town,” Paul uses presbyterous and episkopous interchangeably (Tit 1:5-7). Significantly, it is Peter who says that Christ is “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25). Together with other elders, the apostles oversaw the flock under Christ as its only Chief Shepherd, but they gradually widened this pastoral ministry to the ordinary ministers who were trained and ordained for the specific office of preaching, prayer and teaching (Eph 4:7-16).
Whereas a hierarchical model directs the focus of unity and catholicity upward and inward from the lower rungs of the ecclesiastical ladder to a single earthly head or to a college of bishops, a presbyterian model directs the focus downward and outward from the Ascended Christ to the church and the ends of the earth. At the same time, individual believers and local churches are not left to themselves, nor merely open to other Christians and churches, but are gathered together as one flock under one shepherd, mutually encouraging and correcting each other, and bringing all of their resources to bear on evangelism, mission, and service. The church’s unity, catholicity, holiness, and apostolicity are expressed in the diversity of gifts bestowed on the church as an irreducible plurality, and yet within a connectional polity. Hence, Paul can move back and forth between the unity of the one body and its irreducible plurality. “For in fact the body is not one member but many” (1 Cor 12:14).
If this interpretation is correct, the New Testament knows nothing of multi-site congregations, but only of congregations in the fullest sense (led by pastors, elders, and deacons). These congregations are not independent, but they are also not hierarchically governed even by one pastor on-site, but by pastors and elders together. And each of these local churches is accountable not hierarchically to the pastor-bishop of another church, but mutually and covenantally to each other.
There are many other important issues that Thabiti Anyabwile and others raise with respect to technology. As analysis of media culture remind us, the technologies we use also use us and we dare not be naïve about how they change who we are, individually and corporately. According to marketing analyst Michael Sack, younger generations no longer trust video images, given their association with relentless marketing, sound-bites, and spin. They only trust news that is personally delivered, he says.
More basically, Martin Luther said “The church is not a pen-house, but a mouth-house,” because, as Paul reminds us in Romans 10, “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ.” Slick video feeds create excitement and interest, but the personal proclamation of the Word by ordained ambassadors is the means Christ has ordained for delivering himself and all of his benefits. “How shall they hear without a preacher and how shall they preach unless they are sent?”, Paul asks. The Westminster Larger Catechism adds that the Spirit blesses especially the preaching of the Word because it is by this means that he “draws us out of ourselves” to cling to Christ-and to embrace each other. From the pulpit, the baptismal font, and the Lord’s Table-in every local church-Christ himself is present to give himself to sinners. It’s not about the ministers, but about the ministry. Christ is our Prophet, Priest, and King.
1 Interestingly, Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledges that presbyter and episcopoi are used interchangeably in the New Testament.. See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 122-123 Back
2 Second Helvetic Confession in The Book of Confessions (Louisville: PCUSA General Assembly, 1991), Chapter 18 (5.160-162) Back
3 Differing largely in nothing more than terminology, Presbyterian churches refer to the local session, a regional presbytery, and a national General Assembly while for Reformed churches these bodies are referred to as consistory, classis, and synod, respectively. Back