I didn’t realise at first that having multiple services was a controversial issue. I knew it would be potentially controversial within the church itself, any change is. However, what I didn’t realise was that in the wider church there is some disagreement about whether or not churches should do it.
It comes down to ecclesiology or your understanding of how churches are meant to function and be led. This means that Anglicans and Presbyterians don’t really have a big problem with multiple services. It’s already the case that multiple churches can be led by the same leader or team. However for some Congregationalists and Baptists the issue is a bit more tricky (this seems particularly so for those linked with the 9 Marks approach of Mark Dever.
The issue seems to be to do with what exactly is each service? What type of entity is it? This is important when you emphasise the autonomy of the local church as Independents, Baptists and Congregationalists do. Additionally, reformed churches have historically recognised that a true church will have three key marks:
The teaching of God’s Word
The Sacraments/ordinances (Baptism & Communion)
The view is that each local church should be able to exercise these things autonomously from others and that it should be doing these things together as a single body. So, multiple services seems to present us with a dilemma. Either, each service is a unique gathering where there is teaching, singing and communion in which case it should be a church in its own right with its own elders, doing its own baptisms and exercising its own discipline. Or, each service is part of the one church in which case, we are failing to gather the whole body together for teaching and communion.
The theological controversy hasn’t been a major issue for us and the matter has been discussed in detail elsewhere (a quick internet search will provide some leads) but it is there and so we cannot just ignore it. I appreciate the concern raised and believe we shouldn’t be careless about how we organise church life. However, I am satisfied that having multiple congregations is permissible and in line with Scripture.
I understand that Don Carson talks about Principled Pragmatism. By this he means that we should look at what is needed and what will work in specific circumstances but we should do this under the authority of Scripture. We do not abandon our principles. When you look at the New Testament, I believe that you find this principled pragmatism at work. This is probably why we have ended up with different approaches to church government across the denominations.
So, in 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul instructs the local church there to assemble and as a local church to exercise church discipline. At the same time, when Paul writes to Titus who he has left as a Gospel worker on Crete, he instructs him to appoint elders in each town. You can see how different denominations look at these passages and incline either to Independent, Episcopalian or Presbyterian models of church government.
Sometimes it will be possible to gather the whole local church in one place. In Jerusalem, in the early days the church were able to make use of parts of the Temple courts for this purpose (Acts 2:46). Gathering lots of people together is also helpful when you have only a few suitably gifted leaders and teachers and want to give everyone opportunity to hear them teach.Sometimes, it will make sense to get smaller groups of people together. Indeed, the early church meet both in the Temple courts and in homes where they break bread (Acts 2:46).
There may not be a large enough space for everyone to meet and so you may need to meet in different homes or other venues. You may even use the same venue at different times. The further apart from each other that these meetings are and the longer they have been in existence is likely to see them take greater responsibility for their own affairs particularly as leaders are identified and they grow in their gifts. However, when the different gatherings are close together then they are more likely to share a common identity, resources and leaders. I think that this is why you see Paul writing to a single church in a given locality even though that church meets in a number of different houses (See for example, Romans 16:14; 1 Corinthians 16:19; I would also suggest that this is why people like Timothy and Titus were given responsibility for seeing that elders were appointed in the different gatherings in their localities. Personally (and maybe this says more about my own background), I don’t thin that Timothy and Titus were being set up in the office of Bishop or superintendent Minister but were dealing with the immediate practical need.
And so with us, I would suggest that there is and will be a level of flexibility. Congregations sharing the same building are going to need to work closely together and share resources, newer church plants too. However I would expect church plants outside of the building to become more autonomous over time. I don’t think that you can sustain a multi-site church for long for example.
One thing that has crystallised this in my mind has been one of the so called knock down arguments which is meant to wrap up the case but in fact proves to be such a mixture of ignorance and/or arrogance that it becomes self-defeating. The argument is that you should gather the whole family together at the same meal table and so we should all be in the same service for teaching and communion.
I have a similar reaction to the argument that the pastor should officiate at communion because “It doesn’t have to be mum who serves tea but it is more right when she does.” Now, there are good arguments for having elders administer the sacraments but this is clearly not one of them. First of all, the pastor is not mum or dad in the church and should not try to be. Secondly, it’s actually quite a good and healthy thing in the family when children learn to st the table, pour tea, cook dinner, carve the meat etc.
And so it is with the single table imagery. It’s easy to say that if you have a large house with a good sized dining room table and where work patterns mean everyone is able to sit and eat together at the same time. Of course getting everyone together for the family meal is a great thing and you’ll try to do that as often as possible. However, sometimes you have to eat at different times, dad works late and children need to eat early to ensure they keep good bedtime habits, space is limited and so it’s not possible to get everyone around the same table at the same time. No-one really has a problem with splitting people off to eat in separate rooms do they? So similarly, it is easy to sit back with your large church building and your rich resources and dictate to other churches how they should organise. This results in legalism and instead of focusing on the priority of making disciples, teaching God’s word, preaching the Gospel, sharing fellowship, we create rigid rules about how we organise.
So I prefer to focus on working out how to be faithful to God’s Word and to share the Gospel in the situation God has placed us, with the resources God has given us. In a different context I might do things differently.