“Multi-Site Churches Are from the Devil”

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And I didn’t say that. (Later near the end of this post, we will see that even the 4th century church father Jerome calls this idea an “instigation of the devil.”)

It was Thabiti Anyabwile, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. That’s the title of his post in The Gospel Coalition last September 27, 2011. The first and most important of several reasons why he objects to this fad is idolatry:

I think the kind of multi-site churches… that feature one pastor being beamed into several sites around a region—and in some cases around the country or world—is simply idolatry.  It’s certainly cult of personality multiplied and digitized for a consumer audience.  As a brilliant young man remarked to me this morning, “The pastor now becomes the new icon in the midst of the Protestant worship service.”

You can read the rest of his post here.

Church or mall, or both?

Michael Horton chimes in on this multi-site discussion in a White Horse Inn post. He defines multi-site churches from another author as “one church meeting in multiple locations… A multi-site church shares a common vision, budget, leadership, and board.” Many American megachurches operate in this pattern: Tim Keller’s Redeemer City to City, Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Church, Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, and James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel. In the Philippines, there is the trio of “fellowships” (not churches): Greenhills Christian Fellowship, Christ Commission Fellowship, Victory Christian Fellowship; and Bread of Life, all competing for who best can entertain the goats. (I didn’t say that either; it’s the beloved Charles Spurgeon.)

Horton says there is at least a theoretical agreement between Rome’s hierarchical church and these multi-site churches:

According to [Rome], 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… If not papal, the multi-site ecclesiology is at least quasi-episcopal, with the cathedral (seat of the bishop) and its satellite churches (diocese).

From Apprising.org

How must a church be organized? Not according to the multi-site church model. On the contrary, the New Testament tells us that there must be a pastor (or pastors), elders and deacons in each church. Each has a pastor (or pastors) who preaches and administers the sacraments, elders who rule and order the church, and deacons who take care of the flock’s material and physical needs. If you have elders and deacons in your “local” church, but your pastor comes to you via live (or worse, taped) video stream every Sunday, then you basically have a papal model. Horton says,

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.”

This is the presbyterian (eldership) model, and the apostolic church was organized in this model. But are these apostolic churches completely independent of each other, with no accountability to each other? Horton says no,

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.

This connectedness was already evident in Acts 15 when all pastors and elders of churches throughout the Roman world convened in Jerusalem to settle a doctrinal disagreement. All of them “had equal rank with every other church, as well as equal responsibilities and accountability.” No pastor or elder lorded it over another. This is so contrary to the multi-site church idea. In fact, it was not Peter (who considered himself only a “fellow elder” among the churches in 1 Peter 5:1), not John the Beloved, not even Paul, but James who presided over the meeting:

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.

Thus, the early church fathers and even the present Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic popes all agree that presbyterianism was the original church government model. The fourth-century church father Jerome agreed with Cyprian a century earlier when he said, “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.” Jerome even “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.’”

Horton thus concludes that multi-site churches are unbiblical, agreeing in effect with Pastor Thabiti that “multi-site churches are from the devil”:

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.

Thus, the CCF attender who called Reformed doctrines and a fellow Reformed pastor kulto (“cult”) should consider this question: If there is no Biblical basis for the church polity of CCF, GCF, VCF, BOL and other multi-site churches, and if the doctrines of these churches are unbiblical, then are not these churches cults, and therefore instigated by the devil?

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