Review of One Assembly

One Assembly book cover

As someone who has interned in, worked at, and served within several different multi-site and multi-service churches, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches they have taken. As a result, I have adopted the view that the multi-site/service church model does not fit well within the New Testament vision for the local church. I was excited to dig into Jonathan Leeman’s One Assembly, which I received as part of Crossway’s blog review program, to think through these issues more clearly. However, I was deeply disappointed by Leeman’s book. The tone adopted throughout is devoid of humility and is highly antagonistic. Leeman gives no room for disagreement; those who disagree are “picking a fight with Jesus.” Even if his argument was strong, Christian gentleness and humility ought to be employed in its articulation. We do not win a brother and persuade someone of error with brash and biting rhetoric. Making things worse, Leeman’s argument is far from conclusive, hardly sufficient to justify the claim that those who disagree are picking a fight with Jesus. Below, I will summarize the argument of the book, show why it is flawed, and then conclude with some reflections on why a multi-site/service church might be a bad idea and how Leeman’s suggestions in chapter three could be heeded.

Summary

In the introduction, Leeman unpacks his main thesis, that a church is by definition an assembly and therefore, a multi-service or multi-site church that never assembles corporately cannot be called a church. The proof text for this assertion is Matthew 18:19-20, arguing that the authority of the church is vested in the assembly. In chapter 1, Leeman outlines the significance of the assembly for the church. His focus is on Reformation-era definitions of the local church and how the gathering is essential to this definition. He introduces his understanding of the New Testament word for “church,” εκκλησια (ekklēsia), arguing that in its secular and Septuagint (i.e. the Greek translation of the Old Testament) background, it clearly means a physical assembly. He also appeals to Matthew 18:18-20, arguing that Christ’s is present in the gathering of His people and so this is the context of the local church’s authority. It is in the physical gathering that Christ’s kingdom is visible. In chapter 2, he tries to argue that there is no instance in the NT of a multi-site or multi-service church. Finally, in chapter 3, he argues that a catholic sensibility—that is, concern for the universal church and its shared purpose—offers an alternative solution for growing churches. Two appendices follow, the first giving every instance of εκκλησια (ekklēsia) in the New Testament and the second an explanation of Acts 9:31 within the context of this book’s argument, written by Anne Rabe (a PhD student). Chapter 3 concludes by painting a beautiful portrait of catholic sensibilities that would help our churches fulfil their commission. However, Leeman’s argument in the previous two chapters is fundamentally flawed, so the need for Chapter 3’s solution is not established.

Evaluation

An unspoken premise in his argument is the regulative principle: that is, what is not in the Bible is not appropriate for use in the church. For us who disagree with this principle,1 it is not sufficient to show that “multi-service” or “multi-site” models are not in the Bible (on which I agree with Leeman). Instead, it must be shown that their nature is contrary to what the Bible teaches about the church. It would need to be shown that it is wrong or at least unhelpful for multiple churches (if each gathering is by definition a church, as Leeman argues) to have the same eldership team or a shared administrative system. Leeman does not attempt to argue that this is unbiblical. For this reason, if we do not accept the regulative principle, all Leeman’s argument would entail is an acknowledgement that our “multi-site” and “multi-service” church is not a single church but several churches with shared leadership. However, Leeman doesn’t even succeed in showing this much.

“Church” as an “assembly”

he primary argument Leeman makes is that the NT word for church, εκκλησια (ekklēsia), intrinsically involves a physical assembly, so that a “church” that never gathers cannot be called a “church.” It is this, the physical gathering, that demarcates a single church. Because multi-site and multi-service churches meet in different locations or at different times, they are by definition multiple churches. Problems in his argument here abound. For example, he acknowledges that εκκλησια is used for what is sometimes called “the universal church” or the “Church,” but he argues that this is not an exception to the word because this church is constituted by an “eschatological” or “heavenly” assembly. However, though it is true that Hebrews says we are part of a heavenly or eschatological gathering (Heb 12:22-23), this is never given as the meaning of the word and is never part of the author’s use of the word. That is, though our understanding of the concept of the Church includes a future or heavenly gathering, the word itself in this case simply means a group of people identified by their relationship to Christ and His kingdom. This is true also of the many instances in which εκκλησια refers to a local church dispersed throughout the week: though it is true that the local church is defined by its gathering, the word εκκλησια clearly does not refer to an assembly in every use. It may mean an assembly, or it may mean a group of people with our without connotations of an assembly. This is what the best Greek lexicons say; Leeman simply gives not good reason to doubt them.

“Church” as assembly in the Old Testament

This argument faces further difficulties from the evidence he offers from the Old and New Testaments. He claims that in the Old Testament εκκλησια always refers to a physical gathering. This is simply false. Εκκλησια is one of several words used to translate the Hebrew Word קָהָל (qāhāl), along with several other words. קָהָל (qāhāl) is the word Leeman cites; however, it is simply false to say that קָהָל always means a physical assembly. It often refers to the whole nation of Israel, whether or not they are assembled or able to assemble (if, for example, they are dispersed throughout the borders of the nation). Often קָהָל is translated with συναγωγη (synagōgē)  when referring to the people apart from a physical assembly; however, εκκλησια is occasionally used in this manner (Deut 23:1-4, 23:8; Neh 8:17, 13:1; Lam 1:10). By the time of the 1st century, εκκλησια would be more appropriate for this use because συναγωγη had acquired a technical usage within Judaism. In secular Greek literature, εκκλησια was almost used exclusively for a physical assembly, especially in political contexts; however, it is commonly recognized that the OT background through the LXX (the Greek translation of the OT) is where we should look for the background of our New Testament words. This rule makes practical sense and I have argued for it theologically as well in my book The Gift of Reading – Part 2 (Vancouver, Teleioteti 2019). So εκκλησια does not refer exclusively to a gathering; therefore, it is possible that a “church,” if we are going by the word alone, may never assemble. I will reflect below that though lexically valid, the idea of a church that does not assemble does not cohere with the theology of the Church as given in the Bible.

“Church” as assembly in the New Testament

Leeman’s treatment of the New Testament evidence is likewise troublesome. For example, the 2nd appendix goes to great lengths to show why we might be able to translate Acts 9:31 to refer to individual churches located throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. I do not doubt that this phrase could be distributive, meaning “the church in Judea, the church in Galilee, and the church in Samaria.” However, that it could mean this doesn’t mean that it does. It could also refer to “the church” as it is spread throughout these regions. This is how most commentators explain the text, and it makes perfect sense; the author could have used the plural if he intended the distributive sense (as some manuscripts have it). However, this text does not support or argue against a multi-church model; it is easiest to read it as an example of the “universal Church.” We could paraphrase it as “God’s people throughout all Judea….” One last issue in this regard is his treatment of the church in Jerusalem. He argues that though several house churches appear to be mentioned, the fact that they gather together occasionally supports his point; they can only be called “The Church in Jerusalem” because they gather together, even if it is occasionally. However, every instance of the church gathering he gives is inconclusive. For example, Acts 6:2 to could simply be translated “a (large) crowd of disciples” not “the full number”; if the full number is intended, the context indicates that this is not a normal church gathering but a specific occasion where they are choosing servants to perform a particular work.2 None of his other texts, where it is said they were “together,” speak of the Jerusalem church. In each case, it is the Apostles that are “together,” and they are not gathering as a church; they are gathering for evangelistic purposes (Acts 2:41-46; 5:12). So his argument does not at all establish that “church” always refers to an assembled body. However, his argument is unnecessary in this case because “the church in Jerusalem” probably means the “universal Church as found in Jerusalem,” so it does not give evidence for the multi-site church anyways (there is no indication that these churches had shared eldership, though see the note above).

Matthew 18:18-20

What remains to consider is Matthew 18:18-20; does this text establish his point? He writes that if there is one proof text for his position, it is this text (17-18). Essentially, Leeman argues that we see in this text the authority of the church constituted by its gathering. Here is Matthew 18:15-20:

15If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (ESV)

This passage is significant, for it refers to the church as God’s assembled people before the church is officially constituted; however, it does not equate the function of the church with its gathering in such a way that it has no authority apart from an assembly, as the argument would have to be if this text were to rule out multi-site churches.3 To the contrary, the text establishes that in any gathering of believers concerning a case of discipline, authority is found. For example, “let him be to you” is in the singular, referring to the complaining party. It is not explicitly referring to the church’s decision to excommunicate the person. Second, Jesus specifies that if “two or three are gathered in” his name, He is present. In context, He is present for the purpose of discipline among Christians. The clarification “in my name” and the number, “two or three,” indicates that this authority is not invested regardless of the circumstances or the matter: it is found where God’s people are gathered for His sake and where sufficient evidence is present to settle the dispute (alluding to the principle of two or three witnesses, alluded to in v. 16 also). So, if I gather with two other informed brother or sisters in dispute with another brother or sister, Christ is present to affirm our reasoned judgment, and we can take the action to withdraw fellowship in the confidence that Christ affirms our judgment. Surely this applies if the eldership of a multi-site church is gathered to make a judgement concerning the members of one of their congregation. “The promise [that decisions on earth will be ratified in heaven] is not confined to ‘the church’ as a whole, but extends to the agreed request of two of you, because if their gathering is in my name then Jesus himself is part of that gathering” (France, Matthew, TNTC, 275). So, this text cannot be used to argue against multi-site or multi-service gatherings.

Concluding Reflections

If Leeman’s arguments do not demonstrate the invalidity of multi-church or multi-site models of church, are we to affirm that they are valid expressions of the church? I would not go nearly as far as Leeman, to suggest that a multi-service model is sinful and that to support one is to “pick a fight with Jesus.” However, I would argue that they are unwise if our goal is to fulfil the great commission and that they are not our only option.

For one, they indirectly support our culture’s idolatry of skill and celebrity, gathering hundreds or thousands of people around a single person or brand. If this was our only choice, this might not be a bad thing. However, given the options presented by Leeman in chapter 3, other options are present. These alternatives resist the temptation to give in to our culture’s vices. Second, if an elder is charged with the task of addressing the Scriptures to the hearts of his congregation, to function as a teacher with authority, this requires trust towards him by the congregation and the elder’s knowledge of his congregation. This trust and knowledge are next to impossible to attain in large and geographically distributed models of church. In my circles of experience, this has produced issues when the eldership from one site or service has authority over congregants from a different site or service. Without intimate knowledge of the circumstances of those individuals, severe and avoidable hurt has been communicated.

In sum, the temporal, geographic, and size barriers created by a multi-site or multi-service (and megachurch) model undermines the intimate fellowship, trust, and guidance meant to characterize the elder-congregation relationship. It is also easy in a multi-site and multi-site model to create an atmosphere of isolation and independence that undermines the Biblical “one another’s,” the instructions for mutual ministry amidst a local congregation. The widespread failure in this regard and lack of evidence that this has been consistently overcome in these congregations suggests that this may be an inherent weakness in the model. As it is said, the medium is the message. If our congregations are divided, isolated, and there is no or diminished accountability for regular attendance, it is easy to understand why congregants might get the impression that intimate relationship and accountability with each other and the leadership is unnecessary.  Lastly, there are better options available. Church planting is a commonly recognized solution, but Leeman offers another option that ought to be highly attractive to us.

In Chapter 3, he argues that we need to regain a sense of catholicity, concern for the universal mission of the church and the acknowledgement that no single church has a monopoly on the Gospel. It is sad that many smaller churches with faithful leadership diminish and die to facilitate the growth of megachurches. Leeman argues that when a church experiences great blessing from the Lord in terms of growth in numbers and maturity of its members, they might send teams out not only to plant new churches but to strengthen weak and under-resourced but faithful congregations. This means that the church sending out teams doesn’t have to train new pastors, for they can go to churches already provided for in this manner. This also sends the important message to a congregation, that this church is only a part of Christ’s Church and that His kingdom is expansive. So, it is theologically and practically rich in meaning. This can also encourage congregants to fellowship in the area where they reside, which may foster more intentional relationship with other church members in their area and can be helpful for establishing a faithful presence in a specific community. This is an attractive alternative to church planting and does not require the acquisition of a building or the training of new pastors. With such alternatives, a megachurch experiencing God’s blessing doesn’t have to focus on what they can do to accommodate these numbers but can turn its focus to how God’s mission in that city and beyond might prosper.

In sum, I think Leeman’s call for a catholic mindset is missing from the contemporary Evangelical church and would be hugely beneficial to its mission. However, the argument he presents against the multi-site or multi-service models is not persuasive. I think we can do better than these models, but this does not mean that those who have established a multi-service church are walking in sin. Because of its rhetoric and argument, I cannot recommend the book. However, if you have a copy at hand, chapter 3 is worth reading.

  1. Taken to its extreme, this principle prohibits the use of modern worship instruments and styles along with songs not found in the Psalter. []
  2. This potentially suggests that they have a shared structure of leadership, but apart from any evidence of a specific church gathering, it is hard to substantiate that this gathering establishes them as a church. []
  3. That is, if the authority of the church were only found in its gathering, then a group of gatherings or churches would not be able to exercise the church’s authority  for excommunication. []

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