A Question about Congregational Autonomy

MergerI get emails. Here’s one with a very thoughtful question about congregational autonomy —

… According to Josephus, there were 100,000 Christians in Jerusalem at the end of the first century (or so I have heard – I have not read that in Josephus myself). But if that is true, where did they all meet? I think we assume there was a Main Street Church of Christ at the time and every Sunday all the Jerusalem Christians assembled for worship. We assume there was one congregation of the saints in one city and everyone knew one another and they all met in one location regularly.

Thinking about the church at Rome, I don’t know how many Christians were in Rome in the first century but even if there were less than in Jerusalem, Rome was a major metropolis. How would all the Roman Christians possibly assemble at one location, even if there was such a location? How would they get there? There was no mass transit then. They could not have negotiated those distances on foot on a regular basis.

We know that Christians did use some public places on occasion such as the Porch of Solomon and the school of Tyrannus.

We also know that Christians were eventually barred from the synagogues and temples.

We also know there were no dedicated buildings (churches) until the Constantinian era in the 4th century.

So for regular assemblies, until the “legalization and sponsorship” of Christianity by Constantine, the only available places to meet were private homes.

We know from archaeological evidence that most homes at that time could only accommodate 30-35 people.

So….doing the math, if we allow 25 people per home, that means that 4000 homes would be needed to accommodate the Jerusalem church.

My question then (finally) is how many elders oversaw all of these Christians. There surely were not elders in every house congegration. So did one set of elders shepherd the entire city? If so, how?

I actually wrote something on this several months ago (ironically enough, in response to similar letter), so this is a re-run. But it’s summer, the season of re-runs, and I don’t feel like writing something brand new, you know —

1. The early church met in homes (after they were kicked out the temple and synagogues). This is not in dispute. I’ll cite the verses below.

2. A First Century home could hold about 30 people for a meeting. In the Second Century, archaeologists have found homes of wealthy Christians modified to hold up to 70.

First Century homes were quite small, even for the relatively wealthy-except for the extraordinarily wealthy. Remember, the houses that have been preserved are largely houses made of stone, being houses of the fairly well to do. The very poor surely had even more modest homes.

3. Acts 20:17 says, “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.” “Church” is singular.

It seems unlikely that this late in Paul’s ministry the church in Ephesus had 30 or fewer members. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine a church of 30 or fewer having elders and deacons and an order of widows (1 Timothy was written to Timothy while he ministered to the Ephesian church).

5. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul instructs Timothy to ordain elders of the “church” (singular) in Ephesus.

6. Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders “in every town” (Tit. 1:5) – not every congregation. Paul assumes one congregation per town or, at least, one eldership per town.

7. “Church” is very often used of all the Christians in a town — Rom. 16:1 (the church in Cenchrea), 1 Cor. 1:2 (the church of God in Corinth), 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:1.

8. Acts 2 is highly suggestive of this idea as well:

(Acts 2:46-47) Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Although they met in the temple courts (initially), the single Jerusalem church under a single eldership (including apostles) also met in homes, in which they broke bread. This likely refers to the love feast and Lord’s Supper (a single event in the early church) (compare Acts 20:6). It seems improbable that they took communion at the temple. I just don’t see the Jewish authorities allowing such an act of worship there.

Later, the Jewish authorities evicted them altogether from the temple, meaning they were surely meeting only in homes from very early on, and yet the Jerusalem church was but one church with one eldership (Acts 11:22, 26; 15:4; 21:17-18). And it had thousands of members.

9. But there are, of course, also references to a “church” meeting at a house, suggesting that those meeting in a single house also constituted but a single “church” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Phile 1:2).

It seems that “church” (ekklesia) was used to refer to (1) the church universal, (2) a group of Christians meeting in a home, or (3) all the saints in a given community.

The question is which “church” were the elders to oversee? Well, what we see of Jerusalem and of Ephesus pretty clearly indicates that a single eldership sometimes oversaw a single church (of up to thousands) meeting in multiple homes. We read nowhere of multiple elderships in a single town.

(David Lipscomb taught it was sin to meet at any church other than the one meeting closest to your home. After all, there is no Biblical basis for a town to have multiple churches competing for members.)

The Christians in a town would, on occasion, have chosen to meet as a single body if public space could be accessed — the temple courts, a synagogue, an amphitheater — but the Christians quickly lost access to Jewish meeting spaces and weren’t about to meet in pagan temples. Judaism was legal in the Roman Empire, but Christianity was not, so it was not long before Roman authorities would deny any privilege to meet in a public amphitheater or the like. Hence, private homes were often the exclusive place of meeting.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is a mandatory “pattern” that must be followed today. But I do suggest –-

* That the “pattern” of having multiple congregations in the same town, headed by multiple elderships, and each teaching a slightly different doctrine is utterly foreign to New Testament theology and practice. In fact, it’s wrong on many levels. Churches should merge at every opportunity. Elderships of different church should spend time together in Bible study rather than tearing each other down through their bulletins and pulpits!

* It’s entirely permissible to build on the house-church model, as some are doing, where a single church meets in multiple homes, under a single eldership. These are often in highly urbanized areas where “homes” are apartments and simply can’t accommodate large groups.

* I also have no problem with a church having multiple campuses –- although I can also imagine ways in which this might be wrongly handled. Maybe we can talk about how that might be properly done some later time.

* The only Biblical reasons for separating Christians in a given community into multiple congregations are pragmatic in terms of travel distances and the practicality of organizing a church of a given size. A large community may well have different churches with different elderships, but never because of doctrinal differences.

Rather, an organizational structure consisting of elders, deacons, and everyone else is just not infinitely scalable. At some point, the structure collapses of its own weight unless additional layers of “middle management” are added, at some point removing the shepherds too far from their flock. To allow shepherds to actually be shepherds, and not merely managers, once churches get a certain size (no concrete rule), it’s necessary to break the church apart organizationally.

But the Bible does show us churches of many thousands (Jerusalem, without a doubt) under a single eldership. There is no hard and fast rule for how large a church can be.

Nor should we try to divine rules where God hasn’t made any. Rather, we should acknowledge that God has given us consider leeway, but also considerable guidance to ponder and apply. See A Better Way to be a Restoration Church.

On the other hand, I see no Biblical justification for an eldership to claim authority outside its immediate community. For example–

(2 Cor. 1:1) Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia:

(Gal. 1:1-2) Paul, an apostle –- sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – 2 and all the brothers with me, To the churches in Galatia:

Although Corinth was surrounded by a larger community in which there were additional Christians, the “church” was just those in Corinth. The Christians in the surrounding area weren’t part of the Corinthian congregation.

Just so, Galatia was a province and it held multiple churches, not a province-wide church.

Thus, the First Century practice seems to have limited elders to oversight of the church in that community, but that “church” often met in multiple locations.

Now, we feel so strongly about our doctrinal purity that we consider it unthinkable to be part of a church that we disagree with on some point or other. I understand. But I find no Biblical support for division over any doctrine other than the gospel itself. Rather, the Bible quite plainly compels us to be united – in fact and in theory – based on the gospel.

Plainly, this means we must learn to think about church and fellowship in very, very different terms.

At this point, to avoid repeating myself (as I’m bad to do), let me refer the reader to a series of posts from some months ago wrestling further with these issues.

Why We Shouldn’t Merge Churches

Why We Should Merge Churches–the Practical Reasons

Why We Should Merge Churches–the Doctrinal Reasons

Why We Should Merge Churches–Overcoming Doctrinal Differences

How We Can Both Merge and Plant

Autonomy and the Cell Church

Radical Autonomy and the Disintegration of the Churches of Christ

Imagine a World Without Denominations

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink.
My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.

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9 Responses to A Question about Congregational Autonomy

  1. Alan says:

    I made pretty much the same argument in a blog post here earlier this year.

    The only reason I can think of why elders from different assemblies in the same city don't work together is that they are divided by more than location.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Exactly. In most towns, the churches are divided over doctrine and often don't even admit the salvation of the other churches in town. Even when not divided over doctrine, we're divided by being self-seeking — we compete rather than cooperate. We don't even want to hold joint services for fear we'll lose members to the other church's preacher or worship leader! Of course, this also means we're just a tad insecure.

  3. Alan says:

    Of course, this also means we’re just a tad insecure.

    I think at least some of that can be traced to the building mortgages that churches take out. Elderships fear the prospect of members leaving and contribution dropping to the point that they cannot pay the bills. The borrower really is servant to the lender… even when the borrower is a church.

  4. I wonder whom Luke and Josephus relied upon for estimates of "about 3000" and "100,000." I know most of the head-counters at my church, and sometimes they forget the nursery, or over-estimate the teens milling about on Wednesday nights or ….

  5. Joe Baggett says:

    Here is some irony. Thousands of churches nation wide are being forced to merge with another congregation across town or close down. Is it not ironic that now the brothers across town that we have argued with the last 50 years are now the brothers we must unite with if we are going to keep the church doors open? Go read the article about merging from the Christian Chronicle. Even congregations that were once large are now faced with a merger or disbanding. In the last 10 years here in Longview TX three churches have closed down, I mean disbanded. Now the other two churches of Christ have picked up a few more members out of the ordeal and think they are now growing. If things keep going the way they are now then it will be only one set of elders and one congregation just like it was in the first century.

  6. Jay Guin says:


    I totally agree. It's also evidence of why going our separate, competing ways is a doomed strategy.

  7. David says:

    I think the problem we have in understanding this is there is simply a fundamental difference in what we define as a "congregation" and what the 1st century church defined one as. We think of a congregation as a group of people who are recgonized together that meet in one central location (church building). Anywhere there is a church building that is considered a congregation.

    In the first century they (probably) met together in people's homes. And I think they probably had a number of members who put their homes up for use and they probably traded out every or month.

    Now this may get complicated but follow me. Now I believe its entirely possible that person A would go meet in person B's home this week that lives 1 mile north of A. A certain group would meet here. Next week person A would meet in person C's home that lives 1 mile south of person A. However the group would be somewhat different than that which assembled last week. This type of thing would be going on all over the city with a sort of mix and match going on week after week. Due to the strategic problem of distance vs how far a person is willing to travel to attend services, the definition of a "congregation" was quite different. I believe everyone in a certain city considered themselves all a part of the same congregation and thus had one set of elders over the whole group. Today we simply are not organized strategically in such a manner.

  8. Jay Guin says:


    I think we are very much on the same page, and you've said it very well.

    Many churches have small group programs that come close to what you describe. And they add an element to "church" that we've often been missing.

  9. Pingback: Replanting a Denomination: Answering Some Questions, Part 2 « One In Jesus.info

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