For those of us with a restorationist bent, the idea that there was but one congregation in a given city during New Testament times is a disturbing conclusion, because the Churches of Christ operate in ways that are very contrary to this pattern.
And while we could argue whether this is a “binding” example, we should first perhaps ponder the wisdom of the arrangement, especially in light of how much a modern city differs from a First Century city.
So what might be some objections to such an arrangement?
* How can elders oversee congregations that are doctrinally diverse?
Why not? Isn’t that the teaching of Romans 14 — that we should get along with those who disagree, respecting their differing consciences, rather than dividing?
You see, we’ve been “majoring in the minors” for so long that we often struggle to realize how very much we have in common with other believers. The gospel is quite enough to unite us even if we disagree about Calvinism or such like.
* Wouldn’t this give elders too much power?
That’s an entirely wrong way to think. The church should ordain elders because they remind the church of Jesus. Why not give power to those gifted by the Spirit to lead as Jesus led?
And if God could give that kind of power (“responsibility” is better word) to the elders at Jerusalem and Ephesus, why would we think God no longer gifts leaders for such a work?
Who are we to claim to be wiser than the Holy Spirit? If God still gives gifts of spiritual leadership, then we should honor and empower those gifts.
* How can the elders each be close to thousands of members?
Well, they can’t. But the twelve apostles and an unmentioned number of elders oversaw the Jerusalem congregation when it numbered 15,000 or more (Acts 4:4. The church had 5,000 men, which surely mens at least 15,000 men, women, and children)!
Consider the wisdom of today’s multi-campus churches. They have a single eldership made up of elders from all campuses.
Consider the wisdom of today’s mega-churches, some with over 20,000 members. They often have a very large number of elders, widely dispersed among the members, working in concert to shepherd a flock as large as many cities.
* Does that mean we have to have a single preacher for all the churches?
Well, no. Of course, not. Multicampus churches do it that way because of the premium placed on excellent preaching in our American church culture. But the Jerusalem church operated by having the apostles go from house to house teaching God’s word. You see, since there was but one church, they drew people to the church by raising up Jesus. In a competitive environment, where many Jesus-worshiping churches are trying to compete for members, they can’t distinguish themselves by holding up Jesus, and so they hold up their excellent preachers. It’s just American marketing. It works, but only because we’re divided.
I would be far more worried about churches that are defined by their preacher rather than their Savior. It’s no surprise that an astonishing number of preachers that lead large congregations get caught in sexual or financial sin. They’re often standing in the place where Jesus ought to be — as the center of the appeal of the church to world. When we market the preacher rather than the Savior, we’re setting ourselves up for all sorts of problems.
Here’s an example of how one church of 65,000 members in the Philippines operates from Filipino Church Breeds Discipleship Culture by Joey Bonifacio —
In March of this year, two pastors from Michigan and Florida made the trek to Manila to check out our church. Soon into their visit, they expressed their amazement at the way we did church, particularly intrigued by this idea of being one church with multiple services in multiple sites and with multiple preachers.
“We haven’t seen a church model like this one,” they told me. “In the United States, the typical multisite model broadcasts one preacher to multiple sites.” They were also quick to point out that they didn’t believe one model was better than the other. I can only agree.
But they specifically wanted to know and understand how one church does 94 weekend services in 15 locations with 51 lead pastors preaching and with approximately 65,000 in attendance. In their own words: “It’s worth the trip and a two-week stay to observe.”
As both men sat in my office I told them, “When people come to observe our church, they often focus on learning our curricula, methods, systems and processes. They think that by copying these, they’ll get our same results.”
I could tell my words had puzzled them.
I continued: “The problem with focusing on methods, models, systems and processes is that all of these things are subject to change depending on your nation, city and even the size and season of your church.”
“So what should we focus on?” they asked.
“Pay close attention to the culture of discipleship our church lives by,” I said, affirming their decision to come. “Culture cannot be learned from a book, a seminar or a podcast; it needs to be experienced.”
Our church, Victory Church in Manila, was planted 28 years ago. Steve Murrell, the founder, is an American missionary who wisely built by creating a culture of discipleship, which for the last 12 years has caused the church to grow at an annual average rate of between 22 percent and 26 percent. During our earlier years, the church had growth spurts of up to 40 percent, even 60 percent. And all of it–our past and current growth–has happened in healthy ways.
In my opinion, Steve’s most significant accomplishment lies in that the church continues to grow, even though he has transitioned out of the church’s day-to-day operations and now spends most of his time traveling in the United States and around the world to oversee other churches. Steve is a master at empowering leaders. Leaders like me, who are responsible for overseeing the church, can walk into one of our services, and no one would have any clue as to who I am because I only do two services in one of our locations. It testifies to a strong culture that has empowered multiple layers of leaders. I attribute that to the discipleship culture Steve and our leadership team have built.
It can be done. Consider this from the same article —
Our visitors commonly ask, “How much staff does it take to run a church of this size?” They’re often surprised to learn it’s less than 400—less than half a percent of the number of people who attend our services [over 80,000!]. It’s a telling illustration of the power of discipleship. In our experience, because the church is full of disciples, we don’t struggle with volunteer shortages for kid’s ministry, worship leading, ushering, administrative services and other activities. And from this pool of disciples, we are able to raise up future church planters, missionaries and pastors.
Disciples have clear values and don’t need coaxing, intimidation or manipulation to get them to serve. They willingly give of themselves to the work of ministry. They do it because it is valuable to them. It’s their culture. Even more amazing is how discipleship happens at every level of the church.
I recently heard a story about how a 12-year-old girl who serves in our kids’ ministry engaged her next-door neighbor. In time, the girl invited her neighbor to church and also took the responsibility of making her friend a follower of Christ. After her friend received the Lord, she invited her parents to come. Initially, they were reluctant, but they eventually came and are now members of the church. Her father has become a follower of Christ who now makes disciples.
Now, some of this is the difference between the Filipino culture and modern American culture, but much of this is the difference between the expectations church leaders establish. I mean, consumerism is present in both the US and Philippines. The question is whether the church submits to consumerism — or repents.