Historically, the Churches of Christ have confused autonomy with isolation. Indeed, the thought of a congregation being accountable to another congregation in any meaningful sense is considered heresy.
And I must say, I find little appeal in the Methodist model, for example, where a hierarchy of church leaders far removed from my city and congregation decide who to hire as a minister and otherwise set policy. There are worse models than isolation.
But I think the whole autonomy conversation goes the wrong direction. We miss something very important to the New Testament witness.
Allow me to explain. Well, let Gregg Allison explain –
[W]hile it is true that a meaning of the word ekklesia is “assembly,” it is only one of the meanings of that word. An assembly is certainly in view when Paul addresses celebrating the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and regulates the exercise of speaking in tongues and prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:26-40) when the church is gathered together.
But ekklesia cannot mean “assembly” in Acts 8:1, for example, when Luke’s point is that the church was “scattered”—not assembled—because of persecution. In fact, the word church can refer to meetings of Christians in houses (Acts 12:12), the church in a city (1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1), all the believers in a region (Acts 9:31), the universal church (1 Corinthians 10:32), and even the saints already in heaven (Hebrews 12:23). Saying that the word ekklesia means “assembly” commits a lexical error.// < ![CDATA[
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Accordingly, the church of Corinth would gather regularly for worship in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19), “the house of a man named Titius Justus” (Acts 18:7), the home of Crispus (Acts 18:8), the house of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 16:15), and others. These “church gatherings” distributed among the houses stood in contrast with the “whole church” assembling together, probably in the home of Gaius (1 Corinthians 14:23; Romans 16:23). Importantly, “each of the home-based groups included only parts of the church, i.e. a subset of its membership.” Still, each home-based gathering was a legitimate gathering of the church of Corinth.
In 37 Neotestamentica 1 (2003), Bruce Button and Fika Van Rensburg conclude (first link is to an abstract, but the full text is online as an 8.5 MB download) that Paul refers to the church meeting “in the house” of someone (as usually translated) several times, but “in” translates not en (meaning in) but kat (having a wide range of meanings, including “according to”). It’s not the natural preposition for “in” at all. It’s also used in such verses as –
(Act 2:10 ESV) Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome,
(Act 2:44-47 NAS) 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
(Act 5:42 ESV) And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
Thus, they conclude that the preposition really refers to the portion of the church distributed to the house, rather than a single, autonomous congregation meeting in a house. The indivisible unit that Paul insists on throughout his writings is thus not the group meeting in a house but the singular church in that community.
(Rom 16:23 ESV) Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.
(1Co 14:23 ESV) If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?
References to gatherings of the “whole church” imply that there were also gatherings of less than the whole.
For a detailed study of kat’/kata as prepositions in the New Testament, see Pamela Margaret Bendor-Samuel, “The Exegesis and Translation of Prepositional Phrases in the Greek New Testament: A Semantic Role Analysis“ (Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, April 1996), beginning at page 197.
Ephesian elders and the Jerusalem church
Now, consider Paul’s speech to the elders at Ephesus –
(Act 20:17-21 NAS) 17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them, “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
He was addressing the elders of a single “church” (v. 17). And yet Paul had taught “house to house” (v. 20). “House to house” translates kat’ oikous — “according to houses” or “distributed to houses.” The church meeting “in” a house meets kat’ oikon (according to or distributed to a house).
A typical First Century home would hold about 10 people. The wealthy would be able to host 30 or 40. Archaeologists have found Second Century Christian houses modified to host gatherings of up to 70 or so.
The church in Ephesus was a large and prominent congregation. It surely met in more than one house! It was large enough to have plurality of elders. Paul labored there for years. And yet it was a single church under a single eldership.
None of this should be a surprise, because it’s exactly what we read about in Acts 2. The Jerusalem church — of over 3,000 members! — met in houses but was under a single leadership of elders and apostles. They sometimes met in the temple courts — which could hold many thousands — as a single body, but they ate meals together and studied God’s word in house groups. Luke tells us about the organization of the Jerusalem church because it became the typical way of doing church throughout the Empire.
Of course, the church was quickly thrown out of the synagogues, and the Romans soon realized the church was not merely a sect of Jews. That made the church illegal and kept them from buying property as a church and from meeting in public facilities, such as an amphitheater, absent a kind official looking the other way.
The “house church” was not, therefore, a church at all. Rather, Button and Van Rensburg conclude,
Lexical studies show that the formula H KAT’ OIKON EKKLHSIA does not refer to a self-contained unit called “church” within the local church of the city. Rather, the formula refers to a group which is part of the local church, which derives its identity from the local church and is an expression of the life of the local church.
The New Testament “pattern” is a single church in a given city, which meets in multiple houses but which is under a single eldership. The whole church would assemble together as the law, officials, and space would permit.
There is more evidence for this conclusion. Churches were led by a group of men called “elders.” In the Old Testament, we find that the elders were the governors of each city and town, serving as judges and the city council. They even decided who could enter through the city gates. It was unimaginable that there would be multiple, rival groups of elders in the same city.
We know from the New Testament and history that Jerusalem was still governed by elders (Acts 4:1), despite being subject to the oversight of the Romans. Jewish synagogues were ruled by elders (Matt 15:2; 16:21; 21:23).
In Christianity, churches were led by elders. Why borrow the term “elders” from Judaism unless the position had something in common with Jewish elders, who led on a city-wide basis?
Elders were leaders of cities. Under Rome, elders became rulers of synagogues and continued to have civil authority to the extent allowed by Rome. And there was normally but one synagogue in a city. Even in Jerusalem, where there were multiple synagogues (the Jews couldn’t physically fit in just one!), the elders still governed as a single body –
(Mat 26:3-4 ESV) 3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.
(Mat 27:1 ESV) When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.
(Act 4:5-6 ESV) 5 On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.
Therefore, we are hardly surprised to find that in Ephesus there was but one eldership, even though overseeing gatherings in multiple houses, constituting but a single “church.”
Toward a Conclusion
It all fits together. For those with a restorationist/patternist bent, this is a disturbing conclusion because the Churches of Christ operate in ways that are very contrary to this pattern. But then, so do a lot of other churches.
[Sharp-eyed readers will notice that I’m shamelessly stealing some of this material from the 2011 series on “House Churches & Institutional Churches.” The material is too important to merely link to. Don’t worry; newer material is coming.]