Church 2.0: Part 10.7: Congregational Autonomy, Part 1

Church2In the NT, ekklēsia is used in two senses: the church-universal and the local congregation. These parallel the use of ekklēsia in the OT to refer to all of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai or in Jerusalem for worship, the reading of the Law, or the like, or to refer to those Jews who live in a particular city, as in Ezra and Nehemiah.

When Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt under the leadership of these men, most Jews remained in Babylon or otherwise scattered across the Ancient Near East. Even during Jesus’s day, more Jews lived outside of Judea than in Judea — and yet the Jews called to meet with their leaders were the ekklēsia.

Where we miss an important turn is our tendency to equate a modern congregation with the First Century notion of a city’s ekklēsia. You see, in the First Century, there was only one ekklēsia or congregation per city. This fact is often obscured by translations that speak of a “congregation” or “church” that meets in someone’s house. Recent Greek studies reveal that these passages are actually speaking of the part of the church that met in a given house.

houseplanNow, the early church certainly met in houses, as we read in many passages, but each house was not a house-church. Rather, the church couldn’t meet in larger spaces because they were generally banned by the Jews from the synagogues and by the Romans from public spaces — and so they met in houses. But it was more like what we call a zone meeting or a small group meeting. Or even more exactly, it was like a modern multi-site congregation with each site being someone’s home. They had a single eldership over a single church that met in multiple locations.

Congregational autonomy as we practice it is not found in the scriptures. Our practice of having multiple congregations in one town, each independent, even isolated, from the others, isn’t how the early church operated. And while God grants great freedom in this area, I think we’ve gone beyond the realm of the permissible.

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.

Paul refers to the church in Corinth as a single “church” (1 Cor 1:2; 6:4; 2 Cor 1:1), but it’s clear they met in multiple houses. Allison continues,

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.

Notice that Rom 16:23 and 1 Cor 14:23 refer to gatherings of the “whole church” –

(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.

[to be continued]

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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14 Responses to Church 2.0: Part 10.7: Congregational Autonomy, Part 1

  1. Ray Downen says:

    Jay, when Paul scolds Corinthian Christians for some eating before others were able to get there, it seems to me he is speaking of a large gathering which included all the Christians in Corinth. How they could find a place to meet which included dining facilities and was large enough for all “the church in Corinth” I have no idea. But it seems he surely is speaking of one large gathering rather than just part of the church. Your suggestion of smaller groups making up the church in a city surely makes good sense.

  2. Dwight says:

    I tend to think in terms of venues, meaning that the congregation is universal, but when you look at a city you see the congregation there, but now it is a portion of the congregation, but still the congregation, then when you look at the saints that met in their homes, they were a part of the congregation, but still the congregation. Their membership in Christ kept them a member in the congregation, then as they were addressed or met in whatever location they were in they were still of the congregation.
    Note I am replacing church with congregation, because saints are part of the congregation, even when they are not assembled and when they are in whatever venue they happen to be in or addressed as, be it city or house.
    If the congregation met to partake of the Lord’s Supper in a similar way Jesus did it was in a house around a table, but this could be many houses with many tables and they would still be the congregation.
    It is like membership in Gold’s gym, which gives you membership to many gyms, some large and some small and you are connected to all of the other members in other places as well. If you were sent a letter in your town (even though you were not at the gym, but at home), you would be addressed as a member and if you saw a letter at your gym you would read it as a member. Your status as a member exist on all levels, up till the point you walk away from your membership with the gym as a whole (or in this case Jesus and God).

  3. Barry Sanford says:

    The following is an email exchange on this very issue between myself and LaGard Smith, from back in 2003. First, my original email to him, followed by his insightful response:

    At 09:23 PM 4/13/2003 -0500, you wrote:

    Dear Brother Smith,

    My name is Barry Sanford. I was given your email address (hopefully with your permission) by bro. (name removed) who is on staff at Lipscomb. Brother (name removed) is a member of the congregation here in Columbus Mississippi where I am one of 10 elders overseeing a flock of 400+ sheep.

    Maybe ‘overseeing’ is too misleading. I find that we spend most of our collective time in discussions concerning our building, budget or can the youth group do this or that. In our meetings, practically no time is spent discussing spiritual matters and where we need to be leading the flock. However, I have found that the most meaningful interaction I have with some of the flock is during my – sometimes lively – Sunday A.M. class period.

    This brings me to the subject of this email. For the past two Sundays we have been focused on the ‘Organization of the Church’ as a discussion topic. Being that I am of the ‘form is critical’ school, I suggested that maybe our present form is not exactly what we find in N.T. scripture. And further, maybe our modern concept of strictly ‘autonomous congregations’ with ‘autonomous elderships’ may in fact be contrary to scripture. I went on to say that scripture may suggest that this autonomy (in light of Titus 1:5) was possibly at the city-church level as opposed to the home-church level.

    I was not expecting such a backlash! The class response can be categorized roughly as follows:

    – A very vocal 20% cried heresy.
    – About 30% generally agreed with my assertion.
    – The remaining 50% was wondering what was about to happen next.

    The retort of the vocal 20% group was contained in two arguments:

    – This is the road to apostasy (e.g. the Catholicism)
    – This first century structure was supported by the apostles but is not binding on us today.

    The ‘apostasy’ rebuttal seems trivial and argumentative. However, the ‘apostle’ rebuttal seems to have more meat on the bone.

    Am I too far out in left field?
    Is the city-church concept dead because the apostles are no longer with us?

    Do you have any words of encouragement or advice?

    Thanks in advance for whatever you can afford me.
    In Christ’s Service

    Barry Sanford


    Thank you for your confidence in asking me about your concerns. Just wondering whether you had read my book titled Radical Restoration? Since you used the word “radical,” I somehow assumed you had. If so, you will know that I at least surfaced the idea of city-wide elders in the primitive church, but with a twist. Unfortunately, we only seem to be able to think organizationally rather than organically. We think hierarchy instead of dynamics. So if we’re talking about a “board of elders” over several congregations in an area, then we are headed down the path of institutionalization as did the Roman Catholics. But if we are talking about the “olders” in various house churches within a city who then double as that cities “olders” in prayer and mutual concern for all the little house churches in a given city, then we are more like what I believe we see at the Jerusalem conference when the apostles and elders and the whole church came together to resolve problems of mutual concern.

    Before we can think of elders properly in a city-wide sense, we have to begin thinking of elders properly in a shepherding sense. To extend the reach of elders as presently understood (as a board of directors for a church) to encompass a city would be foolhardly, scripturally speaking. When elders become shepherds, then the fields in which they find their sheep might indeed be larger than a single fold. Or, to put it better, there could be a larger fold over which they are overseers.

    Hope this helps.



  4. Dwight says:

    Barry, I think LeGard is correct. We think about the collective range and not the service which would extend the range to whatever it needed to be. Acts 14:23 “elders in every church” and I Peter 5:3 “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you” and we know that elders were appointed in every town. What I know most studies do is isolate Act 14:23 “in every church” from what really happened Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—” For some reason the thought that elders were over the saints in a city instead of every church (which they didn’t have in our form) is never considered worthy of discussion.
    But in discussing this I Peter 5:1 “I Peter 5:1 “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:” and
    I Peter 5:3 becomes very important ““Shepherd the flock of God which is among you.” This shows that the elders were not bound to a location, but rather to the people they were with and who were with them and who they were apart of and this was city wide or possibly region wide. But if you look at this from a service standpoint, they taught (whoever was within the realm of their voice as saints were supposed to do in general), they watched out for the people (as the saints were to watch out for their brothers and sisters), etc.
    What we would have done if membership and autonomy is truly the case is when a false teacher comes into our congregation, then we cannot handle the false teacher, but we must defer the false teacher back to the church he came from to be handled by them, since he is a member of another church.
    But the elders were told to confront the false teachers who came among them. So it wasn’t about boundaries, but about the truth and the people.
    I am working on a study on the church that I would love to send you so you can look it over and critique if possible. I have finished most of it, but I refuse to call it finished even when it will be done.
    If you are interested you can send me a message at: [email protected].
    God Bless,

  5. John F says:

    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.

    Broken link?

    The resource you are looking for has been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.

  6. John F says:

    I wrote a short paper on “The Church in Your House” decades (1967 – Columbia Christian College) ago. In yet I proposed that the extensive greetings in Romans 16 were the “house churches” in which the believers met and about whom Paul had received information. Thus each group would know that Paul’s words were for them as well.

    A city-wide eldership would be great in concept (no more running from A to B to C in the effort to avoid discipline for sin or some such) but is problematic in praxis. Our present congregation has upper teens in number and has a most difficult time moving forward. How much more difficult if you had 40 or 60 or 100 in a given city. The Spirit sadly would have to “work overtime” as personalities and interpretive understandings conflicted. How many congregational honor “discipline”: from a sister congregation?

  7. Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    Link is fixed.

  8. John F says:

    From prepositions link above. . . .
    “Prepositions must not govern theology. Yet theology (i.e. statements drawn from the collective
    documents) may govern the interpretation of the prepositions”. pg. 26

    My head may be about to explode as I try to track four interrelated prepositional phrases with her, but the point from the above quote is that our theology “from the collective documents” includes many prepositional phrases that deserve understanding in their inherent meanings, not modified to fit some “grander scheme”.

    “The syntax will provide clues, but the definitions must be drawn from the universal world of
    fact and experience. On the other hand, the things, events and relationships of the ‘real world’ are
    reflected in language and indeed, cannot be described without language. So semantic categories are conditioned by the syntactic framework and lexical items of the speaker/author. ” pg. 62

    Precisely, it matters most how Paul, Luke, Mark, John, etc. use the terminology. Trench (Synonyms of the NT quite often points out how the NT writers “elevate” the meaning of earlier usages of the same terminology.

    Finally made it to KATA section; interesting presentation of kata sarkos I had not taken the time to follow beofre — (I guess I was too focused on critizing the NIV “sinful nature” mistranslations. Well worth a look and more than a momentary glance.

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