Recently my pastor and colleague at Welch College, Jesse Owens, texted me a tweet by the eminent Australian evangelical scholar Michael Bird, who tweeted the following about multi-site churches:
“Thesis: Multi-site churches are not congregational, they are episcopally governed, the senior minister is a de facto bishop, in fact, multisite churches are more centrally controlled than any Catholic or Anglican diocese in church history.”
Bird also has written a blog post on this entitled, “Multi-Site Churches: An Evaluation” that is very insightful. While I have important disagreements with Bird on some basic issues of evangelical theology, I agree wholeheartedly with the statement above.
I first made an observation similar to his at an annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society many years ago. After a paper on Baptist-congregational church government, I remember standing in the hallway talking with Chad Owen Brand and Stan Norman saying basically the same thing: “Multi-site churches are a violation of the congregational church polity that is part and parcel of Baptist ecclesiology. They’re more like an episcopal diocese.”
There are many online resources that critique the multi-site movement from a Baptist perspective. Mark Dever and 9Marks have been at the forefront of raising awareness and concern over this development through a Baptist lens, from biblical, theological, historical, and practical vantage points. There is also an excellent treatment of the multi-site phenomenon by the president of Cedarville University, Thomas White, Franchising McChurch, which I discussed several years ago in ONE Magazine. Thus, I do not feel the need to give a full-orbed critique of the multi-site phenomenon here but only to focus on the very narrow question of whether it fits with historic Baptist polity.
I remember being on a panel discussion at Southern Seminary a few years ago with Orthodox Presbyterian pastor and professor Carl Trueman. He was surprised that the only other person on the panel who agreed with him on the ecclesiological problems with multi-site churches was an Arminian Baptist! Yet he and I agreed, on that panel, that a late-medieval phenomenon similar to the multi-site movement was responsible in large part for the anti-clerical fervor that led to the Protestant Reformation: pluralism and non-residency (i.e., congregations that had no preaching pastor [priest] to give them pastoral care, and priests that were assigned to more than one congregation). Trueman and I agreed that the multi-site thrust was a violation of both Presbyterian and Baptist-congregational polity.
This is a concern I have for our own Free Will Baptist Church. I frequently have ministers ask me what I think about having a Free Will Baptist multi-site church, from the vantage point of our faith and practice as Free Will Baptists. I always explain it in what I see as the only way one can explain it in terms of the Free Will Baptist Treastise of Faith and Practices, and that is in line with Bird’s comment above and people like Dever’s and Trueman’s approach: It is not in harmony with Free Will Baptist polity.
Now we must understand that Free Will Baptists have some important differences with the wider Baptist tradition of church government. We tend to give more power to the conference or association, e.g., the authority for presbyteries to examine and ordain ministers, so that churches in good standing with a Free Will Baptist conference or association cannot ordain their own ministers without the authority of the presbytery or ordaining council of a local conference or association.
However, on issues that touch this question of multi-site churches, we would be in agreement with Dever and other Baptists. Free Will Baptists have historically believed that local congregations should be self-governing. That means, among other things, that they must choose their own pastor(s) and deacons and their own officers and teachers, do their own discipline, have control of their own property, have the freedom to separate from one conference and unite with another, have control of their own finances, etc.
This self-governance principle has always opposed the episcopal and Presbyterian models of church government that give ecclesiastical bodies or individuals outside a local congregation control over the internal elements of governance of that congregation such as those things listed in the previous paragraph. So, whether it be a diocese or a bishop or a synod or a presbytery, these bodies/individuals cannot control the internal governance of a local congregation.
Again, historic Free Will Baptist polity, as I show in my pamphlet Free Will Baptists and Church Government, stipulates a stronger relationship between the conference or association and the local church than most Baptist polities. The conference or association has historically been responsible, for example, for the examination, ordination, and discipline of office bearers (ministers, and, the further back you go in our history, deacons). Furthermore, associations and conferences have the right to involve themselves in local church disputes, and often do so. But they have the right only to advise, never finally to arbitrate, in those disputes. Their ultimate recourse is only to remove fellowship from an erring congregation. So I do not wish to minimize the differences between historic Free Will Baptist polity and other Baptist polity.
However, all Baptists agree on the congregational governance of the local church: (1) It is the entire congregation, not the pastor(s) and deacons, who govern the local Baptist church; (2) It is the congregation, not a body outside that congregation, that governs the local Baptist church.
This is borne out in the Free Will Baptist Treatise, which places within the self-government of each local congregation “full authority to transact its business, choose its pastor and officers, receive, discipline, and dismiss members, hold free title to all its properties, and conduct all its internal affairs” (Part IV, Chapter I, Section I.B).
Sometimes ministers who’ve read a lot about multi-site churches and hope to experience growth in their ministries ask me, “Would there be a problem with me having a multi-site church?” I always tell them this: “If different congregations arise out of your church, and you can find a way to keep them together somehow without violating the Treatise (which Free Will Baptists believe is based on New Testament polity), then by all means do so!”
When they ask what this does and does not mean, I explain that each gathered body of believers needs to have the sole authority to do those things that lie within the power of the local church that are enumerated in the Treatise. So you need to ask the following eight questions:
- Will this gathered body of believers have sole authority to transact its own business?
- Will it have sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own preaching pastor(s) who leads, feeds, and cares for it (i.e., leadership, preaching, and pastoral care), and not be answerable to the preaching pastor of a higher authority or church outside itself, or any religious body outside itself?
- Will it have the sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own deacons chosen from within its own membership who serve it?
- Will it have the sole authority to receive its own members in the way it wishes to receive them, or will there be another higher authority outside it that determines how members are received or who is received?
- Will its pastor(s) and deacons have the sole authority to administer baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the washing of the saints’ feet, and other ordinances in the congregation?
- Will it have its own policy and process for disciplining, excommunicating, or dismissing members, administered solely by its own office bearers without control of an outside body?
- Will it have the sole authority to decide where to meet, and if it owns property, will it hold title to that property with full authority to sell it or to purchase additional property without permission from a higher authority outside itself?
- In short, will it have sole authority to conduct its own financial affairs and all other internal affairs, and not have a higher authority control the outcome of any of its internal affairs?
These are simply the eight questions that naturally arise from an examination of the Treatise. And, as I tell ministers who have asked me about this, if you can answer all these questions in the affirmative about the congregation of believers that you are spinning off from your main congregation, you will be in line with historic Free Will Baptist polity.
Yet an affirmative answer to the above eight questions is a direct violation of the whole point of the multi-site movement, as it is to other episcopal approaches to church government.
Then, often, a subsequent question comes up, “Well, President Pinson, if I have enough church growth to be able to spin off other congregations, is there anything I can do that would not be in violation of the Treatise and historic Free Will Baptist polity? My answer is always, “Yes! Plant churches!” This is the answer Jonathan Leeman gives in his 9Marks article “The Alternative: Why Don’t We Plant?”
That’s the answer that’s in line with New Testament polity and with historic Free Will Baptist polity as outlined in the Treatise: We plant churches! Of course, a church cedes power and control when it mothers a church and then encourages the church to go self-supporting, self-governing. But that is the New Testament model, and the model that fits our Free Will Baptist faith and practice.
Of course, there is a lot of room for variation in the church planting model. For example, just as Free Will Baptist North American Ministries often sponsors a mission for many years before it goes self-supporting and becomes its own self-governing church, so a local congregation that has the means to plant a church can do the same thing. A new local gathering can be a mission of the church that planted it for several years before it becomes self-supporting and self-governing. In these intervening years, there is room for differing models of control that still lie within the bounds of Free Will Baptist practice.
Another positive of planting a church is that it can be done with the advice, assistance, and accountability of a Church entity like Free Will Baptist North American Ministries (NAM). The church plant I am involved in currently, though a self-governing plant, is in cooperation with NAM. Its pastor, Jesse Owens, is an associate church planter who receives training, counsel, and prayer support from NAM, as well as the ability to raise non-salary financial support through NAM.
Furthermore, I have even had some ministers ask me, “Is there a way to have a network of these churches that grow out of my church?” I say, “Yes. That’s what we call an association or conference.” Of course, when at all possible, it’s healthy to unite with conferences or associations who can stretch us out of our comfort zone and help us experience the diversity of the body of Christ within our Free Will Baptist theological confines. So I encourage these ministers to be active in broader associations: We need Free Will Baptist conferences and associations, not cultural niche associations. We don’t need to divide ourselves up by our cultural preferences, where it’s almost like we’re in an association where everybody likes either sushi or fried chicken, or everybody likes either bluegrass or indie-folk, or everybody wears either skinny jeans or khakis to the ministers’ retreat.
However, that said, let’s pretend that a large Free Will Baptist church over a period of fifteen years planted ten successful Free Will Baptist congregations, and over an eight-to-ten-year period, each one of those churches became self-supporting and self-governing, and they all associated with the original church that planted them, meeting together for fellowship, encouragement, accountability, and other ministry, say, once a quarter. This would be much like what has happened throughout 400 years of Free Will Baptist and wider Baptist history. It’s called a conference or an association. But, in this concept, the original, larger congregation that planted all the other congregations would have no more power or sway over what happened in the association, or in the internal governance of each of the local planted congregations, than any of the planted congregations.
I think it is imperative that we Free Will Baptists be ourselves. This means drawing from our own rich biblical and historical resources of church polity rather than from trends that might seem successful at the moment, but really represent a departure from our Baptist faith and practice and an embrace of the faith and practice of non-Baptist religious bodies. And that is precisely what multi-site is: a move away from our historic Free Will Baptist and Baptist polity toward an embrace of episcopal church polity.
My prayer is that we will avoid this theological misstep and that we will do what we see in the New Testament and Free Will Baptist history and plant more New Testament churches!
 Free Will Baptist North American Ministries is also sometimes still known as Free Will Baptist Home Missions.