Multi-Site Church Polity: Congregational or Episcopal?

Matthew Pinson

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:

  1. Will this gathered body of believers have sole authority to transact its own business?
  2. 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?
  3. Will it have the sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own deacons chosen from within its own membership who serve it?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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)[1]. 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!


[1] Free Will Baptist North American Ministries is also sometimes still known as Free Will Baptist Home Missions.


  1. This is an important issue and I am glad you addressed again. Thanks for linking other helpful articles on it as well.

  2. If congregations with an Episcopal-typed polity are affecting their communities, reaching others for Christ, and are okay with their set up, then educates the big deal? Seems to me this is an issue only as it concerns someone who actually wants to argue about it. Otherwise, it seems very non-issue. Granted, we, as Free Will Baptists do have local church autonomy. So what if a local church autonomously votes to take on a second site or to plant a church in a neighboring area under the same name and ministry model? That is their right as their autonomy suggests. Does it mean they can’t or won’t be effective?

    Issues that are not salvific are, in general, non issues.

    1. Nicholas, Thank you so much for your comment. I appreciate your perspective, but I couldn’t disagree more. I have many good friends, dear Christian believers, who are Methodist and Anglican pastors whose polity differs from Baptist polity yet who are effective evangelists, pastors, and preachers and are doing wonderful gospel work. But that does not mean that their practice is biblical. Baptists have always joyfully believed in the sufficiency of Scripture, not just for salvation, but for church practice, including church leadership and government. This is what my own Free Will Baptist tradition confesses in its Treatise of Faith and Practice when it says that God’s Word is “sufficient” not only for “salvation,” but also for “all Christian worship and service.”

      So I must lovingly yet firmly disagree with you that all non-salvific issues are not really issues for the church (no hard feelings–I am bound by my ordination vows to uphold the Treatise, which directly contradicts this wedge between the salvific and non-salvific in faith and practice). I agree with all our Baptist forebears (together with the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions) that we must continue in the apostles’ doctrine and practice. The New Testament nowhere indicates that this is limited to salvific issues. There is a beauty to the telos the Holy Spirit has for His church that we cannot fully understand, and that beauty and order–that “DNA” of Christ’s church–extends to faith and practice that is both salvific and non-salvific.

      Some churches intentionally do not have pastors and deacons, or intentionally do not have the Lord’s supper or baptism, arguing that these are not salvific. They say that these offices and methods and ordinances don’t save anyone. They argue that there are people who don’t observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper*, don’t have pastors and deacons, and don’t engage in preaching who are (to use the words in your comment) “affecting their communities, reaching others for Christ, and are okay with their set up, [so what’s] the big deal?” Historic Baptists would say the observance of these non-salvific practices, along with biblical precept and example regarding church leadership and governance, is part of the Spirit’s beautiful plan for Christ’s body–His telos, his grand trajectory, for the church. I cast my lot with that ecclesiological tradition, which I believe takes its cues from all-sufficient Scripture. Thank you for expressing your perspective.

      -Matt Pinson

      *I am purposefully not discussing the washing of the saints’ feet, which I believe is also prescribed by the New Testament, to fit the illustration from the larger Christian community.

      1. I am primarily adding to conversation. I support the congregational and autonomy of the Baptist tradition.

  3. The importance of congregational polity is underscored by the current problems facing the United Methodist Church. If the Conference had voted in favor of recognizing LGBTQ marriages and ordaining homosexuals as ministers, the local church would have been faced with the dilemma of either accepting the decision or vacating the church’s property. An autonomous local church could vote to leave the Conference and maintain their property.

    I believe a compromise proposal would have allowed dissenting congregations to maintain their properties but the problem is completely avoided under the Biblical model.

  4. Thanks for this excellent article with ample links throughout. I will definitely be looking at those as well.

    Historically speaking, multi-site church polity has not worked in the past so why should it work now, or in the future? It clearly proves itself as a departure from God’s plan for the local church. Case in point, the Episcopal Church. Their multi-site church polity has opened the door to liberalism, which has in turn ushered in a widespread acceptance of LGBTQ philosophy, and even worse, a departure from the gospel. This is just one of many historical reasons why multi-site church polity does not and will not work.

    I appreciate that the FWB Treatise follows the New Testament blueprint for local church polity. This is reason enough to trust it. Even if we cannot see the grand trajectory of Christ’s church, Scripture (God’s inerrant, infallible words) is always the sufficient (and safest) guide to ensure God’s people remain in God’s will. Besides, why would we trust church polity to anything less than God’s own words for his people?

  5. The multi-site church must operate in a tight form of connectional government that Free Will Baptists have historically refused. Consider the Mars Hill Church in Seattle. To mitigate many of the concerns raised with multi-site congregations, they adopted the following polity…

    “Each campus must have its own paid staff appropriate for a church its size such as a campus administrator and children’s leader, along with some unpaid elders and deacons to administer such things as premarital counseling, small groups, membership. For this to happen each campus must have its own budget that the campus pastor and other elders spend as they see fit, within certain established guidelines for all campuses. . . .”

    Here we see multiple campuses with their own pastoral and elder staff and deacons yet responsible to the church’s main campus. These multi-site satellites are not church plants but mere extensions of the primary congregation operating under guidelines established by higher centralized authority. Autonomy is severely handicapped with such a structure of governance, and, as President Pinson notes, this does not harmonize with the New Testament model nor with the historical Free Will Baptist practice of congregational rule.

  6. I appreciate this thought provoking post addressing the rising embrace of multi-site strategies for church growth. It is a convicting appeal to the sufficiency of Scripture for directing our church doctrine and practice.

    I am particularly encouraged by the sensitivity expressed to the motivations which drive many to embrace multi-site strategies. Regardless of one’s position on church polity, all sincere Christians desire the Church to grow and flourish. The vital question concerns how this is best pursued.

    The multi-site strategy is a tempting solution. In describing this strategy, which he labels the “satellite model,” Thom Rainer compares it to the “secular model of branch banking” (Rainer, 221). Such a model provides needed accountability to all church satellites while allowing the church to reach new communities. While such an organized and mobilized system may seem attractive for the sake of gospel proclamation, it is not the only solution, nor is it necessarily the best.

    This post helpfully reminds us that Scripture expresses, and our Free Will Baptist Tradition historically examples, a means to facilitate this growth and flourishing through church planting in the context of associational connection between autonomous church bodies. This is a distinctive of Free Will Baptist polity which I believe is incredibly helpful in addressing many of the concerns expressed by those who question traditional church planting models. When Free Will Baptist polity is rightly observed, local autonomy is preserved while promoting congregational association and pastoral accountability.

    As we attempt to minister effectively in this modern age, I am thankful for this post, calling Free Will Baptists to hold fast to the ecclesiological convictions expressed in our Treatise. Such an expression of New Testament ecclesiology provides fertile soil for planting healthy, fruitful churches.

    Thank you for drawing our attention to these important issues.

    —Jacob Lute

    Rainer, Thom S. The Book of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 1993.

  7. Thanks Dr. Pinson for a thoughtful article that once again challenges us as historical Free Will Baptists to re-think ministry philosophy amidst the influences of modern church growth assumptions. Multi-site churches most likely function in line with an episcopal hierarchy model out of practical necessity. As someone outside the multi-site model, on the surface multi-sites appears to function more from the top-down business model approach. This may or may not be the case from church to church.

    I had conversations with my grandfather who was a FWB minister in the 40’s and 50’s and aided in the organization of churches where he preached revivals in Kentucky and Southwest Virginia. He aided in the organization of some 23 churches in his lifetime, and he served as pastor a few times. The goal was the organization of godly leaders among them who would nurture and disciple relationships in their community and eventually form associations for fellowship, mutual encouragement and missions. This was the church planting model of his day. Both the times and technologies have changed.

    The technological advantages of today offer great benefit and opportunities for the church in outreach and discipleship. Human relationship tend toward the superficial today, and unfortunately relationship with God is often measured by religious functions, rather than the heart, soul, mind and strength given to God. Jesus’ ministry model was incarnational and relational because He was on a relationship-oriented mission.

    Stemming the tide of nominal Christian commitment and the fast life today is difficult even for Christ-center, Bible-based church. It seems to me that the multi-site model,as I understand it, misses a key component of community-life, and that is the presence of the teaching shepherd. The role is teaching rests with one person, while shepherding is given to a campus pastor.

    Shepherding and teaching involves all of our lives as a living example before the community of the messages we deliver. It’s that “seeing a sermon thing” and then you really ”get it” model. The disciples learned from hearing Jesus teach, but they gained insight into spiritual truths as they saw consistency in His “life and doctrine” in application. This only happens in observation of a teaching shepherd over time. Pastoral care needs have not changed, and assimilation requires deeper commitments of time for spiritual formation, and that is the challenge regardless of policy or structure.

    Our Free Will Baptist polity and structure provides a biblical structure and guidelines for the congregational health and growth, while respecting church autonomy and providing mutual support through association. It was given in the wisdom of our forefathers as a means of maintaining church health through discipleship and a vibrant evangelism. Discipleship requires a commitment of time, money and the hard work of building relationships over time. Marketing might help attract a crowd, but developing long sustained relationships is the key to church health. My grandfather understood the relational dynamic in the process of developing a functioning healthy churches with their own pastor in the pulpit shepherding the flock.

    1. Thanks to all of you who have offered these substantive and sensitive reflections on my post. I think this is an important issue for us going forward. Its implications are broader than what we might at first think. I am glad that there’s some good theological thinking going on across the generations in our denomination, young and old, as represented in these comments. Thank you so much.

      -Matt Pinson

  8. Follow up to my question: even though baptistic mega churches have a congregational government in their bylaws, they tend to be governed by the executive pastoral team with deacon participation. Just a thought.

    1. Thank you, Brother Randlett. I understand your concern. Regardless of size, any church that is characterized by pastoral staff governance rather than congregational governance contradicts biblical and Baptist polity. There are many larger Baptist churches, however, that are very intentional about congregational polity. One good example of this is Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., which typically has more than a thousand people attending one service on Sunday morning. Yet that church’s senior pastor, Mark Dever, is one of the most ardent defenders of congregational governance of the local church and one of the most outspoken critics of governance vested in the hands of elders or pastoral staff rather than the congregation. Of course Dever has the mentality of not just multiplying many thousands of people in one location, which sometimes can make congregational governance difficult. Instead his congregation has sent church planting or revitalization teams out from Capitol Hill Baptist to plant or revitalize numerous self-governing churches. Thanks again for interacting.
      -Matt Pinson

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