This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.
It’s not hard to find this claim in discussions on the early church. The idea is that the church in most cities would have grown to the point where they couldn’t all meet in the same place. So, they would have met as smaller house churches, scattered around the city. If this is the case, it’s argued, then it would make sense that they would need one elder or pastor for each house church. That sounds practical. But how well does this idea hold up to closer examination?
We first need to realize this isn’t taught anywhere in Scripture. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but when something isn’t clearly described in the Bible, we need to proceed cautiously before just assuming its validity. This conjecture may be correct, but it is conjecture nonetheless. Is this speculation convincing enough to cause us to alter our view of pastoral leadership in the New Testament churches?
We also need to be careful of assuming too quickly the need for additional meeting places for the churches in the New Testament. We’ve learned a lot about the early church through historical and archaeological studies. For instance, we know that churches would sometimes meet outdoors to provide adequate space for the church gathering. Interestingly, in some cities the church would meet in the local cemetery! We’ve also learned that wealthy members of the churches would sometimes knock down walls in their homes to make room for the churches to meet. One such house that’s been excavated could comfortably seat 500 people. That changes one’s perspective of a house church! [Graydon Snyder’s book Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine is a good place to look for more information.]
Despite these historical insights, it’s certainly possible that some churches would have eventually failed to find sufficient room to meet together and would have been forced to meet in separate locations. But here the distinctive wording of Scripture becomes important. The New Testament speaks many times of the churches (plural) of a larger region, such as Galatia, Judea or Macedonia (see Acts 15:41; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 19; 2 Corinthians 8:1; Galatians 1:2, 22; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Revelation 1:4, 11). But when it’s speaking of God’s people in a specific city, it always refers to the church (singular) of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, etc. It never refers to plural churches in any one city.
Why is this important? Because if a church—say the church in Corinth—had to meet in three separate homes each week, these three meetings still would have constituted one church in Scripture, the church in Corinth, not three individual house churches. So even if we were to accept the idea that the elders were divided up, one per house gathering (and this unsupported assumption is itself quite a leap), they still would collectively make up the pastoral leadership of a single church. And the natural way of reading the passages describing the ministry of elders is that they led in concert as a kind of elder council.
For instance, James 5:14 makes little sense in the context of individual house churches. If a believer regularly attended the same house church, which was pastored by their one elder, and this believer became sick, why would they not just call for their elder/pastor to pray for them? Why would they also call for all the other elders of all the other house churches? James seems to assume one church in each town, with a group of elders who collectively pastor the whole church and who are known by the members of the church. Other passages, such as Romans 16:23 and 1 Corinthians 14:23, speak of the ‘whole church’ coming together. This seems to discredit the idea of the churches meeting in multiple house churches, at least in Rome and Corinth.
So, we find the claim that the early church met in multiple house churches in each city to be lacking any biblical support, based entirely on conjecture, and not supported by the historical evidence. And even if we make the leap of assuming such separate meetings, scripturally we still have a team of pastoral leaders in each town leading a single church.
Elders and pastoral leadership series:
Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder? [see above]