By Dr. Stephen R. Crosby
City church is a concept/belief that only one church legitimately exists in a any city, and that it should be overseen by elders of the city, who then submit to regional apostles (overseers, bishops, superintendents–whatever your tradition calls the greater function.). The idea and its variants are prevalent in many so-called apostolic and prophetic groups and communions today, though not confined to those groups. It’s proposed that God wants to restore governmental order to the church under geographic delineations so it can fulfill its destiny in unity. Some consider the concept an essential for the realization of John 17 unity. In this lengthier (apologies in advance) than normal blog, I present twelve considerations or challenges to this idea. I am endeavoring to explore the implications, motives, and pitfalls inherent with the idea. I hope to make the case that relationships, not geography, nor hierarchy, establish spiritual authority and spiritual jurisdictions.
- The scriptures speak of a unity of the spirit that we are to work at maintaining. Scripture also speaks clearly of a unity of the faith, and the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ—growing up into Him. The scriptures say nothing about unity of biblical interpretation. Unity of the faith already exists to a degree in the great creeds of the church—the things that really matter—that all Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants agree on. The scriptures specifically speak nothing about a unity of ecclesiastic organization, order, and government defined by city jurisdictions. It’s an inference drawn from letters addressed to churches located in cities, aninference on how we expect John 17 to be realized, and an inference regarding elements of spiritual warfare. Inferences are just that—inferences. Inferences should be held lightly, if at all. From Christ’s perspective (where we are supposedly seated), there’s already one church everywhere! It already exists! All those blood-bought saints who have called upon the name of the Lord are His church in a community or region, and we need to get along in love, so the world will acknowledge that Christ has been sent by the Father. Our unity in relational love, not singular governance, will testify to the world.
- It is also an assumption that the unity of John 17 requires a visible, organized, entity. It is also an assumption that the Lord desires to maintain current geographic delineations as well as current structures and practices. A strong case could be made that rather than consolidate local expressions under one monolith of city and regional super-elders (super=above, over) and super-apostles, He desires the opposite. He may be at work to dissolve both our understanding of order and our geographies! Interesting days are ahead!
- It is likely that in the time scripture was written, that on a daily, routine basis people (especially the lower classes) never traveled more than 5 miles from where they lived. They walked everywhere! That is fundamentally limiting geographically, a 20-mile walk being a hefty day’s journey on foot. Their geography defined their relational sphere of existence.
- That is clearly not the case today. Geography does not define our relational sphere of existence. Therefore, the question becomes: How do we interpret and apply scriptures written to a context that no longer exists? The context of a scripture is critical in its application, or non-application. Are the scriptures that mention churches in cities prescriptive for all time of what must be, or descriptive of what was? This is a basic hermeneutical issue, open to honest debate among sincere hearts. Not all scripture is prescriptive, as any first-year class in hermeneutics in a conservative Bible School or seminary would teach. For example, if all scripture is prescriptive we should not be wearing wool with linen, we should cast lots for appointments, and men would be greeting each other with a kiss (maybe we should!) We all have a hermeneutic. We just disagree on how, and where it should apply! As Gordon Fee has said: “It’s all hermeneutics.” So, just claiming: “I believe what the Bible plainly says on this or that issue,” is not enough.
- How do we define church? Is it relationally, geographically, or governmentally defined? That the Greeks used ekklesia to denote the called out elders that governed a city is not denied. The problem is, the word ekklesia was used to denote many things, not just the civic elders. It simply meant an assembly, any assembly of people. Christians adapted the term and added the phrases tou Christou or tou theou to the word ekklesia, thus making it “assembly of Christ” or “assembly of God,” neither “assembly of the city,” nor “assembly of the elders.” In the Christian sense it means an assembly of those separated or called out unto God. The old cliché: “He who controls definition wins,” certainly applies on this issue.
- How do we define city? Is there a church of a metropolis and many other churches in suburban civil jurisdictions around the metropolis because of man-made township boundaries and distinctions? “Suburban cities,” in our sense, simply did not exist in the first century. It’s a mishandling of scripture to project our experience and situation into the text. If every civil demarcation is a separate spiritual jurisdiction, are there multiple sets of elders with overseeing apostles necessary in each jurisdiction? Where does the metropolis begin and stop? Who gets to define it? Based on what and why? What biblical legitimacy? Do we develop a theology of city church elders and regional super-apostles for the greater metropolitan area of a given city including the suburbs and ignore the smaller townships? If we are to take the alleged geographical jurisdiction literally, as some suggest, by what right do we have to define it so? What are the implications of either option? The first scenario seems incredibly redundant for assets and human resources, and the latter opens up all kinds of problems.
- How do we define city? By man-made geopolitical boundaries or other parameters that did not exist in Christ’s/Paul’s day? The scripture associates people ethnically, and that is offensive to us—“people groups,” the ethnos, the nations. Ancient cities were founded tribally/ethnically and tended to use natural geography (mountains, lakes, rivers, etc.) for boundaries. It’s quite a hermeneutical jump to translate that to invisible, modern man-made boundaries of latitude and longitude, and to try to develop a theology and practice from it. If you require 100% conformity to literal “biblicity,” then it must be literal all the way.
- If there is only one church in one city, am I a transgressor of mandatory biblical protocol and mandate by “crossing spiritual jurisdictional lines?” If I cross a street from my side of a city boundary to another, or by driving from one suburb to another to fellowship with people I have been bonded to by the Spirit (perhaps through my employment or other social networking outside of my geographic locality) am I in sin? Advocates for mandatory, city jurisdictions believe that I indeed, would be a transgressor, because I am no longer supporting the church in my God-mandated geography. I am made a transgressor according to them for crossing apostolically defined spiritual jurisdictional boundaries. If I am not a transgressor, why not? You have to go through some interesting gyrations to try to explain why geographical jurisdictions are mandatory, but permeable. Who has the authority to define these boundaries and determine when they are permeable and when they are not? Based on what, biblically? If God has mandated only one church in a geography, under one set of city elders and apostles, and has placed me in that geography, what right do I have to attend a church anywhere else? There is clearly no scripture giving specific permission to do so, if the one-church-one-city mandate, is indeed a mandate.
- If there is only one church in one city under one government, it begs the question how these city churches then relate. Do we now need statewide bishops to oversee the association of city-elder-governed, city churches and do we need a national bishop to oversee the association of statewide churches? Do we need continental bishops to oversee the assembly of national bishops, and a bishop of the world to oversee the assembly of the continents? You can see where this can go. It is logically inevitable and all associated with the problem of defining these things geographically rather than relationally. If you believe in the premise of geographic spiritual jurisdictions, it is arbitrary to say that the “principle” goes no further than cities. The rulers of the air are alleged to have national jurisdictions (Daniel: Prince of Persia, etc.) and some use this, by analogy, to counter that the church must also have singular spiritual jurisdictions at a national level.
- The concept of city church elders is an intoxicating proposition. Elders in a city, yes, of course! Elders of the city, no. The scriptures never use the term in the latter sense in relation to cities. Elders in a city speaks of relating to people in a geography. Elders of a city speaks to ruling over an entity, a thing, an inanimate jurisdiction. The former yes, the latter, no. The one seeming exception is in the address to the church of the Thessalonians, but note: of is used in relation to people, not geographic jurisdictions. People and their bond in the geography define the jurisdiction, not the geography itself! Paul NEVER defined himself as an apostle of Rome, or an elder of Rome. He defined his apostleship relationally: “I may not be an apostle to others, but I am to you.” — that is relational, not geographic.
- What about the Lord’s “divided” church in temporal expression? Division and sectarianism are, indeed, blights on His testimony. However, denominations, per se, are not the problem. Denominationalism is. The word denominate simply means to give a name to. We should be “named” only by One Name. However, differentiation and denomination are not the same.Differentiation is fine. Denomination is not. God’s great grace, love, and redemptive reach are big enough to reach into our less than ideal brokenness and differentiations. His reach is so wide and deep, that the Creator who has made a diverse tree for every bird in the forest, has to be big enough to make a home available for the differentiation in His children: personalities, likes, dislikes, maturity levels, specific calling, etc. The forest is a divinely created unity, a singular composite unity, but there are many diverse trees, with not every creature suitable for every tree. They are all different, but they are all trees. The unity is in their created essence and their planting together in one forest (one church). Doing away with denominational ecclesiology is not the problem. Doing away with sectarian hearts is. Get rid of the former without getting rid of the latter, and we will still be divided, regardless if organized or governed on a city church or regional basis.
- Assuming geographic jurisdictions are a biblical mandate, what do we do if the man-made geographical jurisdictions change due to human political actions, natural disasters, or losing a war? That is, the city, state or country that one believes to have elder or apostolic jurisdiction in doesn’t exist any more! Does your function also disappear since you no longer have a jurisdiction? What happens to the relationships you have built while your jurisdiction existed? Do they now stop because a person is no longer in your geography? If the answer is yes, that is madness. If the answer is no, the case is made that relationship triumphs over geography!
I would like to pose a question to those who hold to the legitimacy of city church elders and regional super-apostles defined by geography:
How do you see yourself fitting into the scheme? Are you willing to not be considered a candidate for either? Are you willing to abandon all you convictions, your doctrinal persuasions, all the things you feel strongly in your heart, so another person with different convictions, of lesser stature, and lesser gifts than you perceive in yourself can be a citywide elder or regional super-apostle? Would you be willing to submit/yield to someone not from your spiritual family and doctrinal tradition? Would you be willing to submit/yield to such a person for the sake of singular citywide unity and singular government?
At the end of the day, it’s hard not to view the whole matter as boiling down to one question: “Who has control, authority, and power?” The “thing” swallows the people. Love and service are lost . . . again . . . in debates about who rules a “thing” and how it’s ruled. It’s a sad situation.
The only geographic apostolic jurisdiction I am interested in is the one Paul finished his life with: the geography at the foot of the cross in a jail cell. Folks living and speaking from that jurisdiction will have something to say to all of us.
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