Previously began a discussion about parachurch ministries in relation to the church. The point was to raise a concern about how, frequently, parachurch ministries implicitly, if (perhaps) unintentionally, try to usurp the visible, institutional church’s primary role in God’s plan to save and sanctify his people. This intrusion can happen in overtaking activity the church should do but also, as this post argues, in assuming the church’s role as well.
To shift gears from personal story to more public agendas, the sort of final prompt to compose this post came from listening to Christianity Today’s (CT) podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Church. I have been positive about the show overall. The one consistently irritating feature built into every episode is the call to support “the storytellers and sages of the church.” I sort of overlooked it as an obvious mark of CT’s non-ecclesial evangelicalism but the recent episode, “CT Reports on Itself,” raised a stack of more substantial thoughts for me that I thought were worth addressing.
First, the whole claim to have storytellers and sages of the church is skewed. The Scripture nowhere points to these roles as ecclesiastical offices. Some might say, “yes, but you know that they just mean that they are reporting on churchly events with [purportedly] wise analysis.” I know that to some degree. At the same time, the call to support these roles for the sake of the church functionally ties them into the church’s well-being. As far as I am aware, Christ appointed elders and deacons as the only continuing offices for the church. I know of no evidence that he suggested that we should add offices as we saw fit or that we should construct organizations external to the church to keep us on track. There is the simple issue here of whether Christ knew what he was doing when he commissioned the church and whether the Spirit knew what was best for the church when he inspired the Scripture with its descriptions of churchly offices and courts.
Second, the whole discussion in the episode in question indicates some significant confusion. The caveat needs to be made instantly that I am glad that CT is being transparent about its problems and is seeking to redress its failures to support harassment victims. I not only have no issues with CT making itself a respectable work environment but support the idea that they increase their professional accountability.
As the discussion drifted to whether women should be CEOs and editors at CT, the contributors announcing CT’s egalitarian stance (ironically amid covering a story about how they enable sexual harassment to occur repeatedly against women), and how the editors loaded the effects upon CT with religiously moral significance, one thing registered loud and clear: They think that they are the church. Wider evangelicalism repeatedly turns the world into the church, making it so that every structure is supposed to be churchly. Hence, so many evangelicals struggle with women being their boss in the workplace because the office of elder and deacon are limited to men in the church. It is a pure confusion of the sacred and secular kingdoms.
This point is one of my reservations about a host of movements that have tried to turn the world into the church. James K. A. Smith’s projects about cultural liturgies offers some thoughtful insights about how we are trained and shaped to have character. Many of his points, particularly in Desiring the Kingdom, prompt thoughtful reflection. Nonetheless, his emphasis seems to be that Christian universities play a key role in catechizing Christians for life in the world, as if they need a degree, specifically taught with a Christian worldview, if they are going to be equipped to live faithfully for Christ in their daily vocations. Some institutions, whose purpose is training for ministry, have also begun to adopt this mindset of dissolving any real place for the church. Although some further training is aimed specifically at those “in supported ministry,” the implication is that the more basic aspects of these courses are meant for everyone to train them how to live for Christ in their daily vocations. In this educational structure of ministry, people are equipped to disciple and lead because they have more education in a specific model where everything anyone does is ministry—some people just happen to be paid to do it—rather than a model where the church prayerfully appoints office bearers because of their spiritual and character qualities. Although reference might be made to the local church, it comes across as though the church is just a gathering where individuals come together to share information about the Bible affecting life rather than a worshipful encounter with the living God as he summons his people into his presence under the means of grace to assure and sanctify them.
On the other hand, Christ never instituted a university or any degree program. I have no problems with Christian universities, at least the ones that maintain rigorous standards of academic excellence. I very much support the existence of institutions to train men for pastoral ministry. Nonetheless, the intended or unintended suggestion that Christians need a university or seminary education to live for Christ in the world displaces God’s purposes for the church. Christ instituted Word, sacrament, and prayer under the guidance of church officers, not exams and quizzes under the oversight of professors and administrators. Nor should we create a new class system of Christians where “basic” Christians can get by with what the church gives but “strong” or “effective” Christians need a degree to shape their worldview and capacity for contribution.
Then CT claims to be a ministry. Last I knew, CT was a news outlet, staffed by Christians writing about news pertaining to Christians. On balance, it is still a journalistic institution. Christ never promised that he would use magazine articles or podcasts to comfort and change his people. He promised that faith comes by hearing his Word from “those who preach the good news” (Rom. 10:15). Christian publications are helpful, informative, and instructive but nothing is at stake in the church’s wellbeing if any particular Christian publisher or news outlets goes defunct. The biggest loss would be that numerous Christians would have to go through the trouble and trial of finding other employment, which is a massive concern that registers with me when I hear about Christian organizations struggling financially. We need Christian publishers particularly to print Bibles and to provide tools for Bible study. Needing that service though is different from something spiritual being at stake in the financial viability of a specific publisher. There are several that would be a great loss if they went away because of the good work they do.
All the same, when we forget that doing good work is not the same as being a ministry, we blend the church and the world, Christ’s sacred and secular kingdoms, and the responsibility of the church’s mission per se and Christians’ daily vocations. It is ironic that paradigms, like an overactive neo-Calvinism, that insist on transforming society in light of biblical revelation end up sidelining the fundamental institution that has been revealed for the transformation of God’s people. It is detrimental when parachurch organizations end up implying that every Christian is supposed to be a pastor and require the knowledge that pastors need for ministry just to be faithful in their daily walks with Christ. In sum, the parachurch so often does not come alongside the church but (accidentally) attempts to erase the church because their mission, rather than God’s stated purposes for the church, is the true and most important work of the kingdom.
I am aware that old-school confessionalists often seem whiny without solutions, which is a ditch I consciously try to avoid. So, what is the positive conclusion we can reach?
We need to recover the beauty of delighting in the simplicity of the church. We do not feel that our family reunions are supposed to accomplish more than facilitating time for loved ones to be together. I have never heard my relatives complain that our family dinners did not equip them to do something practical in the workplace with more effectiveness. Why are we so demanding about the time we spend in God’s presence? One answer is that we do not remember that God has promised his special presence when his people gather formally in Christ’s name under the means of grace.1 Indeed, we may have forgotten that God uses means of grace for his people’s good, thinking instead that we need education and strength to change the world rather than Christ’s benefits of justification and sanctification. We should remember the beauty of being with God in his throne room of grace.
We should also remember that your pastor and elders are not administrators, helping you come up with ways to change your environment. You may well make wonderful contributions to make the world better and that is brilliant, causing us to thank God. Nonetheless, your spiritual leaders are there to help you know Christ’s goodness to you and how to express your gratitude to him in the Christian life. The simple beauty of this is that your pastor is not your CEO, calling shots about how this accidentally-together group of believers does ministry. He is there to be the person who helps you understand and apply God’s Word as his special responsibility. He is there to support you in your struggles and trials in the Christian life. Your elders are there to pastor you, which happens in the church.
The church is then a real thing, a place where we receive Christ and his benefits in a special way as his people. We do not need something other than the church to do as Christ calls us to do. We need what Christ has given us—namely, the church as the place where he meets us in the means of grace. We should trust Christ that what he appointed is sufficient for our spiritual life. Christ has earned our trust after all, so why should we doubt that his gifts for sustaining us are deficient? We should remember that he gave us pastors, not parachurches, and will meet our needs in the ways that he has promised to do so.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
1. I recently preached on this theme, the sermon “The Place to Receive” being available in audio or in video.
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As a man that is involved with the Gideons, we make a point of encouraging our members and those we are evangelizing to connect with and stay connected to the local church. You can’t join the Gideons unless you are a church member and get the recommendation of your Pastor. I frequently tell Pastors that I meet that if they will send us a Gideon we will give them a better church member.
Excellent “de-construction” of the modern evangelical notion of Church. I like it a lot. One area not directly addressed, but embedded in many/most of the parachurch and extra-church organizations and ‘ministries’ is education. Is Sabbath Day school really a Biblical ministry of the Church as you define it? When it got started it was a para-church ministry of sorts (modern usage). If not, what is the role of the Church in education? Is instruction/education a subset of the preaching of the Word ministry? Elders are supposed to have teaching abilities. Is that for a formal classroom setting, or is better considered as something a good Elder does when visiting parishioner, encouraging, and catechizing them. You have really hit on something important. I look forward to hearing more on this topic. As we move further into full-scale persecution, a finely honed understanding of the Church’s mission is more essential than ever.
Randall, I’d also love to hear how others would relate what Perkins says to things like Sunday School, Small Groups, and even Youth Groups. While I do think each of the above can be highly useful, none are commanded or conscience-binding—unlike the Lord’s Day gathering which is.
Many evangelical churches—even some P&R churches if we’re being honest—inadvertently devalue the Lord’s Day gathering when saying things like “small group participation is essential to be a maturing church member” or “small groups are where true fellowship happens” or “we need more Sunday School teachers/classes” or “you’re just a ‘pew sitter’ if you’re not connected to a small group or SS class” or “our teens need to be a part of a church that has a Youth Group” and this list could go on.
The church growth movement has had such an effective sway over our thinking, that many church members could not even comprehend belonging to a church where Sunday School, Small Group, and Youth Group are not present. Not that these things are bad in and of themselves, but we sell the commanded worship of the Lord’s Day gathering short if we insist that they’re needed to constitute a healthy, biblical church.
Fascinating essay! Like legitimate governments being first supported, then to a large degree supplanted by “Non-Governmental Organizations” from the UN on down, the legitimate Church has seen similar self-appointed surrogates in “Parachurch” groups we might loosely define as “Non-Ecclesiastical Organizations,” the NEO-church movement.