The church has a mission and purpose, received directly from Christ’s appointment. Despite her imperfections, Scripture does not seem to suggest that Jesus thought the church would need support from further external organizations. Rather, the Bible indicates that the church would perform the functions God would use to bring people into his covenant of grace. This two-part series explores this point’s implications for thinking about parachurch institutions in relation to the church’s ministry.
Christ created the church and continues to sustain the church by his Word. He commissioned the apostles to go make disciples of all nations by baptizing and by teaching to obey all that he commanded (Matt 28:19–20). God sent preachers throughout the world because, as Paul wrote of himself:
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph 3:8–10; emphasis added)
Notably, Paul was graciously appointed as a preacher, a herald of the good news, to tell of Christ with the purpose that God’s wisdom would be known through the church. All things considered then, the church plays the critical role in applying Christ’s work to God’s elect. As the Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2 says, “The visible church…is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house of the family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” Although that theme is probably worth a post in itself, the confession’s point is that the church is the place of Christ’s special activity in the world as she goes about doing the work—namely preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, and facilitating prayer—that Christ has appointed for her.
A glance at the wider evangelical world would likely suggest that parachurch organizations, rather than the church herself, played this key role in God’s redemptive plan. As I have paid more attention to organizations working on Christian causes in recent years, I have been struck by how many institutions label themselves as, or at least claim to have, a “ministry.” That claim might provoke a number of very different reactions but nonetheless seems worth analyzing concretely and with some thoughtfulness just to see what is involved and what we might think of it.
A few years back, I was contacted by a parachurch organization here in London, where I pastor at a church, asking for feedback from churches about what they do in London. I agreed to have a chat with one of the representatives from the survey company they were using to discuss my views. The mission of this parachurch organization focused largely on “helping” and “teaching” the church. In our discussion, the representative was clearly surprised, although I think thoughtfully so, by my predominantly negative view of their goals. My basic question was: Where in Scripture did Christ ever appoint anything besides the church to accomplish his mission on earth? If Christ appointed the church to do his work, then what possible rationale could there be for someone to “teach” the church how to do its job? What biblical evidence is there for someone stepping outside the ecclesiastical structures appointed in God’s Word to speak into (as the evangelicals would say) the church to help it? Now, maybe all this seems pessimistic or grumpy but hang with me.
What are we to do with Scripture’s sufficiency if the things God has promised to use to bring salvation to sinners are not enough on their own? Granted, the church often struggles in its mission, plagued by imperfections, mistakes, and of course sin. Such is expected as Christ appoints sinners to bear office in the church. Still, Jesus never said to look outside the church for help to learn how to do our mission. Rather, we ought to learn to look more at God’s Word itself to improve in the mission therein described. The parachurches that exist supposedly to teach and help the church seem to indicate that Christ’s own appointed means to reach the world are not enough. Rather, Christ’s means need propping up from the parachurch.
The survey representative asked me if there was any way that I thought this organization could help the church do outreach. This was a fascinating question that helps get to the heart of the issues involved. I said that, in fact, yes there is a way for this group to help the church do outreach. Local congregations, especially in the UK often have limited manpower to set up events, social or otherwise, where Christians can invite their friends to come spend time with their church family. Moreover, churches often lack capacity for creative ideas to this end and even more often lack funds, admin, and logistical capacity to pull them off. So, yes, this organization could provide a great service by helping churches organize and pull off this sort of event.
The rep thought this was interesting but I had a catch. I noted that the point here was supposedly to help the church in her mission. So, my question was if this organization helped us with an event for outreach, whose name will be on it? The obvious answer was the parachurch’s. At this point I said, “Well then you are not helping the church at all or fostering the mission to add to the local church but really just trying to draw upon us to further some extra-ecclesiastical effort that seems mostly focused on claiming that you got a lot of people in one place.” The upshot of all this discussion is that some parachurches which claim to help the church not only undermine the sufficiency of what Christ appointed to accomplish his purposes but also do not truly help the church as the church; rather, they promote their own cause which is distinct from the church.
My point so far is that the whole premise of parachurch organization is presumptuous. God appointed the church to manifest his eternal wisdom in history. He gave us the foundation of the apostles and prophets to shape the church in her mission and direct her on the course (Eph 2:20). Nowhere did he say that eventually we would need to lean on something outside the church to fulfill our commission. Indeed, already that starts to sound a bit like trying to store up horses and armor when we need to trust God to fight our battles.
So, I am not convinced that parachurches have biblically justified ground on which to stand to speak to the church to tell her how to do her mission. I would prefer that we listen to God in his Word. If the response is that a parachurch is there to help the church understand God’s Word, my reply is that the church’s job is to interpret, teach, and apply the Scripture. I am, therefore, not sure why the parachurch is now stealing the church’s job for itself, robbing the church of its fundamental role in the world.
I realize that the potential tension here concerns theological seminaries, which are institutions devoted to training men for pastoral ministry. Seminaries are often called parachurch organizations and I teach for two seminaries, so I must reckon with whether my arguments here are hypocritical. I do not believe that they are. 1) Seminaries are devoted to training individuals for service in the church. They take their lead from the church to train persons to do a role within the church. This is far different from claiming to teach the church how to do her mission, since it is equipping men with the skills they need to perform their duties in that mission. 2) There are biblical grounds for seminary education. In Paul’s journeys in Acts, he shows us a principle that forms the basis of the modern seminary:
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:8–10)
On the assumption that the first day of the week is distinct for Lord’s Day worship (1 Cor 16:1–4), Paul’s daily reasoning with the disciples is something else. Notably, these lectures were separate from unbelievers and focused on teaching believers. It is hard not to connect this practical example with Paul’s instruction to Timothy that “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim 2:2) In other words, train leaders for the church. Paul did that, not in this case through personal discipleship, but through lecturing—obviously including some discussion—in the hall of Tyrannus. This would have followed educational models of the time. Just because the modern seminary follows the pattern of the modern university—as Paul’s practice did with his contemporaries—does not mean it has deviated from the principle of taking believers aside to train men to perform the duties of pastoral ministry in the church. 3) My understanding of the seminary is that it is not truly a parachurch organization, since its teachers are ideally men holding church office whom the church has approved to train other men with the necessary skills to exercise that office. Rather than speaking into the church, as a parachurch, the seminary—when functioning properly—responds to the church, has its functions assigned by the church, and is staffed by church officers who have been called to exercise holy offices and so are appointed and know how to do the church’s mission.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
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