Para Means “Alongside” Not “Is”

Is the Family Research Council a church? What about Cru, the Gideons International, Voice of the Martyrs, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), Liberty Counsel, the American Family Association, Navigators, and World Vision?

The Controversy

According to a recent story by Daniel Silliman, in Christianity Today these are just some of the Christian parachurch organizations that have obtained re-classification by the Internal Revenue Service to be recognized as churches.

Silliman writes, “Some Christian organizations that have historically been considered parachurch ministries have told the IRS they should be seen, legally, as churches. More started making this argument in the past five years.” According to a spokesman for Focus on the Family, organizations are seeking this status in order to protect their donors since, in our super-heated political environment, donors are being “outed” and targeted for their donations. A spokesman for World Vision expressed concern about “ever-increasing questions.”
Warren Cole Smith is quoted in the story as saying, “I don’t believe that a lot of the organizations that have filed for the church exemption are in fact churches…[a]nd I don’t think that they think that they are in fact churches.”

The Marks of The Church

The IRS has no set definition of a church. Instead it has a list of 14 “marks” of a church. That there is no one definition of church is probably a good thing. As a matter of civil law I have no opinion about whether Christian parachurch organizations should seek reclassification as churches.

What matters to Reformed folk, however, is that Christians ought not be confused as to what a church is. That the IRS has 14 marks is fascinating because it is a recognition that there are indeed marks of a church and that it is necessary to distinguish between what is and is not a church. It is also extremely interesting, since, according to Scripture, as confessed by the Reformed churches, there are three marks of the church: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline (Belgic Confession art. 29).

The organizations listed above, like the HRA are parachurch organizations. Para is a Greek preposition which can mean from, or with or alongside of. As an English prefix, however, in this case, it means “that which is alongside the church” or, if you wish, “with the church.”

There are some Reformed folk who reject the existence of parachurch organizations but I do not share that view. I think they have a valuable function to play. One of the more valuable functions they fulfill is to allow the church to be the church. One of the great temptations faced by the church, throughout its history and today, is to try to do things to which she is not called.

There are innumerable social ills that ought to be addressed. They are real, with terrible consequences for real people. As Bob Godfrey (among others) has said, if the visible church does not address them, someone will. The number of global NGOs (non-governmental organizations) is staggering. The number of non-profit entities has proliferated since the first Obama administration. Indeed, they have grown to be so numerous that one author editorialized that non-profits were threatening the existence of for-profit businesses. A search for the question, “too many non-profits?” brings up a significant number of returns.

Nevertheless, as Godfrey says, were the church to stop preaching the gospel purely, who will do that? To his question we might add, if no one administers the sacraments purely, who will do that? Who will administer church discipline if the church does not?

In other words, the threefold vocation of church is unique in the world. No other organization or entity has that threefold vocation. Cru, Navigators et al played an important part of my early Christian development but they did not preach the gospel on the Lord’s Day or administer the sacraments or practice church discipline. That is the vocation of the visible church (see Matt 28:18-20; ibid., chapters 16 and 18).

Our Lord expressly gave the keys of the Kingdom to the visible, institutional church. Peter did not represent the Family Research Council when Christ said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” He was representing the visible church. The visible church exercises the keys. We confess,

83. What is the Office of the Keys?

The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the Kingdom of Heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.

There is no doubt that, in his sovereign freedom, the Spirit uses the various Christian organizations to bring his elect to new life and true faith but what he has ordained in his revealed Word is that it is through the visible church that the elect should hear the law and the gospel and thereby to come to faith and to be nurtured and discipled.

That is why we continue:

84. How is the Kingdom of Heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the Holy Gospel.

In this way: that according to the command of Christ, it is proclaimed and openly witnessed to believers, one and all, that as often as they accept with true faith the promise of the Gospel, all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, to all unbelievers and hypocrites, that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abide on them so long as they are not converted.1 According to this testimony of the Gospel, God will judge men both in this life and in that which is to come.

These organizations may, like a Christian school, hold chapel services but these are not stated worship services. That is why Reformed institutions do not (or should not) administer the sacraments of holy baptism and holy communion as part of school chapel exercises. These meetings, as edifying as may they be, are not ecclesiastical functions even when performed by ordained ministers. A minister is not the church. He does not constitute the visible church wherever he might be. He represents the church in his office but he fulfills his office under the auspices of a unique organization, the only organization in the world with a divine charter to represent the Kingdom of God to the world.

When Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18) he was speaking to and about no other organization, however wholesome and edifying.

Finally, we confess the value of church discipleship:

85. How is the Kingdom of Heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?

In this way: that according to the command of Christ, if any under Christian name show themselves unsound either in doctrine or in life, and after several brotherly admonitions do not turn from their errors or evil ways, they are complained of to the Church or to its proper officers; and, if they neglect to hear them also, are by them denied the Holy Sacraments and thereby excluded from the Christian Communion, and by God Himself from the Kingdom of Christ; and if they promise and show real amendment, they are again received as members of Christ and His Church.

The process of discipling Christians, though claimed by many organizations, has been entrusted to the visible church. The positive aspect of that vocation is to teach and mold Christians in the image of Christ. It includes the work of coming alongside erring and straying Christians gently to call them to repentance. Should that step fail, the visible church alone is called finally to announce, when necessary, to the church that so-and-so has shown himself to be an unbeliever and is to be excluded from holy communion. For all the good work that World Vision does, they do not have that authority.

One of the greatest and most worrisome aspects of the post-World War II neo-evangelical movement was its jettisoning of the visible church. The neo-evangelicals sowed the wind and we are reaping the whirlwind. One need only page through Christianity Today to see the destruction wrought by the parachurch organizations. Start with RZIM. Like the news out of Uvalde, the RZIM news just keeps getting worse.

It is vital that Christians understand where to look for the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline: the visible church. It is vital for Christians to understand that a website (such as this one) is no church. The HRA loves you but it will not visit you in the hospital or catechize your children. We seek to provide resources to the visible church and to Christians. We seek to serve the visible church, to edify the visible church, and to point readers and listeners to the visible church. To that end on our page, one of the first collections is a set of resources to help Christians and seekers to find a confessional Reformed church.

Our hope and prayer is that when readers and listeners use those resources they will find the gospel purely preached, the sacraments purely administered, and church discipline used well and wisely. At least we hope that readers and listeners will know what to look for in a congregation, to see whether it has the three marks of the church. May the Chief Shepherd of the sheep (1 Pet 5:4) bless you in his visible church and may he preserve her and strengthen her for a time such as this.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.



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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. Another fine article. The church must go back to being the church. But, at this point, we are probably rebuilding on the foundation, rather than working with a still sound, but damaged structure.

    Re the rise of parachurch organizations after World War II, and the “jettisoning” of the visible church by the neo-Evangelical movement, that period was the golden age of theological liberalism (the enemy of whom Machen so eloquently wrote). Churches with orthodox creeds and confessions were full every Sunday, but the people heard the Gospel according to Harry Emerson Fosdick–or, perhaps, Norman Vincent Peale (at best). Denominational agencies were in the hands of people who were more concerned with the ideas of Rauschenbusch than they were with the ideas of Luke and Paul. We ourselves, who like this blog, are more often than not refugees from the facile liberal moralism fobbed off as “Christianity” (or, in some cases, “Judaism”). This was the era of the “hungry sheep”. As you note in your post, these people often had to first go to the “arm” groups, neo-Pentecostalism, or other various byways.

    We are still damaged by this period in our history. We see it in the masses who have moved on to the various modern idolatries masquerading as “atheism”. We see it in those who decry our criticism of the sexual revolution as “lacking Jesus’ love”. We see it in the general wariness of institutions, and the “seeker” posture. I cheer your comment; but we need to be real about the human wreckage with which we (and, hopefully, the Holy Spirit) is working.

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