The Centrality of the Church
“For those to whom [God] is Father the church may also be Mother,” John Calvin observed in his Institutes (4.1.1). A few paragraphs later, he teases out what this metaphor means. God uses the church to bring us into spiritual life in the same way a mother conceives children in her womb; He continues to use the church to sustain us in the Christian life just as a mother cares for children all her days. “Our weakness,” Calvin writes, “does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.” The church serves a maternal purpose.
But Calvin goes even further with this metaphor: “Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation.” Those who will not find their place in the church are those who are rejected by God Himself, no matter what they may claim. The church is God’s appointed place and means for sustaining believers in the Christian life; outside her ministry, there is ordinarily no possibility of salvation.
These claims strike postmodern evangelicals as odd. After all, all someone needs to do to hear the gospel taught or preached is go online or open a phone app. Some of the contemporary church’s most effective preachers can be heard at any point 24/7, sponsored by their own parachurch organizations. The community that the church offers can also be found in a variety of venues, whether on Facebook or discussion boards or in various parachurch ministries. The idea that the church is the place for the forgiveness of sins and salvation, spiritual growth, and the means of grace seems naive at best and controlling at worst.
No doubt, such sentiments represent a pendulum swinging to one extreme. On the other hand, God has surely raised up various organizations—theological seminaries, Bible teaching ministries, missions agencies—that operate alongside churches. Many of these parachurch groups view themselves as ministries that support and supplement the church in its work, and many of these groups are vital for the continued work of the church, especially in its outreach to the majority world where Christianity continues to explode. To deny that this is the case, or to deem all parachurch organizations as unbiblical usurpations of the church’s role, is to question what seems to be God’s providence in raising these groups up for the furtherance of His mission in the world.
So, we have to ask three key questions: What is the place of the church in the world today? In a world of parachurch organizations, why should believers still see the church as central and vital for salvation and sanctification today? And how should the church and parachurch relate to one another for the gospel’s sake?
LOVE MOTHER FIRST
It is clear from the New Testament that the church is central to God’s mission to His world. After Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus tells Peter that He will “build [His] church” and the powers of death will “not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The church will consist of disciples who are baptized in the name of the Trinity and taught to obey Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 28:19). The church’s leadership will have authority, delegated from Christ, to welcome disciples or exclude them, both as the gospel is preached and as disciples are disciplined (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-20).
After Jesus’ ascension, what happens? Local congregations develop, worshiping in houses under the oversight of teachers, catechists, and elders. Paul urges the church at Rome to “greet also the church” that meets in the house of Prisca and Aquila (Rom. 16:5). Similarly, Paul greets Philemon and “the church in your house” (Philem. 2; see Col. 4:15). And Paul sums up his ministry in Ephesus as including teaching the church publicly “and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
But it was not only the church in this local manifestation that was the church; the church also had a regional representation as well. After Paul was converted and his attacks on Christians came to an end, “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up” (Acts 9:31). Paul wrote a circular letter “to the churches of Galatia,” viewing the congregations in that region as being “the church” (Gal. 1:2; see Col. 4:16). And, most famously, the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem consulted together to deal with a difficult doctrinal matter in behalf of the church as a whole (Acts 15).
Thus, the church—not just the local congregation, but also the church connected together regionally or even nationally—is central to God’s gospel purpose in the world. God entrusted the gospel to the church so that through this organization the world might come to know the triune God. As faithful men pass the gospel on to the next generation of church leadership, the gospel continues to go to the world through the church (2 Tim. 2:2). That is why Paul calls the church “the household of God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Through this new family, led by God’s chosen pastors and teachers—overseers—the truth is preserved and taught to the world.
Because this is the case, then, we must be those who love the church as our mother. The church is God’s appointed means for furthering His mission in His world.
The church is not just God’s means in itself. It also offers means through which people might come to saving and obedient faith. God has given to the church the ministry of the Word, prayer, the administration of the sacraments, and the discipline of believers. These means are God’s ordinary means of grace unto salvation—they are the things that God uses to save and sanctify His people, and to get them safely to heaven. And they’ve been entrusted to the church.
God uses the ministry of the Word to grant us new birth and sanctification. Peter tells his readers that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). God’s Word is “living and active,” and so has power to cut through our confusion and deadness and grant new life (Heb. 4:12). And Paul called Timothy, and his church through him, to give himself to the ministry of the Word: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).
In addition to the ministry of the Word, the sacraments serve to strengthen us in the gospel; and those sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are found in the church. Baptism serves as a sign and seal of our union with Christ in His crucifixion and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-5). And until Christ’s return, the Lord’s Supper proclaims His death to believer and unbeliever alike, serving as a means of gospel grace to our souls (1 Cor. 11:26). As believers use these means, they grow in holiness and Christlikeness.
And, of course, prayer is the offering up of our desires to God, which the Lord uses to conform our wills to His own. As we pray the priorities of the Lord’s Prayer, we increasingly pray according to God’s will, united to Christ and bearing His name, and so we show forth Christ’s Spirit. God uses each of these means—Word, sacrament, and prayer—to grow us in grace.
And these are all found in the church. The Holy Spirit delights to work in us as we receive Word and sacrament by faith and as we pray. And He especially delights to do this in the context of the church. To be sure, we pray and read the Scriptures as individuals and in families, but it is especially the public ministry of God’s means of grace that He uses to grow us in grace. These are the means that He gives to our mother to grow us up.
If this is the case, then what role is there for parachurch ministries? After all, if God has entrusted the ordinary means of grace to the church, then is there any role for organizations outside the local church? Is there anything parachurch ministries can offer that would assist the church in more faithfully proclaiming the Word, praying according to God’s will, or administering the sacraments?
Surely there is a role for “mother’s helpers” that does not usurp the role, status, or authority of the church as our mother. Many women will place children with babysitters, tutors, or day-care workers while they go to the store, go back to school, or go to work. These “mother’s helpers” assist the mother in accomplishing their tasks—but the day-care worker, teacher, or babysitter doesn’t assume the mother’s role, status, or authority.
In the same way, parachurch organizations such as theological seminaries, Bible teaching ministries, ministries that encourage prayer, and missions organizations serve as “mother’s helpers”—they assist the church in accomplishing her task, but they do not take away the church’s status, role, or authority.
For example, theological seminaries and Bible colleges that are not under the oversight of a specific denomination have an important role to play in the growth of the church. As these schools provide congregations with ministers of the Word and those who serve beside them, the church is built up. There is no “divine right” model for theological education, no biblically prescribed fashion for doing this type of training. Hence, theological schools that operate outside of denominational or ecclesial structures can be helpful to the work of the church.
Likewise, lay-taught Bible studies or lay-oriented teaching ministries can also serve as a help to believers. The vast majority of churches in the United States have fewer than one hundred parishioners; solo pastors often struggle to provide all that is necessary in the way of teaching to grow believers. And outside the United States, there is a great need for teaching and training materials to grow believers in grace. In addition, believers themselves have a responsibility to teach God’s Word to one another in smaller contexts, and resources for helping people fulfill this calling need to be produced by someone. Parachurch ministries can fulfill an important role in assisting in this way and helping the church at large.
Missions organizations and groups that encourage prayer also come alongside local congregations and larger denominations to assist the church in its tasks. There are some tasks—for example, Bible translation, medical missions, or educational missions—that are better done outside of denominational structures. Sometimes host countries that object to denominational missionaries are more willing to receive gospel-bearing workers who come with non-church-related organizations. Prayer organizations that teach and encourage people in the work of praying for one another and the work of evangelism and missions can also be useful for the church at large.
In all of these ways, parachurch ministries can and do come alongside as “mother’s helpers” to assist the church in the work of faithful ministry. They do not take away from the church’s status, role, and authority. Nor are they absolutely vital for the work of God’s kingdom in the same way that the church is. Make no mistake—the church is God’s appointed organization and organism with God’s ordained means for making and growing disciples. However, as Christians link arms with others outside of their own particular church for tasks outside the purview of their local church, they can be used by God to accomplish great things for His name.
All of this means that while our primary financial giving should be and must be directed to our local congregations, it is appropriate for us to support monetarily those parachurch organizations that God is using for His glory. Of course, we need to ensure that the ministry of the Word in our locales continues and expands; but we also need to make sure that missions, theological education, Bible teaching, and prayer continue and expand in places that our churches may never go or reach.
And we support these helping ministries in the confidence that as God the Spirit uses them, He directs God’s people back to His church. In this way, the church is built up for God’s glory; and in this way, God the Father directs His children back to their rightful mother, the church, which He uses to grow us in His grace.