Historical and Theological Foundations
According to some estimates, there are more than one hundred thousand distinct parachurch organizations in the United States alone. Parachurch organizations are typically defined as Christian organizations that exist alongside (para) the local church without being under the oversight of any specific local church. They are often focused on one particular mission or purpose. There are parachurch organizations devoted to missions (Africa Inland Mission, U.S. Center for World Mission), to Bible distribution (Gideons, Bibles for the World), to discipleship and evangelism (Navigators, Young Life), to publishing (Crossway, Banner of Truth), to various social services (crisis pregnancy centers, homeless shelters, food pantries), to ministerial education (Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary), and more. Ligonier Ministries is an example of a parachurch ministry with a primary focus on the theological education of laypeople.
The existence of so many parachurch organizations has not gone unnoticed, and parachurch ministries have sometimes come under fire from critics. It has been argued, for example, that there is no scriptural justification for parachurch ministries and that their very existence is inherently wrong. Christ is building His church, not His parachurch, it is said. All of the good things that parachurch ministries are doing can be and should be done under the oversight of the local church, critics argue. Some local church pastors have complained that the money given to parachurch ministries should be given to the local church. Another major concern is the potential lack of accountability in parachurch organizations. While all of these are important concerns, our major focus in this article will be on the first, for if there is no scriptural justification for the existence of parachurch ministries, the other criticisms are largely beside the point.
The first thing we must note when looking at what the Bible says about our subject is that it nowhere explicitly prescribes publishing companies, crisis pregnancy centers, or theological seminaries. In other words, the Bible doesn’t describe the kinds of organizations that are labeled “parachurch” today. The Old Testament focuses primarily on God’s covenant with the nation of Israel. In the Old Testament, the various ordained functions of prophets, priests, and kings were accomplished within the overarching context of the covenant people of God. The New Testament focuses on the coming of the Messiah, the inauguration of His kingdom, and the establishment and early growth of His church.
While there is no explicit mention in the Old or New Testaments of parachurch ministries as they exist today, those critics of such ministries who are pastors or members of Presbyterian, Reformed, or Baptist churches should keep in mind that the Bible also nowhere prescribes or describes the existence of denominations as they exist today. The New Testament describes local churches throughout the Roman Empire, but it does not go into great detail about the interaction between and among these churches. The New Testament also does not contain anything comparable to a Book of Church Order as exists in many denominations in one form or another, yet most churches understand that there is a need for something along these lines in order for things to be done properly and in order.
Because the Bible does not explicitly describe or prescribe parachurch ministries as we know them today, we will need to look at broader foundational issues rather than looking for specific proof texts if we are to understand what the Bible can teach us regarding parachurch ministries. It is important to note, for example, how the New Testament writers used the word ekklēsia (church), as it does help us gain some insight into our subject. According to Louis Berkhof, the word church is used in at least five different ways in the New Testament:
1. It is most often used of a particular local body of believers, a local church (Acts 5:11; 11:26; Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 11:18; 1 Thess. 2:14).
2. It is sometimes used to describe the church meeting in the house of an individual (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2).
3. It is used, though rarely, to denote a group of churches in a particular geographical area (Acts 9:31).
4. It is sometimes used to denote all throughout the world who are Christian believers (1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28; Eph. 4:11-16).
5. It can be used to refer to all believers, whether in heaven or on earth, who are united to Christ (Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18, 24).
There is little difference between the first and second uses that Berkhof lists, but the important point to observe here is that the word church does not always and everywhere denote a single local church. It is used in a broader sense as well. We will return to this issue and its significance below.
Another relevant principle we learn from the New Testament is the nature of spiritual gifts. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12, God gives different gifts to the members of the body of Christ. All of the gifts are important, but no one person has every gift. Different people have different gifts, different strengths, and different callings, but all these gifts are to be used for the edification of the people of God to the glory of God.
A final point regarding the biblical witness is that although there is no explicit mention of parachurch organizations as such, and no prescriptive texts, we do see in the New Testament hints of at least two basic ministry patterns functioning together (three, if we consider the Apostles in Jerusalem as a separate pattern).
In the first place, we see the local churches planted by the Apostles throughout the Roman Empire. Paul, for example, would enter a city, go to its local synagogue, and proclaim the gospel (Acts 17:1-4). If there were any who came to believe the gospel, they became the core of a new local church. Elders were appointed (Acts 14:23), and Paul and his companions moved on to take the gospel message to the next city.
The second pattern we see is Paul’s missionary team itself. Although sent out by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3), Paul’s team often appears to operate semiautonomously. Paul, for example, worked to raise his own money when necessary (Acts 18:3; 20:33; 1 Cor. 9:12-15). He also depended on the gifts of believers outside of Antioch at times (Phil. 4:14-18).
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Paul’s missionary team was a “parachurch” ministry in the modern sense of that term. The point is that in these early years of the church’s existence, before the development of the hierarchical organizational structures that became the norm, more than one pattern of ministry existed.
When we turn to the early centuries of the church, we witness the continuation of a twofold pattern of ministry in the church. There is a continuation of the local church pattern modeled after the Jewish synagogue. In the Western church, the common term for this pattern of ministry has been modality. We also see a second pattern of ministry in the early church in the rise of the monastic movement and of organizations of laypeople devoted to piety or to particular works of charity. The pattern of ministry observed in these organizations has been, in the Western church, commonly termed sodality or, with slightly different nuances, confraternity.
Throughout the Middle Ages, this second pattern of ministry would give rise to the various monastic orders (for example, Benedictines, Cistercians, Trappists) and mendicant orders (for example, Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians), as well as a huge variety of other clerical and lay associations. In the modern-day Roman Catholic Church, the relationship between all of these associations has become quite complex. Book Two of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law describes the nature of each kind of organization as well as the relationship between all of these various groups in extensive detail.
One important type of nonecclesiastical association that arose in the medieval period was the guild. Guilds were formed by merchants and craftsmen who shared the same skill or trade. For our purposes, it is important to note that student guilds and scholar guilds were instrumental in the emergence of several universities in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Before the rise of the universities, most higher education took place under the control of the church in cathedral schools or monastic schools. Universities such as Bologna (founded in 1088) and Paris (founded around 1150) eventually broke with this tradition and functioned more or less independently of the authority of the church. Those who taught were Christians, but the universities themselves were not necessarily under the organizational structure of the church.
With the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the local church (her teaching, preaching, and sacraments) became the top priority. For many years, the emphasis was on the local church. The reasons for this emphasis were obvious. The ministry of Word and sacrament, which is the purview of the local church, was in shambles. The Protestant Reformers had to focus on repairing the foundation. This does not mean, however, that other patterns of ministry were completely ignored. The academy established by John Calvin in Geneva, for example, was under the direct authority of the city council. The academy provided public education for the city’s children and theological education for ministers in training.
In later centuries, Protestants would emphasize even more strongly the second pattern of ministry discussed above. The rise of missionary movements in the nineteenth century and the founding of various parachurch organizations in the twentieth century, for example, signal a return within Protestantism to the kind of twofold pattern we see from the earliest centuries of the church. The question for Protestants, however, is whether this later development is a good and proper one. It is to this question that we now turn.
Chapter 26 of the Westminster Confession of Faith concerns the communion of saints. Section 2 reads:
Saints by profession are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
In his commentary on the confession, A.A. Hodge argues that “all branches of the visible Church, and all the individual members thereof, should do all within their power to act upon the principle of the ‘communion of saints’ in their intercourse with all who profess the true religion” (p. 325). He refers to public duties between different evangelical churches as well as private and personal duties on an individual level.
It is this idea—that the communion of saints extends across denominational lines, that the church is bigger than the local church or any one denomination—that provides a theological basis for what are today known as parachurch organizations. Whether we are Presbyterians, Baptists, or Lutherans, do we believe that other professing evangelical Christians not in our denomination are part of the visible church? Do we believe that they are regenerate Christians and part of the body of Christ? If we do grant these things, can we work with members of these other evangelical churches for specific purposes where we share gifts and callings that can benefit all? Our confession of faith indicates that we can say “yes” in good conscience.
Too often, in considering the issue of parachurch organizations, we’ve thought of the word church only in terms of the local church. As a result, we’ve conceived of parachurch organizations as something outside the church. But those involved with parachurch ministries are Christians, and they are part of the visible church. If we think of the church in broader terms, if by church we mean the universal church comprising all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, if we believe that Christians outside of our denomination are actually Christians, then we see that parachurch ministries are tangible outworkings of the communion of saints. They do not exist outside the church. They do not exist in competition with the church. They are simply expressions of a pattern of ministry that has, since the first century, existed in the church.
Parachurch ministries should not confuse themselves and their mission with the distinctive calling of the local church. It is within the context of the local church, not the parachurch, that Christians gather regularly to hear the preaching of the Word of God and to partake of the sacraments. Parachurch ministries must also beware of watering down the distinctive confessions of the local churches represented by those involved in the ministry. Parachurch ministries are not identical to the local church, and when they behave as if they are, they require criticism and correction. However, when those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus, even if they are in different evangelical denominations, see a way to meet a legitimate need that the local church cannot meet because the need is too big or that the local church is not meeting for some other reason, the local church has no reason to hinder such Christians in their attempts to gather their resources, pool their talents, and use their gifts for the furtherance of the kingdom and the glory of God.