Recently, we had a discussion at church with our college group about the relationship between the church and the parachurch, a relationship that has often been awkward and tense. As with most campuses, parachurch ministries exist at their school and many of the students are involved in one. The issue was ultimately one of priority: Where should one primarily put his or her efforts, the local church or the parachurch ministry? To explore this question, several other questions have to be answered first: What is the church, anyway? What is a “parachurch,” and how is it different than a church? If there is any difference between them, how are they supposed to interact? Such questions put us smack in the area of ecclessiology, or the study of the church. As boring as that sounds, it is very important to understand because a proper, biblical understanding will provide the necessary background to make an informed decision on the matter.
Since I intend for these students to read this post, I will try to keep it brief and simple. Not because they’re stupid (well… not all of them 😉 ) but because they come from the “tl; dr” generation, after all (“too long, didn’t read”), and I’m sure they don’t want to read extra long things when they have their own boring textbooks to pour over. It still may be too long for some, but I tried.
Meaning to the Terms
To begin, I’ll give a common and rough definition of a parachurch: A parachurch is
a gathering of bored Christian college students looking for intramural sports teams and something to do during the week some specialized, faith-based organization that is geared towards a particular goal and operates beyond or between denominations. Although such a definition is popular, many people disagree with it and argue that it is improper to differentiate between “the church” and “the parachurch.” They are both under the umbrella of the universal Church and therefore one does not have priority over the other, as one blogger argues. As well meaning as this view is, however, it is mistaken and ultimately rooted in a narrow interpretation of Scripture. Ekklesia in the New Testament can mean either the universal church (all Christians everywhere) or a local body of believers. Matthew 16:18 clearly refers to the universal church while Matt. 18:17 obviously means a local, or specific, assembly (unless one wants to argue that Jesus prescribed gathering every Christian from all corners of the globe to confront one dude). Context determines the meaning here, and thus the above treatment of “church” is already misleading.
However, since parachurch ministries obviously have local gatherings, are they not still churches? Now we have to explore the characteristics of a biblical church, and I’ll unpack Matthew 18:15-20 and some other passages to get an idea of this. I will not break down the passage in detail, but here are some marks of a church that I believe can be gleaned:
-Authority to govern themselves as a congregation
-Membership is made up of regenerate, or believing, people who are in a covenant relationship
-A church’s authority is backed by the presence of Christ.
-Churches are led by pastors or elders who must meet certain requirements of spiritual maturity and teaching, and deacons serve in them (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1). Continue reading