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).
This is, obviously, a very Baptist understanding of a church (lo and behold, we go to a Baptist church), and from this basic concept of confessing Christians governing themselves in a local assembly we can get to other concepts of preaching, church discipline, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and tithing. The most important thing to focus on is the idea of membership: Membership is often nothing more than a formality in churches, but it should be a serious, covenant commitment between believers who agree to gather as a church. Again, it is a commitment to govern, and be governed by, the church which one is a member of. In membership, one agrees to abide by church discipline, to share fellowship via the Lord’s supper, and to responsibly tithe to support the activities of the church, not to mention falling under the theological authority of said church.
I hope by this point that the difference between a church and a parachurch is starting to become clear. Parachurches can be led by someone who happens to be a pastor, but they do not officially have offices of pastors and deacons. In addition, parachurches are exclusive by either race, gender, or work (like refugee assistance, for example) in ways that churches are not; churches, even ethnic ones, are not justified to exclude anyone just because of these factors, and they should not necessarily narrow their focus to one social work or goal. Parachurches are indeed gatherings of Christians, but do they have the sort of membership that churches should be made up of? Obviously not, because they do not have a covenant agreement to hold communion, tithe, and operate under a pastor. If they did, they’d just be a local church, which even most parachurch leaders try to avoid.
A church, then, is this: A local assembly of true believers who govern themselves under the authority of Christ and in a covenant relationship with one another. It is pastor-led and served by deacons, and preaching, teaching, discipleship, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, discipline, evangelism, tithing, and social work are all part of its duties. A parachurch is an organization of Christians who have partnered to either tackle a particular issue or reach a particular people group (FCA targets Christian athletes, for instance), and parachurches do not operate under the direct authority of a church or denomination. They are specialized in ways that churches are not and should not try to be. Even if one does not agree with Baptist ecclessiology and believes that authority falls on broader denomination lines, he would still agree that the local church exercises much of this authority and none of it is ceded to a parachurch.
Parachurch As Subordinate to the Church
Because of church membership, priority falls on the local assembly and not the parachurch. This is not to say that one cannot put more of his efforts into a parachurch ministry so long as he is under the authority of a local church and his church is not in need of his work. Think of the local church as a family, and if so, while partnering with others outside the family is a worthy endeavor, it cannot be to the neglect of the “home” family. Furthermore, the authority to govern rests upon the local church and thus it is the church that ultimately holds people accountable to preach, disciple, and tithe as they should. If parachurches had equal authority, then it would be extremely difficult for the local church to hold its members accountable who participate in a parachurch ministry; in effect, that parachurch would be operating as a local church and essentially stealing members. It becomes even more problematic if a parachurch starts to drift theologically and its leaders start saying all sorts of weird crap, but that’s a discussion for another time.
That said, parachurches do serve a niche and can often tackle specific problems far more efficiently than the average church. They also present opportunities for Christians from different churches to partner together for the furtherance of the Gospel. Nonetheless, unless parachurches give up their narrow specialization, create offices for pastors and deacons, and start to enact membership, they cannot claim to be a church just because of the bare fact that Christians have partnered together. Parachurches are organizations for Christians to work in towards a specific goal or group of people; churches are gatherings of believers to worship together in covenant relationship. The latter supports the former with resources and manpower, but the former acts like an “arm” or extension of the former and is therefore subordinate.
Where to serve, then?
The short answer: Where God leads you. However, to avoid too much mysticism, one needs to understand the roles and make-up of churches and parachurches. If your church is in dire need of help, then it is irresponsible to neglect your local family of believers even if you are doing good work for a parachurch ministry. If your church is in not such dire need or if you are able to serve both faithfully, then it is absolutely possible and praiseworthy to volunteer time for a parachurch. However, if so, the understanding still must be that you fall under the authority of your local church and NOT the parachurch. Parachurch ministries would do well to respect the authority and need of local churches and to not try to supplant the function of the local church. Local churches, in turn, should realize the important work of parachurch ministries and assist them when they can with resources and manpower. At the end of the day, though, when push comes to shove, your local church is where your main community is and what you are most responsible for.