WHY DO PARACHURCH MINISTRIES GO OFF THE RAILS?
The first point to make, of course, is that the parachurch has no monopoly on theological decline and fall. Church history is littered with examples of churches which were once vibrant and faithful becoming defunct or virtually devoid of anything that might be deemed biblical or Christian. Apostasy and deviance are functions of fallen human nature, and there is no structure or institution which is therefore immune to them.
The second point to make is that, while parachurch organizations are not prescribed in Scripture, they are not therefore unbiblical in the sense of being essentially wrong. I work for a parachurch organization, a Presbyterian seminary that is not aligned to any denomination and does not report to any formal court of the church, and I do not consider myself to be sinning by so doing. I also write for parachurch publishers and (very occasionally) speak at parachurch events. I do not consider myself to be rebelling against God’s Word when I do such things.
Having started with these two qualifications, however, I do believe that parachurch organizations generally suffer from two particular flaws which render them inherently unstable: they are coalition movements, and they typically lack proper structures of accountability.
Parachurch Organizations Are Coalition Movements
Coalition movements almost by definition sideline the issues that divide their members in order to find common ground on what unite their members. Thus, in evangelical circles one often finds parachurch groups that, say, agree on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the authority of Scripture, justification by faith, and the need for the new birth. Other matters—the sacraments, the nature of church government, and even, in some cases, issues of predestination and perseverance—are set to one side as not germane to the central task of the organization.
This sidelining in itself is not problematic, provided one major point is kept in mind: the parachurch is not the church. It does not do what the church does, and it should not supplant the church in the minds and lives of those involved in its work. In other words, a self-conscious and strict circumscription of the parachurch is important. The parachurch exists purely and solely to serve the church in a subordinate and comparatively insignificant way. This is perhaps not such a danger when it comes to publishing houses and seminaries, but it is an ever-present danger for groups that offer services which come close to churchly functions, such as preaching services and the like.
Thus, I find it very disturbing when church leaders start to be known more as leaders of a particular parachurch group than as leaders in their churches. This serves to create a confusing image in the mind of the Christian public, whereby the boundary between church and parachurch is eroded, or, worse still, the parachurch is regarded as the place where the real action and excitement take place. This in turn consigns the church to an apparently less important role, and serves to relegate to the level of secondary or even tertiary importance the doctrinal elaboration and distinctives for which individual churches and denominations stand. The Christian public comes to regard these ecclesial distinctives as hindrances to the real work of the gospel—real work that, by inference, is done by the parachurch better than the church.
Just as concerning, however, is the unstable doctrinal matrix that exists when a solid churchly heritage—doctrinal and ecclesiological—is removed from the picture. To take the first point, when certain doctrines are sidelined, problems are never far behind. Baptism is one example: the fact that Christians honestly disagree on this issue should not stop us enjoying fellowship and engaging in co-belligerence across the party lines; but neither should it lead us to believe that the issue is of minor importance. Anyone who thinks that baptism is a matter of indifference is simply not taking the Bible’s teaching seriously. Further, as soon as something like baptism is treated in this way, then all the doctrines which connect to it are displaced and somewhat weakened. Of course, the problem is only exacerbated when it’s an issue such as election or atonement which is pushed to the side.
Thus, one reason that parachurch ministries go off the rails is the culture such groups create, whereby a non-church body effectively decides which bits of the historic confessions are really important and which can be set to one side. As I noted above, such setting to one side may not be important depending on the organization’s mission, as with an organization focused on producing pro-life material. But when the organization focuses on preaching and teaching more broadly, there is an obvious and inherent weakness. This is one of the reasons why my own institution, parachurch as it is, requires all faculty to subscribe to a church document (the Westminster Standards), and to be office-bearers in a confessional Presbyterian or Reformed denomination. Neither the institution’s board, administration, or faculty has decided to parse out which bits of our ecclesiastical confession are important; we subscribe to the whole. It is not a perfect system, but it is better than most.
Parachurch Organizations Rarely if Ever Have Proper Structures of Accountability
The second reason parachurch groups go awry is that they rarely if ever have proper structures of accountability. The New Testament makes it clear that the appointed custodians of the faith are the elders, men specially selected because of their qualities of character, ability, and reputation, who have a special duty to safeguard the faith and practice of the church. Parachurch groups have no such biblically sanctioned structure, and many of them have not thought carefully about the framework of accountability needed to remain orthodox. Further, they tend to be run by the self-appointed, or by people with money, or by those with a can-do attitude.
Again, this is one of the reasons why my own institution has sought to be as close to the church as possible in its confession, in its faculty, and in its governance structure. But Westminster Seminary is the exception rather than the rule. Many broad evangelical coalition parachurch groups think they exist to serve the church, yet they have little resemblance in confession or structure to the church. And more often than not they come to have a higher profile for many individuals—both their leaders and their foot soldiers—than the church. That is a recipe for disaster, and is why, at least in part, the orthodoxy of so many is superficial and short-lived.
I noted above how disturbed I am that some church leaders seem to prioritize the parachurch groups to which they belong over their churches. No pastor or elder should ever neglect churchly duties for such. Yes, of course, I appreciate the laudable desire to engage with other Christians and to give visible shape to the unity believers have in Christ. But too often we forget that such ecumenism is the task of the church, not the task of individuals or of parachurch organizations.
To conclude, I am happy to work at a parachurch seminary, but I rejoice that my institution strives to be as ecclesiastically responsible in doctrine and structure as it can. Further, I am happy to write books and articles for parachurch organizations committed to disseminating good Christian literature. Thankfully, there is little chance of either type of parachurch organization being mistaken for the church. But I am profoundly hesitant about being closely associated with parachurch groups that wittingly or unwittingly might supplant the church or become more important than the church in the eyes of many. Once a group starts offering contexts for preaching and worship, we have a potential problem; and such outfits are, in the long run, more than likely headed for disaster.
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