Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Artificial Distinctions

I read a couple of posts yesterday that dealt with the issue of "local church" ministries versus "parachurch" ministries. It seems that the more we focus on the "primacy of the local church" the more suspicion we get about so-called "parachurch" groups. Before going any further, what exactly is the difference?

Local churches are where you go on Sunday, where you are "under the authority of elders/pastors", where you have your "membership" and where you get baptized and have communion. Oh yeah, and the first place you should donate your money. An example is the typical church you find in any town, First Baptist Church of so and so or Grace Presbyterian Church.

Parachurch ministries is a pretty broadly defined idea typically are more global in scale, crossing denominational and ecclesiastical boundaries. They don't have regularly scheduled "worship services". They tend to focus more on mission or service work than "churchy" stuff. Groups like aid ministries (Samaritan's Purse) or theological groups (The Gospel Coalition) or even local pregnancy resource centers would all sort of fall under the umbrella of "parachurch" ministries.

As I said, the existence of these parachurch groups that are outside of the direct control of local churches, funded and administered independently, make some people quite nervous. Here is one example from well known blogger and Boyce College professor Denny Burk regarding a demotion of a Campus Crusade for Christ, er "Cru", employee for being a complementarian, When It Costs To Be A Complimentarian. The story itself is interesting because of the irony but something else he wrote grabbed my attention. He makes this interesting and common claim (emphasis mine).....

From time to time, I will hear people argue that complementarianism only applies to the church and should not be applied to parachurch groups. This has never been a compelling argument to me. It is true that parachurch groups are not the church. They cannot baptize or administer the Lord’s supper. There is a worthwhile discussion to be had about the existence and role of parachurch organizations in relation to local churches. At the very least, I think everyone should agree that parachurch orgs should never adopt ministry practices which would undermine the teaching and discipline of actual churches.

So a "parachurch" organization cannot baptize or "administer the Lord's Supper". Says who? In fact where in the New Testament do we see anyone "administering" the Lord's Supper? This division between "local church" and "parachurch" makes a mockery of what the New Testament teaches about The Church. If someone comes to Christ and is baptized by a person who is part of a Samaritans Purse mercy mission, praise God! That is a cause for celebration, not finger wagging because some parachurch group is getting uppity and  not submitting to the proper "local church" authority.
The Lord's Supper you say? Let's see your membership card.

Does the Bible make a distinction between kinds of ministries? Does service of one kind trump others because it happens under the auspices of one legal entity rather than another? Can only certain types gatherings of Christians baptize new believers or celebrate the Lord's Supper?

I don't think so. These distinctions are completely artificial and arbitrary. I simply don't find Paul or any of the apostles drawing lines around certain types of ministry as being more important because it happens within the immediate vicinity or is controlled by clergy or benefits people you see more often versus a more global ministry. So why do we have so much strife over "local church" and "parachurch"? Easy answer to that....

Money and Power

Every nickle that goes to a "parachurch" ministry is likely a nickle that isn't making it's way into the offering plate on Sunday. When Christians baptize new believers or celebrate the Supper outside of the box that the institution has created, the institution loses control. That won't be the rationale you hear from any of the defenders of the exclusivity or preeminence of the "local church" but that seems the most likely motivation that has led to this division in the church. So much of the life of "local churches" revolves around bank account and membership numbers

So what can/should a "local church" do that a "parachurch" cannot? Not much because we don't have any Scriptural guidance for division between this kind of church expression and that kind of church expression. In many ways certain parachurch groups act more like the church as see it in the New Testament than most local churches. We don't see the early church doing common local church activities like Sunday school, worship services, sermons, VBS, etc. We do see the early church doing food distribution, taking up collections to support missionaries and banding together to provide mercy relief for others. So from my point of view it can be argued that "parachurch" is more like "real church" than "local church"!

That doesn't negate the importance of regular, local gatherings of the church. There just isn't warrant in Scripture to denigrate some expressions of the church working together for the purpose of ministry over other forms. When we make an idol of the "local church" it is just as bad as any other idol especially when it appears that some of this raising up of the "local church" comes with ulterior motives. We need more ways for the church to work together and to do so on more than just Sunday morning, not less and trying to turn "parachurch" ministries into the proverbial red headed step-children of the church is not helping.  The future for the church is clearly going to demand that we start thinking outside of the local church model as the end all and be all. Parachurch ministries have their own issues but they are and will increasingly be a critical part of the church.

1 comment:

Marshall said...

parachurch is an older category of division & schism for which we continue to pray that these will rejoin the ekklesia and abandon specialized sectarianism. parachurch assumes that the hand can function without the body, if sufficiently organized and fed (so to speak). Much of what parachurch global has come to be doing continues problematic or inefficient to Christ.