Are Parachurch Ministries Evil? Bad and Good Arguments for the Parachurch

Article
03.01.2011

The local church and the parachurch seem to be in constant conflict.

Jerry White, former executive director of Navigators, referred to their relationship as an “uneasy marriage.” Uneasy is right. More than one pastor has been faced with the possibility that members in his church are choosing to devote their resources—both time and money—to parachurch ministries rather than to the local church. Meanwhile, parachurch workers can be led to feel that they are doing something less than God’s work because they are working outside the four walls of the local church building.

Are parachurch ministries inherently wrong? If not, what is their biblical basis and practical usefulness?

In this article, I want to critique five common but flawed reasons to promote the parachurch, and then offer four better reasons why parachurch ministries are biblically legitimate and practically useful.

FIVE COMMON BUT FLAWED REASONS TO PROMOTE PARACHURCH MINISTRIES

1. Christian Unity

The first argument is simple: parachurch ministries should be supported for the sake of Christian unity. Citing Ephesians 4:3 and Philippians 2:2, proponents of this view insist that churches and individuals should work with parachurch ministries for the sake of their shared devotion to Christ.[1]

However, the New Testament call for unity is typically a call for unity within local churches. Moreover, most who urge unity and cooperation as a basis for parachurch work know that they cannot demand it at all costs since members of different denominations, say faithful Lutherans and Presbyterians, may share a common devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ but find other forms of ministry cooperation difficult.

Therefore, while parachurch ministries may provide an opportunity for Christians to work together in a unified fashion, this argument by itself hardly justifies the existence of parachurch ministries.

2. God’s Largesse

Parachurch proponents point out the danger of putting God in a box. They argue that God delights in working outside traditional structures.

This argument is put forth by the authors of the book The Prospering Parachurch. Israel, they insist, should have caught on to God’s desire to work through the nations. They cite Isaiah 49:6, Deuteronomy 7:6, and Isaiah 54:2 and then argue, “For centuries, Christians have been comfortable with an understanding that God works in this world through the traditional church, through denominations. But in the last fifty years, the strength of the independent parachurch has grown by leaps and bounds.”[2]

Indeed, Israel should have seen and delighted in God’s plan to reach beyond Israel. But the contemporary application is not that God will utilize the parachurch, but that every church should have a heart for the nations. God is generous, and it’s beyond question that he works through other means than the institutional structure of the local church. But we draw this conclusion from his character, not from explicit scriptural teaching about the parachurch.

3. Apostolic Example

Many have looked to the apostolic ministry to help defend and shape the parachurch’s mission. For example, Ralph Winter put forward a “two-structure theory” of God’s redemptive plan. The first structure is local. Local churches are planted for discipleship and evangelism. The second structure is mobile. Apostles in the first century foreshadowed mobile (parachurch) ministers today who work outside the confines of local church authority.[3]

The apostolic ministry is exemplary. We have much to learn about ministry from looking at Paul’s life. For instance, Paul’s evangelistic fervor, his eagerness to defend truth, and his passion for spiritual growth should mark every believer. And yet I do not see how the work of the apostles can be cited as a license or even a guide for contemporary parachurch “ministers.” The church was founded upon an apostolic and prophetic ministry (Eph. 2:21). Therefore it remains the responsibility of local churches to protect and promote apostolic teaching.

4. The Priesthood of the Believer

Some defenders of the parachurch have used the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer to explain their right to exist. This doctrine states that every Christian has access to God through Jesus Christ alone and does not require the intercession of a local church pastor or other spiritual authority. Therefore, they argue, every Christian is free to serve God within or without the church. As Jerry White puts it, “The spiritual gifts of believers are given for the building up of the entire body of Christ, not just the local church. God certainly uses these gifts in the local congregation, but they are not the property of that congregation. They belong to the whole body.”[4]

I believe that Christians are free to use their gifts outside the local body of Christ. But I don’t think the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer is the reason why. When Peter refers to his audience as a “royal priesthood,” he was not promoting individualism. He was taking language which once applied to the nation of Israel and was now applying it to the church: it’s the church which is to mediate and represent God to the world. This corporate nature of this witness becomes even more evident in Peter’s next words: “a holy nation.” Paul has the same emphasis on the unity of the local church body in 1 Corinthians 12 through different administration of the Spirit’s gifts.

The priesthood of the believer is a precious doctrine, but it is not an explanation for ministry outside the local church.

5. Obvious Success

Many insist that since parachurch ministries are thriving they must be biblical. This is the assumption behind The Prospering Parachurch. If parachurch ministries were not doing good work they would not be successful: “In the final analysis the parachurch prospers because it meets the universal need of every culture and person.”[5]

Many parachurch workers are undoubtedly successful. They are translating Scripture, sharing the gospel while counseling mothers who are considering an abortion, witnessing on college campuses throughout the world, and much more. But we must not assume that because something appears to be successful, it is biblical. I have no doubt that one day we will learn of many faithful churches and parachurch ministries that saw little outward “success” and yet greatly pleased the Lord, while many outwardly successful ministries will be revealed as unfaithful. We must look to other reasons if we are going to find a valid basis for parachurch ministries.

FOUR BETTER REASONS TO PROMOTE PARACHURCH MINISTRY

With that in mind, here are four reasons which, I believe, argue better for the biblical basis and practical usefulness of parachurch ministries.

1. Christian Liberty

Christians are free to earn a living by writing books, changing tires, translating the Bible, and a host of other legitimate vocations. When we work honestly, diligently, and for God’s glory, he is pleased.

As a pastor, I am very thankful to be freed up week in and week out to teach, evangelize, and disciple. But I do not believe that God is necessarily more pleased with my work than the work of my sister who stays home to raise her kids, or my brother who practices law.

Every Christian should be under the authority of a local church because every Christian should be a member of a local church. But this does not mean that every Christian’s vocation must be guided, controlled, or directly overseen by a local church. Because there is no biblical prohibition against the parachurch, Christians have freedom to serve in the parachurch.

2. Evangelistic Urgency

Passages of Scripture which speak of the horrors of hell and the necessity of evangelism lead me to believe that Christians have a compelling reason to organize parachurch ministries. Jesus declared that the wicked will face eternal punishment and the righteous will receive eternal life (Matt. 25:46). Paul taught that the faith which leads to salvation comes from a message that must be heard (Rom. 10:14-15). Further, an individual’s only hope is to hear and respond to the gospel message in his or her lifetime (Heb. 9:27). The world is under an urgent need to hear the gospel.

Christians have liberty to teach, disciple, translate, and evangelize outside the direct authority and supervision of the church. Evangelistic urgency implies they should. Thus, we should expect to see Christians who are not necessarily called to be elders or deacons in a local church organizing themselves for these noble purposes. Moreover, we should be thankful when, in light of this urgent need, Christians do organize for such work.

3. The Failure of Local Churches

One can argue that Christians have been doing ministry outside the direct oversight of local churches for centuries. However, the growth of the parachurch movement as we know it is largely rooted in and perpetuated by the failure of local churches to protect and promote the gospel.

The National Association of Evangelicals was birthed in 1942 as Protestants rallied together to give a voice to a biblical theology which had been abandoned by local churches during the rise of modernism. As churches and the institutions they once held dear fell under the attack of liberalism, Christians rallied around the fundamentals associated with the evangel. At the risk of oversimplifying, this unity made the NAE possible, and the NAE made interdenominational cooperation possible. And interdenominational cooperation gave birth to parachurch ministries.[6]

I’m not arguing against having an evangelical identity. Rather, I’m simply observing that, had more local churches stood up against the onslaught of modernism, we would not have seen such an acute need for parachurch activity in the mid-twentieth century.

Then, as parachurch ministries boomed, local churches slumbered. They became more interested in protecting market share, promoting their brand, and pleasing their consumers than actually making disciples. As the years rolled by, evangelism and discipleship seemed best left to those ministries with experience in the trenches. Churches instead gave their attention to preaching sermons, building buildings, and sharpening their church growth skills in gospel-saturated cultures.

A vicious cycle emerged. Parachurch ministries saw the churches asleep at the wheel. They stepped up to the plate and served. Local churches saw the expertise of the parachurch ministries and decided that Jesus must have given them permission to outsource hardcore evangelism, discipleship, and missions to these parachurch groups. Parachurch ministries, in turn, observed that churches were even more asleep at the wheel…you get the point.

The failure of local churches may be the best, most enduring reason for the need for solid, gospel-centered, evangelistic parachurch ministries.

4. Resisting “Mission Drift” in the Church

I am not arguing that if local churches did their job we would have no need for parachurch ministries. Such a conclusion fails to acknowledge the liberty Christians have to organize outside the direct authority of a local church, and that evangelistic urgency may demand creative action. Such a conclusion also fails to acknowledge that not all parachurch ministries are alike. Some ministries operate closer to the heart of the church’s mission, while other ministries provide services that are less central.

Every year, individual members of the church I serve are actively involved in crisis pregnancy centers throughout metro Atlanta. As a church, we financially support these centers. We help for a couple of reasons. First, we are called by God to do good to all men (Gal. 6:10). We consider fighting for the life of the unborn to be doing good. We are also pleased that the centers we support share the gospel with the clients they serve.

However, fighting for the life of the unborn is not at the heart of our mission as a church. At the heart of our mission is making disciples of all nations. Therefore, I’m thankful that God has raised up Christian ministries that come alongside the church to meet these crucial needs with a gospel-centered approach. This allows us to stay focused on equipping our church members to know, love, and share the word of God. Parachurch groups have the opportunity to specialize in all kinds of niche ministries. This is much better than asking the local church to do everything under the sun through its limited resources.

CONCLUSION

The title of this article is, admittedly, sensational. Parachurch ministries are not evil! But the fact is, the relationship between the church and parachurch remains an “uneasy marriage.” This is in part because pastors who know their members don’t tithe feel like they are competing for scarce resources against ministries that are more exciting than the operating expenses of a local church.

I do believe pastors should teach their churches that a Christian’s first financial obligation is to one’s local church (1 Cor. 9:14). A Christian who doesn’t support those who feed him and his family God’s Word week after work defies God’s Word (1 Tim. 5:17-18). That said, God has allowed for Christians to organize outside the direct control of local churches, and we can expect him to bless their work as well.

Parachurch ministries are here to stay. Their prosperity should challenge local churches that fail to take the mission of the church seriously. Their presence should be a reminder that God is at work to seek and save the lost.

[1] Jerry White, The Church and the Parachurch: An Uneasy Marriage (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1983), 78.

[2] Wesley K. Willmer, J. David Schmidt, and Martyn Smith, The Prospering Parachurch: Enlarging the Boundaries of God’s Kingdom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995), 10.

[3] Ralph Winter, “The Two-Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” Missiology 2 (January, 1974): 121-39. This view is very attractive, even among those who want to be careful not to draw a direct line between apostles and parachurch workers. The authors of The Prospering Parachurch write, “It would be anachronistic to call Paul’s mission work a parachurch organization, but some comparisons are valid”(61).

[4] The Church and the Parachurch, 80.

[5] The Prospering Parachurch, 199.

[6] See Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), especially chapter 8, “An Evangelical United Front.”