How Church Discipline Will Save the Parachurch

Article
03.01.2011

For years now I’ve been hearing Mark Dever say that a previous iteration of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary “went liberal” because “local churches weren’t doing their job.”

What?! Why was it the local churches’ fault?

Mark’s point is that, when those professors began to say things like “the resurrection is not historical,” then the local churches where those professors were members should have excommunicated them for denying this basic element of a statement of faith.

But what if the churches were already liberal?

Well, there’s not much more you can do. But the point still stands: Jesus authorized only one institution on earth to clean the kingdom gutters and unclog its pipes—the local church.

Take a look at Matthew 16:13-20 and 18:15-20. What you’ll find is that Jesus is deeply interested in the composition of the people who gather together “in his name” (ch. 18). They must profess the right things (ch. 16) and live the right way (ch. 18). When we gather in his name, after all, we identify ourselves with him and therefore represent him. We say to the entire world, “Hey, World, want to know what Jesus and God are like? Look at us!”

Jesus therefore gives the keys of the kingdom in chapter 18 to the local church for exercising this terrifically important activity of church discipline. Church discipline corrects sin and, if needs be, excludes the unrepentantly sinful. Jesus did not authorize seminaries, campus evangelism ministries, Christian publishers, Christian mercy ministries, or 9Marks to clean kingdom gutters. He gave that job to the local church.

Parachurch ministries staff their cubicles and write their books with whatever supply of people the churches hand them. If the churches hand them “bad fruit” and “wolves” (Jesus’ metaphors, not mine), that’s who will be sitting in the cubicles and writing the books. Don’t first blame a seminary, a publisher, or an evangelism ministry; first blame a church.

What’s disconcerting, then, is Carl Trueman’s observation that so often evangelicals see the real action as occurring in the parachurch institutions (see his 9Marks article here and an earlier blog post here). Since at least the 1950s, evangelical leaders have made a name for themselves out on the parachurch green, and all of us have turned our heads to watch the fun and games, now to extol, now to excoriate. But two dangers have followed: leaders have been promoted without accountability, and ecclesiological distinctives have been made unimportant. Trueman writes, “For some [the parachurch evangelical institutions] become the key theatres of action, the forums in which little fish can be big shots, and the deviant and heretical can flourish without proper accountability. For others they become the primary centres of Christian identity, the reason why they become evangelicals first, and Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal only second.”

Modern media, social networking, and celebrity culture being what they are, I don’t think we can expect evangelicals to stop watching the fireworks in the parachurch park anytime soon. But assuming we care about the reputation of Christ on earth, what should we do?

First, we should continue emphasizing the primacy of the local church for the Christian life.

Second, we should swallow the polity pill. We must make use of the accountability structures which all those ecclesiological distinctives afford. Be a Baptist. Be a Presbyterian. Be a something. Just don’t adopt what one theologian whom I respect unfortunately recommends as a “mere ecclesiology,” one shorn of these distinctives for the sake of “peace.” It’s a temporary peace because the stuff of which these distinctives are made actually protect the Christian body. Some polities are better than others, and a baptistic, congregationally-governed, elder-led polity is best, as all wise people recognize. But pick something. Jesus cares about polity. So should we.

(I’ve been wondering if there’s some way we could make polity cool again—maybe a book called “Po:Lity Is Kool,” accompanied by a website and a road show. What do you think?)

Third, we who work for parachurch ministries should be willing to heed—somehow—acts of local church discipline. Now, I’m a congregationalist, which means that I don’t think one church’s act of excommunication formally binds another church or a parachurch ministry, the way I would if I were Roman Catholic. But I do believe that prudence recommends some measure of deference in the face of this kind of action by the Jesus-established local church.

No doubt, prudence-guided deference will look different from case to case. When a parachurch ministry (or another church) has the luxury of carefully investigating the circumstances of such an action, it might choose either to affirm or to contravene the original church’s decision. When it does not have the luxury to investigate, time being scarce, I would encourage the parachurch ministry, in most circumstances, to defer to the local church. Yes, that might mean reconsidering someone’s employment status or publishing future.

I expect this might sound radical to people, but let me point again to two biblical principles. First, a Christian ministry’s primary concern must be with the reputation of Jesus Christ in the world. Second, Jesus authorized the local church to exercise the keys. Every other ministry must understand, therefore, that it plays a subordinate role.

Can local churches get it wrong and excommunicate people unjustly? Of course. So, if you work for a parachurch and you find yourself confronted, say, with an employee who has been excommunicated from his church, you should investigate the church’s action so that you can disagree and act against its decision knowledgably. You’ll give an account to God for your disagreement on the Day of Judgment. That’s the final court of appeal. Go whichever way you must now, but be informed and wise so that your conscience might be prepared for that day. Don’t just wave your hand and decide “it’s only a dumb church” whom you can safely ignore. Jesus died for that dumb church and gave it the authority to bind on earth what will be bound in heaven, and to loose on earth what will be loosed in heaven. He didn’t give that authority to individual you or individual me.

Imagine what the evangelical landscape would look like if local churches took their responsibility to correct sin seriously. I expect there would be a few less bad books out there. Fewer media scandals. Maybe less bickering in the blogosphere over whether “so and so” is a good guy or not. Less sheep following bad seminary professors into the crevasses.

Church discipline surely helps make local churches healthier. Yet I would also wager that taking church discipline and our polity distinctives seriously will promote health, peace, and unity across our God-given parachurch landscape.