Book Review: Beyond the Local Church, by Sam Metcalf
Sam Metcalf. Beyond the Local Church: How Apostolic Movements Can Change the World. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015.
How should we regard the work of missionary societies in the work of fulfilling the Great Commission? Are they biblical? Necessary? Simply a matter of prudence?
Missionary societies have played a central role in evangelical Christian missions since William Carey’s time. Even prior to him, organized societies of Christians, detached from local churches, helped advance Christian missions.
In the 1800s, Anglican missionary Roland Allen said missionary societies exist because the church has failed to become all that God intended.
In the 1970s, missiologists like C. Peter Wagner argued that missionary societies do not owe their existence to deficiencies in the local church. Instead, said Wagner, missionary societies are God’s design for fulfilling the Great Commission.
Ralph Winter advanced Wagner’s argument further with his article, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.” According to Winter, both local churches (which he calls “modalities”) and “parachurch” organizations (he prefers the term “sodalities”) are legitimate expressions of the church. Winter’s article has been widely influential, partly because it helped to legitimize the vast number of parachurch organizations and partly because of its inclusion in the popular “Perspectives” missions course.
Many have advanced Winter’s arguments to the next level. One of those is Sam Metcalf, who argues in Beyond the Local Church that parachurch organizations of all kinds, including missionary societies, are not only legitimate but essential to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Metcalf hopes his book will provide 1) a biblical justification that sodalities are essential expressions of the church and 2) an encouragement to Christians who, he says, will only be fulfilled if they minister in a sodality.
Metcalf believes that proper execution and fulfillment of the Great Commission requires structures and organizations besides the local church, structures led by and predominantly filled with “apostolically” gifted people and with the purpose of fulfilling “apostolic vision.” The church is just not getting the job done (p. 20-21) and is not a good fit for every Christian’s ministry. Some Christians with certain spiritual gifting, he says, can only be fulfilled in sodalities.
Metcalf does not hold this view loosely. According to him, to disagree is to hold a “truncated, inadequate” view of the church. He says that views like Allen’s—that parachurch organizations exist because local churches are falling short of God’s design—have been a cause for “impotence and retreat for the Christian movement.”
In arguably his most important chapter, Metcalf attempts to show the biblical design for sodalities, thereby filling the gap in Winter’s more historical work. According to Metcalf, Scripture clearly teaches that “a fully orbed, biblical ecclesiology understands that the church can be expressed in two legitimate, autonomous but interdependent structural expressions, both necessary for the health and vitality of the overall Christian movement.” This is clear, he says, if we examine certain movements found in Scripture: movements of individuals operating “outside the religious establishment,” like the Nazirites, the prophets, the Essenes, and the Jewish proselytizers of the Old Testament. The New Testament examples are found in the structure of Jesus and his disciples and in the missionary bands found in Acts.
Metcalf, like Winter before him, argues that history is full of examples of apostolic movements that, if followed afresh today, will help fulfill the Great Commission. The best examples are the Celtic and Orthodox monks of the Middle Ages, as well as Protestant missionary societies after the eighteenth century. It was through these that God awakened his people and advanced the gospel in the world.
God has clearly, according to Metcalf, given sodality structures and Christians especially gifted to serve in those structures. This is why he believes we should not use the term parachurch; it is unhelpful because these “parachurches” are as legitimate and necessary as local churches. What’s more, they need to be filled with specially gifted Christians who are encouraged in the legitimacy of such structures. These “apostolically gifted” Christians will either cross barriers to break new ground for the gospel or urge churches to maintain their focus on advancing the gospel. They provide “catalytic, adaptive, movemental, translocal, pioneering, entrepreneurial, architectural, and custodial ministry needed to spark, mobilize, and sustain” expansion of the gospel around the world.
Christians gifted in this way will be frustrated by serving in local churches. They need ministry structures and organizations that will uniquely accommodate their giftedness. Metcalf says they are “second decision people,” who make a vocational choice to live on the support they receive from others as they labor for the spread of the gospel. The potential for changing the world is great when God moves. Metcalf closes his book arguing that movements of God will only be realized when sodalities and modalities work together in tandem, recognizing the legitimacy and essential place of each in the mission of God in the world.
The biggest failing of Beyond the Local Church is that it never proves Metcalf’s thesis because his approach has hermeneutical, ecclesiological, and practical problems. Because of an underdeveloped view of the local church, Metcalf uses a flawed hermeneutic to confuse what is prudential in missions (sodalities) with what is necessary (the local church).
A Hermeneutical Problem: Biblical Descriptions as Normative
Metcalf hopes to show that his view of sodalities and modalities aligns with God’s design as prescribed in the Bible but the biblical data he offers are not enough to justify his conclusions. He looks for examples in Scripture of “individuals operating outside the religious establishment” that can serve as functional equivalents of apostolic, missionary structures, from which he can justify his views on sodalities. The Old Testament models he cites are the Nazirites and the prophets. Metcalf leaps from descriptions of these to normative characteristics for today without providing good justification for doing so.
His handling of the New Testament models is about the same. Here is where Metcalf exerts most of his effort analyzing the apostolic structures in Acts and the Pauline writings. He again uses descriptions of the apostolic band to posit a normative conclusion: he says this data show there is a necessary separation between modalities and sodalities in the Kingdom of God.
Metcalf’s exegesis suffers because he misreads the covenantal administrations and horizons found in Scripture. His portrayal of the Old Testament Nazirites and prophets fails to wrestle with the questions and implications that arise from their location in redemptive history; in short, they were part of a different covenant than we are. The same question might be posed to his understanding of the New Testament data: are there significant differences that must inform our reading of the Bible since we minister in the post-apostolic era? The individuals Metcalf describes as modern-day apostles seem more akin to influential, charismatic, and highly entrepreneurial (if not troublesome) individuals than the faith-filled, humble, life-giving apostles in the Bible who performed signs and wonders, wrote Scripture, and advanced the gospel into areas in the face of great hardship.
An Ecclesiological Problem: Underdeveloped View of the Church.
Metcalf also has an underdeveloped view of the local church that affects much of his argument. For example, he says the Bible shows that:
- a fully biblical ecclesiology understands both sodalities and the local church are legitimate expressions of the universal church and that both are “necessary for the health and vitality of the overall Christian movement”;
- gospel-advancing missionary sodalities are “the design and plan of God”;
- “God never designed or intended sodalities and local churches to do the work of the other”;
- by the design and providence of God the primary structure for gospel-advancing efforts, especially across barriers, “will never be” the local church but missionary sodalities.
He concludes, “I get weary of hearing the oft-repeated mantra that ‘the local church is the hope of the world.’ It’s simply not true. The church in its local form is not all that there is. . . . As the Bible and history so clearly show us, if we depend solely on the church in its local form, there is no hope—and there never has been.”
Thus his view of the church seems at odds with the Christ-exalting view of the body of Christ found in the Bible. In Scripture, God gives the responsibility to both nurture believers and to advance the gospel across barriers to the local church. Bruce Camp makes this point and gives several examples:
- It was the local church in Jerusalem and not a sodality that sent Barnabas to minister to the new believers in Antioch.
- Writings to the churches of Corinth, Thessalonica, and Philippi all contain calls for local churches to be involved in gospel outreach (see 2 Cor 5:18–19; 1 Thess 1:8; Phil 1:5).
Camp also questions whether sodalities are in fact legitimate expressions of the universal church. The Bible refers to two groups as church: the believers of all time and space, living and dead, and the local church. Besides these, no other group of Christians is called “church” in the Bible in spite of ample opportunity to do so. The missionary band could easily have been called “church” if God had intended it as such.
Additionally, Metcalf says that certain Christians will only be fulfilled by ministering in sodality structures. To support this claim, he offers many anecdotes, but there is no biblical data to support this hypothesis and much that would support the converse claim. I can agree that sodalities are wise and helpful in certain situations and that certain Christians are gifted to minister cross-culturally. However, the Bible indicates all Christians are gifted to serve within the local church (cf. Eph 4:11–16; 1 Cor 11–13). No, in spite of Metcalf’s insistence otherwise, the Bible portrays local churches—not sodalities—as the place where each Christian is gifted to serve because they alone are outposts of his coming kingdom.
A Practical Problem: Confuses the Necessary and the Prudential.
The final problem displayed by Metcalf’s approach flows from the first two problems. Because of his underdeveloped view of the local church, Metcalf uses flawed hermeneutical principles to confuse what’s prudential in missions with what’s necessary. Metcalf has moved beyond merely arguing for the theological and biblical legitimacy of mission agencies—he is arguing instead for their theological and biblical necessity over and against the necessity of the church.
To be very clear, sodalities today and throughout the history of the church have done amazing work for the kingdom of God. They would fall into the category of what is prudential in missions—they do a lot of good, legitimate work. But there must be very strong warrant to argue that something helpful in ministry is a biblical necessity. We Christians may create structures to aid the church in her mission to advance the gospel, but we should not take functions given by the Bible to the local church away so that we can give them to another structure. It is even questionable whether it is wise to separate the responsibilities given to the church (i.e., gospel advancement, worship, service, church ordinances, etc.) from the authority God gave her (e.g., declarative authority of who does and does not belong to the Kingdom). God, in his infinite wisdom, has given both responsibilities and authority to his bride.
Metcalf raises some interesting questions for mission in the twenty-first century. However, his approach fails to adequately rebut Roland Allen’s assertions from a century ago, that sodalities exist because local churches have failed to become all that God has designed them to be. Without question, sodalities continue to do much important ministry around the world. Yet, I am afraid that Metcalf’s argument will limit the vision God’s people should have for the local church. Gospel-advance is an essential function of the local church that must not be removed from the level of essential, even urgent responsibility.
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 See Bruce K. Camp, “A Theological Examination of the Two-Structure Theory,” Missiology 23, April 1995: 197–209.
 Metcalf does a good job showing the likelihood that Paul’s missionary band was separated from the authority of the local church at Antioch. The author of Acts emphasizes that it is the Holy Spirit and not the church at Antioch who is leading the setting apart and sending of Paul and Barnabas into gospel-advancing mission. Metcalf rightly shows that there seems to be a range to the reach of Antioch’s authority based upon the nature of the local church. But this proves neither the essential nature of gospel-advancing sodalities nor that God has given the responsibility of gospel-advance to sodalities rather than to the church. See Ken Caruthers, “The Missionary Team as Church: Applied Ecclesiology in the Life and Relationships between Cross-Cultural Church Planters,” Doctor of Philosophy Dissertation, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2014.