Rev. Bruinsma is Eastern Home Missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, stationed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
A proper view of the doctrine of the church will have a direct bearing on the work of missions. What the Bible teaches us about the church and its work will determine who is called to do mission work, as well as the way such work is carried out. We began our consideration of this proposition in the last article when we established that it is the calling of the church to carry out mission work. Christ commissioned the church institute to do this work (Matt. 28:19;Eph. 3:10; I Tim. 3:15; Acts 13:2). The church does this through the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon, but especially through the office of pastor and teacher. The missionary himself is properly trained, called, and sent out by the church to perform the work of missions. Not just anyone sent to a field of labor in missions is a missionary. A missionary is an ordained pastor in the church. His task is to preach and teach the gospel. That is the calling of the church in missions: preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).
However, since the time of the “Great Awakening” during the mid 1700s and the century of Protestant missions during the 1800s, many organizations arose out of the church that, independent of the authority of the church, assumed to themselves this work of missions. Many different societies were established that sent out missionaries to labor independently of the church.¹ This was not true of most of the societies that were formed at that time. Most of them were formed by denominations of churches to oversee and coordinate their mission endeavors. Admittedly, some of these societies were interdenominational, but they were still answerable to the churches that formed them. At the same time, however, a large number of societies were formed, independent of the church institute, that sent out men (and women) to carry on the work of missions. This trend, though losing some of its impetus during the early 1900s, never really died. Since the 1960s the number of independent organizations involved in mission work has greatly multiplied. These organizations, among a host of others, were lumped together under the name of parachurch organizations. The number of parachurch groups has continued to grow over the past several decades.²
In the next two articles we wish to examine the validity of parachurch organizations doing the work of missions. Does the Bible allow organizations other than the church institute to carry out the mandate of missions? Is there support in Scripture for the parachurch in mission work?
Definition of a parachurch
Although many parachurch organizations do not like the label, their name accurately describes their existence and function. The term “parachurch” simply means “alongside of, near,” or “beside” the church. Parachurch groups labor “near” the church, gaining much of their financial support from churches. But these groups also labor “alongside of” the church, since they refuse to be under the authority or direction of the church. They take on work related to the church—usually some specialized ministry—but are not answerable to any church. They may cooperate with instituted churches, but they maintain their own autonomy. Now, this is a broad definition, under which many organizations have been listed. Parachurch organizations are involved in campus evangelism, political activism, medical missions, media, jail and prison ministries, crisis counseling, book publishing, Bible translation and studies, world relief, financial planning, and a host of other labors, including foreign and local missions.
Because this definition is broad and includes so many organizations, it complicates the issue of the validity of the parachurch. There are those who contend that “all legitimate functions [of parachurch organizations] must be under the authority or control of the church (either local or denominational, depending on one’s ecclesiology).”³ But is this really true? Though Christians certainly may join together in societies to publish books, translate Bibles into different languages, make political stands, send relief to those who are starving in far-off lands, etc., do all of these groups need to be under the authority and control of the church? These matters do not involve the work of the church institute. The work of the church institute is to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline. Not every parachurch organization, therefore, is illegitimate. Take, for example, the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA). This association not only publishes books that contain Reformed sermons or theological themes, but it also takes upon itself the task of publishing the semi-monthly religious periodical, the Standard Bearer. It performs an important function on behalf of the church of Jesus Christ. But this book association is “free,” that is, it is not under the authority of any particular church or denomination. This means that the RFPA fits into the category of parachurch organizations. Yet, it is a legitimate organization. It does not attempt to take upon itself the task of preaching. For that reason we can say that certain parachurch groups are indeed legitimate. If individual believers desire to organize societies to aid and assist others in various ways while giving a Christian witness, such societies are valid and can even be of great worth.
The parachurch groups that we take to task are those who usurp to themselves the work of the church in the preaching of the gospel. As was mentioned, there are those parachurch societies that take upon themselves the training and sending out of men and women to preach the gospel on foreign mission fields. There are groups formed that see it as their work to send out “evangelists” in an attempt to bring people to mass conversion. These “crusades” are independent of any denomination of churches, neither are they meant to gather their “converts” into any particular denomination. There are groups who develop a Bible curriculum and then involve themselves in Bible studies apart from the church and the doctrines of any particular denomination (usually these studies are free-willest in nature and stress personal experience rather than truth). There are also parachurch groups that go under the guise of a specialized ministry, but who use this as a front to become involved in the preaching of the gospel. Most often the people sent out by these organizations to labor as missionaries or evangelists are neither thoroughly trained in the Scriptures nor ordained by the church to perform the work of preaching. These kinds of groups are becoming legion today.
Arguments used in favor of parachurch missions
There are a number of basic arguments used by parachurch groups to justify their existence.
The argument most often used is that the church is more than the church institute. The church is the body of Christ in this world. That body of Christ comes to manifestation in this world in more ways than simply by means of the church institute. Willmer and Schmidt, in their book The Prospering Parachurch, explain the view of most parachurch advocates.
The word [parachurch] does not imply that there are Christian organizations that work outside of the universal Church. Instead it simply describes an alternative institutional form in God’s kingdom…. An essential part of the definition of the parachurch is that it is separate from the traditional church. Yet perhaps these organizations that are beyond or beside the institutional church have something to teach us about God’s Church, with a capital C. Traditionally we have identified God’s institutions with the buildings with steeples and filled parking lots on Sunday morning. We assume that God is working and accomplishing his plans through these staples of religious life. Yet there is no doubt that God is working through parachurch organizations in addition to the traditional churches, and this enlarges our conception of what God’s Church is—God is not limited to any one institutional pattern.4
Others within the parachurch movement will go so far as to say that the New Testament Scriptures know only of the church as the body of Christ—the community of those who have faith. The Bible never speaks of the instituted church. “Any institutional structure is therefore a culturally relative venture.”5
A second argument that is often heard from those who seek to justify the parachurch organization’s involvement in mission work is an appeal to the office of all believers. Jerry White explains it this way:
. . . we need to consider the function and responsibility of the individual believer in a local congregation. Earlier, I pointed out the critical issue of unity. There is another issue which is critical both doctrinally and practically. It is the priesthood of the believer . . . .
Under the new covenant, the believer has direct access and individual responsibility to God without the intercession of an earthly priest. This priesthood brings a new freedom for the believer, both in worship and in service. It is the cornerstone of the ministry of every believer. Thus the believer as an individual and the believer in fellowship with other believers has personal responsibility to obey God’s commands about evangelism, discipleship, serving others, helping the poor, and so on.
He is also personally responsible to exercise his gifts. 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 . . . .
When viewing the ministry in the entire body of Christ, I see no restriction on a structured ministry not under the direct control of a local church or denomination. The members of a local church are not restrained from forming other associations for spiritual purposes. Paralocal church structures, made up of individual believers around a common purpose, are as much a part of the universal church as any local congregation.6
We would not deny entirely what White states here. Certainly, our responsibility as believers goes beyond the local church. We ought to be interested in the church universal in this world and support and assist that church as much as we are able. Each believer is personally responsible to exercise the gifts God has given him on behalf of the church of Christ in this world. But the point that White is making here is that there are no limits on what individual believers do with this responsibility. They are entitled to go out and perform “the work of the ministry” just as well as the ordained pastor and teacher. This is an expression of the office of all believers. A fellow in a blog on the Internet siteTriablogue put it bluntly, “the Protestant Reformation regarded the lay state as no less of a divine calling than the pastoral vocation. And many parachurch ministries draw upon the expertise of the laity.”
There is one other argument used for the validity of parachurch organizations: the church has no time to specialize in certain “ministries.” Different parachurch groups are able to carry on specialized tasks in certain areas. Again, White comments:
There are many differences in the two structures (which we refer to as local church and para-local church . . .). The local church is broad, concerned with the total person, ministers in a geographical locale to a wide spectrum of ages and needs, and is narrow in doctrinal interpretation. The para-local church society is usually narrow in purpose, specialized in task, narrow in the age of those involved, broad in doctrinal tolerations, crosses denominational lines (except for denominational para-local church structures) and often is geographically scattered.7
Again, we do not deny that the church’s function in this world is that of preaching and teaching God’s Word. There are other functions that Christian’s can be involved in that need not be directly under the control of the church. But take note of what White’s summary to these specialized “ministries” of parachurch groups is:
Both the local and the para-local church groups comprise vital and viable parts of the body of Christ. The para-local church finds its theological legitimacy in the freedom of form given in the New Testament, in the necessary expression of each believer-priest in his ministry, and in the examples of local and mobile functions of the universal church. The local church is God’s basic medium for meeting the broad needs of people of all ages and in all situations. The mobile para-local church structure is God’s method for the two-fold task of missions and specialized ministries (emphasis mine—W.B.).8
The conclusion drawn from this argument of specialized ministries, coupled with the other reasons for what is thought to be the legitimacy of the parachurch organization, is: the parachurch is “God’s method” for the task of missions.
We take serious exception to the theological arguments used in favor of the involvement of parachurch groups in mission work. Obviously, we do not have enough space in this article to get into particulars. But here are our objections in summary form.
1). The Bible clearly teaches that the church as the body of Christ comes to manifestation in this world only in the way of the church institute.
2). The Bible teaches us that there is a clear and necessary distinction between the official work of the church through her offices and the life and work of individual believers in the church.
3). The Bible teaches that there are no “specialized ministries” other than the church when it comes to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word.
4). The parachurch movement has become a major cause for the proliferation of doctrinal error in the church world of today. We will expand on these in the next article.
1 Jerry White, The Church and Parachurch: An Uneasy Marriage (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1983), pp. 46-51.
2 Wesley K. Willmer, J. David Schmidt, Martyn Smith, The Prospering Parachurch (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), p. 12.
3 White, p. 31.
4 Willmer and Schmidt, pp. 22-24.
5 Willmer and Schmidt, p. 24.
6 White, pp. 80, 81.
7 White, p. 84.
8 White, p. 85