Episode #36: What Should We Think About Parachurch Ministries? Part 2

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In the second episode of this two-part series on parachurch ministries, pastors Derek and Cliff discuss what gives a parachurch ministry its legitimacy and authority.


Derek: Welcome to With All Wisdom, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. My name is Derek Brown and I am here today with Cliff McManis, and we are both pastors and elders at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California, and professors at the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California. And today we want to do part two in our discussion of parachurch ministries. But before we get to our topic, I want to point your direction to WithAllWisdom.org, where you’ll find a large and growing collection of resources on various theological, cultural, and practical topics that are all rooted in God’s Word that are aimed to help you make genuine progress in your walk with the Lord.

Now, on to our topic. We are picking up from our last episode. If you want to check that out, that was episode number thirty-five, and we are coming now into this second part, wanting to talk more about parachurch ministries—what gives them legitimacy and what potentially could make them illegitimate. Before we do that, we want to review a little bit. How do we define a parachurch ministry?

We define it as an evangelical Christian ministry that more or less operates independently of the local church in its governance and funding. And an important piece to that is the prefix “para,” which literally means “alongside the church.” And in the last episode, we discussed how it’s important to recognize the church—and specifically the local church—as the original entity. And so in order for a parachurch ministry to even exist, it is fully dependent upon that original entity. And not only is it fully dependent upon that original entity (it is a derivative entity), but the New Testament shows that the church is the priority. It is the primary entity or institution. In fact, in the New Testament, Christ has only established one institution—namely, the church. And so that’s important to keep clear, because as people are working in and forming and establishing parachurch ministries, they have to do so in relation to the church. The very Word requires that they do that.

But also, the very nature of the church requires that any parachurch ministry understands itself in relation to the church, and specifically to the local church. The church is the original entity, and any parachurch ministry is a derivative entity. With that introduction and background, we want to get into the question of, are we just disparaging parachurch ministries and rejecting them altogether? Well, no, we’re certainly not doing that, because With All Wisdom is a parachurch ministry, and Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary is a parachurch ministry. We mentioned last time that I got saved largely due to the ministry of a man who worked for Campus Crusades for Christ. And that was a wonderful experience, and I’m so thankful for that.

We—Cliff and I—both attended parachurch ministries or parachurch organizations for seminary. And so we are not rejecting parachurch ministries wholesale. That is certainly not what we’re doing. But we do want to talk about a theology of parachurch ministries so that we can be very clear on the reason for their existence and their purpose and what they’re meant to do in relation to the church. We want both the church and any institution that is supposed to be helping the church to be thinking clearly and accurately about its purpose and reason for existence. So, the first thing I want to ask you, Cliff, is: what are some elements of a parachurch ministry that give it legitimacy?

Cliff: Yeah. I agree with you, Derek, that there are legitimate parachurch ministries and compromised ones. The compromised ones maybe aren’t legitimate at all, and there’s kind of a gradation or a spectrum of parachurch ministries in terms of their legitimacy or illegitimacy. But I think the Bible is pretty clear on giving us some foundational principles to be discerning and figure out is this parachurch ministry legit and biblical and fulfilling its role? As stated, it’s a parachurch. Is it going to come alongside the church, serve the church, help the church, or is it doing otherwise? Meaning it’s not helping the church. It’s competing with the church, replacing the church, supplanting the church, ignoring the church or—worst of all—there are some ministries out there [that] disparage the church. They criticize the church. They knock the church.

That’s a huge red flag, because when you’re verbally criticizing and knocking the church, you’re talking about the Bride of Christ, whom he shed his blood for. He gave his life for the church. The church is his bride. It’s his precious bride. He’s building the church according to Ephesians 2 and 4. It’s going to culminate in this—he’s going to marry his bride, the church, for all eternity. That’s where everything’s headed in world history. So the last thing a Christian should be doing is disparaging the church of Jesus Christ, despite all of its foibles and wrinkles and whatever else. God knows that; he’s dealing with that. He’s ironing those out. He’s maturing those. He’s growing those. They will be perfected. You need to talk reverently about Christ’s church. But in terms of legitimate biblical principles—and I think based on the foundation that you’ve laid out already—the first thing you can look at is, does the individual parachurch organization or ministry have a direct connection to the church? There’s a lot of ways to figure that out. One is maybe, like you stated, in their purpose statement. That’s their formal delineated purpose. Read through that [and see if it says] anything about the church. If it doesn’t say anything about the church, that’s a red flag. And unfortunately, you’ll find a lot of them that just don’t even consider the church in their stated purpose.

Derek: Yeah. They don’t even mention the word. [There’s] a lot of talk about serving Christians and glorifying God and preaching the Word and spreading the gospel, but no reference to the church.

Cliff: Yeah. And doing “ministry.” So I think you’ve got to have a direct connection to the church and a good Christian school. That’s biblical. They’re either an outgrowth directly from the local church or they’re helping the people in the local church—parents—and it’s stated in their purpose statement. And they are subservient to the church. So you’ve got to have a direct connection to the church. I think another principal is, you’ve got to have a gospel component in your parachurch ministry or endeavor. And I mean a deliberate, verbalized component as a priority of our parachurch ministry organization seeks to advance and declare the gospel of Jesus Christ. In addition to whatever else they may do—maybe it’s a service-oriented ministry. We go to Mexico and we build houses in the name of Jesus Christ. Well, if you’re only pounding nails, but you’re not sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, that’s not a Christian ministry. It’s got to have a gospel component.

It [could be] philanthropic or service-oriented, but the world can do that. I often say that Oprah Winfrey does that. She builds schools and does it better than just about anybody. But it’s not Christian. There’s no gospel component. You can’t outdo [her] in terms of just sheer goodness and philanthropic things.

Derek: That’s true. That’s a really good point.

Cliff: So you’ve got to have a direct connection to the church, and I’d say [specifically] the local church or a local church—for accountability and also that gospel component.

Derek: And you mentioned the local church. We did talk about this last week. If you are only talking about the church as universal, that tends to be rather abstract. But when you are rooting yourself directly to the local church, now we’re talking concretely about what the New Testament itself prioritizes—namely, the local church. And then you’re placing yourself under the authority and the connection to a local church. And it’s not just giving this kind of lip service to an abstract ideal.

Cliff: Have you ever met anybody in your life, Derek, who maybe said they were a Christian, and you asked them, “Where do you go to church?” And they didn’t have an answer. And they kind of stumbled over that or were evasive, or even said, “I don’t need a local church because I’m part of the universal church.” Has anybody ever told you that before?

Derek: You know what—it’s funny that you’d ask that, because I was just told that recently, and it’s a pretty regular occurrence that I hear that kind of thing.

Cliff: Yeah. Where they say, “I don’t need to be a part of a local church because God added me to the universal church the moment I got saved. So I don’t need the local church.” Which, to me, is code for “I don’t want to be accountable to a local church with local members, for whatever reason.” They just want to be independent mavericks or something.

Derek: Exactly. I want to do my own ministry my own way and my own Christian walk my own way—which is dangerous.

Cliff: It is. That’s at least a yellow flag—maybe an orange or red one. So you’ve got to have that direct connection [to] the local church. It’s so important. As you pointed out, in the New Testament, most usages of the word “church” referred to the local church, meaning when Paul writes a letter to the church at Corinth or to the church at Philippi, that’s a local church. That’s what we’re talking about. Even when he wrote to Timothy or Titus, it was specific leaders in a local church. If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to be rooted in a local church. And that’s the foundation from which you do ministry.

Derek: I agree. 100%. And I think, practically speaking, parachurch organizations need to demonstrate that connection to and that dependence upon—and even deference to—[the local church.] I think they need to reflect those things in their very mission statements.

Cliff: Can I go on to point number three to underscore your deference principle?

Derek: Yes.

Cliff: That’s number three. A legitimate parachurch will have a direct connection to the local church—number one. Number two—have a gospel component. And then number three—you need to be deferential to the local church or subservient to the local church. So your parachurch ministry, whether it’s CREW or Campus Crusade, you don’t usurp the authority of the local church. You’re subservient to the local church. Here’s a good verse to highlight this deference. 1 Timothy 3, where the Apostle Paul is writing to a local church, or really [to] a pastor of a local church. [He is] talking about the local church to Timothy, and he’s giving this charge from God—speaking for God. “But in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know—basically, Pastor Timothy—how one—how a Christian—ought to conduct themselves in the household of God.” What is the household of God? Well, it’s not the parachurch organization. It’s not the Christian school. And he tells us, “in the household of God, which is the church of the living God.” There it is. The church of the living God is the household of God. And then he describes it further. The church of God is the pillar and support of the truth. Hence, everything else needs to be subservient to the local church.

Derek: Wow. And I would say it this way: I think that to prioritize the local church means that a parachurch ministry needs to have this deference, this built-in deference, that actually seeks the wellbeing of the local church over its own success.

Cliff: Yep.

Derek: So that it actually is considering the success and the wellbeing of the local church first and foremost. Now, that probably will ruffle some feathers.

Cliff: That will ruffle feathers.

Derek: But I think that is keeping in line with the New Testament theology of the church and the idea that the parachurch is a ministry to come alongside of the church.

Cliff: Well, if you work for a parachurch organization and you don’t have that attitude that you just articulated, there’s a problem. You have the wrong priorities.

Derek: That’s right.

Cliff: You have elevated the parachurch organization over the church of the living God and his precious bride.

Derek: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

Cliff: That’s a challenge for people who work full-time for a parachurch organization, or that’s their bread and butter. That’s their mission in life. They think that’s their calling from God. What a challenge.

Derek: It is a challenge. And it really does begin with what we talked about already today and in the last episode—that you have to have a very clear, thoroughly biblical theology of the church. And it’s not some sort of small, incidental piece of the New Testament. It is a vital aspect of the New Testament. It’s what Christ is building. It’s the centerpiece of redemptive history. The church is what God is using to display and declare his glory. It’s from the local church. And so once you start to get a more fully-orbed view of the local church, hopefully this idea of its priority in God’s economy of salvation [shows] the priority that it must have in your own life. Even if you do work at a parachurch ministry, hopefully that will begin to change your own thinking [so that you are able] to prioritize the local church, even over your own ministry. Even your own ministry has a built-in expiration date, because it’s temporary. Maybe it’ll last for the next five years, maybe for the next ten or a couple of decades—who knows. But eventually, it will give way to the church. When Christ comes back and gathers his church, there will be no more parachurch organizations. That would be the church.

Cliff: Yeah. And how many parachurch organizations have come and gone? And just fizzled into non-existence? Because they were built on a personality or a fad, and not on Christ. Derek, you wrote an article on this that I thought was really helpful—on parachurch organizations and ministries, addressing many of the things we’re talking about. So hopefully as we end, you’ll be able to tell us more about what’s available. But in that article, you had a helpful [system]. I think it was three categories of parachurch organizations, in terms of the degree to which they were connected with the local church. Is that how it was?

Derek: That’s how I tried to organize it.

Cliff: Yeah. That was helpful. So in light of that, can you articulate the three categories?

Derek: Yeah. So I tried to use the [letter] “C.”

Cliff: There you go.

Derek: And whether or not these are the best words, I’m not sure—you can be the judge. But how I did it was, you have connected parachurches, and these connected parachurches are linked to a specific local church, or maybe [they are] on the campus of a specific local church. But for important reasons, they’re a distinct entity of that local church. Perhaps they are on the campus and they’re vitally linked to it. But perhaps they are [their] own entity for whatever reason—tax purposes or [something like that]. That would be a connected parachurch, where they’re vitally connected to a local church in a real way. And you even have people from that local church who are vitally engaged in it. So that would be a connected parachurch. And then the next would be a cooperative parachurch. Those are seminaries, in a lot of cases—Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Westminster, and even Compassion International has a direct reference, or at least they did last time I checked. They had a direct reference to their desire to be cooperating very specifically with the local church and with churches. I was encouraged by that. So you might call those cooperative parachurches. And then finally, I called the last one complete parachurches. And what I mean [by that] is that these stand completely on their own. They are distinguished from the local church. And not only are they distinguished from the local church, but, in terms of their purpose, their oversight, and all of those things, they are completely distinct.

Cliff: So, kind of completely independent of the local church.

Derek: Yeah. Independent. So complete wasn’t necessarily a good word here.

Cliff: No, those are helpful. So you’ve got connected directly, connected cooperatively, and then completely independent. Would you say there are seminaries that are in the connected category, like they’re flowing out of a local church? Whereas maybe there’s another seminary that’s cooperative. I’m just thinking of like, Dallas Seminary. It’s not sponsored by a local church. Whereas you’ve got Grace Community Church, where The Master’s Seminary flows out of the local church, and it’s even right there on the campus.

Derek: Right. I would say, yeah, Master’s is one of those connected parachurch ministries. The Cornerstone Seminary is vitally connected to Community Bible Church in Vallejo, California. It’s even right there on the campus. We use one of their buildings. And so we are connected.

Cliff: I think these three categories are really helpful. Because there’s a gazillion parachurch organizations. You just throw ’em in one of these three boxes—connected directly to the church, connected cooperatively, and then completely independent. Now in your list, you give a few examples in each category. And in the completely independent category, you put “Answers in Genesis,” which is true in terms of [the fact that] it’s not sponsored by a local church. And does that mean in its purpose statement, it’s not stating that it directly serves the local church?

Derek: I believe so. I believe if I put it in that category, they did not have any reference to local churches or the local church in their purpose statement.

Cliff: Okay.

Derek: That could have changed. I did this work a couple years ago, so that could have changed since then.

Cliff: And I don’t know if sometimes that’s just an oversight, because you’ve got Focus on the Family, which probably in the 1980s and 90s was one of the most influential evangelical ministries in the country. Actually, with Focus on the Family, I would put that in the completely independent category, where they weren’t all about the local church. It wasn’t sponsored by a local church. But they’re supposedly doing Christian ministry to families.

Derek: Yeah, exactly.

Cliff: And then you’ve got Answers in Genesis, which is a parachurch organization of education—a ministry that is 100 percent dependent on the Bible, with some good biblical education there.

Derek: I love Answers in Genesis.

Cliff: Yeah. So even within that category of complete independent parachurch ministries, there’s a spectrum. Because they’re not all the same.

Derek: That’s right.

Cliff: Because I think Answers in Genesis—just [judging] from their leaders like Ken Ham—even if they don’t state it clearly, they make the local church a priority. They believe in being a resource deliberately for local churches and local church pastors. And maybe they need to reevaluate how that’s communicated in their purpose statements. But even just within those categories, I think there’s a spectrum. Some do a better job than others, particularly in this last category of complete independence, which is really not a good place to be in if you’re a Christian ministry. This takes me to one more question. In our time, where you’ve got, for instance, an evangelistic campus ministry that’s independent of the church and their goal is to evangelize and do ministry and share the love of Christ, my question is: if they’re not a part of a local church or the church at all—which is the pillar and support of the truth—what spiritual authority do they have to do this ministry?

Derek: I think that is an excellent question. And I think you would have a hard time justifying any kind of authority that they would have biblically, because they are outside the local church. I think that’s the question they have to ask themselves: how do you justify or warrant or ground the authority that you are using to go conduct this ministry presently? And so I think that is the question, and I am not convinced that you can, given all that we’ve talked about in terms of a theology.

Cliff: I mean, where would you point to in Scripture that is the conduit? Because you have it in your article.

Derek: Matthew 18. Absolutely. Matthew 18.

Cliff: Can you just comment on that?

Derek: Yeah. So Christ has given the church to be the place where Christians are recognized as Christians, and he’s given the authority to the church to exercise discipline when there are people who are not acting like Christians. And so he has given the authority for that church discipline to the church and to the church alone. Not to a parachurch organization. And so when you have parachurch organizations working independently of the church, they are working independently of the authority that Christ has bequeathed his church.

Cliff: Yeah. And that was a really powerful point in your article—that spiritual authority is delegated from God. All spiritual authority comes from God. He delegates that to humanity through the local church, which is the pillar and support of the truth. Then you pointed to Matthew 18, where Jesus himself explicitly gives authority to the leaders in the church.

Derek: Yeah.

Cliff: Hebrews 13:17 tells Christians to listen to and submit to your church leaders. You have delineated qualifications to be one acting in spiritual authority, which would be an elder or a pastor, in light of 1 Timothy 3. If you’re on a board at some parachurch organization doing so-called Christian ministry, you’re not qualified in light of 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1. You’re not qualified, in light of spiritual authority given from God. You’re an independent operator.

Derek: Yeah. Wow. Those are very important questions and implications that those who are working and leading in parachurch ministries need to strongly consider. And we’re not saying eliminate those parachurch ministries, but we are saying that some serious thought needs to go into how you’re framing the mission statement and structuring the very ministry itself in relation to the local church.

Cliff: Absolutely. So an encouragement to all you parachurch ministry people out there: just evaluate your parachurch ministry that you’re affiliated with or work for. And try to align it more in keeping with what the Bible says about the importance of the local church. And hopefully, if you’re in category three of just complete independence, you [can] work towards being connected.

Derek: Yeah. It’s better for you, it’s better for the institution, and it’s better for the people that you’re serving. Well, as we close, I want to thank you for listening. I also want to point you to WithAllWisdom.org one more time, but this time I want you to consider our mission statement. And this is the mission statement that we have at WithAllWisdom.org: With All Wisdom is a site dedicated to serving the members and leaders of local churches by providing biblical resources to Christians from all walks of life. On this site, you’ll find articles, books, podcasts, and other audio resources produced by contributors that touch on a wide variety of biblical, theological, social and practical topics. Our prayer is that these resources will serve to further your maturity in Christ and deepen your love for your local congregation. That’s our mission. And we thank you for listening. Until next time, keep seeking the Lord and his Word.

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