The Para-Church: The Scriptural and the Unscriptural
Some months ago in the UK, I visited a Bible college for training seminarians for ministry in a particular nation in the Middle East. The deputy principal was a former English missionary to that nation who worked with a para-church mission organization.
He seemed strongly opposed to my own belief that contemporary events in the Middle East are of prophetic significance eschatologically. He disapproved of my own friendship with Tim LaHaye, stating that the kinds of ideas Tim LaHaye represents were disproven because of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, meaning that Gog and Magog could not mean what people like Tim LaHaye have always believed. He said such people as Tim LaHaye and others like him were proven wrong.
My response was that the nations of the former Soviet central Asia including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan are all moving in a radical Islamic direction and despite his own Islamic problem with Chechnya, Vladimir Putin was aligning Russia with Iran, supplying Ahmadinejad with technology that could be of assistance in the production of weapons of mass destruction. I told him that Putin is so angry at having lost the Cold War, and so keen to see instability in the Middle East push up the price of Russian oil and natural gas, that he is doing exactly what Ezekiel 38 predicted even though he himself faces a serious Islamic threat. As Ezekiel said, God has “put hooks in their jaws” in order to pull them in. (Eze. 38:4) Turkey, meanwhile, is leaning increasingly toward a fundamentalist Islamic direction.
This assistant principal had no reply. He simply spoke of his experience with a para-church ministry where, in order to see souls saved, they did not need to deal with issues such as prophecy; they only needed to present the Gospel. This assistant principal either forgot or does not know that Jesus said in the Great Commission that we should teach His followers not some, but all of what He taught the Apostles. (Mt. 28:20).St. Paul likewise declared in his farewell to the church in Ephesus in Acts 20 that he did not shrink from the whole purpose of God. (Acts 20:27) This assistant professor decided, in effect, that we should not do as Jesus said, but just teach the bits that are essential, when in fact everything in God’s Word is essential.Not everything is essential for salvation, but everything is essential for discipleship. Jesus never said to make “converts”, but rather to make “disciples”. This requires teaching the full content of Scripture.
Para-church mission organizations are generally evangelistic in function. They lead people to Christ and place them in churches to be discipled. Therefore para-church organizations only require a basic and general statement of faith that all believers can subscribe to. They only need to hold to the authority of Scripture, the tri-unity of the Godhead, substitutionary atonement through Christ, etc. They do not need doctrinal positions on baptism or eschatology, nor do they require systematic theologies or models of ecclesiastical polity and church government. They only need the raw basics to preach the Gospel.
What this assistant principal did was to take the para-church model for which there is no biblical basis, and place it on the church. Para-church organizations generally justify themselves by saying churches are not doing enough to evangelize or else are not doing enough to evangelize a certain people group. The problem is they lead people to Christ and then place them back into the same churches that they themselves fault, often justly, thus perpetuating the problem they are trying to solve.
Moreover, because Jesus said to make disciples, not converts, the full spectrum of biblical doctrine must be taught; not just the evangelistic portions employed by para-church organizations. Right from the beginning, therefore, there is a problem because para-church organizations are doing more to reach the lost. Their ethos and model predominates to the point where churches are following it and Bible colleges teaching it with supposed pastors such as Rick Warren teaching people to avoid End Time prophecy altogether as a diversion. This even though Jesus commanded we study it and be alert and that the Book of Revelation is the only Book of the Bible with the specific promise of a blessing for reading it.
When New Testament speaks of church, it means only one of two things: either the universal Body of Christ or a local congregation or community of believers in a given location. As with denominations, there is absolutely no scriptural basis for para-church organizations. They are therefore automatically on very precarious grounds having no scriptural mandate for their existence.
As a result of being an unscriptural organ, a number of other problems automatically result, one of which is that at some level para-church organizations wind up competing for contributions with local churches. In fairness, some para-church organizations remind people that their first obligation financially is to their local church, others however, do not.
Another problem is that para-church organizations generally insist that their staff and missionaries become members of churches. Scripturally, one’s Christian service should be through the local church. It becomes inevitable, however, that the para-church organization becomes the main place of fellowship, identity, and Christian service of its staff leaving its members with divided ministry participation. Moreover, para-church organizations must draw on a multiplicity of churches and denominations for prayer, personnel, and support; therefore they must placate all of them and meticulously avoid any position which offends any of them. So they wind up not standing for anything beyond the basics substance of the Gospel until even that becomes eroded.
We have witnessed organizations that began as Gospel-preaching such as World Vision, Bernardo’s, and Christian Aid degenerate into mere social welfare organizations with a Christian label. We have also seen organizations such as Youth With A Missions (YWAM) bringing onto its teams and so-called discipleship training seminars, Roman Catholics who pray to the dead and believe salvation comes by sacraments instead of by second birth.
Acts 13 shows us that a call to the mission field by the Holy Spirit is a call only for experienced veterans, not for youth or those young in the Lord. The entire basis for YWAM is without any biblical foundation in its model. It is no wonder they are now teaching things such as that one may call Jesus by the name of the Hawaiian volcano god, etc. The Scriptures say, “You shall have no other God before Me” and the names of idols are the names of demons which we should keep far from our lips. Other para-church organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ have ventured down the ecumenical road with Catholicism when the late Bill Bright tragically signed Evangelicals and Catholics together.
On the most basic level, however, the problem becomes that the concept of a para-church mission organization simply is not a model nor a concept that God has given us. They are purely the ideas of men. This is not to say that God has not used para-church organizations to preach the Gospel, but it is rather the preaching of the Gospel that God is using, not the organization.
If such para-church ministries existed purely to assist and serve congregations, most of these problems would not have materialized to the extent that they have. There is a practical need for specialized ministries to fly medical supplies and evangelists to remote mission stations. There is also a practical need for Bible translators to get the Word of God into languages and dialects that do not have it. There is a practical need for ethnic ministries to teach people of other ethnic groupings how to evangelize their people. We need American Indians who are saved to teach White churches how to share Jesus with Apaches, Jews, and Muslims.
Along this line there are ministries who not only do these things but actually are involved in the planting of churches themselves such as Wycliffe Translators and Missionary Aviation Fellowship, and are thus not actual para-church organizations, but church-planting ones in addition to serving other churches and ministries. These are not the missions organizations that have a fundamental problem. Neither are denominational missions who plant churches even though one can challenge the scriptural basis of denominations.
As long as a para-church organization exists to assist churches to do their jobs, the fact that they are unscriptural does not necessarily mean that they are contra-scriptural. Once a para-church organization, however, seeks to do a church’s job for it, it is usurping God’s model in favor of man’s and is the wrong instrument for the task at hand. One should not try to eat soup with a fork and one should not try to run a church like a para-church organization using their inherent lack of doctrine for a doctrinal position.
Biblical missions and evangelism entail the planting of churches; no one can deduce anything else in the Book of Acts or the Epistles. Our own ministry, Moriel, has planted or been involved in planting a host of churches, some large and some small, some meeting in homes and some meeting in halls, some having their own buildings and others renting properties. These local fellowships all pray for Moriel and help support its missions. They are not subordinate to Moriel, but are rather autonomous in their church government and eccelsiastical polity that are in fellowship with Moriel on the basis of common doctrine. Moriel advertises, promotes, and endorses these congregations and serves in an advisory role while these congregations in turn function in a sponsoring role of Moriel. Thus Moriel is a ministry of local fellowships and not something that operates along side of them in a para-church model.
This para-church issue has always been the source of various problems, most of which again stem from the fact that there is not a single passage of Scripture that would substantiate the existence of a para-church organization. Under qualified circumstances, such ministries may be a tool that in His grace can and sometimes does use, but it is a tool of man’s design, not God’s.
James Jacob Prasch