The Church and the Parachurch


There’s an old hand gesture that children do to describe the church. It goes like this: “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” It’s funny how children’s rhymes can sometimes carry deep meaning. Indeed, the church is much more than a building, it’s a community. Edmund Clowney writes: “According to the Bible, the church is the people of God, the assembly and body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” It is a reflection of the old covenant community now realized as a new community, in essence a new covenant community. Peter describes the people of this new community as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Pe. 2:9). The church is God’s vehicle to bring His Kingdom to the world.

The question is, “What does God’s church look like?” If it is about the people, how is it displayed and how is it formed? We hear terms like “universal” and “local,” “church” and “parachurch,” and many of these phrases can be quite confusing. Also, what model represents the biblical understanding of the word “church”? Many of these issues were dealt with in Phase 3, Week 8 of membership so we will be narrowing the subject to the church-parachurch relationship (so there will be much cross-referencing to this earlier work now known as P3W8).


The church is defined as the community of believers that are represented both on earth and in heaven. It consists of both the local and universal church, along with the visible and invisible natures of the church of Christ. The church, therefore, incorporates Christians who gather in fellowship with God’s people, for the purpose of worshiping and glorifying God. The parachurch has classically been defined as those organizations and ministries that work alongside the church, that ministers where the church does not minister. Jerry White, in his book The Church and Parachurch: An Uneasy Marriage, does not agree with the term. The term itself, “parachurch,” literally means “alongside the church.” But such a definition would mean then that the parachurch is not a part of the church. This is a troubling notion for those in the parachurch who would claim to be a part of the universal church. So instead, White uses the term “para-local church” to describe the common term parachurch. He wants to emphasize the parachurch’s attachment to the local church, and at the same time making the distinction between the two entities.

Is There a Natural Distinction Between Church and Parachurch?

Jerry White’s distinction is one that attempts to solve both problems. It attempts to maintain the uniqueness of the parachurch without neglecting the relationship to the local church. But one must ask the question of whether this distinction is legitimate in the first place. Is there a biblical distinction that says that there must be an entity apart from the local church, to minister where the local church does not reach?

Generally speaking, the parachurch came to being around the 18th century. Mission boards, tract societies, student movements, were all a part of the evangelistic fervor that was prevalent at the time. To say that these movements were not from God would be futile. God obviously was at work and used these ministries and organizations to expand His Kingdom, and His church. But does this mean that this is God’s primary means to expand God’s Kingdom? If the foundational definition is to stand, then it must be the church that is to be the sole vehicle of Kingdom expansion. This is where the distinction needs to be clarified. While the parachurch was borne from necessity, to say that it was apart from the local church is a misconception. Every early evangelistic movement would associate itself with the local church. Many of the missions boards and early tract societies were denominational, submitting to the leadership of national denominations. White’s term, “para-local church,” still assumes that the parachurch is outside of the confines of local church leadership, something that initial parachurch movements did not intend. The “parachurch,” as White declares, does not operate alongside the church. Rather, the parachurch would be better off understood within the context of the local church itself. Darrel Cox writes: “I suggest that the phenomena which we have come to understand as parachurch ministries would be better described as specialized institutional ministries. Such a designation would avoid the unnecessary confusion that results from para or para-local church, while still accurately describing the distinct nature of the institution.” No one denies the parachurch’s intention or effectiveness in advancing the Kingdom of God. But was the parachurch’s ministry outside the parameters of the local church? This question needs to be answered in light of the biblical evidence for the church itself.

The Local Church: A Biblical-Theological Perspective

Scripture defines the church as not just local but universal, and not just visible but invisible. The church cannot be viewed apart from both perspectives. In Romans 16:5 the church is actually called a “house church.” 1 Corinthians 16:9 reports Pricilla and Aquilla’s house church. In Colossians 4:15 there is a church in the house of Nympha. Some of the letters Paul wrote were to specific geographical locations, and not simply to the church worldwide.

At the same time, the church is viewed in a universal perspective throughout the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 10:32; 12:28; 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-32; Col. 1:18, 24). It expands far beyond the borders of geographical lines, and reaches the church worldwide.

This concept of a local and universal church has created much confusion for many within the universal church, particularly in dealing with the church and parachurch. Parachurch groups have always contended that their role is to work alongside the church (“para” literally means “by” or “alongside”), and in fact, minister where the church is not ministering. The parachurch was never intended to be a “competitor” of the church, or as a more serious issue, a church itself. The parachurch has been a wonderful instrument for the advancement of God’s Kingdom, working in previously untouched areas of ministry by the church. College campuses, social ministry and overseas missions were all areas previously disregarded by the local church. With great passion and fervor, the parachurch has been used strategically to open many doors to the world in regard to the gospel. Problems arise, however, when the parachurch neglects to understand its role within the universal church. While it certainly has its place, it cannot replace the local church.

What defines a local church? Clowney lists three characteristics that the reformers used to define a true church, and in this case, a true local church: “true preaching of the Word; proper observance of the sacraments; and faithful exercise of church discipline.” Some have applied more “means of grace” to the primary care of the local church. Cox comments on John Calvin’s perspectives on the marks of a local church:

One might question whether there exists a solid core of biblical criteria that establishes a distinction between the local church and the parachurch, and through which a positive identification or the marks of the visible, local church might be determined. Calvin reflected on the second part of that question and wrote: ‘From this the face of the church comes forth and becomes visible to our eyes [the visible being that church which is visible, the local church – Sam]. Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institutions, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists [cf. Eph. 2:20].

The local church is commissioned by Christ to be the sole administrator of His grace through sacraments. Cox continues: “The significance of the sacraments (or if one prefers, ordinances) as a distinguishing mark of the life of a visible, local church is clear from such Scriptures as Matt. 26:26-29, 1 Cor. 11:23-26, and Matt. 28:19. Baptism, in this case, is an initiatory rite into the assembly of God’s people under the New Covenant (Acts 2:38; 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:33; Rom. 6:4; Eph. 4:5; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21), and as such is clearly identified as a mark of the church.” A disregard for membership in a local body and sacraments is not simply a disavowal of God’s grace, it is a disavowal of the church of Christ both local and universal.


Membership is not an invention of contemporary Christianity. It is a God-established means of representing the new covenant community. Membership is entrance into the new covenant community of believers. In the Old Testament the Israelites were called God’s people. They were the ones who would represent God’s causes on the earth. They would reflect His holiness and commands as they obeyed the Law. Yet, their rebellion led them away from that distinction. So Paul mourns over their spiritual apostasy: “2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Romans 9:2-5). But now, there would be a new people of God who would take their place: “8 In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Romans 9:8). The children of promise are now those who place their full hope in Jesus Christ (John 1:12).

This new people of God, a new covenant community, is now fully realized in the adoption of sons and daughters (Eph. 1:5) into the family of God. Membership is a visible sign of such a family. While it is not a means of grace, it can be a sign used by the church for the purpose of establishing those who are part of the new covenant community. Members bear the weight of maintaining a community that is continually pursuing the glory of Christ and advancing the Kingdom of God.

Membership is a biblical statement that is echoed throughout Scripture. Edmund Clowney writes:

Those who say that church membership is not necessary, or even that it is unbiblical, fail to grasp what the New Testament teaches about the church and the administration of the sacraments. Jesus accompanied his promise to build his church with the gift of the keys of the kingdom. Those who do not heed the final discipline of the church are to be regarded as Gentiles and publicans, that is, as outside the membership of the community (Mt. 18:17).

Practically speaking, members are the lay ministers who are equipped by the pastor to bring others into the new covenant community. Members are called to serve, teach, and equip others for the sole task of bringing glory to God. In WCCC members are instrumental in fulfilling the vision of leading people to be worshipers of God in spirit and in truth. The goal is to reach a lost world and lead them to a delightful worship of the Living God. Lesslie Newbign describes this goal well:

Christ who is the head of the church is also Lord of all cultures, and his purpose is that all shall be finally subject to him as head. It is not enough to speak of the numerical growth of the church within each ‘piece’ of the mosaic, as though the latter was to remain to the end of time and as though the growth of the church was the ultimate purpose of God. We must seek the presence of the church within each part of the whole fabric of human culture, not as an end in itself, but as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s purpose for all human culture. This means that the church is involved in and must take sides in tensions which exist within each culture.

Stephen Pribble in his article, “Is Church Membership Optional,” exegesis Hebrews 13:17. It says: “17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Since most of the epistles were at the very least, letters written to a group of local churches, and sometimes to specific local churches, it seems that the writer is exhorting the believing community to submit to local church leadership so that they might grow in faith. Pribble writes: “I answer that Hebrews 13:17 assumes what should be the case for every Christian; it presents the norm for the Christian life. Would not every true child of God who understood the implications of this verse want to put himself in the place where it was possible for him to obey this plain apostolic command?” People view membership with disdain because there is this faulty idea that membership implies domination. But membership is not a place for domination. Nor is membership a dry commitment to a static organization called the local church. Membership is a sign of delight in God’s active move through his church. The psalmist delighted in God’s dwelling place, where His presence was felt daily. Psalm 26:8-12 says: “8 I love the house where you live, O LORD, the place where your glory dwells. 9 Do not take away my soul along with sinners, my life with bloodthirsty men, 10 in whose hands are wicked schemes, whose right hands are full of bribes. 11 But I lead a blameless life; redeem me and be merciful to me. 12 My feet stand on level ground; in the great assembly I will praise the LORD.” To the psalmist the gathering of God’s people in a physical place, on a regular basis, on the Lord’s Day designated for worship, was a time when he would be refreshed and restored. It caused him to worship God. Membership submits to God’s church for the purpose of Kingdom expansion and spiritual growth. In fact Paul tells us that the church’s whole leadership structure is set up so that believers might come to maturity, something that would seem very unlikely outside the confines of local church fellowship and membership: “11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).

The Sacraments

Today’s evangelical church seems to be veering further and further away from a regular practice of the sacraments. Christ’s commission to repeat the sacraments was not a suggestion but a command:

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mt. 28:19-20)

Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian church was to practice communion in a way that gives glory to Christ. He writes: “18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!” (1 Cor. 11:18-22) Paul addresses his corrections to a particular local church. Divisions occur within the church, a local church fellowship. Paul is not addressing the church as universal, but clearly as a distinct specific body that is struggling with particular issues.

If Christ commands His people to take the sacraments, to be baptized, to receive communion, is it right for Christians to ignore such commands? Gary North describes this person as the “self-excommunicated person.” He adds:

Without partaking of the sacraments a Christian is, at best, progressively relegated by God to the outer edges of relevance. The excommunicated person is publicly condemned in history to the eternity of hell and the lake of fire unless he repents in history: ‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such as one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 5:4-5). The self-excommunicated person—the person who willfully refuses to join a local church or take communion—announces that he profess historical impotence to influence, irresponsibility to responsibility. God then gives this to him.

Although this is a stern warning, Scripture holds the sacraments in such high regard as Jesus used communion as a representation of His own sacrifice. Paul warns that a misuse of communion leads to direct judgment (1 Cor. 11:29). Such is the holiness and power of communion. Pribble adds: “You cannot obey those empowered to rule in Christ’s church if you never join. You simply cannot submit to the church’s lawfully-constituted leadership unless you become a member. You could never be excommunicated if you had never been a communicant member to begin with. In our church, whenever we observe the Lord’s Supper, the minister invites ‘those in good standing in any evangelical church to participate in the ordinance.’ What a generous invitation to be invited right into the very presence of Christ! The Lord’s Supper is a fellowship meal only to be given to faithful saints who have properly submitted themselves to church membership, for it is required that all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40).”

These responsibilities are left to the local church, to be safeguarded as marks of a genuine church. The preaching of God’s Word is essential to spiritual growth within the church, as it is the Word of God that is to be used to correct, rebuke, train, and equip believers (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Also, membership in a church body is vital to a Christian’s welfare and spiritual maturity. When Judas was being replaced, Matthias is counted with the apostles and added to the church. There was a definitive number within a local body that had an elder (Peter, who also happened to be an apostle). Edmund Clowney notes: “The lists of names in the book of Numbers give evidence of God’s concern to define membership in his people… Matthias, chosen in the place of Judas, is numbered with the eleven apostles; those who were added to the church were numbered with the disciples, so that the total number could be set down (Acts 1:26; 2:41; 4:4).”20 Clearly, the church body was not some amorphous group meeting without biblical warrant or leadership structure. The body was a local body, empowered with the practice of the sacraments and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Some Conclusions and a Plea

While it is true that the church has both elements, local and universal, such a distinction is not reason enough to distinguish between the two entities as two distinct types of churches. In essence the term parachurch (while used in this essay for expediency) is a misnomer. There can be nothing alongside the church. To be alongside the church is to be outside the church. To be outside the church is to be outside its fellowship and protection. The church is a place where Hell cannot prevail (Mt. 16:18). In essence to be outside the church is a place reserved for those who do not and cannot know Christ fully (Eph. 4).

So this is my plea:

1. For the church and its leadership – The mere existence of parachurch movements reveal the lack of evangelistic and missionary fervor both home and abroad. Campus groups like InterVarsity and Campus Crusade became a necessity because of the prevalent infighting and competition between churches. Shouldn’t churches who send kids to college contact local churches in the student’s collegiate area so that there could be a smooth adjustment to a new place of worship and fellowship? Shouldn’t there be a deep concern for students in such a way that when they go to college their spiritual lives do not end, but continue to grow? Missions agencies are also a by-product of church neglect. Many of the ministries of such groups could have been superseded if the local church had taken up its rightful place as spiritual mentor and sender. However, pride and competition has hampered spiritual unity and therefore, the universal church is effected. Something needs to change and it is the hearts of church leaders. Therefore, may those who are in church leadership be humble of heart and willing to listen and change. May they be men and women of vision for what Christ wants to do with His church.

2. For the Christian who believes they don’t need to attend a local church – Brother or sister, if this is your position, I pray that this short essay at the very least, might have dissuaded you from such a position. Everything in Scripture points to the centrality of fellowship, fellowship with God and fellowship with His church. As much as there is a universal church, it is an amalgamation of all the local churches together worshiping God. No parachurch ministry can and has the right to practice the sacraments, and without the sacraments a Christian disobeys the Lord’s direct command. No parachurch ministry has the call to preach the Word in season and out of season (2 Tim. 4:2). No parachurch ministry has biblically-mandated forms of leadership (Eph. 4:11-12). No parachurch ministry is promised spiritual maturity as a result of its faithful ministry to God (Eph. 4:13-14). Finally, no parachurch ministry is given the promise to defeat Satan with spiritual power. In this context then, it is vital and necessary that the Christian join a local church body for the sake of spiritual growth, spiritual health, and spiritual power. An absence of such fellowship is tantamount to a rejection of Christ’s direct commands, a dangerous place for any Christian.

3. For the parachurch leader – It is essential that the parachurch remember its place in regard to the whole church, and its link to the local church. The parachurch is a ministry within the local church. Shouldn’t it be the local church commissioning those who serve in the parachurch? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the local church took the final responsibility of such a commission so that it would guide, train, advise, and keep accountable that leader? This is not to say that there is no legitimacy for campus ministries, or missions organizations, or tract societies, etc. But the unity between church and parachurch should not be mere formality. It could be a direct link between the two, under the headship of the church. What if an InterVarsity staff worker also was the Campus Ministry Director of a local church. This would mean that the local church and the parachurch would need to be humble enough to recognize that both ministries have legitimacy while at the same time recognizing accountability and structural order. The church might undergo revival should the church and parachurch actually become one. It is a known fact that many involved in parachurch ministries in college turn away from Christ when they reach the “real world.” Because the pseudo-atmosphere of campus Christianity was the only fellowship these students knew, when it came to adjusting to a non-campus world, where 24-hour fellowship was no longer feasible, where discipleship leaders no longer spent days training and eating and sleeping with their disciples, disciples no longer become disciples of Christ. If the parachurch were under the care of the local church, the transition would be quite natural for the student. Church would no longer be as imposing. It is a false dichotomy that poses college student against young adult and young adult against adult and adult against elderly. Holistic Christian education should be seamless so that Christians can mature throughout life, not through one stage of life.

Therefore, the parachurch leader has one of two options, either submission to a local church and emphasizing its importance to the ministry or becoming a local church itself. Usually the first option is the one taken. However, the second option is not without example. One campus fellowship group in Maryland realized that their ministry was becoming more and more like a church. So they registered as a church and held their worships on Sundays. They have a pastor and he administers the sacraments. Usually most parachurches do not desire to take this route. Then it is the responsibility of that particular parachurch group to state the centrality of the local church, and the parachurch’s subordinate role under the church.

The ultimate purpose is so that God would receive glory and the Kingdom of God would be advanced without hindrance. This takes humility on the part of church leaders, parachurch leaders, and individual believers. When unified in this way, Satan trembles and God receives all of the glory.

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