The second pattern we see is Paul’s missionary team itself. Although sent out by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3), Paul’s team often appears to operate semiautonomously. Paul, for example, worked to raise his own money when necessary (Acts 18:3; 20:33; 1 Cor. 9:12-15). He also depended on the gifts of believers outside of Antioch at times (Phil. 4:14-18).
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Paul’s missionary team was a “parachurch” ministry in the modern sense of that term. The point is that in these early years of the church’s existence, before the development of the hierarchical organizational structures that became the norm, more than one pattern of ministry existed.
When we turn to the early centuries of the church, we witness the continuation of a twofold pattern of ministry in the church. There is a continuation of the local church pattern modeled after the Jewish synagogue. In the Western church, the common term for this pattern of ministry has been modality. We also see a second pattern of ministry in the early church in the rise of the monastic movement and of organizations of laypeople devoted to piety or to particular works of charity. The pattern of ministry observed in these organizations has been, in the Western church, commonly termed sodality or, with slightly different nuances, confraternity.
Throughout the Middle Ages, this second pattern of ministry would give rise to the various monastic orders (for example, Benedictines, Cistercians, Trappists) and mendicant orders (for example, Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians), as well as a huge variety of other clerical and lay associations. In the modern-day Roman Catholic Church, the relationship between all of these associations has become quite complex. Book Two of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law describes the nature of each kind of organization as well as the relationship between all of these various groups in extensive detail.
One important type of nonecclesiastical association that arose in the medieval period was the guild. Guilds were formed by merchants and craftsmen who shared the same skill or trade. For our purposes, it is important to note that student guilds and scholar guilds were instrumental in the emergence of several universities in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Before the rise of the universities, most higher education took place under the control of the church in cathedral schools or monastic schools. Universities such as Bologna (founded in 1088) and Paris (founded around 1150) eventually broke with this tradition and functioned more or less independently of the authority of the church. Those who taught were Christians, but the universities themselves were not necessarily under the organizational structure of the church.
With the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the local church (her teaching, preaching, and sacraments) became the top priority. For many years, the emphasis was on the local church. The reasons for this emphasis were obvious. The ministry of Word and sacrament, which is the purview of the local church, was in shambles. The Protestant Reformers had to focus on repairing the foundation. This does not mean, however, that other patterns of ministry were completely ignored. The academy established by John Calvin in Geneva, for example, was under the direct authority of the city council. The academy provided public education for the city’s children and theological education for ministers in training.
In later centuries, Protestants would emphasize even more strongly the second pattern of ministry discussed above. The rise of missionary movements in the nineteenth century and the founding of various parachurch organizations in the twentieth century, for example, signal a return within Protestantism to the kind of twofold pattern we see from the earliest centuries of the church. The question for Protestants, however, is whether this later development is a good and proper one. It is to this question that we now turn.
Chapter 26 of the Westminster Confession of Faith concerns the communion of saints. Section 2 reads:
Saints by profession are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
In his commentary on the confession, A.A. Hodge argues that “all branches of the visible Church, and all the individual members thereof, should do all within their power to act upon the principle of the ‘communion of saints’ in their intercourse with all who profess the true religion” (p. 325). He refers to public duties between different evangelical churches as well as private and personal duties on an individual level.
It is this idea—that the communion of saints extends across denominational lines, that the church is bigger than the local church or any one denomination—that provides a theological basis for what are today known as parachurch organizations. Whether we are Presbyterians, Baptists, or Lutherans, do we believe that other professing evangelical Christians not in our denomination are part of the visible church? Do we believe that they are regenerate Christians and part of the body of Christ? If we do grant these things, can we work with members of these other evangelical churches for specific purposes where we share gifts and callings that can benefit all? Our confession of faith indicates that we can say “yes” in good conscience.
Too often, in considering the issue of parachurch organizations, we’ve thought of the word church only in terms of the local church. As a result, we’ve conceived of parachurch organizations as something outside the church. But those involved with parachurch ministries are Christians, and they are part of the visible church. If we think of the church in broader terms, if by church we mean the universal church comprising all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, if we believe that Christians outside of our denomination are actually Christians, then we see that parachurch ministries are tangible outworkings of the communion of saints. They do not exist outside the church. They do not exist in competition with the church. They are simply expressions of a pattern of ministry that has, since the first century, existed in the church.
Parachurch ministries should not confuse themselves and their mission with the distinctive calling of the local church. It is within the context of the local church, not the parachurch, that Christians gather regularly to hear the preaching of the Word of God and to partake of the sacraments. Parachurch ministries must also beware of watering down the distinctive confessions of the local churches represented by those involved in the ministry. Parachurch ministries are not identical to the local church, and when they behave as if they are, they require criticism and correction. However, when those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus, even if they are in different evangelical denominations, see a way to meet a legitimate need that the local church cannot meet because the need is too big or that the local church is not meeting for some other reason, the local church has no reason to hinder such Christians in their attempts to gather their resources, pool their talents, and use their gifts for the furtherance of the kingdom and the glory of God.