I grew up unconverted, sporadically attending an Episcopal church. I first responded to the gospel at a Young Life meeting, having just turned fifteen years old. It would be seven years from that point until I joined a local church. During the intervening period, I participated in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the university I attended. Upon graduation, I went to seminary to be a pastor and caught a vision for growing into a churchman. I’ve been a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America for the past thirteen years. My spiritual biography weaves the two strands of church and parachurch together in ways that have developed in me a deep appreciation for both institutions.
I tell you all of this as an admission of my bias as much as an admission of my biography. That bias and biography create tension, a tension that is felt across Protestantism. You can hear the tension in some parachurch ministries’ tone as they explicitly or implicitly communicate some iteration of “Where would the church be without our ministry?” You can hear the tension when churches suggest that parachurch ministries are pariahs to orthodox ecclesiology.
In this brief space, I’d like to make way for a more productive conversation on the positive and negative aspects of parachurch ministry. In fact, I’d like to assert, in what I hope is a modest way, that parachurch ministries are an important part of Protestantism, providing unity that is otherwise difficult to produce and maintain in the Protestant world.
Conscience, Authority, and Elusive Unity
I am not a church historian, at least not any more than a Reformed pastor should be. So, I won’t labor to chart the historical detail in my next statement. When Protestantism rightly stood against Rome, extolling the solas that we still hold to be foundational to orthodox theology, there also arose the opportunity for brothers and sisters in Christ to separate into denominations, as their consciences dictated. Protestantism nevertheless exhibits an amazing unity that was and is cherished by Christians who still disagree on secondary matters.
For example, it is good for Reformed Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists to agree on the gospel, preach it to all who will hear, multiply healthy churches, and avoid unnecessary arguments over the mode of and candidates for baptism. In that statement, you hear the substantial and helpfully maintained essentials that provide unity alongside the secondary confessional differences that produce denominational separation for the sake of maintaining clear consciences.
So, we come again to this idea of Protestant tension. There is a beloved unity where the Reformed confessions speak with unanimity. There is recognized (and, it is hoped, amiable) separation where the Reformed confessions diverge on secondary matters. We don’t want unity at the cost of violating our consciences. At the same time, we don’t want the diversity in our confessional convictions to lead to unnecessary separation.
As you can see, I’m heading toward a positive view of parachurch ministries, but before I get there, I need to say something vital. The church doesn’t need to resolve this tension to survive or even to thrive. Jesus is building His church with or without parachurch ministries. So, with the primacy of the church as a very clear given, I want to propose that parachurch ministries can help unify churches across Reformed denominations while allowing them to maintain their confessional convictions.
The Parachurch: Protestant Grout
As I alluded to above, the parachurch is not the church. Because of this important truth, parachurch ministries can specialize in some areas while remaining neutral in others, allowing them, when they are done well, to operate as a confessional Switzerland in the midst of rival theological groups. So, to take our example from earlier, Reformed Baptists and Reformed Presbyterians part ways on baptism but stand together on biblical inerrancy and the solas.
Following our line of reasoning, we have two realities—the denominational overlap of doctrine and the ability of parachurch ministries to specialize—that, when combined, provide an opportunity for greater Christian unity across confessional divides. And so, parachurch ministries operate best when they seek to foster relationships and publish resources in the common ground that denominations share within the larger arena of what is considered Reformed orthodoxy. Returning again to our example, Reformed Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists can forge friendships over conversations on gospel fidelity and the importance of church planting. Both groups can also benefit from scholarly and practical, lay- and clergy-level works published on topics of commonly held Reformed orthodoxy such as Trinitarian theology, gender roles, and means-of-grace-driven pastoral ministry.