Yesterday, I traveled across the state to attend a wedding of a friend from college. I think weddings are really interesting. For example, I find the custom of bridesmaids and groomsmen to be fascinating. I always wonder how the bride and groom decide how many there will be and who they will be. Family? Friends? A dash of each? In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Bridesmaids and groomsmen are not what the wedding’s about; the bride and groom are the center of attention. In fact, the maid of honor and best man are really the only members of the bridal party who do anything. The maid of honor makes sure the bride’s dress is looking its best, while the best man holds onto the rings for the groom. They exist only to serve the bride and groom.
So why bring this up? Well, I think it’s a good analogy to the relationship between local churches and parachurch organizations (which are institutions existing alongside the local church, such as missions agencies and campus student organizations). Though both are necessary to the advancement of the kingdom of God, their roles are distinct from one another. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of biblically-modeled thinking in this area among Christians. I’ll admit that the issue never even occurred to me until a few years ago, and even today I’m still developing and refining my understanding of the subject. Here’s what I’m learning from the Bible so far.
First, even in New Testament times, there existed structures which today we would call “local church” and “parachurch.” The former are fairly obvious; local churches were planted in cities throughout the Roman empire, typically gathering together in the only meeting places available—the homes of their members. The latter were present in the form of apostolic bands—traveling evangelists who were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ.
Second, local churches were intended to be the primary arena for discipleship for believers. After they first believed, there was no question that a community would be formed; new believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The apostles insisted on this sort of community, commanding believers to continue to meet together in these local fellowships in order “to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Believers were to be edified as they participated in the life of the church body, working to “build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper and baptized new Christians. They were led by elders and deacons, as the apostles had taught them (1 Timothy 3:1-13). They were given authority by Jesus Christ himself to discipline their members (Matthew 18:15-20), and the apostles also affirmed the need for church discipline (1 Corinthians 5).
On the other hand, the “parachurch” apostolic bands traveled from town to town, preaching the gospel in new places. Their mission was to plant churches in each location they visited and to edify churches they had planted (1 Corinthians 3:6). Their work was aimed toward the building of God’s church in the form of local congregations (1 Corinthians 3:9). They continued the equipping work by writing letters, sending representatives (such as Titus and Timothy), and returning in person to teach and strengthen the churches.
In summary, the focal point of community and edification for the New Testament believer was the local church. The parachurch structure existed for the sake of the local church, to plant it and assist its development. Just as a bridesmaid does not call attention to herself but works to show off the beauty of the bride, so parachurch organizations, if they follow the biblical pattern, exist for the sake of local churches—not for their own sake, to perpetuate themselves.
So how does this principle apply to churches and parachurch organizations on a college campus? More on that tomorrow.