Foundations: No.66 Spring 2014

Parachurch Groups and the Issues of Influence and Accountability

Parachurch groups can fulfill a variety of legitimate functions in the Christian world but one of the key issues is that of discerning when and where the parachurch starts to usurp the functions of the church. This raises important questions of accountability and transparency as they connect to influence and power. Recent events in the United States provide a good example of some of the problems that can occur when the lines between church and parachurch become blurred. Nevertheless, as long as parachurch groups have clear and very limited purposes, they can be very helpful as a means of encouraging discussion and action on various issues.

Given the fragmented nature of the Christian church in this present age, and the fact that in many parts of the West the church is in numerical decline, there is a desire among many Christians to engage in co-belligerent propagation of the gospel that transcends congregational, and even denominational, boundaries. When one adds to the mix that many Christians belong to denominations which tolerate all manner of false teaching and thus consider themselves to have more in common with those in other churches, it is not surprising that we live in an era of significant parachurch activity. Parachurch groups so often seem the answer, or at least part of the answer, to the weakened and fissiparous nature of contemporary church life.

At a general level, the issue of the parachurch is really an issue of the church. How one understands the latter, in terms of her authority structure, the nature and extent of her power, and the role which she fulfills, will determine precisely how one understands the role, if any, of parachurch organisations. This is in many ways a modern problem. Even at the time of the Reformation and the immediately subsequent generations, the issue of parachurch as we now know it did not arise. True, churchmen did things that went beyond church services and meetings directly connected with church governance. In Geneva, the Company of Pastors met for mutual encouragement and edification. In Zurich and then in England, the prophesyings were gatherings focused on helping ministers improve their preaching skills. But these were all churchly in that the men involved were also connected to the same ecclesiastical bodies and subject to the same accountability structures. They were not parachurch groups, standing apart from structures provided by established polity.

There is also a further distinction which needs to be made within the notion of the parachurch: There are parachurch organisations which are truly para-church, in that they exist to serve, and be subservient to, actual churches, and which fulfill such a narrow function that they cannot be confused with churches. To this group belong institutions such as seminaries and Bible colleges. They have a specific educational remit and are not involved in regular preaching, sacramental duties and discipline with regard to a specific congregation. We might also include in this group those organisations which exist to promote a specific issue or narrowly defined set of issues. Thus, Christian publishers fall into this category. The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood would be parachurch in this sense, as might also be groups such as the Proclamation Trust in the United Kingdom. Few, if any, question whether such groups can, in principle, do good for the church, though there might be some interesting differences of opinion on how exactly they are to be connected to the church. For example, should seminary Board and Faculty members be appointed by the church? Such a question is beyond the scope of this article.

There are also parachurch organisations which one might characterise as really being quasi-church organisations. These have much wider ambitions and can easily be mistaken for denominations. The rest of this article will address parachurch organisations which potentially fall into this category. It is not a clear line between the para- and the quasi-church, and thus it is the question of how one assesses whether a group has crossed that line which will occupy us here.

Take, for example, The Gospel Coalition, probably the most significant and influential parachurch group in the English-speaking world today. TGC seeks to represent a clearly defined, but relatively broad, constituency of evangelical belief. TGC may not explicitly fulfil all churchly functions (they do not baptise or administer the Lord’s Supper) and may even claim explicitly that it is not a church or denomination. But TGC holds conferences which run over Sundays, thus supplanting the local church commitment of attendees and also holds “worship services” which may be led by people who are not ordained to gospel ministry, in the sense of being called to ministry of the Word by a specific local congregation (as in congregational and Baptist polity) or by a Presbytery (as in Presbyterian polity). It has also produced a more or less elaborate catechism. Significantly (and this is harder to quantify) for some of its affiliated churches, it has cultivated an ethos where it has come to function as an identity marker in the way denominational identity might do for others. Thus, some churches and some individuals identify themselves as “a TGC church” or “a member of TGC”.

The difference between TGC and, say, a seminary or a single-issue group is clear, but that between it and a church or denomination is somewhat less obvious. Various factors play into this situation: organisational ambition, marketing, the kind of products (for want of a better word) with which it is associated and, above all, how the organisation is perceived by the market. Yet understanding why there is a need to distinguish the church from the parachurch is vital because such groups can exert tremendous influence in the church world, and, when they do so, they can also be functionally unaccountable. That is highly problematic.

One final point we should note: there is a great temptation when discussing parachurch groups to look at the good they have done and to see that as justification for their existence. It may well be so; but we must not allow pragmatic considerations to be the ultimate criteria by which we judge whether a parachurch group is a good thing or not. Those criteria must come from scripture.


The Church

Given the above, it is useful first of all to clarify what the New Testament teaching on the institutional church is. Obviously, ecclesiology is a massive subject and a brief article cannot deal with every issue and nuance. Thus, I will not here address the differences that exist between different understandings of the New Testament teaching, such as exist between Baptists and Presbyterians, but restrict myself to the most basic elements.[1] 

These basics are stated clearly by Paul in the Pastoral Epistles. The church has a certain institutional structure provided by the appointment of overseers and deacons, the former to deal with doctrine and discipline, the latter with the material wellbeing of the congregation.[2]  The church is also to hold fast to a form of sound words. For a Presbyterian, this function is fulfilled by a confession of faith. What is clear is that the New Testament knows of no doctrinal authority which is not also an ecclesiastical authority, connected to congregations of the church. Paul does not envisage ecclesiastical functions – preaching the gospel, refuting error, administering the sacraments, and discipleship – being fulfilled by some organisation which stands apart from the church. Overseers are appointed by the church to fulfil these functions within the church.

This basic pattern is reflected in the earliest writings extant outside the New Testament canon. Whether it is the Didache, (possibly written as early as 70 AD) with its hints at a congregational polity, or the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (early second century) with their very high view of the office of overseer, it is clear that authority was conceived of as ecclesiastical, as connected in some way to local congregations and to church bodies.

This is not simply biblical; it also makes perfect sense. Paul’s notion of officers and forms of sound words provides a clear way in which authority within the church can be exercised and, indeed, regulated. As that has been worked out in Congregational and Presbyterian polity, the minister is made accountable to the congregation (and in the latter case the Presbytery) with the confession of faith as the document by which his power can be limited. If I stand up on a Sunday and declare the Trinity to be a heresy, the congregation have a clear and transparent process by which they can hold me to account and, if necessary, have me removed from office.[3] 

In short, Paul envisages the church as an organisation as involving the connection of structure and doctrine, of influence and accountability. The reason is because the church is in a serious business: the preservation and propagation of the gospel, which is too serious a task to be left to groups where there is no accountability to the body of Christ as it manifests itself at the most basic congregational level.


The Problem of Influence, Transparency and Accountability in Parachurch Groups

We might now return to TGC, given its status as the flagship conservative and Calvinistic parachurch group. TGC is governed by a council. The council is appointed by itself. As with all such groups, there are inevitably a few high-profile and powerful individuals who are more invested in the group and exert more influence than others. The council also decides who is allowed to speak and write for the organisation. Such is life, one might say. Yet this is the gospel we are talking about and so the question of accountability to the church as manifested in specific congregations and/or denominations is of vital importance when it comes to groups which seek to influence the church. So to whom is the council accountable?

Formally, the council is only accountable to itself. Informally, of course, it is a little more complicated than that. There is the donor base which is free-floating and not formally connected to a specific congregation or denomination as it would be in a church. Then there is accountability to the market which buys the TGC conference tickets and related products. None of this is necessarily wrong: the same kind of accountability applies to publishers of Christian books, for example. But if the council of TGC starts to take on ecclesiastical functions, to function like a denomination in terms of identity, then the question of accountability becomes that much more critical. Massive influence disconnected from ecclesiastical accountability, whether we are talking individuals or organisations, is unknown in the New Testament.

Take, for example, the incident which took place in 2011-12 where two members of TGC’s council, James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll decided to share a platform with Oneness Pentecostal pastor and prosperity preacher, T D Jakes at the Elephant Room 2.[4]  Mark Dever, another member of TGC’s council was also invited but withdrew when Jakes’ invitation was made public. The problem was not that Christian leaders were engaging a modalist prosperity teacher in debate; it was that the whole point of the event was that it was a dialogue between Christian leaders and that the invitation to Jakes was itself an acknowledgment of his legitimacy as a leader. Several months after the announcement, MacDonald and Driscoll resigned from the TGC council and were wished well in their future ministry by TGC. Their products – books and conferences – continued to be advertised via TGC’s webpage, even after ER II, when they affirmed the Unitarian Jakes as a Christian brother after he answered a series of simplistic and naively-articulated questions.[5] 

The incident raised in acute forms questions of accountability and responsibility. Membership of the TGC council had given both men the imprimatur of TGC, and its leadership had brought them, via that imprimatur and the major platform they had enjoyed at previous TGC conferences, to a much wider evangelical audience, large though their previous constituencies had been. That TGC’s leadership affirmed Macdonald in God’s call to his future endeavours as the reason for his departure was quite stunning.[6]  There was clearly a grave moral responsibility placed on the council of TGC to deal with him in a decisive and indeed a public way, making it clear that doctrinal lines have been crossed, Christians potentially confused and souls potentially jeopardised. These are serious matters.

Yet such clear leadership was lacking in the bland and equivocal official well-wishing that followed MacDonald’s and Driscoll’s departure and it is hard not to see the muted criticism of a usually forthright leadership as rooted in issues other than theology. MacDonald and Driscoll have huge churches and huge followings. To put it crudely, their names on a conference flyer sell tickets, put backsides on seats, and guarantee revenue. Unfortunately, TGC had booked large conference centres for its conferences several years in advance. It has a significant budget to meet. It has employees for which it must care. And it has a reputation for being irenic and standing above the fray of other, “nastier” groups. In short, it has both a reputation to maintain in order to hold its large and broad constituency and it also needs the constituency which the MacDonalds and Driscolls bring with them to raise the money necessary to meet its commitments and to maintain its operation.

The problem is clear: TGC has given these two men credibility in many congregations which do not belong to their own church connection. In their dalliance with the denier of the Incarnation, he has been shown to be at best theologically incompetent and thus as lacking the qualifications for serving a New Testament church as an overseer. And yet, despite the massive influence they had come to exert as mediated through TGC, there was no real public accountability. One cannot promote men as sound public teachers, use them to gain one’s organisation publicity and market share, and then, when they prove not to be so, deal with the matter behind closed doors.

Money, personal relationships, other agendas – these all play their part in decisions respecting such matters at parachurch organisations in a way they should not do. Properly-constituted congregational overseers and congregations play no role in the process. Doctrine is just one issue which groups such as the TGC council have to balance against others, such as money and public relations. The self-appointed and self-perpetuating councils discuss these problematic scenarios behind closed doors and make decisions for which they, too, are unaccountable to anyone but themselves.

This raises in an acute form one of the problems which large and influential parachurch organisations create today: influence needs always to be connected to accountability. When there is no formal connection between such, and where the processes for handling problem situations are not transparent, there is a recipe for disaster. 

One response to this might be that churches have problems too. That is true, though the difference is this: when a church goes bad it is because of the weak and sometimes wicked people who staff its structures and there are ways of addressing this. Good polity does not mean there will never be problems; it does not guarantee that its principles will always be followed; in fact, it merely provides transparent processes for dealing with such when they inevitably arise. It is the men who hold office who must apply such procedures and who can sometimes fail to do so, with disastrous results.

When parachurch groups with no such processes go bad, however, it is arguably a structural problem. There is no transparency and there are constituency issues at play that are not set in any clear and precise relationship to each other, and often have little to do with doctrinal orthodoxy and Christian discipleship. A Presbyterian denomination, for example, has open and clear processes for the nomination and election of officers, for the examination of candidates for ordination, for the mutual relationship of accountability between congregation, session, Presbytery, and General Assembly. Power is not simply top-down, nor is business contracted behind closed doors in meetings to which church members can never have access. There are no self-appointed bodies in the governance of the church and there are checks and balances on power all the way through. The same is also the case in well-constituted congregational and Baptist churches. Yes, the system does fail; but it fails because of the flawed people involved, not because the system itself is ultimately incapable of handling the task which it has been set. And, of course, there is the obvious major difference between churches and parachurches: the former are divinely sanctioned and are ruled by God’s Word; they are created by God and regulated, in confession and form, by the Word of God. The latter are merely human organisations, whatever practical good they may do.


Parachurch Organisations are not the Solution to the Problem that is Represented by Denominations

A common justification for expansive parachurch organisations is that they promote unity among Christians and give visible form to the unity which believers have in Christ. This is a powerful argument. The divisions that exist in the church are a tragic testimony to human sinfulness. Yet this argument is nonetheless generally overplayed.

A Presbyterian response to a Baptist or Congregationalist, of course, is going to be: that is why you need to have a connectional polity. It is good and appropriate that you wish to express the unity of the body in some form which goes beyond that of the local congregation but the way you should do that is through the offices and mechanism which God has established for doing such. If, however, you believe every local church should be truly autonomous and independent, then why do you want to create formal organisations which potentially subvert that autonomy, even if such subversion is only informal, as was arguably the case in the MacDonald/Driscoll/Jakes affair? Should you not simply be satisfied with informal, low-key inter-congregational fellowship?

In the United Kingdom, the “unity” case for parachurch organisations is often made by Anglican Evangelicals who labour in a denomination where they have little or nothing in common with many of their ecclesiastical colleagues. To them the response should be, “If you want to express unity, the first thing you should do is join a denomination where you are united in Christ, as far as you can tell, with everybody else who belongs to it. Christian unity in the Bible, at least visible Christian unity, is a churchly unity and it is that for which we should strive first and foremost.”

The flip-side of such arguments is that those who do join parachurch groups as a way of seeking unity often regard those who refuse to be involved in a negative light. Such naysayers are often vulnerable to the accusation from members of that group that it is they who are subverting Christian unity and dividing the body. That is both unfair and wrongheaded.

It is unfair because of the arbitrary nature of the claim. Somebody somewhere decides to form the next big organisation for carrying the gospel forward. They manage to obtain funding for setting up an infrastructure, and then spread their influence via the web, plush conferences and a regular cast of high profile figures to be the public face of the organisation. This is the perfect context for making demands that everyone else hop on board or get out of the way. Such an approach fails to take into account that those involved in confessional denominations, where orthodoxy is upheld and churches carry out the Great Commission under the authority of elected church officers, are already trying to express Christian unity in the gospel through their churches and their denomination, albeit imperfectly. To such, it is inappropriate to have the personal vision of a handful of self-selected individuals trump or outflank historic – and biblical – ecclesiastical commitments.

It is wrongheaded because, there is a basic category error at work here. One cannot solve the problem of church disunity via a non-church organisation. The only thing which can bring about Christian unity in a formal, visible sense, is formal, visible church unity. To be united in a parachurch group is not expressing Christian unity in any deep sense. At best, it expresses unity for co-belligerence on a selection of specific issues. If it is doing more, then its leaders are ultimately making claims to be a church or denomination in some sense and, if they do that, then they need to develop a biblical polity to express that. One cannot simultaneously enjoy the lack of ecclesiastical accountability that self-appointed parachurch leadership brings with it and also claim to be doing something which only the church can do.

I should emphasise here that such unity in co-belligerence can be extremely helpful. As I will note below, there are numerous things which parachurch groups do well. But such unity can never be Christian churchly unity as assumed in the New Testament. That can only come about in and through churches connecting together as churches under the authority structures set forth in the New Testament.


The Parachurch is Limited by the Fact it Can Never Practically be the Church

The practical limits of parachurch organisations are also evident when one comes to think about what they can actually do. Parachurch unity almost always requires the sidelining of doctrines which are important in the Bible and are, indeed, important for the day-to-day running of the church. Take baptism, for example. There are Christians who are credobaptists and there are Christians who are paedobaptists. One thing that both parties should agree on is this: baptism is very important in the New Testament and absolutely basic to the local church. To put it bluntly, the local church has to have a position on the subjects and (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent) the mode of baptism. One could argue that it is a matter indifferent, but that would be very hard to maintain on the basis of the New Testament which seems to make baptism something very important indeed.

Yet so many parachurch organisations – for example, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, The Gospel Coalition, and Together for the Gospel – take no definitive stand on the issue of baptism. By doing so they signal that they cannot, for example, plant churches or function as denominations. Yet that message – “We are not a church but a group that campaigns simply for the promotion of x” – needs to be pressed home again and again, lest the constituency or, even worse, the leadership lose track of that idea. The Alliance exists to promote the use of confessions among churches; that message is narrow and focused. All groups need to be similarly clear and focused in their purpose. That is yet another indicator of the limited role which must be ascribed to such groups. That is fine, as long as the ambitions of these organisations are not, in practice, churchly ambitions. Once such groups come to be seen as the solution to problems epitomised by churchly organisations, then we see the difficulty.


Parachurch Organisations Can Be Vulnerable to Cults of Personality

Cults of personality – the investing of undue power and influence in a particular individual or group of individuals because of their status within the social networks of Evangelicalism rather than because of the office which they hold in the church – are a complicated, multifaceted issue. Numerous factors come into play here: The typical parachurch conference is, by definition, far more interesting, and one might even say glamorous, as a venue than weekly church ministry. Thus, the people up on the stage will tend to have an aura which the local man may lack. Further, the reach of parachurch groups via conferences, well-constructed websites and other media goes far beyond that of the local church and even some denominations. When this is combined with the economic need to sell tickets and fill stadia, there is a natural tendency to focus once again on the megachurch pastor types.

Several problems can arise as a result of this. First, certain parachurch leaders can begin to believe their own publicity and assume they have a right to control who says what in the broader evangelical world, to stifle criticism, to decide who is allowed to speak and who is placed on the margins. This brings us back again to the problematic relationship of influence and accountability in the parachurch world. Elder boards, sessions and presbyteries may not be perfect but one thing they do well in a healthy church culture is ensure that no one voice dominates the discussion and that no one person ends up being the centre of attention.

Second, in a world of big conferences and dynamic speakers, the aspirational model of normative ministry comes to be determined by the extraordinary. At a conference, the delegate sees the stage filled with men who pastor churches of hundreds or thousands, with excellent budgets and all of the excitement and possibilities that such things imply. Yet the typical delegate knows his ministry will never be like that. The temptation to despondency can be strong.


Parachurch Groups Can Give Power and Influence to Those Who Do Not Biblically Qualify for Such

One of the striking developments of the last two decades has been the role of information technology in parachurch organisations. Web pages, the blog format, the ability to manipulate Google searches etc. have all become critical. This technological aspect inevitably tends to favour the young, the entrepreneurial, those who have the flexibility to learn new skills and to keep up with relevant developments. Yet the young are not those which the Bible typically envisages as holding office in the church. Were that the case, Paul would hardly have had to tell Timothy that he should let no one despise him for his youth: Timothy was obviously the exception.

When one looks at the list of qualifications for ruling in the church, the reason is obvious: the qualities needed by an elder, from good household management to a good reputation in the neighbourhood, are generally only possessed by men who are older and more mature. Yet the parachurch influence, mediated through the web, separates influence from qualifications. Of course, technology has always done that to an extent: the invention of the printing press allowed for easy extension of influence without accountability. But the role of the web has massively increased the speed and reach of influence, and dramatically favoured the media savvy (i.e. the younger) over against the kind of leadership profile and context envisaged by Paul. Again, the question of how influence can be connected to accountability in parachurch groups becomes acute.


Parachurch Groups Tend to Minimal Doctrinal Commitments and Occasional Eccentric Emphases

It is of the nature of coalition movements that the doctrinal basis has to be carefully constructed to maintain the consensus necessary. Thus, in many parachurch groups, credobaptists and paedobaptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, cessationists and non-cessationists all co-exist. On one level, that is not a problem if the brief of the organisation is narrowly focused on an issue which does not touch on these areas. Thus, one could imagine such a group competently promoting expository preaching or raising awareness about contemporary cultural issues. It becomes problematic, however, when the group’s ambition is larger – for example, if the group wants to encourage church planting or to present itself as teaching the whole counsel of God or, indeed, to demonstrate how the differences do not really matter.

The problem here is that these issues do matter on the ground. One cannot be a church without a clear and specific view on the subjects of baptism. One has to have a view on whether the gifts continue or not. When one looks at a group like The Gospel Coalition, with bloggers like Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian taking very different views on sanctification, the problem becomes acute at the most practical level. If one follows DeYoung, one will preach and counsel one way; if Tchividjian, then another. There is no middle ground, however much one might try to spin the situation to the contrary. How I counsel the young man addicted to pornography will be determined at the most basic level by whether I think DeYoung or Tchividjian is correct. The demands of holding together a donor base or a broad evangelical constituency cannot be allowed to obscure clear teaching on an issue of such practical, immediate and vital importance. Yet such is the nature of big-tent parachurch evangelical groups that the net result is that these issues on which there is agreement to differ become relativised and marginalised.[7] 

Of course, in all churches some issues are considered more important than others. Yet the church has the advantage, at least in theory, of standing in line with historic confessional trajectories whose priorities have not been set by the tolerance or preferences of the immediate evangelical marketplace. Again, as with the case of TGC and Elephant Room II, the problem for the parachurch is really one of the collision of the financial needs, the theological limits of the sponsoring coalition, and the need to speak with a clear voice on important issues to the church. In the case of TGC, for example, it is fascinating that complementarianism (a much broader concept than simply restricting ministry of Word and sacrament to ordained men) is apparently a non-negotiable, while freedom is allowed on continuationism, baptism, sanctification, polity, and even evolution. The priorities are eclectic and not connected to any historic ecclesiastical confession of faith.


Conclusion: The Legitimate Role of Parachurch Groups

I am aware that, having been Stateside for thirteen years, much of the above material deals with examples which are primarily American. Nevertheless, modern media mean that what happens in the States today can happen in the UK tomorrow. And often all the British see is the glamorous and successful public faces of US parachurch agencies. They do not see the problems, the egos, the politics and, at points, the corruption which lies behind the scenes and which is so often an integral part of what is going on.

Having said that, and having established the problems with parachurch groups and also the necessary limits of their power, what role can they play?

Essentially, they can do what the name suggests: they can work alongside the church to support the church. Seminaries can train pastors, as long as there are clear lines of ecclesiastical accountability (as with my own seminary’s requirement of ordination and presbytery call for professors). They can provide excellent conferences for pastors and people which allow for fellowship and encouragement. They can enable pastors working in small churches where they see little week-by-week encouragement to gather together to meet with others in similar situations. They can promote clearly-defined single issues, such as complementarianism or principled confessionalism, and provide material for churches who address such matters in their regular ministry. They can even produce occasional statements on key issues of contemporary interest, such as ethics or inerrancy. We might say that they can fulfill handmaiden functions that help the church but they should never seek to lead or control the church.

Yet in all of this, the leadership of these groups needs to demonstrate a clear understanding that they are to serve the church. They must be careful to limit their own power to those boundaries which their accountability to churches requires. On the whole, that means they should have very limited and modest ambitions. They must make it clear in deed, and not simply in the occasional act of verbal throat-clearing, that they are not the church, do not seek to be the church, and must not be regarded by anyone as the church. Whether one is a Baptist or a Presbyterian, the fact is that the brilliant professor who has no call from a congregation or a Presbytery is just a brilliant professor, not a church leader with any formal authority in any church. The talented speaker with his own free-floating ministry is just a talented speaker, not an overseer or an elder. We need to make sure that neither the glamour and energy of parachurch groups, nor a legitimate desire to see Christians working together for the kingdom, obscures the fact that the parachurch cannot supplant the thoroughly sufficient model of church and accountability which Paul set forth in scripture.