The Church’s Primacy

Recently, I was reminded of the undeniable and incomparable importance of the local church amidst all the other human institutions and organizations, including those that would call themselves Christian. I was also reminded how subtly, imperceptibly, and even insidiously the drift away from a Scripture-embracing, Christ-honoring, church-supporting mindset and philosophy can take place within an otherwise solidly biblical ministry. Unfortunately, far too many well-meaning men and ministries have come to believe that their philosophy of ministry is ultimately determined by their written documents rather than embodied in their ongoing practice. As a result, many support and parachurch ministries that started well are no longer practically doing what they originally set out to do. Factor into this equation the additional dynamics associated with cross-cultural ministry in fields like missions and publishing, and you are met with a myriad of other pitfalls and landmines that can easily steer well-meaning ministries off course. The most tragic part in all this is that many would argue, vehemently so, that these organizations are as faithful and trustworthy as they have ever been, even though a closer examination of their practice would reveal substantive seismic shifts in their fundamental view of and practical relationship to the local church.

My goal here is certainly not to address everything that could be said on this subject. There are far too many layers to peel and trails to follow for me to truly do justice to the entirety of this issue. Understanding that from the outset, then, I simply want to sound a simple and heartfelt call for ministry leaders who have ears to hear and hearts that resonate with such a challenge. It seems to me that now is the time for ministries—church and parachurch alike—to engage in some serious self-evaluation. You see, ministries that do not regularly revisit and reconsider their biblical and philosophical foundations and then compare them to the actual ongoing practice and product of their work are sure to drift from their moorings over time.

The Church Is Primary in God’s Economy

Ultimately, there are only three institutions ordained and ordered by God Himself: the family[1], the government[2], and the church[3]. I do not raise this point to intimate or insinuate that other organizations besides these are in any way illegitimate. Rather, I raise the point to demonstrate that these three institutions should fundamentally hold a higher place in our thinking than other organizations of our own making. While each of these original institutions is important to God and His plan in the world, the Scriptures teach that the church holds a special place in God’s heart and plan.

Christ Jesus Himself promised to build the church in such a special way that not even hell can defeat it.[4] Nowhere in Scripture did He ever make such a promise about any other institution or organization. What’s more, the Apostle Paul once declared that God Himself purchased the church at the immeasurably high price of “His own blood.”[5] That price God paid for the church became the basis for Paul to argue in that text that those who lead the church must “pay careful attention to [themselves] and to all the flock” and to “care for the church of God.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reiterated this high view of the church when He wrote this familiar, yet stunning benediction: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.[6] According to Paul, God’s glory is going to shine most brilliantly throughout all the ages to come “in the church.” John later echoes this reality when he tells us that even at the end of time, the praises that will be sung to the Lamb of God will be for the work He accomplished in the church. Just listen in on his description of the praises that will make heaven ring: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.[7] These passages and many others like them plainly teach us that the church is primary in God’s economy.

Now, most of the men I know in ministry would heartily agree with all of this at least in principle, but that’s the issue, isn’t it? The question is not whether a parachurch ministry—a Christian school, college, seminary, camp, publisher, missions agency, or the like—agrees in principle with this foundational truth; the question is whether or not they truly submit to this fundamental principle in practice. That—the divide between stated principle and ongoing practice—is always where the rub comes, and that fact should lead us to regularly engage in humble and prayerful self-examination.

Is the Church Truly Primary to Us?

In light of what we have just considered, I would assert that any move made within or by a parachurch ministry that practically hurts, harms, or hamstrings the corporate or Commission life of a local church is an ill-advised move. To be fair, I know of no parachurch ministries that would intentionally make moves in order to hurt the local church. That is why we must understand and acknowledge the fact that every decision we make—personally or organizationally—has consequences, and many of those consequences are unintended and unforeseen.

I am certainly not writing this because I believe that the powers that be within Christian support ministries have malevolent intent toward the local churches of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, I believe that most of them honestly mean well, but missional drift tends to produce a gaping blind spot in the area. As the proverbial wisdom goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and good intentions do not guarantee best practices. This means that ministries—church and parachurch alike—must regularly and honestly revisit their practice and product to see if they are still doing what they set out to do at first.

We must ask ourselves probing questions and be willing to answer them, with painful honesty. Questions like… Why does this ministry (school, camp, agency, etc.) exist? What is our ultimate purpose and mission? What is our relationship to the church (not just the church at large, but its local congregations)? Does our ongoing practice still align with our stated purpose? Do the pastors of our constituent churches still trust us to do what we have said we will do? Asking questions like these and involving those outside the ministry itself in answering them can serve to safeguard a ministry from the very real and present danger of pragmatic philosophical and missional drift. We must be willing to peel back the layers of our ministries until we get to the core of what we truly believe about and how we actually relate to the local church. Well-written doctrinal statements and governing documents only go so far in preserving and maintaining practical faithfulness to our Lord and His purposes in the world.

Sadly, though, far too many so-called “support ministries” are unwilling to question themselves or to be questioned and challenged about their mission and relationship to the local church, even by those who love, support, and want God’s best for them. As a result, they become insular and self-protective. Rather than opening themselves up to honest observation, loving assessment, and constructive critique, they tend toward hyper-defensiveness. They circle the wagons. They close themselves off from anyone outside the organization, and in so doing they become little more than an echo-chamber for their own ideas. In the end, they tend to do far more explaining and justifying than listening to and benefitting from the counsel of those they say they exist to serve. As you can certainly deduce, this kind of response to the pleading of the church is an almost-certain recipe for immediate drift and ultimate disaster. History is littered with the wreckage of defunct organizations that once said they existed to serve the church. They are no more, but by God’s grace the church still stands, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”!

At the end of the day, we must be ready, willing, and eager to confess that every other Christian ministry is secondary and therefore exists to serve the local church. We should not need to take a deep breath and swallow hard before boldly confessing the primacy of the church. Christ Jesus gave Himself up for her. He is redeeming her[8], He is building her[9], He is cleansing her, and He will present her to Himself one day in glorious splendor “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.”[10] God bought her with His own blood[11], and He will be glorified “in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.[12] The truth of the matter is that every other organization will ultimately become a footnote in Christian history, but the church will go on as the centerpiece of God’s plan for the ages. Rather than resisting and resenting that plan, we must humble ourselves before His wisdom, align ourselves with His sovereign purposes, rejoice in His glorious grace and mercy that would choose to use any of us in His ministry, and press on in whatever role we have been given by Him for the glory of His name and the good of His church. May Christ continue to build His church using whatever means He deems best, and may we each give ourselves whole-heartedly to that plan practically and not just in principle!

[1] Genesis 2:24

[2] Genesis 9:6

[3] Matthew 16:18

[4] Matthew 16:18b

[5] Acts 20:28

[6] Ephesians 3:20-21

[7] Revelation 5:10

[8] Revelation 5:10

[9] Matthew 16:18

[10] Ephesians 5:25-27

[11] Acts 20:28

[12] Ephesians 3:21