The Danger of Para-churchism

Dear Church Family,

This morning I read a very interesting article on Reformation21 by Aaron Denlinger entitled, “Statism and Parachurchism.” The only thing that I know about the author is that I’ve enjoyed his previous meditations on the same blog as he’s summarized and reflected on insights from John Calvin’s writings. I’ve since learned a bit more about his credentials and work found in his short bio.

Anyway, I recommend Denlinger’s recent article in which he draws an analogy between the relationship of the family to the state and the relationship of the church to the parachurch. In my own words, I would summarize the main point of Denlinger’s article this way: Just as the state inevitably seeks to displace the family by taking on those responsibilities which rightfully belong to the family, the para-church inevitably seeks to displace the church by taking on those responsibilities which rightfully belong to the church.

The Family and the Para-family (the danger of statism)

Denlinger’s first point about the relationship between the family and the state (and the danger of statism) is taken directly from J. Gresham Machen’s 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism. Though Machen’s book is about how the liberalism that was being espoused in the church was actually a different religion than that of true biblical Christianity, Machen also comments in that book on a wide variety of topics: the state, society, art, culture, education, etc. Summarizing Machen’s comments on the state as it relates to the family, Denlinger writes, “At several junctures in the work Machen highlights the danger of an ever-increasing statism in his day, particularly as such manifests itself in the state’s encroachment upon the rights and responsibilities of parents in matters and decisions related to their children’s education.”

The state is not an evil institution in this regard. Rather, it is simply becoming paternalistic and over-stepping it’s bounds. “Properly conceived,” Denlinger goes on to say, “the state is a para-family institution. It is not inherently -- that is, by God’s design -- opposed to the family; it rightly exists to come alongside of the family and support the family in those tasks (the nurture of children and others) properly entrusted to the family.”

Thinking of the state as a para-family institution is an interesting concept; it helps to highlight the problems that occur when the state tries to take over those responsibilities that belong to the family, particularly in regard to raising and educating children. Even if the state seeks to do so from altruistic motives in order to fill a void or lack in the family, as Denlinger points out, the “cure” is often worse than the “disease.”

The Church and the Para-church (the danger of para-churchism)

The insight and critique (drawn from Machen’s work) of the state as para-family, yet over-reaching in its attempt to help the family, is interesting in itself. But Denlinger proceeds to use that insight as an analogy to describe the relationship between the church and the para-church (and the danger of para-churchism):

Para-church organizations, like the state in relation to the family, recognize “a void which even apart from them had already appeared.” The “void” in question isn’t difficult to discern. It’s the “void” that will always be found in the Church militant; namely, members (both clergy and laity) who get it wrong in terms of doctrine and piety. The vast majority of para-church organizations exist, according to their own rhetoric at least, to educate the members of Christ’s church and/or cultivate within them more fervent love for God and neighbor. Such, of course, is an admirable purpose. But. Just as the state in its capacity as a para-family institution seems prone to assume more and more functions of the proper family, para-church organizations seem unable to resist the temptation to assume more and more functions of the proper Church.

 

Conclusion

I recommend reading the entirety of Denlinger’s article on “Statism and Parachurchism.” It provides helpful categories in thinking through issues related to the responsibilities of the family and of the government; and it provides helpful categories in thinking through issues related to the responsibilities of the church and the para-church. The article helps to illuminate the dangers of both statism and para-churchism; however, we must also be wary to not place the blame solely on the state or the para-church for taking on responsibilities and functions that do not belong to them.

The state would not tend so much toward a paternalistic statism, if its citizens did not look for it to solve all of their problems. Nor would the para-church tend so much toward a maternalistic para-churchism, if Christians did not so readily look to it to meet all their spiritual needs. Let’s face it, because the family can be messy, many parents find it easier to pass on the responsibility of raising and educating their children to the impersonal and seemingly efficient state. And, because the church can be a messy place, as well, it’s much easier for Christians to look to the impersonal and seemingly efficient para-church as an essential part of their spiritual growth.

So, Denlinger helpfully warns in the closing paragraph of his article:

But if the danger of parachurchism is real, Christian consumers of para-church services must shoulder their share of the blame. Who, after all, wouldn’t prefer at times the impersonal “care” and “ministry” offered by the para-church to the very personal, imperfect, and at times seemingly invasive (albeit God-ordained) care of the local church?

 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch