Thursday, February 17, 2005

College Fellowship Groups and the Church

For many who are close to my age, a significant aspect of their Christian discipleship comes from groups such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship or Campus Crusade for Christ. The obvious good that these and similar organizations offer, the encouragement and fellowship of Christians gathered for singing, Bible study and prayer are irreproachable. Much good has been done for Christ's church because of these groups.
However, some of the attitudes of IV participants (I will focus on IV, since I am most familiar with it, and it seems to be the most prominent fellowship group) towards the church leaves much to be desired- particularly their practical low evaluation of the central ministry of the church. The reason the church must have priority over any other parachruch organization is the simple fact that it is the church. Christ has commissioned the church and its officers to authoritatively proclaim the Word and make disciples. The church has been granted the solemn privilidge under Christ to discipline those who are unfaithful in doctrine or in life. The church has been privalidged with the task or proclaiming the gospel to the nations. It is the church, and only the church that can carry on these and similar tasks with direct Divine commission. This does not mean that other organizations cannot participate in a secondary role; but it does mean that any parachruch organizations must make explicit and unmistakable clear the centrality of the church.
There are also practical reasons why the church as an organizations has more to offer. First, generally a church will have a broader age-range- allowing one to see a perspective bigger than that of a mass of late adolescents. What a wonderful demonstration of the grace of God as the youngest and the oldest gather for worship and fellowship. Second, with age comes wisdom. The church offers not just age diversity, but also of life-experience and the insight which that offers. The younger one is (and I say this as one who is young) the less practical experience one has had or the more myopic one's concerns tend to be. Third, a good church will be pastored and ruled by well-qualified, knowledgeable men- those with greater qualifications and education that typically possessed by the IV staff worker. The Presbyterian tradition is particularly helpful, not only in the rule by a gifted pastor, but also a plurality of gifted elders- not just locally, but regionally and nationally. Fourth, one of the marks of a good church is the discipline it is authorized to exercise when faced with false or dangerous teaching. With the plethora of false doctrines floating around today, from dispensationalism to openness theology- the ability to mark and excise false teachers is vital. Opennism in particular has found inroads into some chapters of IV, and dispensationalism is all to rampant in the American evangelical stream.
What practically should be done in IV and other groups to demonstrate that is the servant of the church and not a usurper. First, not only in institutional statements, but also constantly in practice, the preeminence of the church must be maintained. The necessity of corporate, formal worship must be stressed- and even required. No college fellowship group must ever allow itself to become a replacement for the church. Further, more than an external compliance must be necessary. No one should be given laxity to say "I go to church on Sunday, but IV is my real Christian fellowship. Second, IV must seek to practically offer support to the church. Never should any IV activity interfere with a church's corporate worship services- either morning or evening. Participants should be encouraged to become active and involved within the church- and not simply Sunday attendees, but active members.


Justin Dombrowski said...

You seem to equate Jesus' "church" with the modern day local congregation. Do you think Jesus had in mind this distinction? Isn't it a bit anachronistic?

I basically agree with your arguments, but I wonder if, biblically speaking, it would be better to *frame* them not as "church vs. parachurch" but as "all aspects of *C*hurch should have the appropriate oversight and constituency" (or something like that). Really my quibble and reframing of your argument is only a way to correct the anachronism though; like I said, I really agree with you beyond that.

Keith said...


I guess I don't see that big of an anachronism here. I do not think that Jesus had in mind a group like IV when He commissioned His apostles to found His church. I think that my terminology is sound. IV is not by any stretch of the imagination the church. While it might be a gathering of believers, I think the Biblical picture of a church is more simple "gathering," but also involves many of the "elements" of worship we emphasize today along with a recognizable authority structure. While recognizing there is validity of speaking of the church and the kingdom in ways broader than the institution of the visible church; I do not think it improper to call our institution the church- and recognize a basic equivalence between "Jesus' church" and our institutions. The Catholic church expresses itself visibly in the corporate worship of the body of Christ. Further, most church groups recognize there are certain "marks" for distinguishing the church. The Belgic confession identifies three, preaching of pure doctrine, proper administration of the sacraments, and faithful exercise of church discipline. Since IV and other parachurch organization both by their purpose and their function do not meet these three criteria; do not think they should be called the church. Of course, this does not mean they are worthless or evil, just not the church.

Justin Dombrowski said...

I think you kind of made my point: yes, Jesus didn't have a group like IV in mind, hence he didn't have a distinction between local congregation and para-local congregation in mind, and in fact exactly what kind of ecclesiastical structure he had in mind is debatable. Hence why I question your way of putting the question: "the reason the church must have priority over the parachurch is because it's the church. Jesus commissioned..."

Also, I wonder whether you have an overdeveloped view of what the biblical church actually looked like. And I think I object to reading the Belgic Confession back onto the scriptural picture. I don't think things were cut and dry so quickly.

Again, not objecting to your rationale per se, just your way of expressing it. I agree that parachurch should be subordinated to a larger ecclesiastical body in some way, and I also agree that they often lack what the "regular" church provides.

Keith said...

Maybe I should clarify things a little bit more. When I say Jesus church I don't mean necessarily Jesus use of the term EKKLHSIA. I meant to refer to the church of which Jesus is the head. The only institution which I can see Biblical warrant for is the church, anything else is nice, but unnecessary. My biggest concern is that too many parachurch bodies are usurping the ministries granted to the church. In this sense IV is minor compared to many parachurch missions agencies.

I used to question the Belgic Confessions marks, but from the opposite perspective. However, the more I think about it, I cannot think of a more complete summary of the New Testament teaching on the church. The priority of preaching and doctrine are unmistakable from the NT. The importance of the sacraments is hard to ignore from I Corinthians 11. I and II Corinthians and Titus also place an emphasis on the importance of the church maintaining its purity. Any other mark I tried to think of was in some form subsumed under these. So I do not think the Belgic's definition is too far off.

Justin Dombrowski said...

I guess I would want to differentiate between "Jesus' definition" (i.e. the definition Jesus expressed in, say, the Gospels) and a "New Testament definition" (presumably, a definition constructed on the basis of [a] what the NT writers said about the church, and [b] what the church became in that era). I don't think they're identical. I would also probably want to differentiate those from "God's definition" which I presume would be much better defined than either Jesus' few recorded words or the rest of the NT, though certainly in harmony with both. You see what I'm getting at? Historically speaking, the ecclesiology of the church changed in time from pre-Christ to the end of the apostolic age and beyond.

I am picking on you of course, but not only picking on you :)

Again, all I'm saying is that I think making a parachurch v. church distinction is probably unbiblical in the sense that it's building on categories the Bible doesn't have. That's not to say that some parachurch ministries aren't unbiblical, but that parachurch v. church isn't exactly the reason. Parachurch v. church is surely an expression or symptom of the reason, but not the reason itself. They're unbiblical because they do not aspire to be "churchly," but narrow, isolated, and unsupervised (for the sake of brevity here).

Keith said...

I admit that the distinction between church and parachurch does not exist in the NT, but is a more recent issue. However, I think the implications from the NT support my contention. Maybe I still have too much systematician in my blood, but I think that one can draw out with relative certainty a NT doctrine of the church, without having fragmented points from Jesus, Paul, Peter and whoever wrote Hebrews.

However, maybe the bigger question is, since such a situation was clearly not envisioned in the NT, should they exist today? Their existance is maybe a sign in part of the church's weakness of ministry to college students for a variety of reason (there are still too many fundamentalists who condemn some aspects of academic study-therefore the university is an useless area of ministry). At the same time, the immaturity to many of the participants and their inability to sustain intense Bible study and thoughtful worship- oh wait, this is the fault of the church too. Maybe the better question is what does the church need to do better so that IV and other groups are irrelevant?

ruth said...

the church is not a building or an organization; it is the people, the body of christ

Keith said...

It is unwise to set the church as an institution in opposition to the church as a community. Both are true. The church is undoubtedly a body, but it is also an institution with a mission, authority structure, and basic operational standards. IV may be a sign of the fellowship of the body of Christ, but it is false to call it a church unless it also meets the marks of the church as an institution. It does not, nor was it meant to.