Recently I received a phone call from a missionary to Africa. I had never heard of that missionary or his mission board. The missionary seemed sincere and asked if he could present his ministry to my congregation. Rather than saying yes or no, I asked him to send me more information. I read the materials and decided that although the missionary was sincere and obviously called of God, it would be best not to have him present his ministry to our church. His mission agency’s doctrinal stand conflicted with our church’s doctrine. This experience challenged me to set some standards concerning our church’s involvement with different ministries and organizations.
Which missionaries should I invite to my church? Which colleges should our church promote? Should our church send our men to Promise Keepers? Should our church get involved in a Billy Graham crusade? Pastors and church leaders need a clear set of standards that will help them make these decisions.
A Respect for Autonomy
One of the strengths of our General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) is its commitment to local church autonomy. While the doctrine of approximately 1,400 churches is virtually identical, different churches make different choices when it comes to working with organizations and ministries. We don’t impose our preferences on anyone else. In fact, we appreciate individuals and their right to differ on issues such as involvement in different ministries. Issues concerning separation must not foster a “holier than thou” spirit among our pastors and churches.
Criteria for Working Together
Christian colleges, mission agencies, and other Christian ministries outside the local church are called parachurch organizations. The prefix “para” means “alongside.” So a parachurch organization is an organization that works alongside the local church. Parachurch organizations usually share some of the same goals as the local church and often help the local church carry out different facets of its ministry. For example, mission agencies help local churches get their missionaries to the field.
Stance on the Local Church
One standard in determining whether or not my church can work with a parachurch organization is the organization’s attitude toward the local church. A good parachurch organization views itself as an arm of the local church. It sees itself as coming alongside the church to assist the local church in its ministry. Some parachurch organizations see the local church as a failure and believe that their organizations can take the church’s place when it comes to evangelism, discipleship, and other ministries. For example, some campus ministries discourage their converts from getting involved in a local church, especially a conservative church that holds to firm doctrine and practice. Other parachurch organizations seem to compete with the local church.
When determining my church’s involvement with a parachurch organization, it helps to know what the organization does to establish and strengthen local churches. Sure it’s great to give humanitarian aid to Africans, but humanitarian aid alone does not meet the real needs of Africans. I want my church to invest in missionaries who are ministering the Word of God and seeking to plant churches.
Another standard for determining cooperation with parachurch organizations is the doctrinal stand and position of the organization. A written doctrinal statement tells us only so much. What is excluded from the doctrinal statement often tells us more about an organization than what is included. Is the organization a mixture of believers and unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14–18)? Is the organization’s ministry consistent with our understanding of God’s Word (1 Timothy 6:3–5)? Do the speakers for a Christian college’s chapel services hold to true doctrine? Do the professors at a seminary have the theological position of our own local church?
Sometimes I research the composition of college and agency boards. Do the board members attend churches like mine? It’s important that the ministries we support are consistent with our church’s convictions and values. They should be of “like faith and practice.”
In June 1994 a Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusade was held in Cleveland, Ohio. Our church was invited to participate. To get the proper information, I attended the Crusade Announcement Meeting for area pastors. The first person to speak to the pastors was the archbishop of our local Roman Catholic diocese. The archbishop announced that he hoped that through the Billy Graham meetings, many would be brought into the church’s sacramental system. I cringed at those words! How could my church be part of something that brings people into a sacramental system that teaches salvation by works?
Crusade leaders told us pastors that the Billy Graham meetings would bring together the diversity of our denominations. Hundreds of area churches from every denominational stripe imaginable participated in the Billy Graham crusade. Charismatics, liberal pastors, and evangelicals joined hands in the crusade. Believers and unbelievers were yoked together in this evangelistic effort.
New converts who came forward at the meetings were counseled by people from different denominations and sent back to the church that brought them, whether that church was Baptist, charismatic, liberal Protestant, or Catholic. Many crusade counselors came from churches that do not teach salvation by faith alone. My church could not get involved in this doctrinal compromise.
Testimony and Ethics
Another standard I use in determining who our church can work with is the testimony and ethics of the parachurch organization. “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Some parachurch organizations have been guilty of poor financial practices. Others have histories filled with leaders who had low ethical and moral standards. Some parachurch organizations have a low quality of ministry. I want our church to invest its resources in quality ministries.
I try to avoid colleges, agencies, and other ministries that display a critical spirit. Some of these organizations dwell on the negative. Their staff and literature criticize competing organizations. Some have the attitude that they are the only organization doing ministry the right way. A proud spirit like that kills the effectiveness of their ministry.
Narrowing the List
When I’m presented with an opportunity to work with a particular parachurch organization, I have to consider the amount of time and resources that my church and I have to give. At times I’m inundated with requests for meetings or financial support from unfamiliar mission agencies and ministries. I have only so much time to spend researching these different organizations.
Over time I’ve developed a list of organizations that hold to our church’s doctrinal position and that conduct quality ministry. To make choices concerning our church’s involvement with different ministries, I usually just refer to my list.
The Love Principle
It’s one thing to make a decision concerning involvement in different organizations and ministries; it’s another thing to carry out that decision without dividing the church. Some churches have been destroyed by decisions concerning ministries such as Billy Graham crusades and Promise Keepers. I begin by teaching my congregation about ecclesiastical separation. The average person in our pews knows little about this subject. I do not dwell on the issue of separation or emphasize it above other truths. But our people need to understand why our church needs to make careful choices concerning participation with different ministries. Some think that when the pastor preaches on separation, he has turned negative. I base my preaching regarding separation on the holiness of God, and I present ecclesiastical separation as a positive trait.
Separation from certain ministries should never be a reason for pride. Some Christian leaders have the attitude of ‘‘I’m really spiritual because I don’t work with so and so.” Separation should humble us as we try to keep our churches free of theological compromise.
I involve our church’s leadership on decisions concerning our participation in different ministries. When our church had to deal with the issue of Promise Keepers, I put information into the hands of our deacons. We had a thorough discussion on whether or not our church should get involved with Promise Keepers. My men had great insights on the issue. When I announced to the church our decision about Promise Keepers, our church leaders were united and understood the reason for our decision.
The pressure to join some ministries is so great and public that the pastor needs to deal with the matter publicly. The heart of my ministry is expository preaching, but occasionally I interrupt that expositional preaching to deal with hot issues such as abortion, homosexual marriage, the death penalty, and family values. Such was the case with the 1994 Cleveland Billy Graham crusade. People were asking, “Will our church send counselors to the crusade!” “Will our church provide a bus to the meetings?”
I answered those questions in a Sunday morning message. I was careful to speak the truth in love. I focused on Scriptural principles, not personalities. I explained that Billy Graham appears to have high ethical and moral integrity. Our church’s problem was not with the man but with his ministry. I shared Scriptural passages about ecclesiastical separation and showed the congregation that participation in the crusade would compromise our Biblical convictions.
The week after that message, I visited a couple from a liberal Methodist church. The couple had been attending our church for several weeks. The husband said that when I announced that I would be preaching on “Ecclesiastical Separation and the Billy Graham Crusade,” he said to his wife, “Here go these Baptists attacking Billy Graham again!” But during our conversation he said, “You surprised me. You didn’t put down Billy Graham. You shared the Scriptures and showed us why it’s a mistake to be part of such a crusade.” The couple then made a surprising announcement: the week after my Billy Graham message, they walked to the front of the church at the end of a service and indicated they had decided to join our church. It’s important to take our stand but to take that stand graciously.
Today it takes courage and wisdom for church leaders to lead their congregations through the quagmire of religious organizations and ministries vying for their support. Decisions concerning participation in different ministries are often difficult. Such decisions are sometimes misunderstood and unpopular. However, parents who love their children sometimes tell them that they cannot go certain places and do certain things. A church leader with this kind of parental love for his congregation will sometimes lead his church to separate from certain ministries. He can take a stand for truth and do it in love.
Brad Quick was pastor of First Baptist Church, Elyria, Ohio. This article was originally printed in the Baptist Bulletin (October 2004).