Statism and Parachurchism

Several weeks ago I re-read J. Gresham Machen's pivotal, early twentieth-century work Christianity and Liberalism in preparation for giving the final lectures of a seminary course on modern church history. Having originally read the work more than a decade ago, I had forgotten how much political commentary lies scattered throughout the book -- commentary which, it seems to me, remains just as relevant as Machen's stinging critique of Protestant Liberalism for our time. 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.

"Personality," Machen writes early in his work, "can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted. The tendency is making itself felt especially in the sphere of education. The object of education, it is now assumed, is the production of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is assumed further, can be defined only by the will of the majority. Idiosyncrasies in education, therefore, it is said, must be avoided, and the choice of schools must be taken away from the individual parent and placed in the hands of the state."

However alarmist Machen's words on this score might have sounded in 1923, they seem prophetic now, as both traditional approaches to education (think classical) and more and more fundamental truths about human beings and the world we inhabit -- truths preserved in Christian doctrine -- assume the character of "idiosyncrasies" in western cultural perspective. Machen returns to this point later in the work in an aside about the "family" as "the most important of ... institutions" which "are not specifically Christian" (as opposed to, say, the Church). "The family," he observes, "is being pushed more and more into the background. It is being pushed into the background by undue encroachments of the community and of the state. Modern life is tending more and more towards the contraction of the sphere of parental control and parental influence. The choice of schools is being placed under the power of the state; the 'community' is seizing hold of recreation and of social activities. It may be a question how far these community activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the home; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain -- the lives of children are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the Christian home, but by the utilitarianism of the state."

Machen, needless to say, is no anarchist. His whole argument, it seems to me, trades on a very positive view of the state as a common grace institution which -- "when reduced to its proper limits" -- serves and supports both family and Church as institutions distinct from itself. Properly conceived 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. Machen even goes so far as to highlight a praiseworthy motive on the state's part when it begins to overstep its boundaries. The state sees "a void which even apart from [it] had already appeared." It sees, for instance, children suffering from parental indifference towards their well-being. But it offers a cure that is arguably worse than the disease. It seeks to fill the observed "void" by assuming functions of the family, thereby ultimately producing far more indifferent parents -- parents, that is, who take no active interest in nurturing their children's minds because they increasingly assume such intellectual nurture is entirely the state's responsibility.

Whatever one makes of Machen's worry about statism as reflected in western educational trends, it seems to me that the problem he describes provides a rather apt analogy for para-church organizations and the problematic posture they are susceptible to assume in the relationship they sustain to the Church. 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.

Even the briefest perusal of recent activities by the most prevalent evangelical and Reformed(ish) para-church organizations of our day seems to support this claim. No longer content with a straightforward task of providing resources (books, media, conferences) which (arguably) improve theological literacy and piety, we see, for instance, para-church organizations attempting to define the Church's doctrine, or even write her liturgy, by drafting (and, of course, heavily marketing) theological statements in creedal form. Or again, we see para-church organizations exonerating individuals, placing them on the conference-stage and touting them as "trusted," who have been disciplined and/or defrocked by entirely legitimate congregations/denominations, a task (restoration) that rather obviously belongs to the courts of those congregations/denominations.

Of course, one could, with a view towards Machen's point regarding statism and schools, take this critique even further and ask if para-church organizations aren't actually aggravating the fundamental problems they seek to redress -- problems of theological illiteracy and lukewarm love -- by their most basic efforts to raise theological awareness and bolster piety. After all, it is the Church's task to catechize her people and cultivate, through discipline (properly defined), their piety. Employing the logic of Machen's observation, it seems likely that the Church will only grow more lax, indifferent, and inept in fulfilling those tasks properly entrusted to Her by Her Lord the more that para-church organizations assume those tasks, regardless of their initial motive in doing so. Is it possible that para-church organizations are a significant cause of the very disease they purport to cure?

At the risk of sounding rather dooms-day-ish, then, I think we need to wake up to the danger of parachurchism (vis-à-vis the Church) in our day, a reality corresponding to that problem of statism (vis-à-vis the family) which has, of course, only increased since Machen's day. Notice how well Machen's words critiquing the state's assumption of tasks properly entrusted to the family can be employed to summarize the trend of para-church organizations assuming tasks properly entrusted to the Church: "It may be a question how far these [para-church organizations and their] activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the [Church]; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain -- the lives of [believers] are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the [Church], but by the utilitarianism [read 'impersonal and unregulated "ministry"'] of the [para-church institution]."

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?

[Editorial Note: We have edited our posting above to include a section of the original post that we had removed. It is our sincere desire that this will help serve the force of the argumentation of the post as a whole.]