Each of the terms in the title is problematically broad, yet both are unavoidable. So let's proceed. I'm sure others have done this better than I, but I feel compelled to put in what I've got.
I feel about parachurch organizations the way I do about denominations. The concept makes sense, but the execution usually ends up being problematic. Parachurch organizations, at their best, address specifically targeted needs in ways that span churches and denominations. They might be clearing-houses for defense against cults, or response to scientistic attacks on our faith. They're Bible colleges, seminaries. A kid's at a secular college for some time, and a parachurch organization provides some on-campus fellowship, encouragement, instruction, camaraderie. I completely get that.
But here's the problem. Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25). Not the parachurch. Christ is the Head of the church (Eph. 5:23), not of the parachurch. He gave pastors and teachers for the equipping of saints for the work of service (Eph. 4:11). The church is created for, founded upon, and united in, its allegiance to the person of Christ who exercises His headship through the specific truths of God's Word (Jn. 8:31-32; 17:17, 21, 23; Eph. 4:4-5). The task of enlisting and cultivating students of Christ has been entrusted to it (Matt. 28:18-20). The task of preaching God's Word come what may has been thunderously pressed upon its leadership (2 Tim. 4:1-6). Assuring doctrinal purity, and guarding against (and repelling, and shutting the mouths of) unbelievers is Divinely mandated for that local church leadership (1 Tim. 1:3-11, 18-19; Titus 1:5-16; 2:1, 15; 3:9-11).
Let me rephrase that last thought as a question, and come at it from a different angle. Do you feel the need for instruction, for equipping for service? Do you see how much more there is to learn of Christ, of His person and work, of His will for your life? Are you boggled by the maze of differing and competing views, and longing for guidance and guarding amidst them? Christ already thought of all that, and more. He already made provision for those needs (Eph. 4:7ff.). The provision He made is men who are pastors and teachers, His personal ascension-gifts to His church. You find these men leading local churches, where they watch over and are held accountable by God for the souls of the people in their care (Heb. 13:7, 17). It is their responsibility, as well, to make sure that the teaching within those local church is sound, is in accord with apostolic doctrine (cf. Titus 1:9-11, 13-16; 2:1, 15; 3:9-11).
What's more, these guys aren't just anyone — or they're not supposed to be! They are held to certain publicly-detailed standards, and profess and demonstrate rock-solid allegiance to certain doctrines by which they are to be measured and assessed (1 Tim. 3:1ff.; Titus 1:5ff.).
So where do parachurch personnel come in? Well, that's the problem. Their leaders may or may not be (or be qualified to be) pastors. So that means that they may or may not be held to the specific standards spelled out in the Bible. They may or may not even be accountable to such men as specified by God, in the Bible. I've known more than one person working for Christian organizations who did not even attend a local church.
So what happens in these relations, when Christians get involved in parachurch organizations? That can be the problem. Do the folks in these parachurch organizations, whatever they are, point the folks they serve to local churches? Do they make sure that they make God's stated priority their priority, that participants not (for instance) be heavily involved in the parachurch organization, while remaining only occasional and uninvolved visitors at their church? Do they, for instance, follow the example of the radio Bible teacher I heard years back who regularly cautioned supporters not to regard their financial support of his ministry as equivalent to local-church support?
I imagine pastors will weigh in here, and welcome it. I recall an earlier ministry, years ago, where someone was all about a parachurch organization, but "iffy" on her church. She had — and I have seen this often — a sort of presbyopia that made distant things clear and vivid, but things at hand fuzzy and hard to make out. She was all about this parachurch organization, but took her church, and her role in it, for granted. You see this when folks enthuse about this or that ministry, but never speak of their own church.
It's easy to see how this happens: The organization focuses on something Christian A thinks is important. So Christian A focuses on that organization. So now — at worst — there's one more person not diligently pouring his/her time and gifts and resources and energies into the building up of a particular local church (Eph. 4:15-16).
Let's suppose all this parachurchical energy is going into a genuinely important function. Could the church (God's express institution) do it? Usually, the problem is lack of qualified and willing personnel. I daresay most pastors would eagerly welcome stable, maturing folks in their membership, already clearly committed to the church's ministry, who'd say "Here's an area of ministry where I'd like to serve and help us extend the breadth and depth of our outreach." Then they could do thus under elder oversight, guidance, instruction and protection (Heb. 13:7, 17). Instead, folks may find a parachurch organization, latch on... and the church sees that much less of them. Though perhaps it hears much of their ministry.
Back to where I started: there are parachurch organizations that serve the local church. They embrace and support its role in God's plan. Their personnel are committed church-members, and they point those who come to them to local church involvement. They treasure Christ's church. They don't try to arrogate the role of Christ's church to themselves or supplant it.
Can anyone see a parachurch organization in the NT? If not, I still wouldn't conclude that there's no place for them, any more than I would for organs or guitars or pews. However, these would seem to be the least we need to insist:
- The local church, led by qualified men, is God's specifically designated organization.
- As such, the lion's share of our time, talents and treasures should be invested in our local church.
- "Leftovers" should go to parachurch ministries, not to local church ministries.
- Any other organization should tread lightly and humbly, explicitly giving pride of place and emphasis to the local church.