EDITORIAL NOTE (12/14/2017): Since I wrote this post three years ago it has stirred some controversy. I intend to write a more thorough response soon, but I have left the original post unedited for integrity’s sake. I will post a link here to my further thoughts and reflections when I am able to collect them.
Jen Michel wrote a piece last week lamenting the lack of up-front female representation over at the Gospel Coalition’s national conference. More recently, Hannah Anderson thoughtfully put her finger on the very thing I felt was lacking in Michel’s original post, namely, articulating the bog we get ourselves into when we try to figure out how church-rules apply in parachurch contexts.
My point here is not to get tangled up in the merry-go-round of the borders of complementarianism. That post will be sitting in my drafts for at least the next 5 years, if I know what’s good for me. I am still working through the “how far does this thing go” question.
But this is part of a bigger question that keeps coming up. Simply, conferences blur lines. How are we supposed to behave when we are doing ekklesia-ish things outside the ekklesia proper? Does 1 Corinthians 14 still apply to corporate worship at TGC? Would Paul write, “Nevertheless, in conference, I would rather speak five words with my mind…” (see 1 Cor 14:8)? Must the corporate worship of a parachurch assembly abide by apostolic instructions for church worship?
So far, I’ve just made it messier. But it’s irresponsible leadership to make messes without at least trying to leave things better than we found them. Here’s my attempt:
The word “church” (ekklesia) has at least two dimensions to it. It has both a functional component, “assembling”, and an ontological aspect, “new covenant people.” Therefore, Anderson does well to remind us that The Gospel Coalition and WaterCross Community Church have very different ontological statuses. The latter is a church, with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining, which in this case includes clear apostolic directives. The former is a parachurch organization. That means it exists to support and nurture local church activity. Up to this point, we are primarily dealing with the ontological categories, and thus far there is no reason why TGC should let Paul’s directives for the church’s worship dictate its gatherings.
But now we consider that “assembly” also has a functional dimension. Assembly happens in some way every time Christians, well, assemble. That does not make any gathering of saints a church! But does that mean that non-church assemblies abandon every principle laid out by the apostles for the church? Probably not. Imagine that at our next Christian conference we decide to abandon “decently and in order”.
Actually, I attended that conference once.
It’s like this. When two kids “play house” they are not ontologically a family. It’s make-believe. But in order for the drama to work, they must borrow capital from domestic norms to give their reenactment credibility. Otherwise, how would there be any sense of referent to the function? Likewise, when The Gospel Coalition “plays church” it seems inevitable that it must borrow principles from the thing it imitates.
As long as parachurch agencies exist to breathe life into and resource local church ministry, it seems inevitable that some amount of mimicking will exist. Just like we would hope that those kids playing house reinforce healthy domestic structures in their play-acting, so also the role-playing of church worship in the conference arena ought to reflect church values.
To wrap up, I agree that we must not confuse (ontologically) the conference with a local church. And yet, as long as parachurch conferences mimic (and I think they must) the corporate worship gatherings of the church, we ought to expect to see a great deal of functional similarity in how those gatherings look. Otherwise, we un-dam the rapids of confusion Paul so labored to correct in the assemblies of Corinth, Ephesus, and beyond.
We know all too well that what happens at conference rarely stays at conference. Sadly, many church leaders remember the peaks of worship experience in the arena and seek to create weekly mini-conferences in churches across the country. As long as we are going to play church, let’s not be surprised when it looks like church.