Sunday, March 14, 2010

Your Church Is Too Small (Book Review)

This review is part of a blog tour.  Click here for a complete list of reviewers.

Upon discovering that John Armstrong was releasing a new book through Zondervan, my curiosity was piqued.  I had heard this brother at a weekend conference here in Iowa and was thoroughly intrigued by the man and his mission.  Immediately, I subscribed to Reformation and Revival and followed the ministry until becoming disturbed by changes—some subtle, some not—in doctrine and direction.  I make this known so the reader will understand there is neither ill will nor fawning praise but straight-forward honesty.
Armstrong's two-pronged thesis is stated in the introduction. (14)
a. I will show how your biblical faith is rooted in the living Christian tradition, a tradition found in all the classical historical expressions of the one faith.  This one faith is developing in ways we would have never thought possible while we were still indulging in the cultural luxury of seeing other Christians as our enemies.
b. I will argue that these unfolding developments may ultimately prevail in leading us to reject the conflicts and schisms that drove us apart and that these developments could result in a new commitment to the mission of Christ that will transform the church, especially in America.
In order to accomplish this, he divides the book into three sections pertaining to the past, present, and future eras of the church. These will be handled in order.

Past – Biblical and historical basis for Christian unity
This section begins by demonstrating the need for unity today.  The topic seems out of place in a section to be devoted to history, but it serves as a springboard to discuss the church's propensity for disunity from its beginnings and the final schism between East and West in 1054.  In this Armstrong overreaches by stating that doctrinal differences were tolerated and appealing to apostolic conduct:
During the apostolic era, Peter and Paul openly quarreled about the extent to which precepts of the Jewish law should apply to Gentile converts. (35)
It is true that the early church had a deep commitment to preserve unity, but this sentence appears to be a misstatement of fact.  Some explanation is needed.

Armstrong rightly addresses Jesus' prayer in John 17 in one chapter to convey the desire that the church might be united and that through the necessity of love as an identifying mark.  Other passages were given to bolster these key concepts.  He goes on to explain improper attempts at unity and explains that a spiritual unity demonstrated by loving relations with Christ as the center is the Lord's intention to his disciples.  With that foundation our attention is turned to an explanation of the church's four marks (one holy catholic and apostolic) as found in the Nicene Creed.  It is from here that he moves directly to the present.

I agree with much of what Armstrong says here, but it needs to be bolstered.  The patristic era is only touched with reference to the Apostle's Creed as his personal starting point in the journey.  A more robust explanation of that era would have been in order.  For example, Cyprian is noted by others for his appeal to unity but is relegated here to quotes at chapter beginnings.  As well, the ecumenical councils were key ingredients to its preservation.

Present – Restoring unity in the church
Armstrong's asks an optimistic first question.  It is not “Can we restore unity?” but “How can we restore unity?”  His solution is an appeal to the Apostle's Creed—ancient, simple, and compact—as a symbol of core theology.  In order to attain to a catholic understanding of the church, find a catholic statement of faith on which to ground the unity, shying away from “no creed but Christ” and cultish proof-texting.¹

The modern church's prevalent sectarianism is rightly pointed out by the author as a major inhibitor to godly unity.  I agree wholeheartedly as one guilty of the same and as a member of a local church likewise engaged.  So how does the church get past this?

The author notes that there are new appeals at ecumenism, such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together and Christian Churches Together.  Yet movement-based churches remain popular.  A point is made that we need to see the entirety of the church, both in the world and in history, and act with the whole picture in view.  Taken together, the church is God's servant kingdom in this world.

Lastly, there is the question of traditions.  The apostle Paul speaks of correct traditions in 2 Thessalonians 2:15—handing down entrusted things from one generation to the next.  There is a need to re-introduce ourselves to the Church Fathers to get at the roots of where we are as individuals and churches today.  Bridge the gap, and learn from history.

Future – Missional-Ecumenical Movement
In the final section we are asked to look forward to what can be done to promote catholicity.  Armstrong defines the ideal church as the company of all those that call on the name of the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts2:21).  This is the to be the starting point of our understanding. From there he looks at who is a real Christian.  Here are brought forth the attributes of anointing (1 John 2:20, 27) and having the Spirit (Romans 8:9).  The idea is that I as a Protestant must put away the thought that a Roman Catholic is not somehow a Christian, and he of me, because we do not have any business judging another who calls on the name of the Lord differently.

The future for the church is called “missional-ecumenism” with John Mott and Leslie Newbigin as instrumental thinkers in the process of missional thinking and functioning.  He also states seven converging elements purportedly attributable to the ancient church being used today that help point to the future:
  1. Greater commitment to the Sacraments
  2. Increasing appetite to know more about the early church
  3. Open expression of love for the whole church and its unity
  4. Blending of worship, devotion, and prayer practices from the three Christian streams (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox)
  5. Integrating more liturgical depth and structure with spontaneity and freedom in the Holy Spirit
  6. Greater involvement of sign and symbol in worship
  7. Continuing commitment to personal salvation, solid biblical teaching, and work and ministry of the Holy Spirit
This is overreaching, mixing a call to find useful elements of the early church without regard for their appropriateness either then or now and assuming these are all acceptable because the three major traditions use them in some aspect.  He then gives examples of the paradigm being used today: incarnational evangelism (treat those not in the church are sojourners, not unbelievers), protestants evangelizing with Roman Catholics, Alpha course, Taizé, etc.   All are viewed as adding value to the church's future.  And finally, he seeks for God to get us moving.

My Final Thoughts
I want to praise the author for his writing style.  The autobiographical material coupled with second person grammar allows the reader to enter into the experiences leading to this book.  Also, I commend the use of words in bold font which are defined in a glossary.  This is welcome and should be used more in materials meant for popular audiences.  Knowing how an author uses technical terms helps the reader follow the flow.  My preference is that these words would have been defined at the bottom of the page where referenced.  Feel free to keep the end glossary, but do not make the reader stop in the middle of a sentence or paragraph to flip back for a definition.

There is no question that the modern church needs to revisit the Church Fathers.  In a striking number of ways, Western Civilization is replicating the Roman Empire.  The church is once again doing battle over doctrines of God and Christ.  We would do well to take heed to what has gone on before and avoid the errors.

This book had some beginning promise in the relevant matter it addressed.  The evangelical church of today has discovered that the past Church Growth and Seeker Sensitive (and maybe even Purpose Driven) movements were long on assumed relevancy and short on sound basis.   Armstrong makes his point that there is a tradition within the church that reaches back to the apostles.  What he fails to do is demonstrate that there are clear, historic movements away from that apostolic teaching leaving us with the denominational hodgepodge we have today.  This must be addressed before there can be an idea of performing mission together.  In the end, Armstrong has given nothing but empty philosophizing as a solution, which, by the way, is the only thing missional-ecumenism could offer to a lost world. 

The crucial missing point in this work is the place of doctrine in unity.  Armstrong mentions that the early church were basically unified in what they believed into the mid-second century, even citing the Didache as evidence of the core message.  Here he states:
While tensions and disagreements between leaders were real, the testimony of history shows that a common core of belief and practice kept the church together. (86)
Exactly!  But the rest of the book ignores the foundational unity of doctrine in the early church.  The first four ecumenical councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon) were organized largely to deal with matters concerning how we are to understand matters such as the Godhead and person of Christ.  These are fundamental to the church.  The men who came together argued back and forth for days and weeks in order to hammer out what we now know as matters of course today.  There was no spiritual, relational element to any of it—just a firm stand on the truth of Scripture.  These men would not condone heresy.  Today, why should I be asked to overlook the fact that Roman Catholicism teaches another gospel?  I am all for working out the issues that separate.  Let's do that hard work.  Let's spend the effort necessary to hammer out these truths.  If I need to relent on a doctrinal position, so be it.  Let me be convinced by sound reason and the Scriptures, not a desire to just get along as Armstrong seems to promote.

¹ This is know as the Least-Common-Denominator solution. It has an appeal because everyone can agree, but inevitably, that's where it remains. No growth occurs because effort and tension is required for growth, but those elements are actively resisted as counter-productive.


A. Amos Love said...

Amen - "Let me be convinced by sound reason and the Scriptures, not a desire to just get along as Armstrong seems to promote."

Unity. Hmmm?

Sometimes good and some times, er, not so good?

Just wondering...

What if God is the author of our
disagreements and separations?
“And all things are of God...”
2 Cor 5:18, Rom 11:36, Col 1:16-17, etc.

Are we working for “Unity?”
And NOW working against God?

Didn’t God confuse man’s language once before?
Aren’t those things that happened to others,
written for us to learn from?

Now all these things happened unto them for
ensamples: and they are written for our admonition,
upon whom the ends of the world are come.
1 Cor 10:11

For whatsoever things were written aforetime
were written for our learning, that we through
patience and comfort of the scriptures
might have hope.
Rom 15:4

Didn’t God intervene when “man was in unity”
with their own devices, their own plans,
trying to build something themselves,
to reach heaven and “make a name for themselves?”

Could that be the ekklesia’s problem today also?
Doing their own thing - NOT God’s thing?

**Man trying to build something?
(Movements? Denominations? Church Planting?)
**And make a name for themselves?
(“Titles” on buildings, schools, websites, books, etc.)
**Being in unity they could accomplish anything?

wikipedia lists many, 1,000's, of Denominations.

...let us build us a city and a tower,
whose top may reach unto heaven;
and let us make us a name...
Gen 11:4

Gen 11:6-8
And the LORD said, Behold,
the people is one, (unity?)(this doesn't sound good?)
and they have all one language; (unity-sound alike?)
and this they begin to do: (work together?)
and now nothing will be restrained from them,
(we can do anything, working together?)
which they have imagined to do.
(“the imagination of man’s heart is evil.”)
(Gen 6:5, Gen 8:21, Jer 3:17, Jer 11:8. etc.)
Go to, let us go down,
and there confound their language,
that they may not understand one another’s speech.
(Hmmm? Sound familiar?)

God often gives us what we ask for, and,
“A Little Bit Extra.”

Meat in the wilderness. Kings to rule over us. etc.

“Traditions of men” nullify the word of God.
Mark 7:13

Hmmm? Just wondering...
What if God is the author of our
disagreements and separations?

Then what...???

Are we working for Unity?
And NOW working against God?

John said...

Thank for you for the courage to tell the reader up front that you have a history with my writing and teaching. That was class in every way.

Your review, overall, is fair and even-handed. I think if we had the time we could work out a lot of the points you present, pro and con. I am trying to cast a new tone and vision of this dicey issue and I freely admit it.

Finally, this is not meant to be an academic work, as you note. It is meant to begin a conversation among believers, mostly evangelical ones but in the end all. You, like many, see Roman Catholicism as preaching another gospel. This is a common conservative view. I admit I once held it. Readers must decide for themselves if this charge is right and I had to change my mind by study, friendships and simply listening and learning what I did not know before. This was a huge surprise to me, as the book makes very clear.

Steve Bricker said...

John, thanks for your response.

Actually, I have moved quite a ways from my former position concerning the Church. And you had a part in that. One of the cassette tapes I received from R&R was a panel discussion you moderated concerning evangelicalism. I believe there was Ellen Charry, William Abraham, D.G. Hart, John Webster, and maybe others. I wore out that tape listening to it (great stuff; wish I had that recording again) and read some of their books. It got me to thinking that the state of American evangelicalism was needing an adjustment - or at least I did.

About that same time my interest in the early church was fueled by a seminary class. I have read a good bit of translated primary material (recently finished reading the Ante-Nicene Fathers) and secondary works by Everett Ferguson, Christopher Hall, Tom Oden, Patout Burns, etc. I have a great appreciation for those early believers and was forced to alter my thinking.

From these experiences I have developed a more robust understanding of the "one holy catholic and apostolic church" and the "rule of faith" delivered from one generation to another.

So perhaps I am at a place where you were some time ago. What I see is that all three major branches have gone astray in one way or another, which is why I advocated the difficult work of debate among them. And entrance to the debate would be contingent on understanding what was said (William Abraham?) that everybody would have to admit they were wrong.