December 14, 2017

IM Book Review: Your Church Is Too Small

By Chaplain Mike

Although the church of Jesus Christ is found in many different places, she is one true church, not many. After all, there are many rays of sunlight, but only one sun. A tree has many boughs, each slightly different from others, but all drawing their strength from one source. Many streams may flow down a hillside, but they all originate from the same spring. In exactly the same way each local congregation belongs to the one true church.

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, 3rd Century

Friend of Internet Monk, John H. Armstrong, president of ACT 3, is an adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School, author and editor of numerous books, with over twenty years of pastoral experience. Today, we offer the first of three reviews of John’s passionate and provocative new book.

It is called, Your Church Is Too Small, and in its pages John Armstrong describes the “three conversions” he has had in his life.

The first was when he began to consciously follow Jesus as a boy. The second was when he became an adherent of Reformed theology and began studying and teaching the sovereignty of God.

John Armstrong’s “third conversion” took place in 1995 during a worship service as the congregation was reciting the Apostles’ Creed. As he heard himself say the words, “I believe in…the holy catholic church,” the Holy Spirit brought John 17:20-23 to his mind.

I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. (NASB)

John began meditating more and more upon Jesus’ prayer, and the direction of his life changed. He developed a growing love for the church as God’s people and a passion that the church be one in answer to the Savior’s words. His journey led him to delve into a deeper study of church history and the various traditions of classical Christianity that had developed from apostolic times, and to begin intentionally forming contacts and relationships with folks from those traditions. His love for the church turned into a passion for what he now calls “missional-ecumenism.”

This is the subject of Your Church Is Too Small. The book is organized into three parts:

  1. PAST: The Biblical and historical basis for Christian unity
  2. PRESENT: Restoring unity in the church today
  3. FUTURE: The missional-ecumenical movement

In Part One, Armstrong lays out his concerns and the foundational premises of the book. Like his colleague, Robert Webber, Armstrong came to see that the path to the future of the church lies in its past.

True Christian faith is not found in personal religious feeling but in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessing church. Therefore, if we refuse to come to grips with our past, our future will not be distinctively Christian. The result will be new forms of man-made religion that embrace recycled heresies. (p.18)

Much rethinking about the church is confused precisely because it seeks an ideal church while denying the actual reality of the historical church. (p.20)

Christians in America have lost a deep sense of their past, of their collective spiritual roots. As a result, we now suffer from a kind of spiritual amnesia that hinders our ability to faithfully move into the future with hope. (p.24)

Armstrong also became convinced that the path to the church’s witness in the future runs through Jesus’ desire for the church’s unity, as expressed in the prayer of John 17. Many interpreters and theologians have read this prayer and commented on what unity does NOT mean (out of fear and reaction to ecumenical efforts). They have limited Jesus’ petition to a prayer for invisible unity.

That is a serious interpretive mistake, says John Armstrong. Jesus is praying for relational unity, and for unity in the mission of God in the world. This is the same kind of oneness Jesus has with the Father, persuasively demonstrated in his earthly ministry. Therefore, our Lord was praying for something visible—love among believers that will actively spread God’s love throughout the world.

This love is to be relational and cooperational. It goes beyond unanimity (agreement in all things), uniformity (agreement in all practices), or union (organizational oneness).

It is all God’s people recognizing Christ at the center and aggressively seeking ways of demonstrating our common love for Jesus, on both the individual and church level.

In the second part of our review, we will look at John Armstrong’s analysis of the present, and how we can restore unity in the church today.

Comments

  1. Sounds like a great book, Chaplain Mike. Thanks for the review.

  2. Leave it to the theologian types to figure out how to make “that the world might see” into really being invisible…..

  3. DEFINITELY on my “must read” list…..now to scare up the bling. Great recommendation. In Kansas City, we are involved in something called “What IF……” that focuses on precisely what he’s talking about:: churches coming together missionally, sharing pastors for the preaching of the sermon and gathering together for both service (large scale projects) and large coporate worship. There are, I think, 24 churches involved this year, and they hope to grow it to over 60 next year. This is real ecumenism. a breath of welcome fresh air.

    Great post.
    Greg R

    • Greg,

      Could you point me to a website and/or contact info for the movement you’re involved with? I’m in the KC area looking for a church…Thanks!

      Matt

  4. Wow! This looks like the book I’ve been waiting for somebody to write! “missional-ecumenism.” Brilliant! Can’t wait to get my copy. Hope these ideas truly catch on.

  5. I follow Armstrong’s blog postings on Steve Brown Etc. Always very through-provoking. I wish I would have ordered this book a few weeks ago; I could use it for my Big Paper this semester. Unfortunately, the due date is such, that I probably wouldn’t get it in time.

  6. You state that the love goes beyond unanimity, uniformity and union – – but does it also require those things in order to be called “unity”? Or is unity exist without necessitating unanimity, uniformity and union?
    I have previously been in a church where unity=uniformity=unanimity, and 1 Cor 2:16 (“WE have the mind of Christ”) was used to squelch differences. The end result was not love, but dysfunction.
    I have since come to believe that “the mind of Christ” is humility (Phil 2:1-11), the wisdom of Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23).
    Wayne Jacobsen (who I found via Michael Spencer) described unity not so much as a uniform earthly organizational structure, but more using the analogy of how all birds fly south for the winter… we’re heading in the same direction, starting from many different places but coming closer together as we get closer to our common destination.

  7. John H. Armstrong used to be a solid Calvinist/Reformed writer who upheld all the tenets of traditional evangelicalism. Starting from 10 years ago he started to slide down the hill from evangelical Protestant orthodoxy. He started to reject the historic Protestant view of justification by faith alone and started to warm up to post-conservative theological methods. Not saying he is lost or anything but I am wary of anything he writes these days in regards to theology.

    • Right, because clearly anyone who doesn’t two the 5 point line we should be wary of.

    • I find it absurd that one can come on here and state that a man has started to float in a direction outside of orthodoxy [justification by faith] and all that ever happens is it is met with sarcasaim, mock and ridicule.

      Your comprimising, weak and “tolerant” types should be ashamed.

      • Christopher Lake says:

        Matthew,

        As a former, fervent Reformed Baptist, I ask you: how is it that your particular Reformed Protestant views on “justification by faith” (faith alone) are necessarily the standard by which we definitively determine “orthodoxy” or “heterodoxy”?

        Read some of the writings of the earliest Christians in the first three centuries of the Church (some of whom were discipled by original apostles). Their views on justification are not nearly as clear-cut as the “justification by faith alone” that you take to be the core of the Gospel. Yes, yes, I know– they weren’t “interpreting the Bible correctly.” So virtually no one got it right, after the original apostles died, until Martin Luther….

        If one knows that one is a sinner and trusts in Christ for salvation (truly trusts, resulting in good works), then one is a Christian. Period.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Orthodoxy meaning “Agree 1000% with Matthew Johnston in everything, jot, tittle, and iota?”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      John H. Armstrong used to be a solid Calvinist/Reformed writer who upheld all the tenets of traditional evangelicalism.

      When I hear “Calvinist/Reformed”, I think “Utter Predestination Uber Alles” to the point of Socratic Atheism (even God subject to Predestination), “Total Depravity” to the point of Worm Theology, and the churches of Geneva stripped and whitewashed like Wahabi Mosques. “God Wills It!”

  8. Donald Todd says:

    Not having read the book, I won’t offer a critique on what it contains.

    I did click on the Professor Armstrong’s name and did some reading at his blog.

    The timing for this blog was providential. I have been re-reading the primary arguments involved in at least some of the issues the professor is trying to address.

    The Catholic and the Orthodox Churches believe that there is a “visible” Church founded on the apostles and maintained by their successors, the bishops. (One does well to remember that the pope is a bishop.) There is a clear line of decision making, generally recognized as the teaching authority – Magisterium – of the Church.

    Protestantism, in all of its forms including the Pentecostals and the evangelicals, recognize an “invisible” Church whose living members – believers – display a “visible” Church. (NOTE: There are some of the Reformed Churches which claim catholicity in the sense of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed.) The disparity of belief among these churches, not only toward Catholicism but toward each other, is a problem. How do we describe the wonder and love of God when there is no agreement about how God wants us to see Him and each other. God is held up to ridicule because of us.

    Seeing God is part of the problem. The Unitarians deny Jesus’ divinity. The United Pentecostals deny that there are three Persons of God, rather there is only One. Jesus is the Father and the Holy Spirit – based on Jesus’ statement that “the Father and I are one.”

    Others deny the authority of God to manifest Himself sacramentally, in the water of baptism, in the oil of chrism or confirmation, in the bread and wine of communion. Some of us won’t let Him become a Man. Others won’t let Him be something other than God or Man.

    Some of us see grace as something that perfects nature, others compare grace to a wall of snow wrapped around a piece of dung (me in my human nature).

    To be sure, my wife was praying with a lady from another church in front of an abortuary last Friday. Differing beliefs but the same morals in regard to abortion. It was a place where they could meet in an attempt to display the love of God and of neighbor, while noting that not all Christian churches and sects recognize the horror and evil of abortion. It is important and I would not be surprised if it is a part of the professor’s position that we collaberate in areas where we can collaberate. It is sufficient for a portion of a unitive action, but it is insufficient in the area of a common belief, as a trip up and down a major street with churches would note.

    We kind of do believe in the same God, except where we don’t. There is a visible church built on the apostles and exhibiting a hierarchy, and there is an invisible church with visible members and conflicting beliefs.

    Luther and Calvin were unable to reconcile their conflicting beliefs. It will be interesting to see how Professor Armstrong does.

    • I’d say the starting point is probably the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Even for “non-creedal” denominations, I don’t think there’s anything there that would be objectionable as long as we don’t get hung up on the semantics of what “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” means.

      • Lots of non-credal denominations deny doctrines like the Trinity, the pre-eminence of the personality of Jesus before his conception, the uses of ‘spiritual gifts’ or the finality of revelation. Because Protestant churches don’t constitute an -ism, though, there’s nobody around to suggest to Pastor Jed of Little Pee Dee Temple of the Holy Ghost that his eschatology – which promises that all the little old ladies over at St. Ignatius are blaspheming enemy spirits and God can’t wait to burn them in Hell – is causing a scandal.

        In my view, the (as you call them) “semantics” of what ‘one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” means’ is of vital importance for all Christians, but in schism, all Christians have lost the trust in one another that allowed our predecessors to complete the Nicene Creed from such ‘semantics’.

        • The reason I bring up semantics of what ‘one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church’ means is that among the denominations who do use the Creeds, that’s a part of the Creed that is interpreted differently. For example, Roman Catholicism does not see Anglicanism as part of the o.h.c.&a. Church because RCC considers Anglican Apostolic lineage through the bishops and Anglican Eucharist to be invalid. Presbyterians and Lutherans, who don’t even have Apostolic bishops also affirm and use the Creeds. Heck, even some old-school Baptists do too. While disagreeing on how to interpret o.h.c.&a. there’s still a baseline for orthodoxy and ecumenism.

          By having the creeds as a baseline for orthodoxy, it exposes the heresy of those that would deny the Trinity, Virgin Birth, Divinity of Christ, etc., and draws a good line in the sand.

          In my experience, a lot of the non-creedal folks that get into things that would be against the creeds are either “questionable sects” like J.W.’s, Mormons, etc. or are just so weak in doctrine that they’ve let stupid stuff flourish because they have no baseline for orthodoxy. I.e. every man teaches and believes on a whim.

  9. Mark,

    You say: “John H. Armstrong used to be a solid Calvinist/Reformed writer who upheld all the tenets of traditional evangelicalism.”

    Which tenets do you suppose he no longer believes?

    A friend of John’s,

    Bradley

    • Ummm – taking a wild guess, but possibly along the lines of “Not every single Roman Catholic is automatically going to Hell”?

      😉

      • Martha, I believe that there are a remnant of saved people in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. However, that is in spite of their crooked view of justification/salvation. One can be part of a church that rejects Scriptural views of salvation and be saved (as long as they don’t willingly embrace the perverse works-righteousness/semi-Pelagian view of salvation).

    • He believes that our good works done in the Spirit are necessary for eschatological justification alongside faith in Christ.

      He also believes in that one cannot have epistemological certitude in matters of faith.

      • Pretty strong accusations. It would be nice to hear a little evidence, Mark.

        Furthermore, you who are criticizing Armstrong have yet to address one of his primary points: that Scripture condemns the kind of schisms and sectarianism that have been promulgated by those who consider themselves more doctrinally correct.

        Calvin himself said, “Whoever tears asunder the Church of God, disunites himself from Christ.”

        • Scripture condemns false teachers, hypocrites, and divisiveness among other things……

          Standing for orthodoxy in love- it commends.

        • I do believe in ecumenicism…just not with liberals, postmoderns, emergents, and Scripture-twisters.

          • Mark, I sympathize with your stance. While ecumenism is a nice idea, Christianity is not the MIckey Mouse club where we don the big ears and sing the song to get in. While professing Christ is very important, even foundational, at some point in time, the church needs to at least call Christians to put their money where their mouth is. Those who profess to be Christian and then proclaim a “historical Jesus” are one example of why I am uncomfortable with ecumenism.

            Also, I do not believe denominational differences are inherently sinful. There is a difference between unity and uniformity. To me, ecumenism’s ultimate goal is for all Christians to be united AND uniform under one church. Practically speaking, as human beings are apt to meld into the largest and strongest of anything, the Roman Catholic Church will most likely be that church of unity and uniformity.

          • I do believe in ecumenicism…just not with liberals, postmoderns, emergents, and Scripture-twisters.

            i.e. Everyone who doesn’t believe the same obvious truths of the Bible that I believe.

            Oh, and where is your evidence of your accusations against Armstrong?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I do believe in ecumenicism…just not with liberals, postmoderns, emergents, and Scripture-twisters.

            i.e. “Only with Those Who Agree 1000% With Me In Every Way.”

            AKA “Once You Realize I Am Always Right and Always Agree With Me In Everything, We Won’t Have a Problem, Will We?”

            I’m REAL familiar with that drill.

            “If you’ve walked my road and you’ve seen what I’ve seen
            You won’t go talkin’ about no righteous man;
            You’ll know damn well why I keep to my sky
            Won’t cry ‘neath nobody’s heel again.”
            — Michelle Dockery, “Mal’s Song” (Firefly Filk)

        • I like you Mike

  10. LightTheFires says:

    Wow, this is a great summary and Armstrong’s book looks to be an outstanding read –I can’t wait to pick it up.

  11. I’d really like to read this book – I will have to hunt it down….

    An issue that is growing at a frantic pace in your country and now also mine & one that must be adressed – is the issue of contextualisation.

    Here is my thoughts on it:

    http://narrowseventhirteen.blogspot.com/2010/04/why-i-hate-incorrect-contextualization.html

    • Contextualization is another issue, Matthew. Let’s stick to the subject, please.

      • Mike,

        I took this “Christians in America have lost a deep sense of their past, of their collective spiritual roots. As a result, we now suffer from a kind of spiritual amnesia that hinders our ability to faithfully move into the future with hope. (p.24)” …….and ran with it. – I will now stick to the topic at hand.

  12. ” . . . yet to address one of his primary points: that Scripture condemns the kind of schisms and sectarianism that have been promulgated by those who consider themselves more doctrinally correct.”

    Bingo (!) Once again Chaplain Mike you demonstrate why you are the moderator and some of us tend to be, uh, well, immoderate.

  13. “I do believe in ecumenicism…just not with liberals, postmoderns, emergents, and Scripture-twisters.” – Mark

    Are not all these terms notoriously in need of clear definitions that do justice to the varying positions of gospel-believing Christians? That’s a great part of the problem that hinders charitable discussion on these issues.

    For example, would not the Puritans and the signers of the Westminster Standards consider Mark a “liberal” if he were to deny that the Pope was the anti-Christ? (read the confession for yourself, this was a issue of orthodoxy among them)

    Mark, don’t you see that when the whole question in debate is about who is understanding the Bible most correctly, the term “Scripture-twister” can simply mean those who understand the Bible differently than you? In other words, your terms have a certain subjective dynamic that can easily fit a divisive agenda that undermines the biblical teaching about Christian unity.

    For example, What is liberalism? People who don’t believe in the supernatural and therefore dismiss classic Christian dogma concerning, say, the incarnation and resurrection? Or people who, like NT Wright, don’t hold strictly to a Chicago Inerrancy doctrine (but who still believe in the authority of Scripture and all the classical Christian creeds?) or Calvinistic understanding of justification (as opposed to, say, a Lutheran position or Melanchthon’s position or St. Augustine’s position on justification)?

    The fact that your response doesn’t seem to be treating these sorts of issues with sensitivity gives me the impression that you don’t appreciate these issues that are at stake and the role of humility in them.

    If another person is a believer in Christ Jesus, they are my brother, they are my sister, regardless of whether we differ on secondary questions that do not undermine the basic message of the gospel. Making these other secondary questions grounds for sectarianism undermines the teaching of Scripture itself on the importance of unity in the body of Christ.

    Thus, I am convinced (though I cannot show it here) that a strong biblical case could be made that those who undermine the unity of the body (which unity is a moral dimension of following Christ in the NT) for secondary issues (less emphasized in the Bible than unity), are not making the ethical priorities of the NT their own. (cf. http://theophilogue.wordpress.com/2008/10/27/not-all-gods-truth-is-worth-fighting-for/).

    Bradley

    • I think the problem is more complex than you make it out to be. Paul clearly proclaims that there was something more important than unity in Galatians. And that something wasn’t a simple faith in Jesus. Claiming to “believe in Christ Jesus” did not make those who were misleading the Galatian Christians into Paul’s brothers in the faith.

      • Steven,

        If you read my comment, I was actually trying to say that things are more complex than Mark’s comments make them out to be. LoL! I guess you are accusing me of the same thing! That’s kinda funny.

        Some questions …

        1. Why does Paul still call the Galatians to whom he addresses his letter “brothers” (Gal 1:11) even though they have “deserted” the original message? (just a question to which I am not sure I have a perfect answer, but a question worth asking)

        2. Do you believe that John Armstrong teaches people to be circumcised or keep other ceremonial laws of the OT in order to be saved? If not (as we both no he doesn’t), how do you know that Paul has the same kind of “works” in mind that John has in mind for “eschatological justification”? cf. Romans 2:6-16

        If you say “it doesn’t matter what kind of works the are—just that they are works” then you also miss some crucial points that complicates the question: 1) that’s precisely what the whole “biblical” debate is about–what does Paul mean by “works of the law”? Also, 2) Martin Luther believed that only faith + baptism saves: http://theophilogue.wordpress.com/2008/09/19/brothers-let-us-embrace-heresy/

        So then … what do we mean by “works”? All but faith? Then Martin Luther shall have to be thrown underneath your heretic bus and considered un-Christian for proclaiming a false gospel, for again, he taught a sola fide that included the efficacy of the sacrament of Baptism (i.e. faith saves through the efficacy of baptism).

        3. So do you believe Martin Luther’s sola fide? Or Melanchthon’s? Or Calvin’s? Or the Anabaptist one? They were all different from each other. Which one do you hold?

        4. Do you think Augustine of Hippo was a Christian? He also had quite a different doctrine of justification from most of the Reformers. It was sola gratia but it wasn’t forensic and did not include a forensic notion of imputation. Have you ever read Augustine’s anti-Pelagian work “On the Spirit and the Letter”?

        5. Have you ever read Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans? Did you know that he understood “works” to simply mean “works without faith”? (this helps explain why he didn’t see a problem with sola fide and the efficacy of the sacrament of Baptism: http://theophilogue.wordpress.com/2009/01/17/what-martin-luther-really-said-luthers-sola-fide/

        6. So … If John believes “works” play some role in salvation or sola fide, can we really say this goes against the “Reformation” view of sola fide? It may go against John Calvin’s view, but the sola fide of Martin Luther included “works of faith” such as baptism in order to be efficacious.

        7. This brings me to my final question: Do you really think there is such a thing as “the” Reformation doctrine of sola fide? (i.e. a consistent understanding of what “justification by faith alone” or “sola fide” means among all the major Reformers?)

        All in good fun,

        Bradley