I am pleased to have reviewed John H. Armstrong’s new book Your Church Is Too Small as my first book review on my new blog. This book challenged me personally, biblically and theologically as Armstrong invited me to think about the unity of the Church as Christ prayed in John 17:20-23.
In a word this book is about catholicity. For Armstrong catholicity “refers to the quality or state of universality, thus bringing to mind the comprehensive nature of the undivided church of Jesus Christ that gathers all of God’s people into one church from many different races, languages, and cultures (200).” This catholicity, as Armstrong sees it, is to be worked out through missional-ecumenism. Missional-ecuminusm is defined as: (1) God is both a unity in Himself and as such is a sending God, and (2) God’s revealed desire is that we would be (relationally) one with Him is this sending and sent (mission) process (203). Armstrong believes the text that most expressly supports this catholicity is John 17:20-23 and that it is best articulated through the Nicene Creed in the words, “One holy catholic and apostolic” church. This book is about showing the church that our majority understanding of Christ’s church is too small in that we all too often thing of the church in small terms like “local church”, “denomination”, “American church” and the like. Armstrong wants to help us broaden our daily view and practice of the church with a universal understanding. He wants us to see the church as Christ sees it – as His universal church that spans all of time Past, Present and Future (the sections of the book) and throughout the world. Readers of Thomas C. Oden’s book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy will enjoy this book.
The first section of the book deals with how the church has dealt biblically and historically in the Past with the unity of the church. Armstrong is deeply saddened by the sectarianism (as he sees it) that has plagued the church since the great split between the East and Western church (1054). Since then the church has been more in the practice of disunity than unity as Christian sectarianism has taken over. This sectarianism, inhibits the church from expressing the universal unity and thus apologetic of love that Christ prayed for in John 17. Armstrong desires to see a day when Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and Greek Orthodox can be visibly united before the world in an effort to fulfill Jesus’ prayer in John 17 but allow for each traditions own expression of the Christian faith. Armstrong wants us to think long and hard about the public implications of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:4-5 about the “one” church of God.
The core message of the first section of the book is his interpretation of the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17:20-23:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that you have sent Me. I have given them the glory that you have given Me, that they may be one as We are one – I in them and You in Me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you have sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.
After reviewing a number of what he sees as bad interpretations of Jesus’ prayer, Armstrong seeks to show us that Jesus is praying for relational unity. This relational unity is a spiritual bond among all believers. This relational unity is rooted in the relational unity between the Father and Christ which Jesus draws from in His prayer. When the church accomplishes this relational unity then it will accomplish the goal of Jesus’ prayer for the church: the world will know that the Father sent Christ and that the Father loves the church as he loves Christ (vs. 23). Armstrong wants us to see that Christ desires for the church to emphasize both big T truth and big U unity and not one over the other. This goal is to be accomplished through love which Armstrong sees as the churches greatest apologetic. Since love is action this relational unity is to be a functional oneness for all the world to see. With this in mind we can no longer be anti-Catholic or anti any Christian group. “With deep conviction, I am compelled to regard both Catholics and the Catholic Church with love and esteem (61).”
In the final chapter of the Past section of the book Armstrong lays out what he sees as the four classical marks of the church as expressed in the Nicene Creed: (1) “One, (2) holy, (3) catholic and (4) apostolic” church. The church is to be a unified functioning body – one. This unified body is to be holy and thus wholly separated unto God – holy. The church is to express this unified holiness as one before the world – catholic. As the one body of Christ lives a holy testimony before the world it is to be guided by the apostolic teaching and practice of the NT.
So if the church has been plagued with Christian sectarianism how are we to moved forward in the Present. Armstrong suggests that the Apostles Creed can help the church, “The creed, however, gave me a place to stand with my brothers and sisters without having to surrender my core orthodoxy (79).” While everyone interprets the Bible with small and great differences, the church needs to center itself around a “core orthodoxy”, a “Great Tradition”.
The church finds itself in multifaceted position of division which while some may believe it is a good “pluriform expression of the faith”, Armstrong sees this sectarianism as creating “an attitude of exclusivity (81-82).” Sin is what has created our present state of disunity and Satan loves it he argues. So how did the early church experience unity? Or rather, what did it unify itself around? Armstrong suggests that the early church unified itself around five historical realities (not to be confused with the five fundamentals of the faith as laid out by Curtis Lee Laws at the birth of the Fundamentalist Movement): (1) the historic person of Jesus, (2) the fellowship believers had after Jesus’ ascension, (3) the basic beliefs shared among Jesus’ followers, (4) the events recorded at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and (5) the relationship among the various missions and leaders we read about in Acts (86).
Armstrong sees the Present state of doctrinal expression as both negative when they “become the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scripture” and as positive if we can see them more as differences of expression rather than actual different beliefs about a particular doctrine (95-97). In order to accomplish the unity of John 17, Armstrong believes we need to center ourselves around a right understanding of the church as he believes Jesus sees it. Armstrong sees the church as “the people of God hearing, believing, and obeying the Word of God (107).”
So with the divided sectarian position the church finds itself in what is the church to do to help itself in the Future? This is the task of the third section of the book. Are we to abandon denominations? Are we to return whence we all came – Rome. While he does not believe denominations are explicitly biblical, Armstrong is not ready to throw them out the door and start from scratch (though it may seem that way). It seems, that if the church can rally around the famous quote, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, freedom; in all things charity.” However, since we all believe different things fall into the first two categories Armstrong suggests we must carry ourselves forward to unity by the Scripture and the early creeds. The church must have a “hermeneutic of generosity” in order to move forward into the Future (139).
What is the criteria we use to unify ourselves around as we move forward? For starters Acts 2:21, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.” There is to be a confessional unity around the centrality of Christ. Coupled with this unified confession is the presence of the Spirit which is the glue to unity but keeps us from uniformity (137-138). Instead of calling out those whom we do not think are true believers we need to focus more on identifying those who are true believers. If the presence of the Spirit is our single identifying mark and we cannot “see” the Spirit in a person then we cannot say a person is not a believer if they say they have the Spirit. Armstrong writes:
During my journey to catholicity, I made a conscious decision to give up this approach (judging ones salvation according to a negative or positive standard). After all, if a Christian is someone who has “the Spirit of Christ,” then I do not know who truly has “the Spirit of Christ.” Scripture further declares, “The Lord know those who are His (2 Tim. 2:19). My choice to drop out of this deadly dialogue was liberating. I ceased being a judge. Real conversion and true faith are God’s work. And since all three of the great traditions of Christianity teach that those who share in proclamation and participation must also have explicit living faith, I began to openly encourage explicit faith rather than wage attack on others (149). (Italics mine).
Armstrong further explains, “Have you expressed faith in Christ? Are you His baptized follower? If the answer is affirmative, then I proclaim the gospel and let the Spirit work as He wills. God will decide the heart(150).” While this criteria seems biblical I think it is hardly comprehensive and is certainly simplistic in light of the teaching of I John. And what about the teaching of Jesus to the Pharisees as He said that while many will proclaim My name in the last day I will turn they away for they never knew me.
After summarizing the message of his book in seven common elements that he believes the church can unite around to move forward into the Future, Armstrong gives a number of examples of what this missional-ecumenism looks like. These examples model what Armstrong calls an incarnational approach to missions. “In this new paradigm, people are being invited to belong to a people before they are invited to believe a message. They are included rather than excluded (174).” For those familiar with the Emergent church this phraseology sounds familiar and has been sufficiently responded to by Michael Wittmer in his book Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough. Armstrong might not be going this far but he dosent seem to distance himself from it either.
I share a similar ecclesiastical upbringing with Armstrong so I can identify with the life long struggle he has gone through in his journey to grapple with the unity of the church that Christ’s prays for in John 17:20-23. Since high school I have often wondered some of the same things Armstrong has battled through concerning the public and catholic nature of the church. In many ways I agreed with Armstrong as he defended his understanding of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. However, I think Armstrong paints an incomplete picture of the reasons why denominations started. Or the place I John has in the discussion.
I like a lot of what Armstrong says about unity but I think the end of the book sort of falls apart when it comes to the criteria of confessional believers, the seemingly sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality towards Catholicisms view of salvation (and an incomplete presentation of Vatican II), the belonging before believing approach to missions/evangelism and the seemingly pluralistic approach to theology which sounds similar to what John Franke expressed in Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth.
While there are things I did not agree with (which Armstrong might attribute to my deep seeded sectarianism) I have to admit that my thoughts on the church will never be the same and for that I thank him!