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St. Paul, MN
2 Stars Out Of 5
Thought provoking but ultimately untenable
May 28, 2011
St. Paul, MN
Many today agree that the evangelical church in America has problems. It has a consumeristic mentality catering to the pervasive individualism of our society. Church programs are offered, and sermon series advertised in such a way as to get people hooked on the "brand". Surveys and market research are conducted to find people's felt needs and deliver. And with such a cheapening of church, it's no wonder that counter movements abound in Christianity these days. Emergent, post-modern, missional -- you name it, people realize the current super-sized church is high on calories and low on nutrition. Many are just abandoning the ship altogether.
One such counter movement is described by John H. Armstrong in his new book "Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church" (Zondervan, 2010). He contends that a twin focus on mission and unity will heal the Church's woes. He calls this missional-ecumenism.
Many of the problems Armstrong sees in today's church are problems indeed. There is a high dose of sectarianism, and a low dose of biblical community. He reacts against the prevailing consumerism in churchianity. A return to the church's "ancient/future faith" with a focus on the value of church history and an appreciation of the Apostle's creed and other universally accepted creeds, he argues, will cure these ills.
Reacting to sectarianism in today's church, Armstrong encourages a relational unity flowing from our brotherhood and shared faith in Jesus Christ. He wants us to see past our differences, but does hold that these differences matter. Denominations are not a bad thing in his view, but we should reach beyond them and see our shared unity as the "one church" following "one Lord" and sharing "one baptism" and "one faith" (Eph. 4).
I can agree to an extent with all of this. I too see John 17 and Jesus' prayer for unity as being too easily dismissed in evangelicalism today. I think we need more charity, more grace, and a greater realization of how big our agreement is if we share in the core truths of the gospel. I agree that working together with other Christians and not viewing them as the enemy positively impacts our evangelism. I even share some of Armstrong's specific criticisms of the modern church.
Where Armstrong goes wrong, in my opinion, is jumping from the "one church" ideal in the NT, to affirming that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are part of that "one church" because they affirm the Apostle's Creed. In vain did I look for any discussion of the Reformation and why Rome really isn't advocating a false gospel when they do not preach justification by faith. Instead I found statements like this:
"My understanding of biblical oneness combines two commitments that are often considered separately. the first is a commitment to work in every conceivable way to demonstrate the God-given spiritual oneness I share with other believers through our union with Christ....
"But my second commitment goes even further. Many Protestant evangelicals are satisfied with informal person-to-person expressions of oneness. Because they tend to view the church as a voluntary association, they see no need to seek unity with other churches....
"This two-commitment approach... has practical consequences for those who consider themselves evangelicals. It means I can no longer be... anti-Catholic.... With deep conviction, I am compelled to regard both Catholics and the Catholic church with love and esteem." (pg. 60-61)
"...the Western church was torn apart by the Protestant Reformation. This movement challenged the Catholic Church to renew itself but resulted in in a massive schism leading to errors on every side. Eventually, these schisms resulted in the birth of several major divisions within historic Protestantism, leading to an endless variety of new churches built around human personalities and doctrinal differences." (pg. 89)
I appreciate the exhortation to unity and the admission that people who don't think like us may well be honestly following Christ. But I think Armstrong is advocating a dangerous course when he encourages us to just view all Catholics or Orthodox adherents as genuine Christians. At this point, I need to let Armstrong explain in his own words at some length.
"Privately, I hear people ask, "Who is a real Christian?" with regard to their own family members or members of their congregations (including pastors). If a Catholic becomes an evangelical, then those who remain Catholic are viewed by the "convert" as non-Christians....
"I am wearied by this attempt to say who is and is not a real Christian... I find it destructive of everything true to Christ's teaching. During my journey to catholicity, I made a conscious choice to give up this approach. 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 knows those who are his" (2 Timothy 2:19).... 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 attacks on others." (pg. 150)
I can't accept Armstrong's explanation here. Certainly a glib, nonchalant condemnation of others is wrong. I also believe there are many true believers that aren't Protestant. But I believe Scripture requires us to be more discerning and careful in this matter. I don't want to publicly affirm Catholicism's dangerous teachings about the gospel and the relative emphasis on Mary, works, confession, saints and things like that. Paul's concern for unity didn't prevent him from making strong condemnations of false doctrine, just see Galatians 1.
This book will stretch you and cause you to think. And much in the book is actually helpful and good. But I would encourage only a discerning use of the book by mature Christians.
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Zondervan for review. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.
"...The author is well-read in the writings of the Church Fathers, the Magisterial Reformers, and even recent theological giants. His emphasis on recovering the treasures of the past in order to fund the future (thus mitigating the impending bankruptcy of today!) is admirable, not only as a reminder to those who are seminary-trained but also as an introductory survey for those whose love for Christ and church overshadow any lack of formal training. The author, however, does lack an equivalent import of insight from the Eastern Orthodox churchat least, comparatively to his criticisms of the Roman Catholic communion and, especially, the Protestant pluriform traditions. It is, perhaps, to be expected that a lack of direct familiarity with the East would also mean a lack of intentional integration of key Orthodox beliefs (while Armstrong points to church-as-mystery, I personally wonder whether deification could add a significant aspect to the authors already strong thesis). He seems to make an effort in scaling back his critique of Rome, opting instead to see where that church has gotten things right (especially since Vatican II, though I am curious as to what appraisals Armstrong could have included with regard to Benedict XVIs recent track record regarding ecumenism and interfaith relations). For obvious reasons (I am an akin evangelical of Reformed roots), some of Armstrongs most salient reproofs for the Protestant branch of Christianity focuses on an all-too-narrow approach biblicist profiling, a survivalist-mentality, and/or a triumphalistic hubris. At the end of the day, weall of us who call upon Jesus the Messiah as savior and lordwe all need each other. This book is a refreshing reminder that there are better things, more divine things to attend toif only we would seek to participate in what God is already doing ... I recommend this book with enthusiasm."
I had been studying through John 17 for a sermon series that I am preaching through and just as I was putting the finishing touches on them this book arrived. I was able to tell from the title that it was dealing with the same issues that I had studied in John, so I dug into it. As I did the initial scan, I noticed that the book was divided into three sections: * Past: The Biblical and Historical Basis for Christian Unity * Present: Restoring Unity in the Church Today, and * Future: The Missional-Ecumenical MovementAs these sections suggest, this book is a chronology of the authors own realization of the need for oneness in the church. His own journey is important to understand, because the rest of the book is built upon this. I appreciate his open discussion of what transpired within his own life as he saw a need for unity in the church. He gives a candid view and an honesty that is not seen often.Many of the questions that I had; he has dealt with in his own walk and as I read the book, I felt as if he and I had been walking side-by-side on the dusty path; discussing what unites us as brothers and what divides us as people of different backgrounds. This book will challenge your notions of church, and give your a view from a different perspective. It will make you think in the larger context of church, instead of our isolated views of denominations.But I must give a word of caution here. Although it all sounds good and gives one a sense of a promising future; there are some inherent dangers. * Just how far do we allow tradition to influence our desire for unity? * Are we to seek unity at the count of clear Scriptural teaching on issues in which we differ? * Is a Trinitarian confession the only requirement needed for unity?With that said, I would say that you should read the book for there are many things of value to be found between its covers. It is thought provoking and worth the time you will spend doing so.
The book is divided into three sections looking into the biblical and historical basis for unity in the church, how we need to restore unity in the church, and looking into the future by being missional, which is term that has been used a lot for the last couple of years in various churches. Armstrong shares that his desire to go back to the true meaning of being a Catholic Church. Do not think Catholic as in the Roman Catholic Church as we normally associate that word with it today, but as the universal church where all people who believe in Jesus come together and spread out throughout the world to being people to Jesus. I must admit, I fell into that same trap of thinking Catholic as the Roman Catholic Church because what our culture has told us what that word is.Most of the time when people think of church unity, they think of churches within their denominations that come together, but that is not the case Armstrong was talking about. He is hoping, along with other evangelical church leaders, that the church will become unified no matter what their social statues, race, or cultural background is. One thing that I did not get to see in the book about unity was unity in doctrine. The reason, some denominations were formed was because of different doctrinal beliefs. Some people of a certain denomination would not attend another denomination because they believe someone can lose their salvation or speaking in tongues is a sign you are a true believer. I do believe there needs to be unity in the church. As long as we have doctrinal difference, I think we will always have disagreements and disunity. I know in heaven, there will be no denominations because we have come to faith in Jesus, but right now on earth, we need to pray not only for unity, but agreement on key doctrines such as salvation and the sovereignty of God.