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:
[There is] a small view of the church and a big view of our own importance. We have exalted our interpretations of the Scripture by boldly proclaiming: “My authority comes only from the Bible.” (pg. 131)
Some popular evangelical writers dehistoricize the church and make a case for revolution not reformation. They throw out the past. (pg. 107)
…Scripture is clearly not so much a treatise on systematic theology as the unfolding story of a people– the people of God…. A humble and faithful Christian life is marked by “fear and trembling” (Philipppians 2:12) and a willingness to allow for mystery. (pg. 96)
The culture with its decadence, relativism, consumerism, and wanton rebellion against the revealed will have God is actually the symptom of our problem. The root cause is a deeply divided, morally compromised, theologically indifferent, biblically ignorant, and culturally conformed church. The gospel has been reduced to a minimal set of consumer-related facts. The “sinner’s prayer” has replaced the kind of radical conversion that results in life-changing grace. In the process, the larger narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and re-creation has been lost. With this loss there is no coherent understanding of the kingdom of God. The church has now become a religious society of the comfortable. Serious Christians should cry out to God for his mercy and grace to be poured out on the church. (pg. 194)
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.
…We have heard a lot about culture wars in the United States for thirty years. I am far more concerned about the truth wars waged by polemicists inside the church. This is the bitter fruit of sectarianism. It lacks charity and leads to mean-spiritedness.
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.
Once I took this step, I became more concerned about my own faith and attitudes. I no longer had to answer many of the questions people asked me about other people–questions that only fed my pride. I ask, “Why should you care about what I think since I don’t know the real answer?” I then ask, “Have you confessed 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 judge the heart… (pg. 150-151)
I can’t accept Armstrong’s explanation here. Certainly a glib, non-chalant 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.
This book was provided by Zondervan Academic for review. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.