Friday, January 29, 2010
John Armstrong - Your Church is too Small
I've been keenly aware of John Armstrong's ministry for a long time. Armstrong is a minister in the Reformed Church of America who formerly was part of a very conservative Reformed camp and he led a ministry called "Reformation and Revival" (R&R). My former church in Brisbane was a conduit for much of R&R ministry including their journal (the contents of which are now available on-line thanks to Paul Bradshaw). However, I noticed that John went through a big paradigm shift at one point and this was seen, not the least in his engagement with the work of N.T. Wright, but also in his broader ecumenical approach to Christian ministry. Eventually his ministry evolved from "Reformation and Revival" to "Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium" (ACT3) to reflect these changes. Armstrong lost a lot of friends in this process, but also gained many more.
I am glad to say that Armstrong has a new book out with Zondervan called Your Church is Too Small: Why United in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church. In a nutshell it is the call to make sure that evangelicals embrace the "catholicity" of the church. The opposite is what I would call "ecclesiastical solipsism" which is the view that the true church is "me" and those like me. In the beginning the early church was just like me, then around 100 AD we were plunged into 1500 years of Catholic darkness, when the Reformation came "me" reappeared and even now "me" and my homies are the only true heirs of the Jerusalem church and the Reformed church. You get the idea. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book is chapter 2, "My journey to catholicity begins" which narrates the story of how Armstrong came to finally believe the creed about "one holy catholic and apostolic church" and he came to genuinely believe in Jesus' high priestly prayer that "we may be one". In a nutshell, Armstrong wants Christians to recover the ancient roots of their faith and to engage in real fellowship with those who share that ancient faith.
A recurring theme is that unity is important for our mission and also the necessity of returning to our ancient roots. Armstrong's recipe for trying to achieve that is sevenfold: (1) Cultivating a commitment to restore the sacraments; (2) increasing our appetite to know more about the ancient church; (3) express love for the whole church and desire to see the church become one; (4) blend practices of worship, devotion, and prayer from all three streams of the Church (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant); (5) increase interest in integrating more liturgical depth and structure with spontaneity and freedom in the Holy Spirit; (6) provide greater involvement in signs and symbols of worship such as crosses, banners, and clerical vestments; and (7) continue a commitment to personal salvation, solid biblical teaching, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
This is a good book with an excellent mix of biography, Bible exposition, engagement with ancient sources, discussion of modern theologians (esp. Leslie Newbiggin), and it promotes the Ancient-Future Faith movement. I do have one or two remaining questions for Armstrong (hopefully he'll answer them as he is a friend on Facebook).
First, I rather liked Steve Harmon's book Towards Baptist Catholicity which addresses many similar issues. Harmon confronts the question at the end of the book: Why don't I become Catholic? His answer is: women's ordination. What I would like you to answer, therefore, is why not become Catholic? What is stopping you? Why not join the largest physical representation of the church on earth? Is there enough protest in your Protestantism to prevent you? If so, why?
Second, granted that spiritual unity should be expressed in physical unity, is there a case to be made that we can still have unity with diversity? What kind of diversity is legitimate for a vision of the church? You yourself hint at the fact that denominations might be a necessary but unfortunate tool. Indeed, if plurality in the church is, to some degree, normal (see John Francke's new book Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth), then in what legitimate ways can that diversity be expressed (thus without all of us needing to head over to Rome or Constantinople).
Third, where do the warnings about false teachings and heresy come in? For instance, would your vision for union with the Catholic church still be possible if the Vatican formerly made Mary co-redemptrix with Christ? That would be unacceptable to evangelicals and would seriously hamper chances of union or reconciliation. How do you deal with minor disagreements, serious differences, and unorthodox doctrines.
I have to confess that my favourite part of the book was a quote from that great dispensational theologian Lewis Sperry Chafer: "The very fact that I did not study a prescribed course in theology made it possible for me to approach the subject with an unprejudiced mind and to be concerned only with what the Bible actually teaches". Think, if Chafer had taken Theology 101 we might have been deprived of his magnificent theological tome - perish the thought (or perhaps rapture the thought)!