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)!


toddandleah58 said...

I'm not sure Armstrong's a baptist anymore, though.

John said...

Todd is correct. I have not been a Baptist for nearly twenty years, having first been a member of College Church in Wheaton (non-denominational) for over a decade and then becoming a minister in the Reformed Church in America.

I have not been led to become Catholic for some of the reasons I actually give in the book. Example--the eucharist. While I believe in the "real presence" I cannot embrace the closed table or the strict definitions of what I see as the "mystery" of our communion with the body and blood of Christ. I hold to Calvin's view, which is remarkably like that of the Eastern Orthodox Church, thus I could not embrace the sacramental system of Rome.

Further, I could not affirm the papacy, at least as we presently know it to hold and express its authority.

While I appreciate much about the earlier tradition with regard to Mary I cannot affirm the later Marian dogmas or the role of the saints in grace. (I do think the church triumphant is interceding for us actively!)

I would also have a difficult time with purgatory, believe as N. T. Wright puts it that the biblical purgatory occurs in the day of resurrection when we see Christ.

Then, of course, there is the "little" problem of how we understand the application of redemption; grace and faith, etc. While we have made strides, and I think really big ones, we are still not where we need to be on both sides. This is not a bogey man for me but an honest difference being worked on by good theologians and their work might yet bring grater reformation; e.g. The Lutheran and Catholic accords of just a few years ago come to mind.

Your second question is quite easy to answer as I thought I did it but this shows how an author can say something not nearly as well as he had hoped. I believe unity/diversity is the key paradigm we need to express "visible" unity. You will recall that I do not embrace "unionism" (older ecumenism) but unity/diversity as my paradigm. This is why I can accept denominations while I still reject denominationalism, which is in effect the sectarianism I am opposing so strongly in the book.

Thanks for a good review post. I am grateful and love to read your posts Mike.

Eric Gregory said...


I'm quite excited to read your book - it's on my Amazon Wish List right now - precisely because this has been my own experience with moving from strict Protestantism to catholicity ("protestant" now produces an odd sense of loathing as the very name indicates a position of division and disunity). I became an Episcopalian because I could not affirm the primacy (in the sense that Rome wants it) of the Bishop of Rome. I'm exploring Eastern Orthodoxy and might eventually end up there in the future.

I do think all Protestants need to (a.) stop using that word; (b.) understand catholicity in terms of the Church Universal (and not always liken it with Rome); and (c.) embrace the unfamiliar by trusting that God moves throughout the ages. More on that: the idea of "sola scriptura" is odd to me as it suggests we think of texts written by hundreds of people as "God's Word" when those same Scriptures have St. Paul telling the churches that the Church (universal/catholic) is the "pillar of truth" (2 Tim) in this world. It is the Church that has God's Spirit in it, not only the letters of the apostles. Even those passages that talk about Scripture being true and good for encouragement and rebuke aren't even referring to the New Testament (though we know believe that they do) - the Old Testament was all that there was! Protestants tend to assume that Scripture is all that's needed without remembering the authority of Holy Tradition. The tradition of the apostles and the early church are just as imbued with the mark of the Spirit as the Holy Scriptures are - it's the tradition of the ancient church that actually GIVES us the Scriptures as they are. How can the Scriptures have MORE authority than the Church when they come from the Church? Again, I'd like to see Protestants trust in God's movement throughout history for more than Jesus and the Scriptures - there's so much in between the inauguration of the Kingdom and the canonization of Holy Writ (and after that!) that is worthwhile, holy, and good to reflect upon.

Let's not merely trust God for using the Churches of the East and West for the provision of Scripture, but trust God for carrying the Church Universal to where we are now.

John said...

Eric has grasped a great deal of what I also see among evangelicals and have come to believe. The common way sola Scriptura is held is an unmitigated disaster. My book values the role of tradition very highly without embracing the role of the magisterium in an official Roman Catholic way. There is a sense in which very rigid Catholics will not like the book as much as very rigid Protestants. This is why and how I seek to chart a new course but one that has a lot of historical support if we believe there is still one church and yet do not think it is found in only one ecclesial form. Unity and diversity are both biblical values.

Tim Byrnes said...

Thank you for this post and thread...I am not only a member of an RCA (Reformed Church in America) church, but am also a part-time denominational staff member in the RCA's New York City office. Needless to say, I am constantly exposed to the struggle of old-school Protestant ways of thinking, and the tension that radical ecumenism is causing in our good ol' denomination. I am happy to say that there is a lot going on that encourages me, but we all recognize that we still have a long way to go until we achieve the final "catholic" unity that the LORD convicts me of as being the ultimate future of the Church.
As for now, I'd love to see The Desert Fathers, among other things, enter more into the daily lives of Reformed Christians. Amen?

John said...

I would love to get to know you Tim. Your take on the RCA parallels my own and I think we can "hope and pray" for a new day as the Lord leads this old connection of diverse churches.

Tim Byrnes said...

That would be great, John. Let's connect. My work email is tbyrnes at rca dot org and personal email is timmyb12 at rca dot org (trying to avoid the 'bots!) ... use either one.
I came to an RCA church (Fort Washington Collegiate Church in Manhattan, to be precise) at the age of 23 when I became born again out of atheism. I had never heard of the RCA before, though I had previously seen ads for Collegiate Churches on the subway. I "chose" that church because it was close to my house. They were unbelievably hospitable to a crazy and confused new believer, so I stayed. There was some providence there, and it helped that I had a "tabula rasa" when it came to theology, Scripture, and the workings of church denominations (and we all know that even "non-denominational" churches really just have their own denomination, despite what some would like us to think!)
We are dreaming really big here in NYC!

Peace and blessings,


Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

Mike, Thanks for the thoughts on Armstrong's work (I've followed him now for some time and really appreciate his contribution to the Church). As a Pentecostal ordained minister (and presbyter who helps oversee 12 other churches in my area) I have often felt I am working against the grain to suggest ecumenical relationships among the various congregations of our respective communities without our simply becoming one congregation (or one flavor for that matter). I have had many discussions about such things with younger seminarians and Bible College students who seem almost incredulous that I would suggest we MUST engage other fellowships, but usually they seem to respond positively to my explanations of why (that would seem to fit everything I have read in John's ACT3 Blog over the last couple years). I hope to be a continuing voice for growth in unity for the wider Church (but particularly the Pentecostal churh). I hope to get and read "Your Church is Too Small" very soon! Blessings!

John said...

Rick, this is very encouraging stuff my brother. The Pentecostal part of Christ's body could have the most important of all contributions to my own vision of unity but it could, and I hope will not, become the most schismatic. It all depends on the grace of God at work in those who want to love and not judge those who do not have the "fullness" of what is important in those Pentecostal contexts. My Pentecostal brothers and sisters contribute as much to my life as anyone in this conversation/fellowship. I believe the movement could be used to launch a whole new visitation of God's Spirit renewing the whole church.