Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Jeff Borden

This review comes from Jeff Borden, who has a fine blog called iCrucified. It is reviews like this that make our Saturday Afternoon spot a witness to the need of a blog to have regular, intelligent contributors (like Jeff) to make it work for all of us.

Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church

By: John H. Armstrong; ISBN – 978-0-310-32114-9   Zondervan Publishing

I became aware of Your Church Is Too Small by way of a recent post on the euangelion blog site. I was intrigued in the highest degree with what I was reading about the premise of the book and immediately began my search for a copy. Amazon informed me the book was not slated to release until April 2010, so I reached out to publisher (Zondervan) and author, John H. Armstrong to request a review copy. John was gracious in providing me a prerelease version for an early look.

While I am sure there will be different and strong opinions from a number of doctrinal positions, my experience with Your Church Is Too Small has been nothing short of exhilarating. In my most humble opinion, this is a very important book. If early reviews were not enough to capture my attention, this following statement from the introduction solidly “hooked” me:

“I will show how your biblical faith is rooted in the living Christian tradition, a tradition found in all the classical historical expressions of the one faith. This one faith is developing in ways we would have never thought possible while we were still indulging in the cultural luxury of seeing other Christians as our enemies…” ~~John ArmstrongYour Church Is Too Small

The challenge was issued; “I will show you…” and I was open to accept it. Let the journey begin.



PAST (Part 1)

Armstrong begins the presentation
of his proposal in support of classical Christianity and starts the first
chapter with quotations from Robert Webber; “You can best think about the
future of the faith after you have gone back to the classical tradition” and
Karl Barth; “No one dare do contemporary theology until they have mastered
classical Christian thought.” The essence of these quotes is captured in
Armstrong’s own thesis statement:

“New patterns of Christian faith and life
are emerging in the church. I welcome these patterns, but I believe they
desperately need to be rooted in the past – the creeds, the Word of God
understood as the story of grace, life as a sacramental mystery, and deeply
rooted spiritual formation. My thesis is simple: The road to the future must
run through the past…”

I refer to the above quote as the
thesis statement, but I believe the thesis is more appropriately defined as
“presenting a case for the Christian Church; one holy catholic Church: unified
in the person and expression of Jesus Christ.” Armstrong sets out to prove this
united expression of Christ’s church is the desire and will of God using the
Prayer of Jesus (John 17) as the primary text and basis for his argument.

The first seven chapters of Your Church is Too Small comprise part
one of the book. In this section, Dr. Armstrong connects quite a few dots to
lay a complete foundation for why he believes “unity in Christ’s mission is
vital to the future of the church.” Considering the fragmentation of the present
example of Christ’s church, this explanation and establishment of a complete
foundation for his argument is no small task.

I am not an academic, nor do I
have extensive seminary training in ecclesiology, but the example and effort
given to “The Biblical and Historical Basis for Christian Unity” (Part 1) was
thorough, understandable, and readable in the sense that it flowed with a
logical progression and the building of ideas to form a very cohesive proposal
(at least in my limited understanding and opinion).

As I have already stated, the
prayer of Jesus (John 17) is the basis for Armstrong’s call for Christian
unity. This study in Scripture is one of the main pillars of his presentation.
The second pillar is the record and history of the ancient church. The evidence
and practice of the historical church provides us with the examples necessary
to benchmark our (the modern American church) own progress regarding the
mission of God. The result of this “benchmarking” of the modern church serves
as the third pillar and provides the critical assessment of our failure to act
as the unified and universal Church as it was prayed for by Jesus in the Gospel
of John (chapter 17).

I think the analysis and
diagnosis, as well as the prognosis and prescription, by John Armstrong are
accurate and worth listening to. My opinion might be subjective, but my
experience (supported by data from surveys and polls from organizations like
the Barna Group) agrees with Armstrong’s statement:

“Christians in America have lost a deep
sense of their past, of their collective spiritual roots. As a result, we now
suffer from a kind of spiritual amnesia that hinders our ability to faithfully
move into the future with hope.”

Coincidentally, at the time of
this writing, there is a very lively discussion on the Jesus Creed Blog
of Scot McKnight that lends support to Armstrong’s assertion of the (universal)
Church’s inability to find agreement on some of the most core and longstanding
beliefs in Christendom.

John’s Journey

I appreciated hearing the
author’s personal testimony and the detailed progression of his belief system
being challenged and changed through his study, meditation, and willingness to
be open to “universal” truth. Dr. Armstrong identifies a couple of these
pivotal moments coming through his reading of John 17 (the prayer of Jesus) and
his recitation of the Apostle’s Creed. Continuing his journey and conversion
(emphasis mine) he found a common footing in the study of classical
Christianity and the traditions of the church. Although my own path has been
different, I was able to identify closely to John’s testimony as there were
several commonalities we shared.

The Mark of a Christian

Chapters five through seven mark
the most important points of part one in Your Church is Too Small. They might arguably
be some of the most important chapters in the book in my opinion. It is here
that Dr. Armstrong puts forth the evidence that supports the greatest common
denominator for all Christians; the mark of true Christian love. Scripture
references are long and deep to support the premise of “relational-unity” that
Armstrong purports as the functional oneness that should characterize the body
of Christ and all true believers. Other citations include writings from Francis
Shaeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann, and Timothy Luke
Johnson who help to build a case for relational unity within the sphere of
Christian diversity. I continue to process the points addressed in these last
three chapters of section one, especially chapter five, “Our Greatest Apologetic.”
In this particular chapter, Armstrong discusses the detail and differences of
unanimity, uniformity, and union; his final assessment is to declare (and
rightly I believe) that “the aim of the early church was the evangelization of
the world. The purpose of their oneness was to be a visible representation of
God’s love.”

Finally, closing out part one
“Past,” the following thoughts are shared concerning tension and conflict:

“Over time, I have noticed that people tend
to stay in relationships and work through their differences when they love each
other deeply and are committed to finding solutions… I’ve noticed that most
divisions in the church are not because of a major doctrinal disagreement; they
are the result of a breakdown in our love for one another…” (pp.72-73)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you,
so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my
disciples, if you love one another.”
~Jesus (John 13:34-45)

Lord, help us.

PRESENT (Part 2)

Restoring unity in the church
today is the premise and discussion of part two in Your Church is Too Small and Armstrong almost immediately asserts
that the Apostle’s Creed is a tool to help us reestablish unity. He goes on to
cite Augustine, Luther, and Calvin as strong supporters of the Creed being a
unifying bond and teaching tool for all Christians. Dr. Armstrong claims; “We
find no other document in early church history, apart from the Bible, that
served a greater purpose in uniting Christians in their common faith.”

In this age of questioning
everything and the penchant for deconstruction of most orthodox beliefs, I
found John’s points addressing the need for a confessional basis very
appropriate and timely. He proposes that we need a way of grasping the basic
intent and message of the Holy Scriptures. I think the questions he poses make
excellent starting points to answer that bigger question. He asks; “What did
the first Christians believe and why did they believe it?” And, another very
good question; “Before there was a completed Bible, how did the church
understand and confess the living message of Christ?” Great questions I think,
and I agree with Armstrong’s assessment and confession as he concludes these
thoughts; he writes:

“We never stand alone when we read and
interpret the Bible. With a grasp of history and tradition, we are able to read
the sacred Scriptures in communion with the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic
church.’”

“Studying how the historical church
understood the Scriptures greatly helped me, but it wasn’t easy. I had to learn
to humble myself and truly listen to other voices outside of my cultural and
generational context. My teachers included Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox
Christians.”

Beginning with the final
paragraphs of chapter eight, the first chapter of section two, Armstrong begins
to point the finger at the destroyer of unity, sectarianism. He asserts
that sectarianism is a work of pride and creates an attitude of exclusivity.
Personally, and from my observation, I think his assertion is right on the
mark. Chapter nine is used to flesh out the argument for sectarian attitudes
being the chief cause for disunity in the Church with chapter ten being a
wonderfully detailed presentation of data, observation, history, and thesis to
support his case. I loved the humility and earnestness that Dr. Armstrong
displays as he shared his thoughts regarding the text from Hebrews 12:14; he
confesses, “Another text helped me
discover fresh grace: ‘Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be
holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.’ I had to ask, ‘Was my effort
to live in peace truly serious?’”
This is a question we should all be
sincere enough to ask ourselves and bold enough to answer honestly…that is, if
we really believe that it was Jesus’ prayer and intent that we be “one” body.

Following the discourse on
sectarianism, the flavor of section two in Your
Church
turns much more palatable and positive with chapter eleven and
“thinking rightly about the church.” It is here that Dr. Armstrong begins to
answer the question: “What is the church?” After carefully walking the reader
through a number of negatives (what the church is not), we arrive at the
following conclusion:

“The congregation is the church. One local
congregation is as much the church as any other church. But the church is also
the whole of all such congregations throughout the whole earth. So the church
is both the local congregation and whole people of God.”
(p.107)

Now, that will make some of us
squirm. But, as Armstrong points out, what else are we supposed to do with
Paul’s commentary to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:4-6)? I appreciated the diagrams and
illustrations from Rex Koivisto’s work in One
Lord, One Faith
which helped me to see a visual representation of what it
looks like to be the church working in unison with The Church. I think Dr. Armstrong put’s words to Koivisto’s
illustrations when he aptly states: “We
are to be the church for them, not
for us. We do this best when we begin to recognize the one church in our city.
This concept would radically alter the ministry of almost every congregation I
know if it were put into practice by the leaders.”
I believe this. I really
do. I cannot help but wonder what would happen in our society (and the global
community) if we really started to live as the people of God, followers of
Jesus Christ, choosing to deny ourselves and respond to our world as ministers
of the reconciliation working with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength to
restore the kingdom of God…what if… (2 Corinthians 5:19-21).

Chapters twelve and thirteen
round out part two, The Present, with thought provoking dialogue concerning the
church and the kingdom of God and what role our history and tradition have in
the convergence of the two. Although God’s kingdom and providential decree that
“it will come” (His Kingdom) is sovereignly ordained, we (the church) are often
quick to dismiss and/or neglect our partnership and role (which is also
sovereignly ordained) in its work. This is a shame and I was deeply saddened as
I was reminded how far we (the modern church) miss the mark of displaying the
glory of our God before the world. Sadly, we spend way too much time, energy,
and resources “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” when we have the
ability and the mandate to be salt and light to the world. Sigh…I am reminded
of Jesus’ remarks to his disciples (Matthew 17:17). I cannot help but think
that we are missing an enormous opportunity to partner in blessing the whole
world through the Body that is Christ’s, His glorious Church.

Tradition is the tie that binds
the body; it is the objectivity of tradition that keeps us rooted and grounded
in the story of God. Our pride and individualism show their bright colors (and
ignorance) when we denounce tradition and refuse to acknowledge it as the gift
that it truly is. Armstrong presents a wonderful case as he examines four
components of Christian tradition: Biblical tradition, tradition in classical
Christianity, the role of Scripture in tradition, and the wisdom of the church
fathers. The sum of the evidence and examination of tradition’s role is best
captured in these closing comments by Armstrong:

“The result of this schism 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.’ Thankfully, many are waking up to the tragedy of this
false individualism and are wisely looking for help from the three great
classical Christian traditions and the scores of ancient writers who feed their
hunger. This is paleo-orthodoxy, and it drives a growing number of us to
embrace a much bigger view of the Church.” (p.130)

FUTURE (Part 3) “The Missional-Ecumenical Movement”

John Armstrong begins this
concluding section of Your Church is Too
Small
by discussing the nature and definition of the “True Church.” He also
poses the question whether the “True Church” exists at all. The answer, he
says, is “yes;” the True Church does exist… it is God’s community of people on earth.
Quoting Paul, he writes: “This ideal church is made up of all people everywhere
‘who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.’”

Personally, I agree with
Armstrong that we need an objective starting point if we are to work toward a
believable, Biblical, and sustainable unity in the Church. He says the great
problem with the famous dictum: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials,
freedom; and in all things charity” there still remains that one Christian’s
non-essential is another’s essential. How true, but we must still find a
grounding point or points to proceed on the path toward Biblical (Love) unity.
He cites Lesslie Newbigin’s convicting remarks below:

“The world will always, consciously or
unconsciously, judge what the church says by what it is. They will interpret
the printed epistle by the living epistle.” (p.139)

I continue to wrestle with and
process the thinking in this final section, especially chapter fifteen. I’m not
sure I fully understand the subtle nuances and intricacies of what Dr.
Armstrong purports with regard to “fruit inspection” and determining “who is a
real Christian.” As I said, I’m still processing this chapter (and likely, will
be doing so for some time), so I don’t have a lot to speak on it at this
juncture. I will say that some of the questions I am sorting through regard
church discipline, “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “wheat and tares,” and whether
or not (and how) “judgment and/or fruit
inspection
” precludes discipline…there are more questions, but these are
dominating my thoughts rather prominently at the moment. Suffice it to say,
this is a very thought-provoking chapter; at least it is for me.

Chapters sixteen through eighteen
discuss the missional-ecumenical paradigm that Armstrong hints at throughout
the book. It is here that he really spends some time and focus developing the
heart of his passion; additionally, he shares his mentors and some of the more
significant influences that have helped him formulate this missional-ecumenical
paradigm. 

I mentioned that I first became
aware of Your Church is Too Small
from a review by Michael Bird on the euangelion
blog site. He brings to light a repeated point and call by Armstrong to return
to paleo-orthodoxy as a springboard toward unity. I think Michael Bird captured
this call very well, so rather than repeat it myself I will share his thoughts
here. Michael writes the following:

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.

I was greatly inspired by the
examples and resultant fruit that was shared by communities that are practicing
this spirit of missional-ecumenism. Personally, I long for this type of
community. I stand in the camp with those who agree that One Church is what the
Lord has intended for His people.

The final chapter is Armstrong’s
concluding thoughts and prayer for the Church. I not only agree with his
thesis, but have been refreshed and inspired to press on in pursuit of the
vision. As I said in my opening statement, I believe this is a very important
book. It raises many questions (some of which I am still working through
myself), and prompts us to do some serious examination of our own hearts and
ambition. I am reminded of something I read from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together where he proposes that
many of us (Christians) are in love with our own version of God’s Church…we
fight tooth and nail for it, but our version is not the Vision of God for His
Church (my paraphrase). We build idols from our beliefs and destroy each other
in the process of worshiping those beliefs over the God whom we claim to be
serving. I am thankful for this book. I am sure I will be referring to it and
the well documented resources and bibliography. I think is should be read by
pastors and lay leaders alike. Armstrong includes a few discussion questions at
the end of each chapter that are helpful to kick-off  conversations if a group or leadership team wanted to read
the book together.

Disturb us, Lord… disturb us from
our idols and disturb us from being idle. Disturb us, O Lord, indeed.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    Scot,
    Great review of what sounds like a great book.
    I’m curious – what about the confession of a local, particular church within a larger, universal Church do you think will make some squirm? That is a pretty common understanding of the church dating as far back to Augustine.
    I love the seven-fold recipe for deepening unity that Bird shares. In the Methodist church there has been a strong renewal in each of those. One thing I would add upon (which relates to point #5) is a grounding people in the calendar of the church vs. the cultural calendar. I would argue that one of the reasons people have lost a deeper sense of communion with the saints is because it has only been since the Reformation that groups began rejecting the liturgical church year because it smacked of Catholicism (as is usually our tendency, the Reformers threw out the baby with the bathwater). Today, re-learning the importance of observing Lent, anticipating Advent, renewing our baptismal vows on Epiphany Sunday, teaching why we have Easter sunrise services, pulling out all the stops on Pentecost Sunday are all valuable ways to root people in a larger story that has far more meaning than marking the passing of time by consecutive St. Patty Days or national holiday celebrations.
    thanks for this.
    Chad

  • http://mildenhall.net/ Helen

    Wow, that’s a very detailed review. I’m glad Jeff thinks it’s an important book.
    I was very impressed with it (I also received a review copy). I posted my (short) review of the book here:
    http://www.mildenhall.net/2010/03/13/review-your-church-is-too-small-by-john-armstrong/

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    Thanks for the review, Jeff. I’ve got a copy ordered. I like forward to reading it myself.


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