Review of John H. Armstrong’s Your Church is Too Small

Zondervan sent me a free review copy of John H. Armstrong’s “Your Church is Too Small”.  The book weighs in at 199 pages + glossary and notes.  Throughout the text difficult or technical words in the text are bolded and explained in glossary.  This allows the text to use jargon like Kerygma or make references to literature that some might be familiar with, like the Didache.  Those knowledgeable about these subjects aren’t distracted with footnotes or slowed down with an explanatory paragraph and those who aren’t familiar aren’t left in the dark.  The discussion questions at the end of each chapter show that this book is certainly aimed at a wide audience.

The big idea behind the book is that we should take our Christian unity seriously by working towards it.  This thesis is an idea I was sympathetic too before reading the book:  I was baptized and confirmed in a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church, in college was involved with InterVarsity (multi-ethnic chapter), helped plant a Vineyard church, am enrolled in an inter-denominational seminary and now attend an American Baptist church. I love the diversity and certainly agree with Armstrong’s argument that our unity does not lie in uniformity of doctrine but on the work of Jesus Christ.

I have read about a number of attempts to move churches towards ecumenism and Armstrong avoids some common pitfalls.  We can’t move towards the lowest common denominator and we cannot pretend like these differences are not substantial or even mutually-exclusive.  Armstrong investigates a number of schemes to categorize doctrine as essential and non-essential in an attempt to reveal a large amount of common ground.  I greatly appreciate the way that Armstrong challenges the readers (and me) to take Jesus’ command for unity seriously, his incorporation of Trinitarian theology, and his emphasis on relational and visible unity.

One major question cropped up in my mind reading through the first half of this book.  I agree that the Apostle’s Creed is a faithful statement of Christian doctrine, but I don’t think it says everything that needs to be said.  Put more concisely, I believe that the Apostle’s Creed is necessary but not sufficient.  The “four marks of the church” – one, holy, catholic, apostolic – do not exhaust everything that can be said about the church.  And we may want to expand or have multiple definitions for each one of those words.  Under the heading of “holy” I would also include that the church is not a free association of members and not simply “the set of true believers” but a spiritual reality that sets the corporate body of Christ apart from “the world”.  Under the heading of “one” I would also remind Christians that the church is the one institution that God gave us for salvation – there is no other Utopia.  This is not to discount the work of para-church organizations or sodalities (remember I was in InterVarsity!) but that Christ viewed it better for Himself to go and ascend to the Father than not. God’s Spirit and God’s Word given to God’s people in God’s church led by God’s disciples was considered sufficient.

Finally, consider the nature of the Apostle’s Creed itself – does saying “I believe in the Holy Spirit” really quite encompass all that there is to know about God’s Spirit in and among us?  Or think of the Chalcedonian Creed – it does much more to tell you what the incarnation isn’t than what it is.  While I agree that these Creeds are historic and necessary, I don’t think that a reduction to any set of doctrines will really satisfy or foster unity without a parallel statement of orthopraxy.  We’ll see if the second half of the book answers these questions and concerns.

Posted in Christianity | 6 Comments »

6 Comments

  1. A. Amos Love says:

    Unity. Hmmm?

    Sometimes good and some times, er, not so good?

    Just wondering…

    What if God is the author of our disagreements and separations?
    “And all things are of God…” 2 Cor 5:18, Rom 11:36, Col 1:16-17, etc.

    Didn’t God confuse man’s language once before?
    Aren’t those things that happened to others,
    written for us to learn from?

    Now all these things happened unto them for examples:
    and they are written for our admonition,
    upon whom the ends of the world are come.
    1 Cor 10:11

    For whatsoever things were written aforetime
    were written for our learning,
    that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures have hope.
    Rom 15:4

    Didn’t God intervene when “man was in unity”
    with their own devices, their own plans,
    trying to build something themselves,
    to reach heaven and “make a name for themselves?”

    Could that be the ekklesia’s problem today also?
    Doing their own thing – NOT God’s thing?

    **Man trying to build something?
    (Movements? Denominations? Church Planting?)
    **And make a name for themselves?
    (“Titles” on buildings, schools, websites, books, diplomas, etc.)
    **Being in unity they could accomplish anything?

    wikipedia lists many, Nay – 1,000’s, of Denominations.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations

    …let us build us a city and a tower,
    whose top may reach unto heaven;
    and let us make us a name…
    Gen 11:4

    Gen 11:6-8
    And the LORD said, Behold,
    the people is one, (unity?)(this doesn’t sound good?)
    and they have all one language; (unity-sound alike?)
    and this they begin to do: (work together?)
    and now nothing will be restrained from them,
    (we can do anything, working together?)
    which they have imagined to do.
    (“the imagination of man’s heart is evil.”(
    ( Gen 6:5, Gen 8:21, Jer 3:17, Jer 11:8.)
    Go to, let us go down,
    and there **confound their language,** that they may
    **not understand one another’s speech…**
    (Hmmm? Sound familiar?)
    (Baptist, Pentecostal, Reformed, Calvinist, Egalitarian, Mercy Lord… )

    God often gives us what we ask for, and, “A Little Bit Extra.”

    Want some “Meat” in the wilderness?
    God also sends “leanness to the soul.” Psalm 106:15. Oy Vey!

    Want some “Kings” to rule over us?
    How did that work out? 1 Sam 8:11-19 Ouch!

    “Traditions of men” nullify the word of God.
    Mark 7:13

    Hmmm? Just wondering…
    What if God is the author of our disagreements and separations?

    Then what…???

    Are we working for Unity? And NOW – working against God?

  2. admin says:

    Amos,

    Great points all around! I think your main point is that our God is not “unity” but our God is God. He may ask us to do all kinds of things and we must be open to His promptings.

    Again, Babel can be instructive – if we are seeking to come together “to make a name for ourselves” or through human efforts to close the distance between God and man, we should expect our efforts to be divinely frustrated.

    And you are absolutely right – some divisions between churches and denominations are legitimate. For example, a lot of what I see going on in the PCUSA saddens me – imagine if they still clung to Westminster! I don’t think it’s prudent at this point in time for the PCA and PCUSA churches to seek unity on the basis that they are still miles apart.

    On the other hand, some unity is petty and divisive. I appreciate your comments and all such seeking of unity or disunity calls for discernment and a careful study of the Word of God.

    For me, I think that genuine Christian love can be extended to my brothers and sisters whom I believe to be in error. John Newton’s “On Controversy” is a great instruction on how to meet our brothers and sisters whom we disagree with (http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=217) in charity and love.

    Ultimately, we must speak the truth in love. How difficult it is to not neglect one for the other!

    b

  3. Rob Haskell says:

    So that’s what “too small” means… I confess I was a bit irritated with the title when I thought it was a criticism of small churches. Suggestion: Forget about “ecumenism”. To address it (argue against it, for it, or clarify your position in relation to it) is to address the past. The “ecumenical movement” is not anything that is being pushed today. That was an attempt to create a single church from all the diverse churches. It didn’t happen and no one is trying anymore. It’s frustrating how evangelicals get stuck on these pseudo categories. Arguing for and against and cautioning against things that no longer exist (sometimes they never did exist!). To Amos – your example about the tower of Babel is a nice set up for making the opposite point, since the founding moment of the church is a reversal of Babel (Acts 2). Having done away with all the qualifications and perceived misinterpretations of unity, we are still left with the encouraging fact that the body of Christ is ONE. Blessings to all.

  4. admin says:

    Rob – Yes, sorry I didn’t make that clear. A quote from page 13 – the first sentence of the introduction:

    “Do not allow the title of this book to mislead you. I freely admit I borrowed the idea from J. B. Phillip’s classic book Your God Is Too Small. By saying your church is too small, I am not referring to the physical size of a church building. I am referring to our all too common penchant for placing limits on Christ’s church — limits that equate the one church with our own narrow views of Christ’s body.”

    And yes, I’m not really behind the “ecumenical movement” per se. I don’t think it’s healthy to collapse or reduce all churches to a single framework but that diversity is very much part of God’s plan. I am behind being ecumenical in the sense of being generous and compassionate towards those who disagree with me. I think of this along a number of lines:

    1 – I have been seriously wrong, could be now, and probably will be in the future. The Lord in His grace patiently continues to call me even after all these years.
    2 – We cannot treat our brothers and sisters in Christ worse than we would treat an unbeliever. (Also brings up the question as to how we would treat an unbeliever.)
    3 – Taking a high view of the sovereignty and grace of God means that the situation could very well have been reversed and I in egregious error and my “opponent” correcting and reproving and rebuking me.
    4 – No one is argued into the Kingdom.

    I also agree that Pentecost stands as a direct undoing of the judgement upon Babel. Amos, how does this affect what you said earlier?

    And yes, let us rejoice that ultimately the unity of faith does not rest upon our doctrinal uniformity but upon the finished work of Christ! I hope and pray that I might be among the countless number gathered around the throne from every tribe, tongue, and nation praising God for all eternity.

  5. J.L. Schafer says:

    John Armstrong would wholeheartedly agree that the Apostles’ Creed is not exhaustive, nor even sufficient, to define what it means to be a Christian. Last year he visited my church and gave two excellent lectures on the Creed. They’re a bit long (1 hour each) but John is a great speaker. The videos are

    Part 1:
    http://www.ubftv.org/av/video/events/Special/Armstrong-Apostle.flv

    Part 2:
    http://www.ubftv.org/av/video/events/Special/JA2.flv

  6. admin says:

    J.L. Schafer –

    Awesome! Thanks for the links. I’ll definitely check them out.

    Also, probably should have made it more prominent, but I’m only half way through the book so perhaps he’ll address those concerns in the later half.

    Also, the review did come off a bit negative, didn’t it? I think the book is well written and articulate, and Armstrong has certainly very widely and deeply read. His familiarity with different traditions throughout history is quite impressive.