Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review: Your Church is Too Small

Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission Is Vital to the Future of the ChurchI was sent the book "Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church" for free if I would review it on my blog. My review does not have to be positive which unfortunately it is not for this book.

First of all this book is not about church growth, attendance, or the physical size of church buildings. The author John H. Armstrong explained what he meant by the title "Your Church is Too Small" in the introduction:
I am referring to our all to common penchant for placing limits on Christ's church - limits that equate the one church with our own narrow views of Christ's body. When our church is too small, we adopt a desperately flawed image. The image shrivels our spirit and hinders Christ's mission. Please understand that the "small church" I refer to is a mind-set in believers that hinders the work of the Holy Spirit in mission and is contrast to the prayer of Jesus for our unity.
That sounds great on the surface. In fact, much of what he says is good - to a point. I'll try to explain.

He claims that "the road to the future" is through the past and he points to the Apostles Creed as something that can "help us" get back to the unity he believes we need in the Church. In fact he feels pretty strongly about the importance the Apostle's Creed.
As I began to recognize the historical importance of the Apostles' Creed, I also saw how this statement could begin to shape our faith and practice. I had been taught to believe that the church should follow the Bible, never human creeds.
He goes on to say that the Apostles Creed gave him a "place to stand with my brothers and sisters without having to surrender my core orthodoxy." But, just who does Armstrong call his "brothers and sisters"?

The focus of this book is on unity. Armstrong advocates what he calls "missional-ecumenism." This missional-ecumenism transcends not just denominational boundaries but also to Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. He writes:
I believe the pursuit of oneness means we must not shy away from opportunities to engage in relational and cooperational unity between churches - Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. Though the three great historic branches of the Christian church cannot presently pursue union with one another, they can seek greater relational and cooperational unity even as they pray for ways to address the historic differences that have led to disunity in the past.
Catholics and Protestants are learning to interact with each other in gracious ways…Thus there are people in all three of the great Christian traditions who are actually learning to love one another. They are finding out that what unites them is much greater than what divides them. I believe this has to be the work of God’s Spirit. No matter what can be said about failed plans for unity under older forms of ecumenism, it cannot be said that these new developments are the work of the enemy.
According to Armstrong his approach has
...practical consequences for those who consider themselves evangelicals. It means I can no longer be an anti-Catholic, evangelical (Reformed) Protestant. With deep conviction, I am compelled to regard both Catholics and the Catholic Church with love and esteem.
I agree that there does need to be unity among those who are part of Christ's true Church (which is made up of those who truly have repented and turned from their sins and trust in Christ alone for their salvation). This unity that should be evident among the body of Christ means that we set aside our personal opinions on matters that are not clear in Scripture. But, I do believe that there are times in which "disunity" must take place. Let me explain: if the connection of churches that I am a part of would ever fail to stand for the clear Truth of God's Word (i.e. Justification by faith) than I would have to eventually leave them as a result. I have heard people who have dealt with this sort of thing explain it this way: "I didn't leave the church of _________ the church left me." (By the way, unity is not always a good thing read the story of the Tower of Babel again if you think so)

One of my big problems with this book is that the author seems to assume that everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. He even wrote, "Christians have argued and opposed each other for centuries. At times, this has led Christians to persecute other Christians, even to the point of putting them to death." I don't believe that true Christians persecute and kill other people! I also don't believe that someone can believe and practice everything that the Catholic Church teaches and be a Christian! I am sure that there are many Catholics who are Christians, but they would have to be in spite of what their Church teaches. 

The thesis of Armstrong's argument is Jesus prayer in John 17 where Armstrong says that Jesus was praying for the relational unity of His disciples and us. I think that this is where his thesis starts to come apart because I believe he misses the whole point of John 17. Jesus wasn't praying for His disciples unity simply for the sake of unity. He was praying that His followers would be sanctified and that they would become one in Him. He wanted His followers to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1).

Throughout the book it seems to me that Armstrong has a pretty weak view of Scripture. He wrote, "Scripture alone, without human life and consensus, is subject to every human whim and fancy." He also wrote:
Everyone interprets the Bible. This truth may be abundantly clear to you, but I have found that it is easily forgotten by ‘Bible-centered’ Christians. Quoting the Bible rarely settles disagreements. By themselves, Bible verses fail to promote unity. Consider the fact that many cults will affirm the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, yet they interpret its meaning in ways that suit their own personal preference.
This may very well be true, but the problem is not with the sufficiency of the Scripture but with those who "interpret its meaning in ways that suit their own personal preference." The title for the section that the above quote is from in the book is called "A Confessional Basis for True Catholicity." In it he argues that "When core orthodoxy, as represented by the Apostles' Creed, is not of primary importance, the result will always be a small view of the church." The author goes on in the chapter to question those who "argue that what matter most is right doctrine, and we get right doctrine by a proper exegesis of the Bible." It seems pretty clear to me that he places the Apostles' Creed before the Bible. While I do believe the Apostles' Creed has its place, I certainly do not believe that it is what contains Truth and not the Bible!

Armstrong used John 17:20-23 as the basis for his thesis that Jesus was praying for His followers relational unity. As I've already mentioned, I disagree that Jesus was praying for their unity just for the sake of unity. In fact, if you look back a couple verses in John 17 Jesus said:
14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.
Jesus makes it very clear in His prayer that His desire for His followers is that they would be sanctified. But how? Through the Truth. What is Truth? Jesus said, "Your word is truth." He wants us to "be sanctified by the truth."

These verses alone should make it very clear how important the Truth is and how important God's Word is! Yes creeds such as the Apostles Creed are important, but not before His Word.

Here is where I believe the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is so helpful and I believe it is beneficial in the discussion of this book. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a term that was coined by Albert Outler to describe John Wesley's methodology for coming to theological conclusions. Outler examined Wesley's work and came to the conclusion that Wesley used four different sources in coming to theological conclusions. The four sources were:
  1. Scripture - the Holy Bible (Old and New Testaments)
  2. Tradition - the two millennia history of the Christian Church
  3. Reason - rational thinking and sensible interpretation
  4. Experience - a Christian's personal and communal journey in Christ

"Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture [however] is primary, revealing the Word of God 'so far as it is necessary for our salvation."

I believe that this "Quadrilateral" is a very wise way of coming to theological conclusions. God's Word always comes first, then tradition (such as the Apostles Creed), reason, and finally experience. I believe if this method is used it helps safeguard from many errors and if it had been used by the author of this book I think that it would have helped him to avoid what I believe are some areas in which he is in error.

I need to wrap up this very long review! (Now I know why I haven't reviewed very many books!)

I believe that unity is very important in the Church, but not at the sake of Truth. I don't recommend this book for the reasons mentioned above. Unfortunately there seems to be a real lack of clarity on what the Gospel really is. The reason that Catholics are Protestants are not in unity is because of the Gospel. Countless people lost their lives to the Catholic Church because of the Gospel. I fear that ideas such as the ones in this book only help to undo the Reformation.

While I was reading this book there were always nagging questions that would come to mind. Some of which he tried to answer in the book, others not. Questions such as:
  1. Why doesn't the author become a Catholic himself?
  2. If Catholics are Christians why should Protestant Churches exist? 
  3. Was the Reformation wrong?
  4. If I become missional-ecumenical as the author advocates, should I go to Italy as a missionary since it is 97.2% Catholic? Wouldn't I be just trying to convert them to "my" ideas and wouldn't this be wrong?
  5. If I don't need to go to Italy as a missionary is the only countries that need missionary those who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or some other non-"Christian" religion?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Zondervan Publishing in exchange for reviewing it on my blog. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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