When I was at Trinity I had the pleasure of having Carl Henry for a class. One day he told us that we need to think in terms which will “move Christendom.” I thought “I’ll put that on my calendar. ‘Take final exam in Henry’s class. Move Christendom.’” Well, I passed the final exam but have not done anything that I would consider worthy enough of moving Christendom.
As I was reading John Armstrong’s book, Your Church is Too Small, it occurred to me “This guy is thinking in terms which could move Christendom!” But let’s clarify one important point: this book is not about growing church membership. John has a bigger vision than simply transforming a small church into a mega church. No. Your church is not simply the little white church with a steeple on Little Church Ave. It is part of the church which Christ prayed for in John 17 and spans the globe. This church includes Catholics, Evangelicals, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostals, Reformed, Wesleyans and more. We begin with Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23.
John notes that some have focused on what the prayer does not mean rather than on what it does mean. (42) When pressed they usually adopt an interpretation which appeals to something along the lines of the invisible church. But this can’t work since Jesus would be praying for something we already possess. The invisible church is united! Rather, Jesus is speaking of a “relational unity” or a “unity between persons that is rooted in their relationships with one another.” (43) I think John is supported here by Paul in Romans 15:5 where he prays that God will give to them “the same attitude of mind toward each other that Jesus had.” Doug Moo observes in his commentary “Paul’s concern is not, at least primarily, that the believers in Rome all hold the same opinion of these ‘matters indifferent’; but that they remain united in their devotion to the Lord Jesus and to his service in the world.” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 871) It is this very unity which John says has been undermined by divisions and fractions in the church. “We must” he says “cultivate a holy discontent about our unholy divisions.” (63) At the root of these divisions is sectarianism. He defines sectarianism as “mutual exclusivity, an exclusivity that thrives when people and groups believe they have a superior claim to truth. Sectarians believe their church/denomination/tradition can best ‘represent the body of Christ, to the exclusion or minimization of other genuinely Christian groups.” (92) It is here I think John shows some careful thinking because he reminds us often that we should not give up what makes us distinctive. “I agree that everyone should believe that the church they embrace is the ‘right’ one. Problems often arise, though, when Christians and churches believe that their brand of Christianity is entirely right—a way of thinking rooted in the notion that I am one who believes the truth and you believe a lie.” (93) There is a tightrope which John walks and he keeps his readers aware of the dangers of going to either extreme. One example of the extremes to be avoided are between uniformity and deviance. “When uniformity goes too far, we oppress and suppress those who disagree with us; when deviance goes too far, we allow almost anything that our age deems appropriate. Unity in Christ and the truth must be our pattern.” (138) This is a big dream and John knows it will take work. He says, “I am sure on one thing: idealistic dreams of unity will not bring about unity itself.” (89)
The pattern for our unity is also seen in the Trinity. In the Trinity we see three persons in perfect union and harmony. But we are fragmented and divided. The solution John says “is for Christians to first cultivate a love for catholicity and then prayerfully reach across our divisions, challenging each other to embrace the mission of Christ together.” (104) We have to stop thinking of ourselves as simply Methodists or Baptists or Lutherans. Together we are the people of God. We could say the Methodists, Baptists and Lutherans (and others but you get the point) of Grand Rapids are the Church at Grand Rapids. (See the chart on page 109.) There is much more that ties us together than divides us. John cites the Apostle’s creed as a prime example of something which unifies us. “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. The creed was confessed in one’s baptism, affirmed regularly by the whole gathered church, and openly used to express the kind of essential Christianity that united believers.” (78)
John’s term of preference is missional-ecumenism. The back of the book contains a helpful glossary and there we find this definition of missional-ecumenism: “I wish to stress these two truths: (1) God is both a unity in himself and as such a sending God, and (2) God’s revealed desire is that we would be (relationally) one with him in this sending and sent (mission) process—thus the term missional-ecumenism.” (203)
I resonate with a lot of what John says. His early start on this path was triggered by meeting Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Slowly his defenses came down and he realized his fears were “negatively impacting his spiritual life and bringing with it deep anxiety.” (31) Eventually he “discovered a wonderful liberty in letting go of the need to always be right!” (39) In my job here at Baker on the Church Relations Team I’ve been to dozens of wonderful churches. I’ve met Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, and plenty of Reformed folk who I’ve learned so much from and value all their friendships. John says that he still has some “misgivings about parts of the ecumenical movement.” (170) He does not elaborate much on this point. (I suppose too much of that would be counter to his intent.) I have some concerns of my own as I read the book. I’ll simply enumerate them here.
1) How is the gospel defined in an ecumenically acceptable way? John mentions the problem of the “gospel wars” which are “accompanied by huge debates, conferences, and books.” (161) But, he says, “When we reduce the gospel to manageable ideas, we demonize other Christians who do not preach the gospel as we do. A favorite text can be Galatians 1:6-9, where Paul warns about false gospels. (Rarely do those who use this text pay careful attention to the context or its social setting; instead it becomes another proof text for attacking Christians!)” (162) John says he used to engage in these kinds of debates and that it was “not totally wrong.” He says we need truth and “without truth there is no real Christianity.” (162) “But,” he says “I am now firmly convinced that without a serious commitment to missional-ecumenism, we will never get the proper balance needed for modern reformation.” (162) What does it mean to have a gospel that is not a “manageable idea?” To me a manageable idea is something that I can adequately understand enough to clearly communicate it to someone else. Clearly, this is not what John is talking about. Perhaps he has in mind that the gospel is not something which I can wield at whim or use for my own purposes (for fame or fortune?). I would certainly agree with that. But he ends this discussion with no clear definition of what the gospel is. The huge debates, conferences and books exist because people disagree about what that message is and I’m not ready to say it is all just pointless debate.
2) Questions on defining a Christian. By asking this question I open myself to being charged with being sectarian. I say this because John says when he “held tenaciously to sectarianism” he would wrestle with this question. (146) Can someone wrestle with this question and not be sectarian? I hope so because I’m wrestling with some of what John said and I don’t mean to be narrow-minded or parochial. I agree that a Christian has the Spirit of Christ. On that we agree. But why do we stop with Romans 8:9? He says he gave up asking the question because he doesn’t know who has the Spirit and who doesn’t. From here he was free to be more concerned with his own faith and attitudes. (149) He says the role of judging who is a real Christian or not is a church matter and not a private one. (150) It is a “type of ministry . . . done well by wise leaders who earnestly labor in such demanding work (see Matthew 7:1-6).” (150) But the appeal to Matthew 7 seems to indicate that there is a certain observable behavior which these wise leaders may use in their judgment. Is it only the ever-judging Christian who sits in judgment of a professing believer who shows not fruit in their life or can’t it be a sign of love, care and compassion which moves a brother or sister who is deeply troubled by what may be a self-deluded person and therefore confronts (with the appropriate grace and humility which is so often missing) the contradiction in that person's life?
3) I appreciate the appeal to the early creeds as a way of emphasizing our unity. But creeds arose not only as a formulation of what we believe but also in response to heresy. How far back and which creeds do we accept as “ecumenical?” The Reformed church does not accept all of the seven ecumenical councils in part due to some of the rulings on icons.
I don’t mean for my questions to take away from the good I see in what John is arguing for. Perhaps it is the latent sectarian in me. I would like to think it’s just some honest questions. The book is full of sound wisdom and I often found my questions were answered as I kept reading. There are numerous charts which help clarify parts of John's argument. Some I found extemely helpful such as "The Dangers of Losing the Catholicity of Denominationalism" on page 142 Others I found less helpful and problematic such as "Comparison of Attractional and Incarnational Approaches" on p. 176. John is well aware of the mine fields that surround a position like his but he shows courage in his move forward. Indeed, he's not afraid to caution his readers with words as if from a returning troop from the front lines: "Those who recognize God's desire for unity and begin to obey his commands will also need to learn how to forgive others, since every effort at unity involves misunderstandings among sinful people. You are guaranteed to get hurt! We simply cannot undertake this kind of praying and teaching without the Holy Spirit's grace and power." (83)
We created an ecumenical calendar that we sell in the store which features the church calendar with significant dates of importance to Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Messianic Jews. We did this to foster within our church relations team an appreciation for the larger church of which we are part. I can say that those of us who worked on this learned a lot and we developed valuable relationships with members of each of those communities as we put it together. I pray that John’s work and vision will grow. We may be witnesses to a move in Christendom.