By Chaplain Mike
Although the church of Jesus Christ is found in many different places, she is one true church, not many. After all, there are many rays of sunlight, but only one sun. A tree has many boughs, each slightly different from others, but all drawing their strength from one source. Many streams may flow down a hillside, but they all originate from the same spring. In exactly the same way each local congregation belongs to the one true church.
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, 3rd Century
Friend of Internet Monk, John H. Armstrong, president of ACT 3, is an adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School, author and editor of numerous books, with over twenty years of pastoral experience. Today, we offer the first of three reviews of John’s passionate and provocative new book.
It is called, Your Church Is Too Small, and in its pages John Armstrong describes the â€œthree conversions” he has had in his life.
The first was when he began to consciously follow Jesus as a boy. The second was when he became an adherent of Reformed theology and began studying and teaching the sovereignty of God.
John Armstrongâ€™s â€œthird conversionâ€ took place in 1995 during a worship service as the congregation was reciting the Apostlesâ€™ Creed. As he heard himself say the words, â€œI believe inâ€¦the holy catholic church,â€ the Holy Spirit brought John 17:20-23 to his mind.
I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. (NASB)
John began meditating more and more upon Jesusâ€™ prayer, and the direction of his life changed. He developed a growing love for the church as Godâ€™s people and a passion that the church be one in answer to the Saviorâ€™s words. His journey led him to delve into a deeper study of church history and the various traditions of classical Christianity that had developed from apostolic times, and to begin intentionally forming contacts and relationships with folks from those traditions. His love for the church turned into a passion for what he now calls â€œmissional-ecumenism.â€
This is the subject of Your Church Is Too Small. The book is organized into three parts:
- PAST: The Biblical and historical basis for Christian unity
- PRESENT: Restoring unity in the church today
- FUTURE: The missional-ecumenical movement
In Part One, Armstrong lays out his concerns and the foundational premises of the book. Like his colleague, Robert Webber, Armstrong came to see that the path to the future of the church lies in its past.
True Christian faith is not found in personal religious feeling but in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessing church. Therefore, if we refuse to come to grips with our past, our future will not be distinctively Christian. The result will be new forms of man-made religion that embrace recycled heresies. (p.18)
Much rethinking about the church is confused precisely because it seeks an ideal church while denying the actual reality of the historical church. (p.20)
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. (p.24)
Armstrong also became convinced that the path to the churchâ€™s witness in the future runs through Jesusâ€™ desire for the churchâ€™s unity, as expressed in the prayer of John 17. Many interpreters and theologians have read this prayer and commented on what unity does NOT mean (out of fear and reaction to ecumenical efforts). They have limited Jesusâ€™ petition to a prayer for invisible unity.
That is a serious interpretive mistake, says John Armstrong. Jesus is praying for relational unity, and for unity in the mission of God in the world. This is the same kind of oneness Jesus has with the Father, persuasively demonstrated in his earthly ministry. Therefore, our Lord was praying for something visibleâ€”love among believers that will actively spread Godâ€™s love throughout the world.
This love is to be relational and cooperational. It goes beyond unanimity (agreement in all things), uniformity (agreement in all practices), or union (organizational oneness).
It is all Godâ€™s people recognizing Christ at the center and aggressively seeking ways of demonstrating our common love for Jesus, on both the individual and church level.
In the second part of our review, we will look at John Armstrongâ€™s analysis of the present, and how we can restore unity in the church today.