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. Here is the secondÂ of three reviews of John’s passionate and provocative new book, Your Church Is Too Small.
The middle section of “Your Church” focuses on the present and restoring unity in the church today.
First, John Armstrong recommends that the Apostles’ Creed, the earliest summary of Christian faith in the post-apostolic era, can help us with this task.
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. (p.79)
Everyone must interpret the Bible. And rarely does quoting Bible verses alone create unity. We need a summary like the Apostles’ Creed, which offers a time-tested statement of the true, orthodox faith. It represents “The Great Tradition” of the church, the kerygma and early tradition of the apostles, which created unity in the church before the canon of Scripture was recognized.
Unfortunately, we live today in an era produced by a millennium of sectarianism. Sectarianism champions ideological approaches that think in terms of theological systems of almost mathematical certainty which go beyond simple summaries like the Apostles’ Creed.
Armstrong argues against sectarianism and for a spirit of “catholic diversity”â€”not a post-modern relativism which denies the reality of truth or any sense of certaintyâ€”but a humble recognition that we human beings are limited and sinful, that our perceptions of truth are often wanting, that any “systems” we create will contain inherent flaws. We can learn from each other, our different traditions, and respect various ways of “knowing” that lead us beyond mere intellectual definitions into personal relationship with God through Christ.
If, however, we cling to our ideological and sectarian commitments:
The result is a virtual loss of the biblical tradition of wisdom. In this setting, knowledge is pursued not to draw our souls into the love of Christ but to get answers to questions posed by our ideology. (p.98)
Secondly, a spirit of catholic diversity will not only lead us to rethink our ideological approaches to truth, it will also change our thinking about the church. When we hear the word “church” it is common to think either in terms of a local congregation or of the “universal” churchâ€”the church everywhere and throughout history.Â However, there is a third way to imagine the church.
The N.T. speaks of the “Church” that exists in multiple forms throughout a city or region. In any particular place, there may be many “churches” of various denominations and types, but they are all part of God’s “Church” in that area. Any individual congregation may view itself as one part of a larger whole rather than as the sole local expression of the church, autonomous, self-existing, and self-sustaining. This change is perception alone could be beneficial in achieving a deeper sense of unity among us.
Third, recognizing that the church is part of the bigger reality of God’s Kingdom can help us move beyond our narrow sectarianism into unity with other Christians. A Kingdom vision takes us beyond a narrow parochialism into the flow of what God is doing throughout the world and even on a cosmic level. His plan is not merely to rescue individuals from sin and death, not merely to create local communities of faith, but to redeem his entire creation!
Finally, John Armstrong argues that we must recapture a positive meaning for the concept of tradition in the church today. In contrast to the last few hundred years of evangelicalism, which has stressed “no creed but Christ,” “the Bible alone,” an abhorrence of “godless tradition,” and a separatistic and schismatic style of building churches and movements on the strong personalities of charismatic leaders, the author points to the ancient-future approach of paleo-orthodox theologian Thomas Oden, who stresses the consensual doctrinal unity of Christianity’s great traditionsâ€”the Roman church, the Eastern church, the churches of the Reformation, and the Anabaptist churchesâ€”as a basis for a “post-denominational, flexible, and deeply rooted ancient faith,” a true orthodoxy that embraces “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (Vincent of Lerins).