Book Review: Your Church is Too Small


The folks over at Zondervan’s blog Koinonia were good enough to send me a pre-release copy of Your Church is Too Small by John Armstrong, as part of the release blog tour. After reading the book, I knew that my review of the book’s content was going to be fairly negative.

I will review the book in five words and then more extensively.

Five word version: Your “Gospel” is Too Broad

Extended version:

Armstrong’s book is not another church-growth manual; rather, it borrows its title from Your God is Too Small, and introduces his idea that Christians have too narrow a view of the Universal Church, and consequently too narrow a view of churches. In chapter 1, he begins to chip away at the traditional view of the sufficiency of Scripture and in typical postmodern fashion he writes,

Scripture alone, without human life and consensus, is subject to every human whim and fancy.

So when humans do hermeneutics and subsequent theology together, we necessarily avoid whims? That seems to be the implication of his argument. He continues to explain that postmodernism is not a problem for the Church or her unity (pg. 20). He sees God doing a unifying work in this generation that focuses on mission and unity; he calls it missional-ecumenism. This missional-ecumenism transcends not just denominational boundaries within those churches that would be considered evangelical, but also between those same evangelical churches, Roman Catholic churches, and Orthodox churches. He writes,

Catholics and Protestants and 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.

In my view, Armstrong makes the following dangerous assumptions:

  1. All churches that are “Christian” in name are comprised of  true Christians in reality. In other words, in his view, any church that claims to be Christian or in the Christian tradition is necessarily made of people who are in Christ and subsequently part of the Universal Church. Defining the term “Christian” and the “Universal Church” in this way, he has completely begged the question.
  2. He argues that if there is unity, it must be the result of God’s Spirit. Hmm, the Tower of Babel comes to mind along with Ahab and Jehoshaphat…
  3. If we are not unified with people, we cannot and are not loving them correctly.

He explains in a chapter entitled, “my journey to catholicity begins,” that his life has had basically three conversion moments: the one when he asked Jesus to save him as a little boy, the one when he battled out the sovereignty of God / free will of man issue, and then finally when he was awakened to the need for unity in the “holy catholic church” while reading the Apostle’s Creed in his local church. He explains that after this decisive moment in which the Holy Spirit spoke to him, he began a journey of getting to know “Christians who were different” than him. He does not define what is required to be a Christian; rather, again, he assumes that anyone within the “three different historic Christian churches — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox” are Christians, despite their glaring differences on minor issues, such as the gospel.

He explains how despite the criticism of his friends who believed he was in doctrinal error, he was experiencing peace from his visits to the monasteries and from his daily practice of lectio divina. He closes the second chapter by explaining his vision and passion — to see the walls between Christians torn down, again begging the question of what constitutes a Christian.

He moves into Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and explains that he believes Jesus was praying for relational unity between the disciples and subsequent disciples. This is good, so long as we understand that when wrong doctrine is taught that ones espousing the wrong doctrine are really the ones response for the fracture, not the believers who stand for the truths of Scripture.

Again, his view of Scripture and unity both seem to be off-base. He writes,

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 (pg. 79).

Again, the problem is not with the Scriptures and their sufficiency. The problem, in my view, is with the ones who have chosen to disobey the Scriptures, not with the ones who believe that the authors intended a singular message and that the singular message is discernible today.

In his chapter entitled, “who is a real christian?” he argues from Romans 8:9 that anyone who has the Spirit of God is a true Christian. That is good as far as it goes, although the question still looms unanswered, “How does one have the Spirit of God?” He continues, however,

Privately, I hear people ask who is a real Christian with regard to their own family members or members of their congregations. If a Catholic becomes an evangelical, then those who remain Catholic are viewed by the ‘convert’ as non-Christians. (Remember, just being Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox does not mean ‘Christ’s Spirit lives in you.’) Some of my harshest critics are former Catholics who are now fervent evangelicals. There is a similar response when a Protestant converts to Catholicism, often with great rejoicing that this person is now a ‘Catholic’ Christian. A fervent Catholic apologist may even declare that this person has finally been united with Christ. These Catholics disagree with the better instincts of their own church. I am wearied by this attempt to say who is and is not a real Christian. My guess is that many of you are too. I find it destructive of everything true to Christ’s teaching (pg. 149).

He continues,

I have found real Christians in every church I have ever entered. Even in the most ill-taught churches. I have discovered people who truly love the Lord Jesus Christ. I still have disagreements with certain churches and Christian teachers, but the way to live out my faith in love is to pursue the common good of all who follow Christ. This means I no longer spend precious time attacking other Christians (pg. 151).

I have no doubts that there are Catholics who are genuine believers. In fact, I believe I met two of them last week at a coffee shop. However, I must say, and these two dear ladies agreed with me, that true believers in the Catholic church are believers not because of the teaching of their church, but in spite of the teaching of the Catholic church.

What is lacking in this book is clarity on the gospel. The reason Catholics and evangelicals are divided is exactly for that reason; they do not agree on the gospel, the matter of primary importance. This author presently teaches at Wheaton College. I wonder if he’s met the new president and if said new president will be reading this book.

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  1. #1 by Bethbo on March 16, 2010 - 4:56 am

    Thanks for the book review, David. The attempt to get along often blinds us to objectivity.

  2. #2 by A. Amos Love on March 19, 2010 - 9:23 am

    Amen – Your “Gospel” is Too Broad

    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.
    Are we working for “Unity?” And NOW working against God?

    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?

  3. #3 by David Morse on March 21, 2010 - 7:46 pm

    Amos, that’s a very interesting and seemingly valid argument.

    Unity is obviously of God (see Philippians) yet separation is taught by God too as you have noted. We have to be careful not to take away either when situations call for careful unity or loving separation.

  4. #4 by John H. Armstrong on March 24, 2010 - 4:20 pm

    I appreciate your concerns and this honest review. Thanks for telling people about my book. The new president of Wheaton has been a pastor to some in my family, a man I respect and a brother I intend to love and support. I think that comment a bit cheeky as the British would put it.

    I will only make one observation for the sake of readers of this review. Truth may not be understood in my book in the way some will understand it but I do not throw truth to the wind. I am a serious evangelical Christian who holds to a lot more than is said in the early creed(s). The book makes this abundantly clear if you read it. The issue is not how much I believe but how we proceed in a divided church context. I am, further, not saying everyone in every church is a Christian. The universal church, as in those who are born of God, is not the visible church. I also make that quite clear. My point is about how we who profess faith in Christ treat each other before the watching world of non-believers Jesus had in mind in John 17.

  5. #5 by Samuel Sutter on March 25, 2010 - 12:04 pm

    I thought some of these critiques were cheap shots. I would have likes a little more affirmation that there are walls that should be preserved. But I think that most Christians err on the side of fragmentation, and a sort of exclusive elitism – we need this book as a corrective.

  6. #6 by clearly on March 25, 2010 - 1:36 pm

    @Dr. John Armstrong,

    Thanks for stopping by ‘seeing clearly’ and thanks for your gracious remarks.

    You wrote, “Truth may not be understood in my book in the way some will understand it but I do not throw truth to the wind. I am a serious evangelical Christian who holds to a lot more than is said in the early creed(s)…The issue is not how much I believe but how we proceed in a divided church context.”

    Again, sir, I find no biblical justification for relational unity, as you phrased it, to be founded upon the early creeds. Ecclesiastically speaking, I have zero fellowship with a professing Christian church that does not in the least preach the same gospel that Jesus and his apostles taught. Paul had the same exact posture; we both know well the teachings in the Galatian Epistle regarding the one (including the apostle himself) who would teach a gospel of a different kind. This one should be delivered over for final judgment.

    And so, I stand by my review that I believe your book lacks clarity on the gospel, the matter of primary importance.

    @Samuel Sutter,

    You wrote, “But I think most Christians err on the side of fragmentation, and a sort of exclusive elitism – we need this book as a corrective.”

    In the Catholic – Evangelical landscape, who is causing the fracture? The Catholics? or true Evangelicals?

  7. #7 by John H. Armstrong on March 25, 2010 - 3:51 pm

    If I answer you last question you know as well as I do it will only lead us to some back-and-forth about what we mean by “preach the gospel.” I understand your position, as I think you must know, since I once held it. Part of the point of my book, which you know, is to say I think I was wrong and to tell why. If you are right then Roman Catholics are not members of a church. I simply do not agree with this and most evangelicals, historically, did not agree long before we got to Vatican II. Consider that evangelical Presbyterians, to name one, have almost always accepted RC baptism. And the Catholic Church accepts evangelical baptism if is is Trinitarian.

    My point is simple: Who caused the fracture is not the right question since it never solves the problem. It is much like asking, in adulthood, “Which parent caused the divorce?” In the majority of cases there is plenty of blame to go around if your look at the actual way this break-up occurred. Obviously, I remain a Protestant since I am protesting (in the most positive sense of that Latin term) errors just as you are but this does not make a Roman Catholic Church a non-church.

    As I said we could debate this and we would still not agree so I humbly respect your view but simply came to a different conclusion, one held by most Protestants now and in the past. 20th century fundamentalism impacted our ecclesiology much more than most of us know. I hate using that word and I am not hurling it as an bomb at you brother in the least. I am saying we learning what we know from somewhere and it was not by simply reading the Bible with no teachers, schools and churches influencing us. This is why the book stresses epistemology and the creeds the way it does.

    Blessings to you in your work of writing on this blog. Again, I am grateful for your comments and review.

  8. #8 by clearly on March 25, 2010 - 5:33 pm

    @Dr. John Armstrong,

    I agree with your conclusion about Roman Catholics not being a part of a church, or at least not being a part of a true church. I hold this view and am not a “landmarker” Baptist as some may conclude. Although I am a fundamentalist (am used to being marginalized, labeled, etc., so I did not perceive your mention of the word as being a bomb!), my view of the RCC as being a “false church” or not a church at all really transcends the spirit of fundamentalism as well as any fundamentalist movements that may have dominated the American ecclesiastical landscape during the course of the 20th Century.

    That a true church is one that preaches the gospel accurately was held by all the apostles, all the anabaptists, Calvin, Luther, Malanthon, and many of those within the Anglican Church as well. As you know, they also held that the sacraments had to be rightly administered, which we have not even gotten into.

    Calvin wrote, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (Institutes).

    Malancthon wrote, “The congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered. And for that true unity of the Church it is enough to have unity of belief concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.”

    I could go on with the quotes, but I am just trying to demonstrate that this is not just a fundamentalist position, although any self-respecting fundamentalist would agree with the major thrust of what I have written.

    Thanks for your charitable interaction here. I cannot imagine the scrutiny that accompanies such public written work.

  9. #9 by clearly on March 25, 2010 - 5:36 pm

    @Dr. John Armstrong,

    When I wrote, “I agree with your conclusion about Roman Catholics not being a part of a church, or at least not being a part of a true church…” I meant that I agree that this is an accurate representation of my position.

  10. #10 by John H. Armstrong on March 25, 2010 - 5:41 pm

    I read your first use the right way. And I believe you are most charitable in every way. We simply do not agree. I do feel you are attacking me in any way not am I you. This is why a “back-and-forth” as I put it would not bear fruit. What helps is really hearing and I think you hear me and you are being faithful to conscience. All I wanted to underscore was my warm regard for your writing and my fundamentally different view of the church and the gospel’s way of defining it.

    Your comment about scrutiny is a nice one. Yes, but then you expect it and must develop a spirit to address it or become a hard-nosed defensive person. In the end I am helped to know I have changed my mind and will likely keep learning. I am NOT the last word of all of this important discussion. What thrills me is how we are having it and that men like yourself can disagree in a way not like I once saw among so many.

    Blessings to you brother!

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