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
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:
- 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.
- 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…
- 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).
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.