In Your Church Is Too Small, John H. Armstrong presents a vision of the unity possible for Christians across social, cultural, racial, and denominational lines. When Jesus’ followers seek unity through participation in the kingdom of God and the mission of Christ, they demonstrate God’s character to a watching world.
Armstrong’s vision of unity is built on Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John 17 and verses 20-23 in particular.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just 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 have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (ESV)
Armstrong lays out his argument in three parts. Starting with the past he looks at the Biblical and Historical Case of Christian Unity. Armstrong argues that Jesus prayer in John 17 was for relational unity. From here he lays out our need for co-operational unity with other Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant). As we move closer to Christ we should be moving closer to fellow Christians Armstrong states in chapter 6. He concludes his look at the past with a look at the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
In the second part, Armstrong brings us into the present with a look at Restoring Unity in the Church Today. Armstrong presents the case for Christian unity being the Apostles’ Creed. Armstrong then argues that sin and sectarianism are the reason for disunity. He then builds his on case for unity with a fresh look at the church, the mission, and tradition.
Finally in third part, Armstrong looks at the future in The Missional-Ecumenical Movement. He starts by getting us to look at the true church of God and who is a real Christian. Over the remaining chapters, Armstrong outlines his missional-ecumenical paradigm by which Armstrong means (1) the unified God-head is a sending God and that (2) we would be united relationally as we are sent out on mission in the world.
I found Your Church Is Too Small to be very challenging. I certainly agree that the Church is much more than my local congregation and even more than my denomination. The elect of God are the bride of Christ, the church, those He purchased from every tongue, tribe, and nation. The Church is the people of God, the true children of Abraham. I want to agree with Armstrong’s argument. It made me stop and think about my beliefs. In the end, I don’t entirely agree with Armstrong’s position.
My main issue is with the thesis of Armstrong’s argument. I don’t see that Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23 is about relational unity. The verses immediately preceding (17-19), Jesus prays that believers would be sanctified in truth of God’s word. It seems logical to me there would be doctrinal unity as well as relational unity. Paul would seem to agree with this position. Just look at 1 Corinthians 1:10 “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
Armstrong agrees that there should be doctrinal unity which he states should be the Apostles’ Creed. No doubt that the creed it historic, but is it enough? If the our only basis for doctrinal division is the Apostles’ Creed then why not included Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons into relational unity? I have found Mormon arguments that their teaching does not contradict more definitive Nicene Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is not even definitive on the nature of the Trinity, let’s welcome the Oneness Pentecostals and Unitarians as well. See a problem here? How can we be follow Augustine’s advice “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” unless we know the essentials. At least we both agree that Brian McLaren looks to be on the outside looking in.
My second issue is more practical, if we practice the missional-ecumenism that Armstrong envisions the watching world won’t be any less confused than they already are. Say for example five Christians (a Roman Catholic, an Eastern Orthodox, a Pentecostal, a Baptist, and Presbyterian) agree to work together to evangelize a neighborhood and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While the five Christians hold that they are all united in Christ, they will most likely not share the same gospel message. Instead, their message will be shaped by their denomination. So, the non-believers in the neighborhood will be hearing five different gospels! So much for unity.
The body of Christ must be united in essential doctrine and relational unity for there to be the unity that Christ prayed for John 17. The Church needs to share the Gospel of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins and his resurrection on the third day for our justification according to the Scriptures.
Again, John H. Armstrong’s Your Church Is Too Small is a book that will challenge your thinking about the church. While I don’t share his position, the book is worth reading if for no other reason to get you thinking about Christ’s bride, his Church.
Official Site for Your Church Is Too Small
FTC required disclosure, I received a review copy of this book from Zondervan and participated in the John Armstrong Blog Tour.