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The long awaited book will arrive in stores April 2010.
When you hear a title like Your Church is too Small, it might sound like the latest book on church growth. But this would be far from the truth. John H. Armstrong’s forthcoming book is not so much about increasing membership in your local church (although his concern is ultimately for missions). It’s really more about increasing your church’s conception of membership in the catholic church (catholic with a lowercase “c”).
Armstrong exposes a weak spot in the church’s doctrinal fidelity to this creed: the unity of the catholic church. Do you remember the Apostles Creed? The one used by Protestant churches all over the world? The fullest creed we know of produced by the early churches planted by the Apostles before the imperial councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon?
1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
5. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
10. the forgiveness of sins,
11. the resurrection of the body,
12. and life everlasting.
NOTICE: The catholic church is “the” catholic church. It is singular.
So many protestant churches read this creed in their churches, but how much of this has just become thoughtless routine? Why does the teaching about “the holy catholic church” come after the article on the Holy Spirit instead of the article about Jesus? What is the catholic church? What did the early churches believe was included in this notion of a “catholic” church?
How often do ministers teach their people the notion of the catholic church? In my many years as a member of many different churches, I’ve never once heard this notion taught, much less have I been taught how this doctrine informs local church ministry. The only time I’ve ever heard reference to it in any church is when the Protestant pastor wants to clarify that their church isn’t Roman Catholic. They tend to reduce their exposition on this phrase “catholic church” down to a mere clarification that they are protestant, not Roman Catholic.
But is that it? Augustine’s polemical arguments against the Donatists leaned heavily on his belief in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church. Why?
This is a great part of what John H. Armstrong’s book is about. The church. The catholic church. The catholic church is so much bigger than your local church or even your denomination. This belief is important and should effect how God’s people work together in a secular age when the unity of all Christians is vital to the continuation of the Christian mission. Could Southern Baptists (or any other denomination) have such a huge impact on world missions without the unity and cooperation of their local churches? Of courses not. It’s their unity that enables them to fund such huge missionary projects. Unity, then, is vital for missions.
But Does the catholic church act more like a family or a dysfunctional family? Dr. Armstrong is not just concerned about ecumenical discussion (although he is actually a leader in many ecumenical dialogues). He is not just concerned about unity in belief (although this is important to him). Rather, he is more ultimately concerned with unity in mission.
I have been awaiting the release of this book for a long time. Although Armstrong has written many books, I believe this one is his manifesto. His life’s work of blood, sweat and tears for the sake of the Christian mission is bound up in this book. Your Church is Too Small also will tell his story, a story worth hearing (or in the case of his book, reading).
As I was cleaning my room today I listened to a lecture by Mark Dever, who did his Ph.D. at Cambridge on the Puritan Richard Sibbes. Richard was not like the other Puritans in that he did not ultimately break with the Church of England during the time of the great Exodus of Puritan preachers. Why? Because he believed that unity in the gospel was more important than correctness in the secondary matters. I was actually surprised to hear Mark Dever approve of Sibbes’ perspective, and challenge young evangelical ministers to recover the distinction between the essential (the gospel) and the non-essential. I agree with the spirit of Dever’s understanding as expressed in this lecture, only I wouldn’t confuse the basic gospel message with the doctrine of justification the way he does (see below). I believe Eastern Orthodox Christians and Catholic Christians believe in the redemptive death, burial and resurrection and lordship of Jesus Christ regardless of what their doctrine of justification might be.
“We must be united, Sibbes taught, and we must be united around the gospel.” – Mark Dever
“In Sibbes’ hand, the centrality of preaching was a force for unity, not for dissent. … And it did so exactly because whatever other problems the church might have had, it was a church committed to the Protestant—that is to say the Biblical—gospel, the good news of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. And to leave such a church, would be tantamount to rending Christ’s body.” – Mark Dever
“Sibbes knew that the main point is the reconciliation of man to God, which is accomplished by the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, preaching is more fundamental than polity. I could be convinced of congregationalism biblically, and convinced that the gospel is more important. One of the things that we as evangelicals must do is recover that territory in between essential and unimportant. … It’s a vast tract that we must recover for faithfulness to scripture. There could be many things that are important that are not essential. There could be things that are important that are not essential. And there could be things that are kind of important that are not essential. … But simply because something is not essential does not therefore mean it is unimportant. We need to recover this in our own reflection on our lives, reflection on scripture, and in our preaching in our churches. If we do we’ll easily understand how preaching is more fundamental to polity, and yet polity is not a matter to be disregarded.” – Mark Dever
—————————————HT: Good Soldiers