Your Church Is Too Small:
Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church
WRF Member Dr. John Armstrong
[NOTE: Posted here is the Foreword and Chapter Six of Dr. Armstrong's book. Information about ordering a copy of the book is available at the end of this material.]
Foreword (by Dr. J. I. Packer)
My friend John Armstrong is a church leader who has traveled the distance from the separatist, sectarian fixity of fundamentalism to embrace the kingdom-centered vision of the church and the call issued by a number of Bible-based theologians and missiologists during the past half century.
What vision is this? It is the one that views the visible church as a single worldwide, Spirit-sustained community within which ongoing doctrinal and denominational divisions, though important, are secondary rather than primary. In this vision, the primary thing is the missional-ecumenical vocation and trajectory crystallized for us by our Lord Jesus Christ in his teaching and prayer and illustrated in a normative way by the Acts narrative and much of the reasoning of the apostolic letters.
Evangelicals have always urged that the church of God is already one in Christ but have typically related this fact only to the invisible church (that is, the church as God alone sees it). All too often, they have settled for division in the visible church (the church on earth, as we see it) as at least tolerable and at best healthy. The vision Armstrong offers, however, perceives by exegesis that the unity of Christians, which Jesus prayed that the world might see, is neither unanimity nor uniformity nor union (as he neatly puts it) but loving cooperation in life and mission, starting from wherever we are at the moment and fertilized and energized by the creedal and devotional wisdom of the past. Thus the internal unity of togetherness in Christ may become a credibility factor in the church’s outreach, just as Jesus in John 17 prayed that it would.
Embracing this vision will mean that our ongoing inter-and intra-church debates will look, and feel, less like trench warfare, in which both sides are firmly dug in to defend the territory that each sees as its heritage, and more like emigrants’ discussions on shipboard that are colored by the awareness that soon they will be confronted by new tasks in an environment not identical with what they knew before. There they will all need to pull together in every way they can. The church in every generation voyages through historical developments and cultural changes, against the background of which new angles emerge on old debates and truths may need to be reformulated in order to remain truly the same as they were. Not to recognize this is a defect of vision on our part.
This perception, not surprisingly perhaps, disturbs persons brought up to believe that Bible-based doctrinal faithfulness counts supremely (yes, indeed, right so far), and that some form of ahistorical fundamentalist fixity was, is, and always will be the doctrinal last word. John Armstrong knows; he has been there.
His corrected and corrective vision generates deep suspicion and an onslaught against its proponents as confused compromisers. Both he and I have learned this by direct experience. Some years ago, in One Lord, One Faith, Rex Koivisto made many of John Armstrong’s points and was effectively ignored. I hope this book will not be ignored but will have the influence it deserves. Aspects of North America’s future—aspects, indeed, of the honor and glory of Christ in this century—may well depend on whether or not it does.
J. I. Packer, Advent 2009
Your Church is Too Small
Chapter Six: Christ the Center
Only in Christ are all things in communion. He is the point of convergence of all hearts and beings and therefore the bridge and the shortest way from each to each. As we looked at how Jesus prayed for unity among all his disciples, we discovered that this unity is based on the relational and cooperational communion that existed between the Father and the Son during his earthly ministry. This divine unity between the Father and the Son forms the basis for our own experience of unity with other Christians. But how is our experience of unity, as followers of Christ, bound up with the success of Christ’s mission?
The late Roman Catholic theologian Raymond E. Brown provides helpful insight in his exposition of John 17:
As in [John] 10:16, believers (evangelized by different disciples) are not one flock, but unity is prayed for. vital contact with this future generation and all subsequent generations will not be lost, for Jesus will dwell in them. The indwelling of Jesus, the Christian’s earthly share in eternal life, provides the great bond of union connecting Christians of all times with the Father. Jesus’ love for them is the same as his love for his immediate disciples: a love patterned on the eternal love of the Father for the Son. (So perfect is this love that it will force even the world’s recognition!) And they too shall have a share in the eternal glory of the Son.
The Biblical and Historical Basis for Christian Unity
Christian believers have lived in different nations, cultural contexts, and ethnic settings since the middle of the first century. They have spoken a myriad of languages and have worshiped the triune God in diverse ways. Yet in Christ they remain one people because there is only one flock and one shepherd. Expressions of this one communion may vary, but Christ remains at the center. The issue of whether or not the whole church should be visibly organized will continue to be discussed and debated. But this much is true: we are spiritually one, not two or three. My understanding of biblical oneness combines two commitments that are often considered separately. The first is a commitment to work in every conceivable way to demonstrate and express the God-given spiritual oneness I share with other believers through our union with Christ. This means a willingness to work with the Christians I know and with those I don’t know well. It includes my closest friends and family members as well as churches halfway around the world. Whether people are a part of my church communion or another — Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox — I begin by recognizing I am one with them in Christ if they call him Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). Growing in biblical oneness with other believers begins with a commitment to aggressively pursue specific ways to demonstrate our common love for Christ.
But my second commitment goes even further. Many Protestant evangelicals are satisfied with informal person-to-person expressions of oneness. Because they tend to view the church as a voluntary association, they see no need to seek unity with other churches. I believe the pursuit of oneness means we must not shy away from opportunities to engage in relational and cooperational unity between churches—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.
Though the three great historic branches of the Christian church cannot presently pursue union with one another, they can seek greater relational and cooperational unity even as they pray for ways to address the historic differences that have led to disunity in the past. We must never settle just for personal oneness with other individuals. The pursuit of biblical oneness embracesa concern for the unity of the wider church as well. I personally pray every single day that this would become a reality between churches, locally and globally.
I am often asked, "Do you think the great divided churches will ever become one church?" I often respond by asking, "Who can possibly know what God will do in the centuries ahead?" Could people from centuries past have foreseen what has transpired in the last century? For hundreds of years, Catholics and Protestants were fierce enemies. Entire nations and families were divided. Bloody wars were fought over these differences. Following the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and vatican Council I in the late nineteenth century, no one could have predicted what would happen in the twentieth century. What might happen in the twenty-first or twenty-second century, if Christ has not returned?
Who can know what the Spirit will do as the world grows smaller and the church grows larger? What will happen in Africa, where the fast-growing church and the fast-spreading religion of Islam exist side by side?
Perhaps the most important question, though, relates to Christ’s mission: How will God finally accomplish his purpose to save a people from "every tribe and language and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9)? Though I see no obvious reason to say the church must become organizationally united, I do believe we will see and experience unprecedented relational unity when Christ finally returns and his prayer is fully answered. If the answer to this prayer is certain, what might happen prior to Christ’s return?
Will the Spirit lead us to embrace unity, bringing us closer to the final consummation?
Already we see evidence for the spread of a Spirit-given unity that defies our old categories of division. I welcome all serious interactions between churches and individuals who want to pursue the supremacy of Christ together. If Christ is truly the center, Then we can move toward him and find fellowship with one another in the process.
This two-commitment approach may seem obvious to those who love the church. But it has practical consequences for those who consider themselves evangelicals. It means I can no longer be an anti-Catholic, evangelical (Reformed) Protestant. With deep conviction, I am compelled to regard both Catholics and the Catholic Church with love and esteem. This personal commitment to oneness has enabled me to draw great blessings from the Catholic tradition and develop many wonderful friendships with Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.
Our Sense of Oneness
For the first thousand years of its history, the church universally maintained an interest in unity. However, in 1054, this unity was radically and tragically altered by the East/West split. Centuries later, the Protestant Reformation broke the Catholic Church’s unity in Europe. The events that followed produced new visible church communions in Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Among Protestants, the Anabaptists and the various Free Church movements further divided the visible church.
While both sides of the sixteenth-century debate initially tried to preserve the unity of the church, each side made decisions that would eventually make this all but impossible (at least for the next five centuries).
As I studied this era of Western history, I discovered a virtually unknown story. Leaders on both sides found compelling reasons to preserve unity even as the church was being divided. For many of the leaders of the Reformation, division was never seen as a desirable result. But as the rhetoric increased and the conflict grew more intense over time, deep divisions developed. Since the sixteenth century, countless church splits have only deepened the chasms between churches.
Still, an amazing reality points to the ongoing work of God in the church. Despite these tragic schisms, there remains a deep desire for unity within the hearts of many Protestants and Catholics. The Protestant theologian G. W. Bromiley expresses this sense of oneness:
[The church] has been split by innumerable dissensions and disagreements. It has passed through many crises and vicissitudes. It has known ages of the most violent individualism as well as the most submissive collectivism. But for all the legitimate or illegitimate variety it has never lost its ultimate and indestructible unity.
The ground of this undeniable sense of oneness is found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Jews were the people of God. They were not two peoples, but one people. Even though they were divided into twelve tribes and later became two different kingdoms, they still remained one chosen people descended from one man. When they left Egypt, they left as one people, and when God gave them his law, it was not a law for many nations and groups but a divine treasure for one people. Yes, they fought civil wars and turned on each other at times, but in the end nothing could destroy the inherent oneness Israel experienced when she remembered her divine origins and the one covenant that united her.
The New Testament does not alter this principle of unity as a characteristic of God’s people. The church consists of people from every tribe, nation, and language, but all of them find their fundamental identity in one person—Jesus Christ. This principle—of the one and the many—is rooted in the communal nature of God as Trinity. The ethnic ground of unity, as seen in the Old Testament arrangement, has passed away. In its place we find the spiritual unity of the new covenant—a new unity rooted in one Savior, whose death and resurrection give birth to one organism, the church. For this reason, Bromiley has concluded,
The whole structure of the New Testament church, or churches, shows us that there is a strong and indissoluble sense of unity not only with the local congregation but extending to the church as a whole.
We should never become complacent about the disunity of God’s people. We must cultivate a holy discontent about our unholy divisions. ?
When Israel under the old order was brought to an end, it was not destroyed but was fulfilled in the new covenant. (This doesn’t mean ethnic Israel has no place in the plan of God [see Romans 11] and certainly doesn’t justify any form of anti-Semitism). What emerged from the old covenant was something in continuity with the holy intentions of God for his one people. The unity once confined to a single ethnic people is now a spiritual reality—"a "holy nation, God’s special possession" (1 Peter 2:9) that is inherently one, since Christ is the Lord of the church and Christians are brought into his church through faith in him. As Christians, true spiritual unity is the oneness we experience as we are drawn to Christ together.
The Old Testament was the Bible of the early church, and it taught that there could be only one temple of God, not two or three. But the writers of the New Testament Scriptures taught that the one temple was now a new temple. The church of God is made up of "living stones" that are built into a "spiritual house"—a new temple where we collectively offer spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Peter 2:5). If Christians are to truly live out the reality of this one (spiritual) temple of God, then there is no place for rival, competing movements. There is one "place" where we worship—the mercy seat of Christ. Christ is also the cornerstone of the new temple, with the apostles—their teaching and witness—as the foundation. As followers of Christ, we are the blocks that make up this living temple, fitted together by God, the architect and builder of his church (see 1 Corinthians 3:16 –17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21–22; Hebrews 3:6).
I find it helpful to think of the worldwide church as a large circle. At the center of this circle is Christ. As people on the outer edge of the circle move inward toward Christ at the center, they grow closer to one another. This Christ-centered unity is not found in man-made structures or efforts to achieve oneness. It is the fruit of our nearness to Christ and is modeled on the unity that Christ experienced with the Father. It is a relational unity, experienced and revealed through shared mission.
Ignatius of Antioch once said that where Jesus Christ was, there you saw the catholic church. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann adds to this idea and suggests that the church is present wherever "the manifestation of the Spirit" resides. The British theologian P. T. Forsyth rightly contends that the unity of the church lies "not in itself but in its message, in the unity of the gospel that made the church."5In some sense, all of these views are correct. The incarnate person of Christ, the indwelling presence of the Spirit in the hearts of believers, and the proclamation of the gospel message are all essential characteristics of the relational unity that defines the oneness of the church.
The German martyr-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has sometimes been viewed as a radical who wanted to do away with the "religious elements" of the church. But Bonhoeffer remained a faithful Lutheran to his final day. He rightly stressed that the who question—our identity—must always come before the what question—our practice: When I know who the person is who does this, I will also know what he does. His stress was always on the Christ who came before the church, on the Christ who judges the church, and on the Christ who stands at the center of the church.
His famous lectures of 1933 bear the title, "Christ the Center." In later chapters we will consider mission as a key component of our unity, but at this point it is crucial to remember that true unity always begins with the question, Who is Jesus Christ? Only by beginning with the person of Jesus can Christians develop a serious approach to unity, since our unity is found in Christ alone, not in the visible structures or particular practices of individual churches. In this sense, Bonhoeffer was right. If we are to pursue unity, especially in the church of the future, we must begin with Christ at the center!
Questions for discussion and reflection
1. Do you believe there is only one church? If so, what does it mean to you? How does it affect your understanding of your local church and its witness?
2. If there is only one church and Jesus is Lord of that church, what should your response be to schism and division? How should you deal with personal disagreements that you have with other believers and churches?
3. How does the growth and development of the church in the non-Western nations impact you? How can the church in the West respond to these changes?
4. How can you make sure that Christ is at the center of all you are and do?
Comments about "Your Church is Too Small by Christian leaders":
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." Too often, these words of Jesus from John 17:20-21 seem like an unreachable ideal. But in "Your Church Is Too Small," John Armstrong shows that Jesus’ vision of Christian unity is for all God’s people across social, cultural, racial, and denominational lines. With attention to his own pilgrimage and growth in ecclesial awareness, John Armstrong explores here the evangelical heart and ecumenical breadth of churchly Christianity. I am encouraged by his explorations and commend this study to all believers who pray and labor for the unity for which our Savior prayed.
— TIMOTHY GEORGE, senior editor, Christianity Today
Dr. Armstrong’s irenic approach should make it easy for Christians—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—to engage the challenging thesis of the book, while recognizing that there remain points of doctrine among them that will require further clarication. Anyone concerned about either evangelism or Christian unity should read this book and take seriously its call for both mission and ecumenism.
— FR. THOMAS A. BAIMA, provost, University of Saint Mary of the Lake
John Armstrong is one of those evangelical theologians who know that full obedience to Christ embraces the historical transmission through which we know him. is book refuses to scale down the bearer of that tradition—the historical church, that is—or reduce the authority of its voice.
— FR. PATRICK HENRY REARDON, senior editor, Touchstone
This book is a must-read for anyone who has grown weary with Christian divisiveness and schism and longs to discover ways of strengthening the bonds that unite us in the Spirit of Christ.
— CHUCK COLSON, founder, Prison Fellowship