Your Church is too Small
Nipsis: A Pre-Advent Meditation [29NOV2013]
Readings: Psalm 140, 142 ◊ Isaiah 24:14-23 ◊ 1 Peter 3:13—4:6 ◊ Matt. 20:17:28 ◊
Also Reading the Philokalia Vol. 3: Forty Texts on Watchfulness, St. Philotheos of Sinai
The season of Advent has become one of my favorite times of the year. I like the tone of the meditations; centering the attitude of my heart around the themes of waiting, preparing, hope, watchfulness, peace, joy, and love. The cycle of the year seems to grow heavy by the time that Advent arrives and entering into the season seems helpful in the recalibration of my spirit. Yes, I really like this time of year.
There are several prayer habits that I have made a regular part of my Advent devotions. One exercise is a lengthy Examen that I employ, asking the assistance of God the Holy Spirit to help me evaluate the personal rule of life I have been living with for the previous year. In the coming weeks, I will determine, by God’s grace, the changes that will make up the rule I will live with for the coming year. Another prayer habit I enjoy during this season is a renewal in my “watchfulness.” Reading today from The Philokalia, I was reminded of the importance and quality of our watchfulness (nipsis) as we wait for the return of our Savior King. I haven’t heard this word, nipsis, before and was prompted to do some research into its meaning and use. Here follows what I found:
Nipsis (Greek)— literally, the opposite to a state of drunken stupor; hence spiritual sobriety, alertness, vigilance. It signifies an attitude of attentiveness whereby one keeps watch over one’s inward thoughts and fantasies, maintaining guard over the heart and intellect. It is closely linked with purity of heart and stillness. The Greek title of the Philokalia is ‘The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers,’ i.e. of the fathers who practiced and inculcated the virtue of watchfulness. This shows how central is the role assigned to this state.
Upon reading these words and as I prepare for my own recalibration of spirit, I remember again the words of Jesus; “Pay attention to how you listen” (Luke 8:18). This is a state of watchfulness, spiritual waiting and watching, always in a state of ready and preparedness. It is so easy to become distracted and/or to be so busy doing and going that we are lulled into a state of stupor, or worse, we fall asleep at the wheel. Jesus told his followers to remain alert, be prepared, and always watching for his return or coming. This is Advent, it is the season of The Coming. Here, in this time, we are reminded to assess the condition of our wait and watch…make adjustments where necessary and recalibrate the tuning of our heart.
“You are the Sovereign LORD, the strong one who rescued me…” (Psalm 140:7)
As I prayed and meditated this morning on the quality of my watchfulness (nipsis), I was prompted to write the following words in my journal:
Each day we awake to the crossroads of endings and beginnings. The path we choose determines the nature of our continuing journey. Endings have their rightfully earned places in our journey; however, beginnings are the fuel for our life. Beginnings bring hope and fresh-eyed expectancy—beginnings spark fervor and determination…beginnings are blank paper with much room to write, while endings are mostly finished stories that barely have room in the margins.
I awaken to my “new-day” beginnings with hope renewed. The sky is blue, and with sails billowing with the breeze, I cut away the lines that moor me to yesterday’s endings. I break the chains that join me to my heavy anchor releasing my soul to move out and into the infinite horizon of beginnings.
Today is a new day. Today I shall kiss yesterday’s ending good-bye as I embrace today and… begin again.
“I cry out to the LORD; when I am overwhelmed, you alone know the way I should turn. I pray to you, O LORD. I say, ‘You alone are my place of refuge. You are all I really want in life… for you are good to me.'” (Psalm 142:2-7)
FUTURE (Part 3) “The Missional-Ecumenical Movement”
John Armstrong begins this concluding section of Your Church is Too Small by discussing the nature and definition of the “True Church.” He also poses the question whether the “True Church” exists at all. The answer, he says, is “yes;” the True Church does exist… it is God’s community of people on earth. Quoting Paul, he writes: “This ideal church is made up of all people everywhere ‘who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.’”
Personally, I agree with Armstrong that we need an objective starting point if we are to work toward a believable, Biblical, and sustainable unity in the Church. He says the great problem with the famous dictum: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, freedom; and in all things charity” there still remains that one Christian’s non-essential is another’s essential. How true, but we must still find a grounding point or points to proceed on the path toward Biblical (Love) unity. He cites Lesslie Newbigin’s convicting remarks below:
“The world will always, consciously or unconsciously, judge what the church says by what it is. They will interpret the printed epistle by the living epistle.” (p.139)
I continue to wrestle with and process the thinking in this final section, especially chapter fifteen. I’m not sure I fully understand the subtle nuances and intricacies of what Dr. Armstrong purports with regard to “fruit inspection” and determining “who is a real Christian.” As I said, I’m still processing this chapter (and likely, will be doing so for some time), so I don’t have a lot to speak on it at this juncture. I will say that some of the questions I am sorting through regard church discipline, “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “wheat and tares,” and whether or not (and how) “judgment and/or fruit inspection” precludes discipline…there are more questions, but these are dominating my thoughts rather prominently at the moment. Suffice it to say, this is a very thought-provoking chapter; at least it is for me.
Chapters sixteen through eighteen discuss the missional-ecumenical paradigm that Armstrong hints at throughout the book. It is here that he really spends some time and focus developing the heart of his passion; additionally, he shares his mentors and some of the more significant influences that have helped him formulate this missional-ecumenical paradigm.
I mentioned that I first became aware of Your Church is Too Small from a review by Michael Bird on the euangelion blog site. He brings to light a repeated point and call by Armstrong to return to paleo-orthodoxy as a springboard toward unity. I think Michael Bird captured this call very well, so rather than repeat it myself I will share his thoughts here. Michael writes the following:
A recurring theme is that unity is important for our mission and also the necessity of returning to our ancient roots. Armstrong’s recipe for trying to achieve that is sevenfold: (1) Cultivating a commitment to restore the sacraments; (2) increasing our appetite to know more about the ancient church; (3) express love for the whole church and desire to see the church become one; (4) blend practices of worship, devotion, and prayer from all three streams of the Church (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant); (5) increase interest in integrating more liturgical depth and structure with spontaneity and freedom in the Holy Spirit; (6) provide greater involvement in signs and symbols of worship such as crosses, banners, and clerical vestments; and (7) continue a commitment to personal salvation, solid biblical teaching, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
I was greatly inspired by the examples and resultant fruit that was shared by communities that are practicing this spirit of missional-ecumenism. Personally, I long for this type of community. I stand in the camp with those who agree that One Church is what the Lord has intended for His people.
The final chapter is Armstrong’s concluding thoughts and prayer for the Church. I not only agree with his thesis, but have been refreshed and inspired to press on in pursuit of the vision. As I said in my opening statement, I believe this is a very important book. It raises many questions (some of which I am still working through myself), and prompts us to do some serious examination of our own hearts and ambition. I am reminded of something I read from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together where he proposes that many of us (Christians) are in love with our own version of God’s Church…we fight tooth and nail for it, but our version is not the Vision of God for His Church (my paraphrase). We build idols from our beliefs and destroy each other in the process of worshiping those beliefs over the God whom we claim to be serving. I am thankful for this book. I am sure I will be referring to it and the well-documented resources and bibliography. I think it should be read by pastors and lay leaders alike. Armstrong includes a few discussion questions at the end of each chapter that are helpful to kick-off conversations if a group or leadership team wanted to read the book together.
Disturb us, Lord… disturb us from our idols and disturb us from being idle. Disturb us, O Lord, indeed.
PRESENT (Part 2)
Restoring unity in the church today is the premise and discussion of part two in Your Church is Too Small and Armstrong almost immediately asserts that the Apostle’s Creed is a tool to help us reestablish unity. He goes on to cite Augustine, Luther, and Calvin as strong supporters of the Creed being a unifying bond and teaching tool for all Christians. Dr. Armstrong claims; “We find no other document in early church history, apart from the Bible, that served a greater purpose in uniting Christians in their common faith.”
In this age of questioning everything and the penchant for deconstruction of most orthodox beliefs, I found John’s points addressing the need for a confessional basis very appropriate and timely. He proposes that we need a way of grasping the basic intent and message of the Holy Scriptures. I think the questions he poses make excellent starting points to answer that bigger question. He asks; “What did the first Christians believe and why did they believe it?” And, another very good question; “Before there was a completed Bible, how did the church understand and confess the living message of Christ?” Great questions I think, and I agree with Armstrong’s assessment and confession as he concludes these thoughts; he writes:
“We never stand alone when we read and interpret the Bible. With a grasp of history and tradition, we are able to read the sacred Scriptures in communion with the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church.’”
“Studying how the historical church understood the Scriptures greatly helped me, but it wasn’t easy. I had to learn to humble myself and truly listen to other voices outside of my cultural and generational context. My teachers included Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians.”
Beginning with the final paragraphs of chapter eight, the first chapter of section two, Armstrong begins to point the finger at the destroyer of unity, sectarianism. He asserts that sectarianism is a work of pride and creates an attitude of exclusivity. Personally, and from my observation, I think his assertion is right on the mark. Chapter nine is used to flesh out the argument for sectarian attitudes being the chief cause for disunity in the Church with chapter ten being a wonderfully detailed presentation of data, observation, history, and thesis to support his case. I loved the humility and earnestness that Dr. Armstrong displays as he shared his thoughts regarding the text from Hebrews 12:14; he confesses, “Another text helped me discover fresh grace: ‘Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.’ I had to ask, ‘Was my effort to live in peace truly serious?’” This is a question we should all be sincere enough to ask ourselves and bold enough to answer honestly…that is, if we really believe that it was Jesus’ prayer and intent that we be “one” body.
Following the discourse on sectarianism, the flavor of section two in Your Church turns much more palatable and positive with chapter eleven and “thinking rightly about the church.” It is here that Dr. Armstrong begins to answer the question: “What is the church?” After carefully walking the reader through a number of negatives (what the church is not), we arrive at the following conclusion:
“The congregation is the church. One local congregation is as much the church as any other church. But the church is also the whole of all such congregations throughout the whole earth. So the church is both the local congregation and whole people of God.” (p.107)
Now, that will make some of us squirm. But, as Armstrong points out, what else are we supposed to do with Paul’s commentary to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:4-6)? I appreciated the diagrams and illustrations from Rex Koivisto’s work in One Lord, One Faith which helped me to see a visual representation of what it looks like to be the church working in unison with The Church. I think Dr. Armstrong puts words to Koivisto’s illustrations when he aptly states: “We are to be the church for them, not for us. We do this best when we begin to recognize the one church in our city. This concept would radically alter the ministry of almost every congregation I know if it were put into practice by the leaders.” I believe this. I really do. I cannot help but wonder what would happen in our society (and the global community) if we really started to live as the people of God, followers of Jesus Christ, choosing to deny ourselves and respond to our world as ministers of the reconciliation working with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength to restore the kingdom of God…what if… (2 Corinthians 5:19-21).
Chapters twelve and thirteen round out part two, The Present, with thought-provoking dialogue concerning the church and the kingdom of God and what role our history and tradition have in the convergence of the two. Although God’s kingdom and providential decree that “it will come” (His Kingdom) is sovereignly ordained, we (the church) are often quick to dismiss and/or neglect our partnership and role (which is also sovereignly ordained) in its work. This is a shame and I was deeply saddened as I was reminded how far we (the modern church) miss the mark of displaying the glory of our God before the world. Sadly, we spend way too much time, energy, and resources “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” when we have the ability and the mandate to be salt and light to the world. Sigh…I am reminded of Jesus’ remarks to his disciples (Matthew 17:17). I cannot help but think that we are missing an enormous opportunity to partner in blessing the whole world through the Body that is Christ’s, His glorious Church.
Tradition is the tie that binds the body; it is the objectivity of tradition that keeps us rooted and grounded in the story of God. Our pride and individualism show their bright colors (and ignorance) when we denounce tradition and refuse to acknowledge it as the gift that it truly is. Armstrong presents a wonderful case as he examines four components of Christian tradition: Biblical tradition, tradition in classical Christianity, the role of Scripture in tradition, and the wisdom of the church fathers. The sum of the evidence and examination of tradition’s role is best captured in these closing comments by Armstrong:
“The result of this schism is a small view of the church and a big view of our own importance. We have exalted our interpretations of the Scripture by boldly proclaiming: ‘My authority comes only from the Bible.’ Thankfully, many are waking up to the tragedy of this false individualism and are wisely looking for help from the three great classical Christian traditions and the scores of ancient writers who feed their hunger. This is paleo-orthodoxy, and it drives a growing number of us to embrace a much bigger view of the Church.” (p.130)
Part 3 – Future concludes our review tomorrow…
By: John H. Armstrong; ISBN – 978-0-310-32114-9 Zondervan Publishing
PAST (Part 1)
Armstrong begins the presentation of his proposal in support of classical Christianity and starts the first chapter with quotations from Robert Webber; “You can best think about the future of the faith after you have gone back to the classical tradition” and Karl Barth; “No one dare do contemporary theology until they have mastered classical Christian thought.” The essence of these quotes is captured in Armstrong’s own thesis statement:
“New patterns of Christian faith and life are emerging in the church. I welcome these patterns, but I believe they desperately need to be rooted in the past – the creeds, the Word of God understood as the story of grace, life as a sacramental mystery, and deeply rooted spiritual formation. My thesis is simple: The road to the future must run through the past…”
I refer to the above quote as the thesis statement, but I believe the thesis is more appropriately defined as “presenting a case for the Christian Church; one holy catholic Church: unified in the person and expression of Jesus Christ.” Armstrong sets out to prove this united expression of Christ’s church is the desire and will of God using the Prayer of Jesus (John 17) as the primary text and basis for his argument.
The first seven chapters of Your Church is Too Small comprise part one of the book. In this section, Dr. Armstrong connects quite a few dots to lay a complete foundation for why he believes “unity in Christ’s mission is vital to the future of the church.” Considering the fragmentation of the present example of Christ’s church, this explanation and establishment of a complete foundation for his argument is no small task.
I am not an academic, nor do I have extensive seminary training in ecclesiology, but the example and effort given to “The Biblical and Historical Basis for Christian Unity” (Part 1) was thorough, understandable, and readable in the sense that it flowed with a logical progression and the building of ideas to form a very cohesive proposal (at least in my limited understanding and opinion).
As I have already stated, the prayer of Jesus (John 17) is the basis for Armstrong’s call for Christian unity. This study in Scripture is one of the main pillars of his presentation. The second pillar is the record and history of the ancient church. The evidence and practice of the historical church provides us with the examples necessary to benchmark our (the modern American church) own progress regarding the mission of God. The result of this “benchmarking” of the modern church serves as the third pillar and provides the critical assessment of our failure to act as the unified and universal Church as it was prayed for by Jesus in the Gospel of John (chapter 17).
I think the analysis and diagnosis, as well as the prognosis and prescription, by John Armstrong are accurate and worth listening to. My opinion might be subjective, but my experience (supported by data from surveys and polls from organizations like the Barna Group) agrees with Armstrong’s statement:
“Christians in America have lost a deep sense of their past, of their collective spiritual roots. As a result, we now suffer from a kind of spiritual amnesia that hinders our ability to faithfully move into the future with hope.”
Coincidentally, at the time of this writing, there is a very lively discussion on the Jesus Creed Blog of Scot McKnight that lends support to Armstrong’s assertion of the (universal) Church’s inability to find agreement on some of the most core and longstanding beliefs in Christendom.
I appreciated hearing the author’s personal testimony and the detailed progression of his belief system being challenged and changed through his study, meditation, and willingness to be open to “universal” truth. Dr. Armstrong identifies a couple of these pivotal moments coming through his reading of John 17 (the prayer of Jesus) and his recitation of the Apostle’s Creed. Continuing his journey and conversion (emphasis mine) he found a common footing in the study of classical Christianity and the traditions of the church. Although my own path has been different, I was able to identify closely to John’s testimony as there were several commonalities we shared.
The Mark of a Christian
Chapters five through seven mark the most important points of part one in Your Church is Too Small. They might arguably be some of the most important chapters in the book in my opinion. It is here that Dr. Armstrong puts forth the evidence that supports the greatest common denominator for all Christians; the mark of true Christian love. Scripture references are long and deep to support the premise of “relational-unity” that Armstrong purports as the functional oneness that should characterize the body of Christ and all true believers. Other citations include writings from Francis Schaeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann, and Timothy Luke Johnson who help to build a case for relational unity within the sphere of Christian diversity. I continue to process the points addressed in these last three chapters of section one, especially chapter five, “Our Greatest Apologetic.” In this particular chapter, Armstrong discusses the detail and differences of unanimity, uniformity, and union; his final assessment is to declare (and rightly I believe) that “the aim of the early church was the evangelization of the world. The purpose of their oneness was to be a visible representation of God’s love.”
Finally, closing out part one “Past,” the following thoughts are shared concerning tension and conflict:
“Over time, I have noticed that people tend to stay in relationships and work through their differences when they love each other deeply and are committed to finding solutions… I’ve noticed that most divisions in the church are not because of a major doctrinal disagreement; they are the result of a breakdown in our love for one another…” (pp.72-73)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” ~Jesus (John 13:34-45)
Lord, help us.
Part 2 – Present continues tomorrow…
Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church
By: John H. Armstrong; ISBN – 978-0-310-32114-9 Zondervan Publishing
I became aware of Your Church Is Too Small by way of a recent post on the euangelion blog site. I was intrigued in the highest degree with what I was reading about the premise of the book and immediately began my search for a copy. Amazon informed me the book was not slated to release until April 2010, so I reached out to publisher (Zondervan) and author, John H. Armstrong to request a review copy. John was gracious in providing me a pre-release version for an early look.
While I am sure there will be different and strong opinions from a number of doctrinal positions, my experience with Your Church Is Too Small has been nothing short of exhilarating. In my most humble opinion, this is a very important book. If early reviews were not enough to capture my attention, this following statement from the introduction solidly “hooked” me:
“I will show how your biblical faith is rooted in the living Christian tradition, a tradition found in all the classical historical expressions of the one faith. This one faith is developing in ways we would have never thought possible while we were still indulging in the cultural luxury of seeing other Christians as our enemies…” ~~John Armstrong; Your Church Is Too Small
The challenge was issued; “I will show you…” and I was open to accept it. Let the journey begin.
The review will continue in three parts over the next few days…