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Faithful Presence

An Interview with the Founder of ACT 3: John H. Armstrong

John H. Armstrong is founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for “equipping leaders for unity in Christ’s mission.” He is also an adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton Graduate School. Armstrong served as a pastor for more than 20 years and he is a widely sought teacher at conferences and seminars in the United States and abroad. He earned the D. Min degree at Luther Rice Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia. His latest book, Your Church is too Small, was published by Zondervan in 2010 and his website can be accessed at www.act3online.com.

R&L:What does the small mean in that title of your new book, “Your Church is too Small?”

Armstrong: It doesn’t mean small as in the size of the church. So it’s not a church growth book. It’s a book about the vision of the Church, and the mission of the Church and Church unity. It’s a book that develops John 17 and Jesus’ prayer for the unity of all his disciples. It’s about Ephesians 4, that there’s one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all, and one baptism. 

There are not two, three, or four churches, but there’s one Church. And when local churches as congregations or denominations begin to think of themselves as the whole Church, they’ve thought too small. They have conceived of a church in a small and narrow way that has kept them from seeing the greatness and the largeness of Christ’s heart for His Church and of his people.

The political climate and debate is extremely polarizing right now. Is there a way for Christians to be an example on repairing that divide? Or have we moved beyond that point? 

I think, in many ways, we have moved beyond that point. In the last three presidential administrations, very conservative Christians were extremely negative towards President Clinton, more positive toward President Bush, and now negative against President Obama. Progressive and more liberal Christians were just the opposite. And I think there are a lot of younger Christians—say under 40—who have lived long enough to see that shifting pendulum. Honestly, they’re looking for something else from the Church in terms of the political climate and how the Church responds.

Probably the most positive contribution I have read on this question is found in the recent book, To Change the World, by James Davison Hunter. Hunter suggests in part three of that very significant book that the church’s role ought to be not one of polarizing and positioning on partisan political issues, but what he calls faithful presence. That may sound passive, but he doesn’t mean it in a passive way. He means it in a very active way. The Church’s faithful presence in a society, in a political culture, is its greatest contribution. I believe there’s evidence that there’s a deeper understanding of this and this is growing.

What are some problems you find especially frustrating with the religious right and religious left regarding the political debate?

I think the greatest problem for the left and right both is that we have developed a political theology that is disconnected from ethical and moral theology. For that matter, it’s disconnected from basic doctrinal Christianity. And as a result, we have accepted ideologies in place of Christian theology—truly ethical and moral theology—and its contribution to decision-making, both publicly and privately.

This ideological message ends up denying or misusing traditional Christian categories, and as a result, it leads us to the place where, in matters of prudential judgment, we lack wisdom. Matters of prudential judgment are not the same thing as moral and ethical issues, and I think because we don’t understand that distinction, there is failure in the public square. We turn matters of judgment, prudential judgment into ethical, moral positions. The left does this, for example, in how it responds to the Middle East and the Palestinian issue. The right does it in the way it responds to the very same issue by supporting various forms of Zionism almost uncritically. That’s one illustration, at least in terms of international practice.

There are, of course, a plethora of different arguments about helping the poor, something we are called to do as Christians. What do you see as some of the best ways for assisting those in need, and why has there been so much failure in Washington and even the Church?

There certainly are a number of arguments about helping the poor. They’ve grown out of a frustration over the last two generations, especially among Protestants. I think this is less true among Catholics. But among Protestants, there’s a growing concern about how to help the poor because there’s a recognition that we have done very little about this. Part of my academic training is in missiology. I find it interesting that in the rise of modern missions, both Protestant and Catholic, there was a transcendent and deep commitment to the poor and to what we might call social issues. But that was lost in the 20th Century. One can speculate why it was lost, but certainly in Protestantism the debate between mainline and progressive Christians and fundamentalist Christians cemented that divide.

I think the Church needs to regain what I call a holistic stewardship, and with that, what I call in my book a missional theology. A missional theology is a kingdom-seeking theology that sees the whole Church as the mission of God. And it sees the Church and the congregation as the light of the Spirit in the community of God’s people, as an impulse towards the world in all of its brokenness and all of its weakness, to heal the world.
And that, of course, leads us to the question of the how. How do we help the poor?  I think what we have discovered is that Washington has had a part in addressing the issue of poverty, especially outside of America, that has at times been effective. But on the whole, we have not seen any kind of dramatic decrease of worldwide poverty unless it’s accompanied by versions of the free market that empower people to actually create businesses, make money, provide jobs and create economic stability as a result. So when the government simply funds concerns for poverty and doesn’t actually help build proper economic structures that will support people, it fails.

The relationship between religious freedom and liberty is so important in this nation. Do you see it being threatened in any way?

Yes, I do. I think it’s threatened both from the left and the right politically. It’s threatened from the left by ideas such as hate speech. Hate speech has already been used in Canada, a Western nation that has celebrated freedom and the separation of church and state, as a means of attacking religious freedom. Applications of hate speech have been applied against Christian churches and ministers for standing against homosexual practice and homosexual marriage. I think there’s a growing danger of that happening in America in the coming decades. 

By the same token, there’s a denial of religious liberty on the other side when people, unwittingly or otherwise, desire for the state to actually interfere in the enforcement of personal morality. This leads us to a lot of other questions, such as the life question, which I think is not first a question of personal choice, but a question of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as the Constitution says. If we deny the right to life to the most helpless among us, then we’re violating the first principles not only of moral law, but also of American constitutional law. 

But when the right wants to force its views of personal morality on the culture by actually using the law to accomplish that, there’s a great danger that religious liberty will actually be threatened. So I think there is a threat from both the left and right, and that threat extends both to the conscience of individuals and the fact that we have legally respected this freedom so long as people do not violate civil law. But it is threatened by various ideologies right now that want to implement the force of their ideas through the law.

We hear a lot today about young people who are beholden and affected by religious pluralism.  What are some positive trends about young people today in the life of the church?

Well, we have heard a lot about the negatives, and for good reason, because we have a generation of young people that have not been nurtured in family life. They’re the product of broken and dysfunctional homes. They’re the product of an educational system that has increasingly detached itself from all categories of moral law and the idea of divine revelation. So the result of that is an increasingly secular culture, much as we see in Europe.  It’s just that America is not as far along as what we see in Germany and France and England, etc. 

I could talk about a number of churches that have sprung up or been replanted, mainline churches as well as evangelical churches, that have been replanted or established in center cities across America that are growing. They’re growing principally with people that are young who want to worship in a way that reflects ancient Christian values rather than contemporary values. They want to be more creedal. They want to be more liturgical. They want to engage in their cities and neighborhoods.  And from that, I’m actually seeing and witnessing a great recovery of vibrant, thoughtful Christianity among these young people, especially in the cities and near universities. 

You have a unique perspective because of your ecumenical work and you command respect from those across the political divide. Can you give us some insight into what motivates opposition to the market economy for many leaders within the church?

I think what motivates it is a false understanding of the free market. I think many Christian leaders, both in my Baby Boom Generation, as well as younger Christians, believe that market forces are forces that are absolute and unaccountable to moral principles. When they hear about a free market system, they think this is short hand for greed. And if that’s their understanding of the market, then I understand why they oppose it. I think much of the opposition to the market among Christians, in terms of their own traditions, is rooted in a very poor understanding of the market itself.  When I listen to them talk about the market, I hear them saying things that I once said. And I tell them, “Well, if that’s what I thought it was, I would agree with you.” So I think the work that we have cut out for us is to explain the connection between markets and Christian morality and to show how markets are really rooted in Christian morality and how they really do work for the good of most people.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Acton Institute. Can you give an example of how Acton has assisted in your ministry and helped others?

The Acton Institute, in my first exposure to it about 10 years ago, helped me personally to discover the holistic witness of the Church, especially as it pertains to economics, freedom and morality. I was very uneasy about markets, very uneasy about economics. I felt that there wasn’t a Christian way to think about these subjects, and to have integrity as I read the New Testament. And Acton changed that for me—powerfully changed that for me—because it introduced me, not only to some teachers and voices and materials that helped me as a Christian leader, but it also gave me a network of friends, people who have become important in my own life and journey, who I can discuss these ideas with. I can ask questions, and I can do so in what I would call a kind of community of faithful and diverse Christians. It’s Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, and for me personally, that was very important to hear the witness of the whole Christian church, not just one part of it.

Where does Acton fit within the mold of Christian ecumenism? What does the Acton Institute offer for people of faith who might not have heard of the organization and their mission?

I think Acton fits into the category of Christian ecumenism because it is a generously orthodox think tank. But it’s a think tank that draws, as I said earlier, from the whole Christian tradition.  It helps to show us how to intellectually and morally think critically about the history and moral theology of the whole Christian Church. There are a couple of ways in which it has fit into my Christian ecumenism. One is very practical. By attending Acton University, by attending Acton seminars, conferences, events and discussions, I have personally met and developed relationships with Christians from all over the world, from many nationalities and ethnic backgrounds—Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. So it really has personally engaged me in my journey of ecumenism through people I’ve met and how those people have become my friends and become my associates and people who encourage and help me. 

But it’s also helped me intellectually. I did not know what subsidiarity was until Acton. Not only do I see the importance of the concept of subsidiarity now, but it has helped me understand a whole host of other issues. The idea of subsidiarity, of course, is that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. And this is why Acton does not oppose the idea that the federal government may have a role in solving a problem, but it will always properly question, with this principle of subsidiarity, what is that role?  Because the more centralized the authority becomes at the highest level, the more removed it is from the people that are actually trying to solve the problem.  And when that clicked for me in my first exposure to Acton, it just made a host of things make sense to me in a new way. 

And finally, through Acton, not only did I discover some of the depth of Catholic encyclicals and Catholic social theology, which helped me as a Protestant immensely. This also forced me to go back into my own Protestant theology and see that there were traditions in the Lutheran tradition, in the Reformed tradition and others that were saying similar things.

So again, there is a common ecumenism in this thinking. One of the most recent encyclicals of the Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas In Veritate, says that charity must always be at the heart of the Church. I think  that it’s right to recognize that charity, understood as caritas, is true Christian love (love of neighbor) must always be at the heart of what the Church is. Not political ideology, not political struggles, but true Christian love which is expressed and properly understood as charity. That must remain at the very heart of the Christian church. And that’s where we bear our most faithful witness in the wider culture. Acton has helped me to see that.