A Friendship That Teaches Me a Great Deal About Christ, Part 5

John ArmstrongUnity of the Church

My friend Nick Morgan, whose letter to me at the end of 2008, and whose influence in my life as a friend led me to this five-part series of posts, is a godly man. He loves Christ and he loves the church. He also reads theology seriously. He did this while he was an evangelical and he still does it as a Roman Catholic. He reads theologians from both sides, as you can readily see. He often recommends good ideas to me by email and responds to the blog posts I write with genuine interest and charity. He also sends me private correspondence that gets forwarded to him. Lately he has sent me a number of conservative political pieces and asked for my input. I have cautioned him against allowing his soul to become preoccupied with the fiercest forms of criticism that poison the culture, from the left and the right. I have urged him to stay close to Christ, to fill his mind and heart with the glory of Christ and to stay faithful to the church by frequent communion and regular worship and prayers. I have also urged him to keep focusing on loving his wife, children and Christian brothers at work where he spends most of his waking life.

Nick makes reference to the evangelical pastor and the sources he routinely quotes in his preaching ministry. These sources are all good, solid conservative evangelical sources. I have cited them all and still read several of them with great appreciation. But the point he makes is all too true. Once a pastor chooses a few sources, and cites them as those he listens to, then he is not likely to become willing to read other sources. It is not that these sources are bad, it is that using only them is too limiting to real growth intellectually and spiritually.

Let me take C.H. Spurgeon as an illustration of my point here. There is no one on the list who I have valued more over the course of my Christian life than Spurgeon. His photograph adorns my study. His books have shaped me in powerful ways. I was given his entire set of sermons by my late mother and now my son uses these in his own preaching ministry. One of my favorite photos is that of my sixteen year old son standing by Spurgeon’s tomb in Norwood Cemetery in London. Spurgeon has had a massive influence on my life. But I do not think something is true simply because Spurgeon said it. In fact, Spurgeon said some things that are positively wrong in my judgment. A story will suffice.

Some years ago a pastor, whose church at the time supported me financially, read a few paragraphs from a Spurgeon sermon to me in a private meeting. The words were very Spurgeonic; i.e. dramatic, Elizabethan and polemically Protestant. The particular words were about the error of Roman Catholicism. There was no room for anything but condemnation in the words. My friend asked me, “Would you preach these words?” I knew my response had to be truthful and I knew if I answered I would lose the support of this church. I said, “No, or course I would not use words like that. They are in a context and we do not live in that same context any longer. Further, they represent a fallible man’s opposition to what he saw and understood. I think much has changed and even if nothing had changed in our modern context this language is not appropriate.” Good-bye friendship. Good-bye monetary support.

This leads me to conclude that another type of argument is employed in many similar circumstances. It is the straw man argument. Take the position of another, portray it in a very negative way that does not require you to listen to what that person is really saying, and then knock them and their argument down. This type of argument is as easy as reading a Spurgeon sermon and asking, “Would you use these words in your preaching?”

What this amounts to is setting up parties and names within the church just as was done in ancient Corinth. People today, at least in many conservative churches, are of Piper, or Carson, or MacArthur, etc. Fill in the blank. This idea fits many of us. My family makes fun of me if someone starts following me too obviously. They call these people, to my face, “John’s groupies!” It is a great reminder that I should do everything in my power to refuse such adulation and following. I am a “mere servant” of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:1). This word servant here refers to an “under-rower” in the bowels of an ancient ship who was just one of many doing a job. That is who I am in my calling to ministry. I am just one man doing a job, hopefully doing it faithfully.

To paraphrase the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 1:10–17; 3:5–9), “Who is Spurgeon? Who is Piper? Who is Carson? Who is MacArthur?” Answer: Mere men, men who are the just ordinary servants of Christ. The word Paul actually uses here is not “who” but “what” since he wants to make sure we do not put too much emphasis on the servant but on what the servant does with the gifts the Spirit has given to him. To make Spirit-gifted men into a movement, into stars (some even refer to such men as having “rock-star” status, which particular grates on my soul), or into powerful voices that we must go to in order to hear Christ speak is a major mistake. It is a mistake that multitudes of conservative evangelicals have made and it is more than ironic that these same evangelicals decry the very idea of a pope.

I am convinced that missional-ecumenism addresses this and a myriad of other problems that plague the modern church. This is why I carry out the servant’s role that Christ has entrusted to me by pursuing the unity of the whole church, which includes humble and faithful Catholic brothers just like my good friend Nick Morgan. I need Nick in my life as much as Nick needs me. He may not believe this but it is true. He reminds me that I am truly gifted by God but he also reminds me that the same Spirit who is in me is also in him and working his grace in his life just as in mine. Nick's life matters to God as much as mine. In my world Nick is a hero, plain and simple. He loves Christ, he loves his church, he loves his family and he loves people enough to risk his life every day as a St. Louis firefighter. Now you know the rest of the story.