My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Many of our missionaries welcome spontaneous zeal, provided there is not too much of it for their restrictions… Such missionaries pray for the wind of the Spirit but not for a rushing mighty wind. I am writing because I believe a rushing mighty wind, and desire its presence at all costs to our restrictions.” These words of Roland Allen encapsulate the main thrust of The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. Allen argues that modern missions and their highly organized methods and ethical restrictions have done much harm to the work of the gospel on foreign soil, and the appropriate reaction of the Church to such news should be to return to simpler methods of the apostolic age which encouraged spontaneous expansion. By “spontaneous expansion,” Allen means:
…[T]he expansion which follows the unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church for men who see its ordered life, and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share; I mean also the expansion of the Church by the addition of new churches (p. 7).
According to Allen, there is a necessary charm that accompanies one’s first reception of the Gospel, a charm which is only found among those who instinctively feel able and free to propagate their faith of their own initiative. No exhortation or organized method is given or needed to propagate such a faith. The Holy Spirit “converts the natural instinct into a longing for the conversion of others.” (p. 9). It is the simpler methods of the apostolic age which manage this spontaneous zeal the best. Instead of offering artificial programs with ready-made stereotyped answers, voluntary expression of one’s zealous faith is encouraged and directed by trained leaders with a kind of instruction that can be refused, so as to allow one’s zeal to share the Gospel to remain as genuine as possible. Instruction which cannot be refused by converts is likened to control, which detracts from spontaneous expansion. Along with the work of the Holy Spirit, the outcome of such missionary work, Allen contends, would be a self-supporting, self-extending, and self-governing church on foreign soil – a replica of the early apostolic mission.
But according to Allen, this is not a common method among missionaries. Surely there was talk about, and hope for, such churches, but once organizations realized these expanding churches no longer needed their support, or that their organizations were no longer needed to maintain control, they “instinctively think of [this self-supportiveness]… as tending to disorder.” (p. 13). Allen argues that the “natural instinct” of all men “is not opposed to order,” nor is the Holy Spirit, and so any repression of this instinct for self-propagation, both individually and corporately, generates a “poisonous” stagnation of the true apostolic methodology of mission (p. 14).
Two of the most serious aids in such repression are fear of endangering our doctrine (p. 43) and standard of morals (p. 60). Allen discusses the fear of our doctrine first. He argues that because there is always the potential of propagating heretical doctrine, new converts are discouraged from spontaneous activity and expected to maintain a certain standard of doctrine before teaching others about their faith. This fear, Allen argues, is more imperial than apostolic (p. 44) and generates a “terrible sterility” among converts (p. 47). Instead of teaching men to depend upon Christ as they understand his truth from their own spiritual relationship with Him, men are taught to depend upon men, i.e. trained teachers, and their doctrines. In the days of the early church, things were different, Allen says. The great heresies in the early Church did not arise from illiterate or untrained theologians spontaneously sharing and propagating their experience of faith, as is found with most converts on foreign mission fields; instead they arose from “the more highly educated and philosophically minded Christians” (p. 48). Such heresies grew out of intellectual theories of doctrine divorced from the type of experience which accompanies spontaneous expansion. “What we find it difficult to believe,” states Allen, “is that others can receive Christ and find salvation in Him unless they know, or at least in speech employ, our familiar doctrinal expressions” (p. 57). Allen does not deny that dangerously ignorant converts may accompany spontaneous expansion, or suggest that all fear of distorting sound doctrine is unreasonable fear. Rather, he contends that because the common conception of Christian doctrine is too intellectual, our fears of what may arise from spontaneous expansion are exaggerated (p. 53).
When discussing the fear of endangering traditional morality, Allen presents a case that Christian missionaries impose definite rules of conduct (not just doctrinal belief) upon foreigners as though they were synonymous with the Christian standard of morality (p. 61). Allen focuses heavily on a real life concern that is common to missionary work in Central Africa (pp. 61-67): namely, imposing monogamy upon polygamous pagans as though monogamy was synonymous with Christianity. According to Allen, this imposition of a fixed moral standard of monogamous marriage is contrary to Scripture:
Unless we are prepared to accept the whole Jewish law in its entirety, there is no code of morals laid down in precise commands for Christians in the Bible as a whole, still less in the New Testament (p. 61). …Neither in the Gospels nor in any other part of the New Testament is any code of law laid down. That standard which we so often call the Christian standard of morals, simply does not exist in the New Testament” (p. 68).
The only standard which a person must meet to be considered a Christian and welcomed into the Christian Church is Jesus’ command to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself (p. 68). What that looks like is another matter altogether, for Jesus’ mission was “not to direct their conduct by external admonitions, but to inspire and to raise them by the presence and power of His Spirit given to them” (p. 68). By imposing fixed standards of morality upon foreigners as though obedience to such standards involves purification of the heart and soul, it is not possible for spontaneous growth to occur. Only stagnation will result (p. 73-74).
Like the apostles of old, present-day missionaries should equip converts and set them free to expand the church without further complications such as discouraging oversight and restrictions (p. 144). New Christians must be left to learn what they can only learn for themselves, without actually being abandoned (p. 150). Indeed, to “watch and assist spontaneous progress is certainly not to abandon coverts to their own devices” (p. 154).
If a bishop is seeking such spontaneous expansion, there are five activities which must be utilized to equip converts properly: (1) delivering the “tradition” which is represented in the Apostles Creed, (2) delivering the Gospel in such a way that men revere it and know it, (3) delivering the sacraments to the church, (4) ordaining ministers, and (5) making sure that new converts “understand the use of the Apostle’s Creed, the Gospels, the Sacraments and the Ministry, and then send word to the bishop.” (p. 150). According to Allen, it is this kind of leadership that is absolutely essential to the spontaneous expansion of the Church. With such unique qualities of apostolic leadership, spontaneous expansion can be maintained among the most illiterate converts and the poorest communities.
In light of all this, I think there are as many positive aspects to Allen’s work as there are negatives. His insights concerning the natural instinct of men are profound, particularly those regarding illiterate people on foreign mission fields and their instinctive zeal to freely express their newly enlivened faith in Christ to others. There is no good reason to presume, from the outset, that illiterate people cannot or often will not bring a profound spiritual knowledge to others or contribute practically to the many important discussions concerning faithful Christian living. His insights regarding the church’s fear of endangering doctrine and its tendency to lord doctrinal traditions over disciples as a means of protecting others from falsehood are also profound. Leaders within a given Christian community frequently adhere to long-standing doctrinal traditions, and expect future disciples to adhere to them as well in order to be treated as a Christian and welcomed into their church; but such traditions cannot be what Allen calls “the Catholic doctrine,” which is the doctrine of all ages, the doctrine “of the primitive Christians as well as of us who live in this last age.” (p. 45). The Scriptures speak against such attempts to lord doctrine over other disciples, and leaders among the Christian community would be wise to heed such warnings (Matt. 20:20-28; 2 Cor. 1:23-24). If it is true that spontaneous expansion proceeds by an expression of experience more so than by mere intellectual assent to doctrinal traditions, many Christians traditions, including Allen’s Anglican ones, can learn a lot from Allen’s insights.
However, I’m not convinced that Allen’s insights about Christian standards of morality are helpful or even accurate. For example, Allen repeatedly addresses his concerns about Christian standards of morality as being uniquely “western” (pp. 65, 66, 74), and all examples not explicitly labeled that way are still implied as “western” because they are countered with illustrations from eastern civilizations (Africa, Asia, etc.). But all the standards of Christian morality that he uses as illustrations are Judeo-Christian, not “western” in the historical sense of the term. Historically, western civilization ditched its “western” standards of pagan morality and adopted Judeo-Christian standards in its place. Allen’s critical label upon “western” standards of morality turns out to be more than a bit cliché. Furthermore, Allen argues that the Law of Moses is entirely inadequate to derive a Christian standard of morality. For example, Allen maintains that the apostle Paul “based his exhortation to the Corinthians to excommunicate the man who had taken his father’s wife” on the ground that such sexual habits were naturally and “universally recognized as evil” (p. 64). Yet, Paul repeatedly references and alludes to Torah throughout his letters; appeals to “universally recognized” conventions do not appear to be the basis for Paul’s exhortation. Rather, the statements of Yahweh in Leviticus 18:8 and Deuteronomy 22:30 and 27:20 seem to provide sufficient instruction for Paul to ground his decision. Although it is true that social and economic ramifications ought to be taken into account before imposing traditional moral standards upon pagan converts (precisely because Christian traditions might actually be unwise), Allen seems to have overlooked the need to distinguish between lowering traditional standards of morality and lowering God’s standards of morality. The thrust of his arguments against a “universally recognized” standard of God’s morality leads me to suspect that he would disagree that such a distinction is possible. But if such suspicions of mine are indeed correct, I would then wonder what makes him privy to the universal convention that he claims Paul used to recognize “evil” among the Corinthians.
In conclusion, I think Allen’s concern for seeing the spontaneous expansion of the Church through the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than the expensive and programmatic methods employed among modern organizations, are ideal and worth serious reflection. Allen’s regard for the church as a catholic entity, and his insistence upon leadership that equips, encourages, and assists spontaneous progress is extremely important, too, and well worth the price of the book. For the missional-minded Christian, my greatest caution in recommending this book is Allen’s casual disregard for “western” regulations and Torah regulations altogether.
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