There are two unique things about this review for me. First, I don’t believe I’ve ever been the first person to review a book on Amazon. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever done a book review where my rating has changed so many times for different reasons as has been the case with this book. (I bounced back and forth between four and five stars about six or seven times.)
The book is exactly as described. Some modern experts on Roland Allen write some chapters in the beginning to set up the context under which Roland Allen wrote his work. These are helpful in themselves, but I was immeasurably helped by listening to JD Payne’s “Strike the Match” podcast on this book before reading even these chapters. I suppose I’m like a lot of potential readers in that I read Missionary Methods St Paul’s or Ours to great benefit as a much younger Christian, but I wasn’t all that familiar with everything else going on around Roland Allen’s life and ministry. The podcast filled in the important details beautifully and I highly commend it to anyone wanting to get this book.
The book is set against the background of Roland Allen’s high church Anglican’s insisting that the only time communion could be served was in the presence of ordained priests. Allen objected to that because in many contexts there was such a shortage of ordained priests that to follow the rule would be to deprive genuine believers of the ordinances entirely. Allen seemed to believe the Anglican power brokers were motivated by fear and in J.D.’s introductory chapter he includes what is a helpful corrective for all of us seeking to prevent error by restricting ministry to a few men.
“We fear corruption and degeneration; when shall we cease to fear them? The roots of that fear are in us, and when shall we eradicate them, and how? There will always be cause for that fear, if we look at men. If we look at Christ, then, we may escape.”
According to Allen’s critique, the root cause of the problem is focusing on the people who could screw up the ordinances rather than the Christ who commanded they be practiced.
This is I think the cement that has me locked into a five star review. How often are we as 21st century church leaders motivated by fear and controlled by the idea that if we just restrict things enough we can prevent all error from the church. This is a ridiculously arrogant notion for if we claim to work to prevent error because of our love for the Church, does not Christ love His bride even more? Is He not also working to cleanse and purify her, which would include protecting her from error? The core concept of Allen’s previously unpublished work is communion, but the application is I think much broader than that. We could use his work as a necessary corrective for all sorts of restrictions we put on church life and ministry that are really just preferences rather than biblical commands. Many times there are logical reasons for these preferences, but when we cling to them as if they are commands we would do well to ask whether that is motivated by fear or by love for Jesus.
Many of the points brought up by Allen in his work remind me of something I heard Francis Chan say once. If we just had the Bible and no church traditions or structures, would we expect things to work they way they do today? I suspect the answer is no. This is the strength of Allen’s whole argument and especially his chapter 4 on The Practice of the Early Church. Are we really content to let the Bible be our guide? How ready are we to read the Bible for it to correct our views rather than to reinforce them? I was challenged on this point a lot.
The book is well written and easy to read. I finished it in a few days while on a business trip. I think it is a very useful resource for anyone who is really ready to challenge some presuppositions about extra-biblical restrictions we put on church life and ministry. Of course Allen’s primary motivation is to encourage his tribe to think about believers in distant lands and should apply it to how we serve unreached people groups and such, but I think it’s a mistake to end there. We should receive the book as a nudge to reevaluate how biblical our positions really are on all sorts of things (ordination, logistics of church gatherings, staffing models, church planting (and especially the fresh movement toward re-planting dying churches), etc.
And this is the reason I moved the review to a five star review. It is Allen’s commitment to practical theology. This book is not a theoretical exercise to him. He is looking at a real issue that was affecting real brothers and sisters in his day and applied theology to it. We have far too many books by far too many authors that talk about the truth of the Bible as if it did not meaningfully affect people for time and eternity. Allen deserves a lot a credit for tackling a topic that would have lost him favor with his high church Anglican peers because he was committed to look out for those without a voice in his circles.