A few weeks ago, at the book launch evening for my new book, Your Church Is Too Small, Father Wilbur David Ellsworth, who happens to also be one of my dearest friends and is an Eastern Orthodox priest, was asked to respond to my book as part of a panel that we assembled for that evening at the Billy Graham Center. (We are going to be putting the video of this presentation on our book web site as soon as possible.) Father Ellsworth was one of three who responded to my book and then shared in the dialogue and Q & A time that followed.

There were several highlights for me that evening. One was when Father Ellsworth sought to describe our present condition in the Christian family in the twenty-first century. Looking back over the two most tragic divisions in Christian history, that of 1054 when the East and West formally broke apart and then that of 1517, when the Protestant Reformers raised their voices against various problems that led to their eventual excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church, Father Ellsworth then presented an image to us, a very powerful paradigm or model. It is one that I will never forget. He said that we needed to think of our present condition as one in which we are all “the adult children of a tragic ecclesial divorce.”

I have turned that statement over in my mind and heart for several weeks now. I think it is profoundly simple and yet powerfully true. Many of us have lived as adult children of "a tragic divorce” in our own personal past and thus we know how difficult the problems are that face us in life. Even if we grew up in a healthy, stable family (as I did) we still know many good friends who experienced the pain of such divorce. In a tragic divorce no one wins, especially the children. The rest of their life they will live out their lives in the rubble and ruin of this tragic split.

Regardless of how you understand the church today, and regardless of which part of the church you are a member of personally, you can surely learn to relate to other Christians as people who have shared in this tragic divorce with you. I am convinced that until we all humble ourselves before this great tragedy we will never make significant progress in talking to one another in our present state. We can’t even begin to see healing take place if we cannot talk. This is what missional-ecumenism is all about. We need the conversation if we are to begin the healing process.

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  1. Chris Criminger April 11, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Hi John,
    I too resonate with the “the adult children of a tragic ecclesial divorce.” Several months ago I went through a heart breaking moment as a few ministers who represent ecclesial groups said they did not really want to fellowship with others in the wider Christian community that did not posses right doctrine to the fullness that they did. I love these brothers and believe there is much to learn from them but in their rare vulnerbility to share why they don’t like other Christians (even if just theologically), it shows there is a long hard road ahead for many who seek stronger bonds of unity in the church at large. And yet . . . And yet . . . Last night I worshipped at an Emmaeus gathering where Catholics and Protestants, Missouri Synod Lutheran and a host of other confessional Protestants partook of holy communion together in the beauty and mystery of God’s diverse yet one Church. Unity can not be forced or coersed but I for one embrace it whenever and whereever it can be found.

  2. Anthony April 11, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    John – I like the analogy, and I look forward to getting a copy of your book soon.
    In relation to this analogy, I am wondering if anyone has written a work in Church history that hypothesizes that the conditions in the west that led to the Reformation can be traced to the split between the East and the West in 1054. I realize that such a work would be speculative, but I wonder if a more holistic vision of the Xian faith would have prevailed if the split had not happened, thus preventing the conditions that led to the Protestant Reformation.

  3. John H. Armstrong April 11, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    What an interesting question Anthony. I do discuss, in my book, the fact that when the Western Church savaged the Eastern Church in 1204 in the Fourth Crusade (Constantinople) and then stayed out when the carnage came from the Muslims against Eastern Christians in the 15th century, letting Christians die. The split in the West then came in the 16th century and things have never been the same. It does seem possible that this is somehow connected. The Great Schism seems to have become a model for more division and then we all lost something, unless of course you like schism. It seems that some Christians actually believe schism is normative and must always be Spirit-driven. Makes you wonder doesn’t it?

  4. Chris Criminger April 12, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Hi Anthony and John,
    One may want to look at Mark Noll’s “Is the Reformation Over?” Just raising the question got Noll in hot water. Noll tries to take a sympathetic look at Roman Catholicism while staying planted in the Protestant tradition, offers self-critique as well as encouraging dialogue and future relations between Catholics and Protestants.
    Noll raises some important issues over the justification issue which seems to fall on deaf ears for those who know that Catholics are either not Christian or still teach some kind of works oriented soteriology.
    D. A. Carson is so upset with Mark Noll’s work that he has written his own response to him called “Evangelicalism: What is it and is it worth keeping?” (which comes out the end of this Sept.).
    Carson not noly refutes Noll’s work but wants to show why not only the Protestant Reformation was neccesary but why things have not really changed that much since it happened. I want to read Carson’s work and see how he butresses his arguments but as a student of history, I for one not only have problems with how the Reformation took place (think for example the difference between Erasmus and Luther and how they both were seeking reform in the church) but I find it unbelievable that schism can be so entrenched as what it means to be Protestants as we give our biblical and theological reasons why we are right and others are so wrong.
    I think of John’s earlier remarks about humility and does not humility drive us to repentance? to the cross? to showing Agape love and putting others first or at least giving them the benefit of the doubt?
    Soli Deo gloria.

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