bari_church My dear friend, Father Wilbur Ellsworth, a former evangelical Baptist and now an Orthodox priest, is one of those brothers I want near to me the rest of my life. He always has something to say or do that brings grace and fullness to my life. Now that Father Ellsworth is fully engaged in ministry as a priest he is beginning to tell his story in various places. A few months ago he told it in Oklahoma for an Orthodox parish ministry. He gave me the DVD and I later wrote him a note expressing my appreciation for what he said and how he said it.

There was so much in Father Ellsworth’s story that I identified with, especially since I lived these days of change with him in the love of real friendship. I can still remember being at Notre Dame and me telling him I was going into the Reformed Church in America and I expected him to become an Orthodox priest. He was not quite sure yet, but I saw it and could only affirm what I saw as God’s grace working in him as my friend.

All of Father Wilbur’s story intersects with my life deeply, yet I remain resolute about where God has called me to serve him in the church catholic. This stance has never threatened our friendship for one moment. Many people cannot believe this but it is simply true. It is likely that though we are divided by the sacraments and the way we understand the church on earth we are closer than most Christians could ever be who were in the same communion or local parish.

After watching Father Wilbur’s presentation I told him that my biggest difference with him was simple and clear to me now. He believes that the fullness of the Christian faith is inherent to Orthodoxy, and I do not. I believe the fullness of faith is found in the catholic church, the whole church on earth in all its forms, so long as it remained rooted to the Triune God by faith in Christ as Lord (God/Man) raised from the dead. Father Wilbur responded to my statement with the following gracious words:

I do think the big question underlying so many smaller ones is this "fullness" question. It probably has several ways of being expressed along with the subsequent question of any visible, living church containing (in itself) that fullness. Just as I may not have been fully clear re: my comments about Solus Christus (I do not think the Reformers or their descendants are Christo-monists, but I think a practical Christo-monistic tone is all too commonly communicated in much of present day Evangelicalism), the question of "fullness" is also much more complex than what I was specifically able to say or in you would heard on the DVD.

This all comes together for me in a strange way as I have read your own book, Your Church is Too Small. Frankly, I have been struggling with a sense of deep sadness for the Church of Christ over the past few days with all this swirling about inside of me. I think, and I will say heartily on March 22 at the book launch event, that I hold and promote the spirit of "generous orthodoxy" toward all my brothers and sisters who by grace have entered into relationship with God through the Gospel of Christ and therefore have received the Holy Spirit. That is the mystery and wonder of the New Birth. That attitude is in one sense foundational to everything else. I believe the Father must deeply grieve and be offended by a spirit among His people that disregards and dismisses others who have come to Him in faith. On the other hand, AND THIS IS THE POINT AT WHICH I LABOR WITH SORROW, I find underneath so much of modern "generous orthodoxy" (notice I am using the small "o") a latent and always ready to surface spirit of all kinds of trouble. At times I find it in me (the first and most urgent matter for me to be concerned about), and if I choose to poke around enough I can quite easily arouse it in others. I find the comment that I am "just another convert who attacks evangelicals"

[made by some about Father Wilbur to me] to be a rather obvious case in point. Both in the Oklahoma talk and in the Ancient Faith Radio interview I have tried to express great love, gratitude and respect for the movement that brought me to Christ and gave me a place to stand and serve for decades. When either publicly or privately I speak of the problems or inefficiencies of this movement I try not to be dismissive nor to imply that this is all "outside the Church." In working through my thoughts of agreement and cautions about your book, I have come up with the vision that Christians today might be analogous to "adult children of divorced parents." That is a common awareness among counselors today and it serves well to help understand the depth of the tragedy of the shattered church (small "c"). I find in all expressions of the Church.  The severe temptations to triumphalism, pride, anger, reductionism and willfulness in asserting the "rightness" of "where I am." The danger in moving beyond this is that somehow we end up excusing or minimizing the devastation of divorce in the first place. For me, I find no joy and am often filled with conscious grief at the Eucharist that historic and even contemporary divorces in the Body of Christ have cut me off from the joy of unhindered Eucharistic fellowship with my brothers and sisters. The key issue which you have mentioned to me a number of times is the Eucharist. I do not see the Orthodox Church in its highest teaching (as in everywhere else in Christianity there is also some "lower and downright low" teaching) is the effort not to be reductionist about the koinonia of the Eucharist in a shattered Church. I won't go on now about some of the issues here, but I have tasted  the true lack of communion of submission to the historic and foundational teaching of the Church on the Eucharist itself.

One last short foray: while I agree that the mission of the Church has a deep and powerful unifying power, I also see that "mission" as it has been expressed in American Evangelicalism has also had a corrupting power on the nature of the Church and at times on the Gospel itself. You and I both have experienced that. My evangelical experience in Wheaton was a wrenching example as was your recent experience at a similar independent evangelical church. All in all, let us pursue a "humble joy" in that we have tasted the Kingdom and the New Creation in the Gospel and in the Church. We are "already" and "not yet."

What a magnificent letter from a true friend and brother in Christ. We are not one at the Table. I would rather it be otherwise and do not agree with Father Wilbur’s reason(s) for that being true. At the same time I respect his reasons deeply. I think I understand them even if I do not agree. Frankly, I would much rather see his view prevail than the evangelical one that treats the Eucharist as nothing important at all. This is why I too grieve over our
family divisions and work f
or expressions of missional-ecumenism in every way possible.

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  1. Bryan Cross April 19, 2010 at 11:14 am

    You talk about the “catholic Church” but I think you don’t have any principled difference between a branch within the Church and a schism from the Church. And so it seems to me that this term “catholic Church” is just an abstraction (i.e. a mental construct), not an actual entity.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  2. Ross April 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    “I believe the Father must deeply grieve and be offended by a spirit among His people that disregards and dismisses others who have come to Him in faith.”
    This line actually made me tear up a little bit. The fact that I could look down on someone for whom Jesus died because of a denominational label is a tragedy.
    I just got your book in the mail the other day. I am already intrigued & challenged. Looking forward to seeing how these ideas I’m wrestling with play out in my own ‘mission’.

  3. Chris Criminger April 19, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Wow John,
    What a great letter from Fr. Wilbur. I admire his honesty and integrity even where there are ‘real’ differences.
    I have not given it much thought but you are so scarily right about the Eucharist. We often treat it as if it’s not really important. There may be maximalist and minimalist views and understandings, but when we diminish God’s grace gifts to the church, it’s to our own peril.
    I was at the first “Early Church Conference” at Wheaton and met an Eastern Orthodox teacher at a Christian college. He told me he did not believe the fullness of the church doctrine where the EO Church was better much less the only church but recognized Christ in other churches. He’s the first EO I have ever met that said that! Talk about a divided Christendom, I am so used to hearing by others, EO, Catholic, MSL, or whoever that they accept me as their brother in Christ but don’t recognize Christ in either the church I serve in or/and Christ in the eucharist. These kind of dichotomous things I imagine must grieve the heart of God.

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