A Paradigm for Understanding Our Present Divided Condition

John ArmstrongChurch History, Missional-Ecumenism

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.