Are Paul, Barnabus, and Mark a Model for Splitting the UMC?

Posted: June 17, 2016 by Matt Horan in Uncategorized
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Paul and Barnabus disagree about John Mark

By Matt Horan

I’m at the 2016 Florida Annual Conference meeting of the United Methodist Church in Orlando this week.

The gathering has been scheduled to be here for over a year, so we didn’t choose Orlando in order to be present with the people of a city that has gone through recent tragedies that included the mass murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub less than a week ago.

The atrocity was committed at Pulse because it was an opportunity to attack a large gathering of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-gendered community in a confined space, giving the murderer the best chance to inflict maximum casualties.  Dozens of others were wounded while their friends were massacred around them.

vigilWe knew, as we traveled from around the state to Orlando, that the loss of so many young lives would hang heavily over what is usually a joyful time of reunion and inspiration.  We gathered together last night for a vigil in which the names of those killed were read aloud, and I was stricken by how the names just kept coming.  The naming seemed to go on interminably.  So many lives, so much potential, lost in an instant.  They should have gone on to successful careers contributing work to their community.  They should have been spouses, parents, friends, volunteers… they should have had so much more time to contribute to our world.  What could these 49 people have offered if they’d been given a full life?

I wondered if this massacre might have led to some detente concerning the debate over homosexuality that seems to loom over all of our gatherings.  I’d say that everyone has been pretty well-behaved for the most part, keeping the tired talking points confined to sub-gatherings of like-minded Conference delegates and observers.  The Conference lay leader brought it up and shared his opinion during the opening laity session while the clergy weren’t present, but was more neutral when addressing the plenary session.  A clergy person made note that, while we voted to ordain new elders and deacons in full connection in the clergy session, many others could not be ordained because of their sexual orientation.

As has been our way for the last few years, Twitter and other social media tools served as means for delegates to participate and share observations and opinions.

One argument for the splitting of the United Methodist Church that I’ve seen float through my social media feeds from time to time, and I saw again today, has been this:

Acts 15:39: “Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus.

I continue to feel that our Biblical exegesis on both sides of the issue of spitting the church over homosexuality has been terrible.  The Good News magazine says that Paul and Barnabus “parted amicably,” but, well, it doesn’t say that at all.

I keep asking the question I feel is most important, “How should we decide when an admonition in Scripture should remain contextual, and when it should outlive it’s context and become an enduring standard?”

We have already decided on some issues.  We no longer require women to remain silent in church.  We no longer make anyone with a rash live outside the city until their priest declares it cured.  We don’t stone disobedient children, we don’t punish rapists by making them reimburse the woman’s father for the lost “bride price” that the rape cost him, and Christians have been shopping at stores on Sundays for years, so apparently working on the Sabbath has become acceptable well.

Is there a way for us to discern which admonitions belong to the ages, and which should remain ageless?

For this article, let’s turn to Acts 15 as an argument for Methodist disunion. My understanding of Paul and Barnabus’ disagreement is that they fought over John Mark’s abandonment of their mission before and as they headed out on a new journey into the unknown.  Barnabus’ wanted to give his nephew another chance, while Paul wanted to take someone who had demonstrated more endurance and commitment.

To boost Mark’s resume, long before this, while eavesdropping on Jesus’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was noticed and barely escaped capture by dropping his clothes and running away.  The first time he appears in the Bible he is running away from Jesus… naked.  (Mark 14:51-52)

Further, as John Mark is mentioned in the concluding remarks of various letters, he is spoken of by Paul and Peter with increasing acceptance (Colossians 4:10) and even affection (2Timothy 4:11) over time, with Peter calling him “my son” in his last mention (1Peter 5:14) and entrusting him to be the author of his own remembrance of the Good News in the Gospel of Mark.

It seems like sticking with John Mark actually bore fruit for years to come.

Would it be so hard for churches to work together with common purpose to make disciples of Jesus Christ who transform the world, even if we have not come to agreement thus far on whether the Biblical admonition to avoid homosexual practice should be read as contextual or as an enduring principle that should outlive it’s context?

I would say that we’ve already done what Paul and Barnabus did.  We’ve already separated out into camps that disagree strongly.  The question for us is whether or not we will do the work to restore relationships like they did with John Mark, or divert from the story of Paul and John Mark, giving up on each other instead.

Paul and Barnabus and John Mark seems to be a story of an argument and ensuing grudge that eventually softened and ended with partnership, trust, and affection for one another, and a commitment to a common mission that changed the world.

Maybe this story is a great example for us.  Maybe, if we follow it, we’ll discover that there’s more for us to do, and we’ll get it done best if we’ll do it together.  Maybe we’ll even end up, together, changing the world.

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