Something did not happen in 2020. The United Methodist Church did not split. It wasn’t for lack of trying. COVID-19 brought with it social distancing, travel bans, and concerns about infection rates. The very idea that something more important than deciding which group will get to call itself a new denomination or how congregations will affiliate was not in the minds of the leaders from all sides. Insurance liability jargon considers a pandemic “an act of God.” It appears strange to me that the will of God appeared to involve a denominational split in the name of peace. Obviously, we were wrong about that.
I have noticed one important aspect about church splits. There is nothing but human posturing and negotiation involved. And then God is ultimately blamed. Now, for the life of me, I don’t understand how that happens. I watched in despair as General Conference 2019 tore everyone apart. Then one by one “amicable” division plans came along deciding how the assets would be divided. All that remains is for the delegates to decide.
God gets the blame though. We are never responsible. One side shouts about “biblical authority.” Another group demands that a “prophetic word” for justice be heeded. One side links the authority of the Bible directly to God the Holy Spirit. Another believes their stand for inclusion is guided by the same Holy Spirit. I am truly amazed by the arrogance of ignorance.
A Missionary Split
“After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord.” (Acts 15:36-40)
Split By Pettiness
Chapter 15 in Acts shows the Church coming together to decide a major issue concerning Christian behavior and practice. The question was simple. Should non-Jewish believers in Christ be compelled to accept all of the custom and practices of the Law of Moses? St. Peter speaks to the assembly first. He tells how Gentile believers were given the Holy Spirit and their hearts were cleansed without the traditional Jewish observances.
The next speakers are none other that Paul and Barnabas. The Spirit of God performed signs and wonders confirming their ministry to the Gentiles. Back up and read that again. Barnabas and Paul together persuaded the church leaders at the council. They then took the ruling of the council to Antioch where the trouble began.
What happened after that? Paul rejects John Mark. Barnabas gets angry about it and goes home to Cyprus. Paul makes his tour of the mission churches.
Church leaders know exactly what happened. There was a triumph, a win, and then ego inflation. Tell me this. Who was right in the argument between Barnabas and Paul?
I did not start out as a United Methodist. I already possessed a degree in Biblical Studies and had some experience in ministry before I showed up on the doorstep, so to speak. Then I watched from afar my home church divide. I saw my Sunday School teachers refuse to speak to one another. The leaders whom I was taught to respect did not respect each other. They called each other “unfaithful” and “liars.” It was all about the ego’s of these people. But it was dressed up to be about the issue of “biblical authority” and “merciful inclusion.”
The biblical issue was what did Jesus mean when he said that a man who divorces his wife and marries another woman, excepting for the cause of marital infidelity, commits adultery. Was spousal adultery the only biblical grounds for divorce? What happens if the “guilty party” remarries? And what about spousal abuse? The historical context involves an argument between the Rabbis Shammai and Hillel and their schools of thought. Hillel taught that divorce may be granted on almost any grounds. Shammai argued adultery was the only cause. It was one disagreement among many. Both scholars are honored today. What was the big deal?
What Are Christian Institutions For?
Churches are not ends or goal in themselves. All Paul and Barnabas gained by their dispute was the ability to harm each other. They are not a scriptural justification for separation. Church leaders who lead congregational or denominational splits fail. We only accomplish harm. We have already been doing that. Church leaders should never want to create a new institution so that we will be more comfortable in our circumstances. Don’t blame God for it.