Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Tragedy of Division in the Church

Acts 15:36-40
Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God.

At Presbytery learned not only of great deliverances but also of troubles in some churches. That which has sat most on my heart is one of the original congregations in the CREC whose elders – all godly men – have found it impossible to labor side by side any longer. Their difference of vision has become so entrenched that they have decided, for the sake of long term peace, to part ways and plant a new church in the same community while endeavoring to preserve fraternal relationships with one another through joint meetings, psalm sings, etc.

Their story reminded me of the event in the life of Barnabas and Paul that we read in Acts. They simply could not agree on what to do with John Mark. Barnabas was willing to give John Mark another chance; Paul felt that to bring him along would compromise their very important mission. Luke comments on their disagreement that “the contention become so sharp that they parted from one another.” They could not agree on the course forward.

Here’s the question: was the division between Barnabas and Paul a result of sin? No doubt. Not only had John Mark’s sin provided the original cause for the dispute but our general condition as fallen human beings means that both Paul and Barnabas were sinners as well and no doubt their particular weaknesses contributed to the conflict. But here’s another question: does Luke make an attempt to sort this situation out and ascribe blame? Not at all. These were godly men, they had a difference of vision, and so they parted ways because they simply could not agree on a course forward.

Isn’t that humbling? We imagine in our idealism that we Christians should be able to work all these problems out. We’ve got to preserve the unity of the Spirit – didn’t Paul himself write that?! But the story is put here to remind us of the stark reality of our current human condition – we are finite and sinful and stand in desperate need of the grace of God? Here are two godly men who couldn’t agree and had to separate from one another for a time. Here in the CREC are godly men who cannot agree and are separating from one another while endeavoring to maintain fellowship. How this ought to humble us, to cause us to cry out to God for mercy, to beseech him to keep us united and give us a common vision.

Job tells us, “Man is prone to trouble, as sparks fly upward.” Knowing how prone we are to such trouble, our calling is to be gracious to one another, to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and to cry out to God to unite us in love. Unfortunately we often fail to do so. We bicker and complain; we seek our own good rather than the good of others.

And so reminded of our need to be humble, to seek the face of God, to treat one another with kindness and mercy, let us kneel and confess our sins to the Lord.