Is Splitting Up All Bad?

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:39-40).

We need partners in ministry: The Great Commission is not a solo mission. Churches, not individuals, are God’s primary instrument for transforming the world. We need brothers and sisters in Christ, but what happens when irreconcilable conflicts occur?

In Acts 15:36, 3 years after the 1st missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas agreed to return to the mission field. They could not agree on whom to take with them. Barnabas wanted to bring John Mark but Paul wanted to leave him behind because he had abandoned them on a previous journey.


Paul and Barnabas Split, Jacob Jordaens

Who was right? Barnabas seems to focus on giving a high potential leader a second chance. Paul’s seems to focus on the demands of the mission. Luke, the author of Acts, doesn’t take sides. He simply reports a sharp disagreement between friends, and the sad dissolution of a 15 year old ministry partnership.

Was it all bad that Paul saw wisdom in one strategy while Barnabas saw wisdom in another, so that two mission agencies were formed? Even today there are agencies with different standards, strategies and beliefs. Some agencies are like Paul’s, and have stringent standards for their candidates because of the rigorous demands of the journey. Some are like Barnabas’s, and are looking for anyone who wants a chance to go. Neither of these are necessarily bad, but different beliefs have given birth to new missional opportunities.  Is this all bad?

Christian ministry in local churches, denominations and missional agencies includes having these types of disagreements. The Bible is interpreted and applied differently to different kinds of situations. Sometimes members of a denomination or local church do not share a philosophy of ministry. Sometimes agreement doesn’t seem possible on this side of eternity.

Rancor, bitterness and resentment in churches, denominations and missional agencies are always bad. What if Paul and Barnabas had continued to fight and eventually postponed the second missionary journey? What if they stuck it out, and lived in constant tension on the mission field?

Let’s not quickly assume that different missional strategies and disagreements over biblical interpretation are all bad. Paul and Barnabas’ ministries continued and multiplied. They maintained friendship and Paul continued to affirm Barnabas’ ministry (1 Cor.9:6; Col.4:10). Even Paul and Mark were later reconciled (2 Tim.4:11). Most importantly, the mission of God continued and expanded.

Church and denominational splits are painful, messy and complicated. Discontinuing ministry with another person hurts, but parting with a blessing means that healthy ministry can continue and even expand. Relationships are strained for a season, but they do not have to end. Staying together and fighting produces pain and power struggles, but very few disciples.


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Is the Traditional Plan Biblical?

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

By now the UMC’s Special General Conference decision to strengthen our church law regarding homosexuality is old news. Our official position still states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Proponents of “The Traditional Plan” insist that the real issue is not homosexuality, but biblical interpretation.

As a pastor, I am reluctant to take a public stance on divisive issues. I worry that it will create controversy. People might distance themselves from a pastor whom they consider to be on the wrong side of the debate. A pastor’s opinion can inflict pain on parishioners.

My views regarding homosexuality involve so much more than collecting data and deciding if I am ‘for” or “against” it. I have inward struggles, personal anxieties and unresolved questions. I am not trying to please anyone here. In fact, I realize this blog post may not please anyone at all.


The ‘Outcast’ Samaritan, Alonso Cano

We prefer a straight yes or no when it comes to controversial issues. We feel more comfortable with absolutes than with uncertainty. So, rather than have you wait until the end of this article, I”ll share my conclusion first:

I did not want the Tradition Plan to pass. It has inflicted pain on countless United Methodists. To me it is  inconsistent and unfair. The issue of homosexuality is not as black and white as proponents make it seem. If I disapprove of homosexuality based on Scripture, I need to be consistent and take all Scripture just as seriously. I am not afraid to reread Scripture and rethink any of my beliefs, including my beliefs about homosexuality.

Now here’s the struggle behind the viewpoint:

Am I ignoring God’s Word? I came to faith in a Baptist church, which taught that the Bible is the Word of God. Believing something contrary to Holy Scripture is to ignore God. Though my beliefs have changed since I was a Baptist, this is still my conviction.

There are 6 passages in the Bible (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10) that say same sex relationships are sins. The Leviticus passages describe same sex relationships as an abomination. Romans 1:18-32 says homosexuality is not what God intended. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says that those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 says it contradicts “sound doctrine” and the gospel.

The Bible is precious to me. Through Scripture I encounter a healing, risen savior. The Bible is God’s Word to me, so how can I ignore these passages?

Am I taking the whole Bible seriously, or just parts of it? There are many passages that I have not taken seriously.  I eat shrimp (Lev. 11:10) and wear mixed fabric (Lev. 11:19). In fact, there are many Levitical laws I do not observe. I don’t want homosexuals and adulterers to be executed, even though the Bible commands it (Lev. 20:10, 20:13). 1 Corinthians commands women to wear head coverings and to remain silent (11:2-16). I  don’t ask my female parishioners to do this. Women cannot wear jewelry, lead or teach men (1 Tim.2:8-12), and yet the UMC ordains women and I encourage women to lead ministry teams at HUMC.

These are just a few examples. The Bible is God’s Word, so I need to understand and accept all of it – including the parts that confuse me and trouble me.

Do Biblical interpretations ever result in pain?

Women’s rights have been suppressed and children have suffered. Polygamy was assumed in the Old Testament, and Paul teaches that women must quietly submit to their husbands (1 Cor. 11:3, 14:34-36).

The Bible did not outlaw slavery, but regulated it (Ex. 21:2-6, 20-21; Leviticus 25:44-46).  It’s true that the Mosaic Law regulated slavery in such a way that it was immensely more humane than the practice of surrounding nations, but I consider all forms of slavery to be a horrible sin.

I was divorced 18 years ago, and my church leaders forbid me from remarrying and entering ordained ministry, despite my deep desire to do both. Jesus said divorce and remarriage were unacceptable. (Mark 10:2-12). Paul said that pastors must be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires a woman to live with her rapist. I can’t imagine the suffering when this law was implemented. Why not execute the rapist?

People have suffered because of a wrong understanding of Scripture. The Church has acknowledged this many times in history.

Who are my homosexual neighbors? Something that sounds fine in principle may not be so simple in practice.  Beliefs might seem right in my head, but they are challenged when I meet real people in the real world. As a pastor I’ve developed relationships with gay persons and couples. Their experiences are very different from mine. Their world views can be very different than mine. But we share a world and a church, and I want to understand them as deeply as possible. In certain ways, my homosexual neighbor is not so different:

They have God-given spiritual gifts. So do I. They want to compassionately serve the church and the world. So do I. They have been hurt by a local church and/or denomination. So have I. They struggle with sin. Like me.

Where have my struggles taken me?

The words of Jesus in Matthew 7:16 are stuck in my head: “You will know them by their fruits.” If my use of Scripture ever causes more pain than fruit, such as demonstrated by the recent General Conference decision, then I need to reread (not rewrite) the Scriptures.  All of them. Including the 6 passages about homosexuality. I want to reread them alongside those about Jesus’ immeasurable love for all who have ever been pushed to the margins (e.g. Mark 1:30-45; John 4:4-42; Romans 8:37-39).

I must listen to different perspectives. I can’t be satisfied with any conclusion that is based on the premise “I’ve always believed that….”

I must be sensitive to all human suffering. This is hard when my theological beliefs (or that of my denomination) are the cause of it.

In the end, I must love and accept those who arrive at different conclusions.

In the aftermath of GC2019, United Methodist bishops, lay and clergy leaders have flooded the airways with messages of unity in the midst of diversity. Let’s not hear these as we would the overhear announcements at the airport. Let messages like this be in our hearts and minds during these tumultuous times:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:14–16, NIV).

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Is Prayer the Key to Unity?

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. (Acts 2:1)

As we get closer to the Special Session of the UMC is this weekend, churches, annual conferences and other United Methodist groups are calling for prayer. They are printing prayer guides and organizing prayer vigils.  Millions of United Methodists will pray for unity this weekend, even as delegates debate over human sexuality.

Sometimes a body of Christians pray and they find unity and agreement. Sometimes a body of Christians pray, and they come to contradictory conclusions and fight.

The New Testament provides a somber reality for churches and denominations seeking unity.  Things start out well enough in Acts, with “All the believers were together and had everything in common” (2:44)

The same is said in Acts 4:32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.But the author of Acts also recognizes that it wasn’t always like this.

A few verses later there is the unedifying story of a couple (5:1-11), who die after withholding from this unified community that shared everything.


The Death of Ananias, Raphael

There is an alarming account of racial and religious discrimination in the seemingly harmonious community at Acts 6:1-6.

As a result of corporate worship, the Holy Spirit sets apart Paul and Barnabas to be co-missionaries. prayer (13:2). After their 1st mission trip, they have a huge fight and split up (15:39)

Paul and Peter, the 2 pillars of the Church, had a fierce argument in public (Galatians 2:11-21

Paul writes letters to the Corinthian and Philippian churches because they couldn’t stop arguing with one another.

And this was before the days of denominational and theological labels. Church unity is a tricky thing to handle, so this should always be at the top of our prayer list.

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The Special General Conference: How Will HUMC Respond?

The Special Session of the UMC is this weekend. Delegates from all across the globe will gather to examine church law concerning human sexuality and explore ways to maintain unity. Whatever the conclusion, many United Methodists will be angry and hurt.

If the UMC removes all language regarding homosexuality, many will feel we have lost  something very precious: the Bible. This is God’s Word to us, and to condone homosexuality is to ignore what God is saying to us.

If the language stays the same, the UMC will still consider homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and the current restrictions regarding gay persons will stay the same. This will be painful for many in the pews. They will consider themselves members of a denomination that marginalizes a specific group of people.

I expect the Special Session’s decision will affect Huntingtown UMC, but to what extent?


Pentecost, by El Greco

I see HUMC as a theologically diverse congregation. Even though most people here do not wear labels, there are traditionalists, progressives and just about everything in between. HUMC does not live in perfect unity. I’m sure there have been many fist-pounding discussions over various church, theological, political and social issues.

But for the most part, that hasn’t kept us from being together. We serve on committees together. We serve area schools together. We partner with local ministries together. We repair homes in low income areas together. We support a community in Alemania Federal together. We prepare church meals together. We are family. None of this has to change.

Whatever the decision, I want to offer a few thoughts to Huntingtown UMC as we await General Conference’s decision:

  • There will be no “winners.” Many people will be hurt, angry and disappointed, regardless of the outcome.
  • HUMC can be a safe place for people to express their views: Let’s be quick to listen and slow to pass judgment.
  • Someone’s view on homosexuality should not be a litmus test: God has given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to everyone.
  • Talk to me. I’m your pastor and I want to listen to everyone.
  • The last one is the most important:

It’s okay to express our pain, anger, approval or disapproval at the General Council’s decision. But if that is all we ever do, then we lose focus on our God given mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I am very confident that whatever our denomination decides, Huntingtown United Methodist Church will still gather for powerful worship, our ministries will continue to transform lives, and we will still be a family that welcomes everyone.

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Is This Guy Homeless?

To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless…1 Corinthians 4:11

Currently I am without transportation. I have 3 cars in working condition but I cannot drive them. I stopped responding to medication, so I’m trying new ones. As I experience the vicissitudes of a new medication, I stay away from the steering wheel. It’s not convenient, but it is certainly bearable.

This is my 3rd time as a pastor / church staff where I’ve been in this situation. During those times I’ve relied on public transportation, walking and the generosity of others. Sometimes when I’m waiting for transportation, I sit in restaurants and libraries. Still, it would be ridiculous to say that I have experienced the world from the perspective of the poor.


Jesus the Homeless, Timothy Schmalz

Today I’m sitting in the public library, waiting for my ride. My congregation is hosting Safe Nights, a ministry that provides winter protection for Calvert County’s homeless by offering shelter, breakfast, dinner and a bag lunch, all served by loving people. I’m noticing that some of our guests are at the library.  One of them recognizes me and jokes, “Welcome to my office.” I suspect some of them will remain at the library until they are transported back to my church.

I look at the people sitting around me. Judging by their appearance I wonder, “How many of these people are homeless?”

In the restroom I look in the mirror. Today is my “day-off,” but I’m still surprised at my appearance.  I would not look like this at a church meeting or event. I’m unshaven. My wool cap has lint all over it. My black coat is dirty and has dog hair all over it (my wife fosters dogs who shed nonstop). I’m wearing faded, dirty jeans. My shoes are older than two of my children (Rockports last a lifetime).

I am carrying a faded gray drawstring bag, which contains dandelion tea bags, my remaining lunch and an ipad.  I intend to share the tea with our Safe Nights guests who are trying to avoid coffee. I reach for my ipad, but the tea bags, a partially eaten sandwich and an unopened bag of chips spill on the floor. I quickly stuff them back into the bag.

I’ve settled into my chair to review tomorrow’s sermon. I stop and wonder if anyone around me has noticed me. Is anyone thinking, “I wonder if that guy is homeless?”


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Do the Magi Belong in Manger Scenes?

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. –  Matthew 2:3

It seems every Christmas there is a myth buster who will tell us that 3 figures in our manger scenes do not belong there.

Next to the shepherds, sheep, cows, and the holy family are the wise men, kings or magi. Critics graciously remind us that we don’t know how many there were, and they likely arrived a couple of years later. And they probably weren’t kings, despite the shape of the figurines and the title of the famous song.


The Magi Journeying, by James Tissot

Such myth busting does not concern me. I paid too much money for my manger scene to leave out three pieces until January. Also, the magi are extremely  important precisely because they DO NOT belong there.

These magi were likely “magicians,” not like Harry Potter, but more like astrologers. They were the type that would write the daily horoscopes for the Baghdad Daily News. To 1st century Jews, they are pagan astrologers from enemy territory.

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if officials from Iraq, Syria or Iran were to approach Prime Minister Netanyahu. They want to know where to find a new Israeli leader – all based on reliable intelligence that was unavailable to Israel. That’s pretty much what the magi are doing. Early readers of Matthew 2:1-12 were probably shocked and possibly offended by their inclusion in this story.

Imagine putting out of place figures in manger scenes in churches and front lawns: Batman could be standing on the roof of the manger. The Avengers, who were watching their sheep at night, could be visiting the newborn Jesus. Garden trolls, instead of cows and sheep, could be gathered around the manger.

People might be shocked and offended by these figures that do not belong on a manger scene. But people would stop their cars and pay attention.

Shocking misplacements persist throughout the Gospels: Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, corrupt tax collectors, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers, and pagan astrologers: Often God chooses to reveal himself to people who do not belong, not to “devout” believers.

If you have 3 king-like magi in your manger scenes, please know that they do not belong. This is precisely why we need to keep them there.

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Humiliation at Christmas

They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him. Mark 14:64-65

As we enter Advent, I’ve been thinking of the cross more than the manger. It is the cross that saves us, not the manger. The cross is the demonstration of God’s radical love towards us. The cross is our  example of the radical love we are to show others. The cross reminds us of the seriousness of sin, and Christ’s victory over it. Not the manger.


The Flight into Egypt, Edwin Longsden Long

But the manger is important: While the cross shows us Christ’s humiliating death, the manger shows us His humiliating beginnings. It was a prelude to the kind of life that Jesus was to live.

Philippians 2:7-8 tells us that Jesus laid aside His divine majesty, took on the limitations of being human, and experienced the difficulties, sufferings and sorrows that all people do.

We see this in the Christmas story:

He likely endured the suspicion of being an illegitimate child. This seems to be implied in John 8:41, and 2nd century critics of Christianity made this accusation. Plus, Mary and Joseph’s friends and relatives understood simple biology and could do simple math.

He was born among commoners in anonymity in a place of little importance:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,  though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel…” (Micah 5:2).

He was born into poverty. Mary and Joseph were too poor to offer a lamb as a temple sacrifice, so they offered two pigeons instead (Luke 2:22–24; Leviticus 12:7-8).

His family soon fled Bethlehem to live as refugees in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18). He grew up in an area with such poverty and bad reputation that his disciple Nathaniel once said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)

His material status didn’t change during  his 3 years of ministry. Jesus commented on his economic status when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Jesus preached from borrowed boats, multiplied borrowed food, rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed colt, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.

Jesus left his throne to live in humiliation and poverty with us, to give us His life and his friendship. This very thing is stated in 2 Corinthians 8:9:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

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