As a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I have experienced the realities of how church factions can divide friends and families into making decisions based on conviction and theological doctrines. This to me is very disappointing that the very thing that separates us as humans the ability to reason from other creatures can also be a tool in dividing partakers of the kingdom. In the ELCA and other Lutheran counterparts, traditional vs. progressive ministry viewpoints have been at odds for years. Lutherans have been debating gradual changes that include things like more liberal interpretation of Scripture and a revision of the hymnal that made it more gender-neutral. Lutherans and other denominational bodies have a history of splitting off, coming together and starting new groups, or synods. As of last year, they had more than 50 denominations and planned to start even more.
Acts 15:36-41 informs us that the early church experienced some disasters. John Mark left the first missionary enterprise, and this angered Paul. It surely dismayed the Antioch church as well! Later on, Paul and Barnabas had a sharp division of opinion and sadly they separated. The break in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas was tragic and on the surface was not a good model for unifying the body of believers, namely Jews and Gentiles. Can you imagine the dismay of these young churches when they observed that Barnabas was not along with Paul? One can surmise the conversation: "Paul praise God, it's wonderful to have you back again! And where is Barnabas?"
"Well, we had a falling out."
"Oh? A falling out."
In the midst of a division, God's church doubled with John Mark proving himself faithful in the end. In 2 Timothy Paul wrote of John Mark, "He is helpful to me in my ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11). He wanted Timothy to bring Mark with him to Paul in Rome. God brought reconciliation to both of them, instead of there being only one missionary team, there were two.
The last verse of chapter 15 says that despite the disagreement of Paul and Barnabas, the missionary activity continued and doubled as they "went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches" (v.41). In trying to understand why the Lutheran church would split on a doctrinal issue of Scripture that Jesus Christ never explicitly talked about, I am encouraged that despite our human fallacies that the Holy Spirit calls for grace, repentance and a lot of forgiveness.
The realities of division may not be the best of all ways of getting the work done, but in the providence and grace of God the result is sometimes beneficial. You can have a First Baptist Church or a First Presbyterian Church. The church can have an argument and split, and the result is the Second Baptist Church or Second Presbyterian Church. So there are two churches that God blesses. God blesses these churches just as Paul and Silas expanded overland on their second missionary journey. We must continue to discern the move of the Spirit in building the kingdom of Christ.
From the disciples' continued team efforts to the Pentecost body of Christ, the church.
From the church as a Christbody to the hierarchy of a magisterium.
From an institutionalized magisterium to a team-spirit Reformation.
From a Reformed church to a revitalized clergy.
From less formalized clergy teams to an empowered laity and every-member ministry.
If you look at these various incarnations in the history of the Christian church, it appears there is an ebb and flow of the Spirit's presence in these various forms. The power of a Spirit-led leader is transferred to the creativity of a Spirit-led team. The earliest priesthood of Jesus' own disciples, the Spirit-infused team of the Reformers, the Spirit-empowered lay movements -- all represent teams of faithful, creative, Spirit-fired incarnations of God's presence.
Despite the realities of dwindling numbers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Spirit of God is on the move. Just as Paul pressed on toward his second missionary journey, we must move forward in the creative work of the Holy Spirit and affirm that it is truly God's work, our hands.