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Can Mark’s Ministry be Called a Failure?

Did you know that Spectrum has posted a commentary on the lesson every week for over two decades? That’s over 1,000 articles just on the Adult Bible Study Guide. God help us! 

We support innovation in Adventism, and we do our best to walk the talk. Starting this quarter, we’re trying out something we’re calling a “conversational commentary” on the Sabbath school lesson. Both Krystalynn and Ezrica have extensive experience exploring spiritual meaning in ministry contexts, especially for young adults. Each week, one writer will read a few days of the lesson and email her thoughts to the other, who will then reply with response based on the next several days of the quarterly. After a couple of back and forth sessions, we will publish their conversation on Monday to kick off each week’s Adult Bible Study Guide commentary.

The ABSG for the next three months focuses on the gospel of Mark. In my studies at the Graduate Theological Union, the professor asked us to read through the entire book in one sitting, noting the efficiency of the storytelling and how our understanding of the story of Jesus draws from and grows from this shorter narrative. Considering the Marcan priority on Holy Hill in Berkeley, Calif., exploring beyond our denominational tradition of prooftexting, I found this book and theme approach to Bible study spiritually refreshing. In class, instead of defining doctrine, we discussed the movement of Jesus, in more ways than one. I recommend the exercise. 

I hope you find our experimental “conversational commentary” to be a gracefully engaging way to explore the book of Mark. We’re also posting these earlier in the week which provides more time for you to comment. Who knows? Perhaps a Sabbath school teacher—tired at the end of the week—will find an insight from your comment to be the perfect spark allowing a class to continue this conversation live on Sabbath morning. 

Please join Ezrica and Krystalynn and continue the conversation below. 

—Alexander Carpenter, executive editor.


Ezrica

This week’s adult Sabbath school lesson provided a broad introduction to the Book of Mark. Sabbath’s lesson delves into the ambiguity surrounding its authorship and suggests the book was likely written by the biblical figure John Mark. On Sunday, the lesson shifted focus, exploring Mark’s perceived shortcomings.

The lesson left me a little unsettled. I was filled with a familiar sense of anxiety and shame. Utilizing a few verses from Mark chapter 13, the text talked about Mark’s absence from the mission field. It concluded by saying Mark was a failed missionary. The narrative is further underscored with an Ellen White quote: ““Mark was overwhelmed with fear and discouragement.” I think this portrayal of Mark reflects on a common belief within Christianity. Experiencing negative emotions or doubt is inherently problematic, denoting failure. Instead of embracing the full spectrum of emotions, we are often taught to only embrace joy and positivity. This mindset can leave believers emotionally stunted. Author Peter Scazzero writes in his book, “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality,” that “Christian spirituality, without an integration of emotional health, can be deadly–– to yourself, your relationship with God, and the people around you.”

I recently watched the new Disney movie Inside Out 2, which beautifully depicts the range of emotions we all experience. As I watched, I found myself moved to tears as my inner child healed. The film made me realize how valuable it would have been as a young Christian to understand the importance of embracing all parts of myself without isolating certain thoughts and emotions as “bad.” Reading through this lesson made me wish that the same grace I experienced from that movie could be extended to the readers. Was Mark truly a failed missionary? Or was he simply human? I long for us to move past the moral perfectionism that flourishes within Christianity. Instead, I encourage people to recognize that growth, fulfilling a calling, and sanctification, are not always straightforward. And that’s okay.


Krystalynn

I agree with Ezrica’s sentiment. The use of the word “failure” in reference to Mark was an interesting choice. Monday’s lesson appears to try and explain what the “failure” was about. From reading, we learn that Paul rejected Mark because he had withdrawn from the ministry he and Barnabas were working on in Pamphylia. Because of this, Paul didn’t want Mark to join them again in ministry. Barnabas pleaded for a second chance for Mark but the dispute was so great, the pair parted ways.

A few things interest me. Namely, the assumption of Mark’s failure. If we are to use the word failure to describe Mark and his actions of retreating from ministry for a time, why are we not using the word to describe Paul’s poor behavior towards a fellow laborer? Monday’s lesson later says that  “an amazing transformation seems to have occurred in Mark . . .” The lesson continues to describe Paul writing that he would be open to working with Mark again. The quarterly ends with, “Mark clearly recovered from his failure . . .” Why the emphasis on failure again? Could Paul have gotten over his control of Mark’s spiritual journey and the outcome of ministry?

The question I had while reading the lesson was this: why did Mark want to “leave” the ministry with Paul to begin with? What happened in Pamphylia that we aren’t aware of? Maybe his methods of reaching people were different from Paul’s and left to not cause a distraction. What if Mark and Paul’s personalities didn’t mesh very well, or maybe Mark decided to take Jesus at His word and took some time off to rest because he was getting burned out. This begs the question: how do we look at people who have “left the ministry?” What if what we perceive as failure is actually where authentic life and true ministry begin?


Ezrica

I love your question Krystalynn. Why did Mark want to leave? It offers a shift in perspective. Instead of fixating on the choices of the person who left, examine the environment they walked away from. This perspective takes the focus from the failure of the victim to the failure of the system. Especially relevant in our current spiritual environment. Are people carelessly leaving the church, or were they left with no other choice? And what gives us the authority to deem someone’s actions a failure? Wednesday’s lesson focused on Christ’s baptism, reinforcing the reality that believers sometimes don’t see things through the appropriate lens. That baptism was the Father’s public declaration of validation in His Son’s ministry. That becomes more meaningful when we consider the leaders of the church declared that same ministry a failure.

Thursday’s lesson segues into the gospel through the lens of Christ. The text uses Mark 1:14-15 to validate the 70-week prophecy found in Daniel 9:24-27. I find this to be a missed opportunity. The beauty of Mark 1:14-15 is not that it validates prophecy, but that it introduces Christ. This verse is a dynamic celebration of the long awaited messiah and the fulfillment of His promises. The irony is not lost on me that, when presented with the chance to focus on Christ, the attention was placed on doctrinal teachings. This is exactly what the believers of old did. Jesus was there in the flesh, but they refused to take their eyes off the traditional teachings. I am in no way opposed to the teaching of prophecy, but it shouldn’t underscore the ministry of Christ.


Krystalynn

You make some powerful points, Ezrica. Rather than ending Thursday’s lesson with a question about our personal experience with Christ, it asks “When was the last time you studied the 70-week prophecy . . .?” Friday’s lesson wrapped up the week with a correlation of the first angel’s message in Revelation 14:6-7 with Mark 1:15, emphasizing your point. Why the pivot?

We know it is possible to use Bible prophecy, missing Christ altogether as the religious leaders did in Jesus’ day. We can see throughout history how religious institutions create formulas for their followers to adhere to in order to be accepted within the fold. When someone pushes back against control measures, many times they experience a withholding of love from the community. This leads to what leaders at the Global Center for Religious Research refer to as “adverse religious experiences” that lead to “religious trauma.” In a hurry to have the correct answers and not be seen as failures, has Adventism missed meeting Jesus at times? If this is so, Adventists may have been the cause of religious trauma to those in and outside their midst.

About the authors

Ezrica Bennett

Ezrica Bennett graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Oakwood University. She has worked as a book editor for the Loma Linda University School of Medicine and has written for the Adventist Review and the Southeastern California Conference. She is a writer, public speaker, and coach, passionate about working with young adults to help them navigate life and faith, and a youth elder at the Loma Linda University Church. More from Ezrica Bennett.

Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin

Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin is the former vice principal for spiritual life at Auburn Adventist Academy. She has served as a minister, teacher, and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for over two decades. She is currently completing a PhD in Transformative Social Change, with an emphasis in Peace and Justice Studies. More from Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin.
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