These two men had been together for years. They had seen so much as they loved the Lord and worked together. When one of them was not trusted or believed by others, the other was right there defending him and encouraging him. They had traveled together all over the world. They had their ups and downs. They had their share of victories and defeats. In one city they were thought of as gods. In other cities they had been persecuted and driven out. When one was down, the other picked that person up. They had stood together in Jerusalem and told the Christians all that God had been doing through them. They were inseparable. God had even told these two to work together (cf. Acts 13:2). They are Paul and Barnabas. They seemed like the perfect duo. This is what makes the end of Acts 15 so surprising.
The Disagreement (15:36-39)
Acts 15:36 tells us that some time has passed since the gathering at Jerusalem regarding how the Gentiles are to turn to God. Paul then tells Barnabas that we should go back to all the cities where they had proclaimed God’s word and see how the Christians are doing. You may recall that in Acts 14 we saw that Paul and Barnabas went back through those cities on their way back to Antioch to encourage them and strengthen their faith (Acts 14:22). So now they see that it is important to go check on them again. Barnabas agrees to this and says that they need to John who is also called Mark. We do not really get a sense of it as we were reading Acts 13-14 but we are told that Paul and Barnabas had other companions traveling with them as they went to those cities preaching (Acts 13:13). One of those companions who had started with them was John also called Mark. But not far into their travels we are told in Acts 13:13 that Mark returned to Jerusalem. We were not told why. We were not told if it was good or bad. But here we are with Paul and Barnabas making plans to travel again and Barnabas says that he will get Mark to go with them again.
But Paul does not think it is a good idea to take Mark with him because he deserted them and did not continue with them in the work (13:38). Paul’s refusal to bring Mark indicates that Mark’s departure was not for a family emergency or some sort of reason that was acceptable to them. Mark left them in the middle of the work last time. Paul seems to have concerns that this will happen again. This leads to Paul and Barnabas having a sharp disagreement. But let us consider this disagreement. Both Paul and Barnabas have the same goal. They want to go back and check on the churches that they just established as they traveled. But both have a different idea about how to accomplish that same goal. Further, both are fully convicted in their point of view which leads to this sharp disagreement. I think we are able to see both sides of the discussion. Some might think we should give Mark another chance to work with us. Some might think it is too risky to bring someone who could leave you when things get tough. Do not forget how tough things were last time they visited those cities. The persecution was severe.
The Result (15:39-41)
So who was right? While readers have the tendency to take sides, I want us to notice that the text does not. Notice that the text does not say that Barnabas was wrong and Paul was right. Nor does the text say that Paul was wrong and Barnabas was right. The point is simple. They disagree on the best way to accomplish this goal that is before them. It is important to underscore that this is not a mild disagreement. It is also important to notice that there is not a path to compromise. It is not like we take Mark for half the time and that be a suitable solution for both people. There is only that Mark comes or he does not come and both are resolute on what they think is the best path. The only solution is for Paul and Barnabas to separate. We read in verse 39 that Barnabas took Mark with him to go to the work in Cyprus. Paul took Silas with him to do the work in Syria and Cilicia.
A Sinful Dispute?
Now a lot has been written about this disagreement and I think this text has been misused far too often in the wrong way about dealing with disagreements. So that is what we are going to talk about in this lesson. One writer said, “Paul and Barnabas could have separated on good terms, still disagreeing, but with a cordial, Christ-honoring attitude. Instead, it seems they left each other in bitterness” (Mohler, 42). Another writer said, “The omission of a harmonious conclusion indicates the unstated but undeniable failure of two of the greatest souls the church has ever known” (Hughes, 204).
So we assume that these two men sinned here? Should we assume that they left each other in bitterness? Does having a disagreement mean that these two men were yelling at each other, fighting, or slandering each other? Do we have to imagine that Paul was throwing chairs and Barnabas threatened to quit the Antioch church if he did not get his way? Do we have to presume that this split was filled with anger and acrimony? Maybe I am too much of an optimist, but I do not think we should put these things into this text. Nothing in this text indicates that there was sin.
This text should not be used to justify our sinful behavior when disagreeing with someone. This is not a model for having a temper tantrum in the church. This is not an allowance for threatening to quit the church if you do not get your way. This is not a model for slandering a person who disagrees with you or airing out your dirty laundry of grievances. This is not what Paul and Barnabas are doing. We should not devolve into sinful behaviors when disagreeing and then suggest that Paul and Barnabas having a sharp disagreement means that are sinning is acceptable.
Further, Paul and Barnabas separating is not a template for church divisions. This is not a text that we can use to warrant that right for people to get upset in the church, cause a division, and go start a new church down the street. I am stunned how often this happens. I truly cannot believe how many preachers get mad at the church, whether rightly or wrongly, so they decide to start a new church down the road and take with them however many people they can grab. This is not what Paul and Barnabas are doing. Barnabas did not go to Cypress and start the anti-Paul church or the anti-Antioch church. Paul is not proclaiming that church in Cypress is not sound because Barnabas went there. Paul told the Corinthians that there must not be divisions among them (1 Corinthians 1:10). So what is happening between Paul and Barnabas cannot be used to suggest that churches can have splits. Nor is this a template for marriage and family. We do not get to claim irreconcilable differences and just go on our way. This text cannot be used to suggest marriage separation is acceptable. So what are we to learn from this scripture? What is God showing us through the separation of Paul and Barnabas?
First, we can have disagreements on our life perspectives but join together for the common work and common purpose. We must remember that all of us are coming from different backgrounds and different points of view. Jesus called for his apostles two people with two extremely different backgrounds. Jesus called Matthew to follow him who was a tax collector and he called Simon who was a zealot. One worked for the Roman government and one wanted to overthrow the Roman government. They came together for the same goal and same purpose of the gospel. This means we can come from the north or the south, from Democrat or Republican, from poor or wealthy, from America or from another country, and from completely different ethnic backgrounds and join together in working for the gospel as one church. But we must remember that not everything thinks like you think. Not everyone came from the same background, had the same upbringing, or were raised with the same values.
When Casey came from the training program four years ago, I knew it was going to be interesting because our backgrounds were so different. I am born and raised southern California and he was born and raised deep south Alabama. He is drinking sweet tea and proclaiming, “Roll Tide” and I am rolling my eyes, sipping on Diet Dr. Peppers. I knew we would have two completely different perspectives on life because we were raised in different cultures and have come through different circumstances. What he experienced in churches was different from what I experienced in churches. But we can work together for the gospel. I learned much from him and I hope he learned much through me. Politics, economics, social concerns, and the like should never interfere with our working together for the gospel, even though we disagree about some of these things.
What we see Paul and Barnabas doing is powerful. We need to recognized that there are certain people we may not be well matched to work with. Paul did not see that he was going to work well with Mark on this second trip. We are not all going to be best friends with each other. Sometimes are personalities do not mesh well for working together. So what do we learn? What we learn is that we can stay in fellowship together and say that you work in this area and you work in this other area. This is what Paul and Barnabas do. Paul will work in one area and Barnabas will work in a different area. Just because we do not match up well with someone else in the church should not be surprising to us. We are going to be different people. We can belong together in this field while doing different works for the same purpose of seeing God glorified and kingdom expanded. You go teach with Mark. You go teach without Mark. But we are not going to let the work be slowed or stopped.
Second, we can even have disagreements about the scriptures but join together for the work and the common purpose. It is important to know that we are going to have disagreements on how to accomplish the work. The reason this is important is so that we are not trouble by this. We should not be troubled when we study a text, talk about it, and disagree with certain things. That is going to happen and there is nothing wrong with that. You do not have to agree with everything I say. You are not going to be asked to leave for not agreeing with everything I say. We know that we are going to disagree with one another. If we think that we have to agree completely on everything regarding the scriptures, we will never have a church. There will always be areas that we do not see eye to eye on. There will always be different levels of maturity within the church.
The apostle Paul told the Ephesians that God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers to equip Christians for the building up the body until we all come to the unity of the faith (Ephesians 4:11-13). Paul describes this coming to the unity of the faith as a process. We bring all of our different backgrounds and perspectives and all our different spiritual places of knowledge and maturity and we work toward a unifying faith. But that will take time. That will take effort. That will be a process. If we are doing this right, then we will never fully come to the unity of the faith because we will always have another new believer who will need to grow and learn and share with us so we grow and learn. We will always have another person join with us who will grow and learn and then share with us so we grow and learn.
Finally, we just need to have more patience with each other. Disagreements dissolve into fights and splits because we lose patience with each other. We do not have to be best friends but we do have to love each other. We need to stop trying to show how right we are and simply accept that we do not see eye to eye on a particular matter. Have patience. Let it go. Allow time for growth and change for the other person and for yourself. Who knows? Maybe you will change your mind and realize you were not as right as you thought.
Disagreements do not have to be sinful. Disagreements do not mean we have to split. Disagreements are going to happen as we work together and strive to love one another. If a zealot and a tax collector can belong as Jesus’ apostles, then no matter how different our background is from someone else, we can still work together for the common cause of Jesus. We can disagree with each other, still love one another, work in the same field, as we strive for the same goal. We can disagree and stay together as we work till the Lord comes.