I imagine we’d all think our opinions should take a back seat to the will of God. At least I would. At least I think I would. But what if the differences of opinion occurred over what each party considers matters of principle – matters they believe they cannot compromise over? What then? Is there room in God’s household for such strong disagreements over principles seen from different angles that separation from one another is the only viable option for the time being?
I believe there are times for just such disagreements and just such temporary separating.
“And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that the separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him . . . but Paul chose Silas. . . .” (Acts 15:38-39).
Sometimes we wonder how good men like Paul and Barnabas could disagree so sharply as to cause a breach in fellowship and/or co-laboring. And yet, that is exactly what happened between them.
Just think: these two men had been called by God and separated unto the Gospel by the church (Acts 13:2ff). Their “team” was God ordained. And yet there came a time when they found it necessary to separate in order to accomplish what they thought God wanted them to accomplish. Imagine that!
“Ach!” We say. “This is not God’s will!” And we might just be right. But if we read the story again, we will find not one word of condemnation, not one word of spiritual censure, not one word of criticism of “either” of these men. Luke writes in such a way as to indicate, “This is the way things were.” He does not say, “this is/is not the way God intended them to be.”
Did Paul and Barnabas sin against God when they went their separate ways over their strong differences? I’ve heard people say they did. Perhaps they did sin, but I think it’s doubtful. Here is a case of two good Christian men whose hearts were concerned for two distinctly different ideas on how best to accomplish the mission God called them to.
Paul was driven to accomplish the mission, unhindered by someone who had once failed in his ministry by leaving the mission team at Pamphylia. He was more interested in the “project” than in relationships.
On the other hand, Barnabas saw Mark’s potential for ministry and wanted to take the opportunity to encourage him not to give up. He wanted to be sure the young man did not get so discouraged that he left the ministry for good because of the one mistake he had made – though that mistake was a serious one. Like Paul, Barnabas was concerned for the spread of the Gospel – just as much as Paul was. In fact, in the beginning, Barnabas was the leader of the mission team. God said, “separate me Barnabas and Saul,” not “Saul and Barnabas.”
But Barnabas was not willing to allow even his weaker brother, Mark, to fall into final failure, when all he had to do was to work to restore Mark to ministry and encourage him into successful work. – Which is exactly what he did.
So, Paul and Barnabas separated over differences of opinion on “how” to accomplish the Christian world mission. The anointed team was divided and two teams were formed.
What happens next? Well, in Acts we read much more about Paul than we do about Barnabas – for two reasons. First, Paul was chosen by God before his conversion to take the Gospel to the Gentiles and to stand before kings. Secondly, one very practical reason we read more about Paul than about Barnabas is that the author of Acts, Luke the beloved physician, traveled with Paul’s mission team! Of course he would know more about Paul’s work than about Barnabas’ work.
We don’t read a lot about Barnabas, though we know he was given the name “son of consolation” or “son of encouragement” (Barnabas) by the early church. His given name was Joseph (Acts 4:36). Paul needed a man like this by his side when he was in prison, sorely tested and lonely. Paul wrote, “Demas…has forsaken me. Crescens has gone to Galatia. Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. . . . [When you come], bring Mark with you for he is useful to me for service” (2 Tim 4:11).
By these words, we know that Barnabas was successful in restoring and strengthening Mark for ministry. By this time in Paul’s life, Barnabas is no longer mentioned. We don’t know where he has gone, but he was probably older than Paul, and it is likely that he was either too old to travel or had already passed away. But the man whom Paul had once thought to be untrustworthy he now considered trustworthy enough to ask for his assistance in the ministry – even though Paul himself was in trouble with the law. He wanted Mark “with” him, not far from him.
So here we have it. Two strong minded, strong willed men – both filled with the Holy Spirit and called by God into mission, both ordained by the church for that work –disagreed sharply over how to treat one man, John Mark, Barnabas’ nephew. So sharp was this disagreement that they found it necessary to separate from one another for a while. And yet, neither man “deChristianized” the other. There is no indication that either hated the other, or that either worked to harm the other. They simply had to go their separate ways. And God used both teams to do His will in different places and for different purposes.
Would it have been better if they had simply agreed to take Mark along to keep the team together? Probably so. At least that is my opinion of the matter. Or, as others might think, Barnabas should have given in to Paul and left Mark behind. In either case, the difference is over matters of principle which neither man could compromise.
Alas, such was not to be the case. Unity for the sake of the Gospel was not possible between two men who would not compromise their Christian principles. Paul wanted to get on with the work, no matter who had to be left behind. Barnabas wanted to get on with the work as well, but he didn’t want to leave anybody behind. These are both worthy causes. The men were not perfect, but their causes were unquestionably good.
And yet God worked with their fallen human nature, lack of perfect understanding, bull-headed personalities, and overly strong opinions to accomplish his will for the Gospel AND for John Mark. Paul must have come around to Barnabas’ understanding of Mark’s worthiness in ministry before the end of his life. And we do know that later in his life, Paul became much more relational in his approach to ministry in the church. He actually came to need people in his later life.
From my perspective, what this demonstrates is that being in disagreement on biblical principles does not necessarily mean that one party is right and the other wrong. Nor does it mean that one is Christian and the other isn’t. It simply means both parties are human, imperfect, and in need of continued grace and love. It means that sometimes faulty humans cannot always agree on the best solution to a problem.
Should we give up our opinions when they don’t really have eternal consequences? Of course we should. Will we always be perfect in our responses to other Christians with differing opinions? Of course not. But we must always keep our hearts warm toward God, and we must continue to love our brothers as we love ourselves. If we can do that in the midst of disagreement, God will be glorified, and the name of Jesus will be magnified. Love conquers all – ultimately.
One day, if the parties are rightly related to God, the rift between them will be healed by love. They may never agree on either the method or the outcome. But if their hearts are right, it will not necessitate enmity or hatred between them. It will only require that each make room for the disagreement and not allow Satan to destroy what God has created.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!