When Sharp Disagreements Separate

Lessons for Churches in Conflict

Luke describes the rift that opened between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark in his typical understated way: “There arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other” (Acts 15:39). No elaboration, no circling back later in Acts to tell us how this story ended. We just watch Barnabas sail off to Cyprus with John Mark while Paul and Silas head to Syria and Cilicia.

Really? Paul and Barnabas? Friends whose names go together like David and Jonathan, or like Peter and John? These brothers who had spent a year together teaching the new Gentile converts in Antioch, and then risked life and limb together for the gospel on that first missionary journey? These colleagues who became the first missionary team at the special direction of the Holy Spirit himself (Acts 13:2)? And they couldn’t reconcile a disagreement over John Mark?

We can be left wondering, If Paul and Barnabas couldn’t stay together, what hope do we have when difficult and painful disagreements arise in our churches and between leaders we love and trust? These are times that try Christians’ souls. What are we left to think?

In a careful look at the story, we can see that the God of hope wants to fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may abound in hope, even when sharp disagreements separate godly people (Romans 15:13).

Who Was Right?

Here we have two of the most trusted apostolic leaders in the early church, at an impasse over whether John Mark should join them on their second missionary tour, considering how he’d left them during their first (Acts 15:37–38). We’re not told why Mark left, only that Paul was convinced Mark wasn’t ready to give it another go, and that Barnabas was equally convinced he was.

Which apostle was right? Based on Luke’s sparse description, we aren’t sure. But since Scripture gives us a good sense for the quality of men that Barnabas and Paul were, we can consider how each man might have viewed the disagreement.

Barnabas: Gracious, Discerning Mentor

Barnabas’s name speaks volumes about him. His actual name was Joseph, but the apostles had dubbed him “Barnabas” (son of encouragement) because he was so gracious and encouraging (Acts 4:36). He seems to have had an extraordinary ability to discern the true spiritual quality in a person that others might not perceive. Arguably, the best example of this manifested in his discernment of Paul’s true spiritual quality.

Soon after Paul’s conversion, when most Christians were still terrified of him, who was willing to take the risk and advocate for Paul with the apostles? Barnabas (Acts 9:27). And when Gentiles started coming to Christ in Antioch, who did the apostles trust enough to go and assess the genuineness of their conversions? Barnabas (Acts 11:22). And when Barnabas discerned the Antioch revival was the Holy Spirit’s doing, who did he discern would be best at helping these new Gentile Christians understand the gospel? Paul, the former zealous, gospel-hating Pharisee (Acts 11:25–26). Given his track record, one would think Barnabas had earned the right to be trusted regarding his assessment of John Mark.

Paul: Experienced, Discerning Frontier Missionary

We all know that Paul, the great “Apostle to the Gentiles,” became the most trusted theologian, ecclesiologist, and missiologist in the early church. The Holy Spirit chose to preserve more of his epistles regarding those fields than any other single writer’s in the New Testament. That’s some serious credibility capital. And the content of his instruction and counsel wasn’t the result of quiet academic research and reflection, but of incredibly rigorous firsthand experiences of doing frontier evangelism and church planting in violently hostile environments.

According to Luke’s account, John Mark had left the first missionary team before things really heated up in Pisidia, Iconium, and Lystra — where Paul seems to have suffered the most violent persecution of the team (Acts 13:13–14). So, when assembling a team for a second tour, knowing from experience the kinds of adversity and danger they were likely to face, Paul’s refusal to further jeopardize the team’s effectiveness, safety, and morale (by including a member who’d already shown himself unreliable) seems eminently wise. Given his track record, one would think Paul had earned the right to be trusted regarding his assessment of John Mark.

What Are We Supposed to Learn?

To me, both these men seem to deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to simply assume Paul, not Barnabas, must have been right, since the historical narrative of Acts follows Paul, not Barnabas. But that’s an assumption from silence. It does appear that Silas was a very good choice for Paul. But later in Paul’s life, we hear him describe Mark as a “very useful” ministry colleague (2 Timothy 4:11), which tells us something happened to change Paul’s assessment of him. From what we know about Barnabas, it’s altogether possible that Mark’s regaining of Paul’s confidence was, at least in part, the result of the time he spent under Barnabas’s influence.

So, what are we supposed to learn from this “sharp disagreement” if Scripture is silent on whether one or both were at fault or whether they ever reconciled? Did Paul and Barnabas sinfully fail to “[bear] with one another in love” and “eager[ly] maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2–3)? Or did they reach the righteous, God-glorifying conclusion that, given their situation, the wisest, most loving, unifying option for them was, paradoxically, to separate?

There is no definitive answer to these questions. In each case, we’d have to say, “It depends.” But Acts 15:36–41 will yield gold to those willing to dig for it. Here are five nuggets I’ve found.

1. When God seems silent, listen up.

The fact that God does not reveal to us if either or both apostles were right or wrong is one of the many biblical examples of God manifesting his wisdom through silence. I like to call God’s silence the “dark matter” of divine revelation. It’s never vacuous, but substantial. When he withholds details from us, he’s usually communicating something else. Think of the next four nuggets as examples.

2. The godliest of people can fail.

If this sharp disagreement involved some personal or leadership failure on the part of one or both men, which is possible, we shouldn’t be shocked. Neither was infallible and, like the rest of us, they “[stumbled] in many ways” (James 3:2). Just that possibility reminds us that the Bible doesn’t hide the weakness and failures of its godliest saints and that we and our leaders are weak and fail too.

3. Not all apparent failures are actual failures.

We need to have a category in our minds that it’s possible neither man was wrong. Perhaps Paul rightly discerned that John Mark wasn’t yet ready to participate in the trip Paul was about to take — and Barnabas rightly discerned that God wanted Mark to accompany him.

Perhaps Silas was ready to endure the dangers and rigors of Pauline ministry (Acts 9:16), while Mark was ready to train under Barnabas’s patient, encouraging leadership, contributing to his becoming “very useful” in Paul’s later ministry. That possibility can help guard us from jumping to conclusions when decisions look like failures to us. It may not be the case. Which is why Paul admonished Christians in 1 Corinthians 4:5 to “not pronounce judgment before the time.”

4. The foolishness of God is wiser than men.

If that was the case with Paul and Barnabas, couldn’t the Holy Spirit simply have made the truth clear to them in a way that prevented their sharp disagreement? The answer is yes. But how do we know if that would have yielded the most God-glorifying outcome? Isn’t it possible that God had ten thousand gospel-spreading and saint-sanctifying purposes in this event? We’re not privy to the millions of present and future, visible and invisible factors that go into God’s providential orchestrations of such things. Which is why Paul also admonished Christians in 1 Corinthians 1:25 that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

5. Get used to ‘unsearchable’ and ‘inscrutable.’

It’s good for us to remember that we’re all in our fallen conditions because of the tragic belief that we could, like God, manage the knowledge of good and evil ourselves. Therefore, when we encounter a providence that causes us pain and grief for reasons we don’t understand, we can, without sin, cry, “Why, O Lord?” (Psalm 10:1). But it is a sin to assume, in our grief, that “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25) failed to do right just because his unfathomable knowledge and wisdom led him to make judgments we find unsearchable (Romans 11:33).

Pursue Faithful Disagreement

As a principle, the more distant we are from other Christians’ sharp disagreements, the less we know of the circumstances or details, the wiser we are to refrain from passing judgment on them.

But when it comes to sharp disagreements between Christian friends we know or within our own churches, let us take very seriously the counsel given us from one of the parties involved in the dispute over John Mark: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). No doubt, this counsel came from much hard-won experience.

Note the words “if possible.” These words carry the implication that, for all sorts of reasons, it’s not always possible for brothers and sisters to remain yoked together in ministry. But it is always possible to trust God’s sometimes mysterious, inscrutable purposes; to not pass judgment prematurely; to be quick to forgive others, “as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Ephesians 4:32); and to let love cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). For “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Ministry partnerships sometimes must end, but “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8).

It’s inevitable that disagreements will arise between Christians. Our call is to pursue faithfulness in disagreement, with love always being our aim. Given that the separation between Paul and Barnabas is an anomaly in what the Holy Spirit preserved in Scripture for our instruction, I think it’s safe to assume that most disagreements ought to be reconciled without separation. But when separation occurs, we can glean a lot from the little we know of Paul and Barnabas’s parting.