They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:39-40).
We need partners in ministry: The Great Commission is not a solo mission. Churches, not individuals, are God’s primary instrument for transforming the world. We need brothers and sisters in Christ, but what happens when irreconcilable conflicts occur?
In Acts 15:36, 3 years after the 1st missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas agreed to return to the mission field. They could not agree on whom to take with them. Barnabas wanted to bring John Mark but Paul wanted to leave him behind because he had abandoned them on a previous journey.
Who was right? Barnabas seems to focus on giving a high potential leader a second chance. Paul’s seems to focus on the demands of the mission. Luke, the author of Acts, doesn’t take sides. He simply reports a sharp disagreement between friends, and the sad dissolution of a 15 year old ministry partnership.
Was it all bad that Paul saw wisdom in one strategy while Barnabas saw wisdom in another, so that two mission agencies were formed? Even today there are agencies with different standards, strategies and beliefs. Some agencies are like Paul’s, and have stringent standards for their candidates because of the rigorous demands of the journey. Some are like Barnabas’s, and are looking for anyone who wants a chance to go. Neither of these are necessarily bad, but different beliefs have given birth to new missional opportunities. Is this all bad?
Christian ministry in local churches, denominations and missional agencies includes having these types of disagreements. The Bible is interpreted and applied differently to different kinds of situations. Sometimes members of a denomination or local church do not share a philosophy of ministry. Sometimes agreement doesn’t seem possible on this side of eternity.
Rancor, bitterness and resentment in churches, denominations and missional agencies are always bad. What if Paul and Barnabas had continued to fight and eventually postponed the second missionary journey? What if they stuck it out, and lived in constant tension on the mission field?
Let’s not quickly assume that different missional strategies and disagreements over biblical interpretation are all bad. Paul and Barnabas’ ministries continued and multiplied. They maintained friendship and Paul continued to affirm Barnabas’ ministry (1 Cor.9:6; Col.4:10). Even Paul and Mark were later reconciled (2 Tim.4:11). Most importantly, the mission of God continued and expanded.
Church and denominational splits are painful, messy and complicated. Discontinuing ministry with another person hurts, but parting with a blessing means that healthy ministry can continue and even expand. Relationships are strained for a season, but they do not have to end. Staying together and fighting produces pain and power struggles, but very few disciples.