June 9, 2008

Disagreements in the Church – Acts 15:36-41

Posted in Christian life, Church Leadership, Ecclesiology at 9:59 pm by Dan Lowe

There are no perfect churches in the world.  As long as churches have people in them… there will always be problems, because we are all a bunch of sinners.

Christians of all people should recognize this.  After all, we believe that all people are sinners.  That is why we need a Savior.  Jesus Christ died for our sins.  He suffered the punishment we deserve for our sins so that we might be forgiven.

But the fact that we are forgiven doesn’t mean that we are sinless.  Our sinfulness doesn’t end the moment we are saved.  No!  Unfortunately, it continues on during this lifetime.

Because we remain sinners in this world, there will always be problems in the church.

One of the problems we see most often in the church is that we often can’t seem to get along.  One thing Christians know how to do is disagree.  That is particularly true among my own tradition (“bickering Baptists.”)

Sometimes these disagreements are silly, like arguing over the color of the carpeting.  Sometimes these disagreements are necessary, because they are tied to important Christian doctrines.

But I have found that most disagreements in the church are not tied to either one of these two extremes.  Usually it is a disagreement over practice in ministry.

For example:

1)      When should we apply church discipline?  When should we confront an sinning Christian brother and when should we overlook their mistakes?  There are differences of opinion regarding the answer to this question.

2)      Or we may agree on the biblical qualifications for those in church leadership and yet disagree on whether or not a particular individual meets those qualifications.

3)      Or we may agree that as a church we are called to make disciples and yet disagree on how best to accomplish that ministry.

What happens when the disagreement becomes so great that we can no longer minister together?  Then what?

We see an example of this in Acts 15:36-41

Acts 15:36-41 (ESV) – 36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Paul wants to go back to the churches that he and Barnabas had recently planted in Asia Minor (Acts 13-14) and make sure they are okay.  This makes perfect sense, because there had been considerable opposition to the Christian faith in virtually every place they had ministered.  Although we don’t know for sure whether or not the persecution continued after they left, it is safe to assume that at least some of it continued.  After all, these new Christians were passionate about their Savior and we are told that they were zealous in sharing the gospel with others (Acts 13:49.)  Since it was the proclamation of the gospel which had set off the persecution in the first place, it is safe to assume that it would continue as long as these Christians were preaching the gospel.

But this is probably not the only concern which Paul had in mind.  Paul and Barnabas had already dealt with Jewish Christians in Antioch who insisted that Gentiles had to obey the Mosaic Law in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-2.)  And Paul’s letter to the Galatians makes it clear that the same teachings had begun to infect some of these churches which they had planted in Asia Minor.  I think it is very likely that he wanted to pass along the decision from the Jerusalem council that Gentiles could be saved without converting to Judaism before this heresy spread among these new believers (Acts 15:23-29.)

Not to mention the fact that these Christians… just like us today… though their sin was forgiven… their sinful natures still remained.  Everyone of us is prone to stumble and wander away from the truth into sin.  That is why we need godly shepherds to keep us on the right track and guide us in the direction which God would have us to go.  Over and over again, Paul speaks of the Christians in the churches he planted as if they are his children (I Thess 2:7-8, 11-12, Gal 4:19.)  He cared about them and wanted to make sure they “grew up” to be healthy Christians… joined together in healthy churches.

Notice that Paul is the one to bring this up to Barnabas, but Barnabas is in full agreement with him.  They both want to go and visit these newly formed churches.  They both want to see these churches be strengthened and grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

But this is where they agreement ends.  Though they both agree on what is to be done… they disagree on how it is to be done.

Barnabas wanted to take along with them John Mark.  The Greek is pretty strong here (βούλομαι – imperfect tense.)  He was insistent about it.  He was continually pressing the issue.  He wanted to take John Mark with them on this trip to strengthen the churches in Asia Minor and he wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

Who is John Mark?

We have seen him before in our study through the book of Acts and I told you we would come back to him later.

Let me refresh our memories on who this young man is…

1)      Tradition… not Scripture… but tradition tells us that the Last Supper took place in the home of John Mark’s parents.  We don’t know this for sure, but there is good reason to think that it is at least possible that Jesus shared the Passover meal with His disciples in this man’s home.

2)      Part of the reason some people think this is because of an odd passage found in the gospel of Mark in chapter 14…

Mark 14:51-52 (ESV) – 51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.



Most scholars agree that this is probably a young John Mark, fleeing the scene of the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested.  How could this young man have been present at the betrayal of Jesus?  It is at least possible that he followed Jesus and the disciples from his home to the Garden.

3)      Whether or not the Last Supper was held in Mark’s home or not is a matter of debate, but we know for sure that his home was a regular meeting place for the early church.  Back in Acts 12:12, when Peter was miraculously freed from prison by an angel, he went immediately to the home of John Mark’s mother and that is where he found Christians gathered and praying for his release.

4)      We also know that he was Barnabas’ cousin (Col 4:10.)

5)      And if you remember, he went with Paul and Barnabas when they began their 1st missionary journey back in Acts 13, but he didn’t complete the journey with them.  He traveled with them as they preached the gospel throughout the island of Cyprus.  He was there when the magician Bar-Jesus was struck down by God for opposing the gospel.  He went with Paul and Barnabas to Pamphylia in Asia Minor, but then he left and went home to Jerusalem.

Barnabas wanted to take this young man with them on this 2nd missionary journey and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Why?  We don’t know for sure.  Maybe it was because John Mark was his cousin.  I think it more likely because this fits the character of Barnabas.  His name means “son of encouragement” and this very aptly describes his character.  He was constantly pouring himself into the lives of others and attempting to build them up.  He was always encouraging others and I think it is safe to assume that he wanted another chance to encourage this young man in ministry.

But Paul would have none of this.  He didn’t want to take John Mark with them.  Literally he didn’t think it was worthy or wise (ξιόω) to even consider taking John Mark with them.  And the Greek implies that he was just as set against taking John Mark as Barnabas was set on taking him.  He and Barnabas were continually disagreeing about this.

Why was Paul opposed to taking John Mark with them?

Because he had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and didn’t go with them to the work.  Some translations render it that John Mark “deserted” them… and it seems safe to say that is how Paul saw things.  Eugene Peterson in the Message paraphrase of the Bible renders this, “But Paul wouldn’t have him; he wasn’t about to take along a quitter who, as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia.”  Although this is not a literal translation of the Greek, it does capture the sense of what is going on here.

Paul deemed him unfit to go with them because of his past failures…

How many of us have ever made a mistake?  If we are honest, then we must admit that we make mistakes all the time. 

Do you want people to continually hold your mistakes against you?

Don’t we all want the opportunity to live down our mistakes?

Don’t we all want a second chance when we make a mistake?

            It seems that Paul is unwilling to give John Mark a second chance here.  His mistake from the past is still haunting him.

Now Scripture is clear that there are some sins which seem to disqualify a person for ministry (I Cor 9:24-27), but does going home in the middle of a mission trip disqualify someone from ever engaging in ministry again?

Peter denied Jesus three times (Lk 22:54-62) yet he was not disqualified for ministry.

Did Mark’s failure disqualify him from future ministry?  Apparently Paul thought so… at least at this juncture in his life.

We don’t know why John Mark turned tail and went home during the 1st missionary trip, but here we see him back in Antioch after time has passed and apparently wanting a second chance to go and minister the gospel to those in need.

But Paul won’t let him live down his earlier mistake.  At least, this is probably the way in which Barnabas saw things.

On the other hand, they are about to walk into some very difficult ministry situations.  And remember…John Mark left them the first time before things really got bad.  He left long before they were run out of Pisidia Antioch.  He left them before Paul was nearly stoned to death in Lystra. 

Paul and Barnabas may have been ignorant about what they were walking into the first time, but not so this time.  They knew what they would encounter.  They knew they would face hardship and persecution.

Do you take someone with a track record of cowardice with you into hostile territory?

Don’t you only take those who you can be reasonably sure will watch your back and see it through to the end?

Which one is right here?  Paul… or Barnabas?  The text doesn’t tell us.  But either way, they both keep pressing their opinion and neither one will bend.

As a result, there arose a “sharp disagreement” (παροξυσμός) between them.   The term παροξυσμός is derived from a verb which means “to sharpen” (παροξύνω) and it tells us that this dispute resulted in anger, irritation and exasperation (Bock, Baker, 519.)  Things got really heated between them.  So heated in fact that they separated from one another.  We have another strong Greek term here… ποχωρίζω … and it is only used one other time in Scripture.  In Revelation 6:14 it is used to describe the sky splitting apart when the 6th seal is broken.  In the same way that one day the heaven will be torn asunder… this partnership was completely severed.

 I find this to be incredibly sad.  These men had a long history together.  Remember… Barnabas had mentored Paul…

1)      After his conversion, when no one else would have anything to do with Paul because he had previously persecuted Christians, it was Barnabas who took a chance and put his arm around Paul and vouched for him with the apostles (Acts 9:27.)

2)      Years later, it was Barnabas who went and found Paul in Tarsus and brought to Antioch to minister alongside him in this newly formed Gentile church (Acts 11:25-26.)

3)      It was Barnabas who had started out in the lead when he and Paul had set out on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2.)

Shouldn’t Paul have listened to the voice of his mentor?

On the other hand, Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ.

1)      He had seen the risen Lord Jesus (Acts 9:1-6.)

2)      He had been handpicked by the King of kings and Lord of lords to be His apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15-16.)

3)      He was a man who was without peer when it came to knowing the Bible.

Shouldn’t Barnabas have listened to him?

Shouldn’t Barnabas have yielded to the opinion of the Apostle Paul?

We don’t know.  Maybe one was right and the other wrong.  Maybe they were both wrong.  Or maybe they were both right.  Either way… they separate…

Barnabas took John Mark and sailed away to Cyprus while Paul took Silas and traveled overland to Asia Minor.

Some have suggested that the fact that we are told the brothers commended Paul and Silas to the grace of the Lord implies that the church thought Paul was right and Barnabas was wrong.  Most scholars don’t think this is the case at all (i.e. F.F. Bruce, Richard Longenecker, Darrell Bock, J.A. Alexander, etc.)  Luke is simply recounting the ministry of Paul, therefore he mentions his commission and passes over Barnabas.

This is clearly seen by the fact that Barnabas disappears here from the book of Acts.  Not that he ceased to be involved in ministry.  Paul mentions him fondly about 5 years after this event in I Corinthians (I Cor 9:6) and it is clear that he is still involved in ministry.  Luke’s purpose is simply to recount the history of Paul’s ministry efforts. 

It is incredibly sad that these two great men of God part ways here.  Yet still notice what happened…Paul and Silas travel through Syria and Cilicia and the churches are strengthened.  These early Christians grow stronger in their faith through the ministry of Paul and Silas.

Isn’t this what Paul and Barnabas both wanted to see accomplished?  Although they differed in regards to how to accomplish this ministry… God still accomplished His work among His people, despite their disagreement.

What happened as a result of Barnabas and John Mark traveling to Cyprus?  As I said, we don’t know anything about this ministry, but we do know what happened to John Mark.

1)      About 10 years later, we find John Mark with Paul in Rome and the apostle is about to send Mark to Colossae to minister to them (Col 4:10.)

2)      And at the end of the his life, as the Apostle Paul waited in a Roman prison to be executed, he wrote to Timothy and asked him to bring John Mark to see him because he “is very useful to me for ministry” (II Tim 4:11.)

3)      Not to mention the fact that this young man… whom Paul didn’t want to accompany them on their 2nd missionary journey… would be used by God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write the Gospel of Mark.

We don’t know much about what happened in Cyprus under Barnabas’ ministry, but I think we can draw some conclusions about what God was doing though Barnabas at this time in his life.  He was mentoring another young man, just as he had the apostle Paul years before, so that John Mark could be used mightily in the service of God.

Was Paul right to separate from Barnabas and John Mark and take Silas to Asia Minor?  It seems so…

Was Barnabas right to give this young man, John Mark, a second chance and continue to mentor him in ministry?  It seems so…

In the providence of God, these two men were separated in order to accomplish different purposes for the kingdom of God.  And in the end, God caused all things… even the painful things… even the sinful things… to work together for their good and His glory.

Most often the disagreements we have in the church are sinful.  Often we fight over things that are ridiculous, like the color of the carpeting.

Sometimes disagreement is necessary.  For example, we must be willing to fight to the very end to hold onto the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But sometimes the disagreement is a little more vague.  For example, when we disagree about how to functionally apply certain passages of Scripture in the life of the church.

This is always unfortunate, especially when it causes a gospel partnership to be severed.  But we can be assured that God will cause all things to work together for good to those who love God, despite our mistakes and sinfulness (Rom 8:28.)



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