Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. (Acts 15:37-39, NKJV)
There is much we don’t know about this conversation between Paul and Barnabas. But we know it didn’t end in shrugs and placid smiles. The word for “contention” (paroxusmos.) suggests feverish intensity,1 and the two men found it impossible to work together.
We also know something else. Neither Paul nor Barnabas had any direct revelation from God on the question. If the Spirit had said to either of them “take Mark” or “don’t take Mark,” there would have been no dispute. They were both deeply committed to obedience.
Compromise or stand?
So how did they handle their disagreement? Believers who disagree about questions God has not answered in Scripture usually handle the conflict in one of two ways. (1) They compromise, yielding to pressure exerted by others. (2) They stand firm and claim—either directly or by implication—that their position is the biblical one and has God’s authority behind it. But there is a third option. When emotions are hot, we tend to run right past it, never noticing it’s there. Depending on the mood we’re in, we either compromise or condemn and fail to notice that neither is the right response.
It appears that Paul, or Barnabas, or both made this mistake. Though neither of them chose compromise regarding John Mark, at least one of them chose condemnation. Otherwise the impasse would have been resolved more congenially (though it might still have required a split).
We too are prone to mishandle disagreements about questions God has not answered, matters of conscience. Like Paul and Barnabas, our error is often not that of compromising when we should stand or that of standing when we should compromise. Rather, it’s the error of standing militantly and aggressively when we ought to stand firmly and gently.
Standing a different way
Paul and Barnabas’ difficulty illustrates the need for making a distinction between how we stand when have the full authority of Scripture and how we stand when we have only the authority of conscience.
Scripture calls us to a posture of “earnestly contending” when the faith is at stake (Jude 4). It’s a mandate to use words aggressively in defense of revealed truth. It’s confrontational, sometimes angry (“withstood him to his face,” Gal.2:11), and can lead to rejection and condemnation.
Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned. (Tit.3:10-11, NKJV)
But Scripture indicates there is different posture we should adopt when a different kind of disagreement occurs. In these cases, Paul warns us to avoid “quarreling over opinions” (Rom.14:1, ESV)2 and forbids us to condemn or show contempt toward our fellow believers (Rom.14:10).
In the case of Romans 14 (as well as the John Mark case), God could have revealed His will directly thrugh the Spirit and ended the disagreement. Instead, He chose to let the uncertainty remain and to define a niche for such things, a category of differences of opinion that requires specific attitudes and responses. When this category is involved, we must be “fully persuaded” (14:5) in our own minds and have faith “to [ourselves] before God” (14:22). 1 Corinthians associates these matters with the “conscience” (8:7,9,10,12 and 10:25, 27, 28, 29).
Because God has not revealed them, these convictions have the authority of suneidesis (conscience) rather than the full authority of graphe (Scriptures) or even didache3 (doctrine, Acts 2:42). What biblical authority they carry is secondary, diffused by the human imperfections of reading, reasoning and evaluating. Consequently, our conclusions in these areas are binding on ourselves and those we answer for, but they have no authority over others. What’s more, we shouldn’t respond to those who reject our suneidesis in the same way we respond to those who reject the graphe or didache.
Of course, how to determine whether God has revealed an answer is a major factor in all of this. A step by step process for making that determination is beyond the scope of this article, but quite often we can clearly see that an issue is a matter of conscience if we bother to seriously consider that possibility.
Using the posture of conscience
Because the conscientious (but not contentious) stand is so neglected, how it behaves merits closer attention. When we adopt the posture of conscience, we do four things.
Acknowledge. The posture of conscience faces the reality of what it is, rejoices in what it is, and doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. In other words, it’s an honest attitude about how we have arrived at our conclusion and what kind of backing it has. It doesn’t have an “inferiority complex” about the fact that Scripture leaves room for other interpretations. So it makes no claim that it’s conclusions are “the biblical” answer.
Stand. A conviction of conscience doesn’t call for cowering in a corner or yielding to the views of those who differ. It’s neither safe nor right to yield when the conscience calls us to stand. “He who doubts is condemned if he eats.” (Rom.14:23). Thinking we have to have “chapter and verse” in order to be firm is a serious mistake and has lead many to compromise and harm their relationship with God. The same thinking has led others to twist Scripture for support when it would have been enough to say, “this is what I have to do because I can’t do otherwise in good conscience.”
Persuade. Differences of belief on matters of conscience don’t require a Christian version of political correctness that remains silent for fear of hurt feelings. Though Paul warned believers to avoid “disputes over doubtful things” (Rom14:1), he was not teaching that a person with a conviction on a matter of conscience should never attempt to win others over to his point of view. Paul himself engages in a little of this persuasion in the context. He wrote, “I am convinced by the Lord that there is nothing unclean of itself” (speaking of foods), yet he did not prescribe this position for everyone. It was subtle persuasion. Sharing what we believe and why we believe it, even on matters of conscience, is an important part of how we teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16).
Respect. If the most important difference between the posture of contending for the faith and the posture of conscience is the authority we claim for our position, a close second is the way we characterize those who disagree. In Rom.14, Paul repeatedly emphasized that we will all answer to God for the stands we take on matters of conscience and, therefore, we should not attach labels of condemnation or contempt to those who differ.
Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. (Rom.14:3).
But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. (Rom.14:10)
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.(Rom.14:13).
Labels like “false teacher” and “apostate” are not appropriate in reference to believers who disagree with us on matters of conscience. “Neoevangelical” and “liberal” are not much better, given the widespread confusion about what these terms mean and vaguely sinister tone we attach to them. Caution is also important in our use of the terms “biblical” and “unbiblical.” While “allowed by Scripture” is often what people mean by “biblical,” we would do better to use to term only when we mean “taught by Scripture.” And attaching the definite article to a position (“the biblical”) implies that all other views are contrary to Scripture, or “unbiblical.” This is not a judgment we should pronounce against those who differ from us on a matter of conscience.
In a rapidly changing culture, differences of conviction on matters of conscience will continue and probably increase. In response to these differences, Scripture calls us to take a firm, unyielding, and sometimes vocal stand while maintaining respect for believers who disagree with us. Had both Paul and Barnabas adopted this posture on the John Mark question, they may still have parted company. But they would have parted with mutual respect and joy, knowing that, for each of them, the conscience was being honored as God intended. Before we ever adopt the posture of contending for the faith, we ought to pause and consider whether the posture of conscience might be a better choice.
Discuss this article.
1 The same word appears in Heb.10:24, translated as a verb (“to provoke” or “to stir up”), and secular literature of the period used it for the paroxysm of high fever (BAGD).
2 The word for quarrel or disputation here, diakrisis, is a strong word (1 Cor.12:10, Heb.5:14) never used in a positive sense of believer’s relationship to one another.
3 Also didaskalia, 2 Tim.4:3