When Godly Brothers Disagree: Lessons from the Division of Paul and Barnabas (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

What Should We Think?

If I polled my readers at this point, there’d probably be some who’d say, “I’m of Paul,” and others, “I am of Barnabas.” Whose side do you take? Before you decide, consider two things:

1. The disagreement wasn’t a matter of heresy or immorality.

Neither Paul nor Barnabas accused Mark or one another of heresy. This wasn’t a disagreement over the fundamentals of the faith, such as the deity of Christ or justification by faith or the hope of the resurrection. Nor was this a disagreement over a black-and-white moral issue. They weren’t debating whether it’s appropriate for a minister to live in adultery or to steal or to commit murder.

Instead, we have two men fully committed to Christ. Both are seeking to live and labor in accord with biblical principle. The problem is that Paul is putting greater emphasis on one principle, whereas Barnabas is placing greater emphasis on another. The argument boils down to this: which way are the scales tipping?

Many disagreements and divisions among believers today can be boiled down to differences over which biblical principle to emphasize in a given situation. We can think of examples: differences over styles of worship. Differences over methods of evangelism. Differences over how best to educate our children. Differences over politics. Differences over how best to evaluate and respond to COVID-19. Oftentimes these differences boil down to differences regarding the application of biblical principle.

This was true in the case of Barnabas and Paul. But who was right?

2. The Bible doesn’t demand us to take sides in this particular case.

I don’t believe the immediate context or the rest of Scripture gives a clear judgment either for Paul or for Barnabas. The reference in v. 40 to the church committing Paul and Silas to the grace of the Lord doesn’t necessarily mean they were taking Paul’s side. It may simply mean that in spite of Paul’s separation from Barnabas the church in Antioch wasn’t going to cut Paul off. They’d still recognize Paul’s ministry as well as Barnabas’s. Even if the church sided with Paul, it doesn’t mean the church was right.

We do know Mark turned out to be a faithful minister of the gospel, Even Paul acknowledged this to be the case! In this letter to the Colossians, he refers to Mark as a “fellow laborer.” Later, Paul tells Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). Mark also became useful to Peter. According to tradition, it was Mark who under Peter’s direction and supervision became the human author of the second Gospel in our NT! This doesn’t mean Paul was wrong in his initial concerns about Mark. It does suggest, however, that Barnabas had a point.

Who was right? Who was wrong? The Bible doesn’t demand us to take one side or the other. I think the safest path is that taken by most commentators. Both men were partly right and were partly wrong. Who was mostly right and who was mostly wrong we cannot know with certainty this side of the grave.

Drawing Some Lessons.

How should we view and respond to some of the disagreements and divisions among godly believers in our day?

Face the Reality

Commenting on this passage, John Piper writes, “Here the bubble of idealism bursts on the needle of reality.”2 Sometimes we have too idealistic a view of the church and church leaders. When some church or church leader disappoints us, we’re tempted to question the power of the gospel and give up on the Christian faith.

But God wants us to be biblical realists. So he takes the needle of Acts 15 and pops the bubble of unhealthy idealism. He doesn’t do it to make us disillusioned or cynical. He does it to help us learn to cope with the challenges of living in a sin-cursed world. He wants to remind us that the best of men are men at best.

Leave the Matter with God

Sometimes we do have to take sides. In many cases, however, we don’t. We don’t have to form firm opinions. We may have concerns. We may have suspicions. But in many cases, it’s the better part of wisdom to leave the matter with the Lord. That seems to be what Luke is does in our passage. He doesn’t gloss over the situation. He doesn’t try to sweep it under the rug. But neither does Luke compel us to pick sides. Apparently, God doesn’t think we need to know who was mostly right and who was mostly wrong.

That’s true of many disagreement today. Why do two great Christian leaders labor in different ministries? Why don’t they attend the same pastors’ conferences? Why don’t they support the same missionary? Why doesn’t church A have more communion with church B? We don’t always need to know. We don’t always need to take sides. Therefore, we should resist the temptation to sort it all out. Let’s be willing simply to commit both sides to the Lord (Phil. 3:15).

God Overrules Evil for Good

I’m sure the devil got some mileage out of this apostolic split. As Matthew Henry suggested, the enemies of Christ would no doubt “warm their hands at the flames of contention between Paul and Barnabas.”3 But as Piper notes, “The celebrations of hell are very soon ruined by the sovereign wisdom and grace of God.”4 What the devil intended for evil, God intended for good. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:28: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.” God uses His blessings for our good. God uses persecution and suffering for our good. God even uses disagreements and divisions among genuine believers for the ultimate good of the church and glory of His name.

How so, you ask?

First, as a result of this split, the missionary endeavor doubles in manpower. Instead of one missionary party consisting of two; now there are two missionary parties consisting of four. No doubt that Silas counted Paul’s invitation a blessing and answer to prayer!

Second, now that the missionary endeavor has doubled in size, more work can be done and new churches planted. Remember Paul’s original plan? He wanted to revisit the churches they planted on the first missionary outreach. But God had other plans. God wanted to expand the work into Macedonia and Greece. Therefore, by a wise and holy decree God permits Paul and Barnabas to disagree and divide in order to bring the gospel to un-reached lands.

Third, God also causes the disagreement and division to work together for the good of John Mark. On the one hand, Barnabas’ willingness to restore Mark gave the young man hope. One commentator remarked, “Humanly speaking, Mark may have dropped out of Christ’s service altogether” were it not for Barnabas. On the other hand, I suspect God used Paul’s perspective for Mark’s good as well. Can’t you picture Mark more determined than ever to show Paul by God’s grace that he really is useful for ministry?

Finally, I believe God used this division for Barnabas and Paul’s good. Perhaps, as a result of Paul’s emphasis on faithfulness, Barnabas became more watchful and demanding of Mark. It is likely Barnabas’s emphasis on grace helped Paul to become a bit more sensitive and patient in his later years. We know that in later years Paul would do for a slave named Onesimus what Barnabas did for Mark. Be an advocate!

The Work Goes On

One of the most tragic splits in all of church history! But this disagreement and division didn’t stop Paul and Barnabas from doing the work of missions. It didn’t paralyze the church. It didn’t stop Jesus from advancing His kingdom. You and I living 2000 years later are proof!

We too must persevere despite disagreements and division. Therefore, let’s not become disillusioned or cynical. Let’s not give up hope. Let’s remember the words of Paul to the church in Corinth—a church that was struggling with disagreements and divisions: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).

Pray for One Another

The Bible seems to indicate that Paul and Barnabas continued to view one another as faithful brothers and were supportive of one another’s labors. Paul continued to view and refer to Barnabas as an apostle of Christ and fellow laborer for the kingdom (1Cor 9:5-6). I’m certain that he who exhorted the brothers to pray for “all the saints” did so himself (Eph 6:18). Paul kept Barnabas and Mark on his prayer list. I think we can reasonably assume that Barnabas and Mark continued to pray for Paul.

Friends, don’t take everyone who disagrees with you off your prayer list. You say, “I’ll still pray for them all right. I’ll pray they get right with God and see things my way.” Very well. But also pray that God may bless them inasmuch as they are walking in the truth. And inasmuch as they’re not, pray God might have mercy on them. Furthermore, don’t allow your disagreement to be so firm that it cannot be revised. As we saw, Paul had to later revise his opinion about Mark. So too, let us always be willing to revise our judgment calls. That won’t be so difficult to do if we maintain a disposition of brotherly love.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 14:4-7)

May God grant us greater measures of this love!

Notes

2 From Piper’s article, “Barnabas: The Weakness of a Great Leader” (July 19, 1987): https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/barnabas-the-weakness-of-a-great-le… (accessed October 15, 2020).

3 See his exposition of this text in his Commentary on the Whole Bible: https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/acts-15.html.

4 “Barnabas: The Weakness of a Great Leader.”

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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JDen's picture

I greatly appreciate this two-part article. But I have some questions as I ponder these lessons from Paul and Barnabas.

Could we say that both Paul and Barnabas were biblical in their perspective? The author argued that both men were applying biblical principles in this instance. Even godly men differ in their applications of Scripture. Let's consider, for example, a pedobaptist and a baptist. Both men may argue for their positions on baptism from Scripture. I think that it is relatively easy to say that these two men cannot work in close partnership together in, say, planting a church.

But let's consider a scenario closer to home. If individual A says that believers should "obey God rather than men" and chooses not to submit to government orders pertaining to congregational singing, meeting, etc., whereas individual B says that believers should "submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake" and chooses to submit to these government orders insofar as they do not command what would clearly be disobedience to God...can these two individuals work in close partnership in ministry?

I'm talking about genuine disagreements based on differing application of biblical principles, not about having a disagreeable spirit. I think that Paul and Barnabas were wrong in the sharpness of their disagreement, but I'm not sure that they were wrong to disagree.

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