The apostle Paul appealed to the church in Corinth: “that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). But Paul did not always attain to that ideal himself. In Acts 15:36-41, we read the sad story of a sharp disagreement between Paul and his companion, Barnabas. What makes their disagreement so disheartening is the division that resulted.
We can think of modern examples of disagreements among true believers. Sometimes these disagreements are so sharp that brothers who hold the same creed go separate ways. And it pains our heart to see believers in the faith in the faith divided. What should we make of such disagreements and divisions? How should we respond to them? What counsel would we give to others who may be caught up in such disagreements and divisions?
I’d like to address these questions in the post below. The Bible not only presents ideal Christianity. It portrays real Christianity. It deals honestly and frankly with the reality of disagreements and divisions among true believers—even godly church leaders! But the Bible’s purpose is not like the gossip magazine. Its design is not to make us disillusioned and cynical. Rather, the Bible reveals these things for our instruction and edification. So let’s draw some lessons from the division between Paul and Barnabas.1
Looking at the Incident
After a brief furlough, Paul decides it’s time to get back on the missionfield. He suggests that they revisit their former church-plants. “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are,” says Paul (15:36). Barnabas agrees but adds a stipulation: “Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark” (15:37).
We’re first introduced to John-Mark in Acts 12:12, where we are told that he’s the son of a Christian woman named Mary. In Colossians 4:10, we learn that Mark is Barnabas’s cousin. It’s not surprising, No wonder Barnabas wants to take Mark on the journey. This wouldn’t be the first time Mark had assisted Barnabas and Paul. According to Acts 13, Mark accompanied them on their first missionary journey. So Barnabas’ plan to take Mark on the second journey seems to make sense.
But Paul objects to Barnabas’s plan: “But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work” (15:38). Literally, Paul doesn’t consider it “worthy of consideration”! Why? “Because,” says Paul, “Mark deserted us half-way through our first missionary journey!” Paul’s accusation is confirmed in Acts 13:13, where we’re told John-Mark “left them and returned to Jerusalem.” Luke doesn’t say why. But the word he employs to describe Mark’s action is commonly used for “apostasy” (Lk. 8:13; Heb. 3:12). Mark hadn’t apostatized from the faith, but he’d defected from the ministry. As a result, Paul opposes Barnabas’ plan.
This brings us to the sharp disagreement and sad separation:
And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:39-40)
Here we have an “apostolic split”! With that split a harmonious partnership comes to an end. Certainly not a pretty picture!
Assessing the Disagreement.
First, we’ll try to determine who was right. Then we’ll attempt to formulate a proper response to the disagreement.
Who Was Right?
To address that question, let’s consider the matter both perspectives.
1. Paul’s Perspective
John-Mark had deserted his post. Paul would remind us that such defection is a serious matter. He’d remind us of the sober words of Jesus: “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62). He’d remind us that faithfulness is an essential requirement for Christian ministry: “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Cor 4:2; cf. 1Tim 1:12). Would the commanding officer of a Special Forces unit be eager to take along a soldier who’d deserted the unit on an earlier mission? No doubt, Paul shared such a reservation. This is why he later told Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (1 Tim 5:22).
It seems Paul is acting according to biblical principle. It even appears the church in Antioch may have agreed with Paul: “Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” (15:40). There’s no mention of Barnabas or Mark. So it seems Paul is in the right.
But as Nicodemus reminded the Jewish council, “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” So let’s give Barnabas a chance to speak.
2. Barnabas’ Perspective
Admittedly, the text doesn’t explicitly identify Barnabas’ reasoning. But I think we can infer his perspective based on what we know of Barnabas’ character an on other NT teaching.
On the one hand, I don’t believe Barnabas would have defended Mark’s previous actions. Moreover, I don’t think he was indifferent to Paul’s concerns. Barnabas would have agreed that Mark’s defection was wrong and that a gospel minister must be faithful. On the other hand, Barnabas would have reminded his beloved colleague of another biblical principle: Past sin and failure do not preclude future faithfulness and success.
This principle is beautifully illustrated in the life of the apostle Peter. Peter hadn’t just deserted his Lord and Savior; he denied Jesus three times! It’s hard to know which hurt Jesus more—Judas’ kiss or Peter’s denial. But Peter repented. And Jesus fully forgave him. What’s more, the Lord re-commissioned Peter to the office of apostle. Indeed, Jesus gave Peter a second chance within 40 days of Peter’s fall!
I am certain Barnabas and Paul knew about Jesus’s re-commission of Peter. I can hear Barnabas saying to Paul, “Brother, if Peter who denied Jesus thrice got a second chance, why not Mark? If the other disciples who deserted their Master, why not Mark?” Barnabas was an optimist. His very name means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). When the church at Jerusalem was skeptical of Paul’s conversion, Barnabas advocated for him (Acts 9:26-27). I can hear him saying, “Paul, I was right about you. Won’t you concede that I may be right about Mark?!”
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 other, “I am of Barnabas.” Whose side do you take? Before you decide, consider two things (coming in Part 2).
1 This article is a fuller version of an article I wrote for The Gospel Coalition: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/godly-people-disagree-lessons….
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 Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.