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.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 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 15:36-41)
If there was any dispute between 2 people that could have threatened the strength and unity of any number of churches in the book of Acts, this was it. Paul and Barnabas had completed a successful missionary journey and were about to head off on another, but their history was so much deeper than just being co-workers.
Barnabas had stood by Paul when no one else in the Jerusalem church was willing to do so (Acts 9:26-27) and gave him his first real shot, searching for him in Tarsus in order to bring him to Antioch to help with the ministry there (Acts 11:25-26). You can see how Barnabas earned the moniker “son of encouragement.” He was literally the only one encouraging Paul in his early years as a believer. The duo was then sent to bring aid to the churches in Judea (Acts 11:29-30), at which point they added John Mark to their team (Acts 12:25).
But again, this pair was not just one formed by common interests and experiences. God himself called them out to be used together for his purposes: “While [the leaders of the church at Antioch] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'” (Acts 13:2).
The people watching the “sharp disagreement” between these two men must have been wondering how something that God had ordained could be disintegrating before their eyes, especially given the personal nature of the dispute. John Mark, who originally teamed up with them in Jerusalem, had deserted them during their missionary journey to return home (Acts 13:13). Now, as Paul and Barnabas prepared to head out again, Mark wanted back in. Paul understandably questioned his commitment to God’s work and did not want to depend on him again only to have him leave them when they needed him.
For Barnabas, the argument must have been especially personal. Paul, who more than anyone had experienced Barnabas’ encouragement, now wanted him to deny that encouragement to someone else. He, whom no one wanted to trust or give a chance to, was now refusing to trust and give a chance to someone else. John Mark was also Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10), which probably complicated matters.
What is really interesting here though is the result. Paul and Barnabas, who had been set apart and teamed up by direct instruction from the Holy Spirit, now part ways. They concluded that their difference of opinion could not be reconciled in a way that would allow them to work together so they simply stopped working together. … and apparently, they did the right thing. Not only does the church at Antioch bless the decision to split (Acts 16:40), but God blessed both Paul’s and Barnabas’ ministry. Paul obviously continued making missionary journeys and eventually wrote nearly 1/2 of the New Testament. Barnabas’s ministry is not followed by NT writers after this point, but church tradition not only tells us that his efforts in Cyprus were successful, but that the gospel spread from Cyprus to North Africa, which would produce some of the greatest leaders in early church history.
So if Paul and Barnabas handled their “sharp disagreement” well, even though it ended with them parting ways, what can we learn from them?
1. The church was involved as witnesses to the final stages of the disputes.
I don’t think Luke mentioning that Paul and Silas had “been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” is a coincidence. The implication is that the church knew what had happened and agreed with their decision to split. Paul and Barnabas didn’t storm off, bitter and angry. Paul wasn’t running away from the conflict. The church knew that the two men had handled the situation properly so they blessed Paul’s journey as he was leaving. Paul and Barnabas were open and transparent about their disagreement and didn’t leave questions in the minds of the church leaders about the nature or result of the dispute.
2. Paul and Barnabas continued thinking of each other as brothers in Christ even though their working relationship had ended.
Their working relationship could not be reconciled, but Paul and Barnabas did reconcile their personal relationship. In fact, Paul defends Barnabas in 1 Corinthians 9:6 and commands the Colossians to welcome him if he came to them (Col. 4:10). Their strong opinions over the inclusion of Mark made it impossible for them to work together, but it was not impossible for them to continue to love each other as brothers and co-ministers of the gospel. We can differ with people on things like philosophy of ministry, which makes it hard for us to work with them, but we should never mistake such differences of opinion for reasons to question the other person’s faith or to consider the person outside the fellowship of believers.
3. Paul did not continue to hold a grudge against Mark.
Mark’s story should be an encouragement to all of us. The fact that he deserted Paul and Barnabas and then was rejected by Paul could have completely demoralized him, but he apparently redeemed himself in the eyes of the church, including Paul. Just based on human nature, Paul could have taken Mark’s desertion and the fact that it led to the split with Barnabas as a reason to hold a grudge and never accept anything Mark did as being enough. But we see in Scripture that Paul and Mark eventually reconciled. In fact Paul tells Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry,” (2 Timothy 4:11), and in Philemon 24, he calls Mark his “fellow worker.” Peter also calls Mark “my son” (1 Peter 5:13), and there is the belief that Mark’s gospel was dictated to him by Peter. Both Mark and Paul used this dispute as a way to further develop their ministry and reconcile their relationship.
4. Paul did not allow his experience with Mark to color his opinion of others.
We’ve all been in the situation where we get burned by a person or experience and so we try to avoid being put in that situation again. Paul had been burned by Mark. He took this young man on his missionary journey, and he failed when Paul needed him. Then he ended up being at the center of the dispute with Barnabas. And while it took Paul a little while to learn to trust Mark again, do you know what he did the next time he met a promising young man who needed discipling? He took him on his missionary journey. Early on Paul and Silas’ journey, they meet Timothy, and Paul makes him part of their team (Acts 16:1-5), and as we know from other portions of Scripture, becomes like a father to him. It was almost as though God was telling him, “Ok, if you aren’t going to trust and disciple John Mark, you’re going to disciple and learn to trust another young man.”
We need to be careful and not see Paul and Barnabas splitting as an excuse to end relationships, but rather as an encouragement that there is a way for disputes to end in separation and still remain within the will of God. I like how J. Vernon McGee put it in his Thru the Bible commentary:
“Well, I’m glad these two brethren had this little altercation because it teaches me that these men were human and that even the saints can disagree without being disagreeable. They didn’t break up anything. They did not split the church and form two different churches in Antioch. They just disagreed. It’s all right to disagree with some of the brethren.”