When Christians disagree

The names “Paul” and “Barnabas” seemed to go hand in hand during the early years of Christianity. It was Barnabas who took time to find out about Saul, the former persecutor of Christians, when he was trying to join the Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-27). Later, when he saw such a great opportunity in Antioch, he went to Tarsus to find Saul.

For the next year they worked together and “taught a significant number of people” (Acts 11:26 NET). They became part of the group of “prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch” (Acts 13:1). The Holy Spirit told this group to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Barnabas and Saul sailed to Cyprus and later went into the Roman province of Asia proclaiming the good news of Jesus, before returning to Antioch.

When we first see the list of names in Acts 13, Barnabas is listed first while Saul is listed last. I don’t know if there is any significance in this order, but it is interesting that even in verse 4 it is “Barnabas and Saul.” It would seem that Barnabas was recognised as the leader of the two – after all, he had been a Christian longer. But while on Cyprus Saul began to use his Greek name, Paul, and he began to take the leading role – and they became known as “Paul and Barnabas” (see verse 42 and throughout the next few chapters). This does not seem to have bothered Barnabas.

Several years later, Paul proposed that he and Barnabas return to visit those who became Christians during their first trip. Barnabas suggested that they bring his cousin John Mark with them. Paul disagreed – John had left them about half way through the first trip and returned to Jerusalem. These two great Christian men and leaders experienced conflict – Luke recorded it in the text as a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39). This was so sharp that they ended up breaking up their working partnership.

Sometimes we think that Christians should never have conflict. The problem is not having conflict – wherever we find people we find conflict. Conflict itself is not sin.

Notice how Paul and Barnabas resolved their disagreement. Rather than having one team setting out to declare God’s word, they formed two teams: Barnabas took John Mark and sailed to Cyprus (if you remember, this was where Barnabas was from).

Paul chose a new coworker, Silas, and set out overland into the Roman province of Asia. It might be significant that Paul was “commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers and sisters,” while this is not said of Barnabas. It would seem that he did not receive the send-off that Paul did.

Why did Barnabas stand up for John Mark? I would suggest that he saw something in this young man that Paul at that time did not see. Perhaps this was because they were related (Colossians 4:10). It would seem that Barnabas was able to cultivate the good he saw in his cousin to the point that later Paul would write to Timothy: “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service” (2 Timothy 4:11 NASB). Barnabas truly lived up to his nick-name, which means “son of encouragement.”

We need more Christians like Barnabas – encouraging those who are struggling, willing to help those who are weak, and not caring that he lost the favour and blessing of people for a time. He knew what was right to do, and he did it.

Readings for next week

15 September – Acts 16
16 September – Acts 17
17 September – Acts 18
18 September – Acts 19
19 September – Acts 20

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