Paul and Barnabas: On Agreeing to Disagree

This is another in a series of posts I am doing this week as part of the Rally to Restore Unity. To learn more about the Rally, check here and here, and donate some money to charity:water here.

Let’s face it: if we had been around back at the beginning of the church, we would have thought this whole thing was falling apart before it ever got off the ground. At least I would have.

Acts 15 is the apex of early church division and struggles. Paul and Barnabas are a team, teaching the people of Antioch. Then some other teachers come down to Antioch teaching something different, which throws everyone into “sharp dispute and debate.” One translation says the two groups were “arguing vehemently.”

The argument was so bad, in fact, that the early church leaders recalled their missionaries to Jerusalem so they could figure out what was going on. When they got everyone there, they began arguing as well. Luke records that at this meeting there was “many disputes” or “long debates.” It was only after everyone was weary of fighting with one another that Peter and James stood up and persuaded the church to come to an uneasy and tentative compromise on the matter. (And it became clear that Paul didn’t fully agree with the compromise when he went out and began teaching something different on his missionary journeys!)

And then “days later,” on the back of all this arguing and tension, Paul and Barnabas get together to go back out as a missionary team… only they end up having such a “sharp disagreement” that they say goodbye to one another and split up.

Barnabas wanted to take Mark along on the trip and Paul didn’t. That’s what it all boiled down to – something that sounds so stupid and childish now. But in a tension-filled environment, after arguing for hours, even something as little as that becomes a reason to break apart an amazing team. As they turned and went their separate ways, you could almost see Paul whip out his phone and tweet, “Farewell, @Barnabas.”

But look at the terms that mark this chapter… Sharp dispute and debate? Arguing vehemently? Long debates? Sharp disagreement?

Not exactly the kumbayah-around-the-campfire picture we tend to paint of the early church, is it?

I want to zoom in on Paul and Barnabas for second though, because they represent the most human aspect of this tension and disagreement. What would your counsel to them been in the midst of their argument over Mark?

I know what mine would have been: Guys, why don’t you stop, take a step back, and take some time to pray about this. I’m sure when you get back together tomorrow, God will have created some unity between you and you’ll know which direction to go.

Only that’s not how God worked it. God actually used a sharp disagreement between two of the greatest missionaries in history to grow the church. Paul and Silas went on to have an amazing ministry. And so did Barnabas and Mark.* In different places. Reaching different people. Later, Paul mentions Barnabas as a fellow apostle – showing that they still maintained a relationship, and most likely a sense of partnership as well.

In other words, they experienced unity through division.

If that seems counterintuitive to you, perhaps that’s because we serve a counterintuitive God in an upside-down Kingdom.

There are times when we are not going to agree with one another – whether that be on points of doctrine or on the vision and direction of ministry. In those times, let us remember Paul and Barnabas and the contentious atmosphere in Acts 15. Sometimes, it seems, God uses division to bring about richer ministry and to expand the unity of the body of Christ.

So maybe — maybe — if there is room for a Paul and a Barnabas in this crazy church of ours, there is room for a John Piper and a Rob Bell. For a Marc Driscoll and a Brian McLaren. And maybe both sides could consider the other as fellow apostles. Or teachers, or servants, or whatever.

Just because we part ways doesn’t mean we have to break unity.

*(Church tradition holds that Barnabas and Mark were apostles in Rome, Alexandria, and Caesarea before Barnabas became one of the first bishops of the church, most likely in Salamis, his hometown.)

The Kingdom of God is Not About Food or Drink

This is the first of several posts this week I am doing as part of the Rally to Restore Unity. To learn more about the Rally, check here and here, and donate some money to charity:water here.

Here’s some breaking news for you: Christians aren’t all the same. We have different backgrounds and experiences and passions. We connect with people – and with God – in different ways. We have different jobs, different hobbies, different priorities. And despite some people’s best (and well-intentioned?) efforts otherwise, we all believe different things.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, that describes the first folks who followed Jesus two thousand years ago, too. The folks who were physically next to Jesus, listened to him teach, and watched him perform miracles still ended up believing different things.

And knowing that gives me peace.

We all believe different things – the question then is, “What do we do about that?”

And the answer the early church leaders have shown us seems to be: “Be okay with it.” Focus on the important things instead, like the Kingdom of God.

That’s what Paul wrote about in his letter to the church in Rome, at any rate. See, back when Paul was writing his letters there was a major problem. The Jewish people had always been God’s chosen people, and they related to God through a covenant – an agreement made between them and God. Some of their prophets talked about a time in the future when a new covenant would be put into place, and when Jesus was on earth he declared that he himself was the beginning of that new covenant. The blood he spilled on the cross would mark this covenant, just as the blood of sacrifices had marked covenants with Abraham, Noah, and Moses.

This new covenant was defined by the coming of the long-awaited Kingdom of God to earth. And under the new covenant, anyone in the world could experience life in this Kingdom. Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female – it didn’t matter.

After instituting the Kingdom of God here on earth and sealing this new covenant with his blood, Jesus left. He left, giving us only one commandment to live out: love. Love one another, and love God. That’s it.

The problem that soon became apparent was this: without more detailed instructions than that, folks began arguing and fighting about stuff.

They argued about whether or not non-Jewish folks wanting to join the Kingdom had to be circumcised. They argued about whether or not they still had to follow Jewish dietary laws. They argued about whether or not they had to keep all the Jewish holidays. They argued over whether or not they could drink wine.

They argued and debated and fought. The simple command of love, it seemed, was too ambiguous and nebulous to bring everyone together in unity.

Enter Paul, stage right. He sees what’s going on and essentially offers this instruction: “You’re all different. So what? Deal with it.”

His actual words were: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” Then he uses an example: One person eats only vegetables, another eats everything. The one who eats everything should not look down on the one who eats vegetables, and the one who eats vegetables should not judge the one who eats everything.

He goes on to say some people celebrate the holidays and some people don’t — and good for both of them. Do what you think is right, let others do what they think is right, and stop judging one another for it.

How can Paul say this? Because, as he writes in the apex of his argument, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking.

The Kingdom of God is not a matter of wine. Or holidays. Or predestination or premillenialism or women teachers or smoking or cuss words or dress codes or music styles.

The Kingdom of God is about peace. Joy. Love.

Paul deeply understood something that other folks missed. To them, love wasn’t enough to bring about unity. To Paul, love was the only thing powerful enough to allow unity.

At its core, unity is not about everyone having to believe the same things. Unity is you believing something different than me, and both of us being okay with that.

Paul writes, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself.” Paul is enjoying freedom in Jesus’ kingdom. You would think he would want everyone to experience this freedom. You would think he would encourage people to abandon dietary regulations and the old Law and the rules that keep them tied down.

Instead, he continues the thought with this: “But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.”

This is where it hits home for me. I enjoy freedom in Christ. I enjoy drinking a beer (or some Melting Pot wine!) with friends. I smoke an occasional pipe. I employ swear words every now and again.

And I tend to feel sad for and judge the conservative Christians who view all of those things as sin.

According to Paul, that’s not unity. Unity would be saying, “You think drinking is a sin? All right, that’s cool.” And then you and I go out and have a Coke together.

Later, when I’m with someone else, I can have a beer with them.

I have not done well at upholding my end of this bargain. I have not advanced the cause of unity in these matters. And for that, I repent.

On the flipside, though, is the more difficult instruction (and I can say that, having been there). The folks who do view this stuff as sin are not to judge those of us who don’t.

In fact, Paul writes, “do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil.”

So there’s two sides to unity. I won’t judge you for only drinking Coke, and you won’t judge me for drinking beer.

I won’t judge you for not allowing women teachers in your church, and you won’t judge me for allowing them in mine.

I won’t judge you for keeping culture at arm’s length, and you won’t judge me for engaging with it.

It will be incredibly tough – because it will mean putting aside our pride and our desire to be right – but together, we can recognize that the Kingdom of God is not about these things. We can recognize that love is big enough for all these different perspectives. We can recognize that our goal is to offer redemption and restoration to the world – not quibble about minor points of doctrine.

Together, we will find unity in the midst of our differences.

The F-Word

I want to discuss the f-word.

Not this f-word, although it’s been making its way around the blogosphere recently:

And although I shared this amazingly refreshing and honest post about another f-word today on Facebook, I don’t mean this one either:

The “F-Word.” Yes, the Real One.

I want to open up some dialog about yet another f-word that has evidently become something of a swear word in evangelical church circles: freedom.

I’ve had several interactions with folks on blogs and Facebook recently that have left me shaking my head in frustration and sadness. I’ve seen friends roughly and unfairly excoriated for asking simple questions. I’ve watched as certain interpretations of doctrine were wielded as a weapon to squelch honest doubt and seeking. I’ve been on the receiving end of some sharp barbs.

Honestly, my first reaction when confronted with situations like this is to get upset and angry. That is usually followed by my second reaction, to get dismissive and ignore it.

Here’s the problem: neither one of those reactions is Christlike. Regardless of how someone is acting toward me, I have the responsibility (the privilege???) to respond to them in love, in understanding, and in forgiveness.

Instead, I respond to people out of anger and frustration, and my words come across just as hurtful and snide as theirs do. I bring myself down to their level and instead of upholding the things I truly and deeply value in the depths of my soul (love, grace, and dialog for starters), I reduce the conversation to a personal level.

I get offended at the idea that someone could get offended at my friends’ questions (or at my comments), and I respond out of my humanity.

Ugh.

Not a pretty place to be, for anyone involved.

Here’s my honest question for all of us, though: why is it so difficult for us to talk about issues of faith without talking down to or at one another? Why do some people feel the need to prove other people wrong? When did the value of dialog die in (some? many?) of our churches?

Why have we lost the freedom to disagree with one another? And how can we gain it back?

Here’s the deal: it seems to me that at a foundational level, we need to be okay with people asking sincere questions and posing honest challenges to our points of view.

When people get attacked for asking a question or things we don’t agree with get censored off our blog comments or Facebook walls, it makes me think, ‘no wonder the church is losing folks left and right.’ If people can’t feel comfortable asking questions in the Church, they’re going to leave and ask them somewhere else. If the Church is a place where questions are no longer welcome, then I don’t want to be a part of it.

Luckily, I know that’s not the case. There is a growing community of folks who love Jesus out there who invite, welcome, and encourage questions and dialog. They live in the freedom of knowing that if we all don’t agree on everything, the world isn’t going to end! That God is big enough to handle questions and viewpoints outside their own, and that listening to those view points rather than simply dismissing them out of hand might deepen their own faith and understanding as well.

And so in the interest of unity, love, grace, respect, and yes, the f-word, I would like to publicly apologize to the folks I’ve gotten into it with the past couple weeks. I did not treat you like Jesus. So I seek your forgiveness.

And as a perfectly apt follow up to that, I would like to announce that next week, Reflected Riddles will be taking part in the Rally to Restore Unity!

This should be a great week of coming together as all different shades of believers, recognizing that there is freedom to all live in unity together. During the week, dozens (hundreds?) of bloggers will be blogging about unity and linking all their blogs together, and will also be tweeting, using the hashtag #restoreunity. And one of the coolest things is we will be raising money for the Charity:Water campaign during it all.

You can find out more about it at the Rally to Restore Unity Facebook page. Make a sign (like the ones pictured above), write a blog, and donate some money to help bring about the Kingdom of God… I’m looking forward to doing this with you all.

Even if I don’t agree with you.