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.)