In the fifteenth chapter of the Biblical book of Acts, there is a brief account of a disagreement that arose between two prominent apostles who had conducted missionary journeys together for many years – Paul and Barnabas. The dispute arose over the inclusion in the mission of the young man, John Mark. Barnabas, who was John Mark’s cousin, was in favour of his coming with them. Paul opposed the move, as John Mark had deserted them on a previous journey. Luke, the writer of Acts, notes that such a sharp disagreement arose that they separated, Barnabas taking John Mark with him to Cyprus, and Paul teaming up with Silas to continue on their mission of strengthening the churches that they had previously founded.
Very little information is given in regards to the facts surrounding this dispute or the reasons for John Mark’s sudden departure on the previous journey. It’s not always a good idea to speculate about things that are left unsaid in the Bible, but on the other hand, every detail that is included in scripture, I believe, is useful for some purpose. I wonder why Luke chose to include the reason for the separation in his account. What can we glean from this disagreement that might be useful to us today?
One thing that I think we can learn from this is that relationships are not static things. The dynamics of relationships can change over time. Paul and Barnabas had evidently been able to work in close association as they travelled throughout the region, establishing congregations. The introduction of John Mark to their company had possibly impacted on the relationship. John Mark was Barnabas’ cousin, so they may well have felt the ties of kinship and mentoring. Two oxen can be evenly yoked; introduce a third and two may plough in one direction and one in another.
I think this argument and subsequent separation might also point to some differences in temperament between these dynamic men of God. Barnabas, from what we know of him in the scriptures, seems to be a genial fellow, whose very moniker was “son of encouragement.” He seems very much to be a people person, who empathized with others. He was the person who interceded with the disciples to welcome Paul into their midst. Now he is eager to offer John Mark understanding and a second chance.
In Galatians, chapter 2, verse 13, however, we see that perhaps this desire to please others and go with popular opinion had the effect of temporarily leading Barnabas away from sound doctrine.
Paul, from the outset of his appearance in scripture is a man of action, deeply versed in theological knowledge and willing to endure great hardship in his passionate proclamation of the gospel. He is a man of perseverance and a skilled debater. He is zealous for Christ. I wonder if Paul is as sensitive of the feelings of others and as forgiving of their faults as Barnabas?
Interestingly, following this disagreement and his subsequent departure with Silas, Paul meets and includes a young disciple named Timothy into his team (Acts 16:1-4). So begins a long and fruitful mentoring and partnership with the young man whom Paul called “my dear son” (2 Timothy 1:2).
Also, eventually Paul was reconciled with John Mark, who is mentioned briefly in the letters to the Colossians and to Philemon as being with Paul. Towards the end of his life Paul sends for John Mark “because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11).
And here we have some lessons for us in church today. New people come and old relationships change. Partnerships may work well for a season, and then give way to new ministry connections. Some people may be very people -oriented in their focus of church life, whilst others may be more concerned with accomplishing the task at hand. Conflicts can and do occur, but always God is at work, using every situation, even disagreements, to accomplish His will.