Sometimes we do have to take sides. In many cases, however, we don’t. We don’t have to form firm opinions. We may have concerns. We may have suspicions. But in many cases, it’s the better part of wisdom to leave the matter with the Lord.
Read Part 1.
What Should We Think?
If I polled my readers at this point, there’d probably be some who’d say, “I’m of Paul,” and others, “I am of Barnabas.” Whose side do you take? Before you decide, consider two things:
1. The disagreement wasn’t a matter of heresy or immorality.
Neither Paul nor Barnabas accused Mark or one another of heresy. This wasn’t a disagreement over the fundamentals of the faith, such as the deity of Christ or justification by faith or the hope of the resurrection. Nor was this a disagreement over a black-and-white moral issue. They weren’t debating whether it’s appropriate for a minister to live in adultery or to steal or to commit murder.
Instead, we have two men fully committed to Christ. Both are seeking to live and labor in accord with biblical principle. The problem is that Paul is putting greater emphasis on one principle, whereas Barnabas is placing greater emphasis on another. The argument boils down to this: which way are the scales tipping?
Many disagreements and divisions among believers today can be boiled down to differences over which biblical principle to emphasize in a given situation. We can think of examples: differences over styles of worship. Differences over methods of evangelism. Differences over how best to educate our children. Differences over politics. Differences over how best to evaluate and respond to COVID-19. Oftentimes these differences boil down to differences regarding the application of biblical principle.
This was true in the case of Barnabas and Paul. But who was right?
2. The Bible doesn’t demand us to take sides in this particular case.
I don’t believe the immediate context or the rest of Scripture gives a clear judgment either for Paul or for Barnabas. The reference in v. 40 to the church committing Paul and Silas to the grace of the Lord doesn’t necessarily mean they were taking Paul’s side. It may simply mean that in spite of Paul’s separation from Barnabas the church in Antioch wasn’t going to cut Paul off. They’d still recognize Paul’s ministry as well as Barnabas’s. Even if the church sided with Paul, it doesn’t mean the church was right.
We do know Mark turned out to be a faithful minister of the gospel, Even Paul acknowledged this to be the case! In this letter to the Colossians, he refers to Mark as a “fellow laborer.” Later, Paul tells Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). Mark also became useful to Peter. According to tradition, it was Mark who under Peter’s direction and supervision became the human author of the second Gospel in our NT! This doesn’t mean Paul was wrong in his initial concerns about Mark. It does suggest, however, that Barnabas had a point.
Who was right? Who was wrong? The Bible doesn’t demand us to take one side or the other. I think the safest path is that taken by most commentators. Both men were partly right and were partly wrong. Who was mostly right and who was mostly wrong we cannot know with certainty this side of the grave.
Drawing Some Lessons
How should we view and respond to some of the disagreements and divisions among godly believers in our day?
Face the Reality
Commenting on this passage, John Piper writes, “Here the bubble of idealism bursts on the needle of reality.”2 Sometimes we have too idealistic a view of the church and church leaders. When some church or church leader disappoints us, we’re tempted to question the power of the gospel and give up on the Christian faith.
But God wants us to be biblical realists. So he takes the needle of Acts 15 and pops the bubble of unhealthy idealism. He doesn’t do it to make us disillusioned or cynical. He does it to help us learn to cope with the challenges of living in a sin-cursed world. He wants to remind us that the best of men are men at best.