Text: Acts 15:36-41
There are all kinds of jobs to be done. How are Christian leaders to decide who is to serve, especially if there are doubts about an individual’s suitability or reliability?
Mark is a friend and helper of Barnabas and Paul. He had started out with them on their first missionary journey. However, when they reached what we now call southern Turkey, Mark had deserted his companions, and went back home to Jerusalem. Now Paul & Barnabas are planning another missionary journey. Should they take Mark along with them this time? Barnabas says, “Yes, let’s give him another chance.” Paul says, “Over my dead body!” The two Christian leaders can’t agree (v39), and end up going their separate ways.
Christian leaders can sometimes find themselves in conflict with one another, and its pointless to pretend otherwise. Some kinds of disagreement need to be faced up to and thrashed out. Earlier in this chapter, there had been a dispute about the gospel itself. ‘Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”‘ Paul and Barnabas had stood shoulder to shoulder on this one, and opposed this bad teaching. It was wrong, and it needed to be put right. The progress of the gospel would have been crippled had it not been sorted out. Some of the disagreements in the wider church today are like that. Is there one God, or many? Is Jesus the way, the truth and the life, and does no-one come to the Father except through him? Is there forgiveness through the blood of Christ? Will he come again in glory? These are not trivial pursuits: they belong to the very heart of the Christian faith. Such things are not negotiable, and compromise is not an option. In such matters we all have a responsibility to stand up for the truth, and to oppose falsehood.
But Paul and Barnabas’ disagreement over Mark is different. It is not a dispute over what the gospel is. It is not a conflict over the what, but rather about the how and the whom. Should we take Mark with us, or not? There’s often no easy answers to such questions. It’s not so much a case of true or false, right or wrong, but of individual preference and temperament. Paul is thinking of the task ahead, and concludes that Mark would be a liability. Barnabas is focussing on the human side, and wants to give Mark the opportunity to redeem himself. Their disagreement is unfortunate, but not fatal. God’s work can still proceed: in fact, one benefit is that there are now two missionary expeditions, rather than just the one.
So Paul and Silas set off for Syria and Cilicia, and Barnabas and Mark head off towards Cyprus. Luke, the writer of Acts, will follow the progress of the first pair of missionaries, and will not mention Barnabas and Mark again. However, the story is not quite finished. Later on, when Paul comes to write letters to the churches in Corinth and Colosse, and to individuals such as Philemon and Timothy, he will speak of both Barnabas and Mark in the warmest of terms as valued and beloved partners in the gospel.
Brothers and sisters, let us be rock-solid on the essentials of Christian belief and behaviour. But let’s be patient with one another and with our Christian leaders when it comes to the delicate task of sorting out who should serve, and when, and how. And when disagreements do occur, as they will from time to time, let’s not leave them to fester, but rather dress the wounds with compassion and understanding. ‘By his wound we are healed.’