Text: Acts 15:36-41, Acts 16:1-15, John 15:26, 1 Corinthians 9:19-21
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably heard countless stories of rifts, splits, and politics in the Church. Maybe you or someone close to you has been really hurt by the way the imperfect people of the Church handled certain situations. It’s devastating when God’s people let their flaws get in the way of ministry, doing more harm than good.
However, the Church is sometimes so afraid of discord that it swings too far the other way. Trying to maintain the unity Christians are called to (1 Peter 3:8), we can unintentionally create cultures that stifle any questioning or difference of opinion. The push for unity can be taken so far that it seems sinful to disagree at all. There must be a better solution to preventing the type of pain that church conflict is known to cause.
The struggle of Christians to balance unity with uniqueness is nothing new. In Acts, we read about the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, two exceptional men who gave their lives to preaching the gospel. But even these god-fearing men had a sharp disagreement. Barnabas wanted to bring Mark with them on their journey, but Paul didn’t think it would be wise, given that Mark had ditched them on a past journey.
There doesn’t seem to be a moral issue here, just a difference of opinion or perhaps a difference in what these men felt God was calling them to do. Barnabas was thinking about his cousin, and Paul was thinking about the dangers ahead. Even though the men decided to part ways, this story doesn’t paint either man as a villain.
It is so rare for us to view a disagreement like this without assigning blame to one party or the other. Surely someone is in the wrong! That was my reaction when I first read this story of Paul and Barnabas. But the more I dug, the more I found that most scholars don’t see a moral issue in the way these two godly men disagreed and parted.
While it might not have been ideal for Paul and Barnabas to be on different pages, God used their parting of ways to reach more people and spread the gospel. In the end, their disagreement does not lead to a damaged relationship, nor do they appear to hold any ill will toward one another. In fact, Paul goes on to later speak very respectfully of Mark, calling him a fellow worker who had brought him comfort (Colossians 4:10-11).
Sometimes there is unavoidable pain from conflict because one or both parties are in the wrong, acting out of sin. Those situations are distinctly different in nature from the disagreement we here see between Paul and Barnabas.
Their conflict affirms that we can disagree and even be angry without sinning (Ephesians 4:26), if we do it with a gentle and humble spirit. We can part ways when needed without hurting others, if we understand that there does not always have to be a villain. Conflict can feel yucky, but in non-moral issues such as this, God can use it for His good purposes.
Kaitie Stoddard is a professional counselor who recently relocated from Chicago to Colorado with her husband. She has her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and is passionate about helping couples and families find healing in their relationships. Jesus dramatically changed her life in high school, giving her a heart for those who don’t yet know the love of Christ. On any given weekend you’re likely to find Katie snowboarding in the Rocky Mountains, checking out new restaurants with friends, or catching up on her favorite Netflix and podcast series.