Our differences need not divide us, because even as we are unique and individual, we are also all one. — Henry Kimsey-House, leadership coach
Today’s leadership gurus often promote biblical relationship principles without necessarily being aware of the source. We can well imagine, for example, the apostle Paul making a statement similar to the one quoted above when he and Barnabas “had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:39).
Yes, Christians sometimes disagree. The most mature Christian leaders disagree at times. But handled effectively under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, disagreements among believers can become opportunities for spiritual growth and advancement of the gospel. It’s worth noting the four ways that Paul and Barnabas turned their sharp disagreement into a spiritual victory.
Respect one another even when you disagree. Paul wanted to “go back and visit the brothers and sisters in every town” where the missionary team had evangelized on the first missionary journey (Acts 15:36). Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement,” agreed that a return trip would be wise and beneficial to the converts in the Galatian region. He also saw the trip as an opportunity to re-enlist the young believer John Mark, who had left the missionary team early on in the first missionary journey (see Acts 13:13). Paul disagreed with Barnabas’s plan, insisting that John Mark should not be brought along. Both Paul and Barnabas held their ground in the situation, but neither man showed disrespect for the other. Neither man accused the other of being less than fully committed to the Lord and His work.
Look for win-win solutions. While both men maintained their respect for each other, they still had a problem that needed a solution. What could they do? The two men found a solution that was a win for everyone. They parted company and formed two missionary teams. Paul chose a well-respected believer named Silas, and the two of them headed toward the Galatian region to visit the young churches. Meanwhile, Barnabas and John Mark sailed to Cyprus, one of the early stops on the first missionary journey (and Barnabas’s native home; see Acts 4:36).
Stay focused on the mission, not personal preferences. What helped Paul and Barnabas find a win-win solution was to stay focused on their God-given mission over personal preferences. They had been set apart by the church in Antioch for a work that God called them to do: carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to new places (see Acts 13:2-3). Satan often tries to distract believers from their mission by tempting them to think more about themselves than their calling. Believers can have honest disagreements about methods and timing of Christian service. But when personal wants and feelings become the top priority, God’s mission can easily get lost in the conflict. Both Paul and Barnabas kept their focus on the gospel mission.
Be open to reconsideration. We find evidence in Paul’s later writings that the apostle left open the possibility of working with John Mark again. In Colossians 4:10, Paul indicated that John Mark was with him in Rome and that the believers of Colossae should welcome the young Christian leader if he came to their city. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul asked Luke to bring John Mark with him to Rome, because the young man was “useful” to Paul “in the ministry.” Paul obviously had not written off John Mark completely but had looked for a new opportunity to include him in gospel service. A disagreement between Paul and Barnabas eventually became a spiritual victory for all concerned.
David Briscoe is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.