Managing Our Differences, Part 1
The Inevitability of Disagreements
It could be asked, “Besides the fundamentals, is there anything fundamentalists agree on?” The question is only semi-facetious. Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are peppered with differences over a plethora of issues:
- Soteriology: Calvinism vs. Arminianism vs. Amyraldianism (and various versions of each)
- Ecclesiology: dispensational theology vs. progressive dispensational theology vs. covenant theology vs. progressive covenant theology
- Eschatology: views on the rapture and the millennium
- Continuationism vs. cessationism
- Significance of the Lord’s Table
- Mode and subjects of baptism
- Church polity
- Church music
- Church worship
These are not insignificant minutiae. Yet, God has a will about how we handle our differences and those with whom we differ. Under the rubric of a series of big-picture principles, these posts will explore some sample Scripture passages that inform how we should manage the differences among us. Here’s the first:
God never uses flawless vessels.
Acts 15 exemplifies a number of the principles that speak to the issue of managing our differences, so I’ll return to this passage from time to time throughout this series. But the biblical example of disagreement between Paul and Barnabas makes a great starting point.
The blessed unity that emerged from what could have been a rather stormy conference (Acts 15:22 ff.) is unexpectedly marred by a disagreement between two of the featured speakers. The disagreement came “after some time had passed” (Acts 15:36), but from the standpoint of literary juxtaposition, the argument is jarring on the heels of the Jerusalem council.
Paul proposed that he and Barnabas revisit the churches in Asia Minor. Barnabas agreed and suggested they take along John Mark again. Paul insisted that was a really bad idea since John Mark had proved unreliable on their previous journey about four years earlier (Acts 15:37-38). The result?
And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:39-40).
Is someone always completely right and someone always entirely wrong in every disagreement? Must we side with either Barnabas or Paul in Acts 15? Did God take sides? Are there times when the Lord is neutral — or at least silent? May the Lord approve for one of his servants what he would not approve for another? Can God allow two presumably prayerful, surrendered servants to come to divergent conclusions?
Luke seems to imply that the church at Antioch, at least, generally sided with Paul (Acts 15:40). But Luke himself studiously avoids any editorial comment beyond a historical description of what happened. And what happened was a heated confrontation.
The word “contention” is a graphic one — there’s a reason the Greek term (paraxusmos) has passed into English to denote a convulsion or sudden violent emotional reaction (paroxysm). In the context of Acts 15, the term portrays “anger, irritation, or exasperation in a disagreement” (Bock).
It was a heated confrontation over (don’t miss this) a decision of spiritual significance: who should, and should not, participate in their next mission trip. It adds to the humanness of this incident when you factor in other things we know:
- John Mark had deserted them early on their previous journey (Acts 15:38; 13:13).
- Barnabas was, by nature and temperament, a peace-maker (Acts 9:27).
- But Barnabas also happened to be related to Mark (Col. 4:10).
- Paul had been previously disappointed with even Barnabas’s poor judgment (Gal. 2:13).
These same factors can complicate some of our disagreements: past experience, temperament, relationships.
Both of these men had legitimate concerns. Paul was not yet willing to trust John Mark on another such journey. Barnabas, John Mark’s cousin, felt it really important to give the young man a second chance, as soon as possible. The two-sided complexity of this uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing confrontation is reflected among interpreters:
“Barnabas … wanted to restore Mark to the ministry and serve in Cyprus. He was right … . God built up Mark into being the revered author of the Gospel of Mark! Paul wanted helpers that would not desert the cause under fire. He was right … . God provided Silas to go with him and in due time raised up Timothy and a number of other workers.”
— Stewart Custer, Witness to Christ: A Commentary on Acts
“Paul and Barnabas could not agree, perhaps precisely because no basic principle of the faith was involved; it was a practical matter on which much could be said on both sides, and people of different temperaments would naturally give different weight to different considerations … .”
— David Gooding, True to the Faith: Charting the Course Through the Acts of the Apostles
“Even those that are united to one and the same Jesus and sanctified by one and the same Spirit, have different apprehensions, different opinions, different views, and different sentiments in points of prudence. It will be so while we are in this state of darkness and imperfection; we shall never be all of a mind till we come to heaven.”
— Matthew Henry, Commentary on Acts
I regularly remind my students that God never uses flawless vessels. God uses only flawed vessels. Why is that? It might console us to propose a theological explanation (so that He receives all the glory). But the real reason is much less flattering: because that’s all He has to work with. Think about that: that’s all He has.
That’s a very elementary observation. I begin with it because it’s one we’re so prone to forget. But there’s another side to this disagreement and division that we’ll probe in the next post.