Managing Our Differences, Part 2
The first church conference ended with an expression of unity (Acts 15:22 ff.) — a unity all the more remarkable given the highly charged and high-stakes doctrinal nature of the discussion.
But Acts 15 does not close on that happy note. Instead, Luke gives us a front row seat to a vigorous debate between two long-time friends and ministry partners: Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). That disagreement ended not with one admitting he was wrong and conceding to the other. It ended in an impasse. They each chose different ministry companions and went their separate ways.
And the Scripture seems to be okay with that!
This series attempts to explore a number of Scripture passages in order to extract a series of big-picture principles that can help us navigate our differences with one another. If you’re just now stepping into this series, it is very much an ongoing work in progress, and what precedes provides helpful and important context for the fuller picture.
The first post in the series stated the first principle:
God never uses flawless instruments. God always uses only flawed instruments, and He does so for a very simple but not very profound reason: it’s all He has.
Here’s the second:
God can use our differences to advance His kingdom.
Despite the discomfort we instinctively feel when we read Acts 15:39-41, it’s not hard to spot shafts of light shooting through the somber clouds of disagreement and division between these two stellar Christian leaders.
“It was a pity that the present dispute was allowed to generate such mutual provocation, but in the providence of God it was overruled for good … .”
— F. F. Bruce, Acts
The result of their dispute was, in retrospect, an obvious and even better solution than either of them had anticipated or thought of.
“… this is a major disagreement. They reach a solid compromise and create two missions instead of one … . In sum, here is an example where a disagreement was so great that the ability to work side by side was affected. What resulted was a solution that allowed the advance of the gospel to continue, but in a way that recognized a need for distinct ministries. Sometimes this is the best solution.“— Darrell Bock, Acts
Did Paul and Barnabas fail to display the unity for which Christ prayed? I suggest that they preserved that unity by how they managed their differences and subsequent division. And how they spoke of each other after they divided is one window into that management.
The disagreement at the close of the chapter initially seems to have closed the chapter on their “working partnership” (Hiebert, In Paul’s Shadow, 50). On the one hand, “We have no positive scriptural evidence that Paul and Barnabas ever worked together again” (Hiebert, 51). But on the other, there is no reason to “think that Paul and Barnabas went off shaking their fists at one another. They were good and great men. They certainly agreed to disagree … .” (Custer, Acts, 225).
How do we know that? Because Paul continued to refer to Barnabas with respect and esteem as a positive example of Christian leadership (1 Cor. 9:6).
That verse does not surprise us as it should. We’re so accustomed to hearing about Paul and Barnabas in the same breath that we can read Paul’s reference to Barnabas here without batting an eye. But this is some four years after the Acts 15 episode; and there’s no record or reason to suppose that that Barnabas had ever been to Corinth. A reference to Timothy or Silas would have made sense here, since they were well-known to the Corinthians; but the name of Barnabas appears like a bolt out of the blue. How would the Corinthians have known enough about Barnabas for Paul to be able to drop so casual a reference to him as an exemplary fellow-laborer? Though Luke never mentions Barnabas after Acts 15, Paul obviously kept up with him and his ministry to be able to make such a reference four years later.
Some believers who have a falling out can barely spit out one another’s names. They’re like Joseph’s brothers who “hated him and could not speak peacefully to him” (Gen. 37:4). “When Paul has occasion to refer to Barnabas after this [Acts 15:39-41], he does so with the warmth of old affection” (Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 212).
Paul even ended up valuing and working closely with Mark, the very one he refused to take on the disputed missionary endeavor (Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11). That makes it nearly impossible to believe that Paul and Barnabas never worked together again, despite the silence of the historical record. And the fact that Silas (Paul’s chosen ministry partner in Acts 15) and Mark (Barnabas’ chosen ministry partner in Acts 15) are later found working together alongside Peter indicates there was no lasting breach or suspicion between the two respective co-workers either (1 Pet. 5:12-13).
The point in Acts 15 is not whether Paul or Barnabas was right, but that God can turn our divisions into his multiplications. Obviously the Pauline-Barnaban paroxysm does not automatically sanction all our disagreements with one another. But it is recorded and preserved for our instruction. Among other things, the incident in Acts 15 teaches us that:
- God may use our differences to multiply the ministry of the church.
- Godly people can disagree, even heatedly, and still be godly and used by God.
Nothing in Acts 15 indicates that the dispute was itself evil, or that either said things that were sinful, or that either had to repent of their disagreement or division on this point before God could use them.
Differences and even divisions between Christians are not necessarily sinful. They are a fact of life among finite followers of Christ in a fallen world.
They can be God’s way of multiplying our impact on the world around us.