“there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another” Acts 15:39
The most famous intramural Christian quarrel in the Bible is probably the quarrel between Paul and Barnabas over whether or not to take John Mark along on their next missionary journey. It became so heated and severe that they parted ways over it. Fighting happens between the greatest of men, the most gifted of men, the sweetest of men (the Son of Encouragement) and the most humble of men (“by the grace of God I am what I am…”).
This isn’t an article to deal with how to avoid quarreling, because I’ve no doubt there’s plenty of material available for that. This is some thoughts about how one might actually quarrel, and quarrel well, even if it ends up with picking a new partner in ministry, or heading to a Mediterranean island with a rejected one.
Nineteen hundred sixty years after the famous rift between Paul and Barnabas, there’s still some debate as to how we should evaluate this particular conflict. Shall we crown Paul the victor, because, as the Apostle, he carries massive authority, or at the least deserves the benefit of the doubt? Shall we give Barnabas the victory, because in this matter he displayed a spirit of forgiveness, a spirit of graciousness, and through his ministry redeemed his nephew?
It’s even difficult to evaluate the struggle with the benefit of hindsight. Paul chose Silas to replace Barnabas. Silas presumably sang harmony as he and Paul sang in the cesspit of the Philippian dungeon, while the gospel went forth from this dynamic duo with the blessing and power of the Spirit – good call on Silas, Paul! Barnabas took John Mark to Cyprus and restored, strengthened, and mentored him. Later, in association with Peter, Mark would pen the gospel that bears his name, and Paul himself at the end of his life famously asked for the company of the “useful” Mark. Well done, Barnabas.
Here’s what I find intriguing about this quarrel, and indeed instructive. The argument went like this from Barnabas – “Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them…” (Acts 15:37) Paul argued this way, “But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.” (Acts 15:38) That’s the two sides and how they were drawn up in this great conflict.
The plain reason it’s so difficult to actually determine who is right here is because the Bible doesn’t lend its judgment, nor does the outworking of Providence clearly indicate that either Paul or Barnabas was acting in or out of turn. But I think the unspoken reason it’s difficult to judge, and more helpful for me, is the fact that neither Paul nor Barnabas is recorded as lending any weight to their own argument outside of their own feelings and personal desires.
Barnabas wanted to take Mark. So great was his desire to do so that he wouldn’t accompany Paul without his nephew. Paul didn’t want to bring Mark – either he was punishing Mark for abandoning them or more likely fearful he’d do it again, but he had no desire to bring him. In fact, he had a great desire to not bring him – so great that he’d rather go on without his beloved friend Barnabas than take him.
Neither Paul nor Barnabas is recorded as making any sort of appeal to Biblical authority. That is, Paul didn’t say, “The gospel is too precious a treasure to suffer reproach and slander by such a deserter.” Barnabas didn’t say, “Jesus says we should forgive seven times seventy!” I suppose if they had made such an appeal, and it was recorded, our view of the situation would necessarily be colored by it.
In every quarrel between believers, there’s a common understanding that since all authority lies within the will of God, as revealed through His Word, when we argue, there’s almost an instinctive race to anchor my side of the argument in the Bible. Who really cares what Barnabas wants to do, the question really is, “what does God want him to do?” right? And who cares if Paul wants to leave Mark, because at the end of the day, isn’t what Jesus wants Paul to do more important? And it seems that if one of them would have anchored his position squarely in the text, the still-famous breach between these two dynamic ministers of the gospel might have been averted or at least settled.
Paul, after all, made such an appeal to the nature of the gospel in his dispute with Peter in Galatians 2, and nobody would dare think Peter right or Paul wrong, because Paul had the nature of the gospel on his side. But in the absence of such an appeal to the text or explicit nature of the gospel, what are we to conclude?
I have been in quarrels and disputations, both directly and indirectly. I’ve either watched or been involved in conflicts within the church, within the family, and even on the mission field, not to mention a few brief and useless forays into the dedicated arena for “Christian” quarreling – the blogosphere. And now, looking back with the benefit of time and the clarity of hindsight, I freely and ashamedly admit that sometimes I was on the wrong end of things, and I happily conclude that sometimes I was on the right end of things, and I also have fallen somewhere between the two, where I’m still not sure if I was right or wrong, however much I insisted I was right and however much Bible I had to “prove” it.
But this I do know – in virtually every instance of conflict with another believer, whether the dispute was about work or about play or about music in the church (somewhere there’s a camp counselor that I harassed for what must have been a dreadful week for him as I rabidly articulated the Bible’s “clear” teaching that Petra has no place in the Christian life. I might still debate that point, but from a different perspective!), about politics (I’m resisting the temptation to go here, but let it be said that according to the conversations I observed, the Bible apparently lent its full weight of support to voting for Trump, also Clinton, and also any number of third party candidates, and also against voting for all of these same options, presumably at the same time), we quarrel over something said on social media, about various programs in the church, about having the neighbors over for supper when your wife doesn’t want to entertain, about how to discipline children, or any number of the 80 gazillion other things to debate and/or quarrel about, and in almost every case we’ve made an appeal to the Scripture as we entered the ring, or chastised others for not making such an appeal. Chapter verse me baby or go home ‘cuz if you got no text you lose by default. Game over I win.
On the one hand, this is a good instinct to have. It’s good to ask, “What does God think of this?” and dig into the Scripture to figure that out. It’s a good thing to find our moorings in what we know is truth, because it is truth we seek. On the other hand, there is a potentially devastating danger to be found here: Once I rest my argument on the authority of Scripture, I can’t move from there without abandoning the only authority I have. The danger is that if I’ve improperly founded my position in Scripture, I probably don’t know it and can’t budge without at least feeling like I’m fudging on the Bible’s veracity.
Here’s how it happens in a church setting: once I’ve argued that we need to do AWANA because Jesus loves the little children, it’s almost impossible to shut the program down later for any number of reasons, because to do so would indicate that maybe we don’t believe that Jesus loves the little children after all, or worse we don’t love the little children like Jesus does, because the argument we use to get the program is the one we have to overcome to get rid of it.
Or, once I’ve argued to my reluctant wife that failing to invite the neighbors over is violating the hospitality mandate of Sacred writ, I’ve placed her in an impossible position – do what her husband wants and please God, or violate the Bible.
Once I tell my kids that they can’t eat “unhealthy” food because their body is the temple of God, I’ve bound their consciences with cords that may not allow them to serve as missionaries in some place where all the pieces of the food pyramid may not be found, because God forbid they should be accused on judgment day of destroying God’s temple by means of neglecting their daily 8 servings of GMO-free vegetables and natural yogurt and crazy awesome vitamins.
Here it is in politics: the King-elect of Israel, (God having cast the only legitimate ballot in this case) David, was having some issues getting his transition team into place. The issue was this: Saul didn’t concede God’s election, and had no intention of relinquishing power, and wanted to kill David. One night, as Saul rested after a day of pursuing his successor in order to slaughter him, David and his friend Abishai sneaked into Saul’s camp and stood directly above the sleeping monarch. Abishai whispered this in David’s ear: “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time.”
If God delivered Saul over to death, is there any sort of reasoning that could keep David from giving Abishai the permission he wanted? This sort of “biblical” argumentation is sort of like blind men playing cards, each one claiming he has thrown down a trump card and won the game, without being able to see either his own cards or the other players’. The odds are, sometimes someone will actually put one down, perhaps by mistake, but as often as not, the argument over who really has a trump card and whose is higher will carry on, and the quarrel that was rooted in preference suddenly has massive doctrinal implications – the winner is holy and just, the loser is a rebel in need of repentance
David actually did have a trump card – Don’t strike God’s anointed. But I have to admit, if I’m David, Abishai’s argument is pretty strong.
The Bible actually is like a trump card – it is truth, and cannot be violated. But that doesn’t mean we can actually see it as clearly as we say we do. That is, we can’t always play it with the authority and confidence we think we can. We might pitch out a verse and think we’re playing Queen of spades, when in reality we’re playing the deuce of clubs. For an example, read the comments section after just about any article anywhere in the Christian world.
But the use of the text to persuade is powerful. Satan tried to play one of these trump cards with Jesus, remember? Satan quoted Ps. 91:
“’He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
That’s powerful argumentation – it is, after all, the Bible. “Hath God said?” has been an entirely valid, but very dangerous line of questioning since the beginning. Jesus trumped Bible with Bible, it’s true, and we can trust both David’s and Jesus’ reasoning to be correct. But that’s not always the case with my own reasoning.
Fleeing to the Bible is good and right – but potentially explosive and deadly. That’s why I find it interesting that there is no record of Paul and Barnabas running to the text to shore up their case. Rather than soak their position in spiritual sounding language and assorted quotations, they simply said how they felt – “I want to bring him…” “I don’t.”
I wish I argued that way more. I wish I didn’t assume I was always fighting from a bunker of Biblical truth, and therefore to move would be betrayal to the text. I wish I didn’t all too often think that anyone not in my bunker must have also betrayed the text. I wish like Paul and Barnabas I had the wisdom and security to say “this is what I think” and be okay with it if someone else disagreed, and if they did disagree, we could debate it at the level of our plain reason, rather than cover everything with such a thick layer of half-developed biblical principles and spiritual cliche’s that it becomes impossible to actually sort the thing out aside from convincing the other person they’re fighting against the word of God.
Not all quarrels have to end in repentance. I’m not sure this one in Acts 15 did.
Paul and Barnabas fought. It’s true. But I think the way they fought made it possible for both of them to walk away with the confidence that they were doing the right thing, without a Biblical authority for saying the other person was doing the wrong thing. And that kept them, I think, from assuming the other was somehow “in sin” or “in rebellion against God’s Word,” and paved the way for their future progress, success, and I have no doubt, reconciliation.
One more example, from Philippians 4:2-3a, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel…” This verse and a half is all we know about this infamous tift between these two unknown ladies who were privileged to serve alongside the Great Apostle. We don’t know what they were fighting about, or why. What we know is that they were out of “harmony” and Paul asked a mutual friend to help them put an end to the argument. Not to judge them and determine who was in sin and needed to repent. There’s nothing of the sort here, interestingly enough. Whether or not their quarrel was even explicitly sinful is undisclosed. Sure, everything we do from praying to eating a bowl of Cheerio’s is tainted in some way by sin, but that’s not the issue here. It’s not a matter of introspection, not a matter of seeing which gal has the best arguments from the text, or identifying which sins are present and need to be repented of. It’s far simpler and ultimately less complicated – just figure it out, with help from a friend if needed. No hyper-spiritual language or a plea for navel-gazing. Just figure it out and get over it. I think the point is that if Paul takes one side or the other, he apparently makes things worse in the end, by condemning one and vindicating the other. There’s no need for that. Just a friend to help them refocus on the “cause of the gospel.”
I presume (and have seen by experience) it’s easier to put an end to the fights if both parties aren’t glaring at the other one saying “repent in sackcloth and ashes of your sinful wickedness so we can be friends again.” I think Paul and Barnabas were probably able to function during their separation, and doubtless to continue with great respect for each other, because they never made appeal to an authority they couldn’t rightly claim. I can’t imagine Mark ends up working with Paul if Barnabas had spent years harping on the sinfulness of Paul’s unforgiveness. And Paul, for his part, could hardly have wanted Mark because he’d have likely felt Mark would have been entrenched in Barnabas’ sin of tolerance.
Maybe if we learned to fight these kinds of grayish battles over our metaphorical John Marks that way – in such a way that even if the conflict leads to separation, there’s not an authoritative condemnation from atop an unstable mountain of Text. That’s not to say that we don’t appeal to the text in a clear case – of course we do, and must, even as Jesus did. But perhaps in the gray things, this is what Paul has in the back of his mind when he says “each one must be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:5) He could have said, and I would have probably given him the unfortunate counsel to do, “Study the Scriptures and make your case from there, so you won’t be moved from Truth!” But he didn’t. “Make up your own mind and just leave it be. Leave other people the freedom to do so too, and come to a different conclusion” seems to be the essence of what he’s saying.
Where did he learn that? Perhaps from fighting with Barnabas. He made up his mind. So did Barnabas. They couldn’t immediately agree, so they slugged it out, got their feelings hurt, but walked away apparently without having fought their battle of the field on unchangeable truths of Scripture, so they avoided condemning the other person as sinful and thus useless for the sake of the Kingdom.
And that’s what I hope I’m able to learn to do, in such cases. And to those of you with whom I have improperly quarrelled by lambasting you with Bible when I had no right or standing to do so, and assumed the Bible was my authority when I was just a blind man playing a trump card – I’m sorry. Consider this my mea culpa.
photo credit to my dearest son, Jojo, whose staged Lego battles and the movies he makes of them, are, in this dad’s opinion, epic.