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Monday, August 29, 2022

An Honest Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas

For our last message in our series, I want to share a story from the New Testament when two Christian leaders parted ways.  The disagreement involved two heroes of the Christian faith—Paul and Barnabas.  And their dispute was about another Christian named John Mark, who probably wrote the Gospel of Mark that’s in your Bible.

Paul probably needs no introduction.  He was one of the giants of the Christian faith.  Paul, AKA Saul, was the greatest evangelist of the New Testament—maybe of all times.  Though Paul was not one of the original 12 Disciples who ministered with Jesus before the crucifixion, Paul was considered an Apostle because the resurrected Christ appeared to him and converted Paul from a persecutor of Christians to an evangelist who preached about Christ all over the world. Almost half of the books in the New Testament are attributed to Paul.

The average person knows a little less about Barnabas. Barnabas was one of the unsung heroes of the early Christian faith.  The first time we hear about Barnabas, he sold a field he owned and gave all the money to the apostles for the work of God’s Kingdom.  His real name was Joseph, but the apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement”. Barnabas lived up to his nickname.  Barnabas is the guy who vouched for Paul helped the other Christians accept him.  Remember, Paul started out as a terrible villain—persecuting Christians.

"When [Paul] arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer! Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how [Paul] had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to [Paul]. He also told them that [Paul] had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus.  So [Paul] stayed with the apostles and went all around Jerusalem with them, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord."  (Acts 9:26-28)

Paul and Barny’s 1st Mission Trip
Paul and Barnabas made a good team.  The Holy Spirit appointed them to go on a mission trip together, preaching about Jesus and converting people to Christianity.  John Mark, who was Barnabas’ nephew, went too.  Their trip was a huge success—converting many people to Christianity, including the governor of Paphos.

But something else important happened on their first trip.  About halfway through the trip, Barnabas’ nephew, John Mark, left them and went home (though Scripture doesn’t say why).  But Paul and Barnabas soldiered own and were very successful, but they also met resistance.  They were chased out of town by a mob in one city, had rocks thrown at them by a mob in another city, and Paul was nearly stoned to death in yet a third city. 

When they returned home, “they called the church together and reported everything God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, too” (Acts 14:27).  Paul and Barnabas continued to work together for some time as partners in ministry.

And that brings me to our Scripture for today and the disagreement I want to study.

Act 15:36-41
After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” 37 Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. 39 Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. 40 Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. 41 Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.

Paul and Barnabas Disagree
Paul and Barnabas were both good men—willing to put their life on the line to serving the Lord.  But they disagreed “sharply” about John Mark.  Paul didn’t want to take John Mark on the next trip, but Barnabas did.  The Scripture says John Mark had “deserted” them on the last trip.  Why, we don’t know.  Was he homesick?  Was he afraid?  Did he have some kind of disagreement with Paul or Barnabas’ leadership?  We don’t know.  All we know is the Scripture says John Mark “deserted” them about halfway through the trip and went home.

This, apparently, was an insubordination and betrayal Paul couldn’t accept.  He didn’t trust John Mark anymore.  Paul would not have him on the mission team.  For Paul, the mission to tell people about Jesus was too important to be entrusted to a wishy washy kid like John Mark who may get tired or scared or homesick and abandon the cause.  Paul would not have it.

Barnabas was more understanding.  John Mark was his nephew and Barnabas was also an encourager and mentor.  His spiritual gift was seeing the best in people and working to bring it out in them, despite failures and setbacks.  Barnabas saw John Mark’s potential, despite how he’d failed on the last mission trip.  Barnabas wasn’t going to give up on Mark.

So, Paul and Barnabas separated.  Paul chose a disciple named Silas to be his ministry partner and they went one direction.  Barnabas chose Mark and they went another direction. 
And the work of the Lord continued in both directions

Who was right? Who was wrong?  We don’t know.  The Scripture doesn’t say.
We do know this.  Later in life, when Paul is an older man and facing martyrdom, he asked Timothy to send him Mark because "he will be helpful to me in my ministry." (2 Timothy 4:11)

Conflict Resolution Through Separation
I don't know about you, but I don't like arguments and fighting.  I always want everyone together along. If I can be open and vulnerable with you (and you will indulge me in a little self-psychoanalysis), I think it has a lot to do with my childhood. I grew up in a household where my parents were always fighting.  There was a lot of screaming and verbal (and sometimes physical) violence.  That had an affect on me.  

I grew into an adult who really doesn't like conflict.  So, I always want people to get along. I'm often the peacemaker trying to break up arguments. Even if people have a mildly awkward moment of disagreement, I'm liable to crack a joke to try and soothe things over.  My nature is often to avoid conflict, even when there's an honest disagreement that needs to be worked out. 

Thankfully, I know this about myself and I've learned in 48 years that some disputes will never be resolved if you don't have the courage to address it up front.  Most of the time, working through a dispute leads you to a place of understanding and respect and a stronger, healthier relationship. 

Unfortunately, there is sometimes no resolution to be had.  Sometimes your differences are about core issues and compromise isn’t an option.  If you can’t agree to disagree and still stay together, then the best thing may be to part company like Paul and Barnabas.

Think about how this principle might apply in every day practical life.  It might be at your job.  Do you have a dispute with your coworkers, your boss, or even the philosophy of your company?  You may need to resolve it or else learn to live with it.  If you can't live with it, it may be time to find a new job.  

What about other conflicts in your life?  Do you have a dispute with your friends?  Is it in your marriage or romantic relationship?  It could be a difference of opinions in you church?  In these situations there are options.  One is to do nothing.  That only works if the issue is not serious or ongoing.  A better option would be to talk the issue out honestly and try to come to a resolution.  Having an objective third party meet together with the to disputing parties can sometime be helpful.  If no resolution is possible and you can't live with the disagreement, it may be time to part company.

The United Methodist Church is facing severe divisions in our denomination about core values of our people.  We have tried for 50 year to resolve our conflict, but have been unsuccessful.  One side in the UMC believes God wants the UMC to ordain practicing gay people as pastors and also perform same-sex marriages.  Another side says the Bible teaches homosexuality is contrary to God’s will and we must be faithful to Scripture.  After decades of arguing fighting, we’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that we have irreconcilable differences. Many bishops and denominational leaders have decided they will no longer abide y the denominations decisions or rules.  They are acting in ways many pastors and church members do not agree with and cannot live with.  A split is coming and is already happening.  

I have friends on both sides of the divide.  I plan to join the new Global Methodist Church as soon as it is feasible because I believe it is the most faithful path forward—and my calling as a minister is to be faithful to Christ as revealed in Scripture.  I am excited about the pitential for this new denomination to serve Christ.

I'm sad too, because I know I will have friends and colleagues I’ve worked alongside for 30 years who choose to stay in the UMC.  We will go our separate ways because our disagreements with one another are just as severe as that of Paul and Barnabas.  It breaks my heart, but unfortunately, it is necessary.

If you are a United Methodist too, I’m sure you also know people who disagree with you on this issue.  Maybe they’ve even questioned you about it.  (If they haven’t yet, someone probably will in the days ahead.)  You will undoubtedly find yourself with friends and colleagues and even family who were formerly in the same denomination as you and soon they will be in a different one. 

Multiplication Through Division
I know it’s sad, but I have a lesson from the garden that may give a bit of encouragement.  

I love garlic.  Garlic is one of the most common and useful ingredients in most cooking.  And there's nothing better than cooking with fresh garlic!  That’s why I started growing a lot of garlic in my garden a couple years ago. 

Garlic has a unique growing habit.  Rather than primarily propagating from a seed, garlic bulbs underground begin to divide an spawn new plants from the ground up.  If you've ever held a buld of garlic, your probably noticed inside may be 7 or more cloves of garlic.  Each clove is a potential new plant.  So from one bulb of garlic, you can potentially grow over 7 new garlic bulbs.  Garlic multiplies through division.

Paul and Barnabas separated, but their separation actually led to a multiplication for God’s Kingdom.
Sometimes God works through our disagreements and division.  What we see as division, God uses as a opportunity for multiplication.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we only had one worship service at my church.  When COVID struck,  we wanted to spread out more for social distancing.  So, we split our in-person worship into an early service and a regular service.  Plus, we added an online service for a total of three worship services.  After two and a half years, we have less concerns about overcrowding, but we still have the three services.  Sometimes it seems like there are fewer people in worship, because we look around and see less people sitting in the pews.  However actual average average worship per Sunday has increased.  (Our data is only for people in live worship and doesn't account for people who might watch the recorded service after it's over.)  So though the numbers may seem smaller, we've actually multiplied through division into three services.  My prayer would now be that all three services continue to grow in numbers.  (Wouldn't it be great if we needed to dive into four or more services?)

In the current UMC split, perhaps God will use the division to multiply the work of His Kingdom.  I trust God to take care of how it all turns out.  All I know to do is be faithful to what He is calling me to do and try to lead our church to do what I believe God wants us to do.  I trust God to work out all the rest.

What about your own life?  What divisions might you need to address?  What are you facing right now and what is God saying to you today?

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