Disagreements within the church can be painful and divisive. The Bible does not attempt to gloss over disagreements or pretend they never happen. In Acts 15:36-41 we see a painful disagreement (‘sharp disagreement’ has been translated by Tom Wright as a ‘huge row’) between Paul and Barnabas, which resulted in the pair splitting company and going in different directions on their next missionary journey. The issue which split them was Barnabas’s desire to take John Mark with them again on their journey to strengthen the churches and continue to spread the gospel, whereas Paul felt this would not be wise because he had deserted them on their previous journey.
It’s painful when we cannot agree amicably over disagreements to the extent that we feel we can no longer work alongside other Christians. It’s even more painful when we disagree over people (not just doctrine) and feel we can’t work alongside them anymore. Barnabas was more willing to give John Mark a second chance, possibly because, as his cousin, he knew him better than Paul, possibly because his encouraging nature had more tendency to believe the best. It’s not easy to work through the issues at stake and to show both respect and consideration when we disagree. Yet we are blessed to see beyond the immediate issues to the ultimate results in both the spread of the gospel and the restoration of relationships. Bengel points out that ‘out of one pair two were made.’ Barnabas and Mark went off to Cyprus to consolidate the work there and Paul took Silas (a Roman citizen) to revisit Syria and Cilicia and go much further. Tom Wright reminds us, ‘What the gospel message itself massively demonstrates is that God can take the greatest human folly and sin and bring great good from it.’ (‘Acts For Everyone Pt 2’, P 55) Rom 8:28 reminds us that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, and ultimately, we see that this happened here. Moreover, Paul was later to write very positively about John Mark, describing him as ‘helpful to me in my ministry’ (2 Tim 4:11), so dispute did not have the last word. Disagreement, as we saw previously in Acts 15, does not inevitably have to lead to division and disunity. God is able to heal rifts and bring about changes in our attitudes. What we need most of all is a willingness to forgive and to allow God to rebuild wholeness from our fractured, broken lives.