Paul, Barnabas and the Unity of Believers

By Timothy King

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. 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. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36, 41)

Traditionally, this passage has been interpreted as a scene of strife between Paul and Barnabas.  Matthew Henry calls it “a quarrel between two ministers.”  Jamison, Faucett and Brown, calling this episode a “sore evil,” show restraint in answering the question, “Which of these two servants of Christ was to blame in this case?”

The Geneva Bible offers this admonition gleaned from the incident: “. . . we have to take heed . . . that we do not let our anger overflow.”  F.F. Bruce says, “The story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas is not one that makes pleasant reading. . .”

You get the picture.

This passage has often been one of those proof-texts used by folks who want to justify division within the body of Christ.  “See,” they will say, “even Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree and go their separate ways.”  This is usually gratuitous spin to justify a church split.  I’ve actually heard a denominational leader use this text for exactly that purpose!

Is that the way we are to take this passage?  Obviously, with the lack of detail that Luke gives, we must read some things into the text in order to understand what was going on.  It is this approach that has Paul and Barnabas in a full-blown brouhaha.  But has there been misreading between the lines?  Has there been strife created in an event that is really more harmonious that thought?

Think about it.  After a monumental congress that was intended to promote not only doctrinal integrity regarding the gospel, but harmony between Jewish and Gentile believers, how then does it come about that we have a scene where it appears that two church leaders can’t get along with one another?  Is it consistent that they exhort the body of believers to unity, then turn around and separate in a fit of dissension?

Perhaps we could approach this episode with a fresh perspective.  Certainly we are compelled to draw our testimony of events leading up to Paul’s and Barnabas’ parting of ways by filling in gaps.  But maybe commentators have been slack in filling in those gaps and hence the “church split” between these two missionaries.  Please consider these thoughts regarding a new view on the way this might have gone down:

1. A quarrelsome rift between Paul and Barnabas would have been contradictory to what we find taught, at least by Paul.  When we read the teachings of Paul, what did he say about unity and harmony between Christian brothers?  What did he counsel others when they were at odds with one another?  Here are some of the things taught by Paul pertaining to relationships among brethren:

“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)

“Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Corinthians 13:11)

“. . . with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”(Ephesians 4:2, 3)

“Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel. . . “ (Philippians 1:27)

“. . . make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:2-4)

“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, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Philippians 4:2, 3)

“. . . bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” (Colossians 3:13, 14)

We could also cite and offer long exegesis of Romans 14:1-15:7 and 1 Corinthians 8, but I think you get the picture.  If Paul was a source of strife in his division from Barnabas, then he ought not to have cast the stone of “hypocrisy” at his friend in Galatians 2 since he was not without sin.  I think we need to approach the events of Acts 15:36-41 with the perspective that Paul had deep convictions regarding harmony and love between brethren.

2.  Their subsequent missions suggest a continued harmony in mind and purpose rather than hostile separation.  Their original intent was to “. . . return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”  Follow me carefully on this:

 a)  If you trace a map of their first journey, it took them west to the island of Cyprus and then north to the region of Pamphylia (where John Mark deserted them) and farther north to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.  At that point, they retraced their path back to the coast and sailed east to Syrian Antioch.

 b) When Paul left with Silas on the second journey, they went by land north and then east through Syria and Cilicia.  Their travels eventually took them to Derbe and Lystra where they had planted a church on Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas.  But what about the work to the south of that region, especially that on the island of Cyprus?  Why did Paul “skip” that area?

 c) We are told in the text that “. . . Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.” I think we could infer from this that rather than there being a split of unfriendly proportions, there was an agreement to divide the mission into two parts with harmony of intent.  While Paul and Silas covered Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (and pioneered regions farther west), Barnabas and Mark , as best we can tell, strengthened the brethren in Cyprus and perhaps any in the southern coastal regions of Pamphylia.

 Obviously, this does not in itself prove that there was no friction between the two missionaries.  It does, however, show that it was less likely that there was an I’ll-pick-up-my-toys-and-go-elsewhere mentality between the two.

3.  There is nothing conclusive in the language of the text that demands this encounter be unfriendly.  Nigel Turner in his Grammatical Insights into the New Testament makes a case for the language of vs. 37, 38 being less contentious than many have made it.  Interpreting from the Greek tenses, Turner suggests that Barnabas desire to take Mark along was more tentative than insistent.  Turner says it could be rendered “Barnabas had half a mind to” take Mark along.

The use of the imperfect tense by Paul for “insisting” could better be rendered “requesting.”  Had Barnabas and Paul exchange been more of a demanding nature, then the aorist tense would have been used (see p. 95).  Let’s block the scene from this perspective and see if we can’t portray a scenario less likely to give grounds for church splitters.

Barnabas: “Paul, I think it might be a good idea to take John Mark along with us.”

Paul: “I don’t know, Barnabas.  That last trip with us was pretty rough on him.  I can still remember how shook up he was when we got to Pamphylia.  Don’t you think you might be putting too much on the boy?”

Barnabas: “I really do see your point.  He almost broke there, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with him and I think he may be ready now for another crack at it.  He’s matured quite a bit.  I just have this burden for him that I can’t shake.”

Paul: “Son of Encouragement, as usual, aren’t you, my friend?  But I still have this burden that Mark’s still too tender.  I don’t think I can bear up if he failed in spirit again.  He might not recover.  No, brother; I don’t think he should come along.”

At this point, the text tells us that a “sharp disagreement” occurred between them.  This could be pointed out as illuminating a spirit of contention.  But must it?  The Greek word is paroxousmas (Strong’s 3948) and it certainly can have the connotation of stirring up trouble and strife.  However, it is not always strife that can be stirred up in this case.

The word is used one other time in the New Testament: “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24) It is the same word here translated “stimulate.”  Here the stimulation is to love and good deeds, not to strife and division.  Is there no way this could be the case with Paul and Barnabas here?

I’m not saying here that this was a time for them of some Pollyanna style love-fest.  They obviously had opposing opinions on this issue of John Mark.  But was their disagreement one that escalated into heated division or was it one that could have left them parting ways on friendly terms?  Could there have been a “stirring up” to resolve the issue in an agreeable manner?  Let’s continue the dialogue with this thought in mind:

Barnabas: “Paul, we are obviously at odds here.  I think Mark really is ready to be given a second chance and my spirit simply won’t let that go.  I cannot take this trip without Mark.”

Paul: “I am well aware of your compassion, brother.  It helped me greatly in those days soon after my conversion when the rest of the brethren would have nothing to do with me.  In my spirit, I cannot believe that young Mark is ready to go with us.  At the same time, I would not try to dissuade you from taking him along.  So what are we to do?”

Barnabas: “How about us dividing the mission between us?  I have family in Cyprus and Mark would feel at home there.  It would be a place where he could minister, but the pressure would not be so bad as to crush him. You can take Silas and go to the rest of the churches.”

(In case you’re wondering, I glean the idea of Barnabas having family in Cyprus from Acts 4:36 where it is said that he was “of Cyprian birth.”)

I know much of this is based on speculation, but no less so than those who would put Paul and Barnabas in heated, carnal conflict.  I do not want to hold this position dogmatically.  As I said, the position you take depends on what you read between the lines.  However, I think this view best harmonizes what we know about Paul, his teachings and the Spirit’s work promoting harmony in the church.

Granted, there still remain some questions about the episode and the history that follows.  But there are two passages that suggest that the split-up of Paul and Barnabas was not the end of their relationship or their ministry together.

In 1 Corinthians 9:6, Paul asks the Corinthians, “. . . do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?”  As 1 Corinthians is thought to have been written in the mid to late fifties (five to ten years after the events of Acts 15), we get the idea that these two were still laboring together in the ministry.

In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul requests of Timothy, “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” This has been a long-standing testimony of the spirit of encouragement that Barnabas had over Mark.  At one point, Paul is affected by Mark’s desertion in Pamphylia; at the writing of Timothy, Paul seeks Mark’s companionship, recognizing his usefulness for ministry.

Please consider these thoughts.  I am not trying to make the first-century ministers of gospel infallible.  But at the same time, we ought to give them more credit in this event that they would apply their own counsel on unity.  Above all that, we certainly need to take away any ground that someone might have to justify a church split.  I know; some are of such a nature that even if they don’t find biblical justification for strife, they’ll divide anyway.

Just don’t bring Paul and Barnabas in as supporters of your division.


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