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When Significant Contention Separates Close Companions

September 24, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 15:35–41

When Significant Contention Separates Close Companions – Acts 15:35–41

PRAY & INTRO: Coming right off the heels of a HUGE win for the church at large, where the leaders reach a clear consensus and communicate in a letter that guards the gospel, commands purity, and promotes fellowship among Gentile and Jewish Christians…

Paul and Barnabas, close companions in ministry, separate because they cannot agree. What do we do with this?

The author Luke is moving forward this theological history to the next phase of outreach ministry, and this section forms a bridge. It includes a substantial adjustment in Paul’s missionary team going forward, as well as recounting how they first revisited the churches where they had already been on their previous journey. Luke focuses straightforwardly on the facts. (But that doesn’t stop us from being perplexed and perhaps disappointed at the reality of this separation.) How should we understand what takes place, and what value might this transitional but consequential episode in Acts hold for our edification and application?

Acts 15:35–41 ESV

35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. 36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

We need to take a balanced view of this passage, admitting what we do not know and cannot say as being clear in the text. We must also have a balance to our application, realizing that many if not most of our disagreements do not fall into this category, but that it is possible that some issues we face could be like this.

To work through this passage, I’m going to ask us several questions that lead us through the main things that Luke is communicating, but also will highlight for us points of connection to our own lives and situations.

First of all then, the giant elephant in the room is this:

What could cause such disagreement between coworkers with a track record of close companionship and fellowship in ministry? 

(How might we know if contention is not primarily a result of our pride, our ignorance, or our insistence?)

-Let’s not forget the healthy history of these two men, plus the recent unified decision of the leaders in Jerusalem, plus their ongoing cooperation in ministry together and with others, even agreement on the major direction (thrust) of their next phase of ministry (v. 36). [Explain]

They have been excellent complementary teammates.

-But the contention arises over deciding whether or not John Mark is a suitable companion in the missionary work. - There is a sharp disagreement because who our closest companions are in ministry is no small thing.

Well, who’s right then? Well Barnabas is consistent with the kind of person he is and undoubtedly favors giving Mark a second chance to prove himself. But v. 38 indicates that Paul held deep concern over Mark’s previous withdrawing from them (can even carry the connotation of forsaking or desertion). Paul is referring to Acts 13:13 on their first missionary journey: Mark had not accompanied them in the work (has the connotation of closeness together in the work). Paul therefore thought it best… literally is a bit stronger: he did not consider worthy—to deem worthwhile, honorable, or right. Paul did not think it worthwhile, honorable, or right to take Mark alongside with them again on this trip.

I’m pretty convinced that we don’t know for sure who is right, or who is most right. From the way things shake out in Acts, there seems to have been great benefit and blessing to having Silas along as Paul’s primary companion. But from the way things turn out in the end, it would seem that Barnabas’s position clearly had merit as well (taking into account mentions of both Barnabas and Mark in Paul’s epistles, plus the obvious fact that Mark would author one of the Gospel accounts).  - Although Barnabas does not appear again in Acts, Paul would continue to speak of Barnabas with high regard (1 Cor 9:6). Also, later Paul and Mark seem to have reconciled (Philemon 24 Paul naming Mark as a companion in ministry), and much later, Paul would ask for Timothy (in his 2nd pastoral letter to his apprentice) to bring Mark “for he is very useful to me for ministry.”

So it is whether or not Mark should accompany them on the missionary team that leads to serious contention. Before we talk about the solution to this disagreement, I believe it is necessary to ask of ourselves… 

How might we know if contention between us is not primarily a result of our ambition, arrogance, ignorance, or insistence?

—>  The answer is in asking that very question of our own hearts and motivations, through dependent prayer and God’s word as mirror. If we’re not asking ourselves and other close confidants, “How am I sinning, how am I not listening? What are my motivations? (What is making me be so sure of my position?),” then we cannot know if we are handling this the right way.

As far as this particular situation between Paul & Barnabas in this text, we have no way of effectively weighing their motivations, so it’s pretty pointless to speculate beyond the straightforward facts Luke gives us. - It is the case that Mark is Barnabas’s cousin (Col 4:10), but it doesn’t seem fair to assume familial favoritism. It seems pretty consistent with Barnabas’s character to give someone another chance, relative or not.

It is also not fair to presume that either of them is holding a grudge from the past, resolved issue where Peter and come to Antioch and Paul had to rebuke him publicly for eating only with the Jews because he feared what they’d think of him if he had table fellowship with the uncircumcised Gentile believers. Even Barnabas got caught up in it and was led astray. (Gal 2:11-14) However, earlier in Acts 15 Barnabas was debating against the Judaizers alongside Paul. To the contrary, there is good reason to think he was in full joyful agreement with the present resolution, continuing to serve alongside Paul and others in Antioch.

- For us, we should posture ourselves this way: Never simply presume your motivations are pure. - Even if you acknowledge that your goal is God’s glory, to honor him, you must always be asking God (Psalm 139:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any grievous (or wicked) way in me”—any impure motivation, so that God will lead us in HIS everlasting way.

That sincere prayer from the heart of dependence on God will lead to at least two other things: 1. Seeking guidance from God’s word by His Spirit, and 2. Mutual dependence within the family of God—seeking the counsel and perspective of others in the Body of Christ. (We need the help of those around us to help us measure our motivations.) “If you heard yourself the way I’m hearing it, or if you observed the situation from where I’m standing, I think you would be concerned that your motives might not be as pure as you desire them to be and need them to be.”

I wish so badly that we had incontrovertible proof that Paul and Barnabas had done this—sought the help of their fellow leaders in Antioch and had come to this decision with their support and consent. The best we have is a hint and a reasonable suspicion from their pattern of behavior that they must have done so. - Barnabas and Paul had proven mutually submissive to this group of leaders in Antioch on previous occasions (Acts 13when they were commissioned and sent out as missionaries; and the beginning of Acts 15 when they were “appointed” to go up to Jerusalem), so it is reasonable to suspect similar behavior here. Plus, our text hints at this in v. 40 when it says that they departed, “having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.” (That sounds like cooperation and consent.)

I make this point to tell you that it is beyond unwise, truly foolish, to not seek counsel and listen well to those around us if they caution our motivation. By contrast, we ought to be able to trust them to concur with our conclusions.

So the answer to guard against false motives is to have a healthy doubt of your motives and to seek guidance by the Spirit from the Bible and honest input from fellow believers.

As we continue, I find it helpful to ask…

Why does separation become an acceptable solution to this disagreement?

(How might we know if a disagreement should lead to separation?)

-It is painfully evident that the sharp disagreement was the direct cause of their choice to separate from one another. [Reread v. 39a] The transitional word translated “so that” means “therefore” or “as a result.” They separated because of this sharp disagreement (a state of immense, emotional turmoil; especially expressed in words)—an intense argument that they couldn’t resolve.

Are not these guys church leaders and men of God who should be able to work this out? The fact is, they couldn’t come to an acceptable arrangement that kept them together. The acceptable solution (perhaps the only solution?) was to separate into two teams. - We should admit that this solution undoubtedly generates sadness for Barnabas and Paul. (Although Luke sticks to the facts, he doesn’t present this as “ok, no big deal.” Nope, because they couldn’t agree, they separated.

And evidently it was an option to separate. In other words, they decided that Barnabas could take Mark and go back to check on the churches in Cyprus. And Paul was content to choose another partner whom Paul had recently observed as man of proven worth. (15:32 & 22b)

How might we know when separation is an acceptable (or the best) solution?

On occasion the disagreement isn’t because of wrong motivation, but because we care deeply about ministry for God and are passionately concerned for the people involved. And sometimes (perhaps often) our evaluations of what is best in a given situation are subjective. Much of the time, then, we should actually submit to the prevailing wisdom of the leadership team deciding together (Ac 15:6-33), so long as that direction is in accordance with God’s word.

But sometimes in such a situation, ministry decisions are being made that bring us to a crossroads. When we can’t find a God-honoring solution that keeps us together, or when the prevailing wisdom of leadership prayerfully determines the same, then we might prayerfully agree to separate. Or you might say that there is not a healthy solution that keeps us together in a way that helps to advance the gospel and promote the growth of believers in the most helpful way, then separation might be the solution.

We could be too quick to go this route, just to avoid the difficulty and awkwardness of working it out. Or because one or more of us just doesn’t want to be submissive to leadership.

We might also feel like the only spiritually mature thing to do and the only thing that pleases God is for us to MAKE it work. But the example of this passage indicates for us that there are times when the wisest thing to do is to separate. Again, this must be done with right motivation, and not bc one of us is disobeying God’s word, and not just fleeing a hard situation or fleeing bc we don’t like a decision that was made.

Separating ministries might be the best solution when agreement does not seem plausible. In such a case, we prayerfully trust God to use us in new ways. And that concept of God’s continued work is what I want to turn to next.

As unsettled as we are over Paul and Barnabas separating, is there indication that God overrules and sovereignly orchestrates His plan?   

-immediate impact —> Barnabas and Mark revisit Cyprus, and Paul and Silas go by land back through Syria and Cilicia. Silas is an ideal partner for Paul in this phase of ministry: Look at 16:4. Silas proves an idea traveling companion for Paul because he is a fellow Roman citizen (Acts 16:37).

-long-term benefits ministry benefits *** (already spoke on most of these)

At such a crossroads, what might allow us to separate peaceably and with peace in our hearts?

Mutual respect and trust in God’s providence...

We hold our endeavors to please God and serve him with trusting hearts and open hands. [Explain]

How well we work together is no small thing (especially in terms of our own hearts before God and our present ministry for him). And we believe in the sovereign orchestration of God, in his perfect knowledge and authority and ability to weave our lives into the grand tapestry of his purposes. If we are aligned in our aim for gospel proclamation, and not motivated by prestige and power, then we can continue to serve together in peace or separate in peace, trusting in God’s providential work to orchestrate his plan.

Concluding review/application:

The Rare Case of Agreeing to Disagree and Separating

We’re going to have disagreements. We’ll have disagreements because we are sinners, we’ll have disagreements because we see things differently, and because we have different experiences, convictions, and so on. We might even on rare occasion have disagreements that are pretty significant and we can’t seem to reach solution.

Most of the time, our solution ought to be to agree in the Lord. - Philippians 4:2-3

2 I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Agree in the Lord. Don’t make this about yourself and about hurt feelings and about differences of opinion or preferred ways to approach things. Let those around you help you to agree in the Lord. Talk to one another—confess sin, forgive, and clear the air. Prefer one another above yourselves.

If we must separate, we’ll do so because we have consulted God’s word, consulted our trusted Christian advisors, and we believe we still have God’s blessing to trust him to use us as we move forward.



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