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What can we learn from the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas?

It’s a good question to ask and one to carefully consider; after all, they were doing the Work of God not long after Jesus was crucified and returned to heaven. In fact, this question is more important than we may, at first, think!

We know the process that true Christians have to go through when they are called by God. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, just 7 weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, Acts 2:38 states: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” It is not just a question of “giving your heart to the Lord” but a complete change of direction. We read that we are to “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13). The Authorized Version has here, more accurately, “But straight is the gate, and narrow is the way…”

It can sometimes be difficult to walk that narrow way towards the straight gate, and it can be difficult to understand why those who make such a life-changing decision may have problems with inter-personal relationships, from time to time, with others who are making the same journey. After all, they have all received the Holy Spirit of God to lead them in living a godly life, so how can there be difficulties?

First of all, we should consider three different scenarios in the New Testament, one of which is the heading of this Q&A — the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.

Paul and Barnabas were very good friends, not just casual acquaintances. We read in Acts 9:26-27 how Barnabas had been instrumental in convincing the disciples that Paul was genuine and no longer the persecutor of the brethren that he had previously been:

“And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.”

But they had a disagreement, as we read in Acts 15:36-41:

“Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.’ Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark.  But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work.  Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God.  And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”

We read in Colossians 4:10 that John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas and he was commended. However, he decided to return to his home in Jerusalem (Acts 13:13), but no mention is made about why he did that.  Many suggest that he did so because of his youth and personal weakness. William Barclay wrote in “The Acts of the Apostles,” under the heading, “The Deserter”:

“Mark was a very young man… Paul and Barnabas took him with them as their helper… but he turned and went home… When [Paul] set out on the second missionary journey Barnabas wanted to take Mark again but Paul refused to take the one who had proved a quitter (Acts 15:38) and he and Barnabas split company… over it. Then Mark vanished from history, although tradition says he went to Alexandria and Egypt and he founded the church there. When he re-emerged almost 20 years later he is the man who has redeemed himself… By the grace of God the man who was once a deserter became the writer of a gospel and the man whom, at the end, Paul wanted beside him.”

Later, under the heading, “Paul takes the road again,” Barclay says:

“It is impossible to say whether Paul or Barnabas was right. But this much is certain, Mark was supremely fortunate that he had a friend like Barnabas… It may well have been the friendship of Barnabas which gave Mark back his self-respect and made him determined to make good.”

We also read that later Mark is called by Peter “my son” (1 Peter 5:13). Mark was not Peter’s literal son; this is an expression of spiritual closeness—Mark was Peter’s son in the faith. Tradition has it that Peter dictated his letters to Mark to reduce them to writing.

This disagreement between Paul and Barnabas was not over any doctrinal matter, but it was a personal issue. From what we read, it didn’t seem to adversely affect the work that they were doing.

We read years later in 2 Timothy 4:11 that Paul wrote: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.”

The Bible says nothing about the future relationship between Paul and Barnabas, but it seems that in the end it all worked out. We can learn from this. We may differ at times about certain matters but that should never affect us in following the Way of God and the life we have been called to.

“Here we see an example of Christian leaders modelling good disagreement. Sometimes there are times where one can ‘agree to disagree’” (christiantoday.com).

The second example is where Paul took Peter to task, as we read in Galatians 2:11-15:

“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.  But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles…’”

In our booklet “Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” we read the following on pages 25-26:

“The truth of the gospel requires no separation between Jews and Greeks. All are to be ONE in Christ. God is not a respecter of persons, compare Acts 10:34–35; Romans 2:11; 1 Peter 1:17.

“But Peter set the wrong example. As it is stated in verse 12, he still feared those who were of the circumcision. The understanding prior to the conference in Acts 15 had been that a Jew was not to eat with uncircumcised Gentiles (compare Acts 10:28; 11:2–3). But God had revealed to Peter that that understanding was wrong and that it had no place in the Church of God.

“What does Paul mean, in verse 14, that Peter was compelling Gentiles to live as Jews?

“Peter was ‘compelling them’ by first sitting and eating with Gentiles—thereby living after the manner of Gentiles—but then separating from the Gentiles when Jews came, as IF there still WAS a separation and as if there still WAS a need for Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep all the Jewish rituals. That is, he was inducing them or coercing them to think that they should perhaps adopt those customs and be circumcised.”

Paul was accusing Peter of hypocrisy which was one of those sins committed frequently by the religious establishment at that time. Paul said that even Barnabas was affected or “carried away.” Peter should have known better, as we read in Acts 10:28: “Then he (Peter) said to them, ‘You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.’”

We do not read about Peter’s immediate reaction to Paul’s public rebuke (some suggested that Paul was a little bit overzealous in this matter and could have handled the situation a little bit differently), but it is obvious that they had the highest regard for one another in spite of this rather public disagreement, as we read in 2 Peter 3:15-16: “… and account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”

The third example is the story of the disciples arguing amongst themselves, as we read in Luke 22:24:

“Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest.”  In verses 25-27 Jesus corrects them: “But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.  For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.”  (Also see Matthew 18:1 and Mark 9:33.)

Pushing for position is not new; it is as old as the hills. Right from the dawn of civilisation man has wanted to be at the top table, the one calling the tune, the one who is in charge and the one that others can look up to. Even with the Saviour of mankind teaching them, their own carnality showed through although, again, there is no Scripture that shows that they didn’t co-operate in the Work they had to do after Christ’s ascension. They were a co-operative whole who worked for God and for each other.

God hates bickering between members of His Church. Let us review just a few Scriptures that highlight His view on people’s problems where human interaction is problematic.

James 4:1-2 says:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”

We read in 2 Corinthians 12:20:

“For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I wish, and that I shall be found by you such as you do not wish; lest there be contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults…”

Galatians 5:15 states:

“But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!”

An answer to difficult personal relationships can be found in Philippians 2:3-4:

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better [“more important,” New American Bible] than himself.  Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”

As Church members today, it is vital that we conduct ourselves in such a manner.   Jesus said in the beatitudes (blessings) in Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.”

Also, Ephesians 4:32 is important: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4:1-3 adds: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Over the years in this era of the Church of God, there have been many instances where brethren have fallen out with others by not resolving their issues with them. That particular procedure as to how to solve problems is covered in Matthew 18:15-17: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.  But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’  And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”

Unfortunately, this biblical instruction in resolving conflict and interpersonal problems has sometimes been ignored with “offended” brethren just leaving either their particular Church fellowship or the Church altogether.  It is a very sad state of affairs that, occasionally, a member may replicate the “waiting to be offended” mindset that is a mark of current society. The problem is that they can “infect” others and persuade them of the rightness of their situation and cause them to question their Church membership.

A few others, from time to time, can be argumentative which is certainly not what God expects of His people. Galatians 5:22-23 sums up perfectly what our approach must always be: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” When we implement this teaching, we will insulate ourselves against the wiles of the devil and happily remain in the true Church of God.

As the end of this age looms large, it behooves us all to forge close and strong relationships within the Church which should keep us in good stead as world problems increase and where membership of God’s Church will be a magnet for Satan’s further assault through worldly individuals. Leaving the Church must never be an option for any of us.

If they had inter-personal relationship problems in the New Testament Church, why should we believe that we won’t have them today?  The key is how we deal with them that matters.

In this context, we would do well to apply the following part of the model prayer that Jesus gave as we read in Matthew 6:12: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” If we do that, we will strive to reconcile any differences we may have with others, esteem others better or more important than ourselves and prayerfully and faithfully push ahead toward the Kingdom of God. With that attitude and mindset, we will give ourselves the best chance of making it into the wonderful world tomorrow.

And that, at all times, must be our goal!

Lead Writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)