In this writing, we will examine the means by which we may avoid unnecessary [and unfruitful] alienations among and between believers, especially disagreements grounded in equally sincere convictions about what is holy, proper, and wise in a particular instance or course of action.
These differences arise due to differences in understanding or discernment, are wholly expected and normal to our Christian walk, and are permissible by God. They need not derail our focus upon Christ or become bitter roots that poison the body of Christ by creating offenses and divisions.
While Satan has no power to create such disagreements, he does attempt to use such occasions to gain access to the hearts and minds of believers (1 Peter 5:8).
However, even when this does not occur, differences in conscience in one area among believers can prevent believers from working together in other ways that are wholly desired and approved by God, leading to divisions by practice that undermine the cause of Christ and misrepresent the nature and character of God to the world.
We cannot be both wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove unless we avoid the pitfalls of bitterness and isolation (Matthew 10:16).
Of course, there certainly are alienations that occur in believers lives for wholly understandable and proper reasons, as the following circumstances exemplify:
Ordained divisions, authored by God, which are simply a revealing of who is and is not of Christ. The condemnation that falls upon Christ, subsequently (through our close alliance to Him), falls upon us also (Romans 15:3). The children of disobedience has nothing in common with children of light (Ephesians 2:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 5:5):
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-36).
Alienations that occur due to offenses which occur in the hearts of others, as a consequence of our determination to follow Christ, obeying the call of His kingdom:
And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:59-60)
Alienations that occur when a believer turns away from God. These are our most difficult alienations, which come as betrayals:
For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company. Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them. (Psalms 55:12-16)
However, there are also times when a lack of understanding, knowledge, and wisdom leads to unnecessary disputes among friends: this is the case in the example that the Lord gives us of an alienation among friends in the lives of Paul, Mark, and Barnabas.
Originally, these brothers were co-laborers in a missionary work, joined together by God through the Holy Spirit’s bequest and unction (Acts 13:1-3). However, in the midst of their journey, one brother [John, also called Mark] departs from the work (Acts 12:25, 13:13). Apparently, Paul is at odds with Mark’s decision [perhaps, considering it premature or a desertion of the trio and the work of God]. Consequently, when Paul and Barnabas are later preparing to embark upon another, similar mission, a disagreement arises between the two:
And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do. And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; and Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches. (Acts 15:36-41)
Notice, the disagreement is so “sharp” that they can no longer function together as co-laborers in the work of God. This is despite all of the following facts:
- Paul was completely committed to the work of God. This was the man willingly gave up his body as a living sacrifice, saying, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church,” (Colossians 1:24).
- Barnabas was completely committed to the work of God. He sold all of his possessions and gave his money to the body of Christ for support of his brothers and sisters; he held nothing back from God (Acts 4:32-37). It was Barnabas who bore witness on Paul’s behalf to Jerusalem believers and convinced them of Paul’s conversion, giving proof of his ministry (Acts 9:27-28). The Lord chose him [because he was a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and faith] to encourage the new saints at Antioch (Acts 11:20-24). Like Paul, he functioned as a teacher, prophet, and apostle (Acts 11:26).
- Moreover, these brothers were called together by God for the work of Christ’s ministry, as Barnabas was inspired to seek Paul’s assistance in ministering to the new believers at Antioch where they worked together for an entire year (Acts 11:25-26).
Barnabas and Paul were intimately acquainted, as brothers in the faith and followers of the Lord Jesus, faithful in all points, and approved by other faithful brethren.
Yet, despite their long and trusted association, they were willing separate rather than violate their convictions–for Barnabas was unwilling to desert Mark–and Paul was unwilling to embark upon the work with Mark.
Who then was at fault?
Moreover, why doesn’t God give us more information concerning the details of Mark’s departure; why do we have no indication of whether it was Barnabas or Paul who was in error?
Here’s what we do know:
- Several years later, while writing to the saints at Corinth, Paul uses Barnabas as an example of faithful service to God, esteeming him as an elder in the faith (1 Corinthians 9:1-6).
- Some 12 years after their disagreement, Paul heartily commends Barnabas in his letter to the Colossian saints (Colossians 4:10) and notes Mark also as a faithful companion.
- Prior to his death [when he knows he will be executed–2 Timothy 4:6], Paul makes an extraordinary request of Timothy: “Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry,” (2 Timothy 4:11). What is all the more striking is the context in which Paul’s request is made: “For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica … ” (2 Timothy 4:10). Why would Paul turn to Mark for support in the midst of his difficulty, given their past association in Pamphylia and the pain of Demas’ defection? Apparently, a full reconciliation had taken place between them.
- There is no evidence in the scriptural record of Paul ever denouncing Barnabas, calling his faith into question, or denouncing his spiritual walk [practice]. This is particularly striking, given that Paul was willing to withstand the other apostles to their face (Galatians 2:12).
- Moreover, there is no evidence in the scriptural record of Barnabas ever questioning Paul’s heart.
- Notice, the disagreement between the two centered on discernment, not doctrine. They simply disagreed on the basis of personal conscience and determined to act upon those convictions without sowing discord into the body of Christ.
There is a lesson in all of this for the body of Christ.