As Christians, we are called to forgive. The New Testament tells us to live at peace with everyone to the best of our ability. But what happens when the best of our ability isn’t good enough? What are we supposed to do when we have done all we can on our end to bring peace, but it wasn’t enough to restore the relationship? What if it’s time to agree to disagree? Paul and Barnabas faced these questions in Acts 15. A strong disagreement led them to part ways. And while the Bible doesn’t give us a lot of details, there is actually a lot we can learn from their story.
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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 (emphasis added)
There isn’t always a “right” answer.
Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them on their missionary journey, but Paul felt like it wasn’t a good idea. And while the Bible doesn’t tell us why Barnabas wanted to take John Mark so badly, we do know why Paul didn’t feel it was a good idea. He had deserted them on a previous journey. Undoubtedly, Barnabas wanted to forgive John Mark and felt that his presence on the trip would be a blessing. They were cousins, after all. (Colossians 4:10) So who was right?
The truth is that there doesn’t always have to be a right answer. Both men had valid reasons for their choice, which is why their disagreement ended with them parting ways. In a way, they were both right in their arguments and concerns, so they ultimately agreed to disagree.
Forgiveness is a requirement, but working together is not… to a point.
The Bible calls us to forgive others the way God forgives us. That kind of forgiveness is unconditional and never runs dry. But Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree. They decided together that the best thing for the Kingdom of God (and each other) was to go their separate ways.
Does this mean they didn’t forgive each other in the argument? Of course not! In fact, we discover in verse 41 that Paul continues to spread the Gospel and strengthen the churches. God blessed their ministries even after parting ways, which may not have been the case had they both been harboring unforgiveness in their hearts towards one another. We also know that Paul speaks later of John Mark as “useful” in his ministry (2 Timothy 4:11) Obviously, Paul felt no ill will towards him in the end.
Another thing to consider is the fact that while these two parted ways in their ministries, they both still shared a common goal. They both desired to continue in ministry and spread the Gospel. They went different directions physically, but they were still working together spiritually.
God works all things together for His purpose.
Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement. Both felt that were right in their thinking. It is likely that the enemy had great plans for this fight. His intentions were probably to break up the team that was doing so much to advance the Gospel of Christ. But God had bigger and better plans. What the enemy meant for harm, God turned into a win for the Kingdom. One ministry team became two ministry teams!
So how can we apply these truths to our own lives today? The truth is that God’s ultimate desire is that we be united as the Body of Christ. It is by His design that we all work together towards the common goal of advancing the Kingdom. But God also knows that we are human. We won’t always see eye to eye on everything, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all agree to disagree and work together towards the common end goal.
Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways because that was the best thing for them to do in their particular situation. There will be times in our lives when we must cut ties with someone or something. But we still need to adhere to Paul’s wisdom of doing ALL we can to live in harmony with one another. And when all has been said and done, we ultimately must follow the Holy Spirit’s lead when it comes to a solution.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. – Romans 12:18
Paul and Barnabas parted ways, but they still shared a common goal… to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world.
*Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.