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Acts 15.36-41; 16.1-5 Notes


A. Paul and Barnabas Split - The contention over John Mark.

1. (Acts 15:36) Paul suggests that he and Barnabas return to all the cities where they planted churches in the first missionary trip.

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."

  1. And see how they are: This shows Paul had a real pastor's heart. He was not content to merely plant churches without seeing them carefully nurtured and growing in the faith.

  2. Paul had the heart of both an obstetrician (bringing people into the body of Christ) and a pediatrician (growing people up in the body of Christ).

2. (Acts 15:37-41) Paul and Barnabas divide over the issue of taking John Mark with them.

37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.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.

  1. John called Mark: John Mark had previously left the missionary party under less than honorable circumstances (Acts 13:13). This probably made Paul unwilling to trust him on future endeavors.

  2. Barnabas was determined ... But Paul insisted: Luke does not give us a clue as to who was "right" and who was "wrong" between Paul and Barnabas. But it is never good when personal disputes flare up among those serving in the ministry.

    1. Then the contention became so sharp: Wherever there is sharp ... contention, someone is wrong, and usually there is wrong on both sides. There can be no way both Paul and Barnabas were each walking in the Spirit on this issue!

    2. The relationship between Paul and Barnabas was probably also strained when Barnabas sided with the Judaizers in Antioch when Peter came to visit (Galatians 2:13).

  3. Since Barnabas was John Mark's cousin (Colossians 4:10), and because Barnabas had such an encouraging, accepting character (Acts 4:36, 9:26-27), it is easy to see why he would be more understanding towards John Mark.

  4. They parted from one another: So, Paul (accompanied by Silas) and Barnabas (accompanied by Mark) split, each going out to different fields of ministry.

    1. It is hard to know if their personal relationship was strained for a prolonged period. As Christians, we are commanded to resolve relationship problems with others before we present ministry to God (Matthew 5:23-24). It is always wrong to step over people in the name of ministry, and when it happens it must be made right.

    2. There is no doubt God used this division; but this can never be casually used as an excuse for carnal division. God can redeem good out of evil, yet we are all held accountable for the evil we do, even if God ends up bringing good out of the evil. Either Paul or Barnabas - probably both - had to get this right with God and each other.

    3. "But this example of God's providence may not be used as an excuse for Christian quarreling." (Stott)

  5. Later, Paul came to minister with John Mark and to value his contributions to the work of God (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11). We don't know if it was Mark who changed or Paul who changed. Probably God had a work to do in both of them!

  6. Strengthening the churches: This was Paul's ministry, in addition to evangelism. New Christians needed strong churches to grow and mature in.

B. From the city of Derbe to Troas.

1. (Acts 16:1-5) At Derbe and Lystra.

1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers[b] at Lystra and Iconium.Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.

  1. Paul began this missionary journey having come from Antioch. First, he did the work of strengthening the churches through the regions of Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:40-41).

  2. Then he came to Derbe and Lystra: Now he arrives in Derbe, where he had great success on his first missionary journey (Acts 14:20-21), and in Lystra, where a crowd tried to honor Paul and Barnabas as pagan gods on the first missionary journey (Acts 14:8-20).

    1. The first missionary journey finished about five years before the events of this chapter. Paul was anxious to see for himself how the work of the Lord continued among these churches he founded five years before.

  3. A certain disciple was there, named Timothy: In the time since Paul had been to Lystra, a young man named Timothy had been serving the Lord (He was well spoken of by the brethren). Timothy had a believing mother with a Jewish background (son of a certain Jewish woman who believed), but an unbelieving Greek father.

    1. The last time Paul was in Lystra, they first worshipped him as a god and then tried to kill him by stoning (Acts 14:11-20). Paul's courage and wisdom in the face of these obstacles built a great legacy in people like Timothy.

  4. Paul was impressed enough with Timothy that Paul wanted to have him go on with him. This shows God's provision, because John Mark and Barnabas just left Paul (Acts 15:36-41). No single worker in God's kingdom is irreplaceable. When a Barnabas leaves (for whatever reason), God has a Timothy to go on with him.

  5. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews in that region: Paul had Timothy circumcised, not for the sake of his salvation (Paul would never do so) but so there would be less to hinder ministry among the Jews.

    1. "By Jewish law Timothy was a Jew, because he was the son of Jewish mother, but because he was uncircumcised he was technically an apostate Jew. If Paul wished to maintain his links with the synagogue, he could not be seen to countenance apostasy." (Bruce)

    2. In Acts 15, Paul argued strongly that it was not necessary for converts to come under the Law of Moses for salvation. At the time Paul met Timothy, he was delivering the news of this decree which came out of the Acts 15 council (as they went through the cities, the delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem). So why is Paul telling Timothy to be circumcised? Doesn't this contradict the decree which was determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem? Not at all. Paul would have never told Timothy to become circumcised for the sake of legalism. But Paul would do things for the sake of love that he would not do for the sake of trying to please God through legalism.

  6. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily: Paul's work was successful because his first interest was in strengthening the churches. Strong churches will naturally increase in number daily, without relying on carnal and manipulative methods.


For our instruction in these matters, Luke honestly reports a clash that occurred between two great men of God, Paul and Barnabas. Frankly, it's not a pretty picture. I wish that he reported that they both repented of their anger and asked forgiveness of one another, but he does not. I assume from a few later brief references that that did happen, or at least that there was no lingering bitterness. But the clash led to a rupture in the close working relationship between these two godly men. Barnabas here passes off the record of Acts. Both Paul and Barnabas must have grieved over this in the years after this incident. The lesson for us is that ...

Christians must be diligent to maintain unity and to continue serving the Lord in spite of personality clashes.

I want to make four observations about our text:

1. Spiritual maturity does not erase personality differences.

We often naïvely think that if we all were just spiritually mature, we would never clash with one another. I agree that generally our clashes should be less frequent and less severe in proportion to our spiritual maturity. But until we are perfectly sanctified in heaven, I'm afraid that the little ditty will always be true,

To dwell above with the saints we love, O that will be glory. But to dwell below with the saints we know, well, that's a different story!

Note three things about the men involved in this clash:

A. Personality clashes can arise between men who share the same basic theology.

Paul and Barnabas had just come away from the Jerusalem Council, where the core issue of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone had been affirmed. Both men firmly agreed about this and other central doctrines of the Christian faith. But their personalities clashed over a practical matter of ministry, whether to take Mark along on the second journey.

B. Personality clashes can arise between men who are godly and committed to the cause of Christ.

Paul and Barnabas were not new believers. Both men had walked with God for years. They were both fully committed to doing the will of God, no matter what the cost. They had risked their lives for the sake of Christ (15:26), and yet they clashed.

C. Personality clashes can arise between men who have served together for years in the cause of Christ.

Paul and Barnabas had a long history of serving together. It was Barnabas who had gone to Paul and listened to his testimony when every Christian in Jerusalem was holding him at arm's length. It was Barnabas again who went to Tarsus to look for Paul and brought him back to labor with him in the ministry at Antioch. The two men had been set apart and commissioned together to go out on the first missionary journey. On that historic mission, they had suffered together for the cause of Christ.

Also, this clash erupted out of godly concern on Paul's part to revisit the churches that they had seen God establish on that first journey, to see how they were doing in the Lord. Both men had a heart for the wellbeing of the churches. And yet these two teammates, who had labored together and suffered together for many years in the cause of Christ, clashed. Spiritual maturity does not erase personality differences that can lead to strong clashes.

2. Personality differences can lead to personality clashes that can cause us to sin.

The question always comes up, "Who was right in this clash?" Since Luke, who was obviously close to Paul, did not blame Barnabas or Paul, we need to be careful. The slight nod goes to Paul as being right, since it is stated that the brethren commended Silas and Paul to the grace of God, but nothing is said about Barnabas and Mark, except that they sailed away to Cyprus.

In light of the rest of Scripture, I think we can say that both men were right, but also, both men were wrong. Paul was right in that he was a rugged pioneer, venturing into enemy stongholds, and he didn't need someone on his team who would run in the heat of the battle. He needed committed warriors who would not flinch in the face of hardship and adversity. Mark had not proven himself to be such a man. He should not have gone with Paul.

Barnabas was right in that he saw the undeveloped potential in Mark, and he wanted to extend God's grace to this young man in spite of his earlier mistake in deserting the cause. History proved him right, in that Paul himself later told the Colossian church to welcome Mark (Col. 4:10). In his final imprisonment, Paul told Timothy to pick up Mark and bring him with him, because he was useful to Paul for ministry (2 Tim. 4:11). So Barnabas' efforts to reclaim Mark for the cause paid off. Both men were right.

But, also, both men were wrong, and I believe they fell into sin in the way they dealt with this disagreement. They both stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to give in at all to the other man's point of view. I'm sure that they both would have said that they were standing on a matter of principle. But they could have graciously agreed to disagree and have parted ways in a spirit of mutual respect. Instead, they had a "sharp disagreement."

Paul uses the verb form of the Greek noun translated "sharp disagreement" in the great love chapter, where he states that love "is not provoked" (1 Cor. 13:5; see also Acts 17:16). At the very least, Paul and Barnabas were very provoked with one another. I think that we're not going too far to say that both men crossed the line into sinful anger. Neither man was following Paul's later directive, to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience toward one another (Col. 3:12). It may have been God's will for the two men to separate, but it was not His will for them to separate through a heated quarrel.

Two practical observations here:

1) A person's greatest strengths are often the area for his greatest weaknesses.

Paul's strength was his resolute commitment to follow Christ no matter what the cost, and to stand firm in his convictions. He even publicly confronted a powerful man like Peter. You could beat Paul, throw him in prison, stone him, or whatever, but you couldn't stop him from proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified as the only way of salvation. Paul's weakness was his inability to accept and work with a weaker man, like Mark, who had potential, but just wasn't there yet. Paul's later comments regarding Mark, as well as other Scriptures that he wrote (e.g., Rom. 15:1, 7) show that he overcame this weakness.

Barnabas' greatest strength was his ability to encourage the fainthearted and help the weak. He was the champion of the outsider and fringe person. He knew how to show grace to those who had failed. But he erred on the side of showing grace to those who needed to be confronted. As Paul mentions in Galatians 2:13, even Barnabas was carried away with the hypocrisy of Peter and the other Jews who withdrew from eating with the Gentile Christians out of fear of offending the Judaizers.

So the lesson is, know yourself. Where, by God's grace, are you strong and gifted? Exercise that strength for His glory. But also, be careful, because your strength may lead you into sin if you are not on guard. A man who is strong in discernment can easily become judgmental. A man who is strong in accepting others can easily err by tolerating serious sin or doctrinal error.

2) Since God always uses imperfect instruments in His service, we should not put too much trust in men, but in God, who alone is perfect.

You cannot find two more godly, dedicated servants of Jesus Christ than Paul and Barnabas, and yet here they are, clashing with one another. Noah was the most righteous man on earth, and yet after God's deliverance through the flood, he got drunk and shamefully exposed himself to his son. Job was the most righteous man in his day, and yet he wrongly contended with God for afflicting him. David was a man after God's heart, and yet he fell into terrible sin. As Solomon lamented, there is no man who does not sin (1 Kings 8:46). While there is a proper place for trust in the leaders that God puts over us, there is an improper trust that elevates them too high. If we are trusting in men rather than in the Lord Himself, we will be shaken when those men let us down.

Also, the fact that God uses imperfect men and women in His service should encourage all of us to get involved in serving Him. As long as we are not tolerating known sin in our lives, He can and will use us in His purpose in spite of our imperfections.

3) Christian unity does not mean that we all must work closely with one another, but rather is a matter of shared life and shared light.

There is a lot of muddled thinking about Christian unity. Some try for organizational union, but if you have any knowledge of the World or National Councils of Churches, you know that organizational union means nothing. Others try to get all the churches together for a unity worship service. They argue, "They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrinal agreement." But they ignore that Jesus also said in the same context, "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth" (John 17:17). There can be no true unity with those who deny the core truths of God's Word.

Unity does not mean that we all have to work closely with one another. While we need to be careful not to go our separate ways too quickly, without working through differences, there are times when two strong leaders need to recognize that God is calling them to different spheres of service. Any parting of ways should be done in a spirit of mutual respect and without bitterness or acrimony. While I wish that there was some word here about Paul and Barnabas patching things up before they parted ways, at least later Paul did speak in a supportive way of both Barnabas and Mark (1 Cor. 9:6; 2 Tim. 4:11).

Unity does not mean that we all have to agree on every doctrinal or practical matter. As I mentioned several weeks ago, there are a few core doctrines that every Christian must hold to or he is denying the faith. But there are many issues where godly Christians, committed to the Scriptures, disagree. We must be charitable toward one another on these matters. And, there are many differences over the methods we use to do the Lord's work. We should seek to follow biblical methods. We aren't free to do things without biblical warrant. Some methods are so unbiblical that they deserve criticism. But as with doctrine, godly men disagree over which methods are biblical. We must be charitable toward those whose methods we do not agree with, even though we could not work closely with them.

The Bible recognizes two kinds of unity. In Ephesians 4:3, Paul mentions the unity of the Spirit, which he says we must be diligent to preserve. This implies that it is a spiritual fact, based on shared life in Jesus Christ. If a person has been born again into the body of Christ, then we are members of one another, and we must be careful not to damage that unity. Then, in verse 13, he mentions the unity of the faith, which he says we are to attain to as we mature in Christ. This is the oneness of shared light regarding biblical truth. It is the fellowship that deepens as we mutually grow to understand and love the great doctrines of the faith.

I might add that we need the Lord's wisdom in picking compatible teammates in ministry. Paul was wise to choose Silas, a man endorsed by the Jerusalem church, who could back up Paul in delivering the decisions of the Council to the various churches. Silas was a Roman citizen, as Paul was, which was to their advantage in ministering in cities under Roman jurisdiction (Acts 16:37 ff.). He was a gifted prophet who could boldly proclaim God's truth in a way that encouraged and strengthened believers (15:32). While no two men see eye to eye on everything, there should be a basic compatibility in approach to ministry.

We've seen that spiritual maturity does not erase personality differences. Such differences can lead to clashes that cause us to sin, if we're not careful. Christian unity does not require that we all work closely, but rather shared life and shared light in the Lord.

3. We should not let personality clashes cause us to quit serving the Lord. The work of Christ is greater than any one of us, and we should keep on serving Him even if we've had a clash with another Christian. Neither Paul nor Barnabas let this clash stop them from serving the Lord. They didn't even take a time out. Instead of one missionary team, now in the providence of God, there were two. Also, we do not read, "Paul was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, telling all the churches how wrong Barnabas was." Rather, he went around strengthening the churches (15:41). There is no indication that Paul and Barnabas became rivals or competed with each other after this. Both men were committed to know Christ in a deeper way and to proclaim Christ to every person. As I said, every time after this that Paul mentions Barnabas or Mark, he does so in a kind and supportive manner. Sometimes it is necessary to warn other Christians about someone who is unethical or whose doctrine is off base. Paul did that on occasion. But our main emphasis needs to be on proclaiming Christ, not on hauling out our complaints against others to vindicate ourselves and to run down the other person.

Conclusion - When you face a personality clash with another Christian, as you surely will, try to disengage your emotions and objectively think through the answers to these four questions:

1) What is the real nature of the difficulty? This is not an easy question to answer, but you must face it as honestly as possible. We all need to be careful here, because we have a built in tendency to push personality differences into the realm of doctrine or sin. It sounds far more spiritual to say that the other person is doctrinally off base or that he sinned against me than to admit that his personality grates on mine. It is especially difficult because our feelings usually get hurt in these situations. Sometimes a more objective third party can help us work through these matters (Phil. 4:2-3).

2) Is there an important biblical principle at stake? Again, be careful here! Is there more than one principle that applies? I can hear Paul quoting Jesus: "No one after putting his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God." And, Barnabas probably countered, "Yes, but God is the gracious God of the second chance. Look at Jonah. Look at Peter. Mark deserves a second chance." Both men had Scripture to back up their opposing views! Sometimes, because of personality differences, one man elevates one biblical principle, while the other man elevates a different biblical principle. Sometimes in such cases, if the principle is basic to one's approach to ministry, it may be better to agree to work separately. Some of you may be thinking, "What if you can't separate from the person that you clash with because you're married to him (or her)?" That leads to the third question you need to ask:

3) What godly character qualities is the Lord trying to develop in me through this clash? Sometimes God in His grace (and in His sense of humor) throws us together with people who grate against us in order to sandpaper our rough edges. Let's face it, I don't need patience, forbearance, gentleness, and kindness when the other person sees everything my way! I don't need to learn to deny myself when the other person thinks that I'm a wonderful guy. But when there is a clash, God often confronts me with my selfishness and stubbornness. If I submit to Him and don't bail out of the difficult relationship, He will use it to develop those Christlike qualities in me.

4) Would the cause of Christ be furthered or hindered by my continuing to work closely with this person?

In the case of two Christians who are married to one another, it would not further the cause of Christ to divorce over incompatible personalities. They need to learn to appreciate one another's strengths, to affirm each other in love, and to agree to disagree over certain matters of daily life. Divorce harms the work of Christ. In the case of Christian workers, if they can learn to affirm one another's strengths, the beauty of the body of Christ can be demonstrated through their working relationship. God gives us differing gifts, and the hand has no right to reject the foot because it is not a hand (1 Cor. 12:12-30). But, there are times where two workers have to spend so much time ironing out matters between them that it hinders their getting on with the work of the ministry. At such times, it is probably better to seek different spheres of service in a spirit of mutual respect and affirmation.

The British admiral, Lord Nelson, once came on deck and found two of his officers quarreling. He whirled them around, pointed to the enemy ships, and exclaimed, "Gentlemen, there are your enemies!"

When we face personality differences in the church, we need to be diligent to guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We need to seek to work out our differences if possible in a spirit of love and kindness. If we must part ways, we should continue serving the Lord and not let the enemy get us to attack those whom God has given different personalities than He has given us.


It's easy to fall into routine Christianity, where we function in the flesh instead of walk in vital dependence upon God's Spirit. One of the main lessons of the Book of Acts is that the expansion of the early church was due to the working of the Holy Spirit. He was directing, moving, and empowering the apostles as they responded to His leading. If we want to see God working today in a similar fashion, we need to fight routine Christianity and rather, seek daily to submit to and follow the sovereign Spirit. The message of our text is,

Since the Holy Spirit is sovereign over His work, we must seek to follow Him as we labor for the Lord.

The text assumes that we, with Paul and Silas, are already seeking first God's kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33). If you are not living with that focus, you need to stop and confess it to the Lord, and yield yourself in obedience to His will for your life. Undergirding and woven through our text is the fact that the Holy Spirit is sovereign, and these men were obediently following His lead as they sought to do His work. There are four lessons:

1. The sovereign Spirit leads us to the right workers (16:1-2, 10).

We read that Paul came to Derbe and to Lystra (16:1). That was a radically courageous thing to do! Lystra was where Paul had been stoned, dragged out of the city and thrown on the garbage heap as dead. If I were he, I would not be inclined to go back to Lystra. But here, where he had suffered so terribly, and while he was still grieving over the falling out with Barnabas, God graciously brought into Paul's life this young man, Timothy, who would become like a faithful son to Paul.

Timothy's mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois (2 Tim. 1:5) were Jewish women who had become believers in Jesus Christ. Although Timothy's father was an unbelieving Greek, these women had taught Timothy the Scriptures from his childhood (2 Tim. 3:15). On Paul's first visit to Lystra, these women and the young Timothy had gotten saved. By Paul's second visit, Timothy, who would have been in his late teens or early twenties, had established a good reputation among the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Just as witnessing the stoning of Stephen had made an indelible impression on Paul, so watching Paul get stoned had made a profound impression on young Timothy. As a result, he had resolved to follow Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost. So now Paul saw Timothy's commitment and invited him to join the missionary team. It was the start of a lifelong and life-changing friendship.

Not only Timothy, but also Luke soon joined the team. In verse 10, the first of the "we" sections of Acts begins. It ends at the end of chapter 16, as Luke stays in Philippi to shepherd the new church there, while the team moves on. It resumes again, six or seven years later, in 20:5 and runs to the end of Acts. Luke, the beloved physician, a Gentile, became a faithful worker with Paul.

These new relationships did not happen by chance. The Lord knows that we need fellow Christians of a kindred spirit to encourage us and to work with us in the cause of Christ. We need older believers like Barnabas had been to Paul. We need contemporaries, like Silas and Luke. And, we should ask God for some younger believers, like Timothy, that we can bring along in the faith. Ask the sovereign Spirit to lead you to the right people to be not only your friends, but also your co-workers in the cause of Christ.

2. The sovereign Spirit gives us wisdom in the right strategies for ministry (16:3).

Paul circumcised Timothy because of the Jews in those parts, who knew that his father was a Greek. Why did Paul do that? Many have criticized him for violating his own convictions against keeping the Jewish ceremonial law.

But Paul acted consistently with his convictions, even if it caused his critics to misunderstand him. In Galatians 2:3, Paul states that Titus, a Gentile, was not required to undergo circumcision. So why circumcise Timothy, but not Titus? With Titus, it was a question of whether a man is justified by grace through faith alone, or whether he must also keep the Law of Moses. It would have compromised the very gospel to circumcise Titus. But with Timothy, who was half-Jewish, it was a matter of causing needless offense to unbelieving Jews. Circumcision would allow Timothy to accompany Paul and Silas into the synagogues where they often preached. So it was a matter of becoming a Jew to the Jews, so that he could win the Jews (1 Cor. 9:20). Paul did not want anything to hinder Jewish people from hearing and believing the gospel.

We all need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom from God's Word so that we know which convictions to take a stand for, and which areas we need to yield out of love. All too often, we stand firm where we ought to yield, and we yield where we ought to stand firm. Only the Holy Spirit can impart the wisdom we need as we grow to understand God's Word.

3. The sovereign Spirit enables His workers to strengthen the churches (16:4-5).

The missionary team traveled throughout the region, delivering the decrees of the Jerusalem Council. As a result the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number daily. The Jerusalem decrees, as we saw, affirmed two things. First, they affirmed that salvation is not by keeping the Law of Moses, but rather is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Second, they asked Gentile believers, out of consideration for the Jews, not to engage in four things that were especially offensive to Jews: eating things sacrificed to idols; eating meat with the blood, or meat that had been strangled; and, fornication, which was commonly accepted in the pagan culture (15:29).

It strengthens churches to hear the gospel affirmed, that we are saved by God's grace through faith alone in what Jesus Christ provided for us on the cross. And, it strengthens churches to learn to walk in love, in submission to proper spiritual authority. These churches were not free to vote on whether or not to submit to the apostolic decrees. They willingly submitted to them. The aim behind the decrees was to show love and to avoid offending the Jews so that lost Jews could get saved, and believing Jews would not divide from the Gentiles in the churches.

We who are pastors and elders should seek to strengthen the church by helping every person understand the gospel clearly. And, we should help each member joyfully submit to God's Word and to act in loving regard for others so as not to cause needless offense. Then the church will be strong and increase in numbers.

We've seen that the sovereign Spirit leads us to the right workers, gives us wisdom for the right strategies in ministry, and enables us to strengthen the churches. Finally,


Not a New Problem

In light of that reality, the question in this message is quite narrowly focused. How do you go discover God's will in areas where Christians disagree? As we begin our discussion, let's start with the observation that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the very beginning. In fact, the New Testament itself records some of the early arguments among believers. When you read Romans and I Corinthians, you discover that Christians disagreed on things like eating meat offered to idols, on whether or not to observe the Sabbath Day, on whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian, and on whether or not to drink wine. In Colosse the church was torn by controversy over the proper role of angels, New Moon celebrations, and the proper diet for spiritual Christians. In Thessalonica the young church was deeply confused about the Second Coming of Christ. In Philippi there was evidently a major power struggle within the church, which is why Philippians contains such a strong plea for unity.

I should stop at this point and say plainly that there are some doctrines that Christians have always believed. These are fundamental issues having to do with the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ-His virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death and bodily resurrection, the nature of the Bible as God's inerrant Word, salvation by grace through faith, the certainty of the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the reality of heaven and hell, and the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. While the precise wording has often differed, and while some groups have emphasized one doctrine over another, true Christians have always affirmed these doctrines. You can find these things, said in various ways, in the earliest creeds of the church.

In this message I am not speaking about disagreements over these fundamental, non-negotiable doctrines. These truths are not "up for grabs," as if we could decide whether or not we believe that Jesus is God or whether or not we believe in the Second Coming. Those truths belong to the "faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). In this message we are looking at what we might call Category 2 disagreements-areas of doctrine or practice not involving the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Reflections on an Ancient Quarrel

That brings us back to the basic question. How do you determine God's will in those areas where Christians disagree? In order to help us answer that question, let's study the record of an ancient quarrel between two old friends. Acts 15:36-41 tells the story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. We pick up the story in verses 36-38:

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." Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 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.

Don't rush past that last sentence. It's a reference to an incident that took place on their first missionary journey. Three of them had gone out together-Paul, Barnabas, and Barnabas' young cousin, John Mark. In their travels they came to Pamphylia, a coastal province of Asia Minor. Luke tells the story this way in Acts 13:13-14, "Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia." The most interesting fact about this passage is what it doesn't say. We can't be sure why John Mark left the team and returned to Jerusalem. In looking at the itinerary, it's clear that the easiest part of the journey was behind them. Ahead lay long mountain treks into possibly unfriendly towns. Perhaps it was more than John Mark bargained for. Perhaps he couldn't get along with Paul. Who knows? Maybe he felt that his cousin Barnabas should be the leader. Perhaps he was homesick for Jerusalem. Luke's terse prose records the facts but nothing more. From reading these words you would not infer any problems behind the scenes.

But this much we know. At a crucial moment, John Mark suddenly left the team. No one knows the exact reason, but one day he said "I'm leaving." So he left Paul and Barnabas and returned home. When the time came for the second trip Barnabas said, "Let's give him another chance." To which Paul replied, "Forget it. We're not taking him." So they argued over whether to take John Mark with them on the second trip.

And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (vv. 39-41).

In the end Paul and Barnabas disagreed so sharply that they finally decided to go their separate ways. Paul found a replacement for Barnabas (a man named Silas) and went north toward Asia Minor; Barnabas took John Mark and sailed west toward Cyprus. Having found no way to patch up their quarrel, they separated and went their own ways.

Using this passage as a base, I want to share with you seven principles that will help you discern God's will in areas where Christians disagree.

Principle # 1: Though all Christians worship the same Lord we don't always agree on every point.

The list of denominations proves that point. Just pick up the Yellow Pages and look through the list of churches in your own town. We have different churches and different denominations precisely because we don't see eye to eye on lots of issues. And inside every local church, you will find a bewildering variety of opinions. Just as an example, the March 10, 2007 issue of the Tupelo Daily Journal has a fascinating article called Church Attire Unfolds. It's all about how what people wear when they come to church. I can still remember when mom and dad dressed all four Pritchard boys-Andy, Ray, Alan, Ronnie-before we went to church. We also had to "dress up" on Easter, which meant wearing a tie and a jacket. It used to be that everyone "dressed up" for church. Women wore dresses; men wore coats and ties. And the pastor always had on a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie. He never even wore a sport coat.

Things have changed, haven't they? Now that I do quite a bit of speaking in different churches, I always have to ask about proper attire. When I spoke in Grand Rapids, the pastor kindly told me that the speakers always wore a suit. When I spoke in Colorado Springs, they told me I would probably be the only one wearing a tie. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, generally preaches in a Hawaiian shirt. Other pastors wear liturgical robes. And the people in the pews increasingly tend toward more casual clothing.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I could start a pretty good argument on that point, couldn't I? As a matter of fact, I have some thoughts on this but my opinions are preferences, not doctrinal convictions. And lots of good people view matters differently. And they dress differently too.

That's just one example of the larger point. Christians unite around Jesus Christ and argue about almost everything else.

Principle # 2: On issues of deep personal conviction, our disagreements will sometimes be very sharp.

Let's go back to Acts 15. Verse 39 tells us that Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement. The Greek text uses a word from which we get the English word paroxysm, which means a violent disagreement. This particular Greek word means a violent, hostile, angry, harsh, sharp, bitter disagreement. Most modern translations say they "disagreed sharply" or "argued." Darby uses a euphemism by saying, "There arose a very warm feeling." Eugene Peterson (The Message) spells it out this way:

Barnabas wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark. But Paul wouldn't have him; he wasn't about to take along a quitter who, as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia. Tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways.

It's not as if Barnabas said, "Well, I would like to take Mark." "I'm not sure that's a good idea." "But he's such a fine boy." "But he left us." "Let's pray about it." No! They weren't that nice about it. In fact, the verb is in the imperfect tense, which means a continual quarrel-unending, unyielding, ongoing, heated, intense, deep disagreement between them. Their argument was continual and it was contentious. They didn't just argue once and then let it go. They argued over and over again. And the more they argued, the angrier they got. Barnabas knew he was right. Paul knew he was right. That raises a critical question. Who was right-Barnabas or Paul?

The Ministry or the Man

After studying the matter, I have concluded you can make a good case either way. I believe Paul was thinking about the ministry. He had the big picture in mind. He was thinking about the fact that they were about to leave on a missionary trip. This was no Sunday School picnic. They were going into uncharted territory to take the Gospel to lost people. They were going into mountainous regions. They were going into places where they would face death every day. On the first missionary journey-the one John Mark had left-Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra. They could hardly expect anything better this time around. They would face opposition, persecution, hardship, and sickness. Paul knew that there was no place for a quitter on a trip like that. Paul focused on the people he was trying to reach. He couldn't take the risk of having John Mark walk out on him again. He needed someone he could depend on 100%. That's what I mean when I say that Paul was looking at the ministry.

Barnabas was thinking about the man. We know that John Mark was his cousin, which means there were family issues to consider. When Barnabas looked at John Mark, he said "We serve a God of grace. He is the God of the second chance. Our God never gives up on anybody." Barnabas saw real potential in his young cousin who had turned away when things got rough. "Paul, maybe you've written this guy off, but I'm not writing him off because God has not written him off. I believe in him even though he has failed. I want to give him another chance."

So who do you think was right? Your answer tells us more about you than about this text of Scripture. I don't think the Bible clearly tells us who was right or wrong here. Everyone has an opinion. If you're people-oriented, you'll probably move toward Barnabas. If you're task-oriented, you may side with Paul. Regardless of who was right or wrong, we know that there was a sharp, almost violent disagreement between these two men. That leads us directly to the third principle.

Principle # 3: Separation may ultimately be preferable to continual disagreement.

When they couldn't agree, only one solution remained. They split up and went in separate directions. Verse 39 says they "separated" from each other. That's a good translation. The Greek word means "to part asunder." It means a total break in the relationship. They were so angry that when they left, they didn't just part company, but their friendship at that point was torn apart. As far as we can tell from this text, when Barnabas went one way and Paul the other, they evidently left unreconciled. Nothing in the text indicates that they got on their knees and prayed together. Maybe they did, but I don't see it. All I see is a sharp disagreement and a separation. There's no happy ending here.

At this point it's important for us to review the biblical teaching on unity. I find it interesting that Paul-the man who didn't want to take John Mark-writes more about the unity of the church than any other man in the New Testament. Do you remember what he says?

"Love one another with brotherly affection" (Romans 12:10).

"Live in harmony with one another" (Romans 12:16).

"If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Romans 12:18).

"(Be) eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

" Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (Philippians 2:2).

"Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:13).

All those verses came from the pen of Apostle Paul. I find that phrase in Romans 12:18 very interesting: "If possible." Sometimes outward unity isn't possible. This is hard for some of us to admit. Sometimes separation may ultimately be preferable to continual, unending quarreling and disagreement. If Paul and Barnabas couldn't agree, then perhaps we won't always agree either.

We can summarize the matter this way. The command to unity is always there. Sometimes we will have to obey it separately. In that light this text is helpful because it is so searingly honest about two men and their disagreement. Isn't it interesting that Luke includes this in the Book of Acts? He could have glossed over the whole ugly affair. But he chose to tell the truth. This text is both honest and very comforting because it tells us that men of the Bible were not angels. They were men with strong feelings and with strong convictions.

Principle # 4: God's work is sometimes advanced through disagreement.

Let's do a simple before and after analysis:

Before: Two men - One team - One place

After: Five men - Two teams - Two places

Before the trouble, there are two men (Paul, Barnabas) on one team going to one place (Asia Minor). After the argument is over, you have five men (Paul, Silas, Timothy, Barnabas, John Mark) in two teams going to two different places (Cyprus, Asia Minor). Thus the Gospel is now being spread by more people in more places than ever before. That happened as a result of this sharp, strong personal disagreement.

Let's add Romans 8:28 (NIV) to the equation. "And we know that in all things"-even our sharp disagreements-"God works for the good of those who love him." This does not justify anger or bitterness, but it does illustrate the biblical principal that God is able to make the wrath of man praise him.

Throughout church history, the Christian movement has often grown through disagreement. For instance, the Reformation started over a disagreement about indulgences that led to deeper disagreement over justification by faith. Martin Luther never intended to start a new church. He truly meant to reform the existing church. But when the Catholic Church booted him out, he established churches based on the teaching of justification by faith, and from that beginning the Gospel spread to the ends of the earth. I'm not in favor of church splits, but God is able to use disagreements to advance the cause of Christ. If the truth were known, there is some "dirty linen" in the family tree of almost every local church. Churches start for all sorts of reasons, some of them less than noble. Or perhaps I should say that there are mixed motives behind almost every church that gets started. People don't this program or that emphasis, they want a new style of worship, they feel a certain area is being neglected, they disagree on the preaching or some aspect of doctrine, they think the church is too liberal or too conservative or not enough of this or too much of that. That sort of thing happens all the time. The church I pastored in Oak Park started 91 years ago because believers in five mainline churches weren't satisfied with what they were receiving on Sunday morning. They wanted a stronger emphasis on the preaching of the Word, evangelism and world missions. So they met in a home and decided to organize Madison Street Church, which later became Madison Street Bible Church and later Calvary Memorial Church. That sort of thing happens more often than we realize. Separation-as painful as it may be-sometimes can be used for the advancement of the Gospel.

Let me make a personal application at this point. The Holy Spirit often uses conflict, disagreement and disappointment to reveal God's will to you. God is able to work through even the most painful experiences of life not only to bless you, but to prepare you and to enable you to move on to the place where he wants you to be. I have seen that principle at work in my own life. Many years ago I came to a moment of serious disagreement with two Christian brothers. Months of pressure culminated in a late-night meeting that almost ended in blows. Awful things were said, unkind words spoken, harsh judgments made, friendships broken. When it was over, I went through a painful period during which I faced my own sin and failure. Months later, God used that terrible moment to pry me loose from one place and set my feet moving in a new direction. Through that painful experience, I learned that God is able to use the worst parts of life to show us his will. Nothing is wasted with our Heavenly Father. Out of the ashes of defeat we hear the voice of God. When the battle is over, when tempers have cooled, when our anger is gone, we hear the voice of the Lord saying, "Now follow me and I will be your guide."

Principle # 5: If we must separate from one another, let us do so with respect, not with rancor.

Rancor means anger or bitterness. I think if there is any place to criticize Paul and Barnabas, it's right here. It seems to me that perhaps they went too far in their disagreement. It's not a sin to disagree. We don't have to agree on everything. You want to play a saxophone on Sunday morning? Fine! That's okay. Want to go fishing? Go fishing. Want to wear pants, grow a beard, home school your kids, listen to Bill O'Reilly, vote for Barack Obama, buy a pipe organ, pierce your ears or argue against women ushers? Go right ahead. We don't have to agree on every detail. But we can disagree without being disagreeable. If there is one mistake that Paul and Barnabas made, it's that they may have crossed the line from strong disagreement into something that became too personal.

Principle # 6: In Christ our ultimate goal should be eventual reconciliation and the restoration of friendship.

This doesn't come easily. I know exactly what I'm talking about at this point. From personal experience, I can tell you that it's not easy to restore fellowship with brothers who have been offended. As one who has been on both sides of that fence-the offender and the one offended-I can testify to how difficult reconciliation is. In the experience I alluded to earlier, it took seven years (and a lot of water under the bridge) before we could come together, put the past behind us, and be truly reconciled in the Lord.

Let's go back to the story in Acts 15-16. The argument is over, nothing more needs to be said, both men are angry, hurt, and frustrated. There is nothing left to do but to go their separate ways. Paul goes north, Barnabas goes west. They separate and as far as we know they don't meet again for years. Time passes, tempers cool down, a new perspective comes, they begin to see things in a different light, and the Holy Spirit does His healing work. Let's run the clock ahead about 10 years. How does Paul feel about Barnabas now? We have only one hint. In 1 Corinthians 9:6 he mentions Barnabas as a fellow apostle and a fellow worker in the cause of Jesus Christ. Ten years pass from the time of the argument and Paul is able to look at Barnabas and say, "My friend, my fellow apostle, my partner, my co-worker." Something had happened to bring about reconciliation and healing.

Paul thought John Mark was a quitter. Did he ever change his opinion? Two passages of scripture answer that question. Fifteen years have passed and Paul is imprisoned in Rome. At the end of his letter to the Colossians, he adds these telling words: "My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas" (Colossians 4:10). John Mark and Paul are not only friends, but now that Paul is in prison, who's there taking care of him? That quitter, John Mark.

Three more years pass. Paul is in jail for the last time. Soon he will be put to death. From his prison cell in Rome he writes to his young friend Timothy. These are his last recorded words in Scripture. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul talks about the fact that so many people have left him-Demas has forsaken me. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. "Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11). In his last days Paul wanted John Mark by his side. What a change from his earlier opinion. Once Paul didn't want anything to do with him because he thought he was a loser, but at the end of his life, Paul says, "Bring him to me. I need him."

That's what the Gospel of Jesus Christ can do. Sometimes our disagreements seem so deep that we think that we are separated forever. But because we're still in the family of God, there's always the possibility of reconciliation even though it may take centuries.

Principle # 7: Hold your convictions firmly yet graciously knowing that God may lead someone else differently than He has led you.

What an important truth for the family of God. Romans 14:5 says that "each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." If you want a beard, grow one. Do you like your pastors clean-shaven? Fine! Hold on to that. If you're a home schooler, be fully convinced. Do you prefer the public schools? That's wonderful. What about Christian schools? Great! Nothing I am saying implies that you shouldn't have convictions. You should.

But that's only part of it. Romans 15:5-6 offers the other side of the coin. "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." God places a high value on Christian unity. Hold on to your convictions but do it in a loving fashion. After all, your convictions may change over time. What you oppose so strongly today may, in a different context, become less-than-crucial to you in the future.

We're different and that's okay. We don't agree on everything and that's okay. Sometimes in the family of God we're going to disagree strongly and that's okay. Sometimes we're going to disagree to the point that we can't even work together any more. That's okay too. Sometimes we're going to go our separate ways and that's okay. We don't all have to go to the same church or belong to the same denomination or believe the same way on controversial issues.

But we do have to love one another. That's a non-negotiable command of Jesus Christ (John 13:35). No matter how much or how passionately we disagree, we still must love each other.