I have three small kids who I love dearly. They have changed my life in ways I never imagined and have brought me incredible joy – until we get in the car, that is. There is something about a trip down the road that turns my children into the Three Stooges, poking, prodding, and denigrating each other to no end. I find myself frequently imploring them to “drop it” when they have conflicts with each other. I have a feeling I’m not alone in this!
One of the most enduring statements made by Jesus before He was crucified was His plea in John 17:20-21 that His followers should all be unified. We see the same emphasis on unity stressed in other passages, as well: “Being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). There are times, however, when certain situations test this bond of peace. We do not always get along. We bicker over things both great and small – and God is always the loser when Christians allow pet projects or opinions to trump congregational unity! Of course, I am not talking about defending truth here (sadly, a cause that is often used as a veil for ulterior motives). I am talking about arguments and conflicts over judgment calls, social situations, misunderstandings, and perceived offenses. Often, churches go from being places of safety and fellowship to places of spiritual cannibalism, as illustrated by Galatians 5:13-15. Churches destroy themselves because they cannot “drop it”, so to speak, with old conflicts, bad blood, and supposedly incompatible personality types all vying for dominance.
A Case Of Conflict – Acts 15:36-40
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 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose such 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 (ESV).
The first thing that should be observed about this conflict is that it was a matter of opinion. It was a judgment call, and not something ordered specifically by the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas were not disagreeing over the content of their preaching but over an incidental detail that did not have a bearing on doctrine. This is not an example of one preacher calling another false and then dividing because of a stark contrast in content. Rather, this is two totally sound preachers who cannot agree on bringing John Mark with them. It is interesting that even in matters of judgment, brethren can become very heated because of their convictions. Paul “kept insisting” that somebody other than Mark go on the journey, but Barnabas wanted him. They both appear to feel very strongly about the matter.
The text says, “There occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another” (15:39). The Greek term rendered “sharp disagreement” was used by medical writers in the ancient world when a disease flared up and then broke out in its severest form. Added to all of this is the fact that Barnabas and Mark were related (Colossians 4:10), which made Barnabas’ loyalty to Mark all that much stronger, and Paul’s refusal to take him all the more painful. Given these circumstances, one might expect an irreconcilable rift to come between the parties involved.
They Moved On
Rather than crippling the work of Paul and Barnabas, this conflict actually helped the spread of the gospel in the long run as it gave both Silas and Mark the opportunity to join the apostles in their travels. Perhaps the end of the matter was not what Paul and Barnabas envisioned when they began planning for their journey, but the will of God was accomplished. Consider a few points:
- The Holy Spirit does not side with one or the other here, so neither should we. There is no record of any apologies offered, and there does not seem to be any indication in the text that Paul or Barnabas committed sin. Both of them had valid, honest reasons for their decision, which shows that even when we may disagree on matters of judgment, nobody is being less “Christ-like.”
- Even after the disagreement, the two are still close friends. In the years that follow this event, Paul speaks of Barnabas with words of praise (1 Corinthians 9:6) and specifically mentions that Barnabas is worthy of the church’s support.
- There is also evidence that Paul did not let this event hurt his relationship with John Mark. Paul later speaks of the man as being useful to him (2 Timothy 4:11). The lesson here is that conflicts might have consequences, but the Christ-like person does not withhold affection and regard. Paul may not have trusted Mark with this particular task, but that does not mean Mark was a worthless Christian, or that Paul did not love him as a brother.
Disagreements Often Involve Another Person
It is unfortunate but true that many disagreements involve a situation which neither party started. Christians will become offended on somebody else’s behalf, or take a side in a matter that was not even their business in the beginning. It is healthy advice that Jesus gives in Matthew 18:15-17. Keep private matters private as long as possible – do not involve unnecessary people because that just encourages “taking sides”. As the case was with Paul and Barnabas, we need to be careful not to take disagreements personally. Make sure the responsibility stays where it belongs and try to look at the positive side of the person who is disagreeing with you. Essentially, give people the benefit of the doubt, especially if you disagree with the decisions of your leadership (1 Timothy 5:17).
Bad Blood and Preconceptions
Another impediment we face is in holding on to preconceptions about people, whether it is because of their past, or their family members (guilt by association). One thing I try to remember, though, is that I, too, was once foolish (Titus 3:3). I, too, may have at one point been the object of preconceptions. And I hope that others have seen and acknowledged my growth. Will I express the same optimism about other people? Try to think about the kind of people Jesus encouraged to repent and become a part of His kingdom: social outcasts, people with marital problems, the homeless, capital criminals, and swindlers. If the example of Jesus teaches me anything, then I need to have enough room in my heart for my own brother or sister when conflicts arise. Or will I go through life always assuming people and their problems stay static? I find that many people actually express a hint of pride in their grudges. It is as if our culture has trained us to believe it is cool to have someone “you just don’t get along with” or that “there is bad blood between us”. But the Christian has a higher calling, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
“Dropping It” Starts With You
I have heard well-meaning (but stubborn) Christians justify their grudges by asserting that the other person involved in the conflict never apologized or made any attempt at reconciliation. But when you talk to the other person, he says the same thing and believes it is not his responsibility to make the first move toward a resolution. So we end up with two Christians who are expected to co-exist in a congregation, to work together in worship, benevolence, and evangelism, and who will have to spend eternity with each other – who will not even say a word! Does that make any sense? Maybe the problem is that you are waiting around for someone else to make the first move! Does God’s example mean nothing? “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). God made the first move in reconciling us to Him and now expects us to practice the same kind of love. True love finds inroads, makes the attempt at reconciliation, never leaves a grudge to sit and fester – it never takes into account a wrong suffered or seeks its own justification, but endures and believes and bears all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
by Ryan Goodwin