Satan, as is his custom, was in a good place, disrupting a good plan, and causing strife between good people. Paul and Barnabas, two mature, experienced, Spirit-filled missionaries, had such a disagreement that they disbanded their very successful evangelistic team. The separation didn’t result from one of them falling into doctrinal error or immorality, nor was there disagreement about the mission. The issue seems trivial to us—it wasn’t to them. “And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city … 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 Paul chose Silas … (Acts 15:36-40).
Preachers ask, “Who was right and who was wrong?” My short answer is neither and both! What we should be asking is why it happened and how missionaries should deal with such conflicts today. The enemy did not want the missionaries to visit the new converts throughout Asia Minor, and he still actively opposes the work of missions today. He doesn’t want missionaries to go out, he doesn’t want them to stay where they are desperately needed, and he doesn’t want them to return to the field after furlough. Many problems bring missionaries home prematurely, and interpersonal conflict is one of them. What happened in A.D. 52 still happens today.
Paul might have said, “John Mark is a quitter. God’s work requires dependable men, and he failed us once before. We need Christian soldiers, not boys who run home to mama the first time we face the enemy! I can’t believe Barnabas is practicing this type of nepotism, showing favoritism to his nephew. Barnabas is too soft. He should have learned better after all the hardships and hard cases we have dealt with. Mark really hurt our first journey when he abandoned us. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!”
Barnabas was never this passionate about anything before. Now he was questioning the wisdom and will of the great Apostle of the Gentiles. Perhaps he said, “Paul, you care only about the work, not people. You won’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt or a second chance. Mark has potential, but you are writing him off because of one little failure. Well, if John Mark doesn’t go, neither do I!”
The argument must have gone something like that. But why did it happen, and why did God record it? Both men apparently forgot that “Only by pride cometh contention,” and “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” When a disagreement occurs among missionaries, they should immediately ask themselves, “Am I being proud? Must I get my way this time?” They must give “soft answers,” remembering that anger may be an invitation to the enemy. “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil.” They must discuss without demanding.
God recorded this embarrassing occasion to teach us. Teamwork is a wonderful but fragile thing. Both men had strengths and weaknesses, and together they made a good team. But this day, each man’s strength became his weakness!
No doubt Paul assumed that Barnabas would follow his leadership as he always had before. Barnabas may have grown tired of Paul assuming and getting his way. Barnabas wanted some respect for once! He may have said, “Paul may have power to perform miracles, he may write letters under the inspiration of God, but where would he be without me? I introduced him to the church at Jerusalem when everyone was afraid of him. I went to Tarsus for him and got him involved in the church at Antioch. The Holy Ghost called me just as much as him; I left my position of leadership, too. I faced the same dangers and deprivations that he did. It’s about time Paul listens to me and values my opinion! After all, I was making great sacrifices for Christ when he was still persecuting Him.”
There was contention, not communication. They stood their ground, instead of kneeling on the ground. They spoke their opinions, but they did not seek God’s. They ignored their own teaching, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” Neither did they ask counsel from the pastors in Antioch. There was both divine and human help available, but Paul and Barnabas did not take advantage of it.
The sharp contention did not end Paul’s and Barnabas’s missionary careers. Instead, two teams were formed—a good thing, but a poor way to go about it. Paul and Barnabas kept going in spite of the interpersonal conflict; today’s missionaries often don’t. Sometimes one or both leave the field. And where does that leave the young converts and the heathen they were sent to reach?