When Godly People Disagree: Lessons from Acts 15

Christians can have some sharp disagreements. Just look at the sheer number of evangelical denominations in our day, or the points of contention within denominations or theological tribes. The current debate over how to biblically address “social justice” is one such disagreement. These kinds of divisions can discourage us, give us pain, and even challenge our faith.

But disagreements among Christians are nothing new. Indeed, the very apostle who exhorted Christians to be “of the same mind” (Phil. 2:2) didn’t always attain that ideal himself.

In Acts 15:36–41, we read the sad story of a sharp disagreement between the apostle Paul and his close companion Barnabas. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along on their next missionary journey, but Paul disagreed, because Mark had deserted them earlier (Acts 13:13). What made their disagreement so disheartening was the subsequent division that resulted. But the Bible’s purpose in revealing these sad realities is to instruct, not to discourage.

So let’s assess the incident briefly, and then draw some lessons from it.

Who Was Right?

Consider the matter from both men’s perspectives. Paul’s rationale is given in the text: John Mark had deserted his post. Surely such defection was a serious matter (Luke 9:62; Prov. 25:19). What captain would be eager to take along a soldier who’d just deserted his unit on an earlier mission? It certainly seems, then, that Paul was acting according to biblical principle.

But before we form a settled judgment, let’s give Barnabas a chance to speak (Prov. 18:17). The text doesn’t give us Barnabas’s reasoning, but perhaps we can infer it from what we know of his character (Acts 4:36; 9:26–27). I doubt Barnabas would have defended Mark’s actions. He would’ve agreed that a gospel minister must be faithful. And yet I believe he would’ve reminded Paul of another biblical principle: past sin and failure do not preclude future faithfulness and success. Think of the apostle Peter. He denied Jesus three times! But Jesus still used him. I can just hear Barnabas saying, “If Peter, why not Mark?”

Before we take sides, we should note that the disagreement wasn’t a matter of heresy or immorality. They weren’t arguing over a fundamental of the faith, such as the deity of Christ. Nor were they debating whether it was okay for a minister to live in adultery. Instead, we have two men fully committed to Christ disagreeing over the application of biblical principle. The tension is that Paul was putting a greater emphasis on one principle, and Barnabas on another. As they each placed their principles in the balance, the argument was over which way the scales were tipping.

Here we have two men fully committed to Christ disagreeing over the application of biblical principle.

I don’t think Luke gives a clear judgment for either side. The reference to the brothers commending Paul and Silas to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:40) doesn’t necessarily mean they were taking Paul’s side. It may simply mean that in spite of Paul’s separation from Barnabas, the church in Antioch wasn’t going to cut Paul off. And even if they were siding with Paul, it doesn’t mean they were right. Apparently God doesn’t want us to know who was mostly right and who was mostly wrong.

What Should We Learn?

So, having assessed the situation, what we can learn from this story for our own contemporary disagreements? Here are four lessons.

1. Resist the urge to always take sides.

Sometimes we do have to choose sides and form firm opinions. But in many cases, we don’t. We may have concerns or suspicions. But in many cases, it may be the better part of wisdom to leave the matter with the Lord.

We often look around and wonder why two great Christian leaders labor in different ministries. They’re in the same city; they hold the same doctrinal beliefs; why aren’t they working together more? Brothers and sisters, God doesn’t always expect us to take sides. Resist the temptation, then, to figure it all out. Commit both sides to the Lord (Phil. 3:15).

2. Recognize that disagreements will always exist in this age.

Sometimes we have too idealistic a view of the church. And when some church or pastor disappoints us, we’re tempted to question the power of the gospel or give up on the Christian faith entirely. But God wants us to be biblical realists. If human finitude or remaining sin could hinder the harmonious relationship of two godly apostles, it shouldn’t surprise us when godly believers strongly disagree and even separate in our own day.

If human finitude or remaining sin could hinder the harmonious relationship of two godly apostles, it shouldn’t surprise us when godly believers strongly disagree and even separate in our own day.

We live in an age in which God’s revelation, though sufficient, is also partial (1 Cor. 13:9–10)—like a large puzzle with some pieces missing but enough pieces that we can make out the picture. This is one reason why genuine Christians don’t always arrive at the same conclusions in their attempts to apply biblical principle. As the Puritan Matthew Henry observed, “We shall never be all of a mind till we come to heaven, where light and love are perfect.”

3. Rest in God’s providence to overrule such disagreements for good.

I’m sure Satan got some mileage out of this apostolic split. Nevertheless, what he meant for evil, God meant for good (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28).

Consider: as a result of this split, the missionary endeavor doubled in manpower. More work could now be done; new churches could now be planted. Paul’s original proposal to Barnabas was merely to revisit the churches they’d already planted (Acts 15:36), but God had other plans. He wanted the work to expand into Macedonia and Greece.

Don’t take everyone who disagrees with you off your prayer list.

Consider also how God may have used this dispute for the good of those involved. Barnabas’s willingness to restore Mark likely gave the young man hope, while Paul’s tough love likely made him more determined not to repeat his mistake. Perhaps as a result of Paul’s emphasis on faithfulness, Barnabas became more watchful and demanding of Mark. And perhaps Barnabas’s emphasis on grace helped Paul to become a bit more sensitive and patient in his later ministry. Indeed, we know that in later years Paul would do for a slave named Onesimus what Barnabas did for Mark (Philem. 17–19).

So let’s look for ways in which God might be using disagreements and divisions among godly brothers for their good, for our good, and for the glory of his name.

4. Remember that differences don’t have to destroy love.

Despite sharp disagreement and even separation, Scripture seems to indicate that both parties continued to view one another as faithful brothers and to support one another’s labors. Paul continued to refer to Barnabas as an apostle of Christ and fellow laborer for the kingdom (1 Cor. 9:5–6). And I suspect that he who exhorted the brothers to pray for “all the saints” did so himself (Eph. 6:18). Paul kept Barnabas and Mark on his prayer list. And I’m confident Barnabas and Mark did the same for Paul.

The same should be true of us. Don’t take everyone who disagrees with you off your prayer list. Insofar as you think they’re wrong, pray God would bring them to a right understanding. But inasmuch as they’re still walking in the truth, ask him to bless them.

And don’t allow your disagreement to be so firm that it can’t be revised down the road. Paul later had to revise his opinion about Mark, and was even humble enough to ask Mark for help (2 Tim. 4:11). Can you imagine the joy in Mark’s heart as he learned that Paul, who once doubted his usefulness, now desired his service?

So too, brothers and sisters, let us be willing to revise our judgments. Some convictions about clear doctrine and biblical ethics are non-negotiable. But when it comes to judgment calls based on the application of biblical principle, we should at least be willing to revise our opinions. And that won’t be as difficult to do if we maintain brotherly love—love that is patient and kind, love that is not easily provoked, love that bears all things, believes all things, and hopes all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7).

May God grant us greater measures of this love!