The mission of God gets messy. Take people who are passionate about the kingdom, full of leadership skills, hungry to see movement, and throw them together in the high-pressure context of doing ministry in hard places and you’re sure to see sparks fly as iron sharpens iron.
I’ve been in full-time ministry for nearly 20 years. I’ve been in the church planting world for nearly 16. And I’ve experienced a lot of kingdom conflict. Most of it, you’d probably never guess from the outside looking in. But if you’re a leader for very long, you’ll experience it too and if you’re like me, you’ll want to make sure you approach it biblically, and in order that God might be glorified, even in the conflict.
I’m so thankful the Bible is “real.” It doesn’t shy away from the authentic lives of the people it places in front of us. We get it all: the good, the bad and, sometimes, even the ugly. Though we don’t always get the whole story of kingdom conflict situations, we do get enough to learn from them and apply their principles to our lives.
Probably the greatest example of kingdom conflict is the “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. Up to this point, Paul and Barnabas had a deep, robust ministry history together. Barnabas had vouched for Paul before the apostles (Acts 9:27). Barnabas went and found Paul and brought him to his first church assignment (Acts 11:25). They led and grew the church in Antioch together (Acts 11:26). They prayed and fasted together (Acts 13:2). And God set them apart and sent them out together (Acts 13:3).
Acts 13-15 unfolds their ministry together before us. They experienced struggle together: Jewish enemies at nearly every city, thought to be gods and almost worshipped, then almost killed. They experienced the joy of gospel ministry together. They saw God work miracles together. They fought the Judaizers together. They stood at the Jerusalem council together.
God used them, together, to build His kingdom all throughout Asia Minor. But then it happened: kingdom conflict. Two Christian leaders, who both loved Jesus and wanted Him to be made famous, had a disagreement about an aspect of the mission.
Barnabas wanted to take John Mark on their second trip. Paul said no. John Mark had abandoned them and gone home, mid-trip, on the first missionary journey. Barnabas, forever the encourager, wanted to give his cousin a second chance. Paul, forever the realist, said no way. I’m not sure of the exact details of that conversation. I wish I had them. But I like to speculate. I imagine the tension was thick as Barnabas could have reminded Paul that if he hadn’t given him a chance, this fight wouldn’t even be possible. I imagine Paul frustrated that Barnabas is willing to put the mission at risk again for the sake of someone who proved he needed to grow before he was ready to go.
Whatever the details that were left unwritten, we know they parted ways. And the rest of the New Testament gives us helpful insight into how they dealt with this kingdom conflict as they both, separately, kept their eyes on the prize. The kingdom conflict I’ve experienced weighs heavy on me from season to season. I’ve lost close friendships. I’ve disappointed some that once viewed me as a hero. I’ve received some hurtful criticism. Dreams were left unfulfilled. Yet I find comfort in the Scripture.
Here are five principles we learn from Paul and Barnabas’s conflict that I believe are instructive and helpful for us when we, too, experience kingdom conflict.
1. Don’t speak negatively of them in public.
Paul wasn’t one to shy away from telling the truth. And Paul wasn’t bothered by naming names. He’s willing to do that when necessary. He did that when the gospel was at stake. But the gospel wasn’t at stake with Barnabas. So we never hear a negative word in Scripture from Paul about Barnabas. He doesn’t tell “his side of the story.” He doesn’t paint himself as some sort of hero. From what we can tell, neither does Barnabas.
2. If you speak of them at all publicly, speak positively.
We see Paul mention Barnabas only two times after the separation incident in Acts 15. First, in 1 Corinthians 9:6, where Paul places Barnabas and himself in the same category. And in Colossians 4:10, Barnabas is mentioned as the cousin of Mark. Because of the context clues, both instances should be considered purely positive. There isn’t even a hint of negativity toward Barnabas.
3. 3. If your story must be told, let godly others tell it.
Paul had lots of opportunities to explain this story. He wrote most of his letters after Acts 15. Surely it had value to the churches he planted with Barnabas on his first missionary journey. But he didn’t tell it. He didn’t tell his side of it. He didn’t defend himself or his decision. No, he left that to God, and he left that to Luke. And if we pay close attention, we see there in Acts 15, that the emotion is absent. Luke gives us, “just the facts.”
4. Don’t drop out of the mission.
This disagreement was no small thing. In fact, Luke tells us it was “sharp.” As we’ve already seen, it had weight to it. It had the chance to put a negative taste toward the mission at large in one or both of their mouths. But they didn’t let it. This disagreement mattered, but the mission mattered more. So, Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus, and Paul chose Silas and went through Syria and Cilicia. But not only did Paul not drop out of the mission of preaching the gospel and planting churches, he didn’t drop out of the mission of raising up young leaders. Acts 16 tells us that Paul eventually came to Lystra and met young Timothy. He could have allowed his recent conflict to muddy the waters of mentorship. But he didn’t. He asked Timothy, another untested young man, to join his team.
5. Leave room for God to work.
We can’t be sure as to what exactly happens in the hearts and lives of Paul, Barnabas and John Mark. But we know in 2 Timothy 4, at what seems to Paul like the end of his life, Paul is asking for John Mark to be sent to him. Why? Because John Mark is useful. And we know that God has led them through some level of reconciliation because we see that John Mark is with Paul, even as a fellow prisoner, in Colossians 4 and Philemon.
It should go without saying, but it is worth mentioning: It didn’t have to go this way. It could have turned out much differently for Paul, Barnabas and John Mark. In many, if not most, circumstances it does. But in God’s goodness, we’re not just called to this mission that demands our very hearts and souls and left to suffer through the messiness alone. No, God is gracious and gives us this truth.
While the mission is messy, behold, He is with us always … even in the mess … to the end of the age.
Published November 9, 2022