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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A God Ordained Spat?

Acts 15:36-41 relates the "sharp disagreement" between Paul and Barnabas:
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (NIV)

Barnabas was the "Son of Encouragement." In the above account there seems to be something of an implication that he was rather soft. Paul, on the contrary is driven. Ever the task oriented pioneer, the relentless missionary will let no one stand in the way of the Great Commission - and especially not the youngster, John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas. (Col 4:10) In the words of Michael Corleone, "It's not personal. It's business." And thus this pro-Paul passage tells us that Barnabas "took Mark and sailed for Cyprus," while Paul took Silas and was "commended by the brothers" and continued on in the mission, "strengthening the churches."

Interestingly, it wasn't all that long ago that the "son of encouragement" introduced the wet-behind-the-ears convert, Paul, to a timid group of church leadership suspicious that the Christian-killer they knew as "Saul" had ulterior motives in joining up with the Church. (9:27) Barnabas and Paul set out as missionaries together. And, in fact, in the early days it is Barnabas who takes the lead; his name is mentioned first in the book of Acts. That is, until the confrontation with Elymas, the Sorcerer: "At this point Luke begins to give Paul greater prominence than Barnabas in the mission narrative, calling their party 'Paul and his company' (13:13) and mentioning Paul’s name several times before that of Barnabas (13:43, 46, 50)."[1]

The dynamic duo made quite the pair. In Acts 14:27 we read that upon returning from a successful journey "they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles." In Acts 15 they navigate and influence a critical church debate on circumcision and salvation. (Not exactly a "hot topic" today, but of no small matter for a movement emerging from Judaism where covenant fidelity was measured against the requirements of the Law, which meant debating issues related to keeping the Sabbath and whether to cut or not to cut.)

But despite bringing the Gospel to city after city, Paul and Barnabas are not immune from trouble. Hence there may have been more to the story than a simple disagreement over John Mark:
But the parting of ways between Barnabas and Paul may well have been occasioned by more than the personal disagreement mentioned in Acts. Although Acts hints at no disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on the conduct of a mission to gentiles, Paul’s letter to Galatia indicates that the two did not share identical views on the observance of Jewish dietary laws. Paul writes that at Antioch he was distressed when Peter refrained from eating with gentiles out of deference to representatives from James. Paul objected to Peter’s abrupt withdrawal from his practice of table fellowship and writes that “even Barnabas” sided against Paul (Gal 2:11–13).[2]

So, what do we make of Paul and Barnabas? How do we interpret their "sharp disagreement"? The book of Acts gives no more mention of Barnabas. Paul continues to dominate the center stage. Does this mean that Barnabas was in the wrong?


But is it also possible that this is something of a divinely inspired disagreement?

The Son of Encouragement followed instinct. He did what he had always done: encourage. He had encouraged Paul and he was going to show the same second-chance grace to John Mark, even despite JM's earlier desertion. And who's to say that this was the wrong move?

On the other hand, maybe JM really couldn't hack it? Maybe Paul needed another hardened old soldier to take the beatings and hunger and overnight stays at the local Super 8 Prison. (See Acts 16:22-24) I don't think the kid could've cut it.

So, what do we have? Different gifts going different directions. Different visions exploring different options? Is this disunity? Is this an unholy divide? Or is it possibly a God ordained split?

[1] Daniels, "Barnabas" Anchor Bible Dictionary (1:610)
[2] Ibid., 611


Melody said...

Does sharp dissagreement translate into "spat" when you look at the orginal Greek?

Emily said...

Years of work paying off!

Melody said...

Right - so I wasn't done - but my computer decided I was.

Anyhow, I never thought of the disagreement meaning that one or the other of the two was wrong, just that obviously they have incompatable goals here so obviously they've got to do these things seperately.

So yeah, I guess I see it as God ordained. Or maybe God just took something unfortunate - like dissagreeing - and made it something good.

I don't think I would feel comfortable saying that God didn't want things the way they turned out because I can't see where anything bad happened.

I've never read/heard anything on this passage that says, "And thus began Barnabas' downward spiral into alcoholism and drugs. This trauma led John Mark to become confused about his sexual orientation and he is often considered the founding father of modern day Wicca."

Actually, I'm relatively certain that most people consider the split to have produced good results, like covering more ground with the gospel. And I'm pretty sure John Mark went on to do something important somewhere (obviously of profound importance to me but you know...).

samlcarr said...

Melody, if this John Mark is actually the same as the KATA MARKON of the 2nd book of the NT, then yes, apart from ministering to Paul in Rome, he also did do some stuff of some direct importance to you and me.

Is this disunity? Is this an unholy divide? Or is it possibly a God ordained split?

I don't see the necessity to make something else out of this. It was an honest disagreement and Luke is frank enough to relate what happened though very succinctly.

Paul (ans Silas) was "commended by the brethren" because they are heading for 'official work', possibly the bearers of letters of encouragement from this church to various others, whereas B is taking JM home and so off on something of a personal nature that wouldn't ordinarily require an official send-off.

It does go to stress that there was no dearth of willing persons and as more of them come into contact with leaders like Paul and Barnabas, the process of discipling will continue, enabling more competent persons to help with spreading the gospel.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sam: Paul (ans Silas) was "commended by the brethren" because they are heading for 'official work', possibly the bearers of letters of encouragement from this church to various others, whereas B is taking JM home and so off on something of a personal nature that wouldn't ordinarily require an official send-off.

Are you suggesting that Barnabas called it quits? That he retired from missions work? I was always under the impression that Barnabas went off with John Mark to do the work of the Kingdom.

If B took his cousin and went home I can understand getting no love from Luke (via the book of Acts), but if B and JM went off to do Kingdom work, then there is implication that the church was in favor of Paul/Silas but not so excited about Barnabas/JM.

What do you think?

samlcarr said...

I don't know. In the absence of data my assumption (and that's all that it is) is that they headed home (I think Cypress was home for some reason). We know they both got back into action after that again so it couldn't have been a long break.

The other possibility is that there was a split in the mission with the congregation openly supporting only Paul and Silas...