The following message is taken from Acts 15:30-42 and uniquely addresses how the church should handle disagreement.
This is the story of two friends; two men who had the same vocation. They were called of God to preach and plant churches. One was from one city; the other from an island. Both loved God and served the Lord. They had worked closely for several years. Their names were Paul and Barnabas.
Paul and Barnabas were chosen with a number of others to go to Antioch and deliver the decree made at the Council of Jerusalem. This council would inform the Gentile converts that they in fact, did not have to be circumcised as a supplement to faith in Jesus Christ, like the Judiazers had promoted. Verse 28 gave them their ethical expectations: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. 30 The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter.”
Paul and Barnabas were skilled teachers of God’s word and were used to set the church on the right course. They were teachers of teachers. They had taught and preached together, seeing many come to faith in Christ. They had a fruitful ministry together. And as they prepared to leave Antioch, they determined to go back and strengthen the churches throughout Asia Minor, what we know as Paul’s second missionary journey.
In verse 37, we see the men preparing to go on their trip but a controversial issue came up. When it came time to make an important decision concerning John Mark, these two men were divided. John Mark was the younger cousin of Barnabas and the author of the Gospel of Mark.
On an earlier occasion, this man had deserted Paul and Barnabas; left them in difficult circumstances, at the hands of difficult people. You can read about that in Acts 13:13, Mark left them to return to Jerusalem, while the other two set out for difficult territory.
Do they take John Mark with them? Did he learn his lesson from deserting his friends? Or have they both learned that John Mark was no good for their ministry. Evidently, Barnabas was willing to give John Mark a second chance. Second chances are an act of grace. This gave rise to a “contention.”
But the apostle Paul knew that John Mark could be a liability. Being deserted a second time could mean their premature deaths. They faced much controversy as they went about preaching Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. As well as facing Jews who were instigators.
There was no agreement. We are not told who was right or who was wrong. All we know is what happened next: Barnabas left with John Mark for the island of Cyprus. Paul recruited Silas and set off for other places. Paul and Barnabas no longer served as one. Both were wholeheartedly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ, but they could not agree on this one subject. Their situation raises the question, when is it okay to agree to disagree?
There are times in the church where it is okay to disagree. There are times in the church where disunity on the smaller matters is allowable. The ultimate calling to serve the Lord Jesus Christ should be the rule which binds us together. But it does not mean that we have to agree on details such as where we should minister or how we should minister.
There are various controversies; all issues in the church today; how we should worship; what instruments can be used, if any at all. I know of a denomination that believes that the use of instruments is worldly and a distraction to worshiping the Lord Jesus. That same background teaches that immersion is the only legitimate way to baptize a new converts. Quite different than the practice of many Christians today.
What are those things that should unite us? Paul said in Ephesians 4:3 “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called– one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Consider the following tenets which must bind us together:
- One, is the authority of Scripture; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
- Two, is the divinity of Christ; John 14:6
- Three, is the work of the Trinity; 2 Corinthians 13:14
- Four, is the practice of the sacraments; 1 Corinthians 11:26
Style of worship is a negotiable. Methods of outreach are negotiable. Where we should send our mission money is negotiable. Should we do missions? Nonnegotiable. Should we worship? Nonnegotiable. Should we do outreach? Nonnegotiable.Consider the following obstacles to unity, the tendency for small things to become big things. For one, is our ego, or the passion to be right. I was recently brought face-to-face with something challenging in ministry. I wanted something to turn out a certain way in the life of this church. But, after consulting other leaders on it, it wasn’t meant to be. I had to humble myself and except this as God’s will. The problem is when ego gets in the way. We believe that we have to be right or else…
- Or else I won’t attend this church anymore.
- Or else I won’t give my money to the church.
- Or else I won’t treat that person with love and respect.
You must beware of falling prey to a power trip. Maybe God would want you to be more flexible in some areas or more strongly convicted in others. The next time you feel disagreeable, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this what I want or is this what God wants?
- Is my agenda at stake or is God’s agenda at stake?
- Who will be served as a result of this effort?
- Who will come to know the Lord Jesus for the first time?
- Who will be deepened in the faith?
- Is this just challenging my presupposition? (I’ve/we’ve never done it that way before.)
- Should I be open to something new?
- Have I prayed about this?
- Have I consulted God’s word on this matter? John Calvin one said: “It matters not what you say or I say but what God says on the matter.”
- Even though this might not agree with my political party’s line, is this the right thing to do?
Two, is our inability to listen. If conflict goes unresolved, it can be the soil where bitterness, anger and resentment grows. James 1:9 says: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
Three is our ability to squabble. Don’t be given over to squabbling. Don’t go looking for a fight. Pastor Carey Nieuwhof, says: “I really want to walk into a great church fight. Said no unchurched person ever. Squabbling, faction and division in the church has killed our evangelism efforts as effectively as anything.” I have come across many people who have admitted to leaving or avoiding a church because of infighting.
How did it end? Paul eventually came back around and welcome to John Mark. You can read about that in. He said in 2 Timothy 4:11: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” Did you catch that? He asked for Mark, “…for he is useful for me.” There’s always a double purpose to everything done for the Lord one is what how it affects me and to how it affects others. Paul labels Mark as “my fellow worker” in Philemon 1:24. Obviously Paul and Mark reconciled and resumed their ministry together.
What about Barnabas? We are not given but one verse. 1 Corinthians 9:6 where he states that Barnabas, along with himself is worthy of the label of apostle and worthy of their compensation. All’s well that ends well. Is this story such a tragedy? No. God is perfect. People are flawed. Paul, Barnabas and Mark were flawed. You and I: flawed. But God works in and through us, in spite of ourselves!
In the late 16th century, the mayor of Windsor engaged architect Christopher Wren to design and oversee the building of a town hall. When it was completed, the mayor refused to pay the bill, insisting that it needed more than the few columns Wren had designed. No matter that it was pointed out to him that the columns were holding up the building just fine. He wanted more columns and would not pay until they were installed.
Christopher Wren had several more columns added to the building. Each was identical to the first ones he had installed, with one exception. Each lacked one inch going all the way to the ceiling.
Some of those columns were load-bearing and others were cosmetic. The building became known as the Windsor Guildhall.
In the church, it is important to know what is really important, and what is not so important. Be willing to fight for the former, and sacrifice the latter. Let us pray.