As I consider this week’s text for the next episode of Acts in our summer study of that book, Acts 15:36 – 16:5, it occurs to me that one might account for the dispute between Barnabas and Paul in terms of personality types. Barnabas was the feeler while Paul was the thinker or Paul was a leader who sought good order and results while Barnabas was after healthy relationships and personal growth. But, honestly, who knows? It’s always a bit sketchy to try and determine the psychological makeup of biblical figures (or of any historical figure for that matter).
What we do know is that the separation of the first two Christian missionaries had good results in the end, as painful as it must have been in the moment. Paul and his new partner Silas went back to Asia Minor and found a new young protege in Lystra, Timothy, who became a significant missionary in his own right, leading and organizing the new churches in Crete. And Paul’s relationship with Mark (John Mark) seems to have mended well, to the extent that Paul much later specifically asks in II Timothy 4:10 for Mark to come and be with him while he is in prison.
Many lessons could be and have been drawn for what the parting of Barnabas and Paul teaches us about our own relationships with other Christians in the church. It’s been seen as an example relevant to disagreement of all sorts, including a theological “agreeing to disagree.” I hesitate, though, to be too sure about all that. In my experience, a call to agree to disagree often masks an unwillingness to admit error or bad judgment on at least one side and it seldom constitutes a long-term solution to serious differences.
Instead, we might take this event in the lives of early Christian leaders simply as evidence that even among the best of us, things may not work out well enough for us to work together. In pastoral work I’ve had a couple of experiences where well-meaning church leadership thought that parties to a disagreement ought to be able, simply because they were both Christians, to find a way to work together. Paul and Barnabas show us God working in spite of human weakness that divides us from one another.
None of that is to excuse our divisions, but simply to recognize that they do and will continue to exist, this side of the fulfillment of the Kingdom. And the reconciliation of Paul and Mark, evidenced in Paul’s mention of Mark in three of his epistles, is a sign that there is relational healing to be had from God even in the present age. The end of Acts 15 simply shows us that it may not be immediate and may not take the form we might wish at the time.