When We Disagree with One Another (Acts 15:36-41)
Topic: One Body: Love One Another Passage: Acts 15:36–41
I. Disagreement Over the Table
In October of 1529, two Protestant leaders met in a castle in Marburg, Germany. They were there to debate the specifics of what Scripture actually taught about the Lord's Supper. On one side, was Martin Luther, the well-known German reformer. On the other side was Huldrych Zwingli, the Swiss reformer. While Luther taught that Christ was truly present in the bread and wine, in a unique way, Zwingli taught that these elements were simply symbols meant to remind us of Christ's unique death on the cross. Both men rejected the Roman Catholic view of tran-substantiation (the belief that the bread and wine actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus). But nevertheless, they also sharply disagreed with one another. On writer tells us that, “Luther despised Zwingli’s view. He believed it gutted the power of God’s promise to forgive from the sacrament. Before the debate, he said, “I would rather drink pure blood with the pope than mere wine with Zwingli”. Yikes! And when they met in person, boy did the sparks fly.
II. The Passage: “There Arose a Sharp Disagreement” (15:36-41)
But let's leave that disagreement and consider another disagreement from church history. This one is actually preserved for us in the inspired pages of Scripture. Turn to Acts 15, vs. 36-41. Now, what you need to know before reading this, and what you may remember from the reading plan two weeks ago, is that Acts 13-14 record for us what has traditionally been called 'Paul's first missionary journey'. Over the course of maybe 10-12 mos., Paul and Barnabas had shared the Good News about Jesus, of his death and resurrection, of his lordship, of forgiveness of sins—they had in some cases, even established churches, in Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) areas west of the Holy Land; places like the island of Cyprus and regions in what is today south-central Turkey. Listen to what the writer tells us about this duo, maybe a year after that first trip. 15:36...
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”  Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark.  But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.  And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus,  but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been comm-ended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.  And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Now one of the best questions we could ask of a passage like this is “Why?”... why did Luke, the author of Acts, choose to record this difficult and somewhat depressing part of the story? Paul and Barnabas, who not only labored together on that first missionary journey, but also served together for a number of years in the church at Antioch, these brothers in Christ came to such an impasse, that they couldn't proceed together in the work of the kingdom. Pretty sad. But let's take a few minutes to make sure we really understand some of the specifics here. For example,
Number one, the concern over “John called Mark” (who is traditionally referred to as simply “John Mark”... this concern) began in Acts 12:25 when Barnabas and Saul return from Jerusalem and bring John Mark back to Antioch with them. Colossians 4:10 (though written fifteen years later) may give us a clue about how this trio came together, since in that verse we read about “...Mark the cousin of Barnabas...”.
Ah! So Barnabas invites his cousin Mark, not only to join them in Antioch, but not long after that, to join them as they embark on that first missionary journey. But it isn't long into the trip that we read in Acts 13:13, “Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos (on Cyprus) and to Perga in Pamphylia (that's south-central Turkey... but the verse continues). And John left them and returned to Jerusalem.” We're given no other details except that... “And John left them...”.
Number two in terms of specifics, this disagreement wasn't doctrinal, but it was serious. Our main text makes it pretty clear that John Mark didn't part ways with them after Cyprus because he was called away on another assignment, or because he become sick or injured, or because a loved one was dying back in Jerusalem. Look back at 15:38. Paul's reasoning here is that it would not be “best” (i.e., wise, prudent) “to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.” It's pretty obvious that John Mark had deliberately left that first mission for reasons that were less than stellar. Was he scared? Was he bored? Was he upset he was not doing more? We just don't know. But what Luke is telling us here is that Paul believed Mark had already proven he was not a reliable missionary partner. Therefore taking him on another trip would be foolish. But Barnabas disagreed. Maybe he sensed that Mark had matured. Maybe he believed a second chance would help his cousin get past that first failure; a kind of 'do over'. Whatever the reason, Barnabas felt strongly enough about the matter that we was willing to part ways with Paul in order to include John Mark.
Again, these men parted ways, not because they had a major doctrinal disagreement, but because of a disagreement about the right mix of grace and wisdom in terms of John Mark's readiness for gospel ministry. Interestingly, 15:1-35 does focus on how the church handled doctrinal divisions on a critical matter of faith and works. But this is not that, and that isn't what we're talking about this morning. We're talking about when we disagree with one another on issues, situations, decisions, policies (or even secondary, doctrinal matters) that are not the 'what we believe' basis for our unity in Christ. So with that in mind, consider three takeaways...
First, it's important for us to remember that when we disagree with one another, something strange is not happening. If someone wasn't paying close attention, a good portion of the book of Acts (and all the summaries about gospel advance and church growth) can make it sound like everything was rainbows and lollipops in the early church. But that was certainly not the case. In addition to persecution from those outside the Church, we read about deceptive church members and the wrath of God in chapter 5. There was the great 'widows' food distribution controversy' of chapter 6. And there was criticism and conflict about new Gentile believers in chapters 11 and 15. And there is the more personal disagreement and break in our main text. We could add to this all of the letters of the New Testament, letters written to churches and individual believers in which it's very clear that God's children don't always play nicely with one another. If there are human beings present in community, even redeemed human beings, there will always be some kind of disagreement and conflict. This shouldn't catch us off guard; that is, if we don't already, we have to expect this will happen. As most of you know, there are no perfect churches. I like what the 19th century English preacher Charles Spurgeon said on this...
“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all. And the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.”
In addition to acknowledging such things will exist in the church, second, even when we disagree with one another, we should remain engaged in God's work. Sure, without that first point, some might believe disagreements among us mean the church is hopelessly broken.
But for those who understand that this is usually not the case, we still need to guard our hearts against excuse-making. You see, we're just the kind of creatures who will take ministry disagreement in the church, or disagreement with another believer over some non-essential belief, and turn it into an excuse to sit on the sidelines. “We just don't see eye to eye on this. Therefore, we can't do anything until we get this resolved.” But if Paul or Barnabas had this mindset in regard to such things, they would have simply stayed in Antioch, maybe waiting for a church committee to figure out who should be and should not be on the missionary team. But these men were personally motivated; by their own faith. It wasn't a program that drove them. It was a passion for the person of Christ! It was a commitment to the work of ministry! So if some-one says, “Well, I disagree. That's not how I would reach out to my neighbor”, don't let that keep you from reaching out to your neighbor. If a brother or sister disagrees with who you want to include in a small group, and no consensus can be reached, don't let that keep you from meeting with others. Though such disagreements should be handled with humility, grace, and wisdom (wise counsel), they should never be allowed to sabotage the call of Christ on our lives.
Third, when we disagree with one another, we can trust that, ultimately, God is still at work. How wonderful that God sovereignly used this difficult split to send out, not one, but two teams! Barnabas and John Mark went by sea to Cyprus, and Paul and Silas went by land back to south-central Asia Minor. But both went for the same reason: to glorify God and exalt Jesus by building up these new churches and continuing to spread the Good News. In the same way, brothers and sisters, though it is often uncomfortable and maybe even painful, and though we should never use God's sovereignty to justify impure motives or bad behavior, we can rest assured that, after we've done what we can to resolve a disagreement, our impasse cannot stop God from carrying out his supernatural work of advancing the gospel in fulfillment of his plan.
III. Our Shared Agreements
Brothers and sisters, when we truly accept truths like these, then disagreements won't divide us. God willing, they will actually drive us back, in humility, to our agreements in Jesus. Listen to how one writer describes that contentious 1529 meeting in Germany: “At the end of the debate, Luther and Zwingli finally wept together and asked forgiveness for the harsh words they’d spoken. They even sat down to eat together at the prince’s table. But they didn’t take comm-union together. In their views of the Supper, Luther and Zwingli remained divided.”
On a similar note, in addition to positive references to Barnabas in Paul's later letters, John Mark, the source of the original contention, is also mentioned several times. Again, Paul wrote to the Colossians about “Mark the cousin of Barnabas [here's the rest...](concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you welcome him).” (4:10) And then, several years later, we read this note to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11) Paul did not forever label Mark as a 'bad bet'; as an unreliable fellow worker. There's no indication he was bitter, or held on to this sad episode in an unhealthy way. And Mark did in fact grow as a servant of Jesus! Maybe it was that trip with Barnabas that helped him along the way. We don't know. What we do know is that God was at work, in and through these servants, even through the “sharp disagreement” that eventually arose. But, Way of Grace, it was their shared agreements about the lordship and love of Christ, about grace, about the priority of the kingdom work, about the authority of the word, about the unity of the Spirit, it was these agreements that held them fast and helped them find a way forward. And this has been and will be the case for us. So whether you are struggling now, or this simply prepares us for what may come, brothers and sisters, let's remember that disagreements are par for the course. And when they come, let's stay the course; just as Christ did for us, to bring forgiveness for our frailty, and to unite us in grace. Yes. Let's stay the course in light of all these examples.