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The Sharp Disagreement of Paul and Barnabas: Who Was Right?

Acts 15:36–41 records a disagreement that arose between Paul and Barnabas. Paul asked Barnabas to join him to check in on the churches that were planted in Acts 13–14 (Acts 15:36). In wanting another to help, Barnabas suggested John Mark (Acts 15:37) who had “left them and returned to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13). Since John Mark “had withdrawn” and “not gone with them to the work,” “Paul thought best not to take with them one” who had done such a thing (Acts 15:38).1

Barnabas was not convinced by Paul. In fact, in Paul himself, Barnabas showed that he was a man to give someone an opportunity to serve in ministry when others would not (cf. Acts 9:26–29). Barnabas was apparently convinced that Mark had learned his lesson and was worthy to serve again. But, as it was, “a sharp disagreement” parted these two great men (Acts 15:39).

In giving careful attention to what follows in Acts 15:39–41, it seems that neither Paul nor Barnabas were wrong, as disappointing as it was to see them disagree. Notice:

  • Rather than one or the other seeing the churches again, Barnabas took Mark to see the believers in Cyprus (cf. Acts 13:4–12), and Paul took Silas to go beyond to Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:39–41). So, no one disagreed so as to abandon the trip. Everyone kept on ministering.
  • Though Paul stubbornly refused to accept John Mark and parted ways with Barnabas, the church nonetheless commended Paul to God’s grace for the trip ahead (Acts 15:40). “Commended” in Acts 15:40 is in the singular, referring to Paul in particular (but obviously having Silas in view). The commendation was not for Barnabas and John Mark.
  • While this commendation was not to Barnabas and John Mark, it does not follow that the church did not approve of their ministry. In the end, Barnabas was doing what he was doing at the initiation of Paul (cf. Acts 15:36).
  • The church in Jerusalem seems to have approved of both Barnabas and Paul as well. John Mark came from there (Acts 12:25), and Silas did as well (Acts 15:22). Being one to explain Jerusalem’s letter to Antioch (Acts 15:32–33), it would have been helpful for Silas to spread this word even further (cf. Acts 16:4).

As time went on, we see Paul speak of both Barnabas (1 Cor 9:6) and John Mark (Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11) with approval. If perhaps there is any blame in the situation, perhaps it belongs to John Mark for abandoning the trip in Acts 13.

Whatever the case may be, we see an instance in the early church where two leaders disagreed over a matter of personnel. In God’s grace, the disagreement stopped no one from serving, and, in fact, more men served as a result. Even in disagreement, if both parties are seeking the honor the Lord, good things may still happen in the end.

David Huffstutler

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.

  1. All biblical quotes are from the ESV. []

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