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The Problem of Conflict

Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

- Acts 15:37-41

During Jesus’ ministry, He regularly came into conflict with Jewish leaders and teachers. We like to think that, like Jesus, we are fighting against all evils and are pursuing what is truly righteous and good and godly all the time. Of course, Jesus was the Son of God, the Lamb Who “takes away the sins of the world,” and we are just the sinners. As it turns out, our vision, wisdom, and knowledge are finite, very finite. We do not even know or understand ourselves fully, thus thinking that we have attained to a righteous knowledge of the activity and heart of God would be beyond arrogant.

The more appropriate biblical example of conflict we can relate to our lives as Christians is that of Paul and Barnabas because neither were God and both were faithful disciples. They argued over whether John Mark was sufficiently fit for ministry, since he had remained in Pamphylia and not continued traveling with them. Paul saw it as desertion, but obviously, Barnabas didn’t think John Mark’s decision to stay in Pamphylia was a serious flaw. Instead, Barnabas believed in John Mark’s potential and gifts for evangelistic ministry.

Who was right? We assume that Paul was because his ministry had such a dramatic impact on the ancient world and in the spread of Christianity. But Paul was unique, traveling thousands of miles and founding multiple churches. If he is to be our standard, then such ministries as Peter’s in Rome, or James’ in Spain, or John’s in Ephesus look mundane and unremarkable by comparison. Obviously, such a comparison of ministries is unfair, and the conclusion that one ministry eclipses another is false. God is the One Who calls to ministry and judges our faithfulness. Ultimately, He is the One Who determines the success of ministries, something we mortals constantly strive to measure by meager means.

After Paul and Barnabas disagreed, they parted ways and went on to have different ministries, traveling to different places. Their disagreement was so deep they could not continue to be in ministry together, but both continued to work for the Kingdom of God and both continued to live as faithfully as they could. That is the problem of our humanity. There are limits to our faithfulness because we are deeply flawed. The most committed and devout cannot see everything God sees, much less understand all the ways in which God works.

Barnabas founded churches in Galatia, alongside Paul, then traveled on to Cyprus where he was eventually martyred for preaching the Gospel. John Mark, the man over whom Paul and Barnabas disagreed, aided Peter prior to his martyrdom in Rome, established a church in Alexandria, and is believed to have authored the Gospel of Mark. All these centuries later, the Church still commemorates John Mark – Mark the Evangelist – on April 25.

My point is this: it is tragic when Christians are in conflict with one another, but God is not limited in His ability and His willingness to work through all who make themselves available to Him. We know a great deal about Paul, but most of us are not as familiar with all that God did in and through Barnabas and John Mark. Eventually, Paul and John Mark worked together again.

Recently, while reading about western civilization, I read that the greatest damage to the credibility of Christianity occurred in the late-medieval/early modern European religious wars between Christians. These were wars that were fought over lands, power, wealth, and more, but the fact remains that these were wars between Christians. Really, these wars continued into the twentieth century as predominately (although not exclusively) Christian nations fought and killed in unprecedented numbers in the First World War. It was unpleasantly revealing to me that I had never thought of these as wars among Christians. Wars among greedy powers and ethnic nationalists, yes, but not Christians… But of course, I didn’t see the obvious: the powers and nations all claimed to be Christian, often invoking the Name of Christ Jesus for their cause. Through it all, great harm was done to the Christian witness in the world, and minds were opened to godless ideas that are still bearing deadly fruit.

That should serve as a warning to us today. Conflict abounds among various sects of Christianity these days, and while everyone cannot be right, that does not mean anyone is wholly wrong. We should be careful about standing in judgment of one another because judgment belongs to God alone. Not one of us knows how God is at work in ourselves, much less in others. Some things we can see, but so much more is hidden from our eyes. When people reach the point of parting ways, the less said, the better, for one day, a deserter might write a Gospel. You just never know…

One last thought about the conflict between Paul and Barnabas: Luke, who was Paul’s physician, wrote the account of the conflict between the men. His word choice indicts John Mark as a deserter. That is how Paul saw it, and that is how Luke reported it. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t. We do not know why John Mark refused to leave Pamphylia. We only know how Paul – and, therefore, Luke – interpreted John Mark’s decision.

I suspect there will be much that we do not understand until we stand before God’s throne and He shows us what He sees. We are not well-served by drawing conclusions about others when we cannot even see ourselves clearly. Maybe John Mark was a deserter who grew in Christian life and faith. Maybe he had a good reason to stay in Pamphylia that didn’t seem sufficient to Paul. Maybe Paul was unrealistic in his expectations of John Mark. What we do know is that God used all four men involved as they continued to pursue obedient and faithful lives. Thus, even when in conflict – perhaps especially when in conflict – we all ought to strive for humility before God and be quick to confess and repent when we are wrong.

The Apostle John wrote that the Incarnate Son was full of grace and truth. These are the virtues for which we all should strive, emulating our Lord. If our commitment is to live in faithful obedience, then we will be growing in grace and pursuing truth. That is witness enough for each of us.

In Christ –

Elizabeth Moreau

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