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"When Christians Disagree

Acts 15:36-41 (KJV)

36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.

37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.

38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.

39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;

40 And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.

41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.

When Christians Disagree January 25, 2015

Christians disagree about almost everything. There is a story I heard a few years ago. A Scottish protestant is rescued after many years of living alone on a desert island. When he is picked up, the captain says to him, “I thought you were stranded alone.” “I was,” replied the castaway. “Why are there than three thatch huts on the beach?”

“Well, the first one is my house, and the second one is where I use to go to church.”

“What about the third one?” “Oh, that’s my new church.”

Not a New Problem

I would like to start with the observation that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the very beginning. In fact, the New Testament itself records some of the early arguments among believers. When you read Romans and I Corinthians, you discover that Christians disagreed on things like; Eating meat offered to idols, on whether or not to observe the Sabbath Day, on whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian, and on whether or not to drink wine.

In Colosse the church was torn by controversy over the proper role of angels, New Moon celebrations, and the proper diet for spiritual Christians.

In Thessalonica the young church was deeply confused about the Second Coming of Christ. In Philippi there was evidently a major power struggle within the church, which is why Philippians contains such a strong plea for unity.

I know that there are some doctrines that Christians have always believed. These are fundamental issues having to do with the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ—His virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death and bodily resurrection, the nature of the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, salvation by grace through faith, the certainty of the Second Coming of Christ, the reality of heaven and hell, and the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

While the precise wording has often differed, and some groups have emphasized one doctrine over another, true Christians have always affirmed these doctrines. You can find these things, said in various ways, in the earliest creeds of the church. In this message I am not speaking about disagreements over these fundamental, non-negotiable doctrines. These truths are not “up for grabs,” or dispute what I am talking about are might I call Category 2 disagreements–areas of doctrine or practice not involving the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Reflections on an Ancient Quarrel

That brings us back to the basic question. How do you determine God’s will in those areas where Christians disagree? In order to help us answer that question, let’s study the record of an ancient quarrel between two old friends.

Acts 15:36-41 tells the story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. We pick up the story in verses 36-38:

“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.”

Don’t rush past that last sentence. It’s a reference to an incident that took place on their first missionary journey. Three of them had gone out together–Paul, Barnabas, and Barnabas’ young cousin, John Mark. In their travels they came to Pamphylia, a coastal province of Asia Minor.

Luke tells the story this way in Acts 13:13-14, “Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia.”

The most interesting fact about this passage is what it doesn’t say. We do not know why John Mark left the team and returned to Jerusalem. In looking at the itinerary, it’s clear that the easiest part of the journey was behind them. Ahead lay long mountain treks into possibly unfriendly towns. Perhaps it was more than John Mark bargained for. Perhaps he couldn’t get along with Paul. Who knows? Maybe he felt that his cousin Barnabas should be the leader. Perhaps he was homesick for Jerusalem. Luke’s terse prose records the facts but nothing more. From reading these words you would not infer any problems behind the scenes.

But this much we know. At a crucial moment, John Mark suddenly left the team. No one knows the exact reason, but one day he said “I’m leaving.” So he left Paul and Barnabas and returned home. When the time came for the second trip Barnabas said, “Let’s give him another chance.” To which Paul replied, “Forget it. We’re not taking him.” So they argued over whether to take John Mark with them on the second trip.

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 commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (vv. 39-41).

In the end Paul and Barnabas disagreed so sharply that they finally decided to go their separate ways.

Using this passage as a base, I want to share with you some principles that will help you discern God’s will in areas where Christians disagree.

Principle # 1: Though all Christians worship the same Lord we don’t always agree on every


Example: The number of denominations proves that point. Just type in Christian denominations on your computer and look through the list of churches in any area of the country or even in town. We have different churches and different denominations precisely because we don’t see eye to eye on lots of issues. And inside every local church, you will find a bewildering variety of opinions.

Just as an example, there is a fascinating article called Church Attire I read recently; It’s all about how what people wear when they come to church. I can still remember when mom and dad dressed all four Hurst kids before we went to church. Clean clothes a nice shirt or blouse shoes polished and you had to have your hair combed. We also had to “dress up” on Easter, which meant wearing a tie and a jacket.

It used to be that everyone “dressed up” for church. Women wore dresses; men wore coats and ties. And the pastor always had on a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie. He never even wore a sport coat. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is it part of the Jesus doctrine? I could start a pretty good argument with some of you on that point, if I wanted to couldn’t I?

I have some thoughts on this matter but the truth here is they are my opinions and or preferences, not biblical convictions. And lots of good people view matters differently. And they dress differently too.

That’s just one example of the larger point, Christians unite around Jesus Christ and argue about almost everything else.

Principle # 2: On issues of deep personal conviction, our disagreements will sometimes be very sharp.

Let’s go back to Acts 15. Verse 39 tells us that Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement. The Greek text uses a word from which we get the English word paroxysm, which means a violent disagreement. This particular Greek word means a violent, hostile, angry, harsh, sharp, bitter disagreement. The King James translations say they “disagreed sharply” or “argued.”

It’s not as if Barnabas said, “Well, I would like to take Mark.” Paul “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

Barnabas “But he’s such a fine boy.” Paul “But he left us.” “Let’s pray about it.” No! They weren’t that nice about it. In fact, the verb is in the imperfect tense, which means a continual quarrel–unending, unyielding, ongoing, heated, intense, deep disagreement between them.

Their argument was continual and it was contentious. They didn’t just argue once and then let it go. They argued over and over again. And the more they argued, the angrier they got. Barnabas knew he was right. Paul knew he was right.

That raises a critical question. Who was right–Barnabas or Paul? The answer is neither for if they had done what Christ had instructed them to love one another as he loved them. This would not have been an issue.

The Ministry or the Man

I believe Paul was thinking about the ministry. He had the big picture in mind. He was thinking about the fact that they were about to leave on a missionary trip.

This was no Sunday school picnic. They were going into uncharted territory to take the Gospel to lost people. They were going into mountainous regions. They were going into places where they would face death every day. On the first missionary journey–the one John Mark had left, Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra. They could hardly expect anything better this time around. They would face opposition, persecution, hardship, and sickness. Paul knew that there was no place for a quitter on a trip like that. Paul focused on the people he was trying to reach. He couldn’t take the risk of having John Mark walk out on him again. He needed someone he could depend on 100%. That’s what I mean when I say that Paul was looking at the ministry.

Barnabas was thinking about the man. We know that John Mark was his cousin, which means there were family issues to consider. When Barnabas looked at John Mark, he said “We serve a God of grace. He is the God of the second chance. Our God never gives up on anybody.”

Barnabas saw real potential in his young cousin who had turned away when things got rough. “Paul, maybe you’ve written this guy off, but I’m not writing him off because God has not written him off. I believe in him even though he has failed. I want to give him another chance.”

So who do you think was right? Your answer tells us more about you than about this text of Scripture. Everyone has an opinion. If you’re people-oriented, you’ll probably move toward Barnabas. If you’re task-oriented, you may side with Paul. That leads us directly to the third principle.

Principle # 3: Unity or what we call harmony may not mean always agreeing.


I find it interesting that Paul–the man who didn’t want to take John Mark–writes more about the unity of the church than any other man in the New Testament. Here are a few things that he said?

Romans 12: 10; “Love one another with brotherly affection”.

Romans 12:16; “Live in harmony with one another”.

Romans 12:18; “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all”.

Ephesians 4:3; “(Be) eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”.

Philippians 2:2; ” Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in

full accord and of one mind”.

Colossians 3:13; “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another,

forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive”.

All those verses came from the pen of Apostle Paul. Yet Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree, then perhaps we won’t always agree either and that’s ok.

We can summarize the matter this way. The command from Jesus for unity or harmony is always there. Sometimes we will have to obey it separately. In that light this text is helpful because it is so honest about two men and their disagreement. Isn’t it interesting that Luke includes this in the Book of Acts? He could have glossed over the whole affair. But he chose to tell the truth. This text is both honest and very comforting because it tells us that men of the Bible were not angels. They were men with strong feelings, with strong convictions and faults.

Principle # 4: God’s work is sometimes advanced through disagreement.

Let’s add Romans 8:28; “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. ” Even our sharp disagreements and this does not justify anger or bitterness, but it does illustrate the biblical principal that God is able to make the wrath, anger and inflated false ego of man into a praise of Him.

Throughout church history, the Christian movement has often grown through disagreement. For instance, the Reformation started over a disagreement about indulgences that led to deeper disagreement over justification by faith.

Martin Luther never intended to start a new church. He truly meant to reform the existing church. But when the Catholic Church booted him out, he established churches based on the teaching of justification by faith, and from that beginning the Gospel begins to spread to the ends of the earth. God is able to use disagreements to advance the cause of Christ.

If the truth were known, there is some “dirty linen” in the family tree of almost every local church.

God is able to work through even the most painful experiences of life not only to bless you, but to prepare you and to enable you to reach the place where he wants you to be. I have seen that principle at work in my own life.

Many years ago I came to a moment of serious disagreement with two of my military brothers. Months of pressure culminated in a late-night meeting that almost ended in blows. Awful things were said, unkind words spoken, harsh judgments made, friendships broken. When it was over, I went through a painful period during which I faced my own frustration and failure in this matter.

Months later, God used that lesson to pry me loose from one place and set my feet moving in a new direction. Through that painful experience, I learned that God is able to use the worst parts of my life to show me his will in my life. Nothing is wasted with our Heavenly Father. Out of the ashes of defeat we hear the voice of God. When the battle is over, when tempers have cooled, when our anger is gone, we hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Now follow me and I will be your guide.”

Principle # 5: In Christ our ultimate goal should be eventual reconciliation and the restoration of friendship and unity.

This doesn’t come easily. I know exactly what I’m talking about at this point. From personal experience, I can tell you that it’s not easy to restore fellowship with brothers who have been offended. In the experience I alluded to earlier, it took seven years (and a lot of water under the bridge) before we could come together, put the past behind us, and be truly be bothers in arms again.

Let’s go back to Acts 15-16. The argument is over, nothing more needs to be said, both men are angry, hurt, and frustrated. Paul goes north, Barnabas goes west. They separate and as far as we know they don’t meet again for years. Time passes, tempers cool down, a new perspective comes, they begin to see things in a different light, and the Holy Spirit does His healing work.

Let’s run the clock ahead about 10 years. How does Paul feel about Barnabas now? We have only one hint. In 1 Corinthians 9:6 he mentions Barnabas as a fellow apostle and a fellow worker in the cause of Jesus Christ. Ten years pass from the time of the argument and Paul is able to look at Barnabas and say, “My friend, my fellow apostle, my partner, my co-worker.” Something had happened to bring about reconciliation and healing.

Now for those of you that are at least 25 then the phrase “Now for the rest of the story” will mean something to you. {The trademark quote from radio personality Paul Harvey}.

Paul thought John Mark was a quitter. Did he ever change his opinion? Two passages of scripture answer that question. Fifteen years have passed and Paul is imprisoned in Rome. At the end of his letter to the Colossians 4:10 , he adds these telling words: “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas”. John Mark and Paul are not only friends, but now that Paul is in prison, who’s there taking care of him? That quitter, John Mark.

Three more years pass. Paul is in jail for the last time. Soon he will be put to death. From his prison cell in Rome he writes to his young friend Timothy. These are his last recorded words in Scripture. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul talks about the fact that so many people have left him-Demas has forsaken me. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry”. We see here that Paul had sent John Mark on a mission and know was requesting his return.

In his last days Paul wanted John Mark by his side. What a change from his earlier opinion. Once Paul didn’t want anything to do with him because he thought he was a loser, but at the end of his life, Paul says, “Bring him to me. I need him.” That’s what the of Jesus Christ can do if we let him.

Our danger is that not only that will we disagree, but when we have crossed the line from justifiable disagreement to anger and bitterness. Let me share four warning signs to help you know when you’ve crossed that line.

Four Warning Signs

Number one: When the issue becomes a controlling passion of your life. You’ve crossed the line when all you do is lie awake at night thinking about that incident. That’s all you can think about, it’s all you can talk about during the day. You’ve gone too far when the issue–whatever it is–becomes the controlling passion in your life.

Number two: When you begin to attack the person and not the problem. Attacking the problem means studying the issue, sorting out the good and bad points, thinking through other ways of looking at things, and so on. Attacking the person means losing your temper, questioning motives, and using intimidation to get your own way.

Number Three: When it gets personal, you’ve gone too far. In the heat of controversy it’s easy to spread rumors or tell stories or twist facts in order to make someone else look bad.

At that point you’ve gone way over the line. It doesn’t matter how big or how little the issue is, you need to discuss it rationally without stooping to rumor and character assassination.

Number Four: When you would rather talk about “your issue” than about Jesus Christ. This is often where Christian disagreement ends up. Jesus becomes a casualty of our in-fighting. Sometimes our message to the world seems to be, “God loves you but we hate each other.” Too often we fight so much about secondary things that Jesus gets pushed to the side. Is it any wonder that the world shrugs off our message?

Summary: Let me make a spiritual point. The Holy Spirit often uses conflict, disagreement, failure and disappointment to reveal God’s will to you. If we have to disagree–and sometimes we will and do, and then we have to agree to disagree, then let us disagree agreeably–with respect and not anger or bitterness. When you would rather fight other Christians than share Christ with the lost, something has gone wrong in your spiritual life. We need to get it back on Christ and his teachings. Sometimes our disagreements seem so deep that we think that we are separated forever. But because we’re still in the family of God, there’s always room for reconciliation.

Thank you

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