How To Navigate Sharp Disagreements Which End in Separation
While in Orlando last month, I heard some excellent feedback about my book. “I wish you had included a chapter on handling irreconcilable conflicts in a peaceable way.”
My friend made a good point. Even our best efforts at preserving unity and pursuing reconciliation can end in a parting of ways. I wrote of two such painful episodes in recent experience in my 2018 review.
The New Testament records an account of just such a relational collapse between two missionaries in Acts 15:36-41.
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.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Both men shared the same worthy aim: revisit the places and people they reached in their first missionary journey to see how things were (Acts 13 & 14). However, they butted heads fast over the choice of an assistant.
Barnabas wanted John Mark along; Paul said, “No way!” The verb forms in vv. 37 & 38 suggest the debate persisted for some time. Eventually things deteriorated into “a sharp disagreement.” It’s one word in v. 39 in the Greek text. We get our word paroxysm from it. It means to provoke to anger (Acts 17:16; 1 Cor. 13:5). Things got hot–really hot.
Luke doesn’t include much detail about the dispute given his purpose within the book of Acts. He leaves us to wonder and speculate about some things. So with that disclaimer up front, here are the first three of seven insights for navigating sharp disagreements.
One, accept reality. This kind of thing does happen. Try as we might to prevent it, some conflicts don’t end happily–even between the best of individuals. This is Paul the apostle (Rom. 1:1) and Barnabas the son of encouragement (Acts 4:36) we’ve got here!
Two, examine self. Both men may have been right–though only Paul and Silas got sent off with Antioch’s commendation (40). Barnabas would have done well to question his motives potentially on three fronts: (1) family favoritism (Col. 4:10)–cousins–(2) prideful jealousy (Acts 13:2)–Barnabas and Saul had become Paul and Barnabas–(3) people pleasing (Gal. 2:13)–gospel hypocrisy. These giants of the faith admitted their frailty (Acts 14:15). We do well to remember and suspect ours as well.
Three, understand interests. This is a strategic part of the PAUSE Principle of biblical negotiation. Identify others’ concerns, desires, needs, limitations, or fears. The differing positions about John Mark stemmed from his abandoning ship on the previous mission (Acts 13:13). Perhaps Barnabas the encourager insisted on John Mark believing that grace warranted second chances. Paul may well have worried that it was too risky to entrust at that point such an important role to the young man (Prov. 25:19). Looking out for others’ interests (Phil. 2:3-4) goes a long way on the road to satisfactory compromise and relational rescue.
There’s a lot involved in traveling these tricky waters–too much for one article. In my next post I will cover the remaining four insights for navigating sharp disagreements which lead to a parting of ways.
Question: What questions might you have about this particular challenge? You can post your comment below.