Who Was at Fault for the First Recorded Church Split?

Acts 15

36After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return to each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are getting along.” 37Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. 38But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not shared in their work. 39Their disagreement over this was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. 40Paul chose Silas, and the believers sent them off, entrusting them to the Lord’s grace. 41So they traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia to strengthen the churches there. (Acts 15:36-41, NLT)


The Daily DAVEotional

If you’ve had many conversations with non-believers about Christianity and the gospel message, you no doubt have encountered questions about “all the different denominations” of Christianity.

To many non-Christians the existence of so many different groups and denominations is a kind of proof of the invalidity of the message. After all, if Christians can’t get along and they disagree enough to split over, how can we believe the message they are promoting is true?

This line of reasoning argues that if Christianity were really true, there wouldn’t be so many “versions” of it.

If you happen to agree with this, you might be surprised to know that Acts 15 records the first known church “split”.

Paul and Barnabas were the first missionary super-team, having been commissioned and sent out in Acts 11 by the church at Antioch. Along for the ride was John Mark, who was the cousin of Barnabas.

In Acts 13, when they arrived at Pamphylia, the text says that John Mark left to return to Jerusalem:

Now Paul and those with him left Paphos by ship for Pamphylia, landing at the port town of Perga. There John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem. 14But Barnabas and Paul traveled inland to Antioch of Pisidia.

The mention of John Mark leaving almost seems like an after-thought. There certainly isn’t any indication that his return to Jerusalem was anything more than an expected part of the plan.

But in chapter 15 we find out that John Mark’s return to Jerusalem was NOT a part of the plan – that he had left the team unexpectedly. In his first experience as a missionary apprentice, he washed out.

Now Paul and Barnabas are planning their return trip and Barnabas wants to take John Mark along. Paul wants nothing to do with John Mark, seeing as how he had deserted them on the previous journey.

Their opinion on this issue is so strong that they split. Barnabas takes John Mark with him while Paul selects Silas as his new sidekick.

When evaluating this situation, it’s natural for us to want to assign blame – to ask, “who was in the wrong?”

Let’s look at Barnabas for a moment. We first see Barnabas at the end of Acts 4 when he sells some property and gives the proceeds to the church. We learn that his name means “Son of encouragement”.

Barnabas was an encourager. He believed the best in people. It was Barnabas who first found Paul after he had converted and brought him to the apostles. Barnabas vouched for Paul when others thought his conversion story was just a ruse to worm his way into the church for the purpose of arresting and persecuting its followers.

And now Barnabas is wanting to give John Mark, his cousin, a second chance. It’s who Barnabas is.

But Paul is different. He’s a hard charger – a leader who is singularly focused. Because of Paul’s vision and determination, not only are numerous churches planted throughout the known world, but he writes half of the New Testament as well.

Being a missionary is serious business and Paul doesn’t have time for those who aren’t going to last.

So who was at fault? Who was wrong?

If you are an encourager like Barnabas, you’re likely to take his side and say that Paul was in the wrong.

However, if you’re a leader with a pioneering spirit like Paul, you’re likely to take his side and think that Barnabas was in the wrong.

In my opinion, neither was at fault or in the wrong. This is simply an example where two people with different personalities and different values could not agree. As a result, they decided to go their separate ways.

While some might bemoan the fact that they split as an example of “disunity” or even selfishness, consider the fact that by going their separate ways, their missionary labor force was essentially doubled.

In addition, God honored both groups. We see how Paul’s ministry continued to expand even without Barnabas by Paul’s side. Also, we know that John Mark did indeed learn from his previous mistakes, thanks to Barnabas believing in him. Even Paul, later in 2 Timothy 4:11, recognizes John Mark’s contribution when he states:

Only Luke is with me. Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me.

So who was at fault for the first recorded church split? Neither party. Instead, both parties stood firm to their principles and personalities and as a result agreed to dissolve their partnerships and form new ones. God uses each new missionary unit to further his kingdom purposes.

So while it’s true that there are many denominations and many different groups within Christianity, it’s an overstatement to assume that the reason so many groups exist is because of some sinful or immoral separation. Though it’s possible and even likely that some splits occurred because of sinful and selfish reasons, it’s also true that the existence of different groups is not because of sin or immorality but simply different preferences and choices that in no way negate the validity or truthfulness of the Christian message.

In other words, just as God honored and blessed the two different groups that emerged from the Paul and Barnabas split, the existence of many different groups within Christianity today should not be seen as evidence against Christianity but as proof that God is able to accomplish His purposes and expand His reach despite the conflicting preferences and personalities of those who claim to be His ambassadors.

Reflection

In this scenario pitting Paul vs Barnabas, are you on team Paul or team Barnabas? Why did you pick the side you picked?

What has been your response to someone who argues that all the different denominations must somehow be a proof against the validity or truthfulness of the Christian message?

What insights have you gained from this passage that might help you to address those who seem overly concerned about the number of churches and denominations within Christianity?

What do you see as the primary values each person (Barnabas & Paul) were holding onto in their disagreement? When do you think a person should hold fast to their principles and when do you think a compromise is warranted?

 

Photo by Matt Moloney on Unsplash

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