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

A Pivotal Council in the Early Church

While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians: “Unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  2Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question.  3The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them—much to everyone’s joy—that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.  4When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported on what God had been doing through their ministry.  5But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses.  6So the apostles and church elders got together to decide this question.  7At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe.  8God, who knows people’s hearts, confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he gave him to us.  9He made no distinction between us and them, for he also cleansed their hearts through faith.  10Why are you now questioning God’s way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?  11We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the special favor of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 15:1-11, NLT)


Acts 15 is perhaps the most important chapter in the entire book of Acts because it highlights an important dispute that arose in the early church.

The issue wasn’t just about the rite of circumcision. At issue was what was necessary to be saved. The dispute seemed to be led by some Pharisees who had been converted (see verse 5). These men believed that salvation was for the Jews and therefore, they believed that the only way a Gentile could become saved was to convert to Judaism. This meant adopting Jewish customs, including observance of the law.

Circumcision was really an outward representation that a person had converted to Judaism. So when these men from Judea began teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, what they were really asserting was that Gentiles needed to become culturally Jewish before they could accept the Jewish Messiah.

So the question became: can Jesus save non-Jews, or do Gentiles need to adopt Jewish culture and become Jews before they can be saved by the Messiah?

Paul and Barnabas argued that Gentiles didn’t need to adopt Jewish customs, including circumcision, but only needed to receive Jesus by faith in order to be saved.

Peter also advocated for this position as he recalled his experience with Cornelius, the Roman centurion in Acts 10. Peter noted that Cornelius and his family, all Gentiles, had received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews had, on the basis of faith alone.

All of the church leaders agreed. The issue was settled, and from that point on, it was clear that the Jewish Messiah was not just for Jews but for all the peoples of the world. And more importantly, it was clear that the only requirement to receive the Jewish Messiah was faith. It was not necessary to become culturally Jewish.

There are important implications for us today as we seek to share Jesus with a dying world. The principle here is that we are to present Jesus to people and not our culture. Sometimes, it’s easy to conflate the two. People need Jesus. They don’t need my culturalized version of Jesus.

Reflection

In what ways has your culture influenced your view and understanding of Jesus? 

How can you ensure that when you share Jesus with others you are not taking a Pharisaical approach – injecting cultural requirements into the gospel message?