Growth in Division: Lessons from Paul-Barnabas Breakup


The successful alliance of Paul and Barnabas broke up unexpectedly over a disagreement regarding John Mark rejoining the alliance. Paul held on to a position that John Mark could not be relied upon as a team member because he deserted the team in an earlier mission. In contrast, Barnabas was adamant on giving John Mark a second chance. They broke up over the “sharp disagreement” and continued with their mission as two separate teams [Acts 15:39–41].

© Popmarleo |
© Popmarleo |

However, their ministry (then two separate ministries) was not diminished: Paul teamed with Silas, Timothy, and others to spread the gospel through Macedonia and Greece. Barnabas successfully mentored Mark, who went on to write the second gospel. Later events showed they remained in good terms and showed interest in each other’s ministry as evidenced by Paul inviting Mark later to join his ministry. Also, Paul’s later interactions with Oneismus and Philemon indicate increased willingness to grant a “second chance” as he judged appropriate. Over all, we learn from Paul-Barnabas breakup that an alliance for the gospel or other human endeavor could experience problems including breakup but such problems need not result in diminished focus on the bigger picture.

In Alliance for the Gospel

As we discussed in an earlier bible study HERE, Saul of Tarsus that notoriously and viciously persecuted the early disciples later converted to Christ but, despite his conversion, remained doubtful to the brethren because of his earlier disposition toward them. It was Barnabas that sought out Paul and became the bridge builder between him and the other apostles, an act that ushered in Paul’s acceptance by the others. The two teamed up and went on to accomplish a lot for the early church. In their first missionary journey, they took along with them John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas [Colossians 4:10] but along the way, Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem [Acts 13:13]. When Paul decided that they undertake another missionary journey to revisit and strengthen the groups they established earlier, Barnabas suggested that they take John Mark along as a helper but Paul rejected the idea. The two held strongly to their views and a sharp contention arose between them. Sadly, the team split: Barnabas left with John Mark and Paul teamed up with Silas [Acts 15: 39–41].

Basis for Disagreement

© Ben De Bruyn |
© Ben De Bruyn |

It is important to note that Paul and Barnabas disagreed on process but not on doctrinal issues of our faith as Christians. A church or other Christian ministry could deal with disagreement on the application of bible principles or a leader being idealistic in approaching realities. However, such disagreement should not question the power or authenticity of the gospel or its fundamental basis such as the doctrine of faith or resurrection. The Paul-Barnabas team broke up because Barnabas wanted to work with Mark but Paul felt that Mark could not be relied upon having deserted the ministry earlier. Both positions are founded on sound biblical principles.

Paul’s Position

Paul’s position reminds us that faithfulness and reliability are essential requirements for the ministry. As he wrote to Timothy later: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” [1 Tim 4:12]. Also, to the Corinthians: “Now it is required that

© Iqoncept |
© Iqoncept |

those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” [1 Corinthians 4:2]. Solomon compares depending on the unfaithful to relying on a bad tooth or a lame foot: “Like a broken tooth or a lame foot is reliance on the unfaithful in a time of trouble” [Proverbs 25:19]. Christ taught about steadfastness and faithfulness when he explained that following him requires a lifetime commitment and no looking back: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” [Luke 9:62]. Therefore, Paul’s refusal to accept Mark a second time could be understood on the basis that Mark “looked back” when he deserted from the First Missionary Journey, therefore could not be relied upon for the continuing mission.

Barnabas’ Position

© Tashatuvango | - Second Chance Just Ahead
© Tashatuvango |

Also, the position of Barnabas to grant another chance to Mark could be understood on the basis that everyone deserves another chance. Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus [Luke 22:54–62] provides a good example, because he repented after he realized what he had done. He was later reinstated into leadership [John 21: 15–19] and proceeded to fulfill the mission that Jesus declared about him earlier: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” [Matthew 16:18]. A past sin does not necessarily predict future failure, if one repents and turns steadfastly to God. Therefore, we could conclude on this basis that Barnabas was determined to grant Mark a second chance because he believed Mark had repented from the earlier desertion and was ready to re-dedicate himself to the mission.

Remain Focused on the Bigger Picture

© Warapatrs |
© Warapatrs |

The breakup did not cause either man to lose focus on the mission. One could in fact say that what the devil intended for evil, God turned around for good. The breakup could have resulted in ending the ministries of Paul, Barnabas or John Mark. Instead, we see a Mark that proved himself so much that, later in their work, Paul acknowledged him in his letter to Timothy: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” [2 Timothy 4:11]. Peter also referred to him as ‘son’ in his first epistle [1 Peter 5:13].

Seek Growth Even in Division

Instead of one team of two, the division resulted in two teams of two. Each team went ahead to mighty exploits and achieved more than the original team of two could have. The accomplishments indicate God wanted the mission to expand to Macedonia and Greece, beyond Paul’s initial intention of revisiting the churches already planted. Paul teamed with Silas and was later joined by Timothy and others for the Second Missionary Journey that took Christianity to several parts of Europe and Asia. Barnabas teamed with Mark and sailed westwards to Cyprus. Although the bible doesn’t tell us more about Barnabas, Mark’s later work including authoring the second gospel provide evidence of successful mentoring by Barnabas.

No Wrong No Right

The bible did not tell us who was right or wrong and would have provided the information if it was important. We should not focus on assessing who is right or wrong, in the event of a strong disagreement in a church or other Christian ministry. We should rather focus on making each party stronger and better for it, so that they can go on to fulfil God’s purpose for their life.

Respect and Appreciate Others Even in Division

© Czaroot |
© Czaroot |

From the breakup of Paul-Barnabas team and their interactions (such as between Paul and Mark) after the breakup, we can learn about recognizing and appreciating the work of God in another person’s ministry. This is especially important to people that share a history that includes a separation. It is important to remain supportive and respectful of each other’s work. Paul remained knowledgeable of Mark’s work and later requested for Mark to participate in his ministry. This is a good example for present-day Christians. Our labor in the Lord’s vineyard should not be about competition and rivalry but complementing and supporting each other.


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