Much has been written on the infamous incident between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. The disagreement was over a young guy called John Mark. He deserted them on a previous missionary trip (Acts 13:5). Now, as they’re about to embark on a new journey (Acts 15:36-41), Barnabas feels John Mark should be given another chance to travel as part of their team. However Paul insists this should not happen. This ‘sharp’ difference of opinion leads to a fallout between Barnabas and Paul and the subsequent departure of Barnabas, of whom we never hear again in Acts. Meanwhile, Paul is left to continue on.
Writers have pondered much over this sad story. Numerous observations have been made about how mistakes can be made by even the holiest of people. Who could disagree with that? Many have also used the story to draw lessons on unity & the importance of extending grace in instances of failure. Important points no doubt. However the latter implies that Paul was incorrect in how he handled this situation. As seemingly noble as the spirit of this reflection might be, does it miss the point of the story? I think it does.
It’s always easier to draw conclusions from the safety of ignorance. But impartiality can be a cop-out that deludes us into living on a mountain of self-righteous and high moral ground which doesn’t actually exist. It seems to me that the real issue in this conflict was not really about unforgivness and lack of grace on the part of Paul. Rather it was to do with Paul’s genuine concerns about a lack of capacity in John Mark’s leadership. It’s not that Paul refused to forgive a young guy who messed it up. It’s that he felt John Mark couldn’t handle the pressure of being part of a leadership team at that time. It’s for this reason that I’m convinced Paul’s decision was right. Barnabas was a sincere man. But in this instance, he was sincerely wrong.
Admittedly, a comparison between these personalities doesn’t leave Paul looking like the more compassionate of the two. Barnabas was the kind of person you’d love to spend a day alongside, drink some tea with and just hang around. Thirty minutes in the company of Barnabas would help even the most discouraged person feel better. He was a good man whose name meant ‘son of encouragement’. This pretty much sums up the man.
Paul, on the other hand, was as different from Barnabas as chalk is from cheese. If Barnabas was mister lovable – Paul was mister Marmite. He certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was a towering intellect – the powerful apostle – the man on a mission to reach the then known world with the greatest news on the planet. This man was driven by strong passion and deep conviction. So it could be easy to understand why some writers might conclude that Paul’s force of personality was the problem here. However, such a conclusion would be unfair on the man who wrote two thirds of the New Testament and gave his life for the cause of the gospel.
As much as Barnabas had a heart of love and generosity that wanted to extend a second chance to John Mark, Paul’s decision to exclude John Mark from the team should never be seen as any less loving. The latter was actually an even greater act of love, though it didn’t feel like that to Barnabas and John Mark. It might have seemed unjust for Paul to have been so ruthless on John Mark. But surely it would have been far more unfair not to have learned lessons from the previous missionary trip? After all, why put someone in a position that exceeds their capacity? Incidentally, the church in Antioch clearly concluded that Paul had made the right decision concerning John Mark (Acts 15:40).
Truth is, John Mark wasn’t ready for leadership yet. Paul knew it. Barnabas probably did too. The danger with characters like Barnabas is that they, with good hearts and sound intentions, can allow emotional sentiment to overrule wisdom and patience. Paul did the right thing. It was a tough decision and he paid a heavy price for it, losing a close friend in the process (though there is evidence to suggest they may have reconciled (1 Cor 9:6).
Of course, John Mark came good in the end. Towards the end of Paul’s life, probably as he was awaiting his execution, he requests John Mark to come and see him as ‘he is helpful to me in my ministry’ (2 Tim 4:11). Did John Mark learn lessons from the Paul/Barnabas row? Did he learn to develop a greater capacity so he could be entrusted with greater leadership responsibility? I’d like to think so.The conflict between Paul and Barnabas teaches us that leadership is tough. For all his force of personality, Paul would undoubtedly have been devastated at losing his close friend. Often, the right decision is the hardest decision. There’s no guarantee that the right decision will make life any easier either. However, this is a price that good leaders are willing to pay. It’s always the right thing to do the right thing.


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