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The Sharp Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas

Posted by on Nov 3, 2011 in scripture, service, unity | 10 comments

The Sharp Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas

In Acts 13, God sends Paul and Barnabas out of Antioch into the wilds of the Roman empire in order to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to gather together and strengthen those who begin following Jesus. They took Barnabas’ cousin John Mark with them. They travel through Cyprus to the southern part of modern day Turkey and the cities of Attalia, Antioch (of Pisidia), Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Somewhere between Cyprus and Antioch (of Pisidia), John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem. When they had been in Derbe for some time, Paul and Barnabas traveled back through those same cities before sailing back to Antioch.

They remained in Antioch for “no little time.” During that time, some believers from Judea began teaching that Gentiles must keep the law and be circumcised in order to be saved. So, Paul, Barnabas, and other traveled down to Jerusalem to find out what the believers (including the apostles and elders) in Judea were teaching concerning this matter. Once that was straightened out, Paul and Barnabas along with Judas and Silas (and probably others) traveled back to Antioch, and they all worked with the church to build up the believers there.

Eventually, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they return to the places they had visited in Cyprus and Asia. (Acts 15:36) Barnabas thought it was a great idea, and wanted to take his cousin John Mark along again. (Acts 15:37) Paul disagreed.

This is how Luke describes what happens because of their disagreement:

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.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41 ESV)

Now, I’ve heard this “sharp disagreement” described in many ways today – usually in terms of modern denominational disagreements. But, there are some clues in Paul’s letters that the disagreement was not as disastrous as we might think.

Most commentators point out that Paul mentions John Mark in later writings (that is, after this disagreement) such as Colossians 4:10, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. They conclude that Paul and John Mark had “made up” between the time of the disagreement and the times when Paul mentioned him in this letters.

But, what about Barnabas? Some point to Galatians 2:13 as an indication that Paul harbored some kind of resentment toward Barnabas. However, I noticed something interesting recently that may show that Paul and Barnabas remained in close communication, even though they were serving Jesus in different areas.

Consider this passage in Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth:

Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? (1 Corinthians 9:4-6 ESV)

In this passage, Paul associates very closely with Barnabas. He presents himself and Barnabas as examples for the Corinthians. Yet, Barnabas was not with Paul when Paul came to Corinth. Paul’s disagreement with Barnabas – and their separation – happened about 2 years before Paul traveled to Corinth, and the disagreement occurred 4-5 years before Paul wrote the letter that we call 1 Corinthians.

Yet, Paul knew Barnabas’ practices (i.e., that he worked to support himself), and he knew that the Corinthians would be familiar with Barnabas and his practices, familiar enough that Paul could use Barnabas as an example without further explanation.

While Paul and Barnabas certainly disagreed about whether or not to take John Mark with them, and they certainly began serving separately. But, I’m beginning to wonder if this “sharp disagreement” caused the same kind of break in fellowship that we often see today because of disagreement. To me, it seems more likely that Paul and Barnabas maintained fellowship and even maintained communication with one another in spite of their disagreement and in spite of deciding to continue their work separately.

What are you thoughts on this topic?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 11-3-2011


    It seems to me that we do not have record in the NT of the same issues that cause most of our denominational divisions today causing similar divisions in the NT church. There were clear orthodoxy vs. heresy issues, on which the answer is clear: if others are teaching “another gospel, which, in fact, is no gospel at all, let them be anathema.” There were also those who kept Jewish dietary regulations and those who didn’t, and calendar traditions and those who didn’t (Rom. 14). We have Paul’s guidelines for how to deal with these types of differences. But it seems to me most of the things denominations divide over today are of a different nature somewhere in between these two categories.

    While the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas was over more of a personal than a doctrinal issue, I think it at least points to the possibility of agreeing to work separately on different “ministry projects” for the sake of not losing precious time and resources when you can’t come to a joint decision over something, while at the same time continuing to treat the other party as a brother in Christ, and a full-fledged member of the Body of Christ.

    Is a logical extension of this principle the denominational system we have today? Perhaps, as long as we don’t anathematize those in other denominations and we do all we can to continue to treat them as full-fledged members of the Body. There are certainly exceptions and nuances to be considered in all this, though.

  2. 11-3-2011

    I think it should also be noted that the disagreement wasn’t about a heresy

    If someone teaches heresy and they disagree then we should not fellowship with them

    We need to be careful not to take things to the extreme by saying that disagreements NEVER break fellowship

    I don’t fellowship with many who call themselves christians because they teach heresy and we disagree because of that

  3. 11-3-2011


    Denominations are here… and probably here to stay. I’m not concerned with the question of whether or not denominations are good or bad. I’m sure there are positives and negatives in each person’s experience with them. I’m only hoping to encourage people towards unity in Christ – even across denominational boundaries. If I’m right in this post, then even though Paul and Barnabas worked separately, they did not separate from one another.


    Yes, we see examples in Scripture of believers separating from others and being instructed to separate from others for various reasons. In each of those cases, the person is to be treated as if he or she was not a Christian. Today, Christians tend to separate from one another but continue considering the other person a Christian (at least in name).


  4. 11-3-2011

    I don’t tend to call many people christians unless I use “quotes” =D but yeah I definitely don’t consider heretics believers

    But for some the line is thinner than others

  5. 11-3-2011

    Paul and Peter also separated. That’s how we came to have the catholic church–from Peter, the protestant church–from Paul (who started so many different ones, which is why there are so many protestant churches), and the greek orthodox church–from Barnabas.

  6. 11-3-2011

    I am also struck by the fact that the words “sharp disagreement” are not actually there in the Greek, but rather the idea of a contention or controversy. Those we will always have, if only because we all see in part and know in part. We must guard our thoughts and deeds, and never allow them to become the sort of “sharp disagreement” that leads to decisiveness. I have some close brothers in the Lord, we disagree on many theological/doctrinal points, but we have chosen to major on the majors, and forget about the minors … we can agree on the basic tenets of the Christian faith and the rest really doesn’t matter. As Paul said to the Corinthians: For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

  7. 11-4-2011

    I do hope that last comment was a joke…….

  8. 11-4-2011

    Nope, true story. Didn’t you take catechism, Mike?

  9. 11-4-2011

    One man’s heretic is another man’s brother with a differing opinion.. I believe the difficulty (at least for me) is trying to define what is heresy. In Galatians, as David mentions, Paul describes those who teach anything but Gods grace as being accursed. Those are very strong words, and opens up a real can of worms for me.

    Paul is very clear in his letter to the Galatians that anything apart from the grace of God (and not the mercy of God. But that’s a totally different subject) is anathema. Does that mean that today’s legalistic teaching by some churches and pastors make them anathema? Does this mean any leader who demands that we tithe 10% is now anathema as opposed too those who say that all your money belongs to God?

    I post this not so much to state my belief, but to ask a question. It is a bit confusing to me at times because it can be a real struggle trying to find that so-called “middle ground”.

    We are told to accept those who have different opinions as our brother. But it’s the opinion that can be so difficult to define. Sure, there are those that are easy to “peg”; those who call themselves disciples, yet deny Jesus as being God. But apart from that example, the waters become a bit muddy.

    Alan, didn’t mean to hijack your thread. It’s just that you did such a god job with your post that it got me thinking!

    Marc S.

  10. 11-4-2011


    For God, the line is crystal clear. For us… not always clear. :)


    Thanks for straightening that out for us. ;)


    Interestingly, the word translated “sharp disagreement” in Acts 15:39 is the same word translated “to stir up” in Hebrews 10:24.


    The best thing about blogging is when a post gets someone thinking…