When Christians Disagree

Acts 15:36-41

October 31, 1993 | Ray Pritchard

We Christians disagree a lot, sometimes about the craziest things. I don’t know if you know it or not, but Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the very beginning. It goes all the way back to the days of the New Testament. When you read Romans and I Corinthians, you discover that Christians were disagreeing on things like eating meat offered to idols, on whether or not to observe the Sabbath Day, on whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian, on whether to drink wine or whether you should not drink wine. In the centuries since then we can summarize the situation by saying that Christians have disagreed on every possible point on which you can disagree and still be a Christian. No matter what issue comes to mind, if you look around the world you’ll find some Christians somewhere who disagree about it.

Consider the situation in Oak Park: There are 55 different churches in this one village. Across America there are four hundred major denominations. There are 36 different kinds of Baptists and over a dozen varieties of Methodists.

So what’s a person to do? When you come to those areas where Christians disagree, how can you make up your mind what’s right and what’s wrong for your life? How do you find God’s will in areas where Christians often disagree?

An Ancient Quarrel

In order to help us answer that question, let’s study the record of an ancient quarrel between two old friends. Acts 15:36-41 is the story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. They had just finished a very successful missionary journey in which God had given them great results. Now they are preparing to go out on their second journey together. We pick up the story in verse thirty-six:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back to all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.

That’s a reference to an incident that took place on that first missionary journey. Three of them had gone out together—Paul, Barnabus and Barnabas’ young cousin John Mark. In their travels they came to Pamphylia. They were in a difficult place, a mountainous region. Suddenly John Mark left them. He flaked out, he dropped out, he quit, he went back, he couldn’t take it. No one knows exactly what the reason was, but he came so far and then he said “I’m not going any farther, I’m leaving.” And so he deserted Paul and Barnabas and went back.

When the time came for the second trip Barnabas said, “Let’s give him a second chance. Maybe he did drop out, but he deserves a second chance.” But Paul says, “Forget it. We’re not taking him.” So they argued over whether to take John Mark with them on the second trip. We pick up the story in verse thirty-nine:

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strenghthening the churches.

Using this passage as a base, I want to share with you seven principles that will help us think clearly in areas where Christians disagree. These seven principles will help us think about how we should react to each other. They will help us know how we can begin to work out the will of God for our lives personally.

Principle # 1: Though all Christians worship the same Lord we don’t always agree on every point.

If you’ve been around the evangelical church very long, you know that we disagree about almost everything. Recently I made a list of some of the things that Christians disagree about:

The movies: Should we go or not?

Drinking wine

Watching TV

Eating out on Sunday

Playing cards

The King James Version

Men wearing beards

Women wearing pants

Divorced men serving as ushers

Home schooling

Mixed swimming {we used to call it mixed bathing}

Fishing on Sunday

Women wearing pants to church


Cooking with wine

Playing guitars in church

Rock music

Christian rock music

Christian rock music in church

Long hair on men

Short hair on women

Women working outside the home

Birth control

Should we let our kids go to the high school prom?

Women ushers

Working in a bar where liquor is served

Christian schools versus public schools

Speaking in tongues

R-rated movies

Boycotting K-Mart

Sex education

Rush Limbaugh

The ecumenical movement

Playing the saxophone in church

(I found that one in a book. When I read that, I thought to myself, “That is a good question.” I’ve never seen anybody play the saxophone in church. I’m not sure if its OK or not!)


Christians in politics, how far should we go?

Sunday night services

True Christians in liberal churches, should they stay as a testimony or should they come to an evangelical church?

Seeker services

Communion: How often? once a day? twice a day? once a week? twice a week? once a month? twice a month? once a quarter? once a year?

Christian counseling

Christian psychology

Christian psychiatry

Twelve-step programs

Faith-Promise Giving

Women wearing makeup

Clapping in church

Traditional worship versus contemporary worship: which one pleases God more?

Two observations about that long list: Number one, all of those are genuine issues about which there is genuine heart-felt disagreement in the greater body of Christ. The fact that you found part of that list funny just means that some of those things don’t bother you, but there are genuine, born-again, Spirit-filled Christians in other places who are deeply concerned about every item on that list.

The second observation is this: There is disagreement on some of those points even here at this church. For instance, as you read the different items, you probably said to yourself, “Well, that’s silly … I can’t believe anyone worries about that … There’s nothing wrong with_____________.” If we took ten people and asked each one to make a list of the things that are silly and the things that are wrong, the ten people could do it but those ten lists would be completely different. We wouldn’t even agree among ourselves on the silly stuff and the wrong stuff.

Principle # 2: On issues of deep personal conviction, our disagreements will sometimes be very sharp.

Let’s go back to the text. Verse 39 tells us that Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement. The Greek text uses a word from which we get the English word paroxysm, which means a violent disagreement. This particular word means a violent, hostile, angry, harsh, sharp, bitter disagreement. It’s not as if Barnabus said, “Well, I would like to take Mark.” “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” “But he’s such a fine boy.” “But he left us.” “Let’s pray about it.” No! They weren’t that nice about it. In fact, the verb is in the imperfect tense, which mean a continual quarrel—unending,unyielding, ongoing,heated, intense, deep disagreement between them.

Their argument was continual and it was contentious. They didn’t just argue once and then let it go. They argued over and over again. And the more they argued, the angrier they got. Because Barnabas knew he was right. And Paul knew he was right. That does raise the question, doesn’t it, who is right here? Was Barnabas right or was Paul?

Paul Looked at the Ministry

After studying the matter, I think you can make a good case either way. I believe Paul was thinking about the ministry. He had the big picture in mind. He was thinking about the fact that they were about to leave on a missionary trip. This was no Sunday School picnic. They were going into uncharted territory for the Gospel. They were going into mountainous regions. They were going into places where they would face death every day. They would face opposition, persecution, hardship, and sickness. Paul knew that there was no place for a quitter on a trip like that. He may have remembered the words of Jesus Christ, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.” Paul had his thoughts on the people he was trying to reach. In Paul’s mind he couldn’t take the risk of having John Mark walk out on him again. He needed someone he could depend on 100%. That’s what I mean when I say that Paul was looking at the ministry.

Barnabus Looked at the Man

Barnabas was looking at the man. We know that John Mark was his cousin, which means there family issues to consider. As they say, blood is thicker than water. When Barnabas looked at his young cousin, he said “We serve a God of grace. He is the God of the second chance. Our God never gives up on anybody.” Barnabas saw real potential in his young cousin, who had turned away when things got rough. He said, “Paul, maybe you’ve written this guy off, but I’m not writing him off because God has not written him off. I believe in him even though he has failed. And I want to give him another chance.”

So who was right? You tell me. Who do you think was right? Do you think it was Paul or Barnabas? A great case can be made either way. Sharp disagreements in church history have arisen over who was right in this argument. Every commentator has his own opinion about this. On Barnabus’ side you’ve got G. Campbell Morgan and Lloyd Ogilivie; on Paul’s side you’ve got F. F. Bruce and R.H. Lenski.

So who do you think was right? Your answer tells us a whole lot more about you than about this text of Scripture. I don’t think the Bible clearly tells us who’s right or wrong here. But everybody has an opinion. If you’re people-oriented, you’ll probably move toward Barnabas. If you’re task-oriented and you want to get the job done, you may move toward Paul. The Bible doesn’t clearly say who was right. What it does say is that on this issue, there was a very sharp, almost violent controversy that went on for a long time.

Principle # 3: Separation may ultimately be preferable to continual disagreement.

When they couldn’t agree, only one solution was left: They split and went in separate directions. So Barnabas took Mark and sailed west to Cypress while Paul took Silas (and later picked up Timothy) and went north into Asia Minor. Verse 39 says they “parted company.” That’s a weak translation. The word in Greek means “to part asunder.” It means a total break at that point in the relationship. They were so angry that when they left, they didn’t just part company, but their friendship at that point was torn apart. That’s how deep their convictions were.

As far as we can tell from this text, when Barnabas went one way and Paul the other, they evidently left unreconciled. Nothing in the text indicates that they got on their knees and prayed together. Maybe they did, but I don’t see it. All I see is a sharp disagreement and a separation. There’s no happy ending in this text.

At this point it’s important for us to review the biblical teaching on unity. I find it interesting that Paul—the man who didn’t want to take John Mark—writes more about the unity of the church than any other man in the New Testament. Do you remember what he says?

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Eph. 4:3.

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Romans 12:10

Live in harmony with one another. Romans 12:16

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Romans 12:18

All those verses came from the pen of Apostle Paul. I find that phrase in Romans 12:18 very interesting: “If it is possible.” Sometimes outward unity isn’t possible. This story shows us that fact. This is a hard word to realize, one that we’re not used to hearing in these days, but it is truth that is clearly taught in the Word of God. Sometimes separation may ultimately be preferable to continual, unending quarreling and disagreement. If Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree, then perhaps we won’t always agree either.

The command to unity is always there. Sometimes we will have to obey it separately.

In that light this text is helpful because it is so searingly honest about two men and their disagreement. Isn’t it interesting that Luke includes this in the Book of Acts? He could have skipped over it. He could have glossed over the whole ugly affair. He could have skipped the disagreement and said that Paul went north while Barnabas went west and we never would have known why. So this text is very honest. It’s also very comforting. Why? Because it tells us that men of the Bible were not angels. They were men with human passions, with strong feelings and with strong convictions.

Principle # 4: God’s word is sometimes advanced through disagreement.

Let’s do a simple before and after analysis:

Before After

Two men Five men

One team Two teams

One place Two places

Before the trouble, you have two men (Paul, Barnabus) on one team going to one place. After the argument is over, you have five men (Paul, Silas, Timothy, Barnabus, John Mark) in two teams going to two different places. From two in one place to five in two places, thus the Gospel is now being spread by more people in more places than ever before. That happens as a result of this sharp, strong personal disagreement. Write over this story Romans 8:28. For we know that all things—even our sharp disagreements—work together for good for those who love God. This does not justify anger or bitterness, but it does illustrate the biblical principal that God is able to make the wrath of men praise him.

This should not surprise us because throughout history, the church has often grown through disagreement. Each year we celebrate Reformation Sunday at the end of October. How did the reformation start? It started over a disagreement about justification by faith. The record is clear. Martin Luther never intended to start a new church. He truly meant to reform the existing church. But when they booted him out, he established churches based on the teaching of justification by faith, and from that beginning the Gospel spread to the ends of the earth.

I’m not in favor of church splits. But God is able to use disagreements to advance the cause of Christ. Calvary Memorial Church is proof of that fact. Seventy-nine years ago this church was started by some people who were members of mainline churches in Oak Park. They felt that the Bible was not really being taught and the Gospel was not really being preached, so they wanted a Bible-preaching, Gospel-centered church in this town.

They didn’t march in the streets or picket the liberal churches, they just determined to start a new church. The result is Calvary Memorial Church. We’re here because someone disagreed with what was going on in other churches. Separation—as painful as it may be—sometimes can be used for the advancement of the Gospel.

God Uses the Worst

Let me make a personal application at this point. The Holy Spirit often uses conflict, disagreement and disappointment to reveal God’s will to you. God is able to work through even the most painful experiences of life not only to bless you, but to prepare you and to enable you to move on to the place where he wants you to be.

I have seen that principle at work in my own life. Some years ago I came to a moment of serious disagreement with two Christian brothers. Months of pressure culminated in a late-night meeting that almost ended in blows. Awful things were said, unkind words spoken, harsh judgments made, friendships broken. When it was over, I went through a painful period of facing my own sin and failure. Months later, God used that terrible moment to pry me loose from one place and set my feet going in a new direction.

God is able to use the worst parts of life to show us his will. Nothing is wasted with our Heavenly Father. His delays do not mean denial and his detours are not dead ends. Out of the ashes of defeat we hear the voice of God. When the battle is over, when tempers have cooled, when our anger is gone, we hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Now follow me and I will be your guide.” God’s work is sometimes advanced through our human disagreement.

Principle # 5: If we must separate from one another, let us do so with respect, not with rancor.

Rancor means anger or bitterness. I think if there is any place to criticize Paul and Barnabas, it’s right here. It seems to me that perhaps they went too far in their disagreement.

It’s not a sin to disagree. We don’t have to agree on everything. You want a saxophone here on Sunday morning? Fine! That’s Ok. Want to go fishing? Go fishing. Want to wear pants, grow a beard, home school your kids, go right ahead. We don’t have to agree on every detail. But listen carefully. There is something called disagreeing agreeably. We can disagree without being disagreeable. If there is any mistake that Paul and Barnabas made, it’s that they may have crossed the line from strong disagreement into something that got very, very, very personal. Ray Stedman has some very helpful words we need to hear:

There are indeed times when the spirit of God leads Christians to go separate ways. Sometimes he leads us to go in different ways. But they should do so with joy and an agreeable understanding that the mind of their spirit has been expressed in a divergent viewpoint.

Our danger is that not only will we disagree and separate, but that we’ll cross the line from justifiable disagreement to anger and bitterness.

Three Warning Signs

Let me give you three warning signs that you’ve crossed that line. Number one: When the issue becomes a controlling passion of your life. You’ve crossed the line when all you do is lie awake at night thinking about that saxophone on Sunday morning. You wake up and you can just hear that saxophone blaring “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and it bothers you. And that’s all you can think about, it’s all you can talk about during the day. You’ve gone too far when whatever the issue is becomes the controlling passion in your life. If arguing about gambling is your issue, you’ve gone too far when that becomes the controlling passion of your life. If arguing about home schooling, public schooling, or private schooling becomes your controlling passion, if that’s all you can think about, all you can talk about, you want to argue about it all the time, you’ve gone too far.

Number two: When you’ve started thinking about revenge against those who have hurt you. Perhaps you want to get even so you begin to spread rumors or tell stories or twist facts in order to make someone else look bad. At that point you’ve gone way over the line.

Number three: When you begin to attack the person and not the problem. Attacking the problem means studying the issue, sorting out the good and bad points, thinking through other ways of looking at things, and so on. Attacking the person means losing your temper, questioning motives, and using intimidation to get your own way. When it gets personal, you’ve gone too far.

So if you have to disagree—and sometimes we do, and if we have to go our separate ways— and sometimes we do, then let us disagree agreeably. With respect and not rancor and not go across the line.

Principle # 6: In Christ our ultimate goal should be eventual reconciliation and the restoration of friendship.

This doesn’t come very easy. I know exactly what I’m talking about from personal experience, I can tell you that it’s not easy. But I think that’s what the Christian gospel is all about.

Back to the story in Acts 16. They go their separate ways. Paul goes north, Barnabas goes west and ultimately goes south, they separate, and as far as we know they don’t meet again for years and years and years. It’s not like they saw each other the next weekend. They left and were separated for many years. So years pass, tempers cool down, a new perspective comes, they begin to see things in a different light, and the Holy Spirit does his healing work.

Let’s run the clock ahead about 10 years. How does Paul feel about Barnabas now? We only have one hint. In I Cor. 9:6 he mentions Barnabas as a fellow apostle and a fellow worker in the cause of Jesus Christ.

Ten years pass from the time of the argument and Paul is able to look at Barnabas and say, “My friend, my fellow apostle, my partner, my co-worker.” Something had happened to bring about reconciliation and healing.

A Quitter Becomes A Trusted Friend

What about John Mark? Paul thought he was a quitter, a loser, a flake, a drop-out, a failure. Did Paul ever change his opinion? Two passages of scripture answer that question. Fifteen years have passed and Paul is imprisoned in Rome. At the end of his letter to the Colossians, he adds these telling words: “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.” John Mark and Paul are not only friends, but now that Paul is in prison, who’s there taking care of him? That quitter, John Mark.

Three more years pass. Paul is in jail for the last time. Shortly, he will be put to death. From his prison cell in Rome, he writes to his young friend Timothy. These are his last words in Scripture. In II Timothy 4, Paul talks about the fact that so many people have left him—Demas has forsaken me. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. “Get Mark and bring him with you because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” (4:11) In his last days Paul wanted John Mark by his side. What a change from his earlier opinion. Once Paul didn’t want anything to do with him because he was a loser, but at the end of his life, Paul says, “Bring him to me. I need him. I need to see him.”

Brothers and sisters, that’s what the Gospel of Jesus Christ can do. Sometimes our disagreements seem so deep that we think that we are separated forever. But even though we disagree, we’re still in the family of God. Because we’re still in the family of God, there’s always the possibility of reconciliation, of healing and of fellowship. Jesus Christ makes the difference.

A Split of a Split of a Split

Most of you have read the works of Francis Schaeffer, probably the greatest evangelical apologist of the last generation. But you may not know his religious background. He came from a split of a split of a split. He came out of a sliver of the Presbyterian church that is so small few people have heard of it. He came out of the most separated part of the Presbyterian church of the 30s and 40s.

He was the man God used to make the gospel relevant to millions of people. Along with his longer books, he wrote a little book called “The Mark of the Christian.” He argues that love must be the mark of the Christian. That’s the label we must wear in all our relationships. From that book I learned a truth: The world is not looking for outward unity, but outward love. We’ll disagree on a thousand issues. That’s Ok as long as we love each other. If we disagree, we can disagree agreeably and so demonstrate that we are still part of God’s great family of forgiveness. If we must disagree, even if we must separate, we must disagree with respect and not with rancor.

How do you do that? The only thing I can tell you is that you’ve got to forget the past. If you keep bringing up the past there can be no reconciliation. I think the way that Paul and Barnabas and John Mark reconciled is that when they got together, they said, “No rehashing of the past.” There is no point in rehashing issues that have already been settled. As long as you live in the past, you’re going to be fighting in the past. You’re going to be separated in the present because of things in the past. You have to forget the things of the past before healing can take place

Principle # 7: In all things, our rules should be hold your convictions firmly yet graciously knowing that God may lead someone else differently than he has led you.

What an important truth for the family of God. Hold onto your convictions but do it graciously. Romans 14:5 says “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” If you want a beard, hold onto that. Do you like your pastors clean-shaven? Fine! Hold onto that. If you’re a homeschooler, be fully convinced. Do you prefer the public schools? That’s okay. What about Christian schools? Great! Nothing I am saying implies that you shouldn’t have convictions. You should.

But that’s only part of it. Romans 15:5 offers the other side of the coin. “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So hold onto your convictions but do it in a loving fashion. Hold onto what you believe and at the same time work and pray for a spirit of unity so that together with the people with whom we disagree, with one heart and one voice and one mind we can glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s a lot easier to preach this thing than to do it. This is very difficult to do but it doesn’t matter. It must be the way we live. Hold onto your convictions. Don’t ever be ashamed of what you believe. Don’t back down from them. But hold them graciously. Understand that God may possibly work with somebody else a little differently than he works with you.

We’re different and that’s okay. We don’t agree on everything and that’s okay. Sometimes in the family of God we’re going to disagree strongly and that’s okay. Sometimes we’re going to disagree to the point that we can’t even work together any more. That’s okay too. Sometimes we’re going to go our separate ways and that’s okay.

Because there’s really only one commandment when you boil it all down. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) Only one thing is not okay: Not loving one another. No matter how much or how deeply or how passionately we may disagree, we must still love one another.

Five Steps to Follow

Let me give you five steps for discovering God’s will in doubtful areas where Christians disagree:

Number one: Pray for guidance.

Number two: Search the Scriptures to see what God has said.

Number three: Seek Godly counsel.

Number four: Ask God to give you specific direction.

Number five: Cheerfully do whatever God tells you to do.

Don’t grumble when other people see things differently. Do what God has told you to do and let God worry about those other people.

That brings me back to the original question: Who was right—Paul or Barnabas? I don’t think the Bible really answers that question. But I’m glad about that. So many of our arguments end up the same way. When it’s all over, you’re not totally sure who’s right. Even after you study both sides, you can see some points here and some points there.

Pillow Talk

In his book Prophecy in the Ring, Dr. Robert Lightner tells about a custom Japanese parents use when their children are fighting with one another. They bring each child into the room and put a pillow on the table. The child is angry and upset. The child puts his hands on the pillow and says, “I am right and my friend is wrong.” The child then moves to the other side of the pillow, puts his hands on it and says, “My friend is right and I am wrong.” The child then places his hands on the third side of the pillow, saying, “Both of us are right and both of us are wrong.” As he places his hands on the final side, very thoughtfully he says, “I am partly right and my friend is partly right.”

When we get to Heaven and look back on so many of the issues that have divided us, we will say the same thing. We were partly right and our friends were partly right. Between now and then, there are going to be plenty of disagreements in the church. That’s the price we pay for being human. But we have the opportunity to deal with our disagreements honestly and graciously because we know Jesus Christ. He makes the difference.

What do you do when Christians disagree? Hold your convictions but hold them in love. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?