One of the things I love about Acts is that Luke never sugar coats conflicts and controversies that existed in the early Church. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke "tells it like it is," assuring us that even among believers in Christ who love each other, disagreements and conflicts arise.
In Acts 15, Luke recounts two conflicts, one theological with implications for the whole Church, the other personal.
The first conflict was over the threat posed by the so-called "Judaizers," Jewish Christians who, unlike Paul, Barnabas, and others, insisted that Gentile converts to faith in Christ had to submit to Old Testament Jewish ritual law. Paul and Barnabas felt that this added legalistic requirements to salvation and discipleship. The good news the early Church proclaimed is that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone and not by works of any kind. (This is the central teaching of the Christian faith.)
Paul and Barnabas therefore went to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders, the leaders of the Church, to seek a resolution of the matter. This triggered what we now call the council of Jerusalem. What emerged after prayer and discussion was the directive that Gentiles need not become practicing Jews to be part of the Church's fellowship. A request was also made to the Gentile believers that, out of consideration to Jewish believers in their fellowships, they refrain from a few behaviors.
The conflict was resolved.
Oddly enough, a second conflict arose later in Antioch between Paul and Barnabas. Paul wanted to go to the churches in the cities that he, Barnabas, and their team had gone earlier, places where they had established congregations. The purpose would be to see how the congregations were doing. Barnabas was evidently amenable to that, but wanted to take a young Christian named John, also called Mark, with them. But Paul recoiled at the notion, not forgetting that during an earlier mission, while in Pamphylia, John Mark had abandoned them. Paul deemed him unreliable.
Acts 5:39-41 tells us:
The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.The question this raises is this: Was the conflict between Paul and Barnabas resolved?
I think that it was.
They agreed to disagree and they parted ways.
Sometimes, brothers and sisters in Christ can affirm the faith of those with whom they have conflicts but decide that it's best if they not work directly together. That's OK. Someday in eternity, when God's sanctifying work in us will have been completed, we won't have any personality conflicts; we'll just love the diversity of personalities that all bear the image of God. But this isn't heaven and for now, we can sometimes rub each other the wrong way.
In fact, I think that the split of Paul and Barnabas at this point ended up being a good thing for the mission and future of the Church.
First of all, by splitting, they covered more territory, encouraged more Christians, and probably won more new converts to Christ than they would have had they stayed together, going to the same places.
Secondly, Barnabas, was able to fulfill his most important calling as a Christian.
Barnabas' real name was Joseph. But his nickname, Barnabas, meant, essentially, son of encouragement.
It had been Barnabas who had taken the new convert Paul (previously Saul, a persecutor of the Church) under his wing, encouraged him, and introduced the new convert to the skeptical apostles.
After taking John Mark under his wing, Barnabas was used by God to encourage another young Christian, one who would later, tradition says, pen the Gospel of Mark.
All in all, agreeing to disagree and the parting of ways by Paul and Barnabas to which the two agreed turned out to be a very good thing.
Conflicts get resolved in different ways.
What Acts 15 tells us then about conflict, I think, is that it's not intrinsically a bad thing.
Conflict is even an inevitable thing among people who are passionate about their faith.
Too many Christians operate with the false notion that Christians should never argue or disagree. The Bible repeatedly tells us, both overtly and by illustrative narration, that this isn't true.
When conflicts do arise among Christians though, there must be circumspection among the combatants. People need to ask themselves questions like:
- Why am I upset?
- What's really at stake?
- Is this conflict over a core theological issue (like the one raised by the Judaizers) or is this a personality clash (like the one over John Mark)?
- Would a compromise be faithful to God, Christ, and the Bible?
- Is this a conflict that requires the combatants to go their separate ways, even as they affirm each other's faith, and pray for personal reconciliation?
- Is this conflict great enough to warrant breaking the fellowship of the Church?
- Is this a time to invoke Jesus' formula for conflict resolution (Matthew 18:15-20) because you feel someone has sinned against you?