“They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” (Acts 15:39a).  This had to be a very painful separation.  Barnabas had been the first to recognize the authenticity of Paul’s conversion and the first to vouch for him when the rest of the disciples “were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26-30).  When Barnabas saw what God was doing in Antioch, he “went to Tarsus to look for Saul and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch” (Acts 11:25-27).  Most importantly, perhaps, they had made the first missionary journey together (Acts 13 and 14).  They had been friends for at least a decade.


What caused this “sharp disagreement” that caused them to “part company”?  It seems to me that it was a difference in convictions concerning two Biblical values.  The “presenting problem”, of course, was whether or not to take John Mark with them on their second missionary journey.  Paul focused on the Biblical value of the integrity of the mission; Barnabas on the Biblical value of the worth of the individual.  Paul did not want to take any risk of compromising the mission by bringing along someone who had “bailed out” on their first missionary journey.  Barnabas, on the other hand, wanted to take advantage of the chance to “rehabilitate” John Mark, reflecting his commitment to the worth of the individual.  Their deep commitments to their respective values caused them to split up and go their separate ways.


The first question one is tempted to ask in assessing a conflict in values like this is “Who is right and who is wrong?”  That is almost always the wrong question to ask, however.  In almost all conflicts involving two committed followers of Jesus Christ, both are partly right and both are partly wrong, and there is not much point in trying to divvy up percentages.  In this case, both Paul and Barnabas were partly right, because they were both defending Biblical values.  Incidentally, Paul later tacitly admitted that Barnabas was right when he wrote, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (II Timothy 4:11).


It seems to me that we often face similar tensions of values in the Body of Christ today.  Most of the Lord’s servants are very passionate about the values that underlie their ministry, and when we are passionate about different values, this can lead to tension or even conflict.  One tension we often experience is one between the Biblical values of the mobility of the Gospel and the purity of the visible church.  Perhaps this is not the best way to express this tension.  Another way might be to say that there is a tension between missionality and maturity, or perhaps between evangelism and discipleship.  For example, one veteran Navigator staff told me several years ago that he felt that the emphasis in the Navigators had shifted from discipleship to evangelism.


I realize that it is easy to offend everyone in a discussion like this.  Those who are more committed to the mobility of the Gospel probably resent the implication that that they are not committed to purity, and those who are more committed to doctrinal and ecclesiastical purity probably resent the implication that they are not committed to the mobility of the Gospel.  That is not what I mean to imply.  I believe that we are all committed to both of these Biblical values, but very few, if any, of us are committed to them equally.  Most of us have a preference for one over the other, but on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 would be an exclusive commitment to the mobility of the Gospel and 10 an exclusive commitment to the purity of the visible church, I doubt that many, if any, of us would fall below 4 or above 6.  In other words, our differences are a matter of degree, not kind.  The same was probably true of Paul and Barnabas with respect to their difference of values.  Nevertheless, it has been my experience that it doesn’t take a very big difference of values to generate significant tension, and even conflict, between passionate people.  And we are nothing if not passionate!


So how should we manage philosophical diversity in the Body of Christ?  Are we doomed to separations because of sharp disagreements like Paul and Barnabas?  I would like to suggest three things that might help us to manage our philosophical diversity.


1.      Respect: It is very easy for passionate people to become so emotionally involved with our values and ideas that we can communicate a lack of respect for those who disagree with us.  It is more important to respect those with whom we disagree than it is to win the philosophical debate.


One of the things that has struck me about the culture of the U.S. military since I have re-engaged with the Navigator ministry to the military is the culture of mutual respect that exists in the military today.  For example, one very high-ranking officer was recently forced to resign in disgrace because he treated an enlisted man with disrespect.  I believe that that would have been unthinkable 30-40 years ago.  Back then, respect was much more a one-way street. 


2.      Give the benefit of the doubt:  I have often thought that half the conflicts in the Body of Christ could be avoided if we would just give one another the benefit of the doubt.  Giving the benefit of the doubt would include assuming that my brother is committed to the same Biblical values as I am, if not to the same degree.  It is easy for passionate people to assume that those who are not as passionate as they are about something don’t care about it at all.  In my experience, that is rarely, if ever, the case.  If my brother or sister is not as passionate as I am about the mobility of the Gospel or the purity of the visible church, I need to give the benefit of the doubt that he or she nevertheless shares my Biblical values, even if it is not to the same degree.


3.      It is more important to be godly than it is to be right:  I tend to think that the other 50% of the conflicts in the Body of Christ that are not resolved by giving the benefit of the doubt could be avoided by applying this principle.  Nancy says that I have the gift of exaggeration, and this probably proves her right (!), but I really do believe that this would help.  I have often heard that the #1 cause of missionary casualties is inability to get along with other missionaries.  One reason for this, I believe, is violation of this principle.  There is a lot at stake on the mission field.  Missionaries have left their country, their language (often), their homes and their extended family to advance the Gospel, usually in a very difficult situation.  It is very important to “get it right”, and the slightest disagreement over what that looks like can cause serious tension or even conflict.  Remembering that it is more important to be godly than it is to be right can help us avoid turning a minor philosophical difference into a big deal.


Someone who has done an outstanding job of balancing these two Biblical values of the mobility of the Gospel and the purity of the visible church is Dr. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  He has written an excellent paper on “The Missional Church”.  May God give us the grace to effectively balance these two Biblical values that are often in tension with one another.


                                                                                                John Ed Robertson

                                                                                                May 24, 2005