When the Jerusalem council on circumcision ended, Paul and Barnabas returned to Syrian Antioch. After a time Paul proposed that they make a second missionary trip together: “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36). Barnabas agreed to the plan and suggested that John Mark go along.
But Paul strongly objected. On their first missionary journey, John Mark “had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:38). Plainly, the young man’s decision to abandon the mission team had discouraged or frustrated Paul. Why should another disappointment be risked? But Barnabas insisted that John go with them. Paul just as firmly said no. Realizing that they had come to an impasse, the two mission partners parted ways.
As this narrative illustrates, many disagreements between Christians have nothing to do with doctrinal error or personal sin. The sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas resulted from a difference of opinion. Paul “thought best” to leave John behind (Acts 15:38), and Barnabas thought best to bring him along. Both men had good points in their favor. Paul reasoned that taking John Mark might threaten the mission team’s stability. Expecting intense persecution, he wanted to be able to count on everyone in the group. Barnabas, a gracious man who believed in second chances, contended that the young man had matured. John Mark would be more dependable now. Besides, John was his cousin (Col. 4:10).
Significantly, Paul and Barnabas refrain from personal attack. The biblical account of their dispute records no harsh words, nor does it suggest any lasting bitterness. In letters written a few years after this incident, Paul speaks warmly of both Barnabas and John Mark (1 Cor. 9:6; 2 Tim. 4:11). Are differences in the church inevitable? Yes. But unkindness and resentment are never appropriate.