“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, strengthening the churches.” (Acts 15:39-41) NIV
Disagreement lies at the heart of much of this world’s trouble and yet the church of God, comprising members with vastly differing opinions and viewpoints, proudly and rightly boasts of ‘diversity in unity’. A unity forged among communities of faith by the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:19-20).
It is unfortunate that most readers of the above passage focus solely on the disagreement as it arose and not on the overall solidarity and unity of purpose that followed.
It should be noted that the sharp disagreement which arose between Paul and Barnabas was not over any doctrinal matter. Their difference of opinion revolved around conflicting viewpoints as to how best the immediate work of mission could be served. To their credit, neither Paul nor Barnabas allowed their personal opinions, however strongly expressed, to distract them from their respective roles as missionary leaders and servants of the gospel and of the local church.
The young church at Antioch had grown out of social and cultural diversity where, for the first time, Jews and non Jews rejoiced together over the good news concerning Jesus. Antioch soon became a vibrant missionary centre as a direct result of this oneness of faith and love, forged out of a diverse mix of social and cultural Christian expression.
The gospel message was found to be strong enough to bind together such an unlikely assembly. There remained differences, but to paraphrase a popular hymn, ‘their differences became one’. They were united with a zeal for the gospel which had power to carry the message of the cross over many continents.
Even when a sharp disagreement arose between its two leading missionaries, this loving and spirit led community were quick to commend a solution (Acts 15:36-41 Barnabas and Mark retained their original commission) which resulted in a strengthening and an expansion of the missionary arm of the church, to the blessing and benefit of all (2 Timothy 2:11; Colossians. 4:10-11; I Corinthians 9:6).
In spite of strong differences of opinion, there remained a sense of mutual respect and an ongoing spirit of cooperation and selfless service (I Corinthians 9:6). Paul and Barnabas were acutely aware that the church is a community that works together as one, a communion of faith where individual differences are forged in a way that serves to strengthen and provide new opportunities, new approaches and new incentives to develop in the common work of the gospel. It is in this sense that our differences become one.
We need to pray that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, our differences, however sharply expressed at times, may continue to ‘become one’ as we strive together for more effective service and outreach in our collective and local communities of faith.