Paul, Barnabus, and Mark as a Breakup Story?

Posted: July 15, 2017 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church


Paul and Barnabus disagree about John Mark

By Matt Horan

One argument for the splitting of the United Methodist Church that keeps coming up, including in the Wesley Covenant Association’s opinion about the best outcome for the “Way Forward” process involves the splitting up of Paul and Barnabus.

Acts 15:39: “Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus.

Our Biblical exegesis on both sides of the issue of spitting the church over homosexuality has been terrible.  The Good News magazine says that Paul and Barnabus “parted amicably,” but, well, it doesn’t say that at all.

I keep asking the question I feel is most important:

How should we decide when an admonition in Scripture should remain contextual, and when it should outlive it’s context and become an enduring standard?

We have already decided on some issues.  We no longer require women to remain silent in church.  We no longer make anyone with a rash live outside the city until their priest declares it cured.  We don’t stone disobedient children, we don’t punish rapists by making them reimburse the woman’s father for the lost “bride price” that the rape cost him, and Christians have been shopping at stores on Sundays for years, so apparently there’s some wiggle room on the whole Sabbath thing too.

Is there a way for us to discern which admonitions belong to the ages, and which should remain ageless?

For this article, let’s turn to Acts 15 as an argument for Methodist disunion. My understanding of Paul and Barnabus’ disagreement is that they fought over John Mark.  They were about to head out on a new journey into the unknown, but since Mark had abandoned them before, Paul wanted to take somebody else, while Barnabus’ wanted to give his nephew a second chance.

So why does Luke share this episode?  Is he passing on to Theophilus (the recipient of the Book of Acts) a rule of thumb he should follow in the event he were to have a theological disagreement with another believer?

It’s important to remember that, by the time the Book of Acts was written, Mark was widely known to the early church.  He is spoken of by Paul and Peter with increasing acceptance (Colossians 4:10) and even affection (2Timothy 4:11) over time, with Peter calling him “my son” in his last mention (1Peter 5:14) and entrusting him to be the author of his own remembrance of the Good News in the Gospel of Mark, which Luke even consulted when working on his own Gospel account.

If anything, someone hearing Acts for the first time, written years after the circulation of Paul and Peter’s letters, would have taken note of how far Mark had come since then.  He had basically been a home wrecker for Paul and his mentor, but was eventually restored as a requested co-laborer with Paul, and even went on to enjoy a close kinship with “the Rock” himself, Simon Peter.

Would Luke’s mention of Mark have served more to teach the practice of cutting someone loose, or would it have highlighted what’s possibile when you stick with them?

I’m all for consulting the Scriptures when deciding on our course of action.  If we consult Acts 15 and the fight over Mark, however, the end of that story seems to be amazing fruit borne not by ending relationships, but by restoring them.

  1. Matt, thanks for a thoughtful writing. The Paul/Barnabus separation does not strike me as analagous, since the issue was not theological. More near to our situation is the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, where deep theological matters were at the heart of how to relate to Gentiles. The Council was able to find a way forward, and that is the outcome which challenges all of us. It meant (and means) starting with an intent to remain together, establishing a process if holy conferencing committed to the intent, not putting out sub-group reports with ultimatims during the discernment process, and “stepping back” to allow the Holy Spirit to do things in our midst we cannot ask or imagine. That approach worked to create a larger unity in the Body of Christ in Acts 15. I dare to believe it could work again for us United Methodists.


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