Being Christ’s church is no easy task.
As far back as the New Testament, churches have been dealing with weighty matters from Bible interpretation to theological wrangling so much that we should not be surprised when some churches fight and split.
Scripture provides us with a blueprint for how to manage conflicts in church.
The question of gentile inclusion in Acts 15, for instance, reveals a process of discernment that promoted communication, testimonies, Bible interpretation and compromise that produced healthy church growth.
A later incident in Acts 15 describes what happens when people in churches have irreconcilable differences that discernment cannot overcome. What happens when the only solution to disagreement is a parting of ways?
Acts 15:36-41 recalls a sharp disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on whether to bring John Mark on a second missionary journey. They did not come to a compromise and arrived at an impasse. Paul and Barnabas parted ways.
A close reading of the text reveals four effective strategies in managing a church conflict in which irreconcilable disagreements did not spell the end of friendships but exposed a new season of ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit.
1. Paul and Barnabas kept their focus on God’s mission and didn’t make the conflict personal.
The Bible clearly outlines that Barnabas and Paul had different personalities.
Barnabas was a bridge-builder who longed to keep everyone together. Mark was family, so there was a willingness to give him a second chance.
Paul was all business. He was not as forgiving, and God’s mission was at stake.
This strategy shows that when churches do conflict resolution well, they emphasize the mission of the church rather than resorting to personal attacks.
2. Paul and Barnabas valued communication.
Paul could have easily went along with Barnabas only to flirt with resentment if things went sour later in the journey, but Paul was honest with his friend. He trusted Barnabas with his concerns, and the “sharp disagreement” shows a deep sense of honor between the two men.
There was mutual respect, and in Paul’s later letter to the Corinthian churches (1 Corinthians 9), Paul still considered Barnabas his peer and equal after the division. They may not have agreed, but they still affirmed each other’s mission.
3. Paul and Barnabas had an understanding of God’s sacred time: There is a season for everything.
What may appear to be discomfort, disagreement or discord to us may simply be the Holy Spirit’s way of inspiring a new season of ministry.
In this season of ministry, Paul recognized that Mark was not the right guy for the job. Later, after Mark matured in the faith, Paul recruited him to minister to churches in Colossae as Paul remained in prison (Colossians 4:10).
The focus remained on the mission, and Mark was not necessarily the problem; sometimes, the problem is with our sense of timing.
When seasons of ministry shift, change and discomfort result from that restless anxiety that tips our hat to the movement of the Spirit.
In times of discomfort or disagreement, we need to stop, listen and assess where the Holy Spirit may be at work to break us into a new level of revival, mission, zeal or ministry.
4. In parting ways not by discord but by effective conflict resolution, Paul and Barnabas expanded God’s mission.
God’s mission does not collapse or implode or falter.
When we resolve conflict by our own strength and design, churches split and bring some ministries to an end. When God’s mission remains our focus and we make decisions because we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, God replicates and multiplies church communities.
As a result of their parting of ways, Barnabas and Mark ministered in Cyprus while Paul began a second missionary journey that ventured as far as Macedonia.
St. Crysostom wrote about this text, “What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common – a zeal to share the Gospel.”
When conflicts arise, our first step as Christians should be to put in place a process of spiritual discernment that seeks to bring reconciliation and restoration in the church and the church’s mission.
When irreconcilable differences occur, however, we must put in place a process of a different kind; yet, our concern should always be the same: Are we living deeper into God’s holiness and are we proactively reaching the lost with every decision that is made?
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida. He is the author of “Awe and Trembling: Reflections for the Christian Journey,” a book of articles and homilies. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Baptist Spirituality, and is used with permission.