Conflict in the church: Lessons from Acts 15

I grew up in a Mennonite congregation in Argentina. I remember the preaching and teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation both within the church family and also in relating with those outside the faith community.

I also remember situations involving tension and even the threat of division. Some of the concerns: diverging views on women’s use of head coverings in worship; participation in politics; and how to deal with divorced persons wishing to join or remain in the church.

More recently, the most difficult challenges faced both congregationally and on the conference level include who can become pastoral ministers and how widely inclusive we ought to be in welcoming new members and in occupying leadership roles.

Two related factors are always present in conflict situations like those mentioned above: on the one hand, what is right or true, that reflects and fosters faithfulness; and, on the other hand, love and grace that seek peace and foster reconciliation and community building.

The summons to “speak truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) nicely integrates the two factors involved.  

Another constant element of conflict in the church is the place of the Scriptures. The function of biblical interpretation in the search for resolution, conflict transformation and healing is indispensable. In the Scriptures we can find insight, inspiration and guidance.  

The remainder of this article consists of a biblical case study. It is offered as a model to consider while pondering the challenges and opportunities presented by conflict situations in our churches today.  

The Jerusalem council as prototype (Acts 15:1-35) 

Since the beginning, the church has needed to practice moral and spiritual discernment. It is a process of interpretation in which human experience is viewed and evaluated within its social-cultural context and in light of the Scriptures.  

An early and clear testimony of such practice is found in the account of the Jerusalem council in the book of Acts. Let’s review it, keeping in mind our concern with conflict in the church. 

Gentiles are becoming followers of Christ. A mission success! Before long, however, church leaders have “no small dissension and debate” (2) on this very matter. New questions emerge about requirements for belonging to the church as people of God, and thus for salvation itself.  

Conflict often results in separation, even schism and alienation. However, those involved here choose to take the gift of conflict as an opportunity to challenge and enrich their theological and spiritual imaginations.  

The leadership call a meeting. Paul, Barnabas and others have the opportunity to tell their story, while some Pharisees insist on the need for converted male Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses (5).  

We are told that this is the concern and business of the whole church (4, 12, 22).  

The leaders have a special role to play: Peter and James speak persuasively, and the apostles and the elders make significant choices with the consent of the whole church (6, 22).  

Those who speak up connect personal testimony with the perceived work of the Holy Spirit and the words of the Prophets (15-18). 

The discernment process is somehow experienced as Spirit-led and culminates in a unanimous decision. (25) The gathered council will send two leaders – Judas and Silas – as special representatives “to the brothers and sisters of Gentile origin in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia” (23) with a letter of accord.  

The letter clarifies the scope of key expectations concerning Gentiles in keeping with Mosaic law (20, 29) and reaffirms the work of Paul and Barnabas. Luke’s narrative also tells us that the Antioch believers rejoiced at the exhortation and were encouraged and strengthened by Judas and Silas (31-32).  

In sum, this text offers a rich illustration of the early church doing practical theology while facing a challenging situation. It can be considered as a multiway hermeneutical process for the sake of relevant and truthful discernment and faithful action. Some of the lessons that can be drawn are underscored below. 

Some guidelines to highlight 

Discernment is like a multiway conversation: factors ranging from people’s stories and social-cultural context, to Scripture and the Holy Spirit to the church’s traditions and practices are all interacting, both bringing and receiving insight. Carried out as a necessary, ongoing spiritual practice, it is a never-ending process!  

Faithful discernment in the face of conflict always takes much time and energy. Furthermore, not all resolutions after careful discernment are final; some can be revisited and even reversed (e.g. the issue of eating certain meat alluded to in the letter).  

Those who lead the process need to develop “Spirit fruit” such as humility, patience, generosity, hopefulness, wisdom and grace. They must demonstrate the necessary knowledge of the culture, the church teachings and Scripture. And they must also have the necessary skills to care well for those involved and for the process itself.  

Conflict between leaders (Acts 15:36-41) 

Following the account of the successful resolution concerning how to welcome Gentiles into the church, we are told of another conflict. Paul and Barnabas part ways because of John Mark. 1 Let’s review the background of this situation in order to gain clarity on the nature of the conflict.  

The predominantly Gentile church in Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by John Mark, on what would become known as Paul’s first missionary journey (c. AD 46-48).  

When they arrive in Cyprus, the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus becomes the first recorded high official of the Roman government to become a Christian (Acts 13:4-12). Between the details provided, there is much opportunity to speculate on motivations and feelings. As we explore the story below, we will take such liberties as we seek to draw insight from the story.  

From Cyprus they sail to Perga in Pamphylia (southern Turkey) where John (Mark) “left them and returned to Jerusalem.” This reference in Acts 13:13 probably became a significant marker in the lives of Paul, Barnabas and John Mark. 

Apparently, John Mark was Barnabas’ young cousin, the son of his aunt Mary who was the head of a home church in Jerusalem. (Acts 12:12).  

We are not told directly, but maybe it can be inferred that Mary had suggested Mark accompany his older cousin Barnabas and Paul on the missionary journey. Barnabas (“son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), or the encourager of others) perhaps persuaded Paul to allow the young man to come with them in order to strengthen John Mark’s faith and to give him experience as a witness and missionary.  

We are not told why Mark decides to go home. Perhaps he was homesick or found the rigorous ministry too demanding. But we are told of the heated argument between Paul and Barnabas precipitated by Mark’s exit at the port city of Perga, capital of Pamphylia:  

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the brothers and sisters in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord [on the first missionary journey] and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the brothers and sisters commending him to the grace of the Lord. [On this second missionary journey c. AD 50-52] he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41) 

Lessons in leadership development  

“San Barnaba”, a depiction of Barnabas, “Son of Encouragement” (anonymous Lombard painter).
“San Barnaba”, a depiction of Barnabas, “Son of Encouragement” (anonymous Lombard painter). Public domain

The hope Barnabas had in young Mark’s potential and the encouragement he gave his cousin show a discerning spirit.  

At the time of the argument, Paul could never have imagined that the seemingly weak young man would one day write one of the four Gospels. Additionally, according to Coptic tradition, Mark eventually journeyed across the Mediterranean and founded the Coptic Church in Egypt – the oldest Christian body of believers in the world.  

It is interesting to connect the story of the conflict with Barnabas with the account of Paul and Silas having come to Lystra, in Turkey: “…where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer….Paul wanted to take (the young Timothy) along on the journey, so he circumcised him.” (Acts 16:1-3).  

Could it be that Paul had come to realize the importance of fostering faith in young men and giving them the experience of communicating the gospel? The young Timothy, mentored by Paul, like the young Mark, mentored by Barnabas, would turn out to be one of Paul’s most beloved and faithful disciples. 

In c. 60 AD when Paul was in prison in Caesarea, he ended his letter to the church in Colossae near Ephesus: “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.” (Colossians 4:10). It seems that sometime in the previous years Paul had reconciled with Mark (one wonders whether at the prompting of Barnabas?).  

It would appear that more than 10 years after Paul and Barnabas had a serious conflict involving Mark, now Paul can write to his own disciple Timothy: “Only Luke is here with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me in ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11) 

Mark is helpful to me in my ministry. Can we surmise that Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement,” lived to see the fruit of his ministry with his young cousin Mark? Regardless, Barnabas’ belief in, and encouragement of both his cousin Mark and the Apostle Paul might have altered the course of history.  

Perhaps those three followers of Jesus represent the realized promised of second chances, redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation. That being the case, the story of parting ways invites us to highlight some implications. 

  • Sometimes separation is unavoidable, or even advisable in order to prevent further conflict. Nevertheless, the choice of parting ways from one another, although acrimonious at present, can be transformed in the future.  
  • Separation and division don’t need to be permanent. The hope for further understanding and reunion in the future can remain.  
  • It’s possible that Barnabas became a mentor to John Mark. In any case, we are reminded that it’s necessary to care for younger, future church leaders in that way. And that always requires commitment, patience, willingness to take risks and generous investment of time and energy.  
  • The story also suggests that there is a special place for mediating ministry. And, of course, such ministry depends on the trust and good will of the parties involved. Barnabas might have played a mediating role between Paul and John/Mark. (Interestingly, Paul’s letter to Philemon can also be read as documenting the former’s mediating work between the latter and Onesimus!).  
  • Finally, in our imaginative reading, is it fair to project that the “reunification” of Paul and John Mark was possible not because one prevailed as having been right but both continued to grow and to learn better ways from past experiences? 

Highlighted at the beginning of this article is the claim that two related factors are always present in conflict situations like those discussed in our case study of Acts 15: what is right or true, that reflects and fosters faithfulness; and love and grace that seeks peace and fosters reconciliation and community building. Psalm 85:10-11 alludes to that inseparable connection and beautifully sums up a vision of shalom for conflict transformation and healing: Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. May that be so! 

—Daniel Schipani is an ordained minister with Mennonite Church USA and a member of Belmont Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Indiana, USA. He and his wife Margaret have two adult children and three grandchildren. With a doctorate in Psychology and a PhD in Practical theology, he is emeritus professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and affiliate professor at McCormick Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary. He is author of several books of education, pastoral care and counselling and practical theology.  

Courier 38.4

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