“Then the contention became so sharp that they departed from one another” Acts 15:39
Wherever there are people there will be differences of opinion, debates and arguments that may lead to disputes, fights and even wars. It is the nature of fallen man. In Acts chapter fifteen we read of two different kinds of dispute within the early church. We shouldn’t be surprised that there were differences of opinion even in the church.
The first dispute was of a theological nature. This took place in the new church at Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were teaching. This was the same church that had sent Paul and Barnabas out on their missionary journey. They now sent them with others to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and elders of the more mature church for a resolution. The matter was not resolved immediately and a hot dispute arose.
Peter shared his own testimony of God’s grace through him to Gentile people but that was of itself insufficient witness. What settled the matter was James referring to Scripture. This dispute was only settled when the Scriptures were taken as authoritative. We discover that the church council concluded that the Holy Spirit was the One who took them through this process to the conclusion. This is how theological disputes should be handled – let God speak by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
The second dispute is not theological in nature but has to do with personal preferences. It is possible to argue that either Paul or Barnabas was right or that both were right or both wrong but that misses the point.
The contention between Paul and Barnabas came primarily out of their different spiritual gifting and Christ’s specific call although other influencing factors should be noted. Paul was a dynamic aggressive leader whereas Barnabas was an encourager. Both were expressing themselves consistently with their gifting and calling but because these were different conflict was inevitable in some circumstances. This happens frequently in our churches and may be one of the main causes of contention. The problem isn’t that there are differences of opinion but in how we resolve them.
So how did the church at Antioch resolve what had become quite heated? The church, guided by the Holy Spirit, made the decision to double the missionary enterprise of the church by sending out two parties. In this each person was able to exercise their gifting and calling to the full. It should be noted that both parties still remained part of and accountable to the same church (v 40). They didn’t break fellowship with the church or with each other. Both were given the freedom to express their spiritual gifting and calling.
When people have different spiritual gifting or calling they will see things differently but that difference is so that they can strengthen and multiply the ministry not break fellowship. For Paul and Barnabas the different gifting and calling meant physically separating but they did not separate spiritually. Neither denigrated or minimized the other’s ministry. For us it will usually mean different areas of ministry within our church but for some it may mean a mission field elsewhere.