Sunday, March 16, 2008

Barnabas and Saul; Paul and Barnabas

One of the interesting stories of the Scriptures is the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-40. They disagree over whether to bring John Mark along with them on a second missionary journey; eventually they go in different directions.

I have heard preachers preach with vigor that, to put it bluntly, Barnabas was wrong. They cite that Paul was "recommended by the brethren" (vs. 39) and that Barnabas is not mentioned again in the text of Acts. They also cite Paul's apostolic authority, which seems to mean that his decision trumped Barnabas's. Galatians 2:11-14 is also used.

But was Paul right in this contention between them? My premise is this: We can't be sure.

Silence on the subject of Barnabas is not automatically evidence of censure. He and John Mark may have had many years of fruitful ministry after the split with Paul...we simply do not know.

Taking Barnabas's side for the moment, I want to posit three points:

  1. Cutting to the chase: Barnabas is never censured in Scripture for his decision to take John Mark with him. And John Mark, of course, is desired by Paul many years later (2 Tim. 4:11).
  2. Until Acts 13:9, when "Saul" is referred to as "Paul," Barnabas is frequently seen as the probable leader of the pair. It is interesting to notice that in all references prior to this verse, when the two of them are named together, it is always "Barnabas and Saul"—even by the Holy Spirit in Acts 13:2, at the outset of the first missionary journey. It is also interesting to notice that in all references after this verse, when the two of them are named together, it is always "Paul and Barnabas" [Exception: In Acts 15, when the two of them went to the council in Jerusalem, they are twice referred to as "Barnabas and Paul" (vs. 12, 25); this might have something to do with the fact that in this peer group, Barnabas may still have been perceived as the more "senior" member]. It was Barnabas who "introduced" this former persecutor of the saints to the Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). Barnabas, clearly, exhibits leadership in the early church.
  3. Without ignoring that God chose Paul as an apostle, we see at the human level that a mentor and leader [Barnabas] sees his charge [Saul/Paul] exalted to a level of leadership that, in a sense, exceeds his own. This is no way diminishes Barnabas' leadership—if anything, Barnabas should have been thrilled to see one whom he knew as a "young Christian" become such a strong leader, used of God in the church. Paul's ascendence did not necessarily come with corresponding subordination for Barnabas. Furthermore, it is possible (though speculative) that Barnabas may have been an older man than Paul, making it difficult for him to submit to the leadership of one both younger in age and in faith than himself.
One other possibility has come to mind: It is highly likely (to me) that both men were strong-willed (and possibly stubborn) leaders with a strong desire to do the work of God. Consequently, neither was likely to give in if convinced that his was the way God wanted. Paul also evidenced a strong will (stubbornness?), even in the face of prophecy, concerning his desire to travel to Jerusalem in Acts 21.

We need to be careful about condemning Barnabas in this situation. Perhaps he was wrong. But we do not know...and as Christians, we must be careful about passing judgment when we are not in possession of adequate knowledge of the facts of the matter.

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