On Church Conflict: Avoiding the Rock in the MIddle of the River


Avoiding the Rock in the Middle of the River

When a river meets a large obstacle in its path, it separates into two channels and goes around the obstacle, coming back together once the obstacle has passed. At the end of Acts 15, Paul and Barnabus ran into a rock. Barnabus wanted to bring his cousin, Mark, along, while Paul felt Mark would be a liability. The missionaries parted ways with Barnabus taking Mark to Cyprus and Paul going on to visit old church plants in Asia and begin new ones in Europe.

Although we do not hear of Barnabus in the account again, we find Mark and Paul together again during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome near the end of his ministry, and Paul is quite enthusiastic about Mark’s contribution to the work. Paul mentions Mark favorably in Colossians, Philemon, and II Timothy.  The years between, no doubt, changed both of them, and we have some clues to what happened in Mark’s life during the interval.

After some time under Barnabus’ tutelage and most likely a time of working with Peter, Mark had matured. By the time he joined Paul in Rome the Gospel of Mark should have already been written. Had Mark stayed with Paul, one wonders whether the first gospel would have ever been written, considering Paul’s schedule. If scholars are right, Matthew and Luke later built on Mark’s research, and Mark may have been the initial stimulus that got them started. Surely Luke would have already been doing the research for his gospel during the two years of Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea. The rock of bruising contention in the middle of the river that formerly separated Barnabus and Paul turned out to be Providential.  There can be no doubt that Barnabus’ instincts about Mark were correct, but Paul was probably also correct in his judgment of Mark’s suitability at that moment.

Often the rock of contention is the hand of God. The river must divide. In time the terrain will be altered and the waters come back together so long as the springs feeding the river do not dry up. This has great spiritual relevance, because contention may create such a spirit of distrust that the river of life dries up for one or even both channels, and life withers where once the grace of life flowed.

So when should churches or ministries need to separate as Barnabus did? How do we avoid destroying the work of God when the rock of contention lies directly ahead? Here’s what I think we might learn from Barnabus and Paul: If God places a vision in our hearts and an opportunity before us, then we need to pursue the opportunity. If our brothers and sisters do not share the vision or find it objectionable, then we need to separate for the sake of obedience.

We miss our true calling if we spend our time trying to convince everyone else that we are right and that they should accept and approve of us. Downstream in God’s time, God will bring us back together, whether in 5 years or in 5000, but God will do it.

Years ago I attended a TAP (Teachers Abroad Program) retreat in Kenya sponsored by Eastern Mennonite Mission and led by anthropologist/missionary Don Jacobs. Don described how that when missions first came to East Africa, it was the disenfranchised and marginalized people of society who first came to believe.  Often they could no longer live in their villages and moved near the missionaries who evangelized them.

Over time the main part of the village began to recognize certain benefits available to those who left. Over time the two streams began to converge. According to Don Jacobs, nobody planned it this way, but having a separate pilot group doing things differently turns out to be the best attested means for achieving rapid social change.

Separate channels of the same stream allows for hermeneutical and social experimentation where flaws can be corrected on a smaller scale. In time blessing will come when both sides have matured and God is allowed to govern the process.

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