Different interpretations of God’s will do not necessitate that one is “right” and the other “wrong.” In many cases, when a dispute arises among two groups or individuals sincerely seeking God’s will, the dispute exists because we’re asking the wrong question. We know that God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but often we attempt to conform his mind and thoughts to ours, instead of the other way around.
The example that immediately comes to mind is that of Paul and Barnabas, in their dispute over whether John Mark should join their expedition to visit the brethren in the cities where they’d preached.
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphyl’ia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cili’cia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41)
Like many, I held a critical spirit towards Paul on the basis of this scripture. How unforgiving and prideful, I judged, particularly given that we never again read of “Barnabas and Paul” again, but always of “Paul and <insert companion here>.” This incident seemed to mark a transition in Paul’s ministry, in the relative seniority of Paul as compared to his companions, and all based upon a prideful and judgmental spirit, clearly not glorifying to God or flowing from the work of the Holy Spirit… Holy Spirit was forced to reprimand me sharply.
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand. One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:4-6)
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; (Romans 14:10)
Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Romans 14:13)
I found myself convicted of the very sin of which I’d accused Paul. Furthermore, I was holding a hard and judgmental spirit towards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, a friend of my lord, the servant of another, and my brother. Not yet being in communion with the Catholic Church, I found it disconcerting to realize that Holy Spirit was compelling me to seek forgiveness from one of the Saints, and even more disconcerting to receive that forgiveness.
So, forced to set aside the so-called “historical-critical” style of reading this account, how was I to reconcile this account of their dispute with Holy Spirit’s unambiguous approval of Paul’s decision not to take John Mark? Again, scripture was brought to my attention to remind me that this was not the first time that there was an apparent disagreement between the words and actions of two who were clearly moved by the Holy Spirit.
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” (Luke 7:33-35)
Hrm… so here we have John the Baptist, filled with the Spirit from the womb, and Jesus Christ, not just filled with the Spirit, but one with the Spirit in the Trininty, and yet their actions seem to conflict, and Jesus, the superior of the two, doesn’t claim that one or the other is right, but that both express wisdom (tightly coupled with Holy Spirit). Then we have the context of Holy Spirit’s rebuke above from the letter to the Romans, encouraging that each forgoe judgment, and be decided in his own mind (within the bounds of the teachings of the Apostles and scripture).
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church
Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (1 Cor 3:18-20)
I have the advantage of knowing I’m an idiot, so taking that into account, I revisited my basic assumptions:
- The book of Acts accurately expresses real occurances in the first century of the church. Yup. Still on board with that one.
- Paul and Barnabas are both imperfect, but faithful servants of the Lord. Yup, too much textual and contextual evidence to discard that.
- Paul and Barnabas disagreed. Yup, pretty clear.
Argh… and then I considered again Jesus words: “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” So… what were the results of this dispute? We know Paul went on to be, well, Paul, and Barnabas continued to have a place of prestige in the church, where he is set aside as “even Barnabas” when Paul calls the Church in Jerusalem to task for being carried away with the whole Jewish law thing. We know he went to Cyprus, and most sources indicate he was martyred for the effectiveness of his ministry. The net result, then, was not one pair of Evangelists, but two. Indeed, wisdom is justified by all her children. But the ends don’t justify the means, is this most likely a case where one or the other of Paul or Barnabas were failing to heed Holy Spirit, or is there something better going on here? I’d argue the latter.
I’d propose that Paul and Barnabas were both seeking and heeding guidance from Holy Spirit, and yet a dispute arose, not because Holy Spirit was of two opinions, but because it took a while for Paul and Barnabas to ask the right question. Perhaps both of them were asking something like “Should John Mark come along?” whereas the right question was “Should we (Paul and Barnabas) continue our travels together?” God had a bigger plan than for the two of them to retrace their steps. Each of them were being called to evangelization and eventual martyrdom in different places, and God knew that John Mark would be “very useful” (2 Tim 4:11) to Paul after a few more years of service, but was perhaps not yet prepared to endure the same hardships Paul would encounter. Additionally, it is interesting to contemplate what might have happened had John Mark not discipled under Peter, and preserved Peter’s stories about Jesus in the form of Mark’s gospel, and whether Luke would have stayed with Paul to write Acts, and Luke’s gospel were John Mark to have been with Paul also.
The practical application of this in my own life is twofold. First, it was instrumental in breaking down my barriers to communicating with the saints who, though dead in body, remain very much alive, and interested in what God is doing here on Earth. Second, it has encouraged me to ask myself “Am I/Are we asking the right question?” when I encounter an apparently insurmountable disagreement, whether that be one side of my head arguing with another, my head and my heart finding themselves at odds, or a dispute between two or more individuals who are both sincerely seeking God’s guidance.
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