There isn’t any question God wants His people to have unity. Jesus prayed that those who live for him would be one, as He and the Father are one so the world would believe that God sent him into the world. The Psalmist declared, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Paul pleaded with the church in Corinth to “Let there be no divisions among you but to be perfectly joined together of the same mind and judgment.” He pointed to their immaturity in Christ as the reason they were divided in what they were doing. He challenged the Ephesian church to “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Yet in Acts 15 immediately after Paul and Barnabas had gone to Jerusalem to plead for the Jewish Christians not to bind things in the Law on the Gentile converts to Christ, there is a separation of Paul and Barnabas. Some of the Jewish brothers had gone out from the church in Jerusalem to the places where Gentile churches had been established trying to convince all these new converts that if they really wanted to be Christians they had to be circumcised and follow the Old Law. In this meeting to solve the problem Peter, James, Paul, and Barnabas had all pleaded with the church to not put this burden on the backs of these new converts that was so heavy they hadn’t been able to bear it themselves. Even as these apostles and elders made their plea many of those Jews who had turned to Christ were arguing with all their power that it was necessary for these Gentiles to become Jews to be right with the Lord. Ultimately they agreed to send a letter to the Gentile churches that they were not under the Law and instead needed to agree to abstain from fornication, from things strangled, from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and not to worry about all the other things that had been mentioned to them. They even agreed to send representatives from the Jerusalem church to travel with Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch to confirm this message to the church.
It was a tremendous victory for them and for the Gentile congregations. But immediately after all that, Paul and Barnabas got into a huge disagreement. Paul suggested they go back and visit the churches that had been established and Barnabas agreed but wanted to take John Mark along with them. Paul was totally opposed to Mark going along since he had started with them on the first missionary journey and turned back. That disagreement became so strong they parted ways and Barnabas took Mark and went in one direction and Paul took Silas and headed in the other direction. Why did God choose to have this story to be part of the Book of Acts? Why not just end the story with the agreement?
Perhaps the Spirit of God was making a point for us to grasp about unity and separation. When it was a matter of teaching what was true to the gospel it was vital to have the church reach an agreement to not bind things on other people that God hadn’t bound. But when it comes to matters of opinion and personal differences that lead to people not being able to stay together as partners in preaching the gospel, He wasn’t concerned. After all, they would both remain loyal to God and to the gospel and both would actually take another person with them to preach and their efforts were doubled because of the separation. Whether or not their separation was according to God’s will, there is no question both men continued to speak well of each other and both kept on preaching the gospel of Christ. There is no question but that God used the situation to reach more people for him than would have been reached if they had stayed together.
Think of the reality of how many churches have been started around the world because of a disagreement with someone at the place where they were both worshiping before. The truth is there have been more congregations started in most cities in the South because of some disagreement between brethren than any other reason. Most of the time these disagreements had nothing to do with doctrine but with the fact they had trouble getting along with each other. Many times the result is that both the congregation that was left and the new one started to grow and reach people that neither of them would have had they stayed together.
Who was right and who was wrong in this disagreement? If you look down the line it seems that Barnabas was right because John Mark became a great and faithful disciple from this point on. Even Paul wrote that Mark was profitable to him for the ministry. But it was about what they thought, felt and believed, not about anything God had told them to do. Unity in Christ doesn’t always mean people agree on everything. In Romans 14 Paul pleaded with the church to accept those who had disputes over doubtful things but not to allow them to bind those ideas on the church. The weak brother was never intended to become the standard for the church so that they could hold the church hostage from doing anything since it bothered their conscience. Instead, Paul pleaded with them in areas like that to not judge each other. You can’t know another person’s heart. Leave the judgment to God who does know the heart. The kingdom of God isn’t about things like food and drink but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit so we ought to strive to live by our conscience but not try to bind that conscience on others that believe differently from us.