Every seasoned pastor and organizational leader experiences significant conflicts and disagreements with fellow staff members, elders, or ministry colleagues. There are various reasons for such disputes: theological convictions, ministry strategies and priorities, leadership styles, communication gaps, perspectives about partnerships, and more.
While many conflicts can be resolved to preserve and strengthen ministry partnerships, disagreements often prompt coworkers to part ways.
Acts 15:36–41 recounts the end of the early church’s important and fruitful missionary partnership between Barnabas and Paul: “There arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” (vv. 39–40).
Reflecting on this text can provide lessons for leaders today who face challenging conflicts in ministry.
1. Ministry partnerships are vital for the advance of the gospel and the growth of the church.
The book of Acts presents ministry partnerships as normative in local church and mission contexts to promote the church’s health and the gospel’s spread.
When “a great many people were added to the Lord” in Antioch, Barnabas recognized he needed a trusted coworker to teach these new disciples, so he went searching for Saul to join him in teaching (Acts 11:24–26). The biblical account presents Barnabas’s decision to partner with Saul in a favorable light, highlighting Barnabas’s godly character and the longevity and fruitfulness of their ministry in Antioch.
The Antiochian church sent multiple leaders to bring relief to the saints in Judea (vv. 29–30), and the apostles and elders in Jerusalem carefully selected a delegation to deliver an important letter to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (15:22–29). The plan to send Judas and Silas from the Jerusalem church alongside Paul and Barnabas signaled the church’s consensus in the decision at the Jerusalem council (“having come to one accord,” v. 25) and promoted the church’s encouragement, strengthening, and peace (vv. 30–34).
Later, Paul was willing to set sail for Athens while leaving behind Timothy and Silas on urgent ministry business in Macedonia, with the expectation his trusted colleagues would join him as soon as possible (17:14–15; 18:5; 1 Thess. 3:1–10).
Many pastors, missionaries, seminary professors, and other ministers would testify to the crucial importance of partnership with others involved in gospel work. Robust friendships are often forged as believers labor side by side in the fires of ministry, and such relationships provide needed encouragement and promote greater effectiveness than solo ministry efforts.
2. Disagreements and disappointments are inevitable in ministry partnerships.
Paul and Barnabas parted ways after a sharp disagreement, and many other notable ministry partnerships throughout history have ended in similar fashion.
Disagreements about doctrinal convictions, theological vision, or ministry strategy may lead coworkers to part ways. A health issue, personal crisis, moral failing, or changed sense of calling may prompt someone to resign from a ministry role. And ministry partnerships are by no means immune to the various challenges affecting relationships between family, friends, coworkers, or neighbors—personality conflicts, unmet expectations, hurt feelings, differences of opinion, and so on.
Robust friendships are often forged as believers labor side by side in the fires of ministry.
It needs to be stated clearly that Christian workers are sometimes morally obligated to separate when matters of essential biblical doctrine and practice are at stake. Some separations and divisions between professing believers are necessary to distinguish true faith and morality from counterfeit Christianity.
But according to Luke’s account, the dispute between Paul and Barnabas wasn’t over first-order doctrinal or ethical matters or even over their ministry aims or strategies. Rather, they clashed over Mark’s fitness as a traveling companion for their mission given his past conduct (Acts 15:37–39; cf. 13:13). Like Paul and Barnabas, ministry coworkers today may disagree over decisions about what people or organizations to partner with:
- Should our church continue participating in this denomination given recent leadership challenges or doctrinal disputes?
- Should we host this controversial outside speaker at our organization’s event?
- Should we sponsor this group that is doing good work in our community but doesn’t fully align with our organization’s beliefs and values?
- Should our church continue to support this long-term missionary whose ministry strategies raise questions among some in our community?
Christian ministers shouldn’t be surprised by conflicts and disappointments, painful though they may be. Disagreements are inevitable in this life and provide opportunities to apply biblical exhortations to trust God, love one another earnestly from the heart, and pursue peace and wisdom from above. Certainly with fellow believers our goal is to “agree in the Lord,” in keeping with our common salvation in Christ, our common cause in the gospel, and our common hope of eternal life (Phil. 4:2–3).
Yet the apostle’s summons to “live peaceably with all” is qualified—“if possible, so far as it depends on you”—recognizing there are limits to our ability to secure such peace in times of conflict with fellow believers and even gospel coworkers (Rom. 12:18).
3. As ministry partnerships come and go, Christ’s commission to make disciples and his commitment to build his church endure.
All ministry partnerships will eventually end due to retirement, death, or separation. Some ministers enjoy decades of service alongside trusted coworkers.
There are also separations such as those of Paul and Barnabas, Whitefield and Wesley, or Lloyd-Jones and Stott, in which ministry coworkers part ways due to their deep divides over matters of doctrine, ministry strategies and priorities, or personal convictions. When colleagues recognize they’ve reached an impasse and it’s time to separate, they must speak to and about one another with candor and grace as fellow believers in Christ, guard against all bitterness and divisiveness to preserve the church’s health and unity, and seek to separate in a way that honors one another and reflects confidence in the Lord’s promise to build his church (Matt. 16:18).
Disagreements provide opportunities to trust God, love one another earnestly from the heart, and pursue peace and wisdom.
Luke’s narrative recounts the continued progress of the Word of the Lord and the strengthening of the churches as a mighty missionary partnership abruptly ended and new partnerships were formed. The book of Acts doesn’t record what happened with Barnabas and Mark after they set sail for Cyprus (15:39) or even what became of Paul after his two years in Rome (28:30–31), because the focus of the biblical text isn’t on these individuals but on their Lord and his mission that continues until the end of this age (Matt. 28:20).
Throughout the highest joys of laboring alongside fellow believers in gospel work and the deepest pains of relational strain and conflict, the Lord preserves his people and accomplishes his sovereign purposes. He may bring resolution to disagreements and restored relationships in this life—as with Paul and Mark—or he may wait until the life to come to right every wrong, dry every tear, heal every pain, and mend every heart, when we’ll be forever with the Lord who makes all things new (Rev. 21:3–5).
Until then, we pursue “partnership in the gospel” with those who share in the grace of Christ (Phil. 1:5, 7). We seek to “agree in the Lord” (4:2) and carry out his work in the world.