When Our Heroes Disagree

By Sewell Hall

            If I were asked to name my three most admired New Testament heroes (other than Jesus) I suppose I would name Paul, Peter and Barnabas, perhaps in that order.

I admire Paul for his outstanding zeal. Zeal to obey the Lord (Acts 9:18), to preach the gospel (Acts 9:19, Romans 1:15) and to defend the truth (Philippians 1:16).

I admire Peter for his courage. Courage to speak for Jesus when others were leaving Him (John 6:68-69), to preach a risen Lord to those who had crucified Him (Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-26) and to face death unafraid (Acts 12:1-11).

I admire Barnabas for his goodness, a quality ascribed to him by the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:24). Goodness expressed in sacrificial benevolence toward poor saints (Acts 4:34-37; 11:22-23), toward a new convert whom others feared (Acts 9:26-27), toward saints of another race (Acts 11:22-23), and toward the lost (Acts 13:1-2).

The common denominator in the greatness of these men was Jesus Christ — the One in Whom they believed, for Whom they lived and Whose character they reflected. One would suppose that such men would always be in perfect agreement and complete harmony with each other. But it was not so.

Paul and Peter in Antioch

In Galatians 2:11-13, Paul wrote, “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy”

What a shock this must have been to brethren in Antioch whose admiration for these men was likely even greater than ours! In this case Paul was obviously right, while Peter and Barnabas were wrong. Under pressure, these two great men had failed to live up to the principles they had formerly preached and practiced. When any of us are guilty of such failures we are blessed if there is a Paul who will point out our failures to us. To Peter’s credit he did not label Paul his enemy or seek to destroy him. Instead, he later wrote of him as “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Peter 3:15).

Paul and Barnabas in Antioch

Paul and Barnabas were true yoke-fellows in the cause of Christ. Barnabas brought Paul to Antioch and “for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people” (Acts 11:26). They left Antioch together to preach for more than two years in Asia Minor, risking “their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:25-26). After returning “they stayed there a long time with the disciples” (Acts 14:28). How they must have been loved in Antioch!

But when they proposed to go on a second journey, a disagreement developed. “Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed…” (Acts 15:37-39).

Who was right? Who was Christ-like and who was unChrist-like? Each could make logical arguments for his position and each could even quote scripture to support

his contention. This was not a matter of right and wrong, but a matter of judgment and expediency. Perhaps one or the other should have given in, but which? They could not work together; so they had to work separately.

Some Observations

            Good men may sometime fail to live up to the principles they preach. When they are rebuked they should not be defended, regardless of how much we may admire them.

No man is a perfect clone of Jesus. One quality of Jesus may be dominant in one man and another quality in another. This within itself may lead to disagreements in judgment, and such disagreements may even make it impossible for two men to work together. This was apparently the case with Paul and Barnabas. Such men, however, do not have to become enemies. Paul and Barnabas did not mount attacks on one another or try to rally supporters. Instead, they continued to show respect for one another. Paul later wrote favorably of Cephas and Barnabas (1Cor. 9:5-6), and of Mark over whom the contention had raged (2Tim. 4:11).

God can use disagreements — even separations — over expediencies for His purpose if we avoid bitterness toward one another. Doubtless more good was accomplished when two teams left Antioch preaching Christ than would have been achieved otherwise.

Many today use disagreements among prominent men as excuses for abandoning their faith. There is no evidence of this in Antioch. The Christians there had “turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21); they followed the admonition “that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (Acts 11:23). Consequently, disagreements among the best of men, whether involving sin or expediencies, did not shake them — and they must not shake us.

The Myth of Happiness

            There is a myth to which many today are addicted; that is, the purpose of life is to be happy. I know of nothing more demeaning to a man than this narcotic pursuit of fun. Where is it written that life can always be easy or completely free of conflict or pain? Those who want the refuge of happiness can find it in tranquilizing pills or in senility. The purpose of life is not to be happy, but to do something that matters, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference to someone else that we lived at all. (Leo Rosten)