The Gravitas of Separation
We have recorded here in the Book of Acts one of the sadder events in the history of the early Church showing us that even apostles could allow sin to cloud their thinking and tear them apart. Paul and Barnabas had been a great missionary team, preaching the gospel, seeing the Holy Spirit bless their efforts, and planting church after church of believers who had turned from paganism to the true God. But a contention rose between them. It began with a simple suggestion to return to the churches they had planted and see how the brethren were faring; after all, they were newborn in Christ and needed oversight. Barnabas was ready to go but wanted to bring along John Mark; Paul was opposed to this since Mark had deserted them on their first missionary journey (13:13). We are not told why John Mark left them, but it is obvious that whatever the reason Paul thought it not legitimate.
The reconstruction that people often make of this quarrel between the two missionaries is that Paul was in the wrong. Paul held a grudge against John Mark while Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, took him under his wing and nurtured him in the faith making him a useful servant of Jesus Christ. It is difficult for me to imagine that Paul held some grudge against John Mark, but I do think that Paul may have perceived a character flaw in the young man that made Paul think that Mark would have been more a hindrance than a help to the vital effort in which he and Barnabas were engaged. Whatever Paul’s reason, he and John Mark were later reconciled since Paul later calls him “very useful to me in the ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
But back to the original separation. There are many who will justify the separation of Paul and Barnabas on the basis that God blessed the ministry of the two men (or at least of Paul; nothing more is recorded of Barnabas). This amounts to saying that astrology is right because through it the magi discovered the Christ-child (“we have seen his star in the East”), or that because a child born out of wedlock becomes a holy man or woman the original indiscretion was God-ordained. The fact that God works good out of our sin (which God does all the time) does not make our sin less culpable. I do not say that separation is never justified; churches that cling to the biblical teaching on human sexuality and marriage are struggling with this issue today in communions that are severing their moorings with Scripture. But where it is not justified, separation is a grave evil that has hurt the witness of the Church time and again. So let us ever exercise discernment over matters of separation and be certain that such is the will of God.