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A Paul and Barnabas Moment

I was reading Acts with a couple of friends recently and we got to Acts 15. It is a passage I've been meaning to dig into for a while but have also avoided because of how it has been used. For many who have gone through church hurt, especially one involving a church leader, this passage has been used badly.


Here is the passage:

"Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches."


Nearing the end of the final mediation meeting between elders, of which I was one, and the operations manager I was supporting, the lead elder started discussing this passage. His conclusion was that, just as Paul and Barnabas parted ways, maybe it was right that the operations manager parted ways from her job. A job she loved, was very good at, had no reason to be asked to leave, but simply had had enough of poor behaviour from a trustee. It was the only time scripture was used in that meeting and it was the first time I'd heard that my fellow elders had been discussing offering a settlement. No one other than the two elders knew a settlement was on the cards, something I've learnt is very poor practice when it comes to employment mediation meetings. Not only did it broadside me that my fellow elders, people I'd considered trusted friends, had excluded me from a significant decision, they'd also now offered the separation as "the" biblical option to resolve the issue.


I'm certain you can see why this was problematic in this instance but this experience isn't unique. This passage is regularly used in church contexts to minimise wrongdoing as simply "disagreement". It is used to provide spiritual authority to recommend people part ways so that those in the wrong but in power don't need to apologise or deal with the actual issue being raised. As was the case for the operations manager, NDAs often follow as part of settlement offers.


So what is actually happening in the bible passage? Paul and Barnabas disagree on what was wise in terms of Mark's reliability. This wasn't about Mark having been abusive or particularly sinful but whether he was right for the job. There is no power dynamic between Paul and Barnabas, neither are attempting to rule over the other but they can see their disagreement won't be resolved so they part ways. They are then commended by the believers around them. This is clearly not an instance of broken relationships, sin, and hurt. This is clearly not a moment of disfellowshipping and silencing. When Paul speaks of Mark being helpful in his letter to Timothy, it isn't that they've needed reconciliation but more likely that Mark has proven himself to be reliable.


When this is used in a situation where poor behaviour, bullying, spiritual abuse, or any sin is at play, it not only misses the point of the passage but minimises the issues that are needing leaders to step up and take responsibility for. Utilising this passage in matters of bullying or abuse against the victim is not just poor use of scripture but also spiritually abusive.

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