God's Glory in Conflict

“Christ is the reason many enter the pastorate;” writes Poirier, “Conflict is the reason many leave.”1 Conflict in ministry is not uncommon and it is certainly not new. While not the first conflict in the Bible, the clash between two friends and evangelists, Paul and Barnabas is one in which most people can easily relate. Acts 15:39 records that there was a “sharp disagreement” between these two men concerning John Mark.2 It was so serious in fact, that the two men parted ways. How could such a conflict arise between these prominent and respected church-planting believers? What happened? And how did God use this conflict for his purpose and glory? If we can find answers to these questions, we can also find application to apply in ministry conflict today.

This story starts after a man named Saul—who was greatly persecuting the Church—encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus.3 Having had a total life transformation in Christ, Saul wanted to meet the disciples in Jerusalem, but these men were afraid of him. They did not believe Saul was a disciple; however, a man named Barnabas vouched for Saul and a relationship was born. Eventually, the Church leaders sent Saul to Tarsus because of a conflict between him and the Hellenists.

Some time later, persecution and conflict scattered the church “as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.”4 In Antioch, some Hellenists started preaching the gospel and the leaders in Jerusalem wanted to investigate. So the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch. Determining that he needed to stay and teach in Antioch, Barnabas went to get Saul from Tarsus. Together, they remained in Antioch and taught for a year.5 In addition, the Church leaders also used Barnabas and Saul to deliver important relief to other disciples during a severe famine. Finally, the Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul to venture on a massive church planting effort.6 It was on this journey that Saul changed his name to Paul and a companion named John left them and returned to Jerusalem.7

The first expedition was a great success. Clearly, these two men had established a good working relationship and likely, a friendship. They became even more skilled and experienced in their ministry. So it is understandable that some time afterward Paul would say to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”8 Barnabas agreed and as plans were being made Barnabas suggested that they bring along John Mark. Paul sharply disagreed because John Mark was the same man who deserted them on the first journey. This disagreement was so serious, the conflict so tense, that these two men parted ways. Barnabas took John Mark and Paul selected Silas for his travels.

Some will read the account of Paul and Barnabas and fail to see God’s glory. They will agree with Poirier who writes, “Conflict is everywhere. It erupts unexpectedly, catching us off guard and leaving us perplexed by the anger, unreasonableness, and even belligerence of another,” but they will forget that God ordains conflict.9 “[Conflict] certainly does not surprise or confuse God;” writes Poirier, “Since all things, including conflict, are from God and through God and to God (Rom. 11:36), then conflict itself has a place in God’s great plans and purpose.”10 In the skirmish in between Paul and Barnabas, we can see God’s glory. First, two strong leaders within the early Church went different directions with the gospel rather than back to where they had already been together. Barnabas sailed to Cyprus and Paul headed for Syria and Cilicia. God was shaping the timing, speed, and geography of the missions of Paul and Barnabas.

Second, by separating, each man needed other companions—Barnabas took with him John Mark and Paul chose Silas. Because of the conflict, two more men had the opportunity to train and grow under a strong leader and through the experience of the journey. But it did not end with just John Mark and Silas, we can see throughout the book of Acts and from Paul’s epistles that Paul had many others with him on his journey. It may have been the case that Barnabas did as well.

And third, Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark were afforded a great opportunity to learn forgiveness and reconciliation. While there is some debate centered on timing, 1 Corinthians 9:6 suggests that Paul and Barnabas may have reconciled. While it is unclear if Paul and Barnabas were ever together again, it can be seen that Paul and John Mark were together at a later time.11 At one point, Paul would not even travel with John Mark and yet is seems that they may have been persecuted together. It seems that Paul and John Mark reconciled, and forgiveness and reconciliation are functions that bring great glory to God. Conflict should always be viewed as a way to see God’s glory in and through reconciliation. Poirier rightly argues, “Since God reconciled all things in heaven and on earth to himself through the death of his Son on the Cross (Col. 1:19-20, then we who are the children of God are redeemed to be reconcilers.”12 Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark seem to have been reconcilers.

In ministry, as in life, conflict will arise. Paul and Barnabas had different views of how to deal with John Mark. Barnabas wanted to be the forgiving and graceful encourager while Paul appears more concerned with the task at hand and with loyalty when the work gets difficult. Both views are important and neither of these men were right or wrong—they just had different views on this matter. Seeing the conflict that arose due to the different approaches, we should come to understand that different methodologies will bring differences to the surface. When conflict comes, what should we do?

Regardless of how we seek to resolve the conflict, we must first commit ourselves to seeing it as ordained by God. It was not a surprise to God. The conflict, just as it was for Paul and Barnabas, is an opportunity for ministry, not a distraction from it. There is opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness. And in some unforeseen way, the conflict might be God’s way of altering the plans of man for the greater plan that is within his will. Seeing God’s glory in conflict starts with the correct outlook and attitude. Therefore, as we enter conflict it become imperative that we investigate the situation and ask God if he might be working in ways we do not see or understand. We must also remain aware that God could be working for his purpose and our efforts may actually be working against God rather than in conjunction with him. Even conflict can be a ministry opportunity.

In today’s society, it seems as if there are some just waiting for a conflict. They have every desire to point a finger and draw attention to the pastor or minister in conflict. There are also those within the Church looking for the excitement of conflict, or maybe they thrive on the drama of a good internal battle. Or maybe there is a person in the congregation who is critical of the leadership and hoping to spur on a conflict. And then there are those outside the Church that see the many conflicts within the Church as a reason to stay away from Christ. How often is the reality of so many different denominations—a direct result of conflict—given as a reason not to hear or accept the gospel? How many times to people simply check out of an issue because there is some level of conflict involved? Add the Internet and rapid communication and the pastor or minister now has to walk through conflict extremely well or his or her witness may be in jeopardy.

How a pastor or minister deals with conflict will absolutely shape how people view his or her ministry. Does the pastor continue to demonstrate God’s glory when the going is difficult, or does he simply preach a good sermon when everything is peaceful? As with Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark, disciples must find God’s glory in all things, even conflict, if they desire to successfully preach and teach the gospel. The gospel is full of conflict. In fact, conflict is at the very heart of the Good News. Therefore, today’s pastors and ministers must not only be able to handle conflict in biblical way, they must be expecting it. If not, they really do not grasp what the gospel is all about.

Poirer, Alfred Poirier. The Peace Making Pastor: A Biblical guide to resolving church Conflict. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2006.

1 Alfred Poirier, The Peace Making Pastor: A Biblical guide to resolving church Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2006), 9.

2 English Standard Version (ESV). Unless otherwise noted, all following Biblical references will be taken from the ESV.

3 Acts 9:1-25.

4 Acts 11:19.

5 Acts 11:19-26.

6 Acts 13:2.

7 Acts 13: 9 and Acts 13:13b.

8 Acts 15:36.

9 Poirier, 75.

10 Ibid.

11 See Colossians 4:10 for example.

12 Poirier, 13.

* Photo by flickr.com user, "webmink." It is registered under a creative license and used with permission.
** This blog was originally written in partial fulfillment toward an M.Div. It has been redacted for this blog.