Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. Paul insisted that they should not take him along, since he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace. He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (CEB)
Perfect consensus, complete harmony, and perpetual peace are ideals, not reality, this side of heaven. Oh, it is not as though we ought to give up striving for such things – we just need to understand we will only experience them partially, and not fully, until Christ returns.
Imagine if Paul and Barnabas, along with their entire coterie of people who traveled with them, decided that they would not go anywhere until there was 100% consensus on every decision to be made. It could be that they would never get anything done at all. It is sad when people cannot come together and be of one mind, but it happens, and will happen again. Sometimes we simply need to go and do what we think is best, whether others agree with us, or not.
“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”
I am a bit adverse to taking sides on most things, but I admit to having a bent toward going with Barnabas. His name means “Son of Encouragement.” He understands taking someone under his wing and giving them a second chance when they screw up. Barnabas had a soft spot for John Mark. Barnabas seems like the kind of guy who knows about grace. This is a guy I could hang out with.
Paul, on the other hand, had much more of a Type A personality. I can just imagine Paul saying, “There are things to do, goals to reach, areas to conquer. I don’t have time for this whining and cry baby stuff.” Paul did not want someone in the group slowing them down with fear or lack of courage. For all that I appreciate about the great Apostle Paul in the New Testament, sometimes he strikes me as being too driven and difficult to work with.
Yet, in the end, taking sides is not really the issue. It is about God working a divine, sovereign, and good will through stubborn and stupid people like me, and maybe like you, who sometimes get lost in winning an argument.
When all is said and done, nothing is going to thwart God’s providential plans and purposes in this world. So, rather than taking sides, I think I will rely solely on God’s grace and mercy in my life to work through me, despite my oft short-sightedness.
Holy God, you work your good purposes in and through your people, no matter what. I want my life and work to be a joy to you and with others, and not a burden. Create in me a clean heart. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting, through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I urge you, brothers, and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery, they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (NIV)
The Apostle Paul’s original writing of these verses was packed with an exceptionally large punch. Almost every word he used was in the strongest possible language. For example:
“Urge” has the force of “beg,” as in the blind man crying out and begging Jesus to heal him. (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43)
“Watch out” has the meaning of marking someone as if to keep constant eyes on them.
“Divisions” are human created arbitrary lines, and acts of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:19-20)
“Obstacles” comes from a word in which we get our English word “scandal,” which is caused by judging another person. (Romans 14:13)
“Keep away” is not a passive avoidance, but literally means to fling yourself away from a danger, like Joseph running out of Potiphar’s house and away from his wife. (Genesis 39:11-12)
Paul was begging his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to identify people who contrive human divisions between others and create offensive scandals and get as far away from them as you can.
If this were a professional wrestling match, the Apostle Paul would be in a cage match against the Jewish Christian Bruiser who has been talking trash for months about the Gentile Christians. In the church at Rome, there were three primary groups of people:
Gentile Christians who had come to faith in Christ from their pagan backgrounds and were delighting in their newfound change of life.
Jewish Christians who had come to faith in Christ and liked their old religious traditions yet were willing to change to accommodate new believers.
Jewish Christians who had made professions of faith in Christ, and not only wanted to keep their centuries old traditions but were unwilling to change and sought to make Jews of the Gentiles, using every ounce of influence, power, manipulation, and negativity to do it.
Paul, as a Jewish Christian himself, clearly understood what they wanted and what was at stake. Paul’s insistence throughout his letter to the Romans was to argue for the priority of the good news that sinners find forgiveness based in grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ, apart from circumcision, Sabbath observance, liturgical traditions, feast days, and ritual observances. Paul had no problem with the practices themselves; what he had an issue with is making them mandatory alongside the gospel.
The Jewish Christian Bruisers felt justified in doing whatever they could to stand against a change in their traditions. They tried to negatively influence everyone they could. And if they could not get anywhere with Paul, they would go underground and be as subversive against him as they could. Yet, Paul remained consistent in all the churches about the reality of God’s grace in Christ.
Paul understood that negative people only create more negative people – which is why he said to Titus, after having talked to him about the priority of being justified by grace:
After a first and second warning, have nothing more to do with a person who causes conflict, because you know that someone like this is twisted and sinful—so they condemn themselves. (Titus 3:10-11, CEB).
Whenever a passion for power and tradition prevails over a desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ, then we have an issue of character. Stirring up antagonism against biblically-oriented, Spirit-directed change is demonic – and the real test of it is a constant stream of negativism which is secretive, remains in the shadows, relies on gossip and slander for its fuel, and hates being in the light.
Jesus said to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves because there are wolves among the sheep (Matthew 10:16). You will know them by their fruit. We are called not to participate in negative influences! Thus, individuals must be called-out for their chronic negative spirits. So, how do we do it? How do we shut-out the negativity?
Name it. Call it what it is: fighting against the Holy Spirit and attributing evil to the work of God (Matthew 12:30-32). When someone comes to you and wants to dish up a little sumthin’-sumthin’ on someone or something, refuse to take the bait. Reject the deprecation like the big man in the middle of the defense in basketball, rejecting the shot, with announcer Marv Albert shouting, “Ree-jected!”
Keeping a group of friends who are positive, encouraging, helpful, and steering clear of antagonistic attitudes is extremely beneficial to both physical and spiritual health. In a recent study at Stanford University, a pair of researchers reviewed over 200 studies on group therapy and concluded that group members “develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their positive acceptance and feedback.” In other words, negative thinking keeps people in bondage, whereas the positive encouragement of others brings freedom and life.
Someone might be speaking to you, start talking around some issue slowly, but eventually comes around to carving up another person like a Thanksgiving turkey. What do you do? Rebuke it. We can say something like, “When you continue to speak with such negativity about ______ I feel upset because I need to be in a place which helps me to spiritually grow. Will you please stop being so negative?”
I once had a person come to me not knowing how to deal with a negative person. I walked him through some biblical ways about confronting the negativity when it comes. He simply hung his head and said he could not do that. He was miserable, which is why he came and talked to me. And he walked away with that same misery because he was not willing to call out a person on their destructive negativity.
You and I are in control of our own happiness. If another person causes us anger; if some politician drives us nuts; if a television program or radio show is upsetting me; then, it is our responsibility to keep away. If we have a chronic negative person in our life, and have tried to deal with that person, and they refuse to listen, we can say something like this when they start their rant: “I don’t want to hear it. And if you keep bringing it up and being negative, I will walk out of the room.” The principle here is that we control our own behavior, not somebody else’s.
Satan is the author of negative antagonism. He talked trash about God in the garden to Adam and Eve. So, avoid getting caught up in trying to dialogue with a negative person. Redirect the negativity by calling the person to change their ways, because truth be told, the negativity is really rebellion against God. It is not uncivil to put the focus on the life-giving positive effects of God’s gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and insist on repentance.
If you are wondering, “I could never do that” then you likely have been telling yourself a lot of negative thoughts. God calls us to stamp-out the negativity before it can get started, even within our own brains. In some cases, we need to re-train our minds to focus on the positive, and not the negative.
It takes two to tango. Negativity cannot survive if there is no one to listen to it. We are to stop being negative and stop listening to negative people because it creates divisions and scandals. If there are people who chronically have negative speech and can never seem to say anything good about someone or something, Paul said to stay away from them. Have nothing to do with them. Do not participate in the divisive speech. Refuse it. Rebuke it. Redirect it. God wants us righteous and robust, holy, and happy – not walking around like a grump who was baptized in pickle juice.
We can choose to fill our minds with the gospel of Jesus; pray positively about everything; and find the good in all things. We can continually choose to cultivate unity, purity, peace, and love. In doing so, we enjoy life together.
My wife’s family loves Westerns. In fact, the first time I went to Mary’s house the first thing I noticed was the rather large print of John Wayne above the TV. So, as you can imagine, I’ve watched my share of gun-slinging cinema. Probably the classic Western is one in which the band of outlaws comes into town every so often and shoots it up, drinking and carousing and having their way. The town sheriff might have the authority as the law, but he can’t face the outlaws by himself. In typical Western movie build-up, the final shoot-out of the film has the town folk convinced to quit hiding in their homes and businesses. The outlaws come into town thinking they will have their way again, but this time the people are ready with rifles on their roof tops, and a plan to bring them down to size. It works, and the town once again restores law and order, having found their courage to not only survive in the Old West, but to thrive.
Christian pastors are some of the loneliest people on earth. They’re that way because far too many congregations are like the old Western town folk. They don’t have the gumption to stand up to the church outlaws. So, they let their sheriff get shot in the street by the bad guys while they cower in fear behind the bar.
No pastor can stand alone. He/she needs the strong support of church members who will stand with that pastor when the outlaws ride into church on their high horse. When individual church members have had their way with a congregation for too long, they use every trick in the book (even trying to use the Bible for their backup) to keep the status quo because the way things are keeps them in power.
Make no mistake about it, keeping power is what the outlaws want. They will appeal to the fact that: they are charter members; they give more money than anybody else; they did a certain ministry for decades; they know what the congregation is really thinking and feeling; and, they’ve seen pastors come and go and they’re still there. Therefore, you should always listen to them and do what they say.
Never mind that the church outlaws have never led another person to Jesus Christ (even though they’ll tell you how to do it). Never mind that they don’t read their Bibles (even though they’ll let you know how many thousands of sermons they’ve heard over the years). Never mind that they don’t worship God as a lifestyle (even though they’ll fight to the end over what a worship service is supposed to be like).
If you’re reading this right now, chances are that you are not one of the church outlaws. That’s because church outlaws are never learners and growers in Christ – they are only power-brokers in the church system. This is precisely why you need to support your local sheriff and get that rifle out and head for the roof top. If you don’t, the outlaws will keep throwing their bluster and weight around to get what they want. And what will get lost in it all is God’s kingdom getting extended to the people who need it the most, and God’s will done on earth, as it is done in heaven.
What’s at stake is not only your church’s reputation, but your community’s need for Jesus Christ. Church outlaws don’t need to hold your congregation hostage. Conflict in and of itself is not bad – it’s how you go about it. But leaving a pastor out in the street to be hung by the outlaw mob in the name of keeping the peace is very bad and is not at all becoming of a faithful follower of Christ. Not to mention that God himself will take notice of it if we refuse to act.
Seek out your pastor. Listen well to him/her. Hear their heart for the church, and for the community. Ask them how you can help. And determine to stand with them when the outlaws ride into town.
You likely know what I’m referring to when I say “it’s complicated.” It is a reference to relationships in all their, well, complexity. Why we do what we do in relation to others; how we go about it; and, where it is all going is sometimes, even oftentimes, subject to us struggling to define a particular relationship or situation to another person as “it’s complicated.”
When it comes to the church, nothing is quite as it seems. Nice and apparently good people say some of the most off-the-wall and even mean-spirited things you would ever want to hear. Conversely, some of the most gossiping and loose-tongued persons within the fellowship are so capable of doing amazingly good works that the only thing we can say with any confidence is that “it’s complicated.”
There is a reason it’s complicated. Sin, death, and hell rule over the human condition like a perpetual wet blanket. Whenever we want to simplify situations and people by categorizing them into good people and bad people; whenever we have the propensity to place labels on others in order to keep things black and white; and, whenever we make gross generalizations about a group of people in sweeping blanket statements; then, we are severely underestimating the impact of humanity’s fall into sin (including our own) and have simplified a situation that is in reality rather complex.
One of the problems we encounter in any group of people, including the church, is that there are two dimensions to sin, not just one. Western Christians typically discern sin as intensely personal – as a verb in which we do or not do certain sinful acts. And this is true. “All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). Yet, if we stop there we are only seeing sin in one dimension. Sin is also a power, a dominion under which all of humanity exists. In other words, we might think of lower case “sin” as individual deeds of sinfulness; and, upper case “Sin” as a constant pervasive realm of evil that is continually oppressing us. “Jews, as well as Gentiles, are ruled by Sin” (Romans 3:9). So, then, sin resides both in the human heart and in human institutions. Sin is both personal and systemic so that when we look at the complete landscape of the human condition in all of its foulness and degradation, it’s complicated, man.
Sin is such a ubiquitous and pervasive reality that the Scriptures can say “No one is acceptable to God! Not one of them understands or even searches for God… There isn’t one person who does right” (Romans 3:10-12). This situation exists primarily because of the vast realm of Sin. Therefore, when we turn to the answer to this terrible and egregious calamity of s(S)in, the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross, the atonement of Christ has taken care of it all – dismantled the dominion of Sin and taken away its power of death, as well as absorbed all personal guilt for individual human sins.
Let’s bring this theological and anthropological understanding back into the church setting. Praying for lost people and proclaiming salvation for individuals who have guilt over personal sins is a must. But having people saved from guilty acts is not the whole story of your church. If we fail to pray against the persistent problem of Sin as a realm and dominion, then Sin is going to come back and bite us because it is still there, still exerting its power. Saving faith must turn into sanctifying faith in which people realize that the dominion of Sin must be continually overcome by applying Christ’s redemption to both personal and corporate life. The late Dallas Willard used to say: Grace is opposed to earning, but not opposed to effort.
People are enslaved to Sin. They must be set free through the death of Christ by turning from sin and following Jesus, as well as putting a great deal of effort into forsaking the old masters of cultural obsessions and systemic compulsions of evil. In short, we must become slaves to God’s righteousness in a great transference of allegiance. “You gotta serve somebody,” said Bob Dylan. And that somebody needs to be God and not Sin. Oversimplifying sin will only get us in trouble. Sin is terrible and complex. Let’s make sure we are forsaking it in all of its sinister manifestations so that we might pursue God in all His goodness.