A sharp disagreement

Psychologists tell us that there are far more words in English for negative emotions than for positive ones. The reason for this, in theory, is that we tend to be more affected by our negative experiences, and for good reason. Forgetting what you ate at that fabulous restaurant you visited on vacation, for example, may be unfortunate, but of little practical significance. Forgetting what you ate that gave you food poisoning or sent you into anaphylactic shock? That could kill you. That’s why the latter kind of memories stay with us.

What psychologists don’t tell us (as far as I know) is how many metaphors for negative emotions and unpleasant experiences involve some sense of sharpness. An intense and unwelcome gaze can be “piercing.” Words can “cut,” “stab,” and “needle.” Indeed, they can be said with a “sharp” tone of voice, and even the best of friends can fall into “sharp” disagreement — even the best of Christian friends.

In one of the best known passages of Scripture, Paul writes that love is not “irritable” (1 Cor 13:5, NRSV, CEB), also translated as “easily angered” (NIV) or “provoked” (NASB). The Greek verb he uses, paroxuno, gives rise to the English “paroxysm,” which can describe a convulsion or a sudden eruption of rage.

People who want to live in loving community, apparently, are advised to work on their triggers and not throw fits.

Gee, Paul, ya think?

But Paul isn’t writing about love in the abstract; he’s giving pastoral counsel to a real-life, fractured and fractious community of believers. They are having fits, over a number of issues. And still, with all of that, they are a church, a body of believers in which one can still see — though one might have to look a bit harder sometimes! — the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

Sharp disagreement and unloving conflict are not limited to the rank-and-file of a congregation. Leaders can fall into the same trap, even leaders with obvious spiritual gifts. Leaders with an impressive track record. Leaders who have ministered side by side to the glory of God

Leaders like Barnabas and Paul.

It’s another embarrassing episode in the life of the early church. One might wish, looking back, that the conflict between Peter and Paul in Antioch had never happened, but it did. Even Barnabas, who had been in Paul’s corner from the very beginning (Acts 9:27), who had been a trusted partner on a difficult mission through Galatia, waffled on the issue of circumcision (Gal 2:13), much to Paul’s distress. You have to wonder how Barnabas’ stumble affected his relationship with Paul; again, it’s hard to forget negative experiences, especially those that feel like betrayal and undermine trust.

Eventually, a rift opened between them:

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Acts 15:36-41, NRSV

Paul and Barnabas both knew that it was necessary for them to go back to visit the churches they had planted, each of which was likely to be experiencing some persecution and thus needing pastoral support and guidance. But should they take John Mark with them, as they had on their first missionary trip? Paul said no, absolutely not; had Barnabas forgotten the way John Mark had deserted them early on?

We don’t know the details, but John Mark was probably young and inexperienced; turning tail in Pamphylia may have been nothing more than a sign of his immaturity. Still, Paul had a point. The upcoming trip was an important one, and they needed someone dependable. In Paul’s eyes, John Mark had not given him any reason to trust him.

But Barnabas, always the encourager, must have seen potential there. John Mark was, after all, his cousin, and Barnabas was probably privy to parts of the young man’s character that Paul was not. It had also been some time since the regrettable episode in Pamphylia. Didn’t he deserve a second chance?

Luke doesn’t tell us that one person was right and the other wrong, that one saw the issues clearly and the other was being unreasonable. He simply reports the argument in all its awkward intensity. There’s that word again: the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas was so “sharp” that they went their separate ways.

This is the reality of the church. Do we want people to embody the love of Jesus in their life together? Yes. Do we want our leaders to be good listeners, able to deal constructively and patiently with conflict? Of course. Can such things be learned and cultivated? Absolutely.

Is all of this the norm in our congregations? Well…

The irony is that if we want to be more of who we should be, more of who we are called to be, we have to start with a full and honest recognition of who we are. Luke doesn’t shy away from showing us the less glamorous side of life together, even among the church’s leaders.

But then again, neither does he stop insisting that God’s will can still be accomplished even in the face of our missteps. More on that in the next post.

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