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Lesson 7: Resolving Personality And Methodology Differences (Acts 15:36-41)

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May 28, 2017

I haven’t read Leslie Flynn’s book, Great Church Fights, but the title makes me want to read it. I did read a story that he tells of two porcupines in the freezing north woods that huddled together to keep warm. But when they got close, their quills stabbed each other, so they had to move apart. They needed each other for the warmth, but they needled each other with their quills!

Church members often are like those porcupines: we need each other, but we needle each other! As Vance Havner observed, there are many “porcupine” Christians—they have their good points, but you can’t get near them!

If you’ve been in the church for any length of time, you’ve no doubt been around someone whose personality grated on yours. Even though you’re supposed to love them, if you were honest, you’d admit that you don’t like them. Or, if you’ve served the Lord in some ministry, you’ve probably tried to work with someone who wanted to do things in a way that seemed wrong to you. You could see that his way wouldn’t work and you knew that your way was the right way! I wish that I were only describing hypothetical situations, but from my many years of pastoral experience, I know that I’m describing reality. I hope I’m not describing anyone’s marriage, but I probably am!

It’s important that you learn to deal with such situations for several reasons. First, the command to love one another is not a minor one! It’s the second greatest commandment and it is linked with the greatest commandment, to love God. If we do not love our brother whom we have seen, we cannot love God whom we have not seen (1 John 4:20). Also, Christian unity is not a minor matter. Jesus prayed just before His death that we would be perfected in unity so that the world would know that the Father had sent Him (John 17:23). We can’t just shrug it off!

Also, I’ve seen Christians become discouraged and quit serving the Lord because of a clash with another believer. Sometimes they even grow disillusioned or cynical about the Christian life because of a clash that they either observed or experienced in the church. They got hurt and wrongly concluded, “Christians are just hypocrites. Christianity doesn’t work.” And they fell away from the Lord. So it’s important to learn what the Bible teaches about resolving personality and methodology differences.

In Acts 15:36-41, Luke reports a clash that occurred between two great men of God, Paul and Barnabas. Frankly, it’s not a pretty picture. I wish that he reported that they both talked things through and calmly agreed to work in different spheres. But the clash led to an unpleasant rupture in the close working relationship between these two godly men. Both Paul and Barnabas must have grieved over this in the years afterward. The lesson for us is that …

Christians must be diligent to maintain unity and continue serving the Lord in spite of personality and methodology differences.

I will make four observations about our text:

1. To maintain unity, recognize that personality and methodology differences may exist, even among mature, godly believers.

We often naïvely think that if we all were spiritually mature, we would never clash with one another. I agree that our clashes should be less frequent and less severe as we grow in the Lord. And, the more mature we are, the more calmly and amicably we should be able to handle our differences. But until we are perfectly sanctified in heaven, we will have differences with other believers. Sometimes they will be severe, especially when two strong leaders clash. Note four things about such personality and methodology differences:

A. Personality and methodology differences can arise between those who share the same theology.

Paul and Barnabas had just come away from the Jerusalem Council, where the core issue of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone had been affirmed. Both men firmly agreed about this. They had worked together for over a year teaching the church in Antioch (Acts 11:26), where I’m sure they had to agree on the core doctrines of the Christian faith. But now their personalities clashed over a practical matter of ministry: whether to take Mark along on the second missionary journey.

B. Personality and methodology differences can arise between those who are godly and committed to the cause of Christ.

Paul and Barnabas were not new believers. Both men had walked with God for years. Acts 11:24 describes Barnabas as, “a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,” whom the Lord used to bring “considerable numbers” to saving faith. Paul is described as being filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:9). They were both fully committed to doing the will of God, and had risked their lives for the sake of Christ (Acts 15:26). And yet they clashed.

C. Personality and methodology differences can arise between those who have served together for years in the cause of Christ.

Paul and Barnabas had a long history of serving together. It was Barnabas who had gone to Paul and listened to his testimony when the Christians in Jerusalem were afraid to accept him (Acts 9:26-27). Barnabas also went to Tarsus to look for Paul and brought him back to labor with him in the ministry at Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). The Holy Spirit directed that the two men be commissioned together to go out on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). They had served together in the spiritual battle.

This clash erupted out of godly concern on Paul’s part to revisit the churches that they had seen God establish on that first journey, to see how they were doing in the Lord. Both men had a heart for the wellbeing of the churches. And yet these two teammates, who had labored and suffered together for many years in the cause of Christ, clashed. Serving together for years does not erase personality differences that can lead to strong clashes.

D. Resolving personality and methodology conflicts may require the help of an outside party.

There is no record in Acts 15 that Paul and Barnabas sought the help of the other leaders in Antioch to try to help resolve this conflict. But later, when two women in the church in Philippi were having a conflict, Paul wrote (Phil. 4:2-3),

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Paul doesn’t confront these women for being in sin, so their conflict must have been due to personality or methodology differences. But for the unity of the church (Phil. 1:27), it was important for this unnamed “companion” (Epaphroditus?) to help these two faithful women to work through their conflict.

Such a mediator needs to be a mature, committed Christian (Gal. 6:1, “you who are spiritual”) who can apply biblical principles to the conflict. He should be objective, listening to both sides before making any judgment as to who is at fault (Prov. 18:17). He should be open, direct, and truthful. Paul didn’t beat around the bush, hinting that there may be a problem. Rather, he directly named the two women in a letter that would be read to the entire church (and be read by Christians for two millennia!). And, a mediator needs to be affirming and positive wherever possible. Paul affirmed these women for sharing his struggle in the gospel and assured them that their names are written in the book of life. He didn’t doubt their salvation.

So if you get in a conflict with another believer whose personality grates on yours, or who wants to do things differently, don’t escalate the conflict by questioning his salvation. Don’t attack his motives as being sinister. Rather, recognize that personality and methodology differences may exist, even among mature believers.

2. To maintain unity, try to identify the real nature of the difficulty.

I say, “try” because it isn’t always easy to sort things out. Try to disengage your emotions and think objectively about five questions:

(1) Is the conflict due to a theological difference, a personal wrong, spiritual immaturity, different personalities, or different methodologies? We need to be careful here, because it sounds more “spiritual” to say that I’m defending the truth against theological error, or to say that the other person sinned against me, than to say, “His personality grates on mine!” It’s easy, too, to label the other person as spiritually immature, rather than to admit my own shortcomings and faults. In this case, as we’ve seen, both Paul and Barnabas were spiritually mature men. Both were totally committed to the Great Commission. As far as we’re told, this conflict didn’t erupt because one of them sinned against the other (although, as I’m going to suggest, they did sin in the way they dealt with this conflict). Usually, a conflict is due to a mixed bag of reasons.

(2) Is there a biblical principle at stake? Again, be careful here! Is there more than one principle that applies? Paul could have quoted Jesus: “‘No one after putting his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Mark shouldn’t go!” And, Barnabas countered, “Yes, but God is the gracious God of the second chance. Look at Jonah. Look at Peter. We need to give Mark another chance.” Both men had Scripture to back up their opposing views! Sometimes, because of personality differences, one man emphasizes one biblical principle, while the other man emphasizes a different biblical principle. Sometimes in such cases, if the principle is basic to one’s approach to ministry, it may be better to agree to work separately.

You may be wondering, “What if you can’t separate from the person that you clash with because you’re married to him (or her)?” That leads to the third question you need to ask:

(3) Is God trying to develop godly character qualities in me through this conflict? Sometimes God in His grace (and humor) throws us together with people who grate on us in order to sandpaper our rough edges. Let’s face it, I don’t need patience, forbearance, gentleness, and kindness when the other person sees everything my way! I don’t need to learn to deny myself when the other person thinks that I’m wonderful. But when there is a clash, God often confronts me with my selfishness and stubbornness. If I submit to Him and don’t bail out of the difficult relationship, He will use it to develop those Christlike qualities in me.

(4) Is this a preference issue, a sin issue, a conscience issue, or a wisdom issue? (This list is from Stuart Scott, The Exemplary Husband [Focus Publishing], p. 256.) If it’s a preference issue, why not yield to the other person’s preference (Phil. 2:3-4)? If it’s a clear sin issue, you need gently to help the other person see it as sin and come to repentance (2 Tim. 2:24-26). If it’s a conscience issue, you need to explain to the other person that you’re not judging him for his behavior, but you can’t in good conscience before the Lord do whatever it is. And, don’t force him to act against his conscience. If it’s a wisdom issue, study the Word together and seek the counsel of godly leaders. If you still can’t come to agreement, you may have to decide not to work together. Then, resist the temptation to say, “I told you so!” if the other person’s method doesn’t work well!

(5) Is God trying to teach me the beauty of the body of Christ? I once heard church consultant Carl George explain that many church conflicts stem from a lack of understanding the God-given differences between spiritual gifts. He told about a church he visited as a consultant. Cars were lined up to get into the parking lot. Young families filled the auditorium and Sunday school classes. He learned that many of them were new believers, excited about the church. They liked the fellowship, the worship, and the pastor’s warm and friendly messages.

But the pastor was discouraged and ready to resign because some of the most mature saints in the church, who taught large adult Sunday school classes, were highly critical of his ministry. “Weak teaching,” they complained. “Nobody can grow on this kind of pabulum,” they griped.

Dr. George helped these critics to see that it was those with the gift of teaching who were critical of the pastor. He wasn’t a strong teacher, but he was gifted more in evangelism and encouragement. Rather than criticizing him, those gifted in teaching needed to see that he was bringing in hundreds of young families who needed the teaching that these gifted teachers could offer. Without the pastor, they wouldn’t have anyone to teach! The same thing could happen in a church where the pastor was a gifted teacher, but not an evangelist. Those gifted in evangelism could gripe that nobody was being won to Christ through the pulpit ministry.

Dr. George points out that you can often tell what a person’s spiritual gift is by what he criticizes. The woman who complains that the church is uncaring probably has the gift of mercy. The guy who gripes about the lack of organization in the church probably has the gift of administration. So if you’re having a personality or methodology clash with a person, listen to what he’s criticizing and you may discover his gift. Affirm that gift and you may be able to divide up the work according to your differing gifts and work together harmoniously.

Thus, to maintain unity, recognize that even mature, godly believers may have personality and methodology conflicts. Try to identify the real nature of the difficulty.

3. To maintain unity, judge your pride and anger and try to talk through the real issues in a spirit of humility and love.

The question comes up, “Who was right in this clash?” Since Luke, who was obviously close to Paul, did not blame Barnabas or Paul, we need to be careful. The slight nod goes to Paul as being right, since it is stated that the brethren commended Silas and Paul to the grace of God, but nothing is said about Barnabas and Mark, except that they sailed away to Cyprus. But in light of the rest of Scripture, I think we can say that both men were right but, also, both men were wrong. Paul was right in that he was a rugged pioneer, venturing into enemy strongholds, and he needed teammates who wouldn’t run when the battle was hard. Mark had not proven himself to be such a man. He should not have gone with Paul.

Barnabas was right in that he saw the undeveloped potential in Mark, and he wanted to extend God’s grace to this young man in spite of his earlier mistake in deserting the cause. History proved him right, in that Paul himself later told the Colossian church to welcome Mark (Col. 4:10); and, in his final imprisonment, Paul told Timothy to bring Mark with him, because he was useful to Paul for ministry (2 Tim. 4:11). So Barnabas’ efforts to reclaim Mark for the cause paid off. Both men were right.

But, also, I think that both men were wrong. I believe they fell into sinful anger in the way they dealt with this disagreement. They both stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to affirm the other man’s point of view. Probably they both would have said that they were standing on a matter of biblical principle. But they could have graciously agreed to disagree and prayed for one another as they parted ways in a spirit of mutual respect. Instead, they had a “sharp disagreement,” which means, they were very provoked with one another (1 Cor. 13:5, Greek text). Neither man was following Paul’s later directive (Col. 3:12), to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience toward one another. It may have been God’s will for the two men to separate, but it was not His will for them to separate through a heated quarrel.

Two practical observations here:

First, a person’s greatest strengths are often the area of his greatest weaknesses. Paul’s strength was his resolute commitment to follow Christ no matter what the cost, and to stand firm in his convictions. You could beat Paul, throw him in prison, stone him, or shipwreck him, but you couldn’t stop him from proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul’s weakness was that his resolute commitment hindered him from accepting and working with a weaker man, like Mark, who had potential, but needed patient nurture.

Barnabas’ greatest strength was his ability to encourage the fainthearted. He was the champion of the outsider and fringe person. He knew how to show grace to those who had failed. But he erred on the side of showing grace to those who needed to be confronted. As Paul mentions in Galatians 2:13, even Barnabas was carried away with the hypocrisy of Peter and the other Jews who withdrew from eating with the Gentile Christians out of fear of offending the Judaizers.

So the lesson is, know yourself. Where, by God’s grace, are you strong and gifted? Exercise that strength for His glory. But also, be careful, because your strength may lead you into sin if you’re not on guard.

Second, since God always uses imperfect earthen vessels in His service, we should not put too much trust in men, but in God, who alone is perfect. You cannot find two more dedicated, godly servants of Jesus Christ than Paul and Barnabas, and yet here they are, clashing with one another. Throughout the Bible, you see that every great man of God had his weaknesses and failures. While there is a proper place for trusting the leaders that God puts over us, we shouldn’t put them on a pedestal. If we’re trusting in men rather than in the Lord Himself, we’ll be shaken when those men disappoint us. Also, the fact that God uses imperfect men and women in His service should encourage all of us to get involved in serving Him. As long as we are not tolerating known sin in our lives, He can and will use us in His purpose in spite of our imperfections.

4. To maintain unity, if we can’t work out our differences, we still need to continue serving the Lord separately.

Unity does not mean that we all must work closely with one another. While we need to try to work through our differences, there are times when two workers need to recognize that God is calling them to serve the Lord in different spheres. Any parting of ways should be done with mutual respect and without bitterness or acrimony. While I wish that there was some word here about Paul and Barnabas patching things up before they parted ways, at least later Paul did speak in a supportive way of both Barnabas and Mark (1 Cor. 9:6; 2 Tim. 4:11).

Unity does not mean that we all have to agree on every secondary doctrinal or practical matter. As I mentioned several weeks ago, there are some core truths that every Christian must hold to or he is denying the faith. But there are many issues where godly Christians, committed to the Scriptures, disagree. We must be charitable toward one another on these matters.

And, there are many differences over the methods we use to do the Lord’s work. We should seek to follow biblical methods, not worldly methods. Some methods are so unbiblical that they deserve criticism. But as with doctrine, godly men disagree over some methods. We must be charitable toward those whose methods we don’t agree with, even though we can’t work closely with them.

Conclusion

The British admiral, Lord Nelson, once came on deck and found two of his officers quarreling. He whirled them around, pointed to the enemy ships nearby, and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, there are your enemies!”

When we face personality and methodology differences in the church, we need to remember that the enemy is out there! We’re on the same team, members of the same body, committed to furthering the same gospel (Phil. 1:27). If possible, we need to work together in spite of our personality and methodology differences. If not, we can agree to serve the Lord separately, while still affirming one another’s gifts and contributions to the cause of Jesus Christ.

Application Questions

  1. How does liking someone interface with loving him (or her)? Is it wrong not to like everyone?
  2. Does the Bible support particular methods, or is one method as good as the next, as long as it works?
  3. What does Paul mean when he says, “Be of the same mind” (Phil. 2:2; 4:2; Rom. 12:16; 15:5)? Is it wrong biblically to form separate denominations based on minor doctrinal differences?
  4. What in the church do you tend to be critical of? Could this reveal your gift? What should you do about it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)