Barnabas was “Mr Encouragement” (Acts 4:36). Paul wrote powerfully about the need to say “no” to the deeds of the flesh and the need to say “yes” to the fruit of the Spirit, which included love, joy, shalom and patience (Galatians 5:19–23). And these two giants of the faith had a big fight.
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return and visit the brothers in every town where we proclaimed the word of the Lord to see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to bring John called Mark along with them too, but Paul insisted that they should not take along this one who had left them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. They had a sharp disagreement, so that they parted company. Barnabas took along Mark and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and set out, commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers and sisters. (Acts 15:36–40 NET)
Note this was a “sharp disagreement” and I expect that it was loud and strong words were used. Note also that time limitations didn’t permit them to continue to thrash out their differences, so Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. We can imagine Paul, unwilling to compromise the mission with a team member who was unreliable, and Barnabas believing that everyone deserved another chance. I am sure both believed key spiritual principles were at stake and therefore could not find a way to come to an agreement. Even spiritual giants fight.
Lately I have been reminded of this both in Singapore and in Malaysia. In Singapore, the church was divided as to how to respond to the Amos Yee case, the 16-year-old who had posted videos making fun of Lee Kuan Yew, the late founding Prime Minister of Singapore, and Christianity, among others. In Malaysia, there is now a heated debate over the strategy and sincerity of a new group—Christians for Peace and Harmony in Malaysia (CPHM)—started by Christians who propose what they believe to be a less confrontational approach to relating to the government and to other religious communities in the country. Lee Min Choon, one of the leaders of this new initiative, explained the rationale behind the group:
“Now there are many levels today, where Christians engage with the multi-faith Malaysian society, but these are at the very top levels,” said Lee Min Choon, a member of the CPHM’s board of trustees.
Lee, a lawyer and a former chairman of the Bible Society of Malaysia, pointed out that there was currently a “vacuum” at the grassroots levels that could be filled by CHPM’s [sic] and its activities which also include promoting Christians [sic] outreach.
“On the part of Christians, our non-governmental organisation was started to encourage and mobilise Christians to engage with the other communities and become friends… good Malaysians,” he added.
Feelings are running high among Christians in Malaysia. Day by day we find ourselves maligned by vocal Muslim NGOs. We find that state and government departments are not even-handed in their dealings with the various religious communities, and we receive court rulings that deprive us of basic rights enshrined by the constitution. The main Christian bodies are united in their firm responses to these injustices. I can understand why many are suspicious of a new Christian body that is not sanctioned by the official Christian leadership of the land and one that seems to be unnecessarily pally with a government that has in recent times directly or indirectly sanctioned the closing down of the public space for Christians.
There has been a strong negative reaction to this new group from the Malaysian Christian community and a lot of negative opinions posted on social media. I am concerned on a number of levels.
First, I know some of the leaders in this grouping. Mr Lee Min Choon, for example, is a friend and, to me, one of the heroes of the faith in Malaysia who has stood up for the cause of Christ over the years. For those who are unaware, he is the lawyer who secured the release of Joshua Jamaluddin, a Malay Christian, when Joshua was arrested under the ISA. I can’t see Min Choon as someone who is stupid or easily duped. The jury is out for me whether the approach of CPHM can work or is even correct, but I for one am willing to give them some time to see what they actually do. And I will not be calling them names. What I want to do is to get to know the group and its agenda better. And I want to seek the Lord.
Next, I am also concerned as to how Christians resolve their differences. I accept that Christians will have major disagreements from time to time. We still see in a glass darkly and there will be times when we will disagree strongly. I think we need to show the world how we disagree, whether there is a God difference. I hope differences between brothers and sisters will be thrashed out in private with genuine attempts to listen and understand, and the freedom to share our deepest convictions and concerns. Blasting each other using the social media only increases anger and hardens positions. I have long eschewed the social media as a platform for serious debate about nuanced and complicated issues. Such discussions should be done face to face over a meal and perhaps preceded by the breaking of bread.
My fear is that once positions are hardened we see only bad in the other’s position and only good in our own. It may very well be that we are 80% right and the other party is only 20% right but a hardened position makes me blind to my own shortcomings and blinds me to what I can learn from those I disagree with. It also makes me forget that we are all sinners saved by grace and now children of the same heavenly Father. Surely there must be some divine decorum for how we treat each other in the family. And I think a community that disagrees strongly but yet loves each other is a powerful testimony of the power of the gospel.
Is there a place for prophetic rebuke? Of course. Sometimes a brother or a sister or a group takes a course that is clearly wrong. It will take shock therapy to hopefully wake them up and turn them back from a direction that is disastrous for them and for others. Still, prophetic messages must be the wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6), motivated by love — love for Christ, love for truth, and love for the people we believe are going down a wrong path. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13 that no matter how right we may be, if we have no love, it doesn’t count. Like Jeremiah, if we have to deliver strong prophetic messages, it will be with tears in our eyes (Jeremiah 9:1); weeping that we have to do it at all.
I don’t know how this situation in Malaysia will play out. Things seem to change from day to day. I am glad that things worked out for Paul and John Mark in the end. In 2 Timothy, Paul calls John Mark someone of great help in his ministry (2 Timothy 4:11). Sometimes I get really tired and think that true shalom will only come with the return of Christ. But I still hope and pray that we can experience some of that this side of heaven, while we carry our crosses and seek to follow Christ with the light that we have.