The Difference between the Devil and the Deep Blue Blue

I hate blues between church members. 

But what I hate much more is when one of the parties in the dispute ascribes evil motivation or intent by their opponent. They may even call the other party evil, on the side of the devil or a servant of Satan. 

However it is said, the theme is the same. Because one party can’t get their own way, win their side of the argument or make others see their point of view, it is because the other party is listening to the voice of the enemy and doing the devil’s work.

I’ve seen and heard it happen between church leadership teams, lay leadership teams and between clergy and laity. I’ve listened to many painful stories of fallings out. I’ve personally experienced the tension, conflict and pain of deep disagreements in the 45 years I’ve been a member of a church and in the 35 years I’ve been an ordained member of a church staff team, leadership team or Christian organisation.

Recognised church leadership can often be the target, just as recognised leadership can also be the culprit. But it’s not just the experience within the circle or hierarchy of a leadership team. It can happen at every level of church life and relationship. I’ve watched the carnage as congregation members have climbed into each other in cutting and cruel ways.

Disputes and disagreements have been with us from the beginning. Well, almost. And they can be healthy, not always harmful. They can deepen relationships, not just destroy them. They can clarify truth and help people move on from confusion.

But there is a world of difference between healthy discussion and irrational argumentativeness; respectful disagreement and bullying behaviour; or between creative conflict and cruel verbal abusive.

I’m not saying that Christian people aren’t capable of behaving very badly. Nor am I saying that our churches don’t contain members with personality disorders that can inflict frightening cycles of pain and abuse on others. Nor am I saying that we aren’t capable of acting in a way that could be described as evil through verbal, emotional and even physical abuse. Nor am I saying that the devil is not active through false teaching, moral failure, rumour, gossip, lies, arrogance, pride, bullying and harassment.

But most conflict comes because strong personalities with passionate objectives clash with each other. Nothing more and nothing less. 

This seems to be the scenario between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. These men are as close a co-workers in the gospel as you are ever likely to find. Barnabas recruits Saul (Paul) for the work of establishing new believers in the faith in the fledgling church, the first planted in Gentile soil.

Together they teach, they disciple, they nurture the baby church in Antioch. They do it for a whole year and over that time great numbers of people are taught the gospel (Acts 11:26).

Together they are entrusted with the task of delivering aid safely to beneficiaries back in Judea in a time when there were no electronic banking facilities, no money transfer companies and no armored trucks or stage coaches. Ministry would have made these two men closer than most twin brothers.

Together they are then sent by the church at Antioch, at the call of the Holy Spirit, on the first of four major missionary journeys that the Book of Acts records. They take a young associate, Mark, who doesn’t see this journey through but returns to Jerusalem when they hit land in Perga (Acts 13:13). 

However, as they prepare for their second journey their relationship runs into some rough weather. Barnabas wants to take Mark again but Paul thought it unwise because Mark retired early from the last campaign (Acts 15:36-41).  

Make no mistake, this was a deep blue. The severity of it is described with the phrase, ‘sharp disagreement’. They part company and go in different directions.

But as striking as the language is in terms of the depth of the disagreement and the parting of ways that follows, it is equally compelling to see that there is no blame-laying, high moral ground-taking and no apportioning to the other party some sinister or Satan-driven motivation!

What can we learn from this? May I suggest that when some major (or minor) disagreement disturbs the equilibrium of a relationship with a brother or sister in Christ that we apply three simple reflective actions before we start drawing other conclusions:

Look inside myself

Are there biblical principles undergirding the intensity of my stance? Have I thought my position through thoroughly? Are my motives beyond reproach? Have I breached the boundaries of what I am responsible for?

Look for negotiated settlements

Have I explored and appreciated points of agreement with the other party? Are there aspects of my position that I could moderate to accommodate a working solution? Are the issues critical enough to justify the potential relational damage?

Look for an alternative explanation before the ‘evil’ one

Is this any more than a matter of strongly driven people who are used to getting their own way? Am I any less capable of acting sinfully than the other party? Will I look back on this episode in the cool light of a future day and still think I was under some kind of evil assault?

Paul and Barnabas’ disagreement led to significant changes in ministry plans. 

But the commentary is brief, without a trace of bile.

May our interpretation of tense encounters be equally tempered.