The last 60 years of Christian missions has certainly had a lot of disagreements (and yes, I know one can find conflicts much further back). Consider:
- One finds in the late 60s conciliar missiologists claiming that proselytism is antithetical to missions, at the same time that Ralph Winter was saying that missions is evangelism only to “unreached people groups,”
- Evangelical missiologists were arguing in the late 60s and early 70s whether missions is only “spiritual work” or holistic ministry, while others promoted an almost totally social ministry.
- Some today believe that one should not send money for missions, while others suggest that one should ONLY send money.
- Some believe we should promote self-theology of new churches while others believe that this will lead to syncretism and heresy.
- Some think that literacy is key to spreading the gospel message, while others believe that hearts are often reached more effective without written text.
The list could go on. Some of these conflicts there is a clear right versus wrong (for example, Stott right and Wagner wrong, in my opinion), but in many cases it is not so clear.
That is why it is comforting to find the early church had similar disagreement about so much. This is quite true of Christian missions as well. Consider the conflicts that Paul had in terms of Missions.
#1. Paul and Barnabas. As we know, the two stopped working together due to John Mark. Well… it wasn’t really John Mark. It was all about Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark on a second missionary voyage (a second chance) while Paul didn’t. We don’t really know why Paul said No. Knowing that Barnabas had the nickname “Son of Encouragement” (his real name was Joseph) one might wonder if he really wanted to help out one who was struggling. Paul, however, seemed willing to take on a mentoring role himself, so perhaps he saw the issue of John Mark as something to do with nepotism (since Barnabas was the uncle of John Mark). We don’t really know why John Mark left the first voyage. We might assume a lot of things but we just don’t know. If we knew why, we may be more likely to side with Paul in this, or Barnabas.
We also don’t really know if one should see this as a missiological conflict or simply a conflict of personalities. Barnabas mentored Paul and trained him in missions. Perhaps now Paul wanted to flex his wings and fly on his own, and John Mark was the excuse. Maybe going separate ways was the best thing to happen. John Mark appears to have had an illustrious career, thanks the work of Barnabas. And Paul did not do so bad either. Their may not be a clear missiological conflict here, but that can be true in missions today as well. Personalities often are the underlying cause of conflicts.
#2. Paul and Peter. We know the story. Paul was in Antioch, and Peter was visiting. Antioch was a multicultural church— Jews and Gentiles. They were all fellowshiping together. But a delegation of Christians from Jerusalem, a decidedly monocultural church— few if any Gentiles— visited. When this happened, Peter went with the Jerusalem group. Barnabas, who had deep roots in the Jerusalem church went with them as well. Paul, who was trying to promote unity, saw this as hypocrisy (according to his Epistle to the Galatians).
However, we never really get to hear the perspective of Peter or Barnabas. They might argue that they are practicing good missions. Paul himself said that he is a Jew to the Jews, but behaved differently for other groups. Peter and Barnabas may say that they are contextualizing their ministry to who they are working with— supporting the weaker brother. From a missiological standpoint today at least, both sides have their point.
And maybe that is the point. Sometimes there is more than one right answer. Some may argue that since we only get Paul’s side of the story and that side is canonical, that means that God agrees with Paul. Makes sense, right? Not so fast. If both sides are right but in different ways, then we need to look at how each are right. Within the context of the Epistle to the Galatians— dealing with “Judaizers” Paul was absolutely correct. However, in the second century, there was a counter move to remove Jewish influence and practices from Christianity— creating a sort of Greek or Roman monoculture in the Christian faith. If the Bible was written during this time, we may see a very different (and still inspired) version of the story told. Many of the stories in the Bible are shared without giving a clear cut moral lesson. It would be a grave mistake to think that just because a servant of God did something (such as curse a bunch of young men for calling him bald) that it is God-sanctioned and approved.
#3. Paul versus Luke. After Paul’s Third missionary voyage, he states that he wants to go to Jerusalem. He even says that the Spirit of God told him to go. However, Church leaders where Paul was serving not only said don’t go, but even told him that that the Spirit said that he should not go. As we read this, it seems to me as if the narrator inserts himself into the story a bit. Luke was a disciple of Paul, but it seems like Luke is siding with the church leaders here. Paul had in the past attempted to do ministry work in Jerusalem but to no avail. Luke does not directly say that Paul is wrong, but simply states the overwhelming opposition to his going, and then records 5 years of Paul being generally unproductive going from one jail to the next.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Luke is right, any more than that Paul was right. We don’t know what the “path not taken” would have given. Certainly, by pretty much any standard, Paul’s ministry in Judea was not great, he did eventually interpret it as his road to Rome. And perhaps he was right. Or maybe he was wrong. Missions can also have conflict between missionary vision and the vision of supporters and locals. These happen.
Conflicts did not end in the first century. They continue throughout church history. In some cases one side is clearly wrong and the other clearly right. More commonly the issues are more nuanced. In some cases both sides can be right. God is a god of diversity.