#334 Barnabas: Serving with Failure

September 27, 2022

Barnabas was a great leader and we have reflected on many great things from his life. But he was not perfect! Two incidents are recorded for us that reveal his imperfections.

36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:36-41, NIV).

After serving together as a powerful team for years, Paul and Barnabas could not agree on whether to take Mark on the next journey! This unresolved conflict is ironically the last we hear about Barnabas in the book of Acts!

Perhaps even before this well-known disagreement, there was another contentious issue about circumcision in Antioch. Peter acted hypocritically and was rebuked publicly by Paul. In his writing about the incident, Paul also reported:  

The other Jews joined him [Peter] in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray (Galatians 2:13).

In this situation Barnabas and Peter were clearly in the wrong (see note*). But the failures of Barnabas serve as reminders to leaders that even in our failures, we can serve others.

The failure of Barnabas serves by showing that failure is normal.

Paul thought so highly of Barnabas that he said “even Barnabas was led astray.” He implies that Barnabas was the last person he expected to make this mistake! But Barnabas did fail and shows all leaders that failure is to be expected. Certainly, we don’t intend to or plan to fail, but we should anticipate it. Some leaders see failure as a sign of incompetence, so they feel obliged to cover up, deny or ignore failure. But serving leaders accept their humanity and the reality that all leaders fail. They give grace to themselves and ask for grace from others when they fail. In doing so, they serve those they lead by showing that failure is normal.

The failure of Barnabas serves by showing that failure is not the end.

The recorded story of Barnabas ends with the disagreement between him and Paul but his work did not end there. Barnabas took Mark with him on a missionary journey and while we don’t know the results, we can certainly expect that the existing churches were strengthened and other churches planted through their work. Some leaders see failure as the end of their work but serving leaders understand that failure is not final. They learn to continue the journey after each failure and serve by showing that failure is not the end.  

The failure of Barnabas serves by showing that failure can lead to growth.

Both Barnabas and Paul grew through their disagreement. Paul later requested Mark to help him (see 2 Timothy 4:11). Barnabas grew as a team leader while traveling with Mark. God used their disagreement to send out two teams instead of one and brought growth to the churches. On the issue of circumcision both Barnabas and Peter were able to see their mistakes and make corrections. Some leaders see failure as the end of growth but serving leaders see failures as opportunities for growth. They ask what went wrong and what can be learned. They adjust, change, and adapt as needed and then carry on the mission! They serve their teams by growing through failure.

For further reflection and discussion:

  • How does the failure of Barnabas challenge me as a leader? What action can I take this week to be more like him as I respond to my own failures?
  • Do I see failure as normal for my own leadership? If so, how do I communicate this to others? If not, how does this impact the way I see and respond to the failures of others?
  • Have I allowed a past failure to stop me from doing what I should be doing? If so, what steps do I need to take to get back on the right path?
  • In what ways have my failures brought growth to my life and leadership? Who needs to hear about what I have learned and when will I share my story with them?               

Until next time, yours on the journey,

Jon Byler

In the next issue, we’ll look at how Barnabas served with character.

*Note. Scholars debate about whether Peter’s visit to Antioch was prior to or after the  Jerusalem Council where the matter of circumcision was resolved by the church leaders. (See Acts 15) If the visit was afterwards, the failure of Peter and Barnabas was certainly more grievous. But whatever the timeline they both failed to live out the gospel message.