What the John Mark Dilemma Suggests About Spiritual Leadership

What the John Mark Dilemma Suggests About Spiritual Leadership January 30, 2018

Reading through the Book of Acts recently, I’ve been fascinated with the dispute between Paul and Barnabas concerning John, also called Mark.

As a missionary in a leadership position, I often found myself challenged by this very dilemma. Every minute spent pouring into one person is one that might have been spent elsewhere. How do I know where best to use my influence? What is the best approach for investing my time and passion?

I spent hours, days, weeks, chasing potential leaders around Asia and Central America. Often the chase paid off in the end and there was fruit from my influence. Just as often, the chase was wasted and the person drifted away. Is there a more efficient way to do it? How do I live with the disappointment? How do I make the choice?

During the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, John Mark abandons them. It gets too hard. He quits. He leaves the other two in Pamphylia and returns to the comfort of home.

After heroic tales of the first journey, John Mark wants to join as Paul and Barnabas set out for a second. Paul refuses. Barnabas insists. And what ends up happening is a split, a schism – Barnabas goes one way with John Mark and Paul goes another with Silas.

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As a leader, this balance between grace and accountability is a difficult one. We are too easy on one another, lacking in spiritual fervor (not extremism, but zeal) or we are too hard on one another, withholding forgiveness and casting potential away.

A leader can waste a lot of time on someone who is not ready (or perhaps willing) to take ownership and commit to the vision set before them. This is Paul’s stance. The gospel is too important, the harvest too ripe for second-guessing, half-hearted obedience.

Obviously, there is a place for forgiveness, for second chances. This is what Barnabas represents. And Barnabas is one of the great heroes of the New Testament. Even Paul himself, in the letter to Colossians, implores other believers to welcome John with open arms.

But here is what keeps me up at nights: the Biblical story follows Paul and Silas. It is their path that becomes the avenue that transforms the world. The Biblical narrative chooses Paul’s harsh demands over Barnabas’ second chances – at least in terms of story and timeline.

I worry that, in this world of second and third chances, we have become too easily blown by the wind. Should we keep on sinning so that grace might increase? Are we giving ourselves too much slack?

One of the hardest things about being a leader is letting go. Leading is about influence. At some point, a very critical point,  people must decide for themselves what kind of person they want to be. It is this secret garden, this solemn chamber of the soul, which we are not allowed to go: the holy of holys.

John Mark is a cautionary tale. Sure, he gets to participate in the Kingdom and his story has a profoundly beautiful place in the lexicon of The Kingdom. But what more might have been done in his life had he stayed the course?

It is commitment to the gospel that is most lacking in the Christian world. We spend too much time running in circles. Too much time second-guessing. Too much time falling away.

That is the gamble of leadership. We must do it with wisdom and careful discernment.

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