John Mark: A False Positive or False Negative?

by | Jan 14, 2012 | Church Leadership, Church Planting

To select or not to select? That is the question.

Paul and Barnabas struggled over a critical personnel decision—whether or not to allow John Mark to rejoin them in ministry (Acts 15: 36-40). The two companions found themselves in strong disagreement. Barnabas wanted John Mark to resume as an assistant, despite his abandonment of the team on a previous missionary journey. On the other hand, Paul determined that John Mark’s earlier desertion in Pamphylia (Acts 13: 13-14) was unacceptable, disqualifying him as an assistant. So sharp was the division that the two companions split up, went their separate ways, and took their own assistants. Paul took Silas, and Barnabas took John Mark.

This scenario underscores the importance of understanding the four types of personnel decisions: true positive (correcting predicting success); false positive (incorrectly predicting success); false negative (incorrectly predicting failure); and true negative (correctly predicting failure). In essence, Paul evaluated John Mark as a false positive: The young companion previously was predicted to succeed, but he failed. To select him again would be tantamount to creating an accident waiting to happen. Barnabas evaluated John Mark as a false positive: The success of the young companion would be denied if they followed through on the prediction of failure. To reject him would be tantamount to disqualifying a diamond in the rough. Who was right?

Before we attempt to answer that question? Here is another important question for all of us today. When we encounter questionable people in ministry—those who show potential but carry baggage, those who have clear assets but unsettling liabilities—should they be appointed to leadership or disqualified?

In my opinion, both Paul and Barnabas had legitimate concerns. Paul was concerned about the integrity of the mission and threat that John Mark posed to that mission. Therefore, his premise was sound. John Mark had proven himself to be untrustworthy. Barnabas was concerned about the integrity of John Mark and his potential as a minister of the gospel. Therefore, his premise was sound. John Mark deserved an opportunity for restoration. In the final analysis, both of the companions had noble concerns, and both acted out of uncompromising conviction.

Now consider the positive outcomes. Paul had a successful missionary trip even though he encountered fierce opposition, and he succeeded without the help of John Mark. Also, the reach of the gospel was extended into new regions. So Paul made a good decision. Barnabas, the encourager, apparently developed John Mark, so much so that years later Paul acknowledged John Mark as a co-worker (Colossians 4:11) and affirmed his usefulness in ministry (II Timothy 4:11). Moreover, John Mark authored the second gospel. I like Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas’ comments. “What was John Mark’s greatest accomplishment? The writing of The Gospel of Mark. It’s this man: this failure, this deserter, this quitter, this man who deserted us in our hour of need. And that’s the man God chose to write The Gospel of Mark.” So Barnabas also made a good decision.

Here are some take home points.

1. Encountering questionable people is a reality of ministry. Expect it!

2. Making personnel decisions about questionable people is tough business. Anticipate struggling but more importantly realize the need for Godly discernment.

3. Disagreements about personnel decisions do occur. If Paul and Barnabas found themselves disagreeing, it is reasonable to expect that Godly, honest, and competent leaders today will find themselves in disagreement on personnel matters. Learn to respectfully disagree, while remaining on one accord.

4. Balance your concern for the integrity of the ministry with concern for the integrity of the minister. Given Paul’s temperament, it is reasonable to conclude that in this case he was better suited for advancing the integrity of the ministry. His noteworthy investment was in planting churches and strengthening existing churches. Given Barnabas’ nature as an encourager, it is reasonable to conclude that he was better suited for advancing the integrity of the minister. His noteworthy investment was into disciplining and mentoring John Mark.

5. The integrity of the ministry and integrity of the minister are not mutually exclusive. Ministers who have integrity are essential to carrying out ministries that have integrity. The corollary is that ministers who lack integrity create ministries that lack integrity. John Mark’s development and later accomplishments are testimony to the mutual inclusivity of ministry integrity and minister integrity.

6. Inside every false positive is a false negative. God can use the biggest of failures for his purposes, glory, and reputation. Look at ourselves! Christ looked beyond our faults and saw our needs.

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