Was the First Missionary Team Split Over Strategy?

Larnaca, Cyprus

Could the split between Paul and Mark on their first missionary journey have been related to missions strategy? Here’s an interesting take that relies on the history of the region.

…recent scholarship on Cyprus suggests a difference over mission strategy may have been at the heart of the disagreement. In Acts 11:20, Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene are credited with founding the Antioch church. Cyprus and Cyrene were the “overseas” possessions of the former Ptolemaic kingdom, centered at Alexandria in Egypt. Even after Rome annexed the kingdom, cultural commercial ties to Egypt remained intact. Perhaps the first missionary outreach of the Antioch church was to be a “thank you” to their spiritual parents in these two provinces. According to this model, Paul, Barnabas, and Mark were to sail from Cyprus to Cyrene in North Africa, rather than to Asia Minor. It is possible that sailing to Perga was a last-minute decision influenced by the conversion of the. governor of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus (who had family contacts in Pisidian Antioch; see note on Acts 13:7) This possibility is strengthened by the fact that if the missionaries wanted to sail to Perga in Pamphylia, they normally would have sailed from the north coast of Cyprus at Lapethos, not from Paphos on the southwest coast. From Paphos, ships normally sailed west to Rome or south to Alexandria and North Africa. Mark may have felt that Paul and Barnabas betrayed the wishes of the church at Antioch by going to Galatia. However, by the time Paul wrote Colossians, he and Mark were fully reconciled (Col 4:10). Such a reconciliation would have been much easier (and more likely) if the disagreement between them was merely strategic, not theological.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1773

Arguments over strategy among missionaries can get surprisingly heated. Thankfully, as the text notes, they aren’t usually as serious as theological differences – depending on the strategy. Some methods can undermine the gospel message. But the hope is that theologically like-minded missionaries who clash over strategy will, like Paul and Mark, eventually remember they’re on the same team and find a way to work together again. Ironically, in an evangelicalism that has played down the importance of doctrine for so long, many missionaries end up more likely to put strategy in the primary place now vacated by doctrine, thus making splits over strategy more likely to be bitter and final.

Photo by Hert Niks on Unsplash

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