When Good Men Part Ways

Taigen Joos

two roads between trees

Throughout the history of the church there have been godly men who have differed with one another, sometimes even to the point of parting ways with one another in ministry. Often, the question that arises is, “Should this happen?” When this kind of rift occurs, we immediately want to label one person as being “right” and the other as being “wrong.” However, wisdom should lead us to be very cautious about doing so. Especially from a distance, not every detail can and will be known, and whatever information we have will be understood imperfectly. What is important to understand is that for all parties involved—including spectators—humility and integrity must be maintained for the glory of God. 

Below are three examples of godly men in church history who have parted ways with each other for various reasons. While we may not understand all the intricate details of the situation, nor even their motives, we can observe how they did so, and learn from their godly examples today.

Paul & Barnabas

This is the one biblical example of two godly men having a dispute and parting ways. It is described for us in Acts 15:36–41 where Luke recounts a dispute between the Apostle Paul and his close companion, Barnabas. In discussing plans regarding their next missionary journey together, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them, who had left their company on an earlier trip (Acts 13:13). However, Paul did not agree with that idea, and Luke describes their disagreement as a sharp contention and that they “parted from one another” because of it (Acts 15:39). Barnabas and John Mark travelled together to Cyprus, while Paul took Silas with him on his journey through Syria and Cilicia.

There is no commentary given as to who was “right” and who was “wrong” in this instance, nor should we assign such labels ourselves. We should notice, though, Paul’s references to both Barnabas and John Mark in his later writings. First Corinthians 9:6 mentions Barnabas in a favorable way in ministry. Though there is no substantial scriptural evidence that the two ever ministered together again, Paul gives a favorable view of Barnabas as a fellow minister of the gospel. Regarding John Mark, near the end of his life Paul recognizes Mark’s profitability in the ministry, as noted in 2 Timothy 4:11. 

Neither Paul nor Barnabas questioned the integrity, the intentions, nor the salvation of the other. Their difference was essentially one of ministry philosophy. Barnabas, “the encourager,” thought it would be good to bring John Mark, while Paul did not. The two could not agree, so they parted ways. Though Scripture remains silent in this regard, perhaps there were later attempts at reconciliation between the two. Regardless of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the break between them, by God’s grace gospel ministry multiplied throughout the region. The fact that Barnabas was still held in high esteem by Paul indicates a lack of animosity on the part of Paul. Here is an example of two orthodox men who found it necessary to split up, while keeping each other in high esteem.

Whitefield & Wesley

Another example to consider is from the 18th century. George Whitefield and John Wesley were two men greatly used of God to preach salvation to many people, both in America and England. Yet the two grew to have some pretty heated debates and disagreements over theological issues, particularly one. Wesley was more Arminian in his theology, while Whitefield was more Calvinistic. Their disagreements over theological systems were real and ongoing. Though they initially ministered together for many years, they eventually believed it necessary to break fellowship with each other because of these growing and irreconcilable differences. Yet through it all, neither questioned the integrity, the motives, nor the salvation of the other. In fact, Dr. Edward Panosian describes the relationship between Whitefield and Wesley as follows, 

Although the relationship between the two men was thus strained, their love and respect for each other was never quenched. It was John Wesley, who was to outlive Whitefield by twenty-one years, who gave him the most generous tribute as he gently chided his friend who asked, “Do you think we shall see Mr. Whitefield in Heaven?” Wesley replied, “No, sir, I fear not. Mr. Whitefield will be so near the Throne and we at such a distance we shall hardly get sight of him.”1Edward Panosian. “George Whitefield: The Awakener” in Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from Church History, edited by Mark Sidwell, (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 1989), 149.

Though there were attempts made to reconcile, each man remained convinced of his own theological view while at the same time remained respectful of the other man. Both were greatly used by God to communicate the gospel, even after they felt they could no longer minister alongside of each other.

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones & J. I. Packer 

A third example is from the 20th century. This example is different from the first two in that it involves more of a clearly defined doctrinal error than the previous two considered. The dynamics of the people are the same: two men in ministry together, both of whom claim to be in orthodox Christianity. Yet there was a major doctrinal issue that required a separation between these two men, though neither would consider the other an enemy of Christ.

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. I. Packer were friends who fellowshipped together in ministry for several years in the United Kingdom. Yet when Packer linked arms with those within the Roman Catholic Church,2For a more detailed description of this situation, see Iain Murray, Lloyd-Jones Messenger of Grace, (Edinburgh, U.K. 2008), chapters 8–9. Lloyd-Jones believed it to be the biblically necessary thing to remove fellowship with his friend. On July 7, 1970, Lloyd-Jones wrote a letter to his friend telling him of his decision to separate from him.3Ibid, 205–207 The two never ministered alongside each other again. However, neither questioned the integrity, the motivation, nor the salvation of the other. In fact, several years later, Packer intended on visiting Lloyd-Jones in England before Lloyd-Jones died. However, as Packer later wrote, “I never saw him. He died before I could get there. It didn’t make a great deal of difference. There’s always heaven.”4Murray, 208

The differences at stake in this situation were very clearly doctrinal in nature. Packer had essentially given credence to Roman Catholicism, seeking Christian unity with them. The biblical doctrine of justification was undermined. Lloyd-Jones was attacked as being schismatic and divisive, when he was merely defending the biblical doctrine of justification and following the biblical doctrine of separation as he understood it. Though neither man believed himself to be outside the realm of historical orthodoxy, Packer’s move to extend Christian fellowship to Roman Catholicism went against theological orthodoxy. To Lloyd-Jones this was troubling to say the least. This move by Packer eventually led him to be one of the principal endorsers of the 1994 document entitled, “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” which undeniably embraced Roman Catholics as being brothers and sisters in Christ. In this case, the parting of ways between Lloyd-Jones and Packer was not only understandable, but necessary, at least from the standpoint of Lloyd-Jones. Yet both men remained amicable and respectful of the other.


There are times when genuinely converted men, who claim a true love for God, who sometimes even link together in ministry, find it necessary to part ways. While the reasons for the above breaks in fellowship vary, what is common among them is a mutual love and respect for the other, even after the separation occurs. Let this instruct us as Christians today who are often trigger happy to assign blame, take sides, and form coalitions against one another.

Good and godly people can disagree amicably, respectfully, and biblically without animosity or vitriol. Whether it is because of a philosophical difference, general theological difference, or doctrinal error, sometimes divisions occur. Yet God in his sovereignty uses situations like these to further his cause for his own glory’s sake. 

Observers and spectators of these kinds of breaks in fellowship should be cautious to make dogmatic assertions, assign blame, and question motives. In all cases, all Christians are to be clothed with humility (1 Pet 5:5). Those involved must humbly and biblically respond towards one another. Those not involved must remain humble and cautious in their words about those involved, especially today with the use (and abuse) of social media. Even in cases of clearly disobedient brethren, though they are disobedient to biblical truth, they are indeed brethren and should not be “cursed” (Jas 3:9–10). While truth must be upheld and error must be called out, humility remains a Christian necessity, even as was seen between Lloyd-Jones and Packer.

For issues that are non-doctrinal in nature it is important to understand that unity among the brethren does not necessitate uniformity. One can disagree with particular aspects of how other ministries function, or with what another minister of the gospel teaches. Sometimes, the differences are so great that some level of fellowship is no longer deemed appropriate by one, or both parties. This is not to say, however, that efforts to further understand or reconcile with each other should not be prayerfully considered and perhaps pursued. Yet even if reconciliation does not happen, and ministry together is limited or even non-existent, we should still be humble, loving, and respectful in our disposition, our intentions, and our actions. 

May we as brothers and sisters in Christ display integrity, even when differences amongst Christian brethren exist. And may we be clothed with humility and therefore glorify our great God.

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1 Edward Panosian. “George Whitefield: The Awakener” in Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from Church History, edited by Mark Sidwell, (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 1989), 149.
2 For a more detailed description of this situation, see Iain Murray, Lloyd-Jones Messenger of Grace, (Edinburgh, U.K. 2008), chapters 8–9.
3 Ibid, 205–207
4 Murray, 208