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Theology Tuesday: Divisive People

God hates to see people stir up division among his people.

In the book of Proverbs (6:16-19), on the top seven things the Lord hates list, is this: "one who sows discord among brothers."

(Note: We did write on a different angle about this here: https://towerviewkc.com/decidedly-divisive)

God hates to see people stir up division among his people. I grieve the disunity and division on display in the church and worry that many people who love the same Jesus cannot even hear each other anymore. And Satan wants us to forget who our true enemy is.


"We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but...against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:11).


Satan tempts us toward hate, apathy, suspicion, division, and vengeance. Lord, deliver us from the evil one.


The church has an opportunity to be light in a day of division, demonization, and deceit. Jesus takes people from various perspectives and convictions and makes them one by His grace.  Yet, church unity does not preclude division among professing Christians; in fact, sometimes it demands it.


But what do you do with a person who is divisive—whether intentional or unintentional? How should we proceed?


In Titus 3:9-11, Paul gives us two principles to live by as we consider how to handle those walking divisively, especially in false teaching.

"But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him" (Titus 3:9-10 ESV)

# 1 - Avoid the Foolish, Divisive Person (3:9).

Paul, after spending time on the island of Crete with Titus, gave these directives:


--Appointment of elders to teach sound doctrine and refuse false teaching (Titus 1:5ff).

--Shunning foolish controversies (Titus 3:9).

--Active ministry to the proponents of these false doctrines (Titus 3:10).

--Rejection of the proponents of these teachings after multiple warnings (Titus 3:10).


Throughout the book of Titus, Paul exhorted them to maintain good works and sound doctrine. A church must protect and value its moral doctrinal integrity. If one gave into any of this, they were to be confronted and, if still walking in the false sin, avoided. This was, according to Paul, the loving thing to do. 


The word “avoid” here literally means “shun.” It is a command in the present tense. Paul was calling for a continuous watchfulness amongst the church.


Why? Paul gives two reasons.


#1 - They are unwise.


These divisive folks were engaging in “foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law” (Titus 3:9). Specifically, like most of early church false teaching, the troublemakers were adding words to Scripture and work to our Savior’s once-for-all sacrifice. They warred over words, used genealogies as special rites of passage, and added good works to faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Paul even said they “are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11). 


Paul warned not to debate them. Rather, the church should denounce and dismiss them—and do it quickly and swiftly!


#2 - They are unprofitable. 


The ESV uses two words here at the end of 3:9—“unprofitable” and “worthless.”   Nothing good was coming for their personality, attitude, or teachings. Avoiding them was to expose their error and sin in the light of God’s Word.

#2 - Reject the Divisive Person (3:10).

Refusing to engage them in a debate over their teachings within the church doesn’t mean no action is necessary. So, in these verses, Paul summarizes Jesus’ teachings on confronting sin in Matthew 18:15-20. The sin in question was to be public, routine, serious, and lacking repentance.  We are to go one-to-one first, then with witnesses, and finally with the whole church being involved if there is no repentance.  


The goal, of course, is always repentance and walking with Christ! There is not to be a heavy-hand of by any in the process.  We are to faithful to our Head, that is, the risen Jesus Christ. And it is also for the sake of the Body of Christ local and universal and for the sake of the sinning brother/sister. 


Notice these three observations Paul makes about the divisive.


#1 – They must be disciplined (3:10).


Most translations pick up the word “reject” as the imperative in the sentence. Some translate it “warn.” It is the same word we get use “heretic.” In that first century, it meant someone who was quarrelsome and stirred people up as to get his own way in leadership.


Paul’s command is clear: Warn him once and admonish him twice. If there is no repentance, then he must be rejected. 


Practically, we need to move quickly when sin is discovered. And, yes, we need to have grace, love, and patience to allow God to work in the situation and on the person. 


Yet, we must be prayerfully clear, timely, and above board. Going once and assuming “all is ok” and forgiven cannot happen if there is no change or repentance in the offender. We need to be steadfast – all while keeping Galatians 6:1-2 in our forefront:


“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.2 Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”


#2 – They are dangerous (3:11)


Again, Paul doesn’t hold back in calling these divisive folks “warped and sinful.”  Warped here means something is twisted and turned inside out. Sinning here is in the present tense. 


In other words: This person is living inside out and upside down. It is his pattern of life.


If we ignore or “sweep under the rug” the sin or the sinner, may the Lord forgive us if we say we love this person and stand by and do nothing! It is dangerous and it destroys lives and churches.


#3 – They are destructive


John Owen said so famously, "Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you."


The word here Paul uses in this point is “self-condemned.” Literally, it means to judge one’s self. Unbeknownst to himself, this divisive person has no excuse and is passing judgment on himself.  Sure, he may use Scripture to justify his sin or tsay hat the Holy Spirit is telling him to do something or teach this or that. Or, that he is simply “following his heart” (Jer. 17:9) when his head knows it is wrong.


(Note: This against the description of true, godly leaders in Titus 1:7 who are not to be self-willed.)


Bottom-line: With a contrite, humble, and broken heart, this person must be confronted, shown the error of his ways and teachings, and, if needed, shunned and avoided.  We pray that the discipline of the Father (Heb. 12:5-13) would bring about true brokenness and repentance . If no evidence over a period of time is found, it can be concluded that this person is of those of Matthew 7:21-23 who professed Christ but never possessed him:


21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?'

 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'

How did the early church handle these situations?

I found it interesting to look at how those in the early church handled divisive people. Here is a short summary:


·     Acts 15: Circumcision was being taught by some as a way of salvation. After discussion and looking at the issue in light of Scripture, the false teachers were rebuked. A letter was sent to all the churches. The matter was considered closed.

·     Acts 18: Apollos, a favorite teacher of the Corinthians, may have well been considered a false teacher simply because he was unaware of the “whole picture” of God’s revelation. Acts 18:25 says: “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” Thankfully, he embraced the discipling of Paul and was a mighty force for God in the early church.

·     Acts 20: The leaders at Ephesus were warned by Paul in his farewell speech about “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).

·     Romans: Paul, in 16:17, warned the church to “keep your eye on those who cause dissensions.” 

·     1-2 Corinthians: The divisions in the church were centered around moral or political issues. In view of false teaching, Paul wrote: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-- not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:11).

·     Philippians: Once again, the issue of circumcision as a way of salvation became an issue. Paul said in 3:2: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.”

·     1 Thessalonians: Paul told this church to not despise “prophecies” (5:20), but, rather, “test everything; hold fast what is good (5:21).

·     2 Thessalonians: Paul issued a command to “keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us (3:6). Basically, some Christians were gathering the freebies of other Christians. Paul went even further to say: “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:14-15). Specifically, this person should not continue to freeload off the church.

·     1-2 Timothy: Paul exhorts Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). He then calls out by name Hymenaeus and Alexander who rejected the faith (1 Tim. 1:19-20). In his final letter, he, again, calls out Hymanaeus and Philetus as two professing believers “who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:18) . And, finally, 3:5: “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”

·     1-2 Peter: Peter holds back no punches, saying: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1).

·     1-3 John: John exhorts his readers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). And, in 3 John 10, referring to Diotrophes, who rejected the truth, he says: “So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us.”

·     Jude: The whole point of the book is to warn about false teachers coming into the church (Jude 4). These teachers had already caused divisions within the church (Jude 19). The call of Jude, then, was to appeal to the Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3).

Summary of how the early church dealt with false teachers:

·     Sadly, false teaching was already in the midst of each church. Whether through members, visiting preachers, pastors, etc., most were insiders, not outsiders. The varying influence of false teaching was a risk every time they gathered together.

·     Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), if any new teaching was heard, it was scrutinized in light of the Gospel and the Scriptures. If found to be false or contradictory to the basics of the faith, it would be discussed in public gatherings of the church in comparison to God’s revealed truth.

·     Those who were involved in false teaching were to be taught, counseled, and called to repentant with gentleness and patience (2 Tim. 2:23-25).

·     If one continued to go forward in their false teaching or beliefs, the instruction was always to “bring attention to” the issues, false teachers, and teachings. The end result was being cast out of the church.

So what are we to do with divisive people? Here are some practical lessons we can learn:

·     Recognize the God hates divisions among his people (John 17; 1 Corinthians 3:17; Proverbs 6:19, etc.). 


When we lose unity within the church, it’s usually because something has become more important to us than the risen Jesus. And, in any church with sinners–which, of course, is every church–conflict will exist and achieving resolution is often difficult. Dr. Sinclair Ferguson said, "The gospel is a message of reconciliation and peace with God. How can non-Christians be convinced that Christ reconciles us to God if we are not reconciled to each other?"


·     Pray for the divisive person (Col. 1:9-14; 2 Peter 3:18, etc.).  


It is very difficult to hate someone you continually pray for. "I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44).


·     Seek to guard and “preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).


Unity in the church is not something we should ever take for granted. We’re called to do both: contend earnestly for the faith and be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-6). “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Cor. 3:17). Guard the unity of your church; it doesn't ultimately belong to you.


·     The longer conflict-averse pastors put off disciplining unrepentantly divisive congregants, the worse it will get.


Because of the potential harm to God’s true sheep and churches, realize that church shepherds are commanded to take swift and firm action with a divisive person (Titus 3:10-11; Romans 16:17, etc.). 


The longer conflict-averse pastors put off disciplining unrepentantly divisive congregants, the worse it will get. Confronting sin is not optional but essential when necessary (Matt. 18:15-20). Overlooking sin not gracious but dangerous (James 4:17; Luke 12:47-48; John 9:41, etc.). Dealing with sin is not being judgmental but spiritual (Gal. 6:1-2; Rom. 15:1; 2 Cor. 13:11, etc.). Correcting sin is not fleshly but spiritual (James 5:19-20; Pro. 11:30, etc.)


·     Minimize the person’s influence and lovingly aim to teach him (Titus 2:15).


We are not left in the dark on what to do with quarrelsome and divisive people who otherwise profess Christ. Warn them a couple of times, and if they fail to see how their behavior conflicts with spiritual fruit born of true faith, have nothing more to do with them.


Yet, in all of your interactions and reactions, seek to love deeply from the heart (Col. 2:14), watch and continue in prayer (Col. 4:2), and joyfully submit to those in authority (Heb. 13:17). Be a model of joyful membership in the church. Do everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4).


·     Calling out divisive people is biblical (Titus 3:9-10; Romans 16:17, etc.). And so is having nothing more to do with them.


The church is too messy and the world too lost to be playing around with divisive people. Warn them, mark them, and avoid them. Jesus told us how we’d know who his followers are. Paul told us what to do with divisive people. Stop letting scoffers and revilers set the church’s agenda and ruin its witness.


·     A divisive person who is divisive about the right things is still divisive (Titus 3:10).


Every sinfully divisive person I've ever encountered in church life has been utterly convinced they are on "God's side" and, thus, utterly blind to their own sin or constantly justifying it as just the unfortunate collateral damage necessary in taking down their enemies.


Or, said another way, most divisive persons in a church see themselves simply as "concerned," and in some cases as reformers, as activists for "the right way."

Christian, let’s commit to have convictional opinions, but ones that are shared with grace, a commitment to truth and love for those we disagree with.