As society is presently ripped apart with divisions on every issue, the church is likewise bombarded with divisive people who are using the current cultural divide to mimic the culture and tear apart the body of Christ. Christians have to be acutely aware that Satan uses cultural moments like this in the church to separate the body of Christ. I can’t think of a more appropriate caution at the moment than to call Christians to awareness in who they listen to and how they handle themselves before those who seek the ruin of the church.
This phenomenon is nothing new, of course, and the apostles provide a lot of instruction in how to handle divisive people in Christ’s church. The apostle Paul was constantly under assault by those who wanted to undermine the message of the gospel. In 2 Timothy 4:14, he specifically mentions Alexander the Coppersmith who did him much harm in his efforts to preach Christ. Throughout the New Testament, we find no hesitation by the apostles to warn of those who were undermining the gospel ministry.
With this in mind, it’s important to provide an overview of the warnings we find in the Scriptures, the characteristics of those who seek to harm believers, and the instruction we receive in how to respond.
How to Identify Divisive Persons
First, divisive persons have an obsession and unhealthy craving for controversy and quarreling. In 1 Tim. 6:4, Paul specifies that some people are full of pride, having an unhealthy obsession with fighting as they spend their time quarreling over words. This is a hugely important caution for our times.
In any theological controversy, designations and classifications are made in an attempt to determine the truth of a matter. Some of these labels are certainly necessary to understand the nature of a controversy. The problem is that divisive people use these labels not as a way of working to understand a controversy, or with the goal of bringing brethren together in what are often complex theological disputes, but with the purpose of further separating Christians from each other.
When Paul references the divide between Euodia and Synteche in Philippians 4, he called upon the church and her leaders to come along side these Christians and “yoke them” together in what they had already achieved in gospel fellowship. A key identifier of a divisive person is that he uses labels and designations not with the goal of helping believers to come to the truth of a matter, but instead to separate and conquer those with whom he disagrees.
We should always ask if the person we are listening to has this evident goal of peace and unity in his disagreements. Humility, without an unhealthy craving to fight, is a key identifier as to whether sincerity motivates the interaction.
Second, divisive persons serve themselves in theological dispute. Helping Christians come together in the gospel fellowship they have already achieved is not the goal of their engagement. When Paul helped Christians in dispute, he first told believers to work together in what they had already achieved in gospel fellowship (see Phil. 1). There is a great amount of agreement that has already been achieved in the faith of Christians when they stand back from any dispute. This unity achieved among believers who have walked together in the truth of the gospel and all subsequent points of agreement, should be celebrated in theological disputes.
Divisive persons do not care about the truth already achieved, but instead, they use present disputes as opportunities to wreck the unity that already exists among believers. Pride makes the dispute about winning rather than helping believers walk in the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4).
Paul specifically says in Philippians 4 that he weeps over the church because some are enemies of the cross of Christ who have as a goal the destruction of the church. The god they serve, says Paul, is their own belly, and their mind is set on earthy things (Phil 3:19). A discerning Christian should ask whether a person engaged in dispute has the goal of helping Christians in the unity they have already achieved.
Third, divisive persons create obstacles to hearing the true gospel with false ideas, or they elevate secondary matters to the place of primacy, resulting in the shipwreck of people’s faith. Yes, Paul made clear separations and exposed those who were promoting heretical ideas. In 2 Tim. 2, Paul specifically mentions Hymenaeus and Philetus who were teaching that the resurrection had already passed. The result of their divisive behavior was the upsetting the faith of some, leading them not into gospel harmony, but in ungodliness of behavior.
Since divisive persons are destitute of the truth, their behavior has the sad consequence of taking believers away from pure gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for them. Christians should ask whether the person they are listening to is leading people to Christ or away from Christ with false ideas.
Fourth, divisive persons have a trail of bad fruit they leave behind them. Paul says the result of their presence in the church creates envy, dissension, evil suspicions, and friction among the unregenerate.
Wolves love to appear strong and knowledgeable on every issue. This confidence and willingness to fight the brethren creates a cult-like phenomenon among other unregenerate people who support the division and gather around the divider. When they divide the body of Christ on a particular issue, they also attract other weaker sheep who love controversy and fall prey to their division.
One only has to consider the fruit of their obsession with disputing. Is the result the peaceable fruits of righteousness or, as Paul’s lists the works of the flesh in Galatians 5, is the result of their interaction as follows: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy (Gal. 5:20).” Does their engagement result in the peace and love among the brethren, or destruction and dissension among those who listen?
Fifth, divisive persons do not submit to any authority in their lives other than themselves. Any true servant will desire to see all theological heresy properly addressed among the authority structures God has provided. God gave his church and their courts to address false doctrine and heresy. Divisive persons work outside of this authority structure to bring the demise of the church among her members. They attack church authorities as incompetent and compromised on what they deem are the most important issues and are quick to attack church leaders who God put in authority over them.
Divisive persons are a law to themselves and stand over the lawgiver himself as the authority to which everyone else must submit (Jas 4:12). Christians should ask if the person they are engaging has truly demonstrated humble submission to the authority structures that God has placed over them.
How to Handle Divisive Persons
In our social media age when anyone can be given a platform, there will be divisive persons who divide the church and reject her authority structures with little to no accountability. As difficult as it maybe, when church officers have within their ranks divisive persons, they are called upon to admonish and discipline those who are dividing the body of Christ. But, outside of ecclesiastical courts, and with those whom the church will not hold accountable, Christians need to exercise discernment with those they engage by refusing to give an ear to those who seek to destroy the body of Christ.
This should also include, of course, earnest prayer that such persons would come to their senses and escape having been taken captive by the devil to do his will (2 Tim. 2:26). Yet, Paul’s most predominant call in how to handle divisive persons is clear: “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Rom. 16:17).
The best thing believers can do with divisive persons is avoid them and refuse to give them an ear, recognizing, as Paul said in light of Alexander the Coppersmith, that God will repay them according to their evil deeds. Christians should listen to those who are of good report and of the pastors who minister to them well (2 Tim. 4:14).
May all believer’s pursue the peace of Christ’s church in our divided days, seeking to walk together in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).