Who Is the Divisive Man, According to Paul?
“Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.”
Is the Apostle Paul claiming that the person taking a stand for sound doctrine is being divisive?
Not at all. Consider:
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”
The sin of divisiveness happens when someone promotes ideas that go against the teaching of the Apostles.
That said, one form of divisiveness (one form of ignoring the Apostle’s teaching) would be to get involved in controversies that are foolish, unprofitable, and useless. Titus 3:9 says: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.”
The standard for what is useful and useless in this context is the teaching of the Apostles. Paul’s own prior writings contained explanations of why some of these issues were useless to contend over. Paul was counting on Titus to have a strong background on these issues and to understand why they were useless to continue arguing. That is why Paul mentions the issues in just this passing way in Titus 3.
Paul’s intention was that Titus and all church people would avoid the specific controversies and quarrels he listed: about eating meat offered to idols, about genealogies, and about the law. This last item likely refers to circumcision and to debates about exactly which parts of the law of Moses the Jewish Christians were to continue observing. These issues had already been addressed in Acts 15, especially 15:20. It is not against controversy, as such, that Paul is warning, but about useless controversy.
Not all public controversy is useless.
What can you do if you take a stand on some issue and someone accuses you of being divisive? Ask them something like the following:
Which one of my concerns pertains to some issue that the Apostles would have held as being a matter of individual conscience?
Which one of my concerns is over some issue that Paul would consider a “foolish controversy”?
If I claim to have warrant for my position by pointing to this or that biblical principle, how do you claim to understand these principles differently in such a way that Christians are not obligated in the way I am claiming?
Jacob Brunton had something enormously helpful to say about “division” in this context. He points to the need for objectivity in guarding the teaching:
“It is important to remember that the Bible always blames division on the one who brings in false teaching — never the one who corrects it. This means that when both parties accuse each other of being divisive, the question can only be settled by first determining the truth or falseness of the idea. The one who has wrongly divided the doctrine is the one responsible for dividing the Church.” (via Twitter)
Today the Bible’s teaching on divisiveness has been turned on its head.
Those who do not want to answer their critics will simply call their critics divisive, as if this were enough to silence them: “You’re being critical and unloving, so I do not have to answer you.”
These people demonstrate that they are not familiar with the teaching and the actions modeled by the Apostles — or that they do not wish to be like the Apostles.
You can find a recent example of this approach to silencing criticism in the shoddy attempts to defend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary against concerns about its theological infidelity.
A final observation:
If your pastor is unskilled in moral reasoning, and if he has absorbed a worldview from what is popular in today’s Christian leadership industry more than from the Bible itself, then he will likely differ from you about which topics are worth defending or worth dividing over. But the standard is not determined by your pastor. It is determined by Scripture.
Is your pastor standing against the divisive false teachings that seek to take over in your church? Or is he standing against those who try to speak out against those dangerous teachings?
If your pastor’s standards for morality do not line up with Scripture’s, then his ministry is eventually going to be propagating lies and reproducing more liars who will do the same. Do you want to be giving your moral imprimatur and financial support to such a man, or to such a church?
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