"Dealing with Divisiveness"
Sermon for October 11, 1998
Text: Romans 16: 17-20
We come today to Romans 16:17-20: Now I beseech you, brethren,
mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you have learned; and avoid them.
Now I must stress at the outset that you, as saints of God are full of all goodness, and all knowledge so as to be able to instruct one another. So what I am about to share is in the form of a reminder and a caution. Divisiveness is not a present danger, to any great extent in our church, but we must, in the good seasons, be prepared for the storms which can and must come our way.
This caution by Paul is a solemn injunction indeed. Furthermore, there is a perennial danger of judgmentalism in the church, especially that we would take this warning about divisiveness seriously by only looking outward, considering the state of others’ hearts before examining our own hearts. For Christian humility demands that we insure first of all that we ourselves are not among those causing division and offense. How important it is in this regard to remember that sin is wrong being, long before it is wrong doing. And it is troubling to demand of someone else behavior which requires a changed being when we ourselves are still in bondage to sin, and wrong being. It has been my experience that hypocrites are very good at spotting other hypocrites, it is definitely suspect for one hypocrite to demand that another hypocrite change his, or her hypocritical ways.
The only way to attain this changed being is through the indwelling Christ. Yes, Jesus Christ took on our heredity of sin on the cross. He identified with our lost condition rather than merely sympathizing with our fleshly sins—which all too often seems the upper limit of our Christian compassion!--and by crucifying that wrong being on the cross attained for us a new nature. We must receive the benefit of Christ’s atonement by faith, by inviting Jesus Christ into places that previously were barred by our fierce and defiant sin. By that act of faith, we have become a new being, a new man, a new creation, something that never was before. This is indeed as startling as the leopard changing his spots! As redeemed creatures, we are both able to hear and to do what it is the Lord requires of us. . . we have been given the octane to attain all that we ought to be and do.
Therefore, in heeding this injunction—to mark and to avoid, we need to consider what sin is: namely, a determined, deliberate and declared independence from God.
In such a posture vis-à-vis God , the sinful self reveals itself as supremely self-confident. Sin is focused on a person’s claim of an exclusive and absolute right to him/herself. In contrast, the redeemed self is God-confident, and openly acknowledges God’s right to him/herself. Knowing this, the first and critical step in avoiding divisiveness is that we should repent of sin in ourselves, and establish a God-centered life, before we dare to "mark" the "divisions and offenses" of others. Only after we have dealt with our own sin, our own "wrong being" are we in any position to "mark" the sin in others which leads to "divisions and offenses" in the body. However, that work, the work of "marking" those cause divisions and offenses is a very necessary piece of life in the local church.
Some persons just like uproar. They don’t feel alive if things aren’t tense, or unhappy. Others have sinister reasons for causing trouble in the church. Their purposes are sinister because they allow themselves to be instruments of Satan’s disruptive and destructive interference in the church. Yes, they are self-serving individuals, motivated by pride, appetite and self-interest, because those are the only kind that Satan can employ to trouble the body of Christ. They are specifically the kind of persons we are warned against in Proverbs 6:16—19:
There are six things the Lord hates,
Yes, seven are an abomination to Him:
A lying tongue,
Hands that shed innocent blood,
A heart that devises wicked plans,
Feet that are swift in running to evil,
A false witness who speaks lies,
And one who sows strife among brothers.
Not only are their motives bad, and sadly such persons do still inhabit the church of Jesus Christ everywhere in every age. Their efforts are demonstrably contrary to sound ethical teaching, the received doctrine of the church. If you have been startled to find yourself on this list, I urge you to allow your conviction to be complete. Repent. Ask forgiveness. Then cease the offending behavior, and, with God’s grace you will both be victorious and fully restored to fellowship.
What we must do is to "mark," that is, take note of those who are characterized by self-exaltation and divisiveness and shun them. We are not even to expose ourselves to their conversation, lest we be deceived by their good words and fair speeches. Those who are spiritually strong need to be doubly careful about their conversations with others motivated by vanity, ambition, or any other selfish need— because they may be drawn aside through sympathetic listening. Such things as motivate the divisive person are not of God and we need to be discerning of their motivation. If they seek to disunite those the Lord has united, or sow distrust wherever they go, they are not serving the living Lord of the church!
Paul continues (v.18):
"For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by
good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple."
The danger posed by these, who look and act like Christians but are in reality impostors, is all the more dangerous for its being a close counterfeit! They use a cloak of sincere religion and throw it over their intention to injure the church for private advantage: smooth talk and flattery. It is crucial to be a fruit inspector with such persons, to ask yourself where this talk in headed (will it lead to unity, or disunity?). Is this the honest sharing of a real concern, or merely an excuse to poison the waters? To spread slander, or gossip. . . to enter into a conspiracy, or to undermine trust under the pretense of love, peace and unity is utter and shameless evil. Their poison may not be as blatant: it may be an inordinate focus on having their needs met, ambition, vanity, inhospitality to strangers and newcomers. . . that’s what serving their belly means.
Although our society urges us to treat religion solely as a private matter, we must repudiate that view—it is everybody’s business that the body not be troubled and divided! That is why Paul urges obedience in this issue. Ignoring his counsel sets a church up for the disaster of division. If we are obedient to the Gospel, we accept its authority. If we accept its authority, we must accept it in all its difficult pieces, in all its ordinances and precepts! Many Christians consider themselves too enlightened to be teachable—they will obey the gospel unto salvation but rely on their wisdom for everything else! They will, for example, determine what is reasonable, or "just" to their way of thinking and thereafter ignore the word of God on those very subjects. This, in the end, will gain them little honor and no profit. Those who live out the full counsel of God on all matters will finally be judged the wisest. A Christian should neither be ashamed of God, nor of His word—nothing in scripture is either untrue, or an offense to the intellect! The Lord’s perfect character is revealed perfectly in every part of the word even though the world hates to hear it. Obedience is a very good thing.
Paul warns us clearly that deceivers exist and that they are in league with Satan who wishes to destroy the church, its sweet communion, trust and love To be simple in the things of God is to be unpracticed, and without cunning in the things of evil. This will do much to maintain good order and peace in the church.
"And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen."
Our God is the author of all the peace that we should enjoy in the church. By His help, we have such peace as we do because just as the Lord Jesus rules in the midst of His enemies, so we shall rule in the midst of our enemies. Be constant in seeking that peace from God. If we grow complacent, self-confident, or overly secure, we are headed for a fall. He is our only security. Such is the cunning of our Adversary that taking advantage of our remaining corruption and ignorance, he might keep us in constant turmoil were it not for divine intervention. God foils their wicked designs Indeed, God has already through Christ bruised Satan’s head. . .and now the church is to trample him underfoot. Yes, there will be turmoil in the church, but if we are faithful and if we are wise, the day of troubling will not last long.
So, to summarize. We break the curse of divisiveness first by dealing with our own heart. We root out there any foundation for divisiveness in our own heart lest we be unable to see clearly sin elsewhere. We submit ourselves to Christ, and by faith allow the old man to be crucified with Christ on the cross—just so we appropriate the work of the cross to ourselves. Thus purified, we are now able to discern the foundation of sin in others. Remember the words of Jesus (Matthew 7:4 and 5):
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention
to the plank in your own eye. . .You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own
eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Lovingly and humbly we seek to lead them to the same deliverance, that we have by grace.
Those who will not receive such ministry are to be noted and their self-serving ways are to be exposed in hope of genuine conversion. The presence of divisiveness in their lives suggests that they are playing at Christianity at best. . .and at worst they are enemies of the faith with sinister and self-driven motives for their disruptiveness. We are to be wise that such opposition is real and needs to be faced honestly and firmly. Self-exaltation and self-confident sin is frequently masked by smooth talk and flattery. We must be wise here, too. Church discipline must be invoked to deal with those whose behavior reveals them to be merely religious, and not Christian(!); or to contain those who are deliberately seeking to destroy the unity of the church. Obedience to the whole counsel of God, on the other hand, is a clear demonstration of a new man, new woman—the new creature in Christ Jesus. A teachable spirit, and one who is willing to submit their opinions to the standard of revealed truth signals that we are dealing with a real brother or sister. We are promised that if we are wise in these matters, God will bring our seasons of turmoil to a speedy end because our God is the God of peace.