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.
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).