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Division can be a good thing, at least when it’s along proper lines of distinction. That’s really what expertise is in any field: the ability to make the right distinctions and thus the proper divisions. A car mechanic knows how to distinguish between a mechanical, an electrical, and a computer problem in an engine, and then he knows how to divide problematic parts from working ones. An expert is one who knows how to make distinctions that no one else does.
A major theme in Paul’s writings to Christians is the call to be discerning. Discernment is the ability to tell the difference between what is pleasing to God and what is displeasing (Rom. 12:2). As a person grows in devotion to Christ, he becomes better at identifying what is pleasing to Him through practice.
The problem is that divisive people think they are experts. They think that they are causing division based on proper distinctions. Yet the distinctions they make are not according to God’s priorities but according to their own. The letters to the churches warn frequently about divisive people (1 Cor. 11:18–25; Titus 3:10; Jude 19). Such people are seen as enemies of the Spirit of God, motivated not by God’s concerns but by their own. They then weaponize those concerns against God’s people, rallying folks to one side against the other.
One passage that lays bare the heart behind divisiveness is Romans 16:17–18:
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. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
A person is being divisive as he relates to others by making distinctions on issues that God does not. A divisive person insists on his own categories of division, often baptizing them with biblical language. But Paul’s language makes clear that divisive people serve “their own appetites” despite their claims for a holy cause. They long to be in a community that feels clean and safe for those desires to go unchallenged. So they prefer clean lines of demarcation where the Bible does not draw them.
A divisive person demands uniformity where God does not, which destabilizes unity in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul insisted that lesser loyalties will always push against the greatest loyalty to Christ; Christians must be on guard against this in their own hearts (1 Cor. 1:12). To enforce this uniformity, they will use ugly weapons: sowing suspicion of others, exaggerating others’ faults, misrepresenting others’ positions, flexing the muscles of their own influence against others, or even slandering. God finds no pleasure in those who sow discord in this way (Prov. 6:16–19). If we are ever going to be actual experts in what pleases and displeases the Lord, we’d better take that seriously.