How You Know You are Being Divisive (And Sinning)

One of the most common themes in the New Testament is unity. Jesus prays for it (John 17), and Paul writes about it in numerous places. He also talks about division and that leaders must protect the unity against division. What he says in Acts 20:17 – 38 is scary and telling:  Division, and wolves (false teachers) will come out of the churches, not come in. Meaning, those that are most divisive and will do the most damage are the ones who are in the church and who sin.

After working in churches for 13 years, I have seen a lot of divisive people. Been on divisive teams. I’ve even been divisive myself and had to repent to those I was divisive against. Often though, if you confront a divisive person about being divisive, they will tell you they aren’t being divisive, protective of the church. That may be in their mind, it is also poor ecclesiology. Elders are called to shepherd and protect the church, they are held accountable to God for this.

I put together a list of ways to know you are being divisive or are on your way to being divisive:

  • You want everyone to know why you are mad. Misery loves company and when you are mad about something at church, you want others to know. You want people to validate your opinion. You want them to know why you are hurt, why you are mad, why you are leaving. There was a couple once who left our church and they did a “farewell tour” to let people know why they were leaving. As they said, “We don’t want people to think we just disappeared into the sunset.”
  • You’ve talked to everyone about this but the elders and leaders of the church. You are mad at what the pastor said, a change that was made, the direction of the church. Instead of talking to the people who made the decision, the people who are held accountable for the decision, you talk to everyone else. You will say things like, “I want to see if I’m the only one, just getting feedback.” In reality, you are trying to get people to your side.
  • You call for accountability of the leadership. I often get asked, who holds the elders accountable. Biblically, we hold each other accountable as men and women, as Christians, but that the elders were accountable to God. This didn’t sit well, so they pressed, what about humans, what humans hold the elders accountable for their decisions. What’s funny about this, is that people think it is scary to an elder if you hold them accountable versus God. Here’s my take, if you don’t like what I do, if you don’t like me, if you are disappointed in me, if you think I’m preaching heresy, I’m not that worried about that. If God thinks those things, that’s a bad day. People in this category will ask for more than the leaders to be part of a meeting, a third party. Unless you are in a congregational church, the third party is God.
  • You say, “I’m just trying to get reconciliation” when in reality you are about winning. Divisive people don’t want reconciliation, they want to win. They are right, they know it and they want you as the leader and everyone else to know it. You can tell if someone’s goal is reconciliation by what they do. Do they talk to the leaders? Do they talk to everyone else?
  • They broadcast what is happening. Even after talking with the leaders of the church, if they don’t like the response they put up a blog post or send out an email to the rest of the church “letting them know what’s going on.”
  • They refuse to submit. They will throw out verses about being under God and he is their ultimate authority, which is true. We are also called to submit to the leadership of the church we are a part of. The elders submit to each other, everyone submits to someone in some way.
  • Pride. This one is plain and simple, divisive people have a ton of pride driving them.
So what do you do? As a leader, how do you handle this?
  • Be prepared. Know this is coming. They are coming to your church. More than likely, they are already in leadership at your church as Paul stated in Acts 20.
  • Know you aren’t the only one. Lean on other leaders, ones who have dealt with this. Gain some perspective and wisdom.
  • Remember God cares more about your church than you do. 
  • It will happen again. That probably isn’t a comfort to you, but that person right now that is being divisive will not be the last one. In fact, if your church is growing and reaching people, you can expect more and more to show up.
If you are being divisive, repent. Go to the leadership, humble yourself and put yourself under their authority. Remember that they are accountable to God for leading your church. Repent to those you tried to turn against the leadership.

13 thoughts on “How You Know You are Being Divisive (And Sinning)

  1. Hi, I have 3 points:

    1) Usually, it’s those who do nothing who fire critics.
    2) Sometimes, we have no other choice to sacrifice unity for the sake of the truth. I know many who profess to be Christians and are church leaders but their fruits are rotten. We simply can’t associate ourselves with them.
    3) Removing an abscess causes division. It’s something hard but sometimes the Head of the Body has to do it. It happened in the early church (1 Cor 11:17).

    More here : “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.” 1 Cor 5

    Some were handed to Satan for the destruction of the flesh…

    Sometimes, division is healthy for the church. But of course, it’s the responsibility of every christians to preserve unity. God bless!

    • Cedric,
      I’m assuming you’re speaking as someone who attends a church, not a leader. That seems to be your perspective, if not, let me know. I think sometimes a person does need to seperate themselves from a community of faith. The thread through all of my points, most of them anyway, was the fact that a person has not talked with the leadership. You are right, a lot of leaders shouldn’t be leaders, but they are right now and God will judge, harshly according to the NT.

      I agree with your last point, division can be good and healthy for a church. I’ve seen this in my life. While it is painful, God grows leaders and grows his church through it. Each time I’ve dealt with it, I’ve grown as a leader, in my character. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. At the end of this post, you listed some things leaders could do if they believe someone is being divisive. I wish you’d included something about listening.

    Unwillingness or inability by leadership to listen models that unwillingness or inability for the entire church and sets the tone for all interactions with the divisive person. People rarely feel the need to take any of the steps you listed above when they know they’ve been listened to. And been listened to well.

    • Katie,
      You are right about listening, leaders do need to listen. My point in this post was that divisive people do not go to leadership. That’s what makes them divisive. When someone has come to me at Revolution and shared concerns or given pushback I listen. I want to know where they are coming from. But, leaders don’t listen to someone who blogs about them or their church, writes emails to the rest of the church without talking to the leaders. When someone does something like blog about a church or pastor they don’t like, they send the message they don’t want unity, they want to get their opinion out. Thanks for the thoughts, it is a great reminder for the need for leaders to listen.

  3. I see your point, but I also think leaders can (and should) initiate the fight for unity with the divisive person – even after the divisive person starts to criticize. Of course church members should talk to leadership. Of course they should seek unity. I just sense a false assumption that every time a person criticizes that means they are seeking disunity.

    You wrote, “When someone does something like blog about a church or pastor they don’t like, they send the message they don’t want unity, they want to get their opinion out.”

    I think the more common issue is that they actually seek unity but pursue it in an immature and sinful way (I’m totally guilty of this). Sin is a strange thing. The Devil is a deceiver who uses our good motives and tempts us to sin in pursuit of things that are good and noble.

    Your first point was that divisive people tell everyone that they’re mad… I don’t think they do that because they want disunity; I think they do it because they already feel disunity between themselves and leadership and don’t want it to spread to their other relationships. I think they’re usually (not always) feeling afraid and alone. That’s why I think a leader opening the dialogue can sometimes head off further problems. It shows that he values the other person enough to try. If shows grace for someone who has criticized and antagonized. It heaps burning coals on their heads. It shows that the leader wants unity and leads the other person in that direction… which I think is your intent.

    Too often, the church sends an “If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else,” message to its members. I believe that displays the opposite of unity. If the church (and leadership) desire unity, they have to value their members enough to pursue them.

    I’ve never experienced leadership as you have, so I can’t know the pressures, but as a person in the seats, I’m proud when my leaders display humility and gentleness to lead in unity by listening to those who’ve criticized them.

    • Katie,
      I agree with many of your points, one of the problems though is that by the time a leader hears of someone who is upset, it is usually too late. So, heading them off as you say, which would be great, usually is not possible. By the time I sit down with someone who is upset with Revolution, they have already made up their mind to leave, not always, but usually.

      While I can see how leaders send the message “If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else.” I can be guilty of this, as every leader can. I’ll speak from where I lead. Revolution isn’t for everyone. We don’t try to be, we don’t hope to be, no church can be. So, we strive to have a clear vision of what we believe God has called us to as a church. As the leader, one of my roles is to protect this vision, to cast it clearly and if you aren’t on board with it, we love you, but Revolution might not be for you. That isn’t a bad thing. It is a bad thing if this pushes someone away from the gospel, but no one belongs to me or Revolution. So, if Revolution isn’t the place for someone to be plugged in and a part of the vision, there are a lot of churches in a city they could be a part of. Hope that helps. Your perspective is helpful.

  4. I have a question that might seem stupid, but why isn’t Revolution for everyone?

    I understand your explanation of vision, and it makes sense, but it’s one of those things I don’t think I can trust. Is there a passage that idea comes from?

    I’m coming from 1 Corinthians 9:22. Of course, that verse is about Paul and not the whole church, so I may be extending it beyond where I ought to, but shouldn’t a church try to be all things to all people so that by all means it might save some? Paul was called to a specific demographic, but he still wrote that verse, which makes me think a church called to a specific demographic should still try to be all things to all people as well. I also think of the verses about the church being a body, and I wonder which members/limbs are missing at churches that aren’t for everyone.

    I feel like saying a church isn’t for everyone is settling for less than what God has called us to and less than what He would make us into.

    I could be way off here; I just legitimately can’t think of a place in the bible that describes the church the way you’re describing it. A lot of pastors say their churches aren’t for everyone, but it feels like that’s coming from culture rather than from scripture.

    Sorry if my comments are getting frustrating.

    • Katie,
      Your comments aren’t frustrating, but I’d say if you want to continue chatting we should probably do it over email.

      As to your question about 1 Corinthians 9, I think Paul was talking about his life and our lives as Christians.

      The reality is that every church has a target, some define it and some don’t. Your target is defined by what time you meet, where you meet, the kind of music you use, the sermon style, length of sermon, is it book of the bible or topical, do they have small groups, sunday school or missional communities, how do they dress, do they have kids stuff, a lot of singles, retired. All those things define who will go to that church. I think it is bad stewardship for a church to not know who they are best suited to reach and how to contextualize the gospel for them. That doesn’t mean change the gospel, or water it down or leave things out, but it does mean you speak a certain way about it. For example, if your church is in a lower income area of the city, everything will look different compared to a church in the suburbs with a large amount of white collar workers with masters degrees.

      When a church does not think through these things, they are not as effective as they could be.

      Thanks again for the comment and as I stated, if you’d like to talk further, shoot me an email.

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