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When we recite the Apostle’s Creed we profess that we believe in “the universal church.” That is, God’s people across time and space. So in the words of our corporate gatherings we emphasis unity, from singing to praying. Yet at other points in our lives we work against that unity. We undermine God’s universal church with the very lips that bless it on Sundays (James 3:9, 11). ‘How do I do this?’ you might ask. The answer is simple: divisive speech.

Now you might adamantly advise against division. But this doesn’t mean you aren’t engaging in it. Towards the end of Romans, Paul outlines three elements of divisive speech. Surprisingly, when we reflect upon these elements they aren’t all explicit. In other words, the divisive person isn’t only the church member whose ambition it is to split their church. As with all speech sins, such as gossip, we often fail to identify when we’re misusing our words.

You might adamantly advise against division. But this doesn’t mean you aren’t engaging in divisive speech.

Paul writes: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. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Romans 16:17-20).

1. Divisive Speech Denies Biblical Truth

Divisive speech is not merely about disagreeing, but about going against biblical truth. Sure, Christians don’t agree on everything. However, where the scriptures are clear, we should submit to God and thus agree with one another. As Romans 16:17 shows, division is created when people work “contrary to the doctrine that we have been taught.” This behaviour, as Paul says, contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible.

Where the scriptures are clear, we should submit to God and agree with one another.

There are various indicators of this sort of divisive speech. It may be that a preacher or teacher is continually innovative. Though the weight of theological traditions might be debated, the person who only ever criticises them to forge their own path towards truth might be divisive. Constantly raising quibbles with what is taught from a pulpit can also be divisive. Of course, in each of these examples one may not be contradicting biblical truth. But divisive speech sometimes begins with casting doubts over what the church has believed and taught for millennia.

2. Divisive People Are Self-Seeking

The fact that divisive speech contradicts the scriptures necessarily entails that the scriptures should possess authority in our divisions. However, submission to the scriptures requires being teachable. As James contrasts the wisdom from above and below, he describes God’s wisdom as being open to reason (James 3:17). Although our knowledge and understanding is imperfect until glory, by being open to reason and showing humility, we can be teachable.

Divisive people tend to draw undue attention to themselves, serving their appetites for recognition.

However, divisive people propagate their own understanding and teaching despite clear evidence. In doing so they tend to draw undue attention to themselves, very likely serving their appetites for recognition rather than making the Lord Jesus Christ their ambition (Romans 16:18). Divisive speech is self-seeking. The divisive person measures the church’s needs in terms of themselves and their presumptuous opinions. Furthermore, they’re never wrong; at least, they never admit to having been wrong.

As I’ve shown regarding Diotrephes, divisive people are driven by self-interest. They celebrate and loudly proclaim their own views, while courting no others. “Such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites” (Romans 16:18).

3. Divisive Speech Isn’t Always Obvious

Third, divisive speech isn’t usually done with a loud voice. Think of the various cults, and you will soon discover that they don’t usually disagree in the open. As Romans 16:18 says, they do so with “smooth talk and flattery.” They say what tickles the ears of their followers. Divisive speech often appears innocuous. Those sowing division usually seem sensible and reasonable. They don’t stand up in church and shout at the leadership. They quietly sidle up to members and whisper doubts.

Those sowing division usually seem sensible and reasonable.

Divisive speech is not necessarily about manner or vocal muscle, but carefully chosen words offered at opportune times. In other words, division can be done smoothly. The most successful divisive people employ guile. They sow discontent, undermine the leadership, manipulate people, and subtly create sides.

Avoid Divisive People, And Don’t Become One

Paul provides one solution: avoid divisive people and speech (Romans 16:17). He goes on to conclude his warning by reminding his readers that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under their feet (Romans 16:20). I doubt that this encouragement is arbitrary. Perhaps his description of God as the “God of peace” shows his readers what will be gained by avoiding divisive people. Or maybe it’s a veiled warning against divisive speech, which is more the work of Satan than God.

Avoid both divisive people and speech.

The unity of the universal Church and your local church rests upon the doctrine once delivered by the apostles and prophets. Therefore, by avoiding people who go against these orthodox doctrines and the scriptures, we can maintain the peace of God among his people.

As we’ve seen, divisive speech is usually crafty, full of flattery rather than full-on aggression. It also stems from the self-seeking heart, which puts oneself over and above others as well as community. My hope for this article is that it better equips you to identify divisive speech. However, considering how subtle it can be, we’d be wrong not to reflect on our speech as well. Let’s not start pointing out specks if we’ve got planks in own eyes (Matthew 7:3-5).

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