Dealing with Distraction & Division in the Church-Titus 3:8-11
Some churches are better off without certain people. Some people are like clouds. When they disappear, it’s a brighter day. That sounds harsh, but nonetheless it is true. Who are those people? As we answer that question we should, initially, look closely at our own hearts.
Have you every noticed what we almost always look for when we look at a group photograph that we believe includes us? I mean, if you think you are pictured in a slide show, a group shot in a yearbook, or a photo posted on social media, what do you look for first? You look for “me”, don’t you? Similarly, when considering whom the church is better off without, we should look for “me” first.
Paul wrote a pastoral epistle (letter) to one of his young sons in the faith, Titus. In this note, Paul encouraged and instructed Titus to “put in order” (1:5) what was out of order in the house churches that peppered the large island of Crete. Toward the conclusion of this short, 46 verse, letter, the Apostle Paul clearly warns Titus (and us) that churches are better off without certain people. I enjoy the clarity of J.B. Philips translation.
“Subjects like this are always good and useful but mind you steer clear of stupid arguments, genealogies, controversies and quarrels over the Law. They settle nothing and lead nowhere. If a man is still argumentative after the second warning you should reject him. You can be sure that he has a moral twist, and he knows it” (Titus 3:8-11).
Paul gives us clear, painstaking counsel in dealing with those who want to be embroiled in stupid arguments and controversies. He counsels us to stress something, and to avoid something else.
The Gospel changes everything! Titus 3:4-7 is one, glorious, run-on sentence in the original. It may very well have been an early Christian hymn, creed, or confession. It is a grace-saturated passage that highlights the kindness of God the Father, the regenerating and renewing work of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Titus is told to “insist on these things”. “These things” refer to the Gospel truths proclaimed in verses 4-7. Titus is unequivocally commanded that New Testament local churches (leaders and members) are to stress, emphasize, and center on the Gospel. The confessional nature of verses 4-7 are reminiscent of Ephesians 4:4-6 and I Corinthians 15:1-4. There are some essential fundamentals that must be required. Those essentials are contained in the Gospel.
There are two bipolar dangers when the essentials of the kindness of the Father, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Jesus Christ are not emphasized. First, when the essentials are not insisted upon, everything becomes essential. This tends toward legalism. When we are not separated to the Gospel, we can become separated to everything that seems essential, fundamental, and worthy. When the essentials of the Gospel are not the boundary lines that identify us as God’s true family, other standards, positions, and teachings become the ever-changing boundary lines that identify truly spiritual people. We must not obscure the gospel for the sake of some idea or truth that is of lesser importance.
Secondly, when the essentials are not insisted upon, nothing becomes essential. This tends towards liberalism. When the Gospel is not essential, nothing really is. A pluralistic, syncretistic view of religion will prevail. This explains the drift towards apostasy of many of the main-line denominations and seminaries. It is not surprising, then, that churches, Christians, and para-church organizations that have failed to emphasize the Gospel, by default, rally under social, moral, political and self-advancement banners.
This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things… -Titus 3:8a
Titus is told, rather, to insist upon the Gospel. The church, in order to prevent the havoc of division, must insist, press, and center upon the Gospel. Paul says, stress this. Also, he says, avoid this.
The Gospel changes everything, but controversy confuses everyone. Let’s be honest, spiritual leaders can be easily distracted. Sadly, when they are, the result will be division in the church. Paul tells Titus to avoid these stupid controversies. The verb translated avoid is in the middle voice indicating that the spiritual leadership of churches must make conscious, volitional choices to “walk around” stupid, distracting controversies. And, controversies abound, “as the sparks fly upward”, don’t they? Personally, I find myself often attracted to, and easily distracted by, controversies. It’s kind of like those rare times that I go to the grocery store. It seems like each time I go to retrieve a grocery cart, it has wheels that keep pulling strongly to one side. Ever get one of those? What a pain those are! But, I find in those grocery carts an illustration of my own heart’s pulling toward controversies.
Paul counsels Titus, pastors, spiritual leaders, deacons, Christians, mission boards, Christian colleges and seminaries, pastors’ fellowships, denominations, etc. to avoid these distracting controversies that are outside the essentials of the Gospel. He uses four terms, “foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law” to describe discussions that should be avoided. Contextually, these terms referred to fanciful legends that were spun by choosing names from an Old Testament genealogical listing and adding all kinds of fictional narrative to the name. These rabbinic legends would then be meticulously debated and discussed. Along with that, there were the distractions of all sorts of debates and arguments about application of the Old Testament law. Paul says all of these debates are “unprofitable and worthless”. Did you notice the contrast with the “excellent and profitable” (v. 8) nature of stressing the Gospel? When debates over non-essential, non-Gospel issues are regularly engaged in and emphasized, there will be, as a result, an unhealthy spiritual environment. There will be a harmful toxicity level for you, your family, and the entire church. Avoid these things! So, spiritual leaders, like Titus, must, by example and pattern, avoid these distracting controversies. In addition, they must generally warn their congregation to avoid these. What about those who will not heed this general warning?
Paul anticipates this. Verse 10 addresses the person who will not desist in creating controversy. The ESV translates this as “a person who stirs up divisions”. We get our word heretic from this word. Often, upon hearing of heresies, we think of strange, false teaching. However, the word simply means to call others to “choose a side”. Practically it means the person begins soliciting others to join a team or a group having alternative opinions from those of the local church. In other places in the Scriptures, the indication is that this person begins recruiting and creating a schism. A schism is simply a “torn-away” society that begins to operate parallel to the true, local, gospel-preaching church. When we are baptized as believers, we essentially put on the “jersey” publicly, that we identify as followers of Jesus Christ and identify with the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Schisms, and those that cause divisions (heretics) seek to hand out alternative jerseys. These jerseys might have a new logo of a particular view of Calvinism, worship/music style, church government, entertainment choices, dress styles, Bible translations, educational venues, etc.
The counsel for dealing with these types of people is elevated. Paul says they are to be warned at least twice, and then they are to be avoided. First, notice, that the initial approach to these people, though firm, is pastoral, even parental. The same word for “warn” is used for parents in Ephesians 6:4. However, when these people will not desist after these multiple warnings, there must be complete avoidance. This protocol is similar to the process in Matthew 18. In other words, the person, and the society that they have created by their controversy, must have its platform for influence upon the church family removed. There is practical latitude for spiritual leaders in dealing with this person and the schism they have created. At the forefront of the leadership’s mind must be protection of their flock. Because, the Gospel changes everything, but controversy confuses everyone.
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. –Romans 16:17
Here are a few practical thoughts for spiritual leaders:
1. Let’s seek to build a confessional church. As leaders, we must lead the way by making much of the church’s confessional epicenter through creeds, doctrinal statements, and sound hymnody. Consider adopting and including a creed that your church can regularly affirm as well as a church covenant that is weaved with Scriptural promises.
2. Be careful of the messages our actions communicate. We should stop preaching application with the same authority as we preach doctrine. We also need to stop hosting or participating in conferences and fellowships that find their identification in peripheral issues. A good test is to look at the topics for their general sessions and break-out workshops. Are the offerings predominately on issues or, insisting on and reiterating the Gospel? Regretfully, I have confused some sheep over the years as I allowed controversy to have a platform.
3. Practice loving confrontation, with follow-through. The step-by-step approach that Paul lays out in this passage is extremely practical. Spiritual leaders must be compassionate and courageous in dealing with those who divide the church. When a controversy stirrer begins to recruit others to join his team, they must be dealt with. The health of the flock is at stake.
4. Acknowledge our attraction to controversies: In addition, there must be an honest and transparent evaluation of how our proclivity toward tangential emphases and how our climbing on those choice “soap boxes” communicates to our congregation.
So, some churches are better off without certain people. And, conversely, some Christians are better off without certain churches. Paul instructs spiritual leaders do deal head-on with those that want to obscure the gospel by elevating other ideas and truths to seemingly equal importance. When we as spiritual leaders fail to deal with those who “stir up division” in the church, the sheep are at no-fault in seeking a healthy spiritual environment for themselves and their families. Stress this. Avoid this.
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