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The works of the flesh are evident, which are..."
(Seditions, Divisions)
Dan Vess

Numerous times people have written, prayed, and preached words of thanksgiving for the various denominations so abundant in America. Although there is nothing wrong with our love for the religious freedom enjoyed in this country, Paul condemned party spirits and religious division when he listed dissensions among the works of the flesh. It is just as much a work of the flesh as fornication, adultery, drunkenness, murder, etc. Galatians 5:21 warns against practicing any of these: "...of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." Since our soul will be in jeopardy if we are guilty of this sin it makes good sense to understand what it is.

Definition of "Dissensions"

Dichostasia (dee-khos-tas-ee'-ah) is found three times in the Greek New Testament: Galatians 5:20; Romans 16:17; and 1 Corinthians 3:3. Some disagree with the inclusion of dichostasia in 1 Corinthians 3:3 due to the lack of support from ancient manuscripts. It means "lit., a standing apart (dicha, asunder, apart, stasis, a standing),..." (Vine, p. 1008). Thayer defines it as "to cut into two parts, cleave asunder, dissever" (p. 158). The prefix "di-" means "to divide" in many words in numerous languages. As can be seen in the words "dialogue" (two or more speakers); "diameter" (cutting a circle into two equal parts); "dissect" (dividing an organism into various parts); etc. Thus, dissension takes place whenever two or more parties are created by drawing a line between what one believes. Dissension also encourages others to choose sides.

Extra-Biblical uses of this term are not much more abundant than what we find in the New Testament. In secular Greek Herodotus uses this word to describe what happened when a commander changed sides in the middle of a campaign. One of the early Christians works known as "The Shepherd of Hermas" continually warns against it. It is found only once in the Septuagint (1 Maccabees 3:29, one of the books of the Apocrypha).

The Party Spirit Afflicted Corinth

The church at Corinth had serious problems with dissension. "for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?" (1 Corinthians 3:3). Paul began his letter declaring that he was against religious divisions among followers of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 he condemns religious divisions and gives his reasoning.

    "Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, 'I am of Paul,' and 'I am of Apollos,' and 'I am of Cephas,' and 'I am of Christ'. Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"

Today, it is "I am of Martin Luther"; "I am of the Baptist", "I am a Mormon, "I am a Jehovah's Witness", etc." To prove his point Paul asked three questions which demonstrate the illogical position and unscripturalness of religious divisions. First, he asked, "Has Christ been divided?" That is, "Are you to be divided up into distinct religious parties by standing apart from each other?" Paul answers his own question in 1 Corinthians 12:25: "that there should be no division in the body,..." What is this "body"? "Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27). The body of Christ is the church made up of individual Christians. If Christ is not divided and the church is His body, then it naturally follows that His church is not divided up into various parties. Corinth was divided up into various parts instead of being a united body in Christ. Next, he asked, "Paul was not crucified for you, was he?" No. Only Christ could have died for the salvation of the Corinthians. The final question, "Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" Again, the answer is "no!" They were baptized in the name of Christ. Therefore, they should put on His name and no one else (Matthew 28:19-20; Galatians 3:26,27; Acts 18:8).

Paul tells the Corinthians how to exorcise this party spirit which was haunting Corinth. They must "speak the same thing", "let there be no division among you", and be of the "same mind and same judgment" (v. 10). Jesus prayed in Gethsemane on the night He was betrayed that His disciples have the same oneness that He and the Father enjoyed (John 17:20). God and His Son do not stand apart from each other, but they stand together on all things. Jesus warned, "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. ‘And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand'" (Mark 3:24,25). We either stand together or fall apart.

Troublemakers in Rome

    "I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (Romans 16:17-20)

Paul called the brethren in Rome to notice the danger of troublemakers who would come in bringing dissensions. He goes on to give a clear profile of these dissenters.

  1. They cause offenses or create difficulties. Elsewhere the word is used to indicate stumbling blocks.
  2. They stand in opposition to sound doctrine. Thus, in dissension the standing apart is not just from one another, but from the Gospel itself.
  3. Not only are they disobedient to the Word, but they are devoted to their bellies instead of the Lord. Their desire is to benefit their own appetites and bank accounts. They do not glorify their God, instead their god is their belly (Philippians 3:19).
  4. Deception of the simple happens to be their key method to enlist new dissenters into their ranks. They specifically target the simple. "Simple" does not mean weak-minded, but rather unsuspicious. Thayer defines it as "fearing no evil from others, distrusting no one" (21). Keep in mind these troublemakers do not come in half-drunk, tatoos everywhere, and a mean attitude. Instead they are likened by some to child-molesters. "They pervert and exploit innocence" (McGuiggan, p. 444).
  5. Next, Paul informs us how they deceive the simple. Their main mode of operation is with smooth words and flattering speech. Speech that sounds like the truth and words that sound good. Things that people like to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4). They are con artists who cry out peace even when there is no peace, because that is what everyone wants to hear. Acting like perfect counterfeits to the real thing they deceive the simple, but not those who are looking closely.

More importantly Paul informed the church at Rome how to disarm those who cause dissensions. First, the saints in Rome were to "mark them". Definition of "skopeo": "to look at, observe, contemplate, to fix one's eyes upon, direct one's attention to, anyone: Rom. 16:17; Phil. 3:17;..." (Thayer, 579). The thought is that they are to watch for, and to be alert to, those who would bring about such a condition among them. The New Testament is resplendent with examples of warnings to keep one's eye on false teachers. Jesus warned the disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:14; 23:1-39). He told them to keep a close eye on what these people taught and how they behaved. Peter marked sinners and false teachers (Acts 2:22; 4:8; 2 Peter 2:1-22). Paul marked false teachers (Acts 13:8-11), such as Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:16-18); Alexander the coppersmith, Hymenaeus and Alexander, and Demas (2 Timothy 4:14,10; 1 Timothy 1:19,20). Do not close your eyes to what they are doing. Next, they are to avoid them. The Greek word for avoid is "ekklino" which means "not only keep out of their way, but remove from it if you fall in with them" (Vincent 3:181). Webster defines the English word: "to depart or withdraw from: to keep away from; stay clear of." Ironically, Paul is commanding them to stand apart from (avoid) those who cause others to stand apart (dissension).

Too many this seems to be a bit extreme for our tolerant society. We have become a kinder more tolerant people. However, when we have superior attitudes and practices than our Lord and His apostles we are in danger of calling good evil and evil good.

Knowing that there will be troublemakers and knowing how to deal with them is one thing. However, the Christians in Rome needed to know how to prevent themselves from becoming troublemakers or becoming a victim of one. Paul reminds them of his gratitude for their reputation for obedience and encourages them to continue to obey. Obedient servants of God are not likely targets of false teachers. They must be wise or skilled experts in what is good. Contrasted with this skill is their innocence or inexperience in what is evil. If they practice these three things then the God of peace will not only bring an end to all troublemakers, but will crush Satan himself.

Modern Examples of Dissension

    Contentious Creeds
    Over a 1000 differing denominations all claiming to follow the Bible and Christ exist in the U.S. Not only do we have the Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist, but there are such groups as the Adam's Apple Church or the Holy Ghost Repair Service, Inc. Church. There are several groups which practice polygamy and some which advocate homosexuality. All this is the harvest of the sin of dissension.

    What sets one apart from the other is not so much their names as it is the differing doctrines. These are delineated in each denominational creed book. What makes a Baptist a Baptist is his adherence to the Baptist Manual. The Confession of Faith produces a Presbyterian.

    The solution to the dilemma of denominationalism is to put away these contentious creeds of men and get back to the Bible and the Bible alone. Until then, creeds will continue to separate, because they can never unite.

    Divisive Doctrines
    Perhaps, Judaizing teachers would be the best example of the kind of troublemaker who would have caused dissensions at Rome. They were determined to convince all Gentile Christians that they had to be circumcised and keep the Law or they could not be saved. In essence they argued, "Unless you stand apart from all other Gentiles who would not be circumcised you cannot be a part of us". Today, we have many who wish to separate into various parties based on keeping parts of the Law, such as tithing, a separate priesthood, observing the Sabbath day, instrumental music, etc.

    Dissensions involving the Bible's teachings on marriage, divorce, and remarriage have resulted in many brethren standing apart from each other. One group will argue for divorce for any cause while some demand that there is no reason for divorce. Falling between the extremes are several other divisive views. Even when a congregation does not have anyone present in their congregation advocating one of these false teachings some of their members will accept one and perhaps use this as a bases to justify their divorce. The end result is still dissension in the ranks of the local brethren.

    Obstinate Opinions
    One of the lamentable examples of dissension is when someone takes a personal opinion and presses it to the point of division within the church. Growing up in Amish country in Ohio we heard various arguments which divided various groups within their community. The one which I will never forget was over whether a man could roll up his sleeves in public and if so, how far up could he roll them. At the time it was humorous, but there is nothing funny witnessing brethren standing apart for each other because of the number of verses sung in a song or whether to allow a scripture reading at the Lord's Supper or whether a preacher could wear waders when baptizing someone. True, we all have opinions and where God has not spoken we have a right to our opinions. We also have a right and a responsibility to keep our opinions to ourselves at times. May God bless us with the wisdom to know when.

A closing warning is necessary. Far too many times those who are watching out for and avoiding those who cause dissension end up being the ones condemned for causing division. The opposite of dissension is standing together. Those who stand together in relation to God's Will can never be viewed as the troublemakers. It is always those who reject the Truth and turn to fables that are guilty of this heinous sin.

May we ever strive to overcome dissensions by standing fast "in the faith" (1 Corinthians 16:13), standing fast "in the Lord" (Philippians 4:1) and standing "fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel," (Philippians 1:27).