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"Mark those who cause division, and offences contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoid them... for by good words and fair speeches [they] deceive the hearts of the simple." (Romans 16:17-18)

I would like to make a number of comments on this passage.

First, there are right ways to cause division, as well as wrong ways. Jesus repeatedly caused divisions. (John 7:43, John 9:16, John 10:19) Legitimate divisions are the result of us telling the truth (as Jesus did, and as I hope to do in this article). Some will accept the truth, and others will fight it.

People are always moving toward some people and ideas, and away from others. The Bible says the friendship of the world is enmity with God. (James 4:4) So friendship in one direction will lead to disunity in the other. Trying too hard to generate "unity" with people who have rejected God is going to result in "division" with those who have not rejected him.

My second observation about divisions is that people who cause them may not be totally sold out to the devil. They may even be, on the whole, sincere Christians, who are just acting "out of the spirit" at the time. We will see as we look more closely at this, that we have each been guilty of this sin at some time in our lives. Because causing divisions may not be absolute grounds for treating someone as an enemy, we are first just instructed to "mark" them. It's an excellent choice of words. Even when a person confesses a sin and repents, it sometimes pays to "mark" them, in the sense that we identify them as having a particular weakness in that area.

To forgive is divine; to forget may be stupid. A person who has a proven record of causing division needs to be identified as such. They need to see that they have done serious damage to their credibility, and the rest of us need to see that they could easily repeat their offence.

Note that the rest of the verse talking about marking those who cause divisions includes people who are guilty of "offences contrary to the doctrine which you have learned". Although causing division is the primary focus here, Paul is also talking about other "offences". He is obviously not talking about heretics (i.e. people who are teaching false doctrines), but he is talking about people who are not practising the apparently good doctrines that they themselves preach.

This is another indication that Paul is talking about a problem that arises from within the ranks of professing believers. And he is talking about a system of judgment or accountability, such as our grievance system, where you don't just sweep problems under the carpet and agree to ignore each other's sins. You "mark" offences. If people are talking about love, love, love, and yet by their actions they are not showing love for their brothers and sisters within the body of believers, then this contradiction needs to be addressed and marked. If they are talking about sincerity, but are guilty of telling lies themselves, then the lies need to be exposed, and the liars marked. And if they are pretending to be friends while running down people in the fellowship (especially leaders), then that needs to be dealt with, and the troublemakers marked.

A third observation is that the person causing division often comes bearing gifts. Although we want to be careful not to be overly harsh on offenders (since none of us is perfect), we also must be careful not to be gullible. The armies of Troy presented a huge wooden horse as a gift to their enemies, and when their enemies had dragged the horse inside the city gates, soldiers poured out of the belly of the horse and took over the city. Don't fall for Trojan horses.

The passage from Romans says that people trying to cause division will do so "by good words and fair speeches". Just because someone sends us a chatty "Hi, guys!" note complimenting us or passing on some trivial bit of news, does not mean that they are not prepared to cause division the moment they spot an opportunity to do so.

When someone is being openly aggressive in their attacks on us, we are automatically drawn together in battle against them. But in order to divide us, the enemy must get inside the gate, appeal to one of us, and from there win the sympathy of others who are weak spiritually. This is how they "deceive the hearts of the simple". Certainly we need to be open to genuine offers of friendship; but we need to know how to distinguish between genuine offers and false ones. And this is why we are told to "mark" people who have a record of having done that sort of thing.

Scientists tracking dolphins, birds, etc. have to mark them so that they can tell one animal from another. You don't learn much about a species by just observing them randomly. And unless we can graph a pattern of behaviour for a single individual, we are not going to know whether a friendly gesture is genuine or not. The most obvious warning sign is if friendly gestures have been used as weapons against us in the past (and if people have caused division in the past).

The Bible tells us to enquire whether a person is "worthy" to help us before we accept their help. Although Jesus accepted the hospitality of a Pharisee on one occasion (Luke 7:36-50), he ended up by pointing out that a sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears was far more worthy than the Pharisee. This was because the Pharisee was so full of his own superiority (because in his mind he had stooped to help Jesus) that he could not appreciate what a privilege it really had been to have Jesus in his home.

The paradox is that people who think they are so worthy that they get offended by us even considering that they may not be, are the ones who are most unworthy of all, and the most dangerous to accept support from. You can almost guarantee that anything they do will have strings attached, and will be used against us in the future.

Finally, the ultimate way to recognise a person who is causing division is that they will cause division. You don't mark them for making nice speeches or for giving gifts; but you do mark them for causing division. And in order to do this, they must, at some time, drop the mask and start an attack.

They will prefer to make their criticisms privately, and out of earshot of the person they are criticising. We have identified this elsewhere as murmuring. What we may not have stressed enough is that practically every time the term is used in the Bible, it is used about people specifically speaking against the leadership amongst God's people.

A minor division may result from gossip against a new member. But someone who is really intent on causing division is more likely to talk against the leader. If at all possible, they will wait until the leader is out of earshot before they start their campaign, so that he will not have an opportunity to defend himself. If you find incidents of someone doing this, then such people need to be seriously marked.

Of course cults and sects which have gone off the rails teach that people should never criticise their leadership. What is the difference between them and us? The difference is that we do have a grievance system where anyone can take a complaint against a leader (personally first, and then with two or three witnesses). Leaders who have gone off the rails will not allow a grievance to be taken against them.

With our system, the complaint is dealt with privately first, for the purpose of protecting against divisive fallout. But a division-maker is not interested in solving the problem. For them, the more divisive fallout the better; and so they do not approach leaders personally. They either talk behind their backs, or they publish far and wide anything that they think can hurt the credibility of the leader.

Instead of trying to work toward a solution, to understand both sides, to act with respect for the leader's position, and to back down if they have stated something that is wrong or that is an exaggeration, they will do all they can to condemn and belittle the leader, changing their charge any time they sense that a solution may be reached or that an explanation may make their charge seem less than what they have tried to make of it.

If they are shown to be totally wrong in their claims, then they will quickly revert to the counterfeit peace approach, by saying that there is no point talking to us, that they will just quietly agree to disagree and get on with their separate business, while doing their best to "love" us from a distance. Of course we would be stupid to ignore what has actually happened, and what spirit is actually motivating them. If love doesn't work up close, it almost certainly doesn't exist at a distance.

To summarise what we have said, we must learn to be wide awake to the divisive actions of certain people, judging them on their overall performance pattern rather than on one or two friendly gestures or words. At the same time, we must always be open to the possibility that they could see the error of their ways and change. Always be ready to forgive, but don't be too quick to forget.

(See also Malcontents.)

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