How Should Pastors Handle A Divisive Person?

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Divisive people have always been a thorn in the flesh of the church. At the drop of a hat, some pastors could name a divisive person they have encountered. They tend to be easily recognizable (except, perhaps, by those who are too innocent to see through divisive, manipulative, and controlling behavior). As Romans 16:17–18 warns, “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.”

Sadly, these divisive people are often pacified and permitted to remain in the fellowship, suck the life out of the church, manipulate the naive, and hinder progress. Christ, however, gives clear instructions for how divisive people are to be handled in his Church: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 3:10–11).

Christ gives clear instructions for how divisive people are to be handled in his Church.

Paul was counseling Pastor Timothy on how to confront those who divided the church over false teaching (cf. Rom 16:17), but as Gordon Fee notes, “the context (v. 9) makes it clear that the problem is with these people’s behavior, not their theology per se.”

Divisive behavior in the household of God is so serious that it must be decisively handled. Because God loves unity, peace, and harmony among his people (1 Cor. 1:10; 12:25; Eph. 4:4–6; Ps. 133:1), he abhors divisiveness. “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him,” and one of them is “one who sows discord among brothers” (Prov. 6:19). Divisive behavior crosses a line and must be addressed; otherwise, once tolerated, it will continue to happen until the church is crippled or torn apart.

Ignoring God’s instructions for dealing with divisive people in the church is like allowing a virus to fester in the body and just hoping that it will get better. As Phil Brown has written on Matthew 18:15–20, church discipline is God’s immune system for his church: “Without church discipline, a church is like a person without an immune system. … To refuse to practice church discipline is flagrant disobedience to our Lord Jesus Himself. To refuse to plan for church discipline is egregious irresponsibility.” A healthy church requires leaders with the courage to, as Titus 3:10–11 instructs, (1) warn a divisive person once, then (2) warn them a second time, and finally (3) have nothing to do with them (i.e., excommunication; cf. Mt. 18:17; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5, 7, 11, 13; Jn. 20:23; 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Thess. 3:14). When pastors show passivity in the face of divisive behavior, the church is unlikely to ever be a healthy and life-giving body.

When pastors show passivity in the face of divisive behavior, the church is unlikely to ever be a healthy and life-giving body.

Here are six points to consider if you are in a situation where divisive behavior needs to be confronted:

  1. Be sure that you sincerely love the person who needs to be confronted. Even in cases where excommunication is necessary, the goal is the person’s final salvation: “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). The aim of exclusion is embrace (to borrow the language of Miroslav Volf), although reconciliation is not guaranteed.
  2. Know that no matter what you do, some people will never be persuaded. Titus assures us that a divisive person who refuses to repent after two warnings is warped, sinful, and self-condemned (Titus 3:11). Jude 1:19 warns that those “who cause divisions” are “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.”
  3. Remember that God’s way is always best. God’s wise plan for church discipline is better than the wisdom of man. You may be able to prevent a “blow-up” by tolerating a divisive person, but the long-term consequences will be much more crippling. For the long-term health of the church, it is better to follow God’s wisdom for handling troublemakers and navigate the short-term consequences that follow.
  4. Keep the big picture (the good of the body) in mind. Again, a church will never be healthy in the long run if divisive people are tolerated. If you fail to confront a divisive person in the name of love, other people you love and care for—and the people who love and care for you most—will end up getting hurt. Those leading the church will become emotionally exhausted from trying to hold things together. Unity will be compromised. Relationships will suffer. Discipleship will be hindered.
  5. Have the courage to confront divisive attitudes and behavior. Perhaps the main reason why pastors avoid obeying God’s commands for handling divisive people is fear. Divisive people are usually bullies, and it’s hard to stand up to them. But if your motives are pure and you are acting in the interest of the body, be of good courage: Christ has promised to be with two or three who are gathered for the purpose of church discipline (Mt. 18:20). This brings us to our final point.
  6. Never act alone. A pastor may be tempted to handle a divisive person alone in an effort to keep the confrontation more low-key. This almost always makes things worse and risks pitting the divisive person against one pastor instead of the whole church which the pastor should be representing in his exercise of church discipline. The church exercises church discipline as a body (Mt. 18:17), and one pastor should not take upon himself the full weight of wielding that authority (especially without the knowledge, consent, and involvement of his fellow elders). To do so is to overstep the bounds of his office and to attempt to carry a burden that no one man should ever be expected to bear alone. Confrontation of divisive persons should always be done by the church leadership in concert and with due process documented, and duly recorded in minutes.

Every good-hearted pastor wants a church that is healthy and growing. But if divisive behavior is permitted in the body, the church will always be sick and crippled. Because Christ loves the church and wants what is best for the whole body, he has given us clear and specific instructions for how to handle a divisive person:

  • Step 1 (First Warning): “Warn a divisive person once,”
  • Step 2 (Second Warning): “and then warn them a second time.’
  • Step 3 (Excommunication): “After that, have nothing to do with them” (Titus 3:10–11).

On the authority of God’s word, this is how pastors must handle a divisive person. As shepherds, we will answer to the Chief Shepherd for whether or not we obey his authority and wisdom for ruling the church.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.