Division, controversy and factions seem to be the order of the day, fueled by social media. Tensions seem to be mounting. Language used in social media seem to get more and more extreme, and divisions between people and groups seem to be getting wider. Within the Church, too, there are factions, controversies, divisions, with seemingly ever-escalating rhetoric. But is this what Jesus wants? What is Jesus’ approach to controversy and division?
Jesus certainly does not deny that controversy and division exist. In fact, he says they must exist. Jesus warns that there will be serious divisions over what he says, reaching even into the heart of families. He says, in quite stark and unambiguous terms:
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. [Luke 12:49-53]
These divisions will result in very serious consequences: hatred, betrayal and death:
But note that the point of division is Jesus himself; he says that his followers will be “hated by all because of my name”. Jesus himself is the controversy, he himself is the division. Controversy between the Church, who embraces Jesus, and the world, who rejects him, is inevitable.
But what about controversy within the church? That is a different story. Far from encouraging controversy, Jesus opposes it with a commandment to love:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. [John 13:34-35]
Love, here, is a commandment, but not just any commandment, but one by which Jesus’ disciples are to be known. Divisions are incompatible with this. The New Testament epistles are filled with exhortations to the early Church to be in agreement. Consider, for example, St Paul’s instructions to the Church in Corinth:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. [1 Corinthians 1:10]
Similarly, St. Paul exhorts the Church in Rome to “…love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” [Romans 12:10]
To the Church in Ephesus, St. Paul writes:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. [Ephesians 4:1-3]
To the Church in Galatia, St. Paul counsels love for others as a duty of freedom:
To his mentee, St Titus, St. Paul advises that Titus remind his congregation “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” [Titus 3:2]
Similarly, St Peter advises:
He continues, writing that Christians should “have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” [1 Peter 3:8]
His overarching advice is to “… maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” [1 Peter 4:8]
St. John the Evangelist writes:
St. James writes:
St James goes on to point out that dissensions come from sin:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. [James 4:1-2a]
As such, sin places the insistent sinner outside the church. Jesus explains how to handle such situations:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [Matthew 18:15-17]
St Paul, similarly, advises St. Titus about his pastoral duties to the Christians in his care:
But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned. [Titus 3:9-11]
This is quite striking. Someone who persistently causes dissension in the Church, by so doing, is self-condemned, and has essentially placed themselves outside the Church, for failing to live out the constituent love for one another that Jesus expects and commands of his followers. This is no small consequence.
Here, therefore, is a startlingly clear mandate for Christians: while division between the Church and the world may be inevitable, due to the inescapable division between those who embrace Christ and those who reject him, controversy and divisions between Christians in the Church are sin, sins against the love for one another commanded of us by Jesus himself. If persisted in, these sins cause persons to place themselves outside the Church. For those of us who use social media, God forbid that should be us! We cannot control what others do, but surely we can act faithfully ourselves, knowing what is at stake. Please let us remember, especially when engaging in social media with other Christians, Jesus’ command is to love one another. This is not easy, surely, but it is necessary. It means no speaking of evil, no quarreling, but instead unity, agreement, peace, patience, gentleness, humility, sympathy, a tender heart, a humble mind, bearing with one another in love: genuine, mutual love; loving one another deeply, from the heart.