A friend shared on Facebook a quote, unsourced, that has resonated with me overnight: “People who call out false teachers are not divisive, people who embrace false teachers are divisive, and can be deadly“. This got me thinking, and I was reminded of a key element of the Parliamentary process we have in the United Kingdom. In order to make it clear how different people/parties/groups are voting, MPs physically exit the chamber to in different directions. It is a simple, clear sign of the division that exists. This of course does not mean that Parliament ceases to function after each vote – the House reconvenes, and the mechanism of democracy continues. Division, it seems, can sometimes be a helpful thing. In the Church (Which is not a democracy, ultimately) ‘division’ is often seen as the great shibboleth, ‘schism’ as the worst possible outcome. But what if division, and even schism, is actually a useful methodology for solving a problem or moving past a missional impasse in the life of a church or church community? Paul wrote in Galatians 1:6-10 of an example of
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Sometimes, it is necessary to be divisive in order to find the truth. Paul is being very clear – amidst his astonishment that someone would ‘desert’ the good news of Jesus. False teaching, of course, takes many forms, but I wonder if there is perhaps one particular thread that is common in what Paul is talking about. Paul writes about ‘trying to win the approval of human beings’. Oftentimes, false teaching worms its way into the church for exactly that reason – and often with the good motive of appearing to be winsome and welcoming to any and all human beings. This is a good motive – Jesus calls us to welcome people into his family – but it can quickly become perverted. Similarly, sometimes false teaching finds its way into the church because leaders and pastors are trying to please people, especially perhaps people who are already part of the church. This is perhaps the most dangerous of all – in order to hold a church together, leaders are pressured to water-down the gospel, water-down the demands of Christ on the whole of life. The word ‘pervert’ here is shockingly blunt – and perhaps underlines the challenge Paul is offering. Because there is truth, sometimes there is division. It is better to turn away from some, in order to serve Christ, that to try to please people, or win the approval of human beings.
Soberingly, this watering down seems to resonate with the words of Jesus, too. In Revelation 3 Jesus warns us against the dangers of being lukewarm, of being so tepid and flavourless (As opposed to full of salt and light as he has invited and commanded us to be) – and I wonder if there is a link between these passages. To underline the point that pleasing human beings, pleasing people is significantly easier but more dangerous than seeking after God, Jesus has a hard saying, as recorded in Matthew 10:34-39
““Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn“‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.“
Jesus is inviting us towards himself, because He alone is truth, He alone is the way. He is warning us that false teachers, the cause of division, can and will arise from within the household of faith, or at least from the community of faith that we find ourselves in in this imperfect world. This is a sobering challenge – but with the vital call to come towards Jesus, forsaking all others, even if it risks earthly discomfort and looks strange in the eyes of the world.