Dissentions and factions create roadblocks along the Christian Way.
John A. Braun
Paul’s acts of the flesh include some hazards we must avoid on our journey. He lists them as dissensions, factions, and envy. But he does not leave us paralyzed, unable to move toward our heavenly goal. He also cites two important fruits of the Spirit to help us make progress: faithfulness and gentleness.
Acts of the flesh: Dissensions, factions, and envy
Paul’s world was different from our own. It’s hard to imagine that Paul faced protests for civil rights, abortion, or other political causes. Roman law and power settled almost all such issues. Most found little tolerance for social or political protests. Yet Paul was in the midst of a vehement protest with Demetrius and the silversmiths. That disagreement turned into a riot in Ephesus (Acts chapter 19). That was an example of dissention, faction, and envy caused by the message of the gospel.
It was ugly and dangerous. “Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there [in the theater]” (Acts 19:32). Finally the city clerk quieted the crowd and told the people to take their grievances to the courts, warning them of the danger of causing a riot. The crowd melted away.
In our own age, protests and divisions are part of our everyday newscasts. Differences escalate into heated confrontations. Like the riot in Ephesus, some shout one thing and some another. Perhaps such displays of factions and dissension are part of our system of government. We vote and contend for our positions in a way people in Paul’s world did not. Roman soldiers did not stand by in riot gear awaiting flying stones.
That factor doesn’t matter much today. What does matter is that dissensions, factions, and envy have not disappeared. The sinful nature within asserts itself from time to time and creates conflict. Paul’s list is not just a list of ancient characteristics we no longer have. His acts of the flesh persist in our age because the sinful nature persists. Envy persists. Factions persist.
Paul adds envy to the list, I think, to help us understand. Envy distorts every thought to help others. It is subtle at times; at other times, it is blatantly obvious. Sometimes we allow envy to blockade our ability to listen and love. As a result, we become harsh and hostile, ready for a fight or argument. It’s so much a part of our world, we are carried along without thinking. We fall for the temptation to be disagreeable, assert our own rights or thinking, and oppose others.
It is bad enough that the conflicts arise in our country and society, our marriages and families, our neighborhoods and our government at all levels. Sadly, they also arise within the church—among God people. Paul was no stranger to them. To the Galatians he warned, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (5:15).
Yes, these negative attitudes reside in Christians as well. Paul saw divisions rise up in the churches he founded. He warned against “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ,” reminding the Corinthians that even Satan masqueraded as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:12-14). He also told the Romans to avoid those who taught false doctrines (Romans 16:17).
Paul’s view of the future of the Christian church emerges from his words to Timothy, “The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3,4).
Fruit of the Spirit: Faithfulness and gentleness
Throughout history, the church has often had to contend with those who have not put up with sound doctrine and claimed to be right. Sadly, they claimed to be righter than right. That sentence doesn’t make any sense grammatically or theologically, but it raises the question of who is right and who isn’t. There can’t be two rights or a righter than right. How do we navigate differences and factions? Paul suggests two fruits of the Spirit: faithfulness and gentleness.
Faithfulness first. The antidote to all the false teachers and heretical factions was—and still is—faithfulness to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit has created a desire within us to treasure the Scriptures that tell us of Jesus and of all of God’s promises. So we remain faithful to the Scriptures. They are our authority for truth, our Supreme Court, to decide what is right and what is not. Faithfulness to that truth will move us to compare anyone’s teaching with the Scriptures and evaluate it on the basis of that standard. John suggests, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Then, with firmness in the truth, Paul advises gentleness. Peter advises the same attitude when he said that we are to share the hope we treasure with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). No one wants divisions, and we must deal with love and kindness with those who think differently. When they will not listen to the truth, then we have no alternative but to avoid those ideas and the groups that proclaim them.
But not all disagreements are about doctrine. Sometimes Christians have arguments and quarrels about whether or not to have carpeting in the church and what color it should be. Some question which preacher is better—even Paul mentioned this disagreement (1 Corinthians 1:10-17); others anguish over how the budget was set and whether we should spend money on the school or on the front steps of the church. Every church has these differences or others like them.
Faithfulness and gentleness are valuable in all these discussions. We remain faithful to God’s Word and also faithful to Jesus’ command to love one another. Then we can be gentle in our disagreements, not belligerent or harsh.
Dissensions and factions dog every step of our journey, and our sinful flesh is often tempted to feed them. They become group activities. One person solicits support from others who are like-minded. Then another person gathers others who disagree. The result can be belligerent, bitter, and divisive.
We should not let differences get out of hand. Even everyday disagreements may become roadblocks to the Christian concept of loving one another and may block the work of the congregation and the larger church. They will turn the character of a congregation sour. Perhaps they also will turn some away from the path we follow together. Let us walk by the Spirit and “not gratify the desires of the flesh. . . . Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Galatians 5:16,25,26). Remain faithful to the Scripture and gentle in our dealings with each other.
This is the fifth article in a six-part series on acts of the flesh and fruits of the Spirit.
Author: John A. Braun
Volume 106, Number 9
Issue: September 2019