Dissension: Bickering Believers

There is no way we are going down that road.” “You can’t be serious, can you?” “Is that really the way you see that passage?”  “If he keeps coming to meetings, you’ll not see me again!” And on and on the list could go. Challenges and conflicts, dissension and division, envy and enmity – and all this amongst the people of God.

The Reality

What is dissension? Different Greek words are used in the NT to describe the strong feelings of disagreement and conflict amongst God’s people, some stronger than others. Solomon wrote these words: “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto Him … he that soweth discord among brethren” (Pro 6:16,19).[1]

But the reality is that issues do arise amongst the flock of God, and even between those who lead the flock. Early in the church’s history, we find “a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration” (Act 6:1). In Acts 15 there are two occasions of dissension: “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them” (v2), “them” being those who were teaching that circumcision was necessary in order to be truly saved. Later in the chapter we find these same two men, who had stood together against doctrinal error, in a disagreement about whether they should take John Mark with them on the next journey or not: “And the contention was so sharp between them” (v39).

The Reasons

This is not meant to pass judgment on the cases we have seen in Acts, but consider 1 Corinthians 3:3: “For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” Reason number one: carnality; the lack of spirituality. Or look at 1 Corinthians 1:11-12: “For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.” Reason number two: a cult of personality; each one had their favourite leader. Paul again uses the word “schism” in chapter 11: “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions [Greek schisma] among you” (v18). What were the reasons here? There was envy on the part of the poorer believers, and a haughty, uncaring attitude on the part of the wealthier ones who were bringing an abundant amount of food when they met with the saints, but apparently were unwilling to share. Is this not a lack of true Christian charity?

It would be easier to just sum it up this way: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these … strife, seditions, heresies” (Gal 5:19-20; translated as “contentions, disputes, schools of opinion” by Darby). So let’s call it for what it is: the flesh. Before someone takes me to task, let’s remember that when the very essence of the gospel was at stake, Paul stood his ground (Act 15:2), but most cases of dissension and conflict have no such noble cause.

The Results

“And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other” (Act 15:39). These two godly men separated, and we don’t read more about Mark or Barnabas in the rest of the book. Do remember that Paul later wanted John Mark to be with him (2Ti 4:11), and Barnabas is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9:6, making it obvious that the relationship was eventually repaired.

Anger, bitterness, conflict, discord and enmity all result from dissension that is not quickly dealt with. Those who go before the flock, take heed;  the sheep will find it very difficult to follow their shepherds if the shepherds are not united in their purpose and desire.

The Responsibility

Who is supposed to handle the dissension? The Lord Jesus teaches in Matthew that whoever recognizes that there is an issue is responsible to go and deal with the other party. To do this properly requires humility. In Matthew 5, the offender realizes what he has done, and before offering his gift to God, the Lord Jesus says: “Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (v24). Then in Matthew 18 He puts the onus on the one offended: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone” (v15).

Paul gives instruction about doctrinal concerns, seeing some who would cause division, especially over truth. He writes, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom 16:17). Consider his strong words to Titus: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject” (3:10). Do remember, however, that most dissension between the sheep, or between the shepherds, does not have doctrine as the root cause. We may try to paint the issue that way, but the reality is that our flesh has been acting up once again.

The Resources

How do we handle dissension among us? What tools do we have at our disposal? Let us remember a couple of things we do not look for: it is not a case of the strongest personality winning the argument, or of the most intelligent man calling the shots!

There are a few lessons we can take from Acts 6 and 15. The men who were going to resolve the conflict in Jerusalem had to be “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (6:3). This means, amongst other truths, that they were spiritual, not carnal, and that they were looking for the wisdom that comes from above, not worldly wisdom, which will never solve the problem of dissension amongst believers. In Acts 15 we learn another important principle. James says this: “And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written …” (v15), and then quotes the prophet Amos. Bringing dissenting believers to refocus on the Person of Christ and the spread of the gospel for His glory will be a tremendous help in moments of crisis.

The consequence in both cases was harmony and unity. We, too, need wise, spiritual leaders who have a knowledge of the Word when dissension arises.

The Recompense

The truth of Psalm 133 comes to mind here. When brethren dwelt together in unity, David says: “For there the LORD commanded his blessing” (v3 ISV). This is what we see in Acts 6:7: “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”

The Request

Remember how important unity (the very opposite of dissension) is to our Lord and Saviour. He prayed this way: “that they may be one, as we are … that they all may be one … that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me … that they may be one … that they may be made perfect in one” (Joh 17:11,21-23). When the Spirit is producing His fruit in us (love, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, etc.), the awful work of the flesh will not be manifested in our lives.

Let’s remember Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:2-3: “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” thus avoiding dissension in our midst.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.