We live in a contentious age. The combative mood of the media and many politicians seems to influence Christians, pushing them toward a more truculent manner in the church. It’s easy for us to “be conformed to the world” instead of being “transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Rom. 12:2). Many churches have suffered from hot debates about politics, masks, and related topics in recent months.
Of course, the problem of contentiousness is hardly new. Paul often warns his readers of spiritual dangers before he closes a book (2 Cor. 13:2; Gal. 6:12–13; 2 Thess. 3:6–12; 1 Tim. 6:3–10). Paul addresses this in a striking way as he closes Romans: “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom. 16:16–17).
Live in Peace, Confront the Contentious
Paul longs for peace and affection, signified by the holy kiss of Romans 16:16. But he knows strife can rend a church asunder, so he warns everyone to watch out for it. He mentions two sources of strife: internal divisions and false doctrines. And he meets them with two commands: watch out for them and avoid them.
Troublesome divisions seem deliberate, whether the issue is personal tension or doctrinal aberration. Romans 16:17 says people “cause” or “make” divisions; they create obstacles by opposing established doctrine. They keep people from believing what God’s appointed messengers have established as the truth.
The command “avoid them” is surprising but essential. Paul confronted heresy whenever necessary. He did it in his letters (Gal. 1–2; 1 Cor. 6; 15), and he did it face to face (Gal. 2:11). He even teaches leaders how to correct error. We should remain gentle and watch ourselves for sin (Gal. 6:1), since patient instruction is more likely to instill repentance (2 Tim. 2:24–25). Jesus urged candid but private meetings, since they are more likely to win a sinner (Matt. 18:15).
Most people resist correction. The right approach, Paul says, “may perhaps grant repentance” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). Similarly, Romans 12:18 reads, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” With that double qualifier, Paul concedes that it’s not always possible to make peace, and it does not depend on you alone. Some people hate correction; we should avoid them.
Some people hate correction; we should avoid them.
In Titus 3:10, Paul expands his reasoning: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” He also exhorted Timothy to avoid quarrels (1 Tim. 6:20), of course, but “avoid them” is sharp.
Why? It seems unlike Paul, after all, to urge believers to give up on someone. Yet he knows the time comes to move on. Jesus told the apostles to shake the dust off their feet and move on if a town had no interest in their message, for the harvest “is plentiful”—if not in one place, then in another (Matt. 10:9–38; Matt. 10:12–15). Or think of Paul’s detailed list of vices in 2 Timothy 3:2–5, where the core issue is false loves. There, he critiques people who love self, money, and pleasure—but not God. “Avoid such people,” he writes. A man or woman devoted to false loves won’t heed correction, unless the Spirit intervenes.
The command to “avoid them” releases leaders, family members, friends, and coworkers from the perceived obligation and burden to stay in demonstrably futile relationships. It lets tender people break with people who use and abuse them. It lets managers dismiss chronic malcontents and allows businesses to stop placating implacable clients.
Pastors, Call the Bluff
The same holds for pastors and their angriest members. One large-church pastor had two persistent critics. He gave them time and emotional energy, but nothing blunted their hostility. Finally, one critic was in his office, lambasting him, while the church’s staff-oversight committee met nearby. His patience depleted, the pastor stood up and pointed: “The pastoral oversight committee is meeting in the next room. If I am the derelict you say I am, they need to know about it now and begin the process that will end in my dismissal. Let’s go.”
If I am the derelict you say I am, [other leaders] need to know about it now and begin the process that will end in my dismissal. Let’s go.
When the critic blanched, the pastor said, “If you don’t take your charges seriously, then neither will I,” and refused to meet with him again.
Later, he took the same approach with a second critic: “If what you say is true, the presbytery needs to begin church discipline against me. Let’s call the chairman of the committee now.” When she declined his invitation, he declined to meet her again.
The pastor followed Romans 16:17 and Titus 3:10, and it gave him a modicum of peace. The same principle applies to relationships with the contentious, the accuser, and the caustic dissenter. There is a time to say, “I tried to bring peace and failed. Now I will heed Paul and ‘avoid them.’”
Never take this position quickly, and never take it without great sorrow over failed efforts at reconciliation. Always long for restoration, for the kiss of peace. But in this troubled world, the Lord allows us to accept a lesser peace, the peace of moving on, knowing we tried.