Remove the Persistent Agitator
This is adapted from a manuscript of a recent sermon preached at Southside Baptist Church in Lebanon, TN.
As Paul brings his letter to Titus to a close, he wants to give some instructions on what to do with divisive church members who persistently disrupt the unity in the church with their wild theologies and controversies.
Titus 3:10-11—As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
1. The Church must be patient with divisive members (v.10a): Paul has already alluded to divisive members who promote “controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law” (v.9). He says they are “unprofitable” and “worthless.” Notice, Paul didn’t say that these divisive members were being unprofitable and worthless or that their theology is unprofitable and worthless, though those things are certainly true. Paul says that they, the members themselves, are unprofitable and worthless.
This is why the job of the shepherding elders is so tough. Not every person that enters our building is membership material, meaning that not every visitor is here for the right reason. The reason we exist as the Church is to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt.2:9). But people come in all the time with their own agenda and motivations that are rooted in selfishness and not the gospel.
And sometimes, some of our own church members will become like those self-righteous visitors. Some of our own members will hear a weird preacher with weird views, or else they’ll hear a good preacher with good views but they misunderstand something he says. And then they begin to promote those weird views in the church, and before you know it divisions arise.
Paul gives Titus, as one of the elders of the Cretan Church, the responsibility of rebuking such divisive people. But notice the patience with which the Cretan leadership is to have with them. They are to be warned not once but twice. This is very similar to Jesus’ teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18: call for repentance privately; then with two or three witnesses; and then tell it to the church.
In Matthew 18, however, sinning church members get three warnings. In Titus, Paul is dealing with a more serious problem, namely false teaching that is causing division. Someone who is committing adultery may or may not threaten the unity of the church. Someone who has been unfaithful in gathering with the church may or may not threaten the unity of the church. But false teachers spreading their gangrenous division is always a threat to the unity of the church.
Paul, however, is not saying that the false teachers ought to be ousted because of their false teaching, although that would be permissible. Rather, Paul is saying that false teachers that are causing division in the church ought to be ousted. And it is Jewish legalism that is especially in view in Paul’s mind. Today, it might be denominational legalism or American-pride legalism or self-made moralism. Yet in God’s grace, God calls for patience.
2. The Church must remove divisive members from its fellowship (vv.10b-11): Paul says to “have nothing more to do with” the divisive church member. It means that after two warnings, the agitator is to be excommunicated and ostracized. No more hanging out. No more game nights or Mexican cheese dip or guy outings of any kind or shopping trips for the gals.
Paul is very adamant about this, and he tells us why in verse 11: “knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
Warped and sinful means that a person is beyond ordinary instruction. While they are not beyond the power of God’s grace to work in them, we must understand that the primary way that God works grace into a person is through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. If a person is unteachable, always arguing and debating doctrine with a know-it-all attitude, then they are beyond God’s ordinary means of grace.
The phrase, “He is self-condemned” is very interesting. Often people will react to church discipline by saying, “Who are we to judge?” But notice that Paul does not promote the judging of others. Rather, he makes it clear that such people are self-condemned, meaning they have brought judgment on themselves. The church is simply confirming the sinner’s unrepentant status.
Sometimes we react to a single teaching of Scripture like this as if it is an isolated instruction, but the teaching on church discipline is far from being a single teaching. Here’s a few examples of other places that mention the removal of and warning about unrepentant members:
2 Thessalonians 3:6—Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
2 Thessalonians 3:14—If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.
Galatians 6:1—Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
Romans 16:17-18—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. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.
The biblical evidence is clear. The church should not tolerate theologically divisive people, but we should lovingly remove them from our fellowship. For church discipline is love in three directions:
1) Love for the unrepentant person–It is better they suffer now than to suffer eternally in hell. The hope is that they will repent and get right with Jesus.
2) Love for faithful members–We hear a lot about harming the unrepentant sinner, but what about the rest of the church that is walking faithfully with Jesus? What is it teaching our children when a church member is living in adultery and the church stands by and does nothing about it?
3) Love for the glory of Jesus–Ultimately, it’s all about Jesus. The Church has been saved and set apart for the purpose of making Jesus look good, for shining the spotlight on Him.
May the Lord continue to purify for Himself a people who willingly remove unrepentant members from its fellowship with patience and love in the hopes of bringing them back to repentance.
Soli Deo Gloria,