Church,  New Testament

Dealing with the Divisive Person in Titus 3:10

photo of an axe symbolizing a divisive person from Titus 3:10

In Titus 3:10, the Apostle instructs Titus to “Reject a divisive person after a first and second warning” (CSB). However, in the KJV the divisive person is called a “heretic.” Clearly, the connotation is different. A divisive person is one who is given to strife, quarrelsome, and contentious, and thus is the target of this disciplinary action. Alternatively, according to the KJV, the man’s heretical beliefs are the issue, presumably as this heretic tries to persuade others to his views.

Two questions arise when discussing the identity of the divisive man/the heretic: (1) Does the word mean divisive or heretic? (2) Is this process of church discipline different than what Jesus laid out in Matthew 18?

What Does the Word Divisive or Heretic mean?

The word for “divisive” (CSB) comes from the Greek word heretikos (αἱρετικὸς), from which we get “heretic” in English. To some, this settles the matter. But before we say this, we need to recognize that words and their meanings change over time. For example, our English word dynamite is related to the Greek word dynamis (δύναμις), but whereas the English word conveys explosive power, the Greek word more often conveys the idea of ability rather than raw power. In a similar sense, we need to be careful when using our English conception of what a word means and importing that idea into the original Greek language.

So how do we tell what the idea behind the Greek word is? A helpful exercise is to examine the NT use of the noun form of the word (αἵρεσις). These uses are listed as follows (translations are from CSB):

Acts 5:17Then the high priest rose up. He and all who were with him, who belonged to the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.
Acts 15:5But some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
Acts 24:5For we have found this man to be a plague, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the Roman world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.
Acts 24:14But I admit this to you: I worship the God of my ancestors according to the Way, which they call a sect, believing everything that is in accordance with the law and written in the prophets.
Acts 26:5They have known me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived as a Pharisee.
Acts 28:22But we want to hear what your views are, since we know that people everywhere are speaking against this sect.
1 Cor 11:19Indeed, it is necessary that there be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you.
Gal 5:20…idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions,…
2 Pet 2:1There were indeed false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves.

What we can deduce from this list is that the term is not inherently negative. Only the context determines whether or not it is a negative grouping. In fact, the word group is used to refer to the Christian group in Acts 24:5, 14 and 28:22. Also notable is the fact that the word can refer to factions caused by differing sets of beliefs (such as Acts 5:17 in reference to the Sadducees). Further, it can also refer to behavior-oriented divisions (such as 1 Cor 11:19 and Gal 5:20). It is also worthwhile to mention that although translators translate 2 Pet 2:1 as “heresies,” it is unlikely that it carries the same meaning as we would think of as “heresies.” Although it is undoubtedly clear that these are “destructive” teachings given the context of 2 Pet 2.

Applying this information to Titus 3:10, I think it would be a mistake to identify this man as a heretic in the English sense of the word. Galatians 5:20 lists “factions” in the midst of other behavior-oriented sins. In addition, 1 Cor 11:19 refers not to heretical doctrine, but to the divisions within the church which revolve around segregating during the Lord’s Supper. What this evidence suggests is that Titus 3:10 applies not only to division caused by unorthodox doctrine, but also to division caused by unrepentant adherence to fleshly desires (which always characterized false teachers). In other words, a divisive person is the target of Titus 3:10 because of the nature of causing divisions.

Titus 3:10 as “divisive” or “factious”Titus 3:10 as “heretic”
NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NETKJV, Jubilee Bible 2000, Douay-Rheims, ERV, Webster’s Bible Translation

If the translations of “divisive” or “factious” are correct, then a word of caution must also be given. Paul is not simply targeting deviant behavior which departs from the Christian norm. For every church struggles with sinners growing slowly out of their sinful habits (cf. 1 Thess 5:14). Rather, Paul is targeting the divisive individual who is actively stirring up division in the church, and thus threatening the body’s unity. A divisive individual is most dangerous to church health. Paul instructs Titus to warn such divisive individuals twice, and if he or she refuses to repent, Titus is to reject them (presumably from the assembly).

Comparing the “Divisive Person” of Titus 3:10 and the Matthew 18 Process

In contrast to the divisive situation of Titus 3, Matthew 18:15-18 gives a four step process of discipline: (1) private confrontation, (2) confrontation in the presence of witnesses, (3) confrontation by the entire assembly, (4) removal from the assembly. If we compare this process with Titus 3:10-11, we find that step #1 is missing from Titus 3. The individual in sin is still given the same chances to repent, however, the process is expedited since the nature of the sin in Titus 3:10 is public (e.g., causing division within the church). In other words, whereas Matthew 18 understands there will be private sins, Titus 3 addresses matter which is already public. Furthermore, the nature of a divisive scenario necessitates a rapid solution.

I think it is telling that Paul concludes his instruction in Titus 3:11 by laying out the reason Titus should proceed along this path. Titus can follow this path because divisive individuals have turned from what is proper. In other words, the church will not be able to help such people targeted by Titus 3:10-11, thus it is better for the body to remove their poisonous influence.

photo credit: Axt mit Hackstock via photopin (license)

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

One Comment

  • David Service

    I wonder if Jesus would be considered divisive see Luke 12: 51, John 7:40, John 7: 43, John9: 16, and John10: 19. Whereas heresy is a far more dangerous position if heresy is based upon the idea of teaching contrary to the teaching of the bible. see 2 Peter 2:1-3, 1Tim 1: 3-7. I am not sure that we use the thinking of translators of modern text as a good guide to meanings of text since the golden standard of biblical interpretation is let the bible speak for it self (let the bible intrpret the bible) an example if this is the translation of John 3:16 CEV says “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in Him will have eternal life and never realy die.” This is contrary to the Greek translation, historical translations from Tyndale to just recent translations and is contrary to the bible it self see Revelation 20: 14,15, Ecclesiastes 9:5, of intrest Ezekiel 18: 20 the person (hebrew for soul) will die. Luke 17: 33, Romans 1: 32, John 5: 28-29, and John 11 . In many places eternity means as long as it last for example if you burn a match to ash it is burnt forever or something to never be forgotten.
    This theology you are proposing reminds me of the statue in the church of Ignatus in Rome. The statue in the church is a woman suppressing the heretics (martin luther used to be written on the binding of the book the heretic was holding) and this will be repeated later Revelation 13:14-17.
    we ought to be very careful when we man is the arbiter of what is truth and not the bible. True there are some people to be avoided for sure but we need to be careful because God loves us all even though sin will have to be removed from the universe and God will never become the most hideous being forever.

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