16 – There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to Him:
17 – haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,
18 – a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19 – a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
Like today’s teens, way back in the “olden days” when I was in High School I was required to READ several of Shakespeare’s plays. For example, we read Julius Caesar and MacBeth and Hamlet and of course: Romeo and Juliet. In fact, we took an actual field trip to see the motion picture version that came out in the ’70’s. And, once I became familiar with his vocabulary, I enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s plays-and my personal favorite was Othello. How many of you have read or perhaps even been fortunate enough to SEE that particular Shakespearean tragedy performed on stage? If you haven’t, then listen and I’ll give you a quick summary of the plot.
The story centers around a general in the army of Venice, named Othello. He’s unique for that day and age, in that he’s one half of an inter-racial marriage-himself a Moor and his wife, Desdemona, the daughter of a wealthy man from Venice named, Brabanzio. Now-as you begin to read the story you discover that Othello is a guy who basically has it all. He’s very respected as a military tactician. In fact, he’s the first one called on by national leaders when the Turks threaten to invade the island of Crete. He’s also apparently wealthy, plus he’s a newly wed. His lovely bride adores him. So, in the beginning things are definitely looking up for Othello. But they don’t stay that way because of course this is a tragedy. And Shakespeare’s tragedies are a lot like country music-in that the central character always loses something…his job, his wife, his dog….or all three.
Well, that’s basically what happens to Othello. His world crumbles-all because of the machinations of an ensign in his command named IAGO-a junior officer who serves under Othello but hates him because Othello passed him over for promotion to lieutenant. Iago spends the entire play working behind the scenes to get even for this slight-weaving a wicked and successful plot to destroy Othello-and all those he holds most dear.
Now, Iago’s main tools in his plot are the same tools that wicked people so often employ-namely: GOSSIP and SLANDER. I mean, Iago gossips behind Othello’s back spreading malicious lies to his wife and friends. Then, he gossips behind Desdemona’s back lying to her husband about her supposed affair with his loyal lieutenant, Cassio. And in this way eventually Iago is able to destroy Othello’s relationship with Cassio and his marriage as well. In fact Iago is so good at developing factions and sowing deceitful thoughts that in the end Othello is driven to a fit of jealous rage and smothers Desdemona. Then, when he realizes what he has done, before anyone can stop him Othello uses a knife he has hidden in his robe to take his own life as well.
Now, if I had to do a school report on this play, my opening sentence would read something like this: “Othello is a testimony to the destructive power of dissension.” And, if I were GRADING my own paper, I’d give myself an “A” for this opening sentence because that is exactly what this tragedy is. I mean, by writing Othello, Shakespeare did a very thorough job of showing how powerful dissension sowing can be. It has the ability to destroy even the strongest of relationships.
This particular work of Shakespeare came to mind as I studied this week because this sermon is the last installment in our series on seven of the deadliest, most destructive sins and as you can tell from our text, the sin we are focusing on today is the sin of SOWING DISSENSION.
Well, the unfortunate truth is that down through the years this particular sin has reeked DEADLY DESTRUCTION in the church over and over and over again. People who yielded to temptation and SOWED DISSENSION have destroyed friendships, marriages-and precious congregational harmony. It’s sad to say but over the years, as a pastor, I have seen our adversary move dozens of weak, immature Christians, about like pawns on a chessboard, prompting them to use the same tools Iago did-grumbling and complaining and gossiping-to start feuds that have wounded people so deeply that entire churches have been rendered ineffective in the kingdom. I mean, dissension has sparked countless church squabbles.
In the parable she entitles, A Brawling Bride, Karen Mains paints a vivid scene, describing a suspenseful moment in a wedding ceremony. Here’s the picture. Down front stands the groom in a spotless tuxedo-handsome, smiling, full of anticipation, shoes shined, every hair in place, anxiously awaiting the presence of his bride. All attendants are in place, looking joyful and attractive. The magical moment finally arrives as the pipe organ reaches full crescendo and the stately wedding march begins. Everyone rises and looks toward the door for their first glimpse of the bride but as they do there is a horrified gasp. The entire wedding party is shocked. The groom stares in embarrassed disbelief. For you see-instead of a lovely woman dressed in elegant white, smiling behind a lace veil, the bride is LIMPING down the aisle. Her dress is SOILED and TORN. Her leg seems TWISTED. Ugly CUTS and BRUISES cover her bare arms. Her nose is BLEEDING, one eye is PURPLE and SWOLLEN, and her hair is DISHEVELED. The author asks, “Does not this handsome Groom deserve BETTER than this?” And then she gives us the clincher as she says: “Alas, His bride, THE CHURCH has been fighting again”
Well this is an accurate illustration of far too many congregations. In fact, the prevalence of dissension like this in the church led one unknown believer to say, “To live above with those we love, oh how that will be glory. To live below with those we know…now that’s another story.”
Now-as your pastor, I can’t tell you how THANKFUL I am for the harmony we enjoy here at Redland. It is so precious to me-because not only does it make my job easier-and not only does it keep us an effective tool in God’s kingdom-I’m also thankful because our health and harmony is a source of strength for me personally as I live in this fallen world. Our fellowship as believers here at Redland is an anchor for me. I rely on it. And I’m sure you do as well-but please hear me!
In order to keep it that way we must guard against this particular deadly sin.
You see, even though church harmony is a powerful thing-even though it is source of strength-it is also a fragile thing-and as such it must be protected and guarded. This is what Paul is saying in Ephesians 4:2-3. We must “…be completely humble and gentle;” We must, “be patient, bearing with one another in love…” We must, “Make EVERY EFFORT to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” I’m using the word “MUST” so frequently to help you realize that it is IMPERATIVE that we UNDERSTAND this fact and then strive to steer clear of this particular sin-because it is a sin that the devil has used countless times to damage and even destroy Christian unity.
Now, I think the first step in this UNDERSTANDING is an awareness of what it is that MOTIVATES us to sow dissension. There are several but I want to mention only two.
A. The first, and one of the main motivators of those who sow dissension is SELFISHNESS.
You see, many people come into a church expecting the congregation to feed them-to entertain them-to serve them-to meet their needs. And when a church doesn’t meet their needs, or suit their tastes-they complain and gossip and slander-and in this way, they selfishly reek havoc in a congregation.
Philip Yancey once illustrated the destructive effects of self-centeredness in his description of the behavior of sea gulls. He writes, “It’s easy to see why people like the seagull.
I’ve sat overlooking a craggy harbor and watched one. He exults in his freedom. He thrusts his wings backward with powerful strokes, climbing higher and higher until he’s above all the other gulls, then he coasts downward in majestic loops and circles. He constantly performs, as if he knows a movie camera is trained on him, recording. In a FLOCK, though, the seagull is a different bird. His majesty and dignity melt into a sordid mass of in-fighting and cruelty.
Watch that same gull as he dive-bombs into a group of gulls, provoking a flurry of scattered feathers and angry squawks to steal a tiny morsel of meat. The concepts of sharing and manners do not exist among gulls. They are so fiercely competitive and jealous that if you tie a red ribbon around the leg of one gull, making him stand out, you sentence him to execution. The others in the flock will furiously attack him with claws and beaks, hammering through feathers and flesh to draw blood. They’ll continue until he lies flattened in a bloody heap.”
Unfortunately this is an accurate picture of many churches-where one or more forms of selfishness has led to infighting so fierce that the church eventually becomes lifeless. Well, relationships in a church must be the other way around-not self-centered but OTHER-CENTERED. As Paul Powell writes, “The purpose of the church is not just mutual enjoyment, but also mutual enrichment for spiritual development.” In a biological family we work to help each other grow to emotional and physical maturity. In a healthy family that is our focus-helping each other. And the same is true in a healthy spiritual family. It’s a place where we work to help not ourselves-but each other. We see this reflected in the New Testament’s numerous “one anothering” commands. This week I counted 31 such commands. Here’s a sampling:
In God’s Word we are commanded to
- “love one another” (John 13:34-35).
- “depend on one another” (Romans 12:5).
- “honor one another” (Romans 12:10).
- “rejoice and weep with one another.” (Romans 12:15)
- “admonish one another” (Romans 15:14)
- “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).
- “forgive one another” (Ephesians 4:32)
- “encourage one another” (1 Thess 5:11)
- “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2)
…and so on. By reading the New Testament it becomes obvious that God intends the church to be a SELF-LESS place. When congregations realize that, they enjoy a truly BLESSED fellowship. But when Christians are SELF-CENTERED-so often dissension is the result.
B. A second motivator of those who spread dissension is unrealistic EXPECTATIONS.
Many people expect a church to be full of people who are easy to be with and fun to fellowship with and when that doesn’t happen they do one of two things. Either they leave and continue their foolish search for the perfect church-or they attack the imperfection they find in others with gossip or slander or grumbling and complaining. This perception is foolish because there is no such thing as a perfect church. In fact, the truth is, by it’s very nature a church will be full of imperfect people-people who can be hard to get along with. As Henri Nouwen once put it, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”
In our family we often shop at Vanity Fair outlets because they sell Lee and Docker brands at half-price or less. And the best deals at Vanity Fair can be found on their “as is” rack but if you shop there you need to know that the inventory on this rack is always “slightly irregular.” You have to shop carefully on this rack because it’s expected that you’ll find flaws: a stain that won’t come out…a zipper that won’t zip.. a button that won’t but-there WILL be a problem. Every once in a while you get lucky and find some great deals but there’s a fundamental rule when it comes to purchasing the ultra-low-priced items on this rack. There are no returns…no refunds…no exchanges. If you’re looking for perfection, you should shop elsewhere. If you purchase clothes from this rack you take them “as is.”
John Ortberg has similar shopping practices-and in his new book, Everyone is Normal Until You Get to Know Them, he refers to this and says, “When you deal with human beings-even Christians-you have come to the ‘as is corner of the universe’ because all of us are ‘slightly irregular.’ There are flaws in all of us…a streak of deception, a cruel tongue, a passive spirit, an out-of-control temper. The flaws are always there. So when you find them-and you WILL find them-don’t be surprised. But, remember, if you want to enter into a relationship with a fellow human being, there’s only one way to do so, ‘as is.'”
Think of it this way-if we enter churches looking for perfection, we’re shopping on the wrong rack. We’ve entered the wrong aisle-because the church, like this fallen world of ours, is full of imperfect people. As Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” Rick Warren writes, “We must passionately love the church in spite of its imperfections. Longing for the IDEAL while criticizing the REAL is evidence of immaturity.” Do you remember the scene from the movie As Good As It Gets, where Helen Hunt’s character is at first so frustrated with the character played by Jack Nicholson? He is kind and generous to her and her sick son, but he is also agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive, and terminally offensive. I mean, if rudeness were measured in square miles, he’d be in Texas. Well, in desperation, Hunt finally cries to her mother: “I just want a NORMAL boyfriend.” And her mother says, “Everybody wants one of those. But there’s no such thing, dear.” And her mom is wise-because all people are flawed. Ortberg writes, “When we enter relationships with the illusion that people are normal, we resist the truth that they’re not. We enter an endless attempt to fix them, control them, or pretend that they are what they’re not. One of the great marks of maturity is to accept the fact that everybody comes, ‘as is.'”
But so often Christians do not have this level of maturity-they expect perfection in the church and this expectation motivates them to sow dissension. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to this when he says, “Those who love the DREAM of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
Okay-to summarize what we’ve learned so far-the two of the main motivations behind YIELDING to the temptation to sow dissension are SELF-CENTEREDNESS and UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.
Now, at this point, I’d like us to flip things around so that we can examine this deadly sin from the opposite perspective by seeking an answer to this question: What is our motivation to STEER CLEAR of this sin? What is it that should compel us to PRESERVE church unity and harmony?
1. The first thing that comes to mind is the basic truth that God COMMANDS us to strive for healthy COMMUNITY.
And-that should be all the motivation we require! The fact that God commands it should do it!
And by the way He does! Remember? Jesus said that all of God’s laws boil down to two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your mind…and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-40) In other words, it is God’s will that we embrace a healthy relationship with Him and also with our fellow man. In fact, the truth is, these TWO relational commands are really ONE. They are linked-in that you can’t fully obey one without fully obeying the other. As 1 John 4:19 says, “If we say we love God” but don’t obey Him by “loving our neighbor-we are a liar. The truth is not in us.” So these two greatest commands-these commands that Jesus said are to be foremost as we go about our lives-they are interlinked. We can’t love God and not love each other. We can’t love God and at the same time do things that damage our unity as a community of believers.
And-in our struggle with this particular deadly sin we need to understand that the PRIORITY of this command shows us that relational health-is VERY important to God.
We see this reflected throughout His written Word. In fact, the New Testament gives more attention to UNITY of believers than it does to either Heaven or Hell. For example, Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” In other words it says, “Build up or shut up.” If what you are saying doesn’t add to congregational health, don’t say it. The next verse says that when we ignore this command. When we damage congregational health with our words and actions we, “…grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” So, like any earthly parent, our Heavenly Father grieves when His kids fight among themselves.
And if you doubt this-then turn with me to the Gospel of John where Jesus’ final prayer before the cross is recorded. In this prayer Jesus said, “I pray for these My followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in Me because of their teaching. Father, I pray that they can be one. As You are in Me and I am in You, I pray that they can also be one in Us. Then the world will believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20-21) Now, understand. Knowing that the end was near, Jesus prayed one final time for His followers. And He prayed not for their success, their safety, their happiness, not even for their doctrinal correctness-No, Jesus’ FINAL prayer was for their-and OUR-unity. Foremost in our Savior’s mind as He faced the cross was His desire that His followers would obey God’s command down through the ages and enjoy healthy, love-filled community. As Dallas Willard says, “God’s aim in human history is the creation of an inclusive community of loving persons, with Himself included as its primary Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant.” Think of it this way. Relational health in the church-UNITY in a local body of believers-is the SOUL of its fellowship. Destroy it with dissension and you rip the HEART out of Christ’s body.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God wants unity at all costs. He doesn’t want us to ignore disputes over the essential beliefs of our faith if that’s what it takes to make everyone happy. No-of course not! Genuine unity would not be possible under those conditions. Our shared convictions that Jesus is God’s only Son-and the only way to have eternal life-that the Bible is God’s infallible Word-Shared essential beliefs like these are the SOURCE of our unity. They are the foundation of congregational health. But what I AM saying is this-whenever we act UNLOVING. Whenever we gossip or slander or complain and grumble about non-essential things-whenever we carelessly, selfishly, damage congregational unity and health, we are working contrary to the will-and the nature of God. Whenever we act like old Iago and sow dissension we are working for the enemy. Knowing that should motivate us to steer clear of this deadly sin.
2. A second motivation for us to do this is the basic truth that we all NEED community.
We’re not designed to work alone. We need deep, genuine fellowship with other believers. Jane Howard says, “Call it a clan, call it a tribe, call it a network, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” Dallas Willard writes, “The NATURAL condition of life for human beings is RECIPROCAL ROOTEDNESS in others.” Ortberg puts it this way, “Our need for community with people and the God Who made us is to the human spirit what food and air and water are to the human body-As frustrating as people can be, it’s hard to find a good substitute.”
I like the way he put that because we DO need healthy community. We can’t BE Christians on our own. We need each other! A man from northern Michigan was once traveling in the deep south. He stopped to eat breakfast at a diner and saw GRITS on the menu. He’d never eaten-or even SEEN grits before so he asked the waitress, “What exactly is a grit?” Her response was classic, “Honey, grits don’t come by themselves.” And as a connoisseur of grits I would say she was right. Grits don’t exist in isolation. No grit is an island, entire unto itself. Every grit is a part of the whole. Well, the same is true of Christians. They don’t come by themselves. When we acknowledge God as our Father, every other Christian instantly becomes our brother or sister. And that’s one of the wonderful things about our faith. It meets our inborn need for deep fellowship with others. We do indeed NEED community. We need healthy relationships with others. We’re empty otherwise. As Bonhoeffer said, “Whoever cannot stand being IN COMMUNITY should beware of BEING ALONE.” He’s right because we were created to draw life and nourishment from one another the same way roots of an oak tree draw life from the soil.
And scientific research bears this out. For example, in the Journal of the American Medica Association, 276 volunteers were infected with the virus that produces the common cold. The study found that people with strong emotional connections did four times better at fighting off illness than those who were more isolated. These loners were less susceptible to colds, had more viruses, and produced significantly more mucous than people in a healthy community. And then Harvard University did a study in which they tracked 7000 people over nine years. Their researchers found that the most isolated people were three times more likely to die than those with strong relational connections. So we DO need community. As Rick Warren has put it, “We are created for community, fashioned for fellowship, and formed for a family, and none of us can fulfill God’s purposes by ourselves.”
So two things that compel us to protect church fellowship are: first, the fact that God COMMANDS that we do so and second that we NEED to do so-and then a final motivation for us to avoid dissension should be this:
3. Non-believers are ATTRACTED to healthy Christian community.
You see, because of our inborn need for community, non-believers are naturally drawn to healthy relationships. A church with a Sweet, Sweet Spirit draws people like a campfire on a cold night.
And-this yearning is especially strong these days because our society has become so disconnected.
Think of it. Instead of face-to-face discussions we rely on e-mail. Plus, our work days are so long we rarely even speak to our neighbors. When we do finally get home we push the button on the garage door remote and drive in. Then we close it behind us without having to do much more than wave at anyone nearby. Well, this life-style of isolation leaves a void that all people long to fill. And many churches are realizing that filling this void can provide them a chance to share the gospel. They’ve learned that the first step in evangelism is often just to give their non-believing neighbors a taste of authentic community-by inviting them to a Youth Choir concert or a children’s choir musical or a church picnic or a VBS family fun night or to play on the church softball team. And they-WE-are correct in this way of thinking because healthy community fosters belief. People naturally want to be around Christians who act loving to one another.
Dorothy Bass writes about a family that found a novel way to honor the Sabbath. On Sundays they have an agreement that there will be no criticism in the house and they keep to this agreement. There are no fights or quarreling in their home on the Lord’s day. The most striking result, she relates, is the way their children’s friends end up spending Sundays at their home. They like being in a place where instead of dissension there is love. It works the same way in a church family. As Rick Warren says, “When people find a church where members genuinely love and are for each other, you have to lock the doors to keep them away.”
So-unity fosters belief-but unfortunately the REVERSE is also true. Disunity fosters disbelief.
When we sow dissension-when we act unloving toward each other-it distorts our message of love and drives the lost away from Christ. I love the true story of the little church in a French village that once had a beautiful life-size statue of Jesus with his hands outstretched in its courtyard. During WWII a bomb struck too close to the statue and it was shattered-broken into dozens of pieces. After the war the citizens of the village decided to find the pieces of their beloved statue and reconstruct it. Patiently they gathered the broken pieces and reassembled it. At first they felt good about this because they found that even the cracks-even the scars on the body-added to its beauty. But soon they discovered a problem. You see they were unable to find the HANDS of the statue. They had apparently been blown into nothingness. One church member lamented, “A Christ without hands is no Christ at all. Hands with scars, yes. But what’s a Lord without hands? We need a new statue.”
Then someone else came along with another idea and it prevailed. A brass plaque was added to the base of the statue which read, “I have no hands, but your hands.” Years later someone saw the inscription and wrote these familiar lines:
Christ has not hands but our hands to do His work today;
He has no feed but our feet to lead men in his way.
He has no tongue but our tongues, to tell men how He died.
He has not help but our help, to bring men to His side.
We are the only Bible, the careless world will read.
We are the sinner’s gospel, we are the scoffer’s creed;
We are the Lord’s last message, written indeed in word…
But what if the line be CROOKED? What if the type be BLURRED?
Well, when we don’t love one another-when we sow dissension and damage or destroy church unity-we DO indeed blur God’s message and as a result repel the lost from His love.
You know, I’ve always liked this familiar story and the poem it inspired because it reminds us that-as the church we really are the BODY OF CHRIST.
We really are His hands. Ours is the flesh He is now using to accomplish His will. And because it is, we must understand that we are to have happening in our lives individually and in our life collectively as a church, the same attitudes, the same concern, the same involvement, the same mission in life-that Jesus had when He was here in the days of His flesh. So-if we are functioning as a HEALTHY body we will always follow the will of the Head. We’ll always DO WHAT JESUS WOULD DO. We’ll always relate to one another and to the lost world around us In the same way, Jesus would. Well, what does the world around us think when we, the body of Christ, do not let him rule? What does our community think when we fail to love one another as He commands?
I always share this story from Philip Yancey’s book, Disappointment With God with my 101 class in our study of the church. Perhaps it will help us to understand this principle. Carolyn Martin has cerebral palsy, and it is the peculiar tragedy of her condition that it’s outward signs—drooling, floppy arm movements, inarticulate speech, a bobbing head-cause people who meet her to wonder if she is retarded. Actually, her mind is the one part of her that works perfectly; it is muscular control that she lacks. Carolyn lived for fifteen years in a home for the mentally retarded, because the state had no other place for her. Her closest friends were people like Larry, who tore all his clothes off and ate the institution’s houseplants, and Arelene, who only knew three sentences and called everyone “Mama.”
Carolyn determined to escape from that home and to find a meaningful place for herself in the outside world. Eventually, she did manage to move out and establish a home of her own. There, the simplest chores posed an overwhelming challenge. It took her three months to learn to brew a pot of tea and pour it into cups without scalding herself. But Carolyn mastered that feat and many others. She enrolled in high school, graduated, then signed up for community college. Everyone on campus knew Carolyn as “the disabled person.” They would see her sitting in a wheelchair, hunched over, painstakingly typing out notes on a device called a Canon Communicator. Few felt comfortable talking with her; they could not follow her jumbled sounds. But Carolyn persevered, stretching out a two year Associate of Arts degree program over seven years. Next, she enrolled in a Lutheran college to study the Bible. After two years there, she was asked to speak to her fellow students in chapel. Carolyn worked many hours on her address. She typed out the final draft—at her average speed of forty-five minutes per page—and asked her friend Josee to read it for her. Josee had a strong, clear voice. On the day of the chapel service, Carolyn sat slumped in her wheelchair on the left side of the platform. At times her arms jerked uncontrollably, her head lolled to one side…so that it almost touched her shoulder, and a stream of saliva sometimes ran down her blouse.
Beside her stood Josee, who read the mature and graceful prose Carolyn had composed, centered around this Bible text: “…but we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God but not from us.” For the first time, some students saw Carolyn as a complete human being, like themselves. Before then her mind, a very good mind, had always been inhibited by a “disobedient” body, and difficulties with speech had masked her intelligence. But hearing her address read aloud as they looked at her on stage, the students could see past the body in a wheelchair and imagine a whole person. Carolyn was a perfect mind locked inside a spastic, uncontrolled body, and vocal cords that fail at every second syllable.
Now, whenever I read this story, the New Testament image of Christ as head of the body takes on new meaning. So often I think that we-the local church-disobey Christ in the same unruly way in which Carolyn’s body disobeyed her. When we fail to love one another as He loved us-when we sow dissension-then like Carolyn’ body, we obscure rather than convey the message of God’s love. This repels people from God-in much the same way that people avoided Carolyn because of her body’s disobedient actions. When we fight among ourselves we do not draw people to Jesus’ love because they do not recognize Him in us.
LET US PRAY