Author Ava Pennington
Author Ava Pennington
Five Steps to Prevent Spiritual Cannibalism

Five Steps to Prevent Spiritual Cannibalism


I enjoy watching nature documentaries. Videos of tender, newborn fawns wobbling on shaky legs for the first time. Penguins holding their young close to keep them warm. Kangaroos protecting their joeys in the safety of the mama’s pouch.

But I have to turn away when the camera focuses on the rougher side of nature. Elk locking horns in a bloody battle for the alpha-position in the herd. Lions chasing and catching zebras for dinner. Killer whales attacking seals for breakfast. Animals biting and devouring each other. We can watch these videos with a sense of superiority in our humanity. These behaviors don’t apply to us. Animals are different. They live by the “law of the jungle.” Eat or be eaten. Only the strong survive.

Still, there’s a Bible verse directed at Christians about similar, though figurative, behavior—a type of spiritual cannibalism. A verse that peels back the veneer of polite conduct to reveal an undercurrent of division that could have easily torn apart the early church. An undercurrent that continues 2,000 years after Galatians 5:15 was first written.

“If you bite and devour one another,
watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (ESV).

That’s pretty strong—even graphic—language. The verbs bite, devour, and consume paint a vivid and unpleasant word picture that takes us right back into the jungle.

Commentator Kenneth Wuest notes these three words were used “in connection with wild animals in deadly struggle….The words constitute a strong expression of partisan hatred resulting in actions that lead to mutual injury.”[i] Another commentator notes the words suggest “wild animals engaged in deadly struggles.”[ii]

Emotions obviously ran high among the Galatian Christians for the apostle Paul to use such strong language. The early church struggled with divisions between Jews and Gentiles. The two cultures had never worshipped together before, and the mingling of these groups in the body of Christ shocked many Jewish Christians who had been taught to look down on non-Jews.


Five Steps

Two thousand years later the disagreements have changed, but divisions remain. Republicans versus Democrats, hymn-lovers versus praise-chorus singers, King James translation versus NIV. Issues such as these have literally torn apart church congregations across our country. Church denominations have formed over these and other divisions, destroying both the communion between Christians and the credibility of our witness to a watching world.

How can we prevent disagreements from deteriorating into spiritual cannibalism?

  1. Before we engage with others on everything from politics to brands of shampoo, let’s spend time—and prayer—to differentiate between our convictions and our preferences. A conviction, according to Webster’s Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary, is “a fixed belief.” A preference is “the choice of one thing or person over another.” A conviction is something we would die for, a preference is not. A conviction is something we would stake our reputation on, a preference is not.
  1. Next, we need to examine our motive for disagreement. Is our goal to prove ourselves superior? To be right at all costs?
  1. Then, we need to choose the right venue to try to resolve our disagreement. No one was ever swayed to change their opinion by being called out or shamed on social media!
  1. Finally, we need to choose our words. Some words are more emotionally-charged than others, igniting fires and leaving charred remains in their path. Words that “bite and devour.” Identify the emotionally-charged words you want to use and replace them with words that could be less inflammatory.
  1. Above all, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide, direct, and do what the psalmist requested in Psalm 141:3. “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (ESV).


The art of disagreement does not require “biting and devouring” those who disagree with us. It does not necessitate compromising our convictions. It does not even entail parking our preferences. The art of disagreement does involve respecting those who disagree with us…for the sake of the fellowship of the body of Christ and our testimony to a watching world.

What methods do you use to prevent spiritual cannibalism?


[i] Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Volume I: Galatians in the Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), 152
[ii] Cleon L. Rogers, Jr., The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 431

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