‘Divide and conquer’ means gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. Effectively, we are reminded that when people are united and work together, they can achieve far more than when they are divided and disunited (a principle first seen in Genesis 11 with the Tower of Babel.) This is perhaps one reason that unity is stressed so much in the Bible (see Ps 133, Eph 4:3).
In Acts 23:1-11, we see Paul dividing the Sanhedrin by speaking of being on trial for his belief in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6), for the Sadducees were conservative in theology, adhering to the letter of the Pentateuch, while the Pharisees were progressives, ready to ‘modernise’ the law by their interpretations of it. It was, therefore, the Pharisees who were open to the idea of resurrection, a belief which is far from being clearly seen or taught in the Pentateuch. Jesus’ exposition of the law in this sense (Luke 20:37ff) was certainly a novelty to his hearers. Paul introduced this issue into the discussion by claiming that he was a Pharisee and what was really at stake was the question of belief in the resurrection. This, of course, led to the claim of the resurrection of Jesus, which put the Pharisees in a difficult position! (They believed in the resurrection but were not so keen on admitting that Jesus had been raised from the dead!) The dispute was fierce and eventually led to the commanding officer once more taking Paul away from the scene without really being any wiser about the source of the problem, since he did not understand these theological differences.
In this passage, we see how easy it is to divide people according to certain beliefs or practices. This has sadly continued in the Christian church, with denominations often being formed because of dispute over certain practices, which may well be important, but which do not need to divide. Paul wrote about the importance of unity and diversity, reminding us that unity is not the same as uniformity. (Rom 12:4-8, 1 Cor 12:12-31) We do well to remember this, and also to see how Paul focussed on the really essential matter in this passage. The resurrection of Jesus cannot be consigned to merely a debating point. Many matters of faith and doctrine may be important but not fundamental; the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, is at the heart of our faith and Paul was right to say that ‘I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ (Acts 23:6) The Roman officer may not have understood the significance of this statement, but this was at the heart of the dispute between Paul and the Jews. We do well when this is at the heart of our testimony, even if it does divide those who hear this message, because this is the cornerstone of our faith.