17I 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. 18For 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. 19For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. 20The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:17-20)
This is a warning from a pastor to the flock he loves: There are people in the church to avoid.
You may think that this contradicts the second most important command to love your neighbor as yourself. It doesn’t. Sometimes service to others demands that we avoid certain people.
We’ll study this passage under three headings: The Appeal, The People and the Promise.
17I 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.
Paul pleads with his readers to do two things: 1) watch out and 2) avoid. To watch out is to keep your eye on someone. To avoid is to “bend away from,” or as one has it, to “fully avoid by deliberate, decisive action.” There are people in the church that you must identify and move away from.
Some will ask, “Isn’t this being judgmental?” No, we are judgmental when we look down on someone as though we are morally superior to them. This appeal is for something different, something more like discernment. We must be able to identify dangerous people within the church, without slipping into judgmental-ism. God’s command to love does not mean that we must accept or ignore divisive Christians in the name of humility.
Avoidance is not shunning, coldness or cruelty. It is deliberately keeping distance and purposefully refusing to move toward certain people. Avoiding divisive people means not being their best friend, not trusting your heart in their hands, not encouraging them into church leadership, not opening your home to them, etc. It is distancing yourself from them, moving away from association with them.
It is also not hiding. For example, if you see a divisive person in the grocery store, do not duck behind an isle. What will you do when they come around the corner and spot you? Act like you were inspecting an item on the lower shelf? Pretend that you didn’t know they were in the store? This is just cowardly deception. Avoidance is more valiant that this. It is clear-thinking commitment to watch out for and steer clear of dangerous people within the church.
17I 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. 18For 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.
How can we tell which people to avoid? God tells us in these verses, but before we look at them, it should be noted that this appeal is no excuse to avoid merely difficult people. Of course there are people you would like to deliberately and decisively avoid just because they get on your nerves or intimidate you. This appeal is in reference to a specific breed of church folks. They are not just difficult. They are dangerous.
Also, before examining the following list, remember that this is not a witch hunt. Do not comb your church directory labeling people with a big red D based on the following list. This is about discernment. Meditate on this passage so that it becomes part of the way you think about the church and the people around you so that you can be wise in your dealings with people by watching out for the following characteristics:
This means that they often cause people to stand apart from one another. Where there are interpersonal problems within the church, these people are often at the roots.
Remember that divisions require at least two or more people and that not everyone involved in a division is a divisive person. But if, over the years, a common denominator emerges in many such problems, he or she is likely a divisive person and to be avoided. We’re talking here about “the usual suspects” involved in church disputes.
Honest questions about established doctrines are good. But people who constantly question such doctrines without ever moving beyond them may be divisive. When Paul says, “watch out for those who… create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught,” he is referring to those who regularly derail the Christians beside them with doctrinal traps and puzzles. These are the people that teachers hate to see walk in to the classroom. These people love to show their knowledge and creativity with scripture, but not to encourage others to move forward as Christians. They seem to have more insight into scripture than fruitfulness in their lives.
The fact is, these people “do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.” They’re involved enough in church life to cause division and mentally engaged enough to trip everyone else up because they don’t really care about Jesus. They care about satisfying their own “bellies.” They’re hungry, but not for righteousness.
They are smooth talkers and flatterers. Why is ice cream so dangerous? Because it goes down smooth! The things divisive people say will taste great, but will have disastrous after effects.
It is not usually the brutish and abrasive that are truly dangerous in the church. They are obviously messed up. It’s the smooth talking flatterers because they’ll sound good and make you feel good about yourself. They are serpent-like. You’ll want to listen to them. You’ll want to hear their ideas. But you must watch out for those whose words are smoother than their lives, those who can speak well of you to your face and ill of you behind your back. They don’t care about the truth so much as the effect they can produce in you with their words. They are manipulative.
Why is this so dangerous? Because they will destroy the naïve. The sorts of things listed here do not seem so bad when compared to some other horrible things that can go on in a church (like sexual abuse for example), but make so mistake, it ruins lives. Note the language Paul uses at this point, “they deceive the hearts of the naïve.” They don’t just deceive; they deceive their hearts. This is the innermost part, the very identity. Divisive people do not only corrupt vulnerable Christians, they reprogram their hearts to falsity.
This was Satan’s approach in the Eden. Way back then, he slithered up to naïve Eve in the form of a serpent. Now he slithers up to naïve Christians in the form of divisive church people. Make no mistake, divisiveness, doctrinal obstacles, manipulative speech–these things are evil. After all, that’s what Paul calls them in verse 19:
19For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
We must bend away from such people because they are in league with Satan himself and will destroy the unsuspecting in our church.
We’re All Guilty
Now, lest any of us hike up too high on our horse at all this, think plainly about your own sins here. I suspect that many (if not all) of us have been involved in some of these things. We have gossiped, exaggerated or complained about someone to others, setting our listeners against them. We have made a show of our Biblical knowledge and creativity, not to serve Jesus, but our own appetites for attention. We have spoken disingenuous praise to someone’s face to avoid social awkwardness.
We must beware that these things are no mere trifles. They are the subtle evils of Satan slithering into our lives and church. We must avoid those who are pros at these things and we must pursue unity, doctrinal helpfulness and honest speech.
20The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
In all these things we must never despair. God will soon crush Satan, the one ultimately behind church divisiveness, under our feet. Therefore, we have much to rejoice in and every reason for confidence as we move forward together as a church.
- How can you “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles” without being paranoid or judgmental?
- Without naming names, do you feel that we have any such people involved in Dulin’s Grove?
- What are some practical ways we can avoid such people? What if they are family members, even spouses?
- Looking at the passage as a whole, what “appetites” might divisive people be serving?
- What is the difference between smooth talk/flattery and just trying to be kind with our words?
- Why does Paul include the promise of verse 19 in this passage? What does this have to do with the rest of the paragraph?
- What if you suspect that you are a divisive person? What steps can a divisive person take to respond to this passage?
- This passage is written to the church at large. Do church leaders have a different responsibility toward divisive people than the laity? What other scriptures can shed light on this question?
- Take some time to pray for our church.