It has been a while since I have had the chance to write a blog post. This text has been rolling around in my mind for some time (having recently taught through Jude), but I have not had the chance to formulate and type my thoughts. In Romans 16:16 Paul urges the Brothers in the church to watch out for those who disrupt the church. It is interesting that at the close of almost every letter written in the New Testament there is a warning to beware of certain individuals within the church. Yet we usually assume that the NT writers are speaking of some church some where in a far away place who has real problems…but not our church. It needs to be understood by every Christian, and more importantly by every person in leadership in every church, that if your church is seeking the righteous glory of God and being diligent to make disciples for the sake of Christ, there will be those within the formal bonds of the church that are pursuing disunity, contention, and seeking to thwart the mission of the church. The difficulty in recognizing this is two-fold. First, identifying those who are intentional Gospel deniers and intent upon destroying the church is hard. Seeds of Satan do not announce their arrival, but seek to slip in secretly. Wolves in sheep’s clothing means just that, they look and talk like sheep. Second, some of those causing such a ruckus in any church often do so unsuspectingly. Sometimes, individuals are deceived or simply are not Gospel entrenched in their thinking and therefore cause divisions contrary to the doctrine of the New Testament. But the answer to both the deceivers and deceived is the same. “Watch out for them. . . and avoid them.”
Fruit is an often used Biblical illustration. Understanding the nature of fruit in the horticulture realm helps us understand the Biblical use of this illustration. Fruit is the natural outgrowth of the nature of the plant or tree. The produce of a particular plant is the evidence of that type of plant. Therefore, fruit is the manifestation of reality. Fruit is objective in nature, not subjective. The nature of a pear tree is not difficult to understand because the pear fruit has certain object qualities. The objective qualities of the fruit reveals the objective qualities of the tree itself. Much of the New Testament literature providing warnings of this type do so with objective marks of the nature of the one being warned against. But fruit is not what describes the actions of the one being warned against. Fruit is the result of the natural qualities. In this text (Romans 16:17-18), the fruit or results of their natural character is explained by two interesting words. In the original language from two roots, “to stand apart” or “to stand cut in two;” and causing “scandal” meaning to cause obstacles to the faith. No wonder this is so severe. God unites his church. We are united to Christ by virtue of his death and resurrection. We are commanded to stand with unity in the Gospel and not to forsake our public gathering. But these individuals cause separations, and those who are intended to stand together to stand apart. The second word seems to emphasize, not just repeat, the concept. They cause brothers to stand apart by putting up obstacles to the gospel, creating and supporting “scandal” in the church. Proverbs had a phrase for this and calls it an abomination, “sowing discord among the brethren.” This is what these people within local assemblies (like at Rome) Paul is warning against accomplish, but at this juncture there is no real explanation of how they do this. Thankfully, Paul is not finished his thought yet, so that we might observe not only the results (the fruit) but how it came to be.
It is important to notice that the divisions and scandal that these professing believers promote and accomplish is objective in nature. It is not that they are creating divisions based upon sporting teams, favorite foods, or other such trivial matters. Nor that their scandal is of a political or entertainment difference. But the scandals and divisions are founded upon those things essential to the doctrine (teaching) that we have been taught. Rarely is it that obvious. The issues often appear to be “non-essential” and barely noticeable. But when a discerning Disciple goes deep, he discovers that the roots of the divisive are not what the Scripture teaches. It is interesting that that the word for “doctrine” or “teaching” is the word we get “didactic” from. The word behind the phrase, “That you have been taught,” is the word we get “disciple” from. to paraphrase this, they are causing divisions and scandals contrary to the objective, systematic teaching of the Word of God, different from what you learned as a disciple. So here we see the objective issue that brings about division and scandal-being contrary to the teaching of true discipleship. Anything that does not find its principled teaching in the revealed Word of God, namely the Gospel, is to be warned against, because it has the tendency to divide that which God has joined and to cause scandalous attacks upon very doctrine of true disciples.
But everyone in a church (usually) thinks and says that they are “Biblical” even the wolves and tares. We need the Spirit of God through constant exposition (both privately and publicly) of the Word of God to reveal to us where our ideas, principles, and traditions are not lining up with Scripture.
The text continues to describe the method characteristic of those whom mark and avoid. Often, when the divisions and scandals have occurred and the local church is in great turmoil and these particular doctrines contrary to true discipleship found in the Gospel is revealed, it is sadly, too late. Damage has been done. But how can we avoid them when they are in sheep’s clothing? How can we know when they claim to be “Biblical” and terminology often is so similar it is hard to discern whether it is contrary to the doctrine of true discipleship? In such case, mark the method!
Paul says that such individuals are not serving our Lord Jesus Christ, but are in fact serving their own appetites (desires that bring them satisfaction and some type of gain, real or imagined). But can we know someone’s motives? Actions, words and choices somtimes reveal motives, but method’s of interaction are great determiners of wicked motives. Manipulation is the most readily observed motive of operation that dishonest and professors of religion use in order to accomplish their desired end. It is a good principle that when someone uses deceptive or manipulative tactics to convince or move to action, then their motive should also be suspect. If the person cannot stand upon the objective merits of their opinion or doctrine, necessarily that doctrine is called into question by discerning, thoughtful people. This pretty much decimates almost all politics but it also impacts the church. Paul describes their manipulation with two words, smooth words and flattery (literally-praise or blessing, eulogy). It is important that we don’t separate these two words. They go together in this context. The first describes the skill of the deceiver, the second further describes the intent of the deceiver. Smooth talk is sometimes used in a good sense. One who frames himself well and talks with good and attractive words. This is not a warning suggesting that foolish and unlearned talk is to be preferred, but when coupled with the word “blessing” or “flattery” the picture becomes clear. They seek to manipulate God’s people by praising them with smooth, kind words. It is not that giving honor and praise for a job well done is wrong or those who do so have malicious motives, but when someone begins to praise the works of your hands and you begin to listen intently to such praise, be warned. It is said, “Flattery will get you nowhere.” That statement could not be further from the truth. Flattery gets you everywhere in the world, but this ought not so to be in the church. There is a difference between the words of one who is seeking to compliment or be kind toward another and flattery. But gushing words, and manipulative behavior through flattery and over-praise is a mark that the person’s argument may not be able to stand on objective truth. These kinds of words are appealing to emotion and ego, rather than objective truth.
This is why Paul was so strong in writing about how they came preaching the Gospel in Corinth. He says clearly in I Corinthians 4, that when they came preaching, they did not use manipulative, emotional, or underhanded tactics. They refused to tamper with God’s Word, but instead, they preached the Gospel openly with no human veil covering their words. Paul seemed to believe that the method of speaking God’s Word was as important as the Word itself being spoken. Watch out for those who would veil the Gospel. Who would use emotional or manipulative means to get people to “agree with them.” To use the flattery and “best friends” technique only to turn to the angry, “you have displeased me” technique when that sweetness did not work. By this men seek to control others’ emotions with the intention of causing you to follow their teaching (these are classic methods of abuse) and agree with their doctrine that is contrary to what you have learned in the Scripture. By these tactics, the naive, the simple (literally–the gospel and doctrinally uninformed saint) is deceived.
Why is this manipulation so effective? An old saying concerning preaching that is suppose to be “tongue-in-cheek” but too often is reality, “If you have a weak point, yell louder.” When the merits of an argument are not objectively feasible, it works with humans to appeal to the emotions. Manipulation is used by these people because it works. But, you do not be misled, beloved Christian, by worldly tactics that have entered the church both in the leadership as well as the assembled. The merits of one’s doctrine ought to be able to be stand alone lining up with the clear exegesis of the Scripture. Just because one shouts loudly, compliments increasingly, weeps uncontrollably or otherwise seeks to persuade you of their doctrine, does not mean that it is correct. The Gospel stands on its own merits regardless of the personal mannerisms of the those who speak it. The Gospel and Truth never need human manipulation to be verified as true. Know Gospel truth and you will be freed from the emotional and deceptive use of people.