Romans 16:17-18 (ESV)
17 I 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. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
As Paul wraps up his letter to the Roman church, he offers some final pieces of counsel to the church. He sends greetings to them from people they should know, and he asks them to greet friends in the city. But, in the middle of this closing, Paul reminds the Romans to carefully avoid the kinds of people who cause them trouble.
The reason that this grabbed my attention is that I do not know that this is the most natural course of action for many Christians. Paul tells the Romans to watch out for people who cause divisions based on doctrine that is not what they learned from sound teachers. Then Paul simply says, “avoid them.”
What makes me wonder this morning is whether or not we avoid those who are selfish and who teach against sound doctrine. In general, I find that Christians who come across somebody teaching falsely or opposing sound doctrine will, for quite a while, make that person a project for reclamation. Or, the same Christians might simply ignore the false doctrine, hoping that it will not come up in polite conversation about the weather, the kids, or sports.
But, go back and take note. The warning is strong. We are to be on guard against “those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught.” That means that biblical doctrine matters. It means that we are to be guarded regarding doctrine. And, it means that, when we find those who cause division over contrary doctrine, we are to get away from them.
This all requires wisdom, as there are multiple levels of doctrine. Do we avoid the person who has a different view of the order of end-times events? I suppose that depends. If two believers disagree as to whether or not Jesus will return before a thousand year reign or just return and show us that the reign was metaphorical, I’m not sure we have to avoid one another. However, what if a believer is telling us that Jesus came back in the late first century and he is not coming again? Well, we probably have an issue, as one view requires a dramatic reinterpretation of entire books of the Bible.
Consider the truth of the verse above. Doctrine divides, and it should. We should avoid those who deny significant biblical doctrines. And it will require real wisdom to know what those are.
So, when do we divide? I would argue that we divide when the person’s doctrine is the kind of doctrine that causes division among believers—obvious-sounding, I know. We divide when a person develops a doctrinal issue that they attempt to bring into the body that turns us from the genuine gospel or from faithfully following the Lord. We divide when a person’s issue hinders congregational unity or worship. We divide when a person’s doctrine could do harm to young believers in the body. We divide when the doctrinal issue is of a significantly important level, or when the person causing the division, even with a lower-level doctrine, has become so pushy with their doctrine that they disrupt peace in the body.
But note again, the command is to avoid them. The command is not to make a giant project out of them. I think this implies church discipline, but it does not include making the disruptive person the center of church life. We urge them to repent, we pray for them, we encourage them, but, when they will not repent, we let them go.
Lord, we need wisdom and grace to know how to help when doctrine differs in the body. I pray for our church that you will protect us from division and divisive people. Help us to have wisdom to know when doctrines are of a level requiring division. Help us to value you, your word, and the gospel enough to be willing to divide if necessary. Help us, in all this, never to be proud or harsh in anything we do. Help us, I pray, to honor you by being loving and honest, kind and strong, merciful and faithful.