Every once in a while a passage of the Bible seems particularly relevant to one’s day. This morning, I was preparing for my classes, I had to deal with two troubling cases of divisive scoundrels. One of my friends from Chile, a decent man with a family of very friendly daughters (one of whom, the middle one, shares my birthday), sent me a message in some agitation about some lies and rumors that are going around that the United Church of God is going to change the version of the Spanish Bible they use from the Reina-Valera 1960 version (a solid and conservative translation, much akin to the King James Bible or New King James Bible) to something else. I put him at ease and also informed the appropriate parties of the rumor being in existence so that they could be speedily addressed to.
Then, not more than an hour or two later, another friend of mine sought my advice concerning how to deal with false but familiar accusations about my church watering down its beliefs on the Sabbath, and claiming that a minister had said that the Sabbath was a shadow of Christ (well, Paul said it first, in Colossians 2:16-17, and it doesn’t mean what antinomians think, so I referred her to a recently published article of mine about the subject  and expressed my vehement hostility to those who lie and seek to deceive others.
As it happened, today I was teaching my third year students (and one bright second year student) Romans 15 and 16, and I came upon the perfect passage to describe this phenomenon of scoundrels willfully seeking to divide the Church of God for their own personal benefit, and the command of Paul, under the divine inspiration of God, of how they are to be thought of and treated. I thought it therefore worthwhile to briefly examine this passage today.
For Those Who Are Such Do Not Serve Our Lord Jesus Christ
We find this direct and blunt passage in Romans 16:17-20, which reads: “Now I urge you brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. For your obedience has become known to all. Therefore I am glad on your behalf; but I want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil. And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.”
This passage deals precisely with the point of the hassles I had to deal with this morning. For one, it tells us to take note of those who cause divisions. All too often those who want to spread hatred and division will use language to make themselves appear to be a larger or more worthwhile group of people than they really are. But we should take note of the specific people spreading lies and slander and libel about others, so that we can avoid them. God does not want us to continue to hang around malcontents and dissidents who spread their lies and deceit and unhappiness, but to cut them off completely.
Intriguingly enough, Paul states that the rejection of godly authority and the spreading of lies to make people dissatisfied with godly authorities is itself a doctrinal issue. For the unity of the body of Christ is a doctrinal matter  , as stated in Ephesians 4, and those who seek to willfully divide the body of Christ for their own selfish benefit are themselves committing heresy their denial of the doctrine of the unity of Christ and of the brethren of Christ. The willful division of the brethren is itself a heresy. Those who wax poetic about the “doctrine of love” and forget the “doctrine of unity” show themselves to be either ignorant or grossly malicious.
Paul immediately moves to a discussion of the motives of such schismatics. Correctly, Paul notes that the leaders who spread lies and dissension do so for their own bellies. In other words, they are looking for enough tithepayers to provide a living for themselves, and enough followers to feel like someone important and special. Would-be tyrants are never satisfied unless they have a group of followers to hang on their every word. A godly person can be content in the wilderness, but an ungodly and wicked leader needs an echo chamber to boost up their own insecure egos, and for this reason they seek to deceive the simple, that they might instead of teaching the simple how to become wise (as was Paul’s goal), keep the simple as ignorant followers unable to think and reason through and apply God’s Word for themselves.
Paul states bluntly that those who seek followers for the sake of their own belly (or salary) are not the servants of Jesus Christ. We must be careful to note that while it is very possible for people in different fellowships to be united in faith and doctrine despite going to different religious organizations, and to feel and be genuine brethren , those who willfully divide the faith and who seek to take people out of other fellowships so that they can become followers of these flattering malcontents are not God’s servants, and we must make that plain to ourselves and others.
In fact, Paul strongly implies that instead of being servants of God, those who willfully divide the brethren for their own selfish gain are in fact servants of Satan, and members of his unholy synagogue . God promises victory to those believers who stay firm and united and who succeed in maintaining their goodness and avoid those who spread bitter deception against godly leaders because they seek a larger following for themselves. This is our task, and to help us in that task we must be clear to mark and avoid those who seek to divide us for their own selfish purposes, but rather we ought to stay united with our brethren of like mind and spirit, and recognize that God’s spirit is not one of division or confusion.
Let us therefore conclude by looking at the application of the principles of Romans 16:17-20 to the situations that intruded on the peacefulness of my morning. First, we shall note that both the person lying about the change of Bible versions and the person lying about the supposed doctrinal changes about the Sabbath were trying to spread uncertainty, doubt, and discord among brethren. Paul, no doubt, was familiar with those who falsely painted his own views of God’s law as antinomian, libel that has continued without ceasing or apology for nearly 2000 years. Additionally, let us note that those who spread such lies have no qualms about dividing families and congregations, and do so for their own selfish benefit, so that they can have enough tithepayers to pay for a top-heavy and corrupt hierarchical structure .
Since the situation described perfectly matches the problems dealt with by Paul (which, in light of the fact that Paul wrote Romans from the schism-riddled congregation of Corinth, is not surprising), let us apply Paul’s solution. First, we should note and avoid those people of our acquaintance who spread rumors and lies to divide our fellowship with other godly brethren so that they and their organizations can gain by fomenting division. Such people are heretics, by denying the doctrine of the unity of the faith, and the leaders of their organizations are not servants of Jesus Christ (as we should be), but are instead servants of Satan the Devil, the first rebel and malcontent that ever was. We should therefore treat such divisive people accordingly and recognize the wicked spirit that motivates them, and want nothing to do with it ourselves.