There are times where a passage that may seem ordinary inspiration actually has a great deal of insight and complexity hidden with it, and that is the case with Paul’s brief mention of Satan being crushed under the feet of the God of Peace in Romans 16:17-20: “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.” At first glance this particular passage is a rather ordinary call for unity, but the fact that it connects divisiveness and the lusts of those who foment discord with the actions of Satan is worthy of at least some explanation, so let us give it the discussion it deserves.
Romans 16 is the last chapter of the book of Romans, and as such it serves as the wrapping up of what has been a thoughtful book as a whole. The beginning of Romans 16 has Paul refer to dozens of people by name, some of whom he is quite close to, as a way of building rapport with his audience. It is intriguing that in writing a letter to the church at Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, that Paul should comment upon the importance of avoiding divisiveness, not least because congregations in such important areas were frequently divided for political reasons. And after this passage Paul moves on to close his letter with the usual benedictions. Yet it is immensely worthwhile, even if the subject is only briefly mentioned, that Satan and division are connected to each other by Paul, and that peace is referred to as an aspect of God’s character but clearly not that of Satan’s character.
It is not hard to determine why it is that Paul is concerned about the possibility of division among the Romans. Paul’s own evangelistic carer had been full of situations where he witnessed the division that could result from preaching the Gospel. Other congregations, like Corinth (more on them shortly) were deeply divided because of their carnality. The brethren of Rome were subject to great pressures because of the politics of their lives thanks to the role of Roman emperors and the prestige that the church at Rome must have gotten very early on. This is clearly a problem that is relevant to us, though, and we would do well to pay attention to it. After all, anyone who looks at the contemporary state of the Church of God will notice a great deal of division. Regardless of how we define Christianity we are going to see a great deal of division. Whether it is in the pride of belonging to the First Baptist Church of a town as opposed to the second or tenth baptist church, or whether it is between African Methodists and regular Methodists, or between various strains of Calvinist or Catholic, there is clearly a large degree of division for all kinds of reasons.
How does the Bible urge that we deal with this? Well, this particular passage tells us to note those who cause divisions and to avoid such people. We are not to be caught up in the politicking of other people who seek to profit off of division. Indeed, Paul accuses those who start divisions of serving their own belly and seeking to use smooth words to deceive the simple. Indeed, there are a great many people who seek political power by causing divisions, and an alarmingly large number of the divisions that exist are because of political reasons. Such political reasons can be multiplied. Whenever someone is disciplined and loses a position of respect, whether it be for doctrinal error or personal failings, there is a strong temptation on the part of these people to engage in political behavior in order to ensure a base of support and counteract the loss of prestige that they are facing. Paul is right to warn us about this tendency, and correct in noting that we should be innocent about this sort of evil even though we often are not.
Yet it is hard advice to take. Even knowing that Satan is ultimately responsible for the sorts of divisions that we commonly see among us, it is hard to act in such a way that we avoid divisions. It is easy enough for us to ponder about situations where we are to avoid others who are trying to encourage us to engage in divisive behavior against godly authorities, or for us to be wary about the motives that people have for seeking to serve their own corrupt ambitions to rule instead of serve. But not all problems with divisions are of such a kind. There are occasions where we may be right about something but may go about it the wrong way so that we offend others, and that is surely a cause of division too that we need to be aware of. If we are in positions of authority and others find us to be too harsh and bullying, we may cause division as a result of our difficulties in dealing with others, in our lack of graciousness, just as having a bad attitude tends to lead others to be harsher with us than they otherwise would. It is by no means an easy thing to avoid causing division, but at least we can rejoice that the God of peace will crush Satan under our feet, for once that happens we can be sue that division will no longer be inflamed and encouraged as it now is.