Now we have what I call the “warning paragraph.” Paul might be thinking about his own trip to Jerusalem and the threat that awaited him from the Judaizers there, Verses 17-20:
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. Such men do not really serve our Lord Jesus Christ at all but are utterly self-centred. Yet with their plausible and attractive arguments they deceive those who are too simple-hearted to see through them.
Your loyalty to the principles of the Gospel is known everywhere, and that gives me great joy. I want to see you experts in good, and not even beginners in evil. It will not be long before the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:17-20)
I referred to this as a “warning,” but I think of it as more of a helpful passage. I say that because it provides great instructions on what we should do when we have problems within a church: Here we have a group of people who are professing to be Christians, but, who, by judging Paul’s language, are not true believers. Every church has them, so this should not be too shocking for you. As Paul outlines it, the danger is that they create factions within a church—little groups that gather and emphasize one particular point of doctrine or teaching—to the exclusion of everything else. You know who they are. They are the ones who think their particular topic is the most important issue. They are talking about the pastor behind his back—and sometimes actually to his face—complaining that he isn’t preaching the “whole” gospel. Oh, it might be tongues, or prophecy, abortion, who to vote for or any number of things. There are all kinds of issues that it could be, but in their minds, this (whatever this is), is the mark of a true believer, to the exclusion of everything else. Oh, as Paul says, they have “plausible and attractive arguments,” but “such men do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ at all but are utterly self-centred.”
I remember one particular brother who wanted me to allow him to teach sometimes in the church. At the same time he was asking that, he was complaining that I was not teaching to whole Truth. He felt I was not teaching enough about end-time events and focusing too much on day-to-day living our faith. I was scratching my head on that one, but I asked him, as interesting as the end-time events are, do they really matter? Is our Salvation dependent on when the rapture takes place—or even if there will be rapture? I certainly have my views on that, but is anyone’s Salvation dependent on those issues? My Bible says that we are to “Believe in our hearts that Jesus Lord, and confess that He is our Lord.” That brings Salvation, not holding the correct view of the rapture! Anyway, that brother has left our church because “I was a heretic,” and was not “teaching the whole Gospel . . .” (his words, not mine). That is was Paul was warning them about.
These folks also introduce practices or ceremonies that Paul calls “obstacles to faith,” certain rituals or practices that these groups insist are the marks of true Christianity. As a pastor I heard it all the time. They build a sense of superiority. They say, “If you have this mark, then you are really a Christian.” I still see this everyday on Facebook. I receive their emails and I am constantly receiving their “chats.” As I pointed out, their motives, according to Paul, are not to serve Christ, even though they believe they are.
In truth, these factions are really out there trying to advance themselves, to get a following, to gain prestige. You can tell that by the way they act. I have seen this all the time on college campuses. When I was pastoring a group at Western Michigan University I witnessed their methods. They always came on with smooth and plausible talk. They would always use scriptural language and appear to be the most dedicated and devoted believers. Have you ever noticed how many of the cults today will use the Scriptures to support their argument? As a matter of fact, every Saturday morning two members the local Jehovah Witness temple will come over and we will “chat.” They always bring their Bible and open their favorite passages . . . and of course, leave another book or tract for me to read. Some have aske me why I meet with them, and my answer is that just maybe they will receive the True Gospel during our discussions. I have seen the Lord actually working on them—at least one of them. Last Saturday, one of the “witnesses” said, “I think it is interesting that you are willing to stand here talking. Most of the people shut the door on us. But every week I am ‘drawn’ to talk to you some more.” My answer was simple. I love discussing the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit has proved to be the best teacher I have found. They just smiled.
Did I ever share with you how, during my summer break while I was in high school, some evangelists from the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” came to my house. This was during a troubling period in my life and we chatted for a while, at the end of our meeting, they asked me to pray. Now understand that during this period I had investigated the Bahá Faith (which is how I met Jimmy Seals and Dash (Darrell) Croft); Buddhism; Seventh Day Adventist; I even allowed one of my friends to read Tarot cards for me. By the way, the Tarot cards revealed that I had many unanswered questions and was on a spiritual journey, but that I would discover those answers. Well . . . I guess they were right. Anyway, at the end of my meeting with the Mormons, I prayed, “God, I really do want to find you. These men have shown me some interesting things, but I just want to know what is true. Please direct my path so I can find the Truth about you.” They were actually quite pleased with my prayer!
A few years later, roughly 2:45 am. on October 27, 1979, my Lord, Yeshua, finally revealed Himself to me and after all that time I spent searching, it is so comforting to have found peace. By the way, this peace hasn’t died out yet (to be honest, it has grown stronger each day I have walked with the Lord). Like Jeremiah I cry, “Your words were found, and I ate them; and Your words were to me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart, for I am called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts.” (Jeremiah 15:16).
Anyway, Paul says that another method these folks use is flattery. They make wavering believers feel important. They lift them up above the rest and give them a peculiar mark of distinction, and flatter their egos as being members of the “true” church. The reality is these factions will always cause division.
Okay. So we have all of these folks causing dissention and turmoil within a fellowship, how do we react to them? Do we use the traditional “tar and feather” and run them out of town? Do we excommunicate them, with the preacher creating messages to drive them out. No, Paul recommends a different approach. His advice is to simply keep away from them. Ignore them. “You Christians in Rome have a reputation for obedience. You have a spirit of wanting to obey what the Lord says. Now here is your word from the Lord: ‘Do not follow them; do not get involved with these separatist groups.’ When you obey this, the Lord will work. The God of peace, who will preserve the peace of the church, will also crush Satan under your feet.”
That is the secret. Allow the Spirit of God do the cleansing. Something will happen to open the eyes of people to the unscriptural position of these groups, and they will lose their following. The peace will be preserved without a lot of warfare and dissension.
Several years ago, when I was pastoring that group at Western Michigan University, there were two “brothers” who came to begin an outreach of Bob Weiner’s, “Maranatha Campus Ministries.” One of them was Greg Dickow. You may have seen him on TV, and I hope he was acknowledged the injury he caused to many believers—two of them who were very dear friends of mine. Shockingly, even one of my fellow pastors thought Dickow was great. Oh, Dickow was impressive, even all those years ago, but people soon discovered that all was not well with the ministry.
Maranatha came under considerable fire during the 1980s, mostly because of their highly authoritarian structure. Several former members, two dear friends, as I mentioned, were among them, reported behavior similar to cults that you often saw on college campuses during that time. I did see Bob Weiner attending one of the meetings my wife I were attending. This was a few years ago, and Weiner was sitting a few rows from us, but because I would not let my wife loose on him, we never had the chance to chastise him for the injury his ministry caused my friends. If anyone knows, has Greg Dickow ever renounced his participation in Maranatha Ministries?
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Letter to Christians at Rome