Over the years I’ve heard a lot of Valedictory and Salutatory speeches. Good portions of these speeches are usually focused on acknowledging the importance of specific people in the life of the speaker. There are parents, teachers, coaches, classmates and any number of others.
As we come to the end of our study of the book of Romans Paul sounds like he is giving one of these addresses. He concludes his letter with a long list of personal greetings. Paul adds this personal touch to express his affection and gratitude. As you read the list, however, you notice that Paul looks at two different kinds of people: those who build the Kingdom and those who hamper the building of the Kingdom.
Those Who Help the Kingdom
In this last chapter Paul greets at least 26 different people, two unnamed saints, and several churches meeting in homes. Paul also shares greetings from nine people who were with him in Corinth. It’s easy to read through these names and miss some significant points.
There were different kinds of people. In this list there are men and women, individuals and groups, Jews and Gentiles, family and friends, converts and mentors. Friends come in all sizes and shapes. God uses a wide variety of people to touch and mold our lives.
They shared in Paul’s life in different ways. Paul says of many of these people that they were “a great help”, and they “worked hard”. The mother of Rufus treated Paul like a mother. We aren’t told what these people did, just that they were actively involved in helping Paul and were helping to advance the Kingdom of God. These people all used their gifts and did what they could do.
Earlier in his letter Paul told us that we don’t all have the same function. We have different gifts, different abilities, and different ministries. In today’s church there are those who,
- Give aid to those who are hurting
- Who teach the spiritually hungry
- Who maintain the house of God
- Who serve by making meals, setting up chairs, or perhaps by running errands for the elderly
- Who spend time with those who are alone
- Who send cards to those who are lonely
- Who minister to those who are forgotten
- Who minister in music
The point is this: the people who impact us come in different sizes and impact us in different ways.
They were devoted friends (4,7) We are told that Priscilla and Aquilla risked their lives for Paul. Andronicus and Junias were in prison with Paul. (v.7). Your true friends are the ones who you can count on in a crisis. When you need them, they will be there.
I suspect you have heard someone say, “I didn’t know who my true friends were until this happened.” When we are attacked, true friends rise to our defense. When suffering comes, true friends share in our suffering. When our character is questioned, true friends trust what they know rather than what they hear.
Here’s an exercise for you. Sit down with a piece of paper and begin to write down the people who have impacted and touched your life the most. After each name jot a short description of how these people have impacted you. You’ll probably need to take several days to do this. Write down those who have instructed you, inspired you, and strengthened you. Write down those who stood by you through thick and thin. Write down those who have brought joy to your heart again and again. And one you have done this, present this list to God as with a prayer of gratitude. I suspect you will be astounded at the number of people God has used. You can take this one step further. You can contact the people on your list and let them know what they have meant to you. I suspect your contact will make their day.
Those Who Hinder the Kingdom
In this long list of commendations we are startled when we get to verse 17 and read,
I urge you, brothers, 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. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. (Romans 16:17,18)
What in the world would cause Paul to shift gears like this? Some people conclude that these words must be a later addition. In other words, they think someone other than Paul must have produced them. However, since Paul has just talked about greeting each other with a holy kiss, and since the kiss was certainly a token of love, unity, and harmony, it is not surprising that Paul would want to warn us to watch out for those who would disrupt that love, unity and harmony.
How quickly peace can be shattered in a church. One person who continually whispers in the shadows, one person who becomes enveloped in pettiness, one person who relentlessly pursues their own agenda, or one person who steadfastly refuses to forgive, can unravel the unity of the body of Christ. Unity is like a piece of fine glass, it is perfect in beauty, but is also very fragile.
Paul describes these troublemakers. First, they Cause Divisions. It seems that this text is not so much about heresy as about factionalism, or choosing “sides”. People who call the community of the faithful to “choose sides” are destructive in the church.
Let’s face it, there are some people who just can’t seem to rest unless they are stirring up controversy. To them, life is boring unless you are fighting about something. These people are always criticizing, attacking, and claiming they are being treated unfairly. They want grace for themselves but refuse to extend it to others. They are constantly calling people to be loyal to them and their way of thinking. They don’t see this as idolatry. Many of these people really do believe they are on “a mission from God”. They view every disagreement as a personal attack. These people are destructive in the church.
They Create Obstacles. The phrase for “put obstacles in your way” is the word, “skandalon” from which we get our word scandal. This word meant the stick or trigger of a trap. It was used to picture things that would cause other people to stumble and fall.
Most likely these obstacles were among the “stumbling blocks” we talked about in chapter 14. In other words, these people add all kinds of requirements to salvation. They make it hard for people to know the joy of the Lord because they are always holding up more hoops for you to jump through in order to be a true believer. They seem to want to control your life rather than telling you how you can be set free.
They Sound Good – Paul says they use smooth talk and flattery. The Greek word points to a person who sounds kind and loving but is really leading you into trouble.
Think if you will of the teenage boy who covers a girl with flattery. He tells her how much he wants her and needs her. He professes love. The words make the girl feel good. She follows his lead. She ends up pregnant and he is nowhere to be found.
Think of the salesman who calls on the phone. They want you to know that you have won a wonderful trip on some great cruise. It’s free! They go into great detail about all the sights you will see. They ask you if you have ever been on a cruise before. They ask you when would be the best time for you to go on this cruise. They ask you to choose your destination. They act like your friend. They seem truly excited for you. Finally, they tell you that they need a small payment so your tickets can be sent to you. They ask for your credit card number. Trusting this new and generous friend, you oblige. The tickets don’t arrive and your next credit card bill shows your card is charged to the limit.
Don’t think this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the church. Just because someone uses the name of Jesus doesn’t mean they are doing God’s work. Just because someone quotes Scripture doesn’t mean they are leading you in the right way. Nice people can be destroyers!
How to Deal With These People
First, let’s point out that we need to celebrate the Builders. We need to rejoice over those who encourage us in the faith and call us to follow Christ more fully.
Second, we are to Stay Away from the Destroyers. Isn’t this interesting? Paul doesn’t say we should confront those who cause division. He doesn’t say we should even debate with those who cause division. Even when we are skilled in debating we are only “feeding the monster” when we debate. Paul tells us to “keep away from them”.
In Titus 3:10, 11 we are told,
10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. 11 You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
When people are trying to cause trouble the worst thing you can do is give them a platform. I hope you see dilemma. At times, we have all been guilty of fostering a party spirit. We have all passed on information that was hearsay. We have all been lazy in guarding our own hearts. We have all wanted to throw a little tantrum because we did not get our own way. There have been times when we have been a hindrance rather than a help. So, we need to approach this problem with the desire to help each other.
When we see someone acting with a divisive spirit,
- You may need to simply, “stay away”. Physically putting distance between you and the other person. Get up and move away from them. In the case of the telemarketer . . . hang up! Get up and leave the table if the conversation is becoming destructive rather than constructive.
- Ask gossips to cite their sources for “information” they pass on and ask if you can “quote them”.
- Refuse to engage in discussions about a person’s motives or what they are “trying to do”. Only God knows someone’s true motives.
- Point out when someone is acting with bitterness or an unforgiving heart. Stop the poison from spreading.
- Ask the complainer if they have talked TO the person they are complaining about.
- When someone tries to add to the gospel of grace or tells you what you must do to “be truly saved” ask them to show you where they find such things in the Bible . . . and then read the context of the passage very carefully.
- When someone says, “How will you know if you’ve never tried it?” Tell them that you know the truth by God’s Word. Let them know that you don’t have to experience a heart attack to know that you don’t want to experience a heart attack.
- Keep the goal of unity in the forefront of your mind and heart. Understand that anyone who disrupts the unity of the body is not working for the Lord, but for the Devil.
These things sound good but they are hard to do. We must understand that love demands that we try to keep the destroyers from harming others and themselves. We need to help each other. We’ve witnessed the horrible aftermath of a Hurricane. There is a similar aftermath to those who insist on causing division. It would be much easier to stop the problem than it is to clean it up.
The best defense against a person who causes divisions and erects obstacles is a strong relationship with God. Be a student of His Word. Bring matters to the Lord in prayer. Be attentive to the voice of God’s Spirit. Paul told the Romans that he wanted them to be “wise about what is good, innocent about what is evil.”
The best way to guard against divisiveness in the body of Christ is to start with yourself. Rather than thinking about all the people you “hope are listening” or those you “wish were here today” . . . do a personal inventory of your own heart. Examine your words, your actions, and your attitudes. Are you being petty? Are you jumping to conclusions? Are you rejoicing at evil? Are you creating division by your words or attitudes? If so, repent.
It is certainly true that no man is an island. We need each other. However, we need to realize that we become like the people we allow to influence us. If we surround ourselves with humble servants of God, we will become a humbler servant ourselves. If we surround ourselves with narrow minded and judgmental people, that is what we will become. If we surround ourselves with those who love we will love. And if we surround ourselves with those who cause trouble . . . we will become a troublemaker ourselves. While we are to love and embrace everyone, we must choose our friends and mentors carefully.
Take a moment to look objectively at your inner circle of friends. Are they helping you grow in grace and truth or are they hindering you? Are they encouraging you in godliness or worldliness? Are they helping you to focus on others or encouraging you to be more self-absorbed? Are they urging you to fight or to love?
If you see that your friends are hurting you spiritually you might need to work at building some new friendships. It’s not easy it will determine whether you are a person who builds the Kingdom or destroys it.
A truly good movie is one you enjoy watching again and again. You memorize lines and find yourself crying in anticipation of the movie’s climax. A truly good book is one that you want to return to again and again. You quote the book, you buy it for your friends, you study it, and you may even use it as a model for your own writing.
The letter or book of Romans is like that. This is not a book you read or study and then put it away. It is a letter you should read again and again. It contains the truth of the gospel. It helps us keep our faith on course. I hope you will read this book until you can recite its contents from memory.
In one sense we have finished our study. In another, we have only begun.