Why did Paul have to say this? After all those words of commendation to the wonderful Christians at Rome, culminating with, “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ salute you” (16), he follows with, “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (17-18). Apparently, it was because dissension and division are always possible. The same is true today. A loving, caring church can have one or more who are intent on causing trouble. Look at Paul’s words more closely.
The problem: “Dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned….” Specifically, what does Paul mean. Comb through the whole letter. There are doctrinal truths about salvation, Jesus, and discipleship especially in chapters 1 through 11. Then, there are moral and social truths about how we are to treat each other in chapters 12 though 15. Anyone who violated any of the teaching here was the object of Paul’s warning.
The prescription: “Keep your eye on [them]…and turn away from them.” Paul is saying, “Keep your eyes peeled.” Who are we looking for Paul? Anyone causing dissension (“a division into opposing groups…‘to cause people to be angry at one another’ or ‘to cause people not to like one another’ or ‘to cause people to think of one another as enemies.’” (Louw-Nida 493) or hindrances (the Greek word here is the one from which we get our word “scandal”; cause for stumbling; that which causes offense or arouses opposition, ibid.). Watch out for people who stir up trouble, cause a scene, or instigate problems through a sinful attitude, sinful speech, or sinful conduct. Then, “turn away from them.” In passages dealing with church discipline, God says, “keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life” (2 Th. 3:6), “do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame” (2 Th. 3:14), “reject a factious man after a first and second warning” (Ti. 3:10), and “do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting” (2 John 10).
The perpetrator: Paul gives multiple descriptions of the dissension-maker. They are slaves of their own appetites. They sin with their speech. They deceive the unsuspecting. In other words, they may appear to be one thing, but they are actually something else. They may seem like a victim, when they are the aggressor. They may claim innocence, when they are guilty. They present one side of the story, but there is way more to the story.
The Lord wants His church to grow, building on the foundation of the truth of Scripture. Satan wants the Lord’s church to suffer, divide, and be distracted. We decide whose side we are fighting on. We must always act to protect the precious bride of Christ from any and every attack, from without or within. God help us do so with love and courage!