“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way, contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (Romans 16:17, NIV).
Almost every word used in this Bible verse is in the strongest possible language —
–“Urge” has the force of “beg” (as in the blind man crying out and begging Jesus to heal him).
–“Watch out” has the meaning of marking someone as if to keep constant eyes on them.
–“Divisions” are human created arbitrary lines (described in Galatians 5 as an act of the sinful nature).
–“Obstacles” comes from a word in which we get our English word “scandal” (which is caused by judging another person, as in Romans 14:13 – “Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any “scandal” in your brother’s way”).
–“Keep away” is not simply a passive avoidance, but literally means to fling yourself away from a danger (think: Joseph running out of Potiphar’s house and away from the seductress wife).
Here is my own translation: I beg you, brothers and sisters, to identify people in the church who create man-made divisions and offensive scandals as if they were as important as the gospel. Get yourselves as far away from such persons as you can.
If this was a professional wrestling match, the Apostle Paul would be in a cage match against the Jewish Christian Bruiser who has been talking trash for months about the Gentile Christians. In the church at Rome, there were actually three primary groups of people:
1) Gentile Christians who had come to faith in Christ from their pagan backgrounds and were delighting in their newfound change of life;
2) Jewish Christians who had come to faith in Christ and liked their old religious traditions, but were willing to change in light of the church being established by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost;
3) Jewish Christians who had made professions of faith in Christ, and not only wanted to keep their centuries old traditions of Judaism, but valued them to such a degree that they would preserve them at all costs. In other words, their agenda was to make Jews of the Gentiles and they would do anything to make sure that happened, including using every ounce of influence, power, manipulation, and negativity they could to hold on to those traditions.
Paul, as a Jewish Christian himself, trained in the ways of Judaism from his youth, clearly understood what they wanted and what was at stake. Paul’s insistence throughout the book of Romans is to argue for the priority of the gospel, the good news that sinners find forgiveness based in grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ, apart from circumcision, Sabbath observance, Jewish liturgical traditions, feast days, and everything that went into making a good Jew a good Jew.
The Jewish Christian Bruisers felt justified in doing whatever they could to stand against a change in their traditions. They tried to negatively influence everyone they could. And if they could not get anywhere with Paul, they would go underground and be as subversive against him that they could. But Paul remained consistent in all of the churches about the reality of God’s grace in Christ.
Paul understood that negative people only create more negative people. Which is why he said to Titus, after having talked to him about the priority of being justified by grace: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).
When a passion for power and tradition trumps a passion to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ, then that is a character issue. Trying to create a surge of negativity against biblically-oriented, Spirit-directed change is demonic – and the real test of it is a constant stream of negativity that is secretive, remains in the shadows, relies on gossip and slander for its fuel, and hates being in the light.
It takes two to tango. Negativity cannot survive if there is no one to listen to it. We are to stop being negative, and are to stop listening to negative people because it creates divisions and scandals. If there are people who chronically have negative speech and can never seem to say anything good about someone or something in particular in the church, Paul says to stay away from them. Have nothing to do with them. Do not participate in the divisive speech. Refuse it. Rebuke it. Redirect it. Uninstall the negativity because God does not want us participating with evil.