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. 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. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (NIV)
The Apostle Paul’s original writing of these verses was packed with an exceptionally large punch. Almost every word he used was in the strongest possible language. For example:
“Urge” has the force of “beg,” as in the blind man crying out and begging Jesus to heal him. (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43)
“Watch out” has the meaning of marking someone as if to keep constant eyes on them.
“Divisions” are human created arbitrary lines, and acts of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:19-20)
“Obstacles” comes from a word in which we get our English word “scandal,” which is caused by judging another person. (Romans 14:13)
“Keep away” is not a passive avoidance, but literally means to fling yourself away from a danger, like Joseph running out of Potiphar’s house and away from his wife. (Genesis 39:11-12)
Paul was begging his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to identify people who contrive human divisions between others and create offensive scandals and get as far away from them as you can.
If this were 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 three primary groups of people:
- Gentile Christians who had come to faith in Christ from their pagan backgrounds and were delighting in their newfound change of life.
- Jewish Christians who had come to faith in Christ and liked their old religious traditions yet were willing to change to accommodate new believers.
- Jewish Christians who had made professions of faith in Christ, and not only wanted to keep their centuries old traditions but were unwilling to change and sought to make Jews of the Gentiles, using every ounce of influence, power, manipulation, and negativity to do it.
Paul, as a Jewish Christian himself, clearly understood what they wanted and what was at stake. Paul’s insistence throughout his letter to the Romans was to argue for the priority of 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, liturgical traditions, feast days, and ritual observances. Paul had no problem with the practices themselves; what he had an issue with is making them mandatory alongside the gospel.
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 as they could. Yet, Paul remained consistent in all 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:
After a first and second warning, have nothing more to do with a person who causes conflict, because you know that someone like this is twisted and sinful—so they condemn themselves. (Titus 3:10-11, CEB).
Whenever a passion for power and tradition prevails over a desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ, then we have an issue of character. Stirring up antagonism against biblically-oriented, Spirit-directed change is demonic – and the real test of it is a constant stream of negativism which is secretive, remains in the shadows, relies on gossip and slander for its fuel, and hates being in the light.
Jesus said to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves because there are wolves among the sheep (Matthew 10:16). You will know them by their fruit. We are called not to participate in negative influences! Thus, individuals must be called-out for their chronic negative spirits. So, how do we do it? How do we shut-out the negativity?
Name it. Call it what it is: fighting against the Holy Spirit and attributing evil to the work of God (Matthew 12:30-32). When someone comes to you and wants to dish up a little sumthin’-sumthin’ on someone or something, refuse to take the bait. Reject the deprecation like the big man in the middle of the defense in basketball, rejecting the shot, with announcer Marv Albert shouting, “Ree-jected!”
Keeping a group of friends who are positive, encouraging, helpful, and steering clear of antagonistic attitudes is extremely beneficial to both physical and spiritual health. In a recent study at Stanford University, a pair of researchers reviewed over 200 studies on group therapy and concluded that group members “develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their positive acceptance and feedback.” In other words, negative thinking keeps people in bondage, whereas the positive encouragement of others brings freedom and life.
Someone might be speaking to you, start talking around some issue slowly, but eventually comes around to carving up another person like a Thanksgiving turkey. What do you do? Rebuke it. We can say something like, “When you continue to speak with such negativity about ______ I feel upset because I need to be in a place which helps me to spiritually grow. Will you please stop being so negative?”
I once had a person come to me not knowing how to deal with a negative person. I walked him through some biblical ways about confronting the negativity when it comes. He simply hung his head and said he could not do that. He was miserable, which is why he came and talked to me. And he walked away with that same misery because he was not willing to call out a person on their destructive negativity.
You and I are in control of our own happiness. If another person causes us anger; if some politician drives us nuts; if a television program or radio show is upsetting me; then, it is our responsibility to keep away. If we have a chronic negative person in our life, and have tried to deal with that person, and they refuse to listen, we can say something like this when they start their rant: “I don’t want to hear it. And if you keep bringing it up and being negative, I will walk out of the room.” The principle here is that we control our own behavior, not somebody else’s.
Satan is the author of negative antagonism. He talked trash about God in the garden to Adam and Eve. So, avoid getting caught up in trying to dialogue with a negative person. Redirect the negativity by calling the person to change their ways, because truth be told, the negativity is really rebellion against God. It is not uncivil to put the focus on the life-giving positive effects of God’s gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and insist on repentance.
If you are wondering, “I could never do that” then you likely have been telling yourself a lot of negative thoughts. God calls us to stamp-out the negativity before it can get started, even within our own brains. In some cases, we need to re-train our minds to focus on the positive, and not the negative.
It takes two to tango. Negativity cannot survive if there is no one to listen to it. We are to stop being negative and 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, Paul said to stay away from them. Have nothing to do with them. Do not participate in the divisive speech. Refuse it. Rebuke it. Redirect it. God wants us righteous and robust, holy, and happy – not walking around like a grump who was baptized in pickle juice.
We can choose to fill our minds with the gospel of Jesus; pray positively about everything; and find the good in all things. We can continually choose to cultivate unity, purity, peace, and love. In doing so, we enjoy life together.
May it be so, to the glory of God.