Trouble in the Church!

Romans 16:17-20

September 15, 2007 | Ray Pritchard

Greet one another with a holy kiss … but don’t go kissing everyone.

That will serve as a useful summary of our text. Sometimes it’s not what you say but when you say it that matters. Paul writes these stern words immediately after a long paragraph extending personal greetings to various friends in the church at Rome. As he shares his heart with his readers, he concludes with a call to greet one another with a holy kiss (v. 16). And in the very next verse he warns them to watch out for troublemakers in the church.

So much for the lovey-dovey stuff.

If you happened to read last week’s sermon on the holy kiss,

And if you happened to like it,

You need to read this one also.

There are some people we can’t be “holy kissing” because they aren’t holy people. And some of those unholy people are inside the church. That’s the gist of this little paragraph.

Greet each other with holy kisses … but don’t kiss unholy people.

Almost every Bible commentator remarks on the surprise of this sudden warning. If you were reading Romans for the first time, there would be nothing to prepare you for what Paul says in these verses. Most of us would say that you ought to try to end your letters on a high note. Put the hard words somewhere in the middle. Don’t save them for the end. But Paul rejects that advice, choosing to issue one final warning after he has expressed his love for the church at Rome in a very personal way. William Barclay calls this passage a “last, loving appeal,” and he’s right about that. Paul had seen with his own eyes the danger of troublemakers in the church. So before he finishes his letter to the Romans, he warns them to keep their eyes open for those who would destroy the unity of the church.

Trouble Sooner or Later

This is an important message because every church has trouble sooner or later. Churches sometimes have difficulty getting enough members together to make up a quorum for a business meeting. But there’s one easy way to get far more than a quorum: Announce a moral scandal, a doctrinal controversy or an impending church split. The sanctuary will be jammed with people. Conflict always draws a crowd.

And every church has problems, some large, some small, and every church will face a time of crisis sooner or later. You can’t avoid it completely, and you can’t always head it off at the pass or manage your way around it. It doesn’t matter whether your church is young or old or what denomination it is or who the pastor is or what sort of church government you have. None of that cancels basic human nature and the reality that sometimes unholy people end up inside the church.

That’s exactly the situation Paul confronts as he nears the end of his letter to the church at Rome. Having given warm greetings, he issues a final, solemn warning. After all, Paul had seen a lot in his ministry. He had seen churches start well and then decline. He had seen churches split into arguing factions and lose their effectiveness for Christ. And in some sad cases he had seen good churches become infected with heresy that ultimately turned them away from Christ altogether.

Could that happen? The answer is yes.

Could that happen in your church? The answer is yes.

It may be that your church has no serious problems at the moment. It may be that you attend a congregation of Spirit-filled believers who love the Lord, love his Word, love each other, and love those outside the church. That’s wonderful when it happens—and it does happen—and if that is true of your church, get on your knees and give thanks to God because it is all too rare.


Increasingly one hears stories of churches torn apart because of controversy The Internet has almost guaranteed that if the church is large and influential, any trouble inside the church will spill over onto the Internet through weblogs, chat rooms and anonymous emails.

On that last point, let me add a word. Anonymous criticism generally ought to be disregarded. This morning I spent quite a while reading an anonymous letter written by someone who serves in a large evangelical denomination. In it he lodges several accusations against certain leaders of his denomination. Besides not providing specific details, he didn’t sign his name. As such, his criticism is essentially worthless. Anonymous criticism allows the critic to say anything he wants, free from any accountability for his words. Church leaders would do well to ignore unsigned letters and emails because there is no way to evaluate the credibility of the comments or the motives of the writer. If a man doesn’t have the courage to sign his name, why should anyone listen to what he has to say? Few things rip a church apart like anonymous criticism.

I. A Plea for Vigilance

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (v. 17). When Paul says, “Watch out,” he’s not speaking of people outside the church. This isn’t a warning about persecution from outsiders but from trouble caused by people already in the church. They may be church members, Sunday School teachers, Awana leaders, choir members, small group leaders, or they may be elders or deacons. Something is wrong with them on the inside. The King James says, “Mark them that cause divisions.” You remember, I’m sure, that in Nathanael Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne was forced to wear a scarlet letter A because she was convicted of adultery. Perhaps we should ask some church members to wear a large T (for troublemaker) so we’ll know them when they’re coming. Paul says there will be people like that so mark them, notice them, watch out for them. It’s like going to the doctor and he finds something suspicious so he says, “Let’s watch that for a while.” When you find people who have a tendency to cause trouble, watch them carefully.

You’ve heard of home-wreckers. The Bible teaches there are also church-wreckers.

So how do you spot people like this? I ran across an article by Douglas Wilson called The Genesis of Church Splits. He points out (on the basis of James 4:1-6) that the basic problem is envy—misdirected desire. We want something we don’t have—power, influence, authority, position, recognition. Unhappy church members want what they don’t have and so they gossip, spread rumors and pick fights, like crazed rats trapped in a maze, all in a desperate attempt for what they don’t have. Envy, he says, is

particularly potent in the realm of religious politics. This is because envy knows how to disguise itself as many different virtues, dear to the hearts of Pharisees everywhere. Envy can readily appear as a zeal for orthodoxy, or righteous indignation, or a concern for the poor, or high musical standards for the choir, or as missional concern. But however it appears, it is quickly and necessarily the source of conflict.

Then he goes on to list some of the marks of those who cause trouble in the church. Even though the issues differ from place to place, cantankerous people tend to share common traits. For instance, they often have a track record of previous misbehavior. They have caused trouble in other churches or on the job or they have disputes with their neighbors or with the school board. Unhappy people tend to be unhappy everywhere. Second, they tend to be in contact with a vast company of “nameless others” who share their concerns. They claim to represent a host of other frustrated people who for some reason are never actually named. They sometimes become quick friends—too quickly—so that they can claim to feel betrayed by you later. They flatter, then they attack. They pose the same questions over and over, never satisfied with answers already given. They want to fight the same battles until they win. Nothing you say satisfies them. They often lie or shade the truth. Sometimes they justify their manipulation because they are “doing the Lord’s work.” Beware of those who take notes at odd times or who haul around huge folders full of documents. They sometimes demand exemption from the established procedures and the right to by-pass normal processes. They have to have a cause to fight for in order to be happy. And they often congregate with other unhappy people in a “fellowship of the aggrieved.”


Note how Paul puts it. These troublemakers cause divisions in the church, they create obstacles, and they contradict the truth they claim to believe. This is a familiar theme in the New Testament. You can find more about these people in 1 Corinthians 5:11, Philippians 3:2, Colossians 2:8, 1 Timothy 4:1-6, 2 Timothy 3:1-9, Titus 3:10, and Jude 1:11-16. Perhaps the clearest warning can be found in Acts 20:29-30 where Paul warns the Ephesian elders that “fierce wolves will come in among you,” suggesting an infiltration of false teachers at the highest level of church leaders. In all of these things there is a combination wrong doctrine and evil character. The warnings are given so often and in so many ways that we must understand that troublemaking was as common in the early church as it is today.

II. A Call for Separation

“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” (v. 18). Here Paul exposes both the motives and the methods of the troublemakers. First, they are utterly self-centered. The King James uses the colorful phrase “whose God is their belly,” meaning like little babies, they want what they want when they want it, and if they don’t get it, they pitch a fit. If that doesn’t work, they cry louder, getting red in the face, balling their fists and uttering dire threats. It’s all a ploy to get their own way. Second, they practice deceit. The Greek word for “smooth talk” is “chrestologos.” It describes someone who is a gifted speaker and yet has bad motives. The message offers this colorful paraphrase: “They’re only in this for what they can get out of it, and aren’t above using pious sweet talk to dupe unsuspecting innocents.” I like that—”pious sweet talk.” They can quote Scripture, too. They claim to be doing the work of the Lord, but they are in it to get their own way. Watch out for these “silver-tongued devils.”

We can see this in the current debate over homosexuality in the mainline denominations. Today we have bishops who openly support gay priests and gay marriage. And they do it in the name of God. Never mind that they are overturning 2000 years of Christian tradition and the clear teaching of the Word of God. Sometimes they argue that the Bible isn’t clear on the subject or they say that love matters more than what the text actually says or they reinterpret the text to make it say what they want it to say. Or they brush away the Bible by claiming that the Holy Spirit has led them to endorse homosexuality in the church. This month the Episcopal Church is coming to a showdown over this issue. Based on our text, I would say that we ought not to be surprised by such apostasy, and we must make sure that we have no part in it either.

A generation ago Edward John Carnell put the matter in perspective when he declared, “It is better to divide over truth than to unite around error.”

Not everyone is welcome in the church. That’s a truly shocking thought in these days of ultra-inclusion when even in evangelical circles we so strongly emphasize the unconditional love of God. Sometimes we sound as if in our desperation to welcome people that we are willing to compromise everything we believe in order to fill our pews. To be sure, we won’t be popular if we take a stand for truth. So be it.

The words of Martin Luther apply at precisely this point:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest expression every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace, if he flinches at that point.


III. A Need for Wisdom

“Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (v. 19). His advice is positive and negative:

Be wise about what is good.

Be innocent about what is evil.

One translation says, “Be experts in doing good.” I like that. The flip side is also important. To be innocent literally means to be untainted or unmixed. It was used for untainted milk. That is, milk that was free from all impurities. That’s why J. B. Phillips translates it as “not even beginners in evil.” The New English Bible calls believers to be “simpletons in evil.” We are not to dabble in sin or look at it and say, “How far can I go”? That’s like seeing how close you can drive your car to the edge of a cliff. We are to be uncorrupted by evil.

Years ago Jack Wyrtzen, the founder of Word of Life (a worldwide youth ministry), debated a famous New York City radio talk show host over the issue of pornography. Before the debate, the host sent Jack a big stack of what we might call “dirty magazines,” hoping that Jack would look at them before the debate. When Jack opened the package, he told his secretary to “get this garbage out of here.” He wouldn’t even look at it. During the debate, when the talk show host asked if Jack had read the magazines, he said no. “Why didn’t you?” Jack answered with profound wisdom: “You don’t have to lift the lid off the sewer to know that it stinks.”

Here are three tests for truth from our text:


1) Biblical (v. 17): Does this teaching contradict the Bible?

2) Christological (v. 18): Does it glorify Jesus Christ?

3) Ethical (v. 19): Does it promote goodness?

IV. A Promise of Victory

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (v. 20). Why does he suddenly bring up Satan? Because that’s where these false teachers and divisive people come from. They are doing Satan’s work whether they realize it or not. It may sound strange to say that the “God of peace” will “crush Satan.” This reminds us that our God—the God of peace—is also a warrior. He is the Lord of Hosts who marches forth to do battle against all that is evil in the universe. In this verse we have a clear allusion to Genesis 3:15, the sentence pronounced against the serpent after the entrance of sin in the Garden of Eden.

Now this hasn’t happened yet. Just read any newspaper and you can tell that Satan hasn’t been crushed under our feet yet. He was defeated at the cross and his ultimate doom announced, but his eternal banishment to the lake of fire has not yet happened. When it does, the whole universe will know that God has won and Satan has lost. And all those who now follow Satan in his evil schemes will know that they have been following the Ultimate Loser.

This is tremendously good news for defeated, discouraged, disheartened Christians who wonder why life is so hard and why they struggle so much. As the old gospel song says, “

This day the noise of battle,

The next the victor’s song.

Between now and then we must stand and fight, taking up the armor of God and entering the spiritual warfare that rages all around us. Because we live in the “in-between” time of history when Satan is still alive and well on planet earth, we will often be hit by his “fiery darts” of fear, anger, doubt and discouragement. There is no relief from that battle in this age. No Christian can escape it or claim a divine exemption. But our text ends on an upbeat note.

We’re on the winning side.

Victory is assured.

Right now Satan is having his day but in the end, through Jesus Christ we will have our day. And what a day that will be when

Satan is crushed under our feet,

Evil is vanquished,

Jesus will reign on the earth, and

We will reign with him.

When will that happen? Look at verse 19. Soon! If it was “soon” 2000 years ago, think how much closer it is today.

Brothers and sisters, we’re on the winning side. Though the church be rocked by skeptics without and troublemakers within, and Satan sometimes seems to be winning the battle, remember that the story isn’t over yet. You can’t tell the winner by looking at the scoreboard in the third quarter. You’ve got to wait until the end of the game.

When John Piper preached on this text, he commented that when it comes to truth and unity, we tend to go one way or the other. Either we stress truth at the expense of unity, or we stress unity at the expense of truth. But we don’t have to choose. If we believe this text, we will stand for the truth in order to preserve the unity of the church because truth is the basis of unity. Without a common commitment to the truth of the Christian faith, we are left with nothing but personal preference and the whim of the majority. And eventually a church built on personal preference will fall prey to the prevailing spirit of the age. Only a church founded on truth can truly be united.

So we don’t to have to choose between truth and unity. We need them both.

Purity and unity.

Love and light.

Holiness and kindness.

Grace and truth.

Conviction and compassion.

They always go together, and we separate them at our peril. When we keep them together—loving the truth and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ—then we are free to greet one another with a holy kiss.

So I end where I began. We shouldn’t be kissing everyone because not everyone deserves a holy kiss. When we practice true biblical discernment, there will be peace in our churches because the troublemakers will not rule the day. And the great irony is this. Taking the hard stand for truth frees us up to truly love each other. Then we can greet each other with a holy kiss and know that God approves of what we are doing. That’s how last week’s sermon and this week’s sermon go together. We don’t have to choose between “holy kissing” and “mark those who cause divisions.” They fit together in God’s mind the same way that truth and love go together. That’s why this passage comes right after the call to greet one another with a holy kiss. Let’s take them both together and we’ll all be better off. What God has joined together, let no one separate. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?