Sticking Together, Sticking With It
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” Those are the words of Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and Christian philosopher who lived in the 1,600s. “Men,” and by men he means human beings, “Human beings never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” Sad words, but very true words. How many wars have been fought, how many people tortured, persecuted, and killed, how many people mistreated and abused, how many cultures destroyed, all in the name of God? Conquer and conquest. It’s certainly happened on a global scale. The crusades. Genocide. The extermination of peoples. In Ireland it was the war of terrorism fought between protestant and catholic. But it happens on a more local and personal level too. “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.
The bent of human beings is to build ourselves and our own kingdom up by tearing others down. It happens in politics. It happens in business. It happens in communities and in families. And it happens in the church. A few years ago we had put up a temporary fence in our garden so that Becky’s goats could browse over the grass and bramble in an unplanted part of her garden. Her perennial fruit plants like strawberries and blueberries and raspberries and blackberries were growing in half of the garden, and the other half, the half reserved for things like sweet corn and beans and tomatoes, had gone unplanted that year. And she wanted the goats to get it under control. So we put up a temporary fence and turned the goats loose in that part of the garden. The problem with goats and fences is that fences can’t keep goats in. There’s a saying among people who have goats: If your fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold a goat. Like cats, goats seem to have an uncanny ability to make their bones dissolve when they want so that they can fit into and through holes and spaces you never thought they could get through.
Well, this fence didn’t hold water, and it certainly didn’t hold the goats. Took them about 15 minutes to find a way into the planted part of the garden, where, instead of doing the good thing they were supposed to be doing, they were wreaking havoc. Goats really like strawberry plants, apparently. And Becky came stomping into the house with her face a shade of red I hadn’t seen on her before. Smoke was coming out of her ears and up through her collar. I had just brought in the newspaper, and she snatched it up angrily and opened it up and looked through it, all the while fuming about the goats in her strawberries, which I didn’t know was happening. And she spied an ad in the classifieds. “Have horse to trade for goats.” She dropped the classifieds in my lap, pointed to the ad, and said, “Call them.” At the time, I was looking for a horse of my own. We already had a horse for Aubrey, but I didn’t have one and wanted one for myself. And I was sure of two things in that moment: 1. Becky was dead serious. And 2. She wouldn’t be dead serious for long. So I called the number right then and a day later came home with my Quarter Horse Tuff. And the goats were in a new home. Had to act before she cooled off. That’s the story of how I got my horse Tuff.
Goats loose in the garden wasn’t a good thing. They tore everything up. The strawberries, the blueberries, the raspberries, everything. Sometimes, goats get loose in the church too, and as Paul closes his letter to the church at Rome, he warns us about them. Turn with me to Romans 16:17-23.
Paul uses the word “urge” three times in Romans. He urges us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God (12:1), he urged the Roman Christians to pray with him that his plans to take the good news of Jesus to Spain would not be hindered (15:30), and now he urges us to watch out for goats in the church. And the truth is, every church has them.
The first kind of goat Paul mentions is the divisive person. Look at the first part of V. 17. This person usually isn’t trying to be divisive. They’ll say they’re just trying to be helpful, but division follows them wherever they go. Whispers, secret meetings, rumors and gossip. These are the tools of the divisive person. If you want to see who the divisive people are, look for drama, because it surrounds them. When they get involved, little disagreements become huge, divisive arguments. Instead of de-escalating situations, they escalate them. They are drawn to and feed on criticism and discontent.
The divisive person might also be someone who has a really strong opinion about something that isn’t central to the Christian faith – in other words, something that doesn’t have anything to do with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It might be someone who has a strong opinion about Christians never drinking or smoking or dancing, or whether Christians can do yoga. Or it could be someone who takes a very specific view of the way in which God created the heavens and the earth or about the end times and the book of Revelation. And they try to find others who see things the way they do or convince others to see things the way they do, and then they begin to criticize anyone who disagrees with them or who sees things differently.
Sometimes divisive people find each other because they have the same view about something, or they dislike the same pastor, or whatever, and they begin to whisper and meet secretly and secretly try to draw others into their drama and verbal attack on a leader or a pastor they don’t like. And of course if you look for dirt on anyone, including pastors, you’ll find some, because none of us are perfect.
A divisive person is someone who manufactures or feeds preexisting discontent and creates unnecessary factions and division. Now, to be fair, sometimes the person who seems divisive is actually doing the right thing. If a church has drifted away from the core beliefs of the faith, and a new pastor or leader comes in and tries to draw the church back to that, the people, not being used to hearing the gospel proclaimed that way, might resist. In this situation, the divisive person is a truth-speaker who has come into a church that has drifted. But if that truth-speaker isn’t the pastor, it’s probably better to move on to a better situation if you find yourself in that situation. And if you’re the pastor, you’re in for a rough ride, even though you’re calling people back to faithfulness to Christ.
The ultimate questions people of our day are asking are these: What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose behind my life and my destiny? What questions are we evangelicals asking? Is dancing a sin? Should we immerse, sprinkle or pour? Who is the next logical candidate for Antichrist? While we are busy at conferences and conventions, talking with ourselves about the need for Christian aerobics, or coming up with four new and painless steps to victorious Christian living, the world is taking its business elsewhere – to merchants who apply their philosophy to the deep, essential questions of human life.[i]
The second goat in the garden that Paul warns us about is the false teacher. This person is a person in the church who teaches something contrary to the good news of Jesus while claiming to be a follower of Christ. False teachers can be divisive too, if they are able to get a group of people to listen to them. Look at V. 18. False teachers are usually teaching a gospel that focuses on comfort, or the passions and desires of the human heart. They’re Christian leaders living an incredibly lavish lifestyle in some way, and they modify their teaching to justify the way they live.
One of the false teachings we still see a lot today is what we used to call the prosperity gospel. It isn’t as prevalent and in your face as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s still there is less obvious ways. The prosperity gospel says that God blesses his faithful followers with business and financial success and material gain. The flip side of that is that poverty and struggle and losing your business are symptoms of not following Jesus. That health and wealth are signs of God’s blessing and illness and poverty and struggle are signs of God’s removing his hand from your life. And of course this isn’t true. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. A cross is a symbol of suffering and death, not a symbol of health and wealth in this world. Jesus tells us that those who seek to become first in this world will be last in the Kingdom of God, and those who are last from this world’s perspective will be first in the Kingdom of heaven. The song “This Is The Kingdom,” by the Christian hard rock band Skillet says, “Everybody’s building empires Building walls high in the name of glory Everybody’s hanging high wires
It’s a fine line, it’s an age-old story The first will be last And the last will be kings The small will be great And the great will be weak Everybody’s building empires.”
Another false teaching in the church today is the emphasis on emotion above all else. If our emotions are activated in some way, whether through feeling good or excited or shedding tears, it’s a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is at work. And if our emotions aren’t activated, it was a dead worship service. We think the Holy Spirit is moving only if our emotions are moved. Again, this simply isn’t true. Lot’s of things can trigger an emotional response that have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit moving. Adding smoke and lights to the worship team and a slick, well-rehearsed presentation can move our emotions. Music is powerful. It moves us. It creates emotion in us in a way that is difficult to explain. Rich Mullins was a popular Christian artist in the 80s and 90s. People would go up to him after his shows and say things like “Wow! The Holy Spirit really moved at that certain point in the song.” Rich would respond “No actually, that is where the kick drum and bass came in.”[ii]
Look again at the last part of V. 18. False teachers know how to manipulate emotions to gain followers from among a people who aren’t paying attention. False teachers are typically persuasive, but they’re motivated by pride, or greed, or power, or control.
So what’s our response to the goats in the garden, those divisive people and false teachers. Well, if you’re a leader, a pastor or an elder in the church, your job is to lovingly confront them privately and to take away their platform. And if you aren’t in one of those leadership positions, your job is to be obedient to Scripture. Look at Vv. 19-20. Paul elsewhere charges leaders with the task of confronting and correcting the goats in the garden. But here, he spells out the job of the congregation as a whole – wisdom and vigilance. Not suspicion of everyone. But vigilance. It means we’re to know, understand, and apply the Scriptures, and can recognize when someone is teaching something that contradicts Scripture. It means we refuse to be divisive on non-central issues when we disagree. It means that we refuse to be divided and misled. Typically, the divisive people will move on to other gardens if they don’t get an audience. It doesn’t mean we’re harsh and unforgiving. It simply means that we recognize when someone is, either intentionally or unintentionally, being divisive. As leaders, the pastors and elders will confront and correct. As members of the congregation, we refuse to engage. It might be as simple as saying “It sounds like you have some strong feelings about this. I’d suggest you talk directly to the pastor (or any other person who has upset them). I’m sure there are many perspectives on this. I’m not sure we want to divide over this.”
Division is one of Satan’s primary attacks on the body of Christ, and no matter how many times he uses it, we seem to always fall for it. Most churches have experienced damage caused by divisive people or divisive segments of the congregation. Again, this doesn’t mean we need to value unity at ANY cost. Sometimes division is necessary, if the church has drifted away from Christ over time. But Paul reminds us that Satan is a defeated foe. And our response to him is to be neither ignorant of his attacks and ignore him, nor obsessed with him, seeing a demon behind every bush. Satan is both real and dangerous and also a defeated foe who’s days are numbered and who is on a leash held by the hand of God.
Paul had lots of teammates. Look at Vv. 21-23. They came from many different backgrounds. And he mentions several of them here. Timothy was likely his closest working associate. Paul turned the church in Ephesus over to him at one point as their pastor. Paul was a Jew trained in Jerusalem under the greatest Jewish rabbi of the time, and he was a Pharisee, a legalistic, rigid Jew who was passionate about the Old Testament Law. Timothy was a gentile, a Greek speaking person who worked right alongside the old Jew. Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater were Jews born and raised and educated outside of Jerusalem, probably from near Corinth, where Paul was writing this letter. Gaius and Erastus were Greeks like Timothy. Erastus was an influential person in the city, the city treasurer. Phoebe, who carried the letter from Corinth to Rome for Paul, was a wealthy gentile businesswoman. And Tertius was the scribe who wrote down what Paul dictated as the scribe. Tertius means third, and it was a common name for a slave. Primus would be the oldest son in a slave family, secundus the second oldest, then Tertius, then Quartus. When you see those names, you’re almost certainly reading about slaves or former slaves who were now freedmen. With less than creative parents when it came to naming. “
So here’s a room filled with poor former slaves, Greeks, Jews, men, and women, working together, listening as Paul dictates the final words of his letter to the church in Rome. And as he wraps up, they chime in. “Hey Paul, tell them I said “Hi.” “Yeah, me too Paul.” “And me!” And then Tertius, who has been faithfully writing, and would later go back and rewrite the entire thing in his best penmanship. And he looks up at Paul and says, “Hey, can I say hi to them too?” And Paul, the Jewish rabbi, looks at Tertius, the Greek former slave, and says, “Of course brother. Add your greeting to the letter.” Teams require unity. And so our motto is “”IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY.”
In the Sam Mendes film 1917 Lance Corporal Schofield has been tasked with crossing through enemy-infested territory to deliver crucial news of a secret ambush to the British front lines. Schofield is given a warning about the commanding officer to whom he is delivering the letter. He is told, “Make sure there are witnesses. Some men just like the fight.”
The instruction is sobering. Even though Schofield is bringing direct orders to stand down, which will save thousands of lives, he is cautioned that the orders might be ignored. Why? Because regardless of the superior command to stand down, regardless of the cost, regardless of the impossible odds and the foolhardy death that would ensue, there is a zeal for battle in some that overrides all sense. When you feel built for war, when you long for the rush of conflict, not warring feels like cowardice, uselessness, pointlessness.
Some men just like the fight. But these are not real men. Real men are willing to fight when it is necessary. Faux men are itching to fight no matter what … Fighting is sometimes necessary. Liking to fight is not. In fact, it is forbidden.[iii] The goats in the garden are divisive people and false teachers. May we be on guard. “IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY.” Let us pray.
[i] Michael Scott Horton in Mission Accomplished. Christianity Today, Vol. 31, no. 7.
[ii] From the blog Music and Worship by Matt McNair, Apr 30, 2013
[iii] Jared C. Wilson, “Some Men Just Like the Fight,” The Gospel Coalition (1-23-20)