“I want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil.” Romans 16:19
We have read through the letter of Paul to the Christians in Rome with all its revelation of the life to be lived in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We join with him in joy over all the servants of Christ he mentions who laboured in love at great personal cost and risk for the sake of the Gospel. Many of us are at the other end of this unbroken chain of passing the Gospel from one person to the next until at last it came to us. Yes, we have much to rejoice in as we read the names of these faithful servants and we pray that we will not be the final link in that chain.
In the midst of Paul’s greetings to the Christians in Rome he makes a statement that seems out of place.
For that chain to remain unbroken each link must be strong and faithful to the true Gospel. In rejoicing in the faithful people Paul also acknowledges that there are some who have a different motivation who set out to deceive those who are not wise.
He is not speaking of the atheist, the humanist or the secular people of his time. He is speaking of people in the church who do not labour for Jesus Christ but labour for their own gain (v 18). That gain may be stature and prominence and not necessarily material gain. They were using “smooth words and flattering speech” to deceive the unwise. This method works. It is hard to argue against such people because what they say appeals to fallen human logic and reason. That which is spiritual sounds impotent against this kind of speech except to one who is spiritual and this is why such people gain a following.
The Gospel they preach is not true but has the appearance of being true because it sounds logical to the fallen human mind. Instead of being a steel link in the chain it is merely plastic that will break under stress. Paul doesn’t mention just what their error was. It might well be that he hasn’t described the particular error because he wants his readers to be on watch for all kinds of false teaching (v 17).
Paul writes that the underlying motivation is selfish (v 18). Instead of ministering to the real needs of others they manipulate people to serve their own aims and desires through “smooth words and flattering speech.” The need in mind in this passage is living the Gospel of Christ everyday and serving Him just as those he mentions in the greetings are doing. He warns them not to become involved with those who manipulate people to meet their own needs instead of ministering to the needs of other people.
It isn’t just that they bring division between believers but that they also separate believers from the will of God – and unity in the church suffers. Such people may generate large followings of themselves instead of disciples of Jesus Christ. They act in a political way and not in a spiritual way. Paul warns us that they will appear in our local church. Seeking their own ends they gain disciples whom they make just like themselves. Paul writes that we should avoid them and most certainly not consider them as disciples of Jesus Christ.