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Fight Valiantly! The Heresy Steeplechase

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 13 Mar 2019

Lee Gatiss explores the dangers and obstacles set in our way by false teachers. This Lent series is also available as a video podcast on our YouTube channel.

Paul concludes his letter to the Romans with a warning to “watch out!” He presents the Christian life as a steeplechase, with hurdles and ditches for us to avoid along the way:

“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. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Romans 16:17-20).

Notice how Paul describes the false teaching and its effects. It causes divisions and creates obstacles, perhaps on issues of “the Law” which are discussed earlier in the letter. The Roman Christians are to keep an eye on and “avoid” people who do that, because such behaviour indicates that they are not serving the same Lord. So their interests and motives will be different.

The word for “avoid” here means to turn aside or bend away from them, and this is what the Romans are commanded to do. Our Lord likes to bring people together; these people enjoy dividing them into parties. They serve their own appetites (literally, their stomachs, as in Philippians 3:19) and try to get others to do the same. Your response, says Paul, is to be obedient to our Master, the Lord Christ, rather than to base instincts, looking forward to the eventual defeat of such evil and its dark lord, Satan. His defeat is mentioned here as an encouragement not to compromise in panic with God’s enemies.

Some people, unwary or naive believers, can be taken in by the “smooth talk” and persuasiveness of these flatterers. It’s all very well to be innocent Christians in childlike obedience, but we must also be discerning; “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” as Jesus put it (Matthew 10:16). Paul wants the early Christians to protect people who could be led astray, by being vigilant to turn away from heresies and heretics who might wheedle their way in to the churches. Jesus warned us, of course, that there would be “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, who would sneak into the church under a cloak of piety (Matthew 7:15) to “speak peace with their neighbours while evil is in their hearts” (Psalm 28:3).

It is vital to notice that the divisive people here are said to be serving their own appetites, and also to be harming others. They might not have seen it that way or presented it that way themselves, but Paul discerns that this is what is going on, and it may have been apparent by looking at the effect of the false teaching in their lives. These are often essential aspects of heresy and false teaching, according to the New Testament. As one writer has so forcefully put it:

“We are susceptible to heretical teachings because, in one form or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us. As they lead us into blind alleys of self-indulgence and escape from life, heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart. It is astonishing how little attention has been given to these two aspects of heresy: its cruelty and its pandering to sin.” (C. Fitzsimons Allison)

That is certainly the case in Romans, and we will see those themes emerging again and again as we survey the rest of the New Testament. Different forms of false teaching are in view, at various times and in various places. But each embodiment of satanic deception plays in one way or another on our weaknesses and our disordered desires, attempting to deflect us from the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19).

Questions for Reflection

1. Who is the cause of the divisions in Rome: those who spread heresy or those who try to avoid it and stay away from it?
2. What heresies can you think of today which play on people’s desires and appetites?
3. Why is heresy cruel, and how can we better present it in that light?

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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