The Dangerous Duty of Discernment

“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 naïve” (Romans 16:17-18 ESV).

Who are the Wolves?

Paul is describing two kinds of wolves here. Some wolves are teaching/theological wolves. Some are congregation-dividing wolves. False teaching wolves and divisive wolves. Both are divisive, both eat the flock up, but they do so in different ways.

Divisively Deviant

A divisive wolf isn’t necessarily teaching something that’s blatantly wrong or heretical, but they are really good at creating fissures and cracks in the relationships of the church. Unity doesn’t matter to them. This is the person for whom every molehill is a mountain. Every issue is the most important thing in the history of the church. They create disunity by personality or for the sake of their cause. They typically draw a tribe of people around them who share some sympathy with them. Sometimes this is a new idea or a new direction or a new whatever. The naïve, which is what Paul calls them, are drawn into their influence. There’s something new and exciting about it. At the center is a wolf.

Now, does this person have fur and sharp teeth? No. The wolf never says, Hi, I’m a wolf. So nice to meet you! Divisive people ALWAYS are appealing type people, otherwise nobody would follow them and nothing would divide. Paul describes them in verse 18 as smooth talkers and flatterers. Think of Absalom at the city gate. Handsome. Well spoken. But turning the people’s hearts against King David. Therein lies the problem. The appealing personality hides the poison of a divisive spirit and intent. It takes discerning eyes to see them for who they really are. Here is what Paul warned the elders of the Ephesian church,

“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).

Wolves don’t care about the sheep. They use the sheep. Wolves don’t care about harmony in the church. They don’t care about unity. Unity keeps them from their goal.

  • “…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2–3).
  • “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers” (Proverbs 6:16–19).
  • “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10).
  • “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

All of these reinforce Romans 16’s appeal to look out for divisive wolves. Beware when someone seems to be dividing people.

If you have kids who love nature documentaries like mine, you know this. I’ve watched many a documentary on the big cats. Cheetahs. Lions. Their strategy in the hunt is always the same. They create confusion and the wildebeests go off in all directions. They look for the young or vulnerable or any adult animal who is separated from the herd. As you watch, you see that wildebeest separated from the herd, and you think, bye-bye. Some of my favorite videos are the ones where the lions have the water buffalo by the neck. It’s almost dead. But then here comes the herd together and they chase off the lion. When we stick together, we can run off the lions.

The point is that these divisive wolves prey on the vulnerable, the naïve, and the immature, by creating division and rallying the naïve to their new thing. Watch out for them.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2021 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address ( on the copied resource.

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