By James Cornwell
Reading from Romans, 16:17-27
17 I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. 18For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. 19For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good, and guileless in what is evil. 20The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
21 Timothy, my co-worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my relatives.
22 I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.
23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.
25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.
St. Paul warns against those who create “divisions and offenses in opposition to the teaching” of the gospel — those who “by smooth talk and flattery” deceive hearts.
Perhaps this is a warning aimed squarely at the most educated among us (myself very much included). After all, we ask well-educated people to lead our institutions, and recent research suggests that, while education can lower racial and gender-based prejudice, it actually increases prejudice against ideological outgroups. The most extreme on the left and right are also extremely well-educated.
Education provides great opportunity to do good. It also gives us the tools to harden our hearts. We become so adept at arguing, at finding logical flaws, that we flirt dangerously with staying in that adversarial mode as we approach people — and enjoying it. And by focusing so intently on the flaws in others’ arguments, we easily become blind to the flaws in our own. Having thus trained ourselves, we feel compelled — morally compelled! — to declaim against those on the “other side.” Our theology may indeed be right; but we are eaten up with pride.
Even when “speaking truth to power,” it is possible to cause our brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Elsewhere St. Paul exhorts us to correct those who go astray “in humility.” Before reaching out to correct a view of a brother or sister whom you believe to be wrong, ask yourself: Am I doing this in a spirit of humility — a spirit of trembling, love, and willingness to serve? Am I magnifying Christ or magnifying myself? In all our arguments, we must decrease that he might increase.
James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.
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