Jesus made only one petition in the garden for those who would become believers through the disciples’ testimony: for their unity. David wrote Psalm 133 about how beautiful it is to live in unity. Perhaps because God values it so much, it is one of the most fragile things in the church. After all, it requires humility. Conflict and division come more naturally.
A thousand years ago, the church divided into the Eastern and Western church. About five hundred years ago, the Western church divided into Catholic and Protestant. Conflict among Protestants caused division into a number of denominations, and then the denominations fragmented into smaller groups. Even individual congregations have had bitter divisions over such things as what color the carpet in the sanctuary should be.
Paul tells us to watch out for those who cause divisions, for those who put obstacles between church members and each other, or for that matter, between church members and Christ. He is not warning us about enemies of the church. He is warning us about fellow church members.
Or perhaps, he is warning us about ourselves, lest we, for want of humility, put obstacles in someone else’s way. After all, he did not know very many people in the Roman church. When he wrote to congregations he knew, he was very forthright in his criticism of church members who quarreled or otherwise hindered unity and caused division.
When church people band together as a small group, united mostly in their opposition to some other band of people in the same congregation, they do not serve Christ. They serve their own desire to seem right, to seem important, to seem somehow better than those other folks. Of course, when Paul warned to keep away from such people, he meant not only not to participate with them in gossip and criticism, but also not to participate in gossip and criticism against them.
Paul identifies the key to serving Christ and fostering unity as being “wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil.” That sounds great, but think about it. It’s humanly impossible without divine intervention.
In Adam, all die. Adam sinned by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why would he do a thing like that? He already knew good, because he knew God. Adam disobeyed only so he could know evil.
The desire to know evil is in our spiritual genes. In warning about divisions in the church, Paul calls on us to forsake the ways of Adam in favor of putting on the nature of Christ. Gossips and critics become obstacles between the church and God. They have not chosen the way of God themselves and prevent others from choosing it.
God is not calling us to identify and oppose these less perfect Christians. Nowhere in any list of spiritual gifts or fruits will you find “critic.” He opposes division and conflict in the church. He expects humility and unity. He demands that we choose his Spirit for ourselves and encourage each other along the way.