Long-term quality fellowship depends on our knowing a honeybee from a hornet.
We think anything that buzzes is a bee, but not everyone landing inside a Christian fellowship is there to make honey with everyone else.
Take a hornet, for instance. A few of them inside a bee hive can kill thousands of bees in an hour. They’re not interested in the honey. They come to kill the bees, which they decapitate and haul back to their nest and feed to their young.
There’s a lesson for us in this graphic example. Christian fellowship is an organic feature of all who gather into the name of Christ, but that fellowship must still be preserved.
According to Paul, this can only be accomplished through alertness and discernment.
“Watch out,” he told the Romans (16:17). While they were enjoying the sweetness of fellowship with each other (16:1-16), the potential existed for parties to get in who didn’t come for the honey or the good of the hive. They come recruiting, promoting, or correcting, but don’t care for the fellowship.
These individuals “cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” (16:17). The easiest way to detect them is in the math, because they are always either adding or subtracting. When they add, they seek to enhance the gospel with strange new “light,” which are really just errors that have already been rejected by historic Christianity. Others who add, seek to supplement the gospel with non-essential practices and expect the rest of the church to observe them, as Paul described in Romans chapter 14.
But when these people subtract, they purposely lessen the force of biblical standards and truths. For instance, they typically appeal to word studies and other technical information in efforts to show how the church has for two thousand years misunderstood this or that meaning. The interpretations that emerge from this convoluted math can make a verse say the polar opposite of what it actually says.
The popularity of these mathematicians often lies not in their newly packaged content, but how they communicate it—“smooth talk and flattery” (16:18). In an age when people care more for sizzle than steak, it is hard to ignore an alleged minister who can turn a clever phrase, use humor, and pluck heart strings. Flattery too, is an old effective tool for the obvious reason that human beings are so easily manipulated on the basis of ego. Besides, who wants to hear a preacher honestly communicate the need to repent?
In the first century, troublemakers of the variety Paul warned about needed to personally show up in the church to make their influence known. But now we live in an age of advanced communication—of web sites, and podcasts, mass printing, and social media. That means most “hornets” will never directly meet the people they hurt, or the fellowships they negatively affect. A celebrity aura insulates them.
Whether long distance or locally, Paul says to “avoid them” (v. 17), because they “serve…their own appetites” (v. 18), that is, they hunger for something other than the glory of God or the sweetness of fellowship. After discovering their agenda and unrepentant attitude, the best thing we can do is leave them alone. A listening ear will only stimulate their sense of importance. Even Jesus, when confronted with the devil in the wilderness, kept his conversation brief and terse. The devil used Scripture, but Jesus exposed it as quoted out of context and with an underlying, self-centered agenda. His meeting with Satan ended without any follow-up discussions planned.
In principle, we can use the same two-part measuring stick—that which is written, and spiritual discernment.
Ask “Is this what the apostles have taught us?” and “What hunger drives the use of this teaching?”
Either a bee or a hornet will appear.