"Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who create divisions and obstacles contrary to the teaching that you learned. Avoid them..." (Romans 16:17).
Authoritarian groups have their go-to verses and this is one of them. It's a slam dunk case to stand before the congregation and say you need to watch out for this guy, he is divisive. Whenever anyone leaves the Church of Authority they will ALWAYS be labeled divisive. It is the easiest and quickest way to discredit them from the bully-pulpit.
But is this what Paul had in mind?
Who said the one that leaves is the divider in chief? There is a key phrase in the text that helps us make this determination, "contrary to the teaching that you learned." Now, of course, Pastor Authority believes he is teaching right doctrine, but is it possible to leave a church over bad, false, heretical, or plain old authoritarianism? I argue, absolutely it is, and in such a case who is the divider?
Calvin recognized this difference, "[e]vil is done when the truth of God is mixed with new dogmas devised by men; and the latter takes place, when by various arts it is odious and contemptible." Notice, the important phrase "dogmas devised by men," 1 here is where the issue lies. Authoritarian churches, led by authoritarian pastors become the discerners, and purveyors of what is true. They bend and distort certain teachings to the level of dogmas.
Calvin goes on, "Paul clearly shows, that he did not condemn all kinds of discords, but those which destroyed consent in the orthodox faith; for the force of the passage is in the words, which ye have learnt; for it was the duty of the Romans, before they were rightly taught, to depart from the habits of their fathers and the institutions of their ancestors." 2
R.C. Sproul said it succinctly, "Paul does not say to avoid doctrine here; he says to avoid heretics. We are to avoid those who would come into the church teaching false doctrine." 3
Dissensions and divisions can just as readily be brought into the church by those that lead it, as those that are in the congregation. However, when you are dealing with authoritarianism these "pastors" always know best, and they usually have the final word when it comes to the church they lead. They will use their authority and influence to condemn and dismiss those that speak out. If someone is seeking the truth, and they point out error (especially in the teaching) are they being divisive? I say in the loudest voice, NO!
What is needed most is humble servants of the Lord, who are willing to examine their teaching when a potential error is pointed out. Sadly, that is exceptionally rare among church leadership. Here is where authoritarianism is separated from true biblical shepherding, and wolves are revealed.
Stay tuned, more to come on this topic.
1 John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 548–549.
3. R.C. Sproul, Romans: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2019), 469.