“Beware of the dogs! Beware of those who work evil! Beware of the mutilators!”
Having told the Philippian church to stand on firm ground, he now warns them about predators who will seek to draw them off of that sure ground of scripture. In the larger context, Paul is speaking of the danger of those who would trust in their own works for either glory of salvation. Here, Paul speaks more specifically.
To begin with, Paul warns to beware of the “dogs.” Some commentators understand the reference of “dogs” to be euphemistic for male prostitutes and the sexual activity that would be engaged in during many of the pagan practices of worship. There is some evidence for this, though I would suggest that, given the character of the Philippian church, male prostitution was not a great threat. The term, kuw/n (kuon) in Greek is also used to refer to those who are infamous criminals (again, not a likely threat to the Philippian congregation) and to those who are spiritually unclean. The Didache (an early, second-century manual for the Christian church) refers to those who are unbaptized and not yet ready to commune with the body as kuw/n (kuon). In a young and thriving church, this seems the most likely use of the term as Paul is employing it…essentially to warn them to be cautious and, as new people come into the fellowship, make sure that they are genuine believers before they are embraced entirely into the body.
The second warning is a little more plain. While there are many things that are referred to as evil in the Bible, one seems to be preeminent…that of idolatry. In fact, it can be argued that the other sins that are considered evil also flow out of an idolatrous heart. So, beware, Paul warns the church, of those who would introduce idolatry into the context of worship. One need not examine church history in that much depth to discover that idolatry is a matter that the church struggled with (and still struggles with) through the ages. Early in the life of the church some people started introducing images of Jesus and of the Apostles as “aides” to worship. The images were joined by statues, relics, praying to various saints for blessings, praying to Mary as a co-intercessor with Jesus, teaching that Mary lived as a perpetual virgin and was physically assumed into heaven, and raising up the councils as being of equal authority to scripture. Even in Protestant circles, how often strong personalities are seen to speak with authority not on the basis of content but simply on the basis of popularity. How often pastors take advantage of their congregations, using the people as little more than a stepping stool to achieve their own agendas. We are fallen people; we are prone to fall into idolatrous sin.
Finally, Paul warns to beware of the “mutilators.” In light of the context of verse 3, where Paul speaks of the true circumcision — what he elsewhere calls a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29) — it seems that he is speaking of those who would teach a works-based religion founded in the Jewish ritual practices. Those who would insist on physical circumcision (and not spiritual) in the church of Christ would be those who are the mutilators. Does this mean that Paul condemns his own circumcision? Not at all, as you will see (though he does not put weight in it). Circumcision of the flesh was the sign and mark of the people of God, but it was never meant to save. It was simply meant as an outward sign of an inward reality. In Christ, the sign has changed from a bloody sign on the males only to a bloodless sign on males and females both (for their is neither male nor female, but we are one in Christ — Galatians 3:28). If there is no inward reality, the sign avails nothing. And, where the sign has changed (circumcision to baptism), to insist on the physical, bloody sign is simply an act of mutilation (see how Paul speaks of those who so insist in Galatians 5:12).
Thus the warning is offered. The question is whether or not we will apply it, for the same wolves prey about our church doors even today. There is a tendency by many in the church to be broad and shallow in their teaching and, hoping not to offend anyone, no spiritual food of any value is offered. There is a tendency, in the hopes of ministering to everyone, to accept all things as equally valid and to embrace all practices as acceptable in the eyes of God. Beware those who would lead the sheep astray. Flee from the wicked. Flee from those who see ministry as a popularity contest, teaching only those parts of scripture that the people want to hear and not those parts of scripture that the people need to hear. Woe to the shepherd who does not open up the whole counsel of God. Woe to the pastor who is more concerned about his popularity with men than with his popularity with God. And church, beware these wolves, for they are clothed with the fleece of sheep, but exist only to destroy. Flee from them! And if you have been led astray as a shepherd and are guilty of acting this way or of abetting such actions from others; repent for the sake of your soul and for the sake of the souls of those in your charge. Beware those like this, says the Apostle Paul.