“It is very significant that all through the New Testament times there was this constant fear of intellectual and moral danger and disaster.” So said W. H. Griffith Thomas in his commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans. His comment was not censorious but altogether laudatory. The wise have always been watchful against the dangerous inroads of doctrinal error and unscriptural practices and quick to eradicate such dangers wherever they arose. It is in such a watchful and warning vein that Paul writes to the church at Rome: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Rom. 16:17, 18).
“Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned.” The church or the individual believer who is blissfully unaware of the existence of and the potential danger from those who propagate divisive practices or erroneous doctrines is both a danger to himself and others and unfaithful to the Word of God. In Paul’s day and before the completion of the New Testament canon, Paul besought the Roman believers to be faithful to and watchful for the doctrine which they had learned. Today, with the completion of the canon of Scripture, we are to be faithful to God’s written Word. This wariness cannot be passive. “Mark” those deceitful teachers, Paul admonishes. The Greek word for mark is the word from which we get our English word scope. The helpful translation of NASV is “keep your eye on” those people. No sentinel would take his eyes off an enemy soldier once he had been identified, but he would “mark” him until he had the opportunity to capture or kill him. Such vigilance is required in our spiritual warfare.
“Avoid them.” It is not enough to identify purveyors of doctrinal error or divisive practices. They also must be avoided or shunned. Clearly, Paul does not view it as a sign of spiritual maturity or charity to get along with teachers of error. Nor, in such cases is it sufficient to “agree to disagree.” Those who promote doctrines or practices contrary to what is revealed in Scripture must be avoided. There are no new truths for the 21st Century. What the Bible teaches has not become outmoded and irrelevant. Believers must adhere to its truths today and take positive steps to avoid those who would teach otherwise. Again, there is no mystery regarding what is required: the Word of God is our sole authority.
“They that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly.” Paul reveals the motive of these teachers. No matter how enticing their words, believers are to remember that they speak them, not for the benefit of their hearers, but for the sake of their own bellies: they are satisfying their own appetites and lusts—nothing more. Using God’s name and quoting the Bible do not necessarily make a man faithful. Are the words used in accordance with what they mean and what God intended? Or have they been taken out of context and perverted?
“By good words and fair speeches [they] deceive the hearts of the simple.” Having exposed the motives of these false teachers, Paul explains the methods by which they deceive. They use “smooth and flattering speech” (NASV). In other words, extracting words, phrases, even passages from the Bible, they knit a fabric of pleasant words that covers their hearers in mere flattery and tells them what the flesh wants to hear, rather than the truth. Paul beseeches the Romans (and us by extension) to make note of such people and separate from them.
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