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BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: (3): Contrary to the Teaching


I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. – Romans 16:17 [NIV]

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. – Romans 16:17 [KJV]

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. – Romans 1:17 [ESV]

The only significant difference among these three translations is in the word translated mark by the King James Version. Both the New International Version and the English Standard Version have watch out for instead of mark. Thayer gives four definitions of this word:

  1. to look at, observe, contemplate
  2. to mark
  3. to fix one’s eyes upon, direct one’s attention to, any one
  4. to look to, take heed to thyself

The word is σκοπέω (skopeō), from which we get words like telescope and microscope. Through these we get the expression, “scope it out.” In the definitions of Strong’s Analytical Concordance, when this word is put along side synonyms, the shading of meaning is “a watching from a distance.” Thus, it can mean to take note of something or someone without necessarily being directly involved.

Use of The Verse

This verse has been used by many people as justification for “marking” individuals whose teaching they believe is incorrect. This use is not unique to members of the Church of Christ, though I have heard it so used many, many times. In fact, this is a “code” text – often merely “cited without quotation” to justify calling someone by name as a “false teacher” – often without discussing the supposedly false doctrine the teacher is guilty of teaching.

Further, in this use of the verse, “the teaching you have learned” morphs into “whatever inferences and conclusions are generally accepted after long practice and belief in most of the churches.” Thus, the “teaching” or “doctrine” becomes the practical equivalent of a creed, which is likely not even written or formally adopted.

The Verse In Context

There is nothing in the context to suggest that the way many use this verse is remotely what Paul meant when he wrote these words.

Whatever else may be said about “the teaching you have learned” in this text, it would definitely include the teachings of chapters 14 & 15 about bearing with those who are weak and not imposing our own views on others! This is certainly not a license to “mark” everyone who disagrees with me on any particular teaching that may relate to the gospel. Rather, it would mark those who reject the core doctrines of God and His Son.

Rather than being a justification for dividing the church over any disagreement in doctrine, we should understand this verse to mean we should guard against those who are quick to divide the church over every disputable matter. The unity of the body of Christ is too precious to destroy it over every little quibble by any one who feels strongly that his understanding of God’s Word is one that all should accept – on pain of being marked, avoided, and labeled a false teacher if he does not fall into line.

In fact, the person who insists on having his own way is the one described in Titus 3:9-11 as divisive or a heretic.

But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Disputes about such things do not promote God’s work. Instead, they lead to divisions within the body of Christ – especially when we want to force everyone into compliance with our own views of such disputable matters.

Failure to accept what is really teaching in Romans 16:17-18 has led to much damage to the cause of Christ:

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. [Emphasis added. JS]

Why should any congregation of people constantly give way before the “righteous indignation” of the loudest, most domineering member(s) in the name of peace? When people constantly threaten the peace and unity of the body of Christ after repeated warnings, it is time to ignore them and have nothing to do with them – whether they are “big names in the brotherhood” or not.

NEXT: BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (4) – Foolish Controversies

PREVIOUS: BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (2) – The Doctrine of Christ

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