Lesson 61: Romans 16:17-18
Do Not Be Deceived
by Bob Burridge ©2012
In this last section of the Book of Romans, Paul had been explaining how God’s revealed word teaches us to love one another. Our love for God should make us desire to live obediently and kindly toward those around us. We are very specially to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, both those who are weak and those who are spiritually strong.
There should be caution in accepting others into a close trusting fellowship.
Romans 16:17, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.”
Notice that this is not just a mild suggestion. It is an apostolic injunction, a mandated warning. There are dangerous people around!
Paul told the Roman Christians to take notice of them. The NASB says “keep your eye on those”, the KJV says “mark them”. In the original Greek text the word is skopein (σκοπειν) from which we get our word “scope”. It means to mark them out with your eyes, scope them out, learn to spot them. We need to learn their markings, their characteristics.
I am not a snake handler. They are fascinating animals to learn about, watch on TV nature shows, or to observe from a distance. Everything God made is awesome each in its own unique way. However, when a snake gets near me or into my house (and in one place we lived that happened a few times) is ceases to be considered a good snake.
One of the snakes we have here in Florida is the Scarlet snake. I’m told it is harmless to humans, and that it actually does some good. Its markings are red, black, and yellow bands. Each yellow band has black bands on each side of it. The black part keeps the yellow from directly touching the red bands. And if you notice its belly side, the bands do not go all around the body.
There is another common Florida snake, the Coral Snake. It is extremely poisonous. Its venom is related to the Cobra. Its markings are also red, black, and yellow bands. But on the Coral Snake, the bands encircle the whole body.
When you’re trying to tell which of the two kinds of snake it is, you might not be able to get it to roll over on its back to show its belly. So it’s good to know another distinctive of the coral snake, the yellow bands separate the red from the black bands. In short, if the yellow touches the red it is the kind of snake that can kill you. If you see a snake like this, but you are not able to remember which is which, avoid it just to be safe.
Similarly, we need to be able to recognize dangerous teachers. So Paul tells us how to recognize the markings of these dangerous people. They have are two main characteristics.
First: They cause divisions, dissensions in the church disrupting its unity. They introduce new ideas, but not new things found in Scripture. They promote dogmas devised by men. They confuse God’s revealed truth by blending it with untruth. This creates conflicts in the church.
They also confuse the principles God gave for settling our differences. Without an agreed upon standard for judging what is true and right, we end up with angry divisiveness. Those who have a greater influence tend to dominate over those who have the greater truth.
When true brothers in Christ disagree they take time to listen to one another, to understand what the other is saying. Then they humbly dig into their Bibles ready to test everything and let God’s truth have the final say.
Second: These dangerous people also cause offenses. The Greek word is skandala (σκανδαλα) from which we get our word scandal. False teachings hinder our spiritual maturity and fellowship. They create scandals among us by promoting beliefs that offend God, and that cause the weaker among us to stumble. They entrap us in wrong teachings that confuse and discourage.
Paul uses a present participle so literally the structure is, “the ones doing … divisions and offenses.” It is their characteristic way of living. They are always stirring up things that disrupt or confuse. Rather than encouraging one another by God’s promises as Paul had just recommended (12-15), they discourage, and turn certain promises into confused uncertainties.
They do this by teaching things contrary to the doctrine the believers had learned. Today there are those who say, “Doctrine Divides”. Meanwhile they are proclaiming their own dogmas and doctrines without admitting it. It is false doctrine that divides the church, not the true teachings of God’s word. The doctrines God has taught in Scripture unite and strengthen us.
The teachings drawn from God’s word are not only important, they are vital. They are important because God said so. God making himself known is the greatest activity in all the universe. Truth is the only way to make sense out of an otherwise confusing and discouraging world. It is the only way to find true happiness and satisfaction in this life and the next. What we believe controls our outlook on everything and everyone around us.
Wrong ideas about God, man, sin, redemption, responsibility, duty, justice, and holiness obscure God’s revealing of himself and are the root causes for our frustrations, discouragements, and immoral behavior. They ruin our marriages, our homes, our jobs, and our churches. They cause disruptive conduct, produce guilt, and the depressions so common today.
When we are enticed away from the truth we lose sight of the majesty and power of God, we forget the promises which God will not fail to fulfill, we forget our own unworthiness and the grace that adopted us as a family in Christ. It offers foolish excuses for living in ways contrary to God’s revealed principles
Bad theologies give us a false foundation, a false outlook, a false hope, and a false set of values. They burden us by requiring us to do what only God can do. They blame others for the wrongs they do. Since their view of God is confused they either blame him for not doing a better job in making the world a happy place, or they dream up a different kind of god than the one revealed to us in the Bible.
In the temptation of Eve in Eden, Satan began with false doctrine. He convinced Eve to doubt the truth of what God had said. He implied that her self-interests would be better served by violating what God said.
Paul was writing here to other believers in Christ, those having received the truth of God. Some had come along teaching things contrary to what they had received by God’s provision through the Apostles, the written word in Scripture, and the work of the Holy Spirit to open their eyes to understand that truth. Therefore, Paul’s readers need to recognize the error of what these dissenters taught.
Paul gives a second recommendation. Not only should we mark them, we must avoid them. Literally he writes, “and you, be turning away from them.”
We need to avoided their teachings like the plague. If we know someone has a highly contagious disease, we are very careful to stay away. We keep our children and loved ones away from them at all costs. Infected people are often isolated. The things they touch are sterilized. People wear masks around them in the hospitals. Exposure to one contagion can infect you and cause a lot of suffering, even death.
The disease of false doctrine is even more damaging. It plants seeds of error which seem small and insignificant by themselves, but subtly twist a person’s view of God and grace. They corrupt in stages like a progressing disease. Yet many are careless, exposing themselves to all sorts of questionable teachings. They listen to the cultish ideas that proliferate on religious television and radio. They attend so called “Bible studies” that entice with novel ideas, touching stories, and imagined insights. In reality they blend the doctrines of men with bits taken out of context from God’s word.
Believers should not expose themselves to novelties that bait them into such confusion. They should avoid them as they would a poisonous snake. The doctrines of men are many times more dangerous than the venom of the Coral Snake. Snakes can kill the body, but false teachings and novel twists of truth offend God and hurt his people.
These teachers may sound like they know the Bible, and claim all sorts of deep insights. But if it seems like a new idea, be very careful. With all the scholarly biblical research done in every generation for thousands of years, most really new ideas are probably wrong ideas.
There were times as a seminary student when my studies in Greek, Hebrew or Theology would turn up an idea that seemed original, fresh, and new. However, in the library I would discover that hundreds of years ago scores of articles or books had been written on the exact same idea. Sometimes those historic writings helped to confirm that my understanding was sound. At other times those scholars led me to a careful look at God’s word which exposed my beginner’s errors.
There are identifying marks that distinguish the dangerous teachers from the helpful ones. We need to recognize these markings just as clearly as we learn to spot poisonous snakes.
Paul then explained why men like this are so dangerous:
Romans 16:18, “For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.”
We are to avoid them because of the influence the false teachers can have upon others in the church.
They are not servants of Christ, but are servants of their own appetites. Paul later described the “enemies of the cross” saying in Philippians 3:19, “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame — who set their mind on earthly things.”
He does not mean that their problem is over eating. The concern is that they are motivated by their desire to satisfy themselves. They want to do and believe what satisfies their fallen natures, rather than what pleases God as explained in his word.
This is seen today in the corrupted teachings of many churches, and in the way worship has become more a time of entertainment and personal gratification. Church leaders do all kinds of research to find out what will make the worshipers feel good, but many have little interest in studying the Bible to find out what God’s word says about it. Their master is not Christ. Their appetites are their Lord.
They use smooth words and flattering speech. As Paul later warned in 2 Timothy 4:3, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers;”
Satan spoke pleasing words to Eve, superficially positive words that appealed to her self-interest. So also, these troubling religious leaders appeal to the weaknesses of our imperfect nature. They make souls ignore their spiritual sickness when they need spiritual healing. They turn worship into a time for making worshipers feel good, instead of a time for humbly honoring God who then blesses with true inner reward.
They love the parts of the Bible with which they agree, but avoid the parts that correct their errors and condemn their beloved sins. They may even wave Bibles in the air and use its words, but their God is a beggar of souls, rather than a Sovereign regenerator of dead hearts. They stir emotions with atmosphere, theatrics, special music, and touching stories instead of using God’s promises to stir us from within by the power of the Holy Spirit. They speak of God’s law as if it was a divine mistake that God “fixed” in Jesus, instead of speaking of it as revealing God’s holiness, exposing our sin, and driving us to our Savior.
Their seductive and entertaining delivery becomes a deceptive costume. They “tickle our ears” that itch to hear what we want to believe. They confidently proclaim what appears to be insight, but they introduce false ideas which offend those who truly love God’s word. They make good doctrine seem foolish, and false doctrine seem noble, appealing, and reasonable.
As Calvin said, these “… impostors allure men by flattery, and spare and indulge their vices, that they may keep them attached to themselves.”
They deceive the simple, those who have not learned God’s word well enough on their own. They are the sheep who need good shepherds to lead them. They should be cautious and not gullible. God gives his word to us all to read, to study, and to use as our standard. Paul was not just warning church leaders in Rome. He addressed this to the brothers, the congregation members. To a certain degree, we must all be able to recognize these deceivers, to know their markings. Proverbs 14:15 “The simple believes every word, But the prudent considers well his steps.”
There will always be those who artfully appeal to the strongest desires of our fallen hearts. They speak of peace and unity, but at the expense of morality and justice. They comfort us in our sin, but fail to show us God’s way of finding victory to overcome it. We ought to turn away from people like that.
Though Paul had just urged us to love the brothers and to strengthen our unity, now he warns us that there are some from whom we must come apart. If we unite with them, we cause disunity from those who truly love the holy truths of God.
Calvin warned, “To separate such as agree in the truth of Christ is an impious and sacrilegious divorce; but to defend a conspiracy for promoting lies and impious doctrines, under the pretext of peace and unity, is a shameless slander.”
Union with unbelief is therefore contrary to God’s word. We must separate from error to keep unity within God’s true family. It is not biblical to seek unity at all costs. Paul tells us to avoid those who want to remain among us to sew seeds of error, immorality, and lies. They are the most insidious enemies of all.
Today, the forces of ecumenical compromise continue to create a unity that welcomes only those who are happy to surrender what God says and to embrace all that makes them feel good. Pleasing humans becomes more important than pleasing God. The result is a bland church that abhors all that God says the church should be.
To preserve the purity of the true church, and to promote the truth of God’s word, Paul shows us that it is God’s command that we should avoid uniting together with unbelief.
2 Corinthians 6:14-17, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.’ Therefore ‘Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.’ ”
So watch out! Avoid them! Their markings are similar outwardly to what is right and good. Like Satan who clothes himself to appear as if he was an angel of light, false teachers may appear to be very reliable and well informed. Like the Coral Snake who may resemble the docile Scarlet Snake, these deceivers are not harmless. They invite us all to join with them in their less rigid religion. We would be well received by them as long as we abandon some of the things God has revealed in his word. The comfort they offer is itself a lie and deception. There can be no peace in the hearts of those who abandon the Prince of Peace and join with his enemy.
When I was working on this study I consulted a book about reptiles so I could be accurate about the markings on the snakes I mentioned. We must consult God’s word to know the markings that announce danger. With snakes in your garden, if you can’t remember which colors distinguish the coral snake avoid the one that you suspect. When it comes to Bible teachers, Ministers, or authors of Christian books, if you are not sure which ones are dangerous, be like the Berean church where the people would not accept anything as right and true that is not confirmed by God’s own word. Measured against God’s truth, the markings of the false teachers become a bold warning sign.
By holding fast to the truth which God has made known in the Bible and sealed upon our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we preserve the beauty and unity of the true churches of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)