ROMANS 16:17

A Study by Jim Langford


A thought on Rom. 16:17,18 that emphasizes the importance of taking all such admonitions in their proper context. Traditions often develop in an exclusive group of Christians as to the interpretation and use of certain scriptures. A powerful and influential leader, in need of a tool by which he can silence a dissenter or remove a non-conformist, finds in this passage just such a weapon. The meaning he places on that scripture and the use he puts it to becomes the recognized, official interpretation. Hallowed by usage over time the manner in which this passage is explained and used becomes inspired scripture in the minds of partisan followers. To question how they apply it is to doubt inspired revelation.

One reason why we must be like the "noble Bereans" and restudy God's word constantly is to not fall into the trap of condoning its misuse. In this case when the application of Paul's urging to "Mark them who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them," produces the very opposite results of what it was intended to produce, there is something definitely wrong with the application! We can all attest to the incontrovertible fact that this passage, written for the very purpose of protecting the church from division, has been the chief instrument in causing it! When wrongly applied, inevitably the results will be wrong.

ROMANS 16:17 (Part Two)

Notwithstanding the existence of several popular and widely used modern translations of the Bible, when it comes to quoting Romans 16, verse 17, the King James Authorized Version is the traditional favorite. As used by factional leaders the words "mark them" have an ominous ring, like taking a meat cleaver to the body of Christ! Actually, there is not one thing in the expression "mark" which indicates any action whatsoever upon or against an offender. The word comes from SKOPEO. This is the form of the word which appears in telescope, microscope, etc. It has to do with vision, and means "to observe, watch, keep an eye on, contemplate, pay attention to." That's why the New King James translators render it "note those," and the NASB and the NIV translate respectively "keep your eye on" and "watch out for." Paul elsewhere uses it with a positive nuance (2 Cor. 4:18; Gal. 6:1; Phil. 2:4; 3:17). In the latter passage it has reference to Paul, himself, and those who lived like him. In the early verses of Romans 16 many servants of the church were taken note of (marked!) and commended.

But here the Roman saints were urged to "watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned." The English verb "urge" captures well the meaning of the Greek PARAKALEO (from PARA, to the side of, and KALEO, to call). Its semantic range includes the meanings "to aid, help, comfort and encourage." Paul uses it accordingly in many of his epistles. In Romans 12:1 and 15:30, for instance, it is rendered "urge," "exhort" or "beseech," while in 12:8 the NIV uses "encourage." In 1 Corinthians 4:13 it is translated "intreat" or "answer kindly" (NIV). In 2 Corinthians 1:4,6 exhortation comes in the way of "consolation" or "comfort." Paul often used the word to introduce key points in his argument, and he always uses it with the authority of one who is a preacher and the mediator of God's truth rather than with the authority of a superior issuing a command!

As we progress with this study in a purely objective way, it will become apparent that Romans 16:17 has been used and abused by legalistic, authoritarian leaders chiefly as a club to scandalize and tear asunder Christian families and the body of Christ!

ROMANS 16:17 (Part Three)

Before continuing with our exposition of this passage it would be helpful to consider the circumstances that prompted Paul's warning. He had said nothing in this letter that would suggest these Christians were having problems with false teachers. The internal differences which might have existed in the church at Rome had been regulated in chapters 14 and 15. Yet, Paul abruptly interrupts his closing greetings and salutations with a warning of impending danger! Why?

Paul was writing to the Romans from Corinth at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 20:1-3; Rom. 15:25,26). Within the past year he had departed Ephesus, traveling through Troas into Macedonia. On this journey he experienced much harassment, no rest for the body and little peace of mind. He spoke of "conflicts on the outside, fears within." (2 Cor. 2:12,13; 7:5,6) It was while in Macedonia that he wrote Second Corinthians, announcing his impending visit to them (2 Cor. 2:13; 7:5-7; 8:16-18; 12:14,20; 13:1). Paul probably wrote his letter to the Galatians while still in Ephesus or possibly even from Macedonia also. Most evangelical scholars agree that the content of these three letters indicate they were written in close proximity to each other.

It is beyond dispute that persecution broke out against Paul immediately after his conversion and continued everywhere he went. This persecution was generally, if not always, instigated by the Jews. It also became evident that Judaizing emissaries followed Paul at every step. On his third journey, as he passed through Galatia and Phrygia, "he strengthened all the disciples." (Acts 18:23) But after his passage his Judaizing adversaries had redoubled their efforts. In writing to the churches in Galatia he expressed his astonishment that they "were so quickly deserting the one who called them by the grace of Christ and were turning to a different gospel." "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" To those who were throwing them into confusion and were trying to pervert the gospel of Christ, Paul exclaimed "let [them] be eternally condemned!" (Gal 1:6-9; 3:1)

When we examine Second Corinthians, especially chapter 11, we find that false teachers have already fully infiltrated the church there since Paul's first letter which was written from Ephesus less than two years prior. He describes them as "false apostles, deceitful workmen, mas- querading as apostles of Christ." He refines that further calling them Satan's servants masquerading "as servants of righteousness." Then adds, "Their end will be what their actions deserve." (11:13-15) The effect these "false brethren" were having on the Corinthians is rather chilling. Paul describes them as being "deceived by the serpent's cunning," their "minds...led astray from sincere and pure devotion to Christ." They were "easily" putting up with "a different Jesus" and "receiving a different spirit" and "a different gospel." (11:3-5) "In fact," he continues, "you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face." (11:20) Paul then identifies these false apostles as Hebrews, as Israelites, and scoffs at the thought that they are "servants of Christ!" (11:22,23)

During the three years Paul was in Ephesus he "never stopped warning them night and day with tears" about "savage wolves coming in among them" after he left "and not sparing the flock!" Only a month or less after he penned his closing words to the saints at Rome, Paul again reminded the Ephesians of this threat! (Acts 20:29-31)

While commending and praising these precious saints at Rome, and reminding them to "greet one another with a holy kiss," is it a wonder that Paul was suddenly shaken by the thought and the knowledge that these loved ones would soon be preyed upon by those emissaries from Satan? He had told them that their "faith is being reported all over the world," (Rom 1:8) and he reminds them again (16:18) that "Everyone has heard about your obedience." This reminder of events leading up to Paul's utterance of the words we are studying, should help us gain a clearer understanding of their true meaning and, hopefully, their proper application.

ROMANS 16:17 (Part Four)

The pernicious activity of those false teachers could easily be identified by the dissensions they caused and the obstacles they put in the way of believers who tended to be "naive" (Rom. 16:18), easily "deceived" (2Cor. 11:3) and spiritually "foolish" (Gal. 3:1). The definite article ("those") suggests that Paul has in mind a particular group of people and one that the Romans would recognize when (and if) they came. Also the definite article (in the Greek) before each of the words "divisions" and "offenses" shows that the apostle had in view facts that the Roman believers had already heard about. Some of the Christians there had labored before with Paul and many listed in his greetings were personal friends and relatives. They knew intimately the burning enmity with which the apostle was regarded by these false brethren.

The word DICHOSTASIA occurs only twice more in the Bible (1 Cor. 3:3; Gal. 5:20) and is best translated "dissensions" as in the NASB. Its appearance at 1 Corintians 3:3 is not in all translations because it is a variant reading not supported by all Greek manuscripts or texts. Division implies a complete separation, a rent into opposing factions. Dissension, on the other hand, is a strong disagreement that can lead to violent quarreling or wrangling and possible separation. One need only read the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians to note that those carnal and worldly saints were consumed with envying, strife and dissensions, but division had not yet occured. Paul appeals to those brethren that they "agree with one another so that there may be no divisions [SCHISMA] among you." (1 Cor. 1:10) His effort was to prevent a division. Otherwise, could he have addressed them as he did in his opening salutation (1 Cor. 1,2)? And lest there be misunderstanding as to what they were to agree on, Paul made that abundantly clear (1Cor. 1:13,31; 3:11,21-23; 4:1,6)!

These false brethren succeeded in causing disunity wherever they went, but more serious was their heretical doctrine. They create, Paul says, "stumbling blocks," which translates a word Paul uses in Romans to refer to a spiritual problem that has devestating potential (Note 9:32, 33; 11:9,10; 14:13). By further describing these stumbling blocks as being "against [or contrary to] the teaching that you have learned," he makes it clear that he is thinking mainly of false doctrine. That phrase is parallel to 6:17 where Paul gives thanks because the Romans had obeyed from the heart the form of doctrine (teaching) to which they were entrusted. They had been set free from sin and had become slaves to righteousness. The references here are obviously to the gospel. The teaching opposed (contrary) to this gospel is the legal system, which, according to this passage, as well as 1:8,11,12; 6;17 and 16:19, and the whole letter in general, had not yet gotten a footing at Rome.

If Paul is emphatic about anything, he is most emphatic about the fact that all are justified freely by God's grace, APART FROM WORKS! Consequently what teaching did he reject with indignation in all his epistles as being CONTRARY to the gospel he preached? JUSTIFICATION BY WORKS! And who were those men who followed everywhere the spread of the gospel, teaching this contrary doctrine and dividing believers?

Twenty years ago we were experiencing strong disagreement, difference of opinion and conflict of conviction between brethren over the issues of legalism, authoritarianism and exclusiveness. The rifts, the separation, the DIVISION only came when those men functioning as leaders in he California area -- and two men in particular from without -- twisted and distorted Romans 16:17,18, using it as a meat cleaver to first rid the body of those of us who preferred to remain true to our convictions, and then those who would not stand with leadership in that grossly divisive act!

ROMANS 16:17 (Part Four Supplement)

In posting Part Four of the Romans 16 series I inadvertantly passed over notes I had on the Greek word SKANDALON, translated "offenses" (KJV) or "obstacles" (NIV). I include them here because they further our understanding of the passage and make the study itself more comprehensive.

The word and its derivatives, from which we get our English words "scandal" and "scandalized," have an interesting history. Originally it referred to the trigger of a trap on which bait is placed, and which when touched by the animal springs the snare closed, thus trapping the intended victim. Later it came to apply to the instrument as a whole. It is essential to the efficient working or functioning of a snare that it not be recognized for what it is and that its real nature be concealed.

The word is always used figuratively in the Bible in a moral sense. According to Zodhiates it denotes an enticement to certain conduct or behavior which can lead to sin and ruin. W.A. Vine says "the word is used...of that which arouses prejudice, becomes a hindrance to others, or causes them to fall by the way." In Romans 16:17 Thayer says the word is used "to cause persons to be drawn away from the true doctrine into error and sin."

Used figuratively, as it is in the Bible, the word is not found in secular Greek writings. That's why Webster's Dictionary probably gives to the English word "scandal" the primary meaning: "originally unseemly conduct of a religious person, that discredits religion or causes moral lapse in another." It is not something you caused yourself, but something others got you into. From the point of view of others it becomes a stumbling-block.

In Paul's writings SKANDALON appears at Rom. 9:33; 11:9; 14:13; 16:17; I Cor. 1:23 and Gal. 5:11. In Romans 9:32,33 and 14:13 SKANDALON is use in conjunction with another word which is similar in meaning (PROSKOMMA, that which causes a person to trip or stumble). This word is also used figuratively throughout Scripture, and is most often used with the word "stone" and translated "stumblingstone" or "stumblingblock." Essentially synonyms, the two words do have distinctive meanings, the difference between tripping over an obstacle or being trapped or ensnared.

In Romans 9:33 Israel's failure came because she "stumbled over" Christ, refusing to put faith in Him. She sought to "fulfill" the law by works rather than by faith. And what David prayed would happen to his persecutors (Psa. 69:22-23), Paul suggests in Romans 11:9 God has brought upon those Jews who have resisted the gospel message. The use of SKANDALON in both these passages is corraborated in I Cor. 1:23 ("Christ crucified" was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.") and described as "the offense of the cross" in Galatians 5:11. The gospel of salvation, justification by faith, is the subject of these contexts.

Although some commentaries try to connect the circumstances of Roman 14:13 with the warning in Chapter 16, there is little evidence to justify such a notion. In Chapter 14 we have simply a matter of local difference of conscience between Christian brethren. Side by side with those who were experiencing liberty in Christ (Gentile believers) were other brethren (Jewish believers) who were troubled by scruples about things which were in themselves without moral significance. They tended to judge the others harshly for not observing certain rules, while they in turn were despised for their scruples. Essentially the same issue is treated in I Cor. 8, neither of which is connected with the great controversy on justification, as in Galatia. With both the Corinthians and the Romans Paul treated the problem in a charitable way with gentle rebukes to both sides and some general principles to guide them. Contrast this with the solution he propounded at the end of his letter concerning those deceitful, false teachers!

ROMANS 16:17 (Part Five)

We have seen that "the doctrine which you have learned" was the gospel of salvation that the Romans obeyed. The expression is in the past tense. The gospel message had been originally taught to the Romans, not by Paul himself, but by others, perhaps by those of his fellow-laborers whom he has just saluted. Paul's letter was written to strengthen and encourage them in their faith (1:11,12). And in this context the expression "watch out for" refers to an enemy expected rather than present. The last words of the verse, "avoid them," must therefore be applied to the time when the enemy shall be present and seek to do their work. Then all that is necessary will be simply to turn the back to them, stay away from them. The following verse tells us why.

"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." (NIV) The NKJV reads: "but their own belly" and "the hearts of the simple." Didn't Paul learn to know these men in this light in Galatia and at Corinth? And could he not portray them to the saints at Rome so that they would be recognized immediately upon their appearing? The points of resemblance identify them with the deceitful workers described in 2 Corinthians 11, Galatians 1-6, Acts 15 and Acts 20. Later, while imprisoned in Rome, Paul described the same evil class of men in the Philippian epistle (3:2-4,18,19), the letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 3:5-9) and his letter to Titus (1:9-16). Peter and Jude had in mind the same ones as we learn from their comprehensive descriptions (2 Pet. 2:1-22; Jude 3-19).

In summary, the same unmistakable clues that enable us to positively identify the objects of Paul's warning in Romans 16 are found in numerous other passages: 1) Watch out for them. 2) They cause divisions. 3) They put obstacles, offenses, traps or snares in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. 4) They don't serve the Lord Jesus Christ. 5) They serve their own belly or sensuous appetites. 6) They use smooth talk and flattery to deceive simple, naive or unsuspecting people. 7) They are identified with Satan who is he real enemy. 8) Their ultimate end is destruction just as Satan will be crushed. 9) By watching out for them and avoiding them they can be defeated quickly.

The details discussed above are too specific to allow us to apply this passage indiscriminately to any brother who does not subscribe to the legalistic dictates of an authoritarian leadership, or who does not parrot the party line in every particular, or whose conscience will not allow him to walk in some human mandate he does not believe is the will of God. The conditions prevalent in the church at Corinth that occasioned the writing of the first epistle can best be descibed as plagues that had infected every aspect of its spiritual life: immaturity, instability, dissension, jealousy and envy, legal disputes, marital difficulties, moral wickedness, disorderly assemblies and worship, misuse of spiritual gifts, doctrinal difficulties, etc. Yet, without exception, we find the apostle continuously uniting all the members of that body under the one common and affectionate address, "my brothers!" An enemy from without, however, who has infiltrated their ranks is the danger he addresses in his second canonical epistle to them, the danger from "false apostles, deceitful workmen," masquerading as "servants of righteousness." Such is also the case in Rome, where Paul attempts to regulate the differences among brothers in chapters 14 and 15. But in chapter 16 it is again an enemy from without that he must alert them to avoid.

It is incomprehensible that Christian brothers and sisters -- even children -- and families, constituting significant portions of entire assemblies, can so callously be classified and branded! Nowhere in the biblical history of the body of Christ do we find reference to, or justification for, such despicable behavior. Not even at Corinth!

ROMANS 16:17 (Part Six)

Prepared especially for posting on FACTNet, this has been a fleshed-out rewrite in narrative form of my original series of notes dated 11/3/85. I received written responses to the original study from John Morey and Berl Chisum, but I was excommunicated for "heresy" before I could complete responses to them. Copies of the original study, John Morey's letter and my response are available for mailing to anyone who is interested.

In Romans 16:17,18 the apostle describes the ungodly individuals to be "marked and avoided." They are similarly described in other epistles as I brought out in the study. I was of the opinion 19 years ago, and am thoroughly convinced today, that those who did the "marking" in California were the "divisive" ones. I want to believe that they were acting in ignorance. It still amazes me how Christian brethren can become so hardened that they regard those of us who differed from them as "no servants of Jesus Christ" and "slaves of our base desires." How could they be so callous as to brand their brothers and sisters in Christ as "deceitful workers" for differences most Christians consider trivial? Were they so benumbed in spirit and frigid of heart that we were "servants of Satan" in their sight? How could those who professed to dearly love us one day become robots of steel, so case-hardened and unfeeling, that they could drive us out from their midst as "divisive heretics" the next day?

There are a number of explanations that can be advanced for such behavior. May I offer just one? It is a proven fact that any group of people, especially religious factions, will eventually take on the personality of their leader or leadership. They do this because they allow their leader to become "as God" to them. When a Christian group is dominated by authoritarian, legalistic, unloving and graceless men, they reflect such characteristics in their behavior. Years ago the assemblies we were associated with were taken over by such men. An example of their tactics involving Robert Grove has just been related to us. Here is another:

After Ron and Bill Blain were excommunicated in Tulare, Loren Johnson and his wife addressed a letter to their "Friends in Christ." The context of their letter concerned the activities of leadership, but their appeal is best understood by the verse they quoted in closing: "But the wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit; impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness." (James 3:17)

Eleven days later this "considerate," "sincere" and "peace-loving" response was received from Robert Grove: "As I thoughtfully consider the impact the sentiments and the conclusions you now state could have and your responsibility for the impact, the scripture that I can not put out of my mind is Mat. 18:6&7. Loren I am afraid for you.

'But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!'

Loren, to try to reduce Godly love and mercy, which is according to God's word, to sentiment, emotion, and tolerance, can only cause confusion in the hearts of those who are younger, spiritually or physically and are involved in the near future. If your letter has any effect it will "cause" them to sin.

My prayer to God, Loren, for you is that when the reaping comes you will be able to see the mercy of God in it...'Be not deceived God is not mocked...We must all appear before the judgment...receive the things done in his body...whether it be good or bad. Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.'"

In another installment I will respond to a few of the criticisms received years ago by those who were terribly upset by my exposition of Romans 16:17&18

ROMANS 16:17 (Concluding Remarks)

The undated written notice of excommunication (a 7-page document) was found in my mailbox (unstamped) on the morning of January 11, 1986. After four pages of history ten indictments were listed. Actually the first eight were short essays rehearsing problems the men had had with me over the years trying to fathom my "spiritual condition." The last two were the cardinal sins that (in their eyes) justified beginning "the process of putting leaven out of the San Luis Obispo assembly." One was my refusal to "stand with" the decimation of the Tulare/Visalia assembly (the recent excommunication of ten or more families there). The other was my "apparent disregard for the untimeliness and divisiveness of [my] letter on Romans 16:17."

That charge in part states that: "His final words in this study were Ďwe cannot use this passage for disciplinary action.í There has been much discussion on the subject. John Morey gave a study in AlhambraÖin October and then again at the Hartland Camp. We believe Johnís Bible study to be sound. Berl also wrote a study bringing out the error in Jimís thinking on this subject. Jack Langford gave a thorough study at Camp on Dec. 28, 1985." Actually my "final words" were: "The purpose behind the Ďmarkingí in Romans 16:17 is not disciplinary or to Ďmake one feel ashamed.í" [a reference to 2 Thess. 3:14]

What is church discipline? The words "disciple" and "discipline" have a common source and are related. They have to do with education or training. Discipline is an action involving instruction and training for the purpose of correction or learning. Such education is not always pleasant: "God disciplines us for our good that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Heb. 12:10-11) Is this the purpose or goal of the warning in Romans 16, where, obviously, we are dealing with the enemies of the cross of Christ?

I still marvel incredulously at the charge that my original study was untimely and divisive. Since "much discussion on this subject" was going on, and since John Morey had taught on the subject twice already in October, what more appropriate time could there have been to introduce a little rational sense to the discussion? Johnís "sound" study certainly didnít stem the tide. Mine might have if the men had taken time out from their insanity trip to honestly consider it! Johnís contention was to mark them for anything and everything. (If you donít believe that to be a fair assessment, ask me for a copy of Johnís study.) I know of one lady who was recently "marked to be avoided" simply because "her attitude wasnít right!" She also was incredulous and even appealed by phone to RAG to intervene on her behalf, but he claimed he didnít have jurisdiction in the matter! HA!

The charge continues: "Jim sent his letter into the Tulare area (to Loren Johnson and others that we do not know) at a time when some of us were still working with those brethren to encourage [sic!] them to stand with us in the marking of Ron and Bill Blain. We believe Jimís letter to be like pouring gasoline on a prairie fire. It ended a hope many of us still held for some of our own families."

"ToÖothers that we do not know." Of course, they could have known if they would only have asked! But their compelling motivation was to imply a mass- mailing and conspiracy on my part to cause division. Actually, Loren Johnson was the only recipient of that study from me in the "Tulare area." He in turn made copies for Kevin Grant and Bill Meeker at their request. I had promised a copy to John Morey which was also mailed forthwith. The brothers that leadership were trying "to encourage" [sic!] had already been marked as being in the camp of Korah, Datham and Abirum [I will elaborate on that subject in future posts]. Now they were being threatened with the ultimatum "Obey leadership or be banned!" Such was the nature of that "encouragement," and such was the "hope" some "still held" for their own families--while simultaneously holding over their heads the axe that would sever that relationship indefinitely.

"Pouring gasoline on a prairie fire" would certainly brighten things up a bit, but Iím not inclined to think that even I would attempt such foolish wantonness. Rather, my hope was that of the Psalmist who wrote: "The unfolding of your words gives LIGHT; it gives UNDERSTANDING to the simple." (Psa. 119:130)

The understanding I gleaned from Romans 16 is not unique to me. I merely reflected the position of many outstanding scholars who wrote commentaries on the Book of Romans. I mention Barnes, Matthew Henry, Coffman, the Interpreterís Bible, McClain, Griffith Thomas, Godet (outstanding!) and Douglas Moo, to name a few. Jack even referred to Barnesí Notes on Romans 16 in support of a point he chose to make, which was strange indeed, because in my study I reiterated much of what Barnes had said. Yet Jack didnít consider Barnesí writing as heretical. But Jack was capable of some strange, innovative teaching, which, the Lord willing, I will also touch upon in future posts.

As an interesting sidelight to this study on Romans 16:17 that Shane has encouraged me to do, I searched the "group's" website (Bible Truths .Org) for anything on church discipline. Since that is a major doctrine associated with their church life, I thought surely there would be something in print. After all, Romans 16:17 has played a major role in their very existence, in fact, in the lives of literally hundreds of their brothers and sisters in Christ who were excommunicated for NO OTHER REASON than their refusal to bow to the dictates of leadership!

I found zilch, nothing! Only a sponsered links reference to a book sold by entitled "Handbook of Church Discipline" by Jay Adams. I happened to have this book in my rapidly growing collection of material on church discipline. And to my surprise even Jay Adams' book of 120 pages had NO REFERENCE to Roman's 16:17! His index lists the term "marking," which is familiar enough to us, but the reference is to 2 Thes. 3:14, which uses the words "Note him." This is a completely different Greek word, SEMEIO, which according to Adams means literally "to make or put a sign on him." Obviously, Paul used that word figuratively. I hope!

Anyway, apparently Adams doesn't consider Romans 16:17 as applicable to church discipline, which is an issue we will soon cover. Adams, by the way, is no novice. At the time of writing he was the Director of Advanced Studies and Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA.

If only RAG, were candid enough to forewarn the poor souls they are proselytizing as to what was in store for them!