I urge you, brothers and sisters, 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 naïve people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. (verses 17-19)
We live in an age of misinformation and disinformation that flood the channels of communication and impact social discourse and perspectives. The result is division and polarization.
It’s not new. Paul dealt with it in his own day as false teachers infiltrated the churches, spreading wrong-headed teaching and imposing extra requirements on believers that threatened to undermine the simplicity of faith in Jesus.
The fact that Paul deals with this threat so briefly here at the end of his letter seems to indicate that such false teachers had not yet arrived in Rome. But Paul wants the believers to be ready.
He tells them how they will recognize these teachers: they will put “obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned” (verse 17). The safeguard for the Romans, therefore, is to be firmly grounded in the teaching they had already received. If they knew it well, it would cast a spotlight on the false variety when it showed up. It’s the same technique used today by those seeking to identify counterfeit currency. If someone has thoroughly studied the genuine article, knowing its texture and colour and design inside and out, then they will be able to easily spot what’s fake when it crops up.
Therefore, know the truth. Paul wants the Romans to be “wise about what is good” so that they might be “innocent about what is evil” (verse 19). One of the main themes of this letter itself has been a deep dive into the truth of the gospel. Paul has wanted to make the foundation of the Romans’ belief secure.
For us, we have before us the gift of all Paul’s writings, together with those of other early church apostles and leaders, together with the treasure trove of revelation in the Old Testament scriptures. Paul’s brief warning here at the end of this letter is a prompting for us to keep going back to the touchstone of the scriptures, regularly submitting our own thinking and perspectives to the shaping hand of the Spirit through the Word.
Further, whenever we’re presented with something “new” that purports to be a “fresh” insight into divine revelation, our instant response should be to take it back to the scriptures once again. Hold the two side by side for comparison. Look closely to see if what’s “new” is actually true. There will undoubtedly be fresh insights for us to discover along the way, greater depths for us to plumb, but the scriptures themselves are the standard, and also the safeguard.
The further thing I notice about these teachers is that they “cause divisions” (verse 17). Certainly the error of the teaching itself would do that. But there are many other sources of divisiveness which run contrary to the truth of the gospel – envy, greed, strife, deceit, malice, slander, gossip, insolence, arrogance, boasting. If we find ourselves engaged in such “divisions” we need to check our own souls to see if we’ve embraced false teaching, or if, on the other hand, we’re simply not living the truth we’ve been taught.
In everything, may “the grace of our Lord Jesus” (verse 20) be with us all.
Lord, may your grace prevail. Together with my sisters and brothers, may you give us eyes to see the truth, ears to hear it, and discernment to perceive all that falls short. Let us be ministers of your peace, knowing your truth and living your love. To your glory, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Reflect: Are you getting enough regular time in God’s word to shape both your thinking and your heart? Ask the Lord. Choose what adjustments you’ll make if needed.