Saturday, July 07, 2007

Wrested Scriptures (2) - "offences contrary to the doctrine which you have learned"

In my last post I showed that one of the Scriptures which are frequently quoted in support of "withdrawing fellowship" when read in it's context actually means something quite different from the meaning attached to it by religious purists*. In this post I want to consider another passage whose meaning has been reversed by the purists.

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoid them. (Romans 16:17 KJV)

Of all the scriptures which have wrested (twisted or distorted) by the purists, this one may have suffered more maltreatment than most others. Written for the very purpose of protecting and preserving the church from division, it has become one of the chief instruments of such division.

What did Paul mean when he wrote about "the doctrine you have learned"? We first need to look at the context to see what Paul had been teaching the Romans which would cause them to avoid those who were divisive. The context shows that Paul had been teaching them that division among brethren is a sin. The "doctrine" he is referring to is the teaching that no one should cause division ("doctrine" literally means "teaching"). In a nutshell, that teaching in Romans is summed up in 14:19 "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification".

The verse we are looking at comes at the end of a body of teaching which commences in Romans 12:1. Paul devotes the next 4 chapters to Christian conduct, especially as related to unity in the community of God's people. His primary teaching is that God's people should not be divided and its members should not put obstacles in front of another believer.
Here are some key verses from that body of teaching:
  • "In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (12:5).
  • "Love must be sincere." (12:9)
  • "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves." (12:10)
  • "Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited." (12:16)
  • "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another". (13:8)
  • Chapter 14 deals at length with the attitudes necessary to preserve unity in spite of differences. The foundation of Paul's teaching about this is laid in verse one: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters."
After having given this extensive teaching about avoiding division and preserving unity, Paul recognises there will be those who will not follow this teaching. There will always be people who refuse to follow the example of Christ, but who create a factional atmosphere. Almost every church at some time will encounter people who want to set up their own power bases, who recognize as brethren only those who agree with their opinions, and who will drive out the believers who will not submit to their authority. Jesus encountered this in the religious leaders of His day, the New Testament letters show how such people infiltrated the church from an early stage, and the divided state of Christendom in general is evidence of this factionalism.

So what should be done about a person who insists that his/her view is the right one and that everyone else should agree with it? How do we handle a person (or group of people) who is/are threatening to divide a church or group of believers by making a big issue out of a difference of opinion? Paul says "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" (Rom 16:17 NIV).

We should note several things about these words:
  1. Paul is not advocating any public or corporate action here. He is not telling a congregation that they should excommunicate or disfellowship any one.
  2. The "avoiding" recommended by Paul is an individual thing - they are simply told to steer clear of those who create division and stay out of their way.
  3. The KJV says "Mark them which cause division." The word "mark" is from the Greek skopeo and literally means "to observe, watch, to keep an eye on." The person is not "marked" in any way and nothing is actually done to them. They are simply put under surveillance, or carefully watched.
  4. The word "divisions" is from dichostasia which literally means "standing apart" and here it refers to "alienating one from another." It is seen in a party-spirit where people who hold the same opinion cluster together and vote or act as a group.
  5. The word "avoid" is from ekklino which means "to turn away from, to hold aloof from, to stay out of the way." There is nothing in the word which implies any formal or organised disciplinary action. W.E. Vine in his Expository Dictionary of NT Words says, "In exhorting them to turn away from false teachers, the Apostle is not speaking of excommunication, but of personal dissociation from the offenders." Commentator Albert Barnes puts it this way: "That is, avoid them as teachers; do not follow them. It does not mean that they were to be treated harshly; but that they were to be avoided in their instructions. They were to disregard all that they could say tending to produce alienation and strife; and resolve to cultivate the spirit of peace and union."
Here are some ways other translations paraphrase this verse:
  • "And now I implore you, my brothers, to keep a watchful eye on those who cause troubles and make difficulties among you, in plain opposition to the teaching you have been given, and steer clear of them." (J. B. Phillips)
  • "One final word of counsel, friends. Keep a sharp eye out for those who take bits and pieces of the teaching that you learned and then use them to make trouble. Give these people a wide berth." (The Message)
Everyone who uses this verse as justification for separating from people with different views, who equate "this doctrine" with some form of creedal statement (such as a statement of faith), or some other definition of "the true faith", or who insist on agreement with a doctrinal interpretation of some sort, are the very people who are disrupting unity and who Paul says we should avoid!

It is sadly ironic that the chief offenders against unity are the ones most likely to quote this verse to justify the divisions they are causing. Such is the nature of the religious purists that they wrest, or twist Scripture to make it say the opposite of what it was intended to mean.

* I will explain this term "religious purists" later when we get to a Scripture about it.