Romans 16:17, “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.”
Returning to the book of Romans, we pick up our study in Romans 16:17. Paul has just finished his extensive greetings to the Christians in Rome, and in today’s passage, he begins a warning about false teachers. The warning lasts for several verses and seems to come almost out of nowhere, as the Apostle explains the true gospel that alone is the defense against error, but he does not mention any false teachers specifically until the end of the letter.
Paul’s apparently sudden turn to the matter of false teachers is not actually sudden at all. We know from his other letters, such as Galatians, that the Apostle frequently had to combat preachers of error that had infiltrated the churches to which he wrote. Since Rome was the capital city of the empire, it was inevitable that such teachers would make their way to that important metropolis, and Paul did not want the Christians there to be caught off guard. As for why Paul does not mention the danger of false teachers until he is almost finished with his letter, some commentators suggest that perhaps it is because they were not yet in the city, and so the concern was not immediately pressing. Others speculate that maybe Paul heard about false teachers in Rome only after he had started writing, so he puts the warning at the end because that is where he was in the writing process.
The Apostle’s admonition is the same one that he gave to the Ephesian elders, namely, to be on their guard against the false teachers who might infiltrate the flock (Rom. 16:17; see Acts 20:29-31). Paul warns that these false teachers will attempt to divide the church and will introduce obstacles that are contrary to true doctrine. He has serious error in mind, for the word obstacle in the Greek connotes a spiritual problem that will result in damnation if it takes root in a person’s life. The Apostle wants his audience to be careful about those who would divide professing Christians who affirm the true Apostolic faith and to look out for those who teach soul-damning doctrine.
False teaching was by no means a problem limited to the early church; it is something we face today. We must take care not to divide over nonessential matters, but we can have unity with other professing believers only insofar as they stand for the gospel (Rom. 14:1– 15:7; Gal. 1:8-9). John Calvin comments, “It is indeed an impious and sacrilegious attempt to divide those who agree in the truth of Christ: but yet it is a shameful sophistry to defend, under the pretext of peace and unity, a union in lies and impious doctrines.”
No matter how biblically faithful its confession and creeds, no church or denomination is immune from false teachers. If church leaders will not keep watch over the orthodoxy of their ministers and if congregations refuse to be on watch for error, it is only a matter of time before falsehood takes root and grows unchecked like a cancer. Leaders and laypeople alike have the responsibility of making sure their churches remain united in the truth of the gospel.