Avoid Them

Another Look at Romans 16:17–20[1]

 By William J. Hassold

             Paul’s directive in Romans 16:17, “avoid them,” has significantly influenced the attitude of some in the LCMS as to the proper way in which to relate to other Christians and even other Lutherans. This passage helped to shape the attitude of the fathers of the LCMS even prior to their arrival in the United States from Germany and continues to do so even today as the church enters the twenty-first century. It serves as justification in the minds of many in the LCMS for standing aloof from churchly involvement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and from membership in the Lutheran World Federation.

             In the early years of the nineteenth century King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia undertook to persuade the Lutheran and Reformed churches in his territory to establish a United Evangelical Church. His efforts at persuasion failed, and in 1830 in connection with the 300th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, he decreed the establishment of such a church body. Many confessionally-committed Lutherans resisted the king’s efforts and found justification for their stand in their understanding of Romans 16:17. Even after their arrival in the United States the founders of the LCMS based their approach to other Christians on this passage and also used it to justify their attitude toward other Lutherans who were not as staunchly confessional as they were.[2]

             Very often the use that is made of this passage assumes that its meaning and application are self-evident. In his Christian Dogmatics Franz Pieper, for example, cites this passage twenty-four times, either to warn against false doctrine or to direct believers to have nothing to do with those who are teaching contrary to the Scriptures.[3] It is always legitimate to undertake a study of passages that on the surface seem to need no exegesis so as to determine whether some aspect of God’s revelation has been overlooked or neglected and then to consider whether an interpretation or application of a particular passage that has been traditionally accepted is in need of reconsideration or revision.

             This study has as its purpose to look carefully at Romans 16:17–20 in its context in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome in order to determine what the passage meant in its original setting and whether the use that some have made of it is in harmony with Paul’s intent in issuing his warning.

 The Passage and Its Context

             The first task, then, is to seek the meaning of the passage in its original context, and only after that has been done will it be possible to suggest how Paul’s warning is to be applied in the life and activity of the church as it enters a new century. What follows is a translation of the entire passage under consideration.[4] Justification for the various exegetical decisions made in preparing the translation will be discussed at the appropriate place in this study.

 I implore you, brothers and sisters, to keep your eyes open for those who, contrary to the teaching you learned, are causing dissensions and setting snares, and to turn away from them, for people of such a sort are not serving our Lord Jesus Christ but their own belly, and through fine speaking and flattery they deceive the hearts of the guileless, for your obedience has come to the attention of all. Over you, therefore, I rejoice and want you to be wise in respect to the good and innocent as to the evil. May the God of peace crush Satan under your feet quickly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

            When Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome, he was writing to a group of Christians to whom he was, for the most part, personally unknown. He wrote the letter to introduce himself to them. He had previously filled the eastern portion of the Mediterranean world with the good news about Jesus, and now his plans called for him to go to Rome and from there to move on to Spain, which lay at the western edge of the Roman world. His intent was to preach the gospel there as well. One of Paul’s purposes in writing to the Roman Christians was to assure them that the message he had been proclaiming elsewhere was in harmony with what they had been taught when they became members of the church. In this way he hoped to gain a welcome for himself on his arrival in the capital of the empire and then, with the support of the believers in Rome, to make that city his base of operations for his contemplated missionary endeavors in Spain.

             The origin of the church in Rome is shrouded in uncertainty. We can only conjecture as to how the gospel came to the capital of the empire and how the church in that city came into existence. Most of the believers in the house churches in Rome knew of Paul only by reputation, but among them were some individuals who had previously come into contact with him during his missionary activity in Asia Minor and Greece. It was to them that Paul directed the words of greeting in Rom. 16:3–15. At the conclusion of that greeting, Paul very suddenly, without any effort at transition, expresses a serious warning in v.17 concerning people who foment dissension and thus set spiritual snares to beguile believers.

             Though seemingly abrupt, Paul’s warning may have been triggered in his mind by the directive Greet one another with a holy kiss (v. 16) with which he brings his greetings to his acquaintances in Rome to a conclusion. The holy kiss was an action that served as a mark of fellowship in the early church (cf. First Cor. 16:20; Second Cor. 13:12; First Thess. 5:16; First Pet. 5:14). As he thought of the Christians greeting one another, Paul may have recognized the possibility that peace and harmony in the church might be shattered by the activities of people who cause dissension in the life of the congregation.[5] While this suggestion is plausible, even probable, it should be admitted that we cannot with certainty read Paul’s mind to determine exactly why he issued his warning at just this point in his letter.

             The appropriate rendering into English for Paul’s parakalo [Greek words are rendered in transliteration and printed in italics] depends on the urgency of the situation with which Paul is dealing and can be determined only by a study of the entire passage. The fact that Paul introduces his word of warning without transition from the greetings to his acquaintances in Rome suggests that there was a sense of urgency behind Paul’s words; accordingly, in the light of context and content, the appropriate translation most probably is I implore, a rendering that stresses the apostle’s earnestness and implies his anxiety concerning a possibility that he contemplates and against which he warns.[6]

             Paul addresses the Christians in Rome as adelphoi (literally, brothers), but the context (vv. 3–16) indicates that both male and female members of the church are being addressed.[7] Paul frequently employs this term in addressing the recipients of his epistles; in Romans alone this term appears ten times.[8] The word need have nothing to do with blood relationships in a context such as the present one. At the minimum level this term places an emphasis on some sort of relationship that exists between Paul and the members of the church in Rome, even if most of those members are personally unknown to the apostle, and he to them.

             On occasion the term adelphos need mean no more than that the individual so designated is a neighbor (see the usage in Mt. 7:3, 6; Lk. 6:41–42); even Mt. 18:15 and its parallel in Lk. 17:3 may still refer by this term only to forgiving one’s neighbor for a transgression against one of Jesus’ followers. But the term also goes beyond the relationship of neighborliness.

             The use of the term adelphos implies something like a familial relationship. Jesus describes those who hear what he says and carry out God’s will as he proclaimed it as his “brothers and sisters and mother” (Mk. 3:31–33). And his action on the occasion when the members of his family, his mother and brothers, sought to speak with him, perhaps with the intention of getting him to stop preaching, is in harmony with this understanding of the term, for on that occasion he pointed to his disciples and said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt. 12:46–50). Jesus promises that whoever leaves “house, or brothers, or sisters, or mother” for his sake or the sake of the gospel will be recompensed with a thousand times as much in the age to come (Mk. 10:29–30; compare Mt. 19:2, 9; Lk. 18:29–30), meaning that they will be the members of a larger and better family, the family of God’s people.

             Though using different terminology, Paul in Romans 8 employs familial language to refer to the relationship of Christians with one another. He states that the Holy Spirit, along with the believer’s spirit, testifies that those who believe are “children of God” (v. 16). And later in the same chapter Paul refers to Christ as “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (v. 18), that is, he has the status of the elder brother in the Jewish family structure, while those who believe in him have been brought into God’s family through adoption. The relationship is familial, but, as Paul indicates, Jesus is God’s Son in a special way, being begotten of the Father, while believers enter God’s family by the grace of adoption (Rom. 8:15; see also Gal. 4:6; Eph. 3:10). This adoption, as Eduard Schweizer states, “shows that this sonship is not regarded as a natural one but as a sonship conferred by God’s act.”[9]

             It is also important to call to mind the distinction Jesus made in speaking about “my Father” and “your Father,” a distinction Paul also maintains (Rom. 8:15). The relationship of believers as children of God to their Father in heaven is not the same as that of Jesus as the Son of God to his Father in heaven, though both address God as “Father.” Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, while those who believe in him—to use the Pauline way of speaking—are children of God by adoption (Rom. 8:15). All who believe in Jesus have a vertical relationship with the Father through his Son, and at the same time they also have a horizontal relationship with one another as members of God’s earthly family.

             Paul’s first directive to his readers in the verses under consideration in this study is that they should be on the alert, keep their (spiritual) eyes open so as to recognize people whose practice it is to create dissension in the life of the church and thus ensnare believers to the detriment of their spiritual life. The Roman Christians are to consider carefully the conduct and words of people who seek to affiliate, or perhaps who have already affiliated, with their house churches, for some of these people might possibly undertake to disrupt the unity and harmony that should mark the lives of believers with one another.

             The term dichostasia (dissension) occurs in the New Testament only here and in Galatians 5:20, where Paul refers to it as one of the works of the flesh. The dissensions that the flesh fosters may result in deceiving guileless believers (cf. v. 18) and impact their spiritual life. The other term Paul joins with dichostasia is skandalon. In its literal sense this term refers to the trap stick, which, when tripped, ensnares the unwary animal and may cause its death. In the present context, the imagery is that of a spiritual snare, which will harmfully impact the lives of unsuspecting Christians. The word is often translated as offense and refers to words, actions, or activities that hinder, impact, or destroy faith (Rom. 9:3; 11:9; 14:23).

             The crucial question to be dealt with in this study concerns the identity of those about whom Paul warns his readers. But before it is possible to discuss this concern, several matters of grammar require consideration. The use of the article tous with the participle poiountas allows it to function as a substantive without losing its verbal ability to receive a direct object. The verbal base of the participle is the present stem of the verb poiein, and this stem may show an ongoing activity on the part of those individuals against whom Paul is warning,[10] or, with equal possibility, it may point to an action that is attempted.[11]

             Another matter requiring consideration is the function of the phrase para ten didachen hen hymeis emathete. Is this phrase adjectival, so as to further describe the nouns dichostasias and skandala, which are the direct objects of the participle poiountas? Such an understanding of the phrase indicates that the dissensions are doctrinal in nature. Or is its function adverbial, so that the sentence might be translated, I implore you, brothers and sisters, to keep your eyes open for those who, contrary to the teaching you learned, are causing dissensions and setting snares?[12] On this way of understanding the sentence, the phrase modifies the participle poiountas, and Paul’s warning indicates that the creation of dissension is a contradiction of what the Roman Christians had been taught when they came to faith in Jesus as their Savior.

             Some who understand the phrase para ten didachen hen etc. as adverbial maintain that, if the phrase were an adjectival modifier, it would be necessary for the article to precede it. Robert G. Hoerber, however, has clearly demonstrated that the New Testament “has numerous instances in which prepositional phrases modify articular substantives without a connecting article.”[13] At the same time, it must be remembered that just because a grammatical construction is possible, other ways of construing the phrase are not thereby excluded. It is equally possible, in accordance with good grammar, to understand the phrase as either adjectival or adverbial. The issue cannot be settled on the basis of grammar alone.

             The proper classification of the articles tas and ta, whether they are specific or generic, is important for interpretation. Theoretically there are four possibilities. The prepositional phrase might function adjectivally and the articles might be generic. But that is not a tenable option, for “as soon as an articular substantive and the accompanying articles are limited by a modifying word or phrase, such as the phrase para ten didachen hen hymeis emathete, used adjectivally, the substantive and accompanying article become specific.”[14] At the same time, it is highly unlikely for the prepositional phrase to serve as an adverbial modifier of the participle when the articles tas and ta are specific, for, as Hoerber notes, if such were the case, “one would then expect the same sentence or the immediate context to make clear to what the specific article is referring.”[15] There are, then, two viable options: either the prepositional phrase is adjectival and the articles are specific, or the prepositional phrase is adverbial and the articles are generic.

             The next concern is with the function of tous, which introduces the entire phrase. Does it point to particular individuals who are now threatening the unity of the Roman congregation, or is Paul speaking generally about spreaders of dissension, who at some future date may appear upon the scene? But the question then arises whether the articles tas and ta point to specific instances of dissension and obstacles that are in Paul’s mind as he writes, or whether he is speaking in a general way about what may happen at some time in the future.

             Some interpreters undertake to identify specific errorists as the people against whom Paul is alerting his readers.[16] If that view is correct, Paul’s warning to the Roman Christians suggests that he is aware that people who had previously sought to undercut his ministry are now working—or are about to work—among the believers in the capital of the empire. Because Paul is sure that these people will dog his footsteps even to Rome, he is expressing a warning against them. The article tous on this interpretation is specific and points directly to specific divisionists, whose activities are already troubling—or soon will trouble—the house churches in Rome. There is, however, another possibility worthy of consideration. The articles tous, tas, and ta may equally well be generic, pointing to representatives of a class, without reference to specific individuals and their activities. Paul here, then, would not be referring to particular groups or individuals that he had previously encountered, but his warning would be against dissensionists in general. The characteristic that marks such troublemakers is that they cause dissension and set snares that disturb the faith of believers. Paul’s experience over the years may well have led him to recognize the need to issue a warning concerning such people, since he had encountered a number of them during the course of his ministry.[17] In his warning, then, Paul is not singling out particular individuals or groups, but rather his reference is to any who foment dissension in the congregation and thus threaten the faith of Christians.

             In the prepositional phrase para ten didachen the preposition para undoubtedly is to be understood as adversative and thus may appropriately be translated as contrary to.[18] The didache to which Paul refers cannot be a locus in a dogmatic system, since at the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans no such system had yet been developed. This fact alone should serve as a warning against the unexamined use of Rom. 16:17 as primarily a warning against false doctrine. Paul’s use of didache in Rom. 6:17 sheds light on the meaning of that term here; there is a pattern of teaching that is to mold the way in which Christians conduct their lives. On the assumption that the phrase is adjectival, the reference to the teaching you learned would have to be a perversion of some aspect of the work of salvation derived from the Old Testament Scriptures, along with the consequences of this perversion for Christian living.

             If the phrase is understood as adjectival and the articles are specific, is it possible to make a closer identification of the individuals or groups that Paul had in mind when giving his warning? Scholars have pointed to a number of possibilities, but after canvassing the various suggestions that have been offered, Cranfield comes to the conclusion that “to imagine that one can, on the basis of these two verses [his discussion appears at the conclusion of his study of v. 18] or of any other evidence afforded by the epistle, single out one group of troublemakers, either already present in the church in Rome or as yet only constituting a possible danger from the outside as the people he had in mind, seems to us quite unrealistic. If Paul had one particular group in mind, we cannot be at all certain which it was.”[19] But on the view that the phrase is adjectival, the error must have been in the area of teaching falsely, even though it is impossible to make a definite identification of the troublemakers and their doctrinal error. The difficulty involved in this view is that the article must be regarded as generic, while the adjectival modifier is understood as specific—a situation that has already been shown to be highly improbable.[20] If, however, the phrase is adverbial, those about whom Paul is warning are creators of dissension that might prevent potential converts to the faith from accepting Christ as Savior, or threatens the faith of those who already believe. Though Cranfield does not consider the possibility that the prepositional phrase may be adverbial, he leaves room for such an understanding when he writes “Paul may have been warning in a more general way against a danger which he knew would always threaten the churches but could present itself in many different forms.”[21] According to this view, the articles tous, tas, and ta are all generic. Paul’s warning, then, as suggested above, would be to keep your eyes open for those who, contrary to the teaching you learned, are causing dissensions and setting snares. Such dissension may, of course, involve teaching falsely, but need not be limited in that way. The warning is against any who in any way sow the seeds of discord and disharmony in the church. Such activity is contrary to what they had learned and experienced about the believers’ relationship to God and their fellow believers, when they came to faith, and which they had been taught in catechesis prior to being brought into the family of God by baptism. The use of the second person pronoun, hymeis, stresses the responsibility of the Roman Christians, to whom Paul was sending this warning, to be on the guard against such troublemakers.

             This interpretation of v. 17 shifts the emphasis from divisions and offenses caused by false doctrine to dissension of any sort (including, but not limited to, false doctrine) that shatters the harmony God wants exhibited in the life of the church. A close connection may be recognized between the dissensions and the snares about which Paul warns, for dissension in the life of a congregation can easily become a hindrance that prevents the acceptance of the good news about Jesus, or, once the gospel has been accepted, dissension can lead to a questioning or even rejection of it. In this way it is an impediment to faith and thus proves to be a snare. Often too little attention is given the substantivized participle, tous … poiountas. Paul’s warning is not about the unwary and gullible who are ensnared (cf. v. 19) and who are thus unwittingly involved in the dissension; rather his concern is primarily with those who cause dissension and division in the church. They are the ones to be avoided; those who follow them often have been duped, and they are to be pitied and helped rather than avoided.

               What is the teaching to which Paul here makes reference, the teaching that the believers in Rome had learned prior to their baptism? The eminent British New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd analyzed the content of the sermons in the Book of Acts (2:14–40; 3:12–26, 29–32; 10:34– 43) and compared them with pre-Pauline creedal fragments cited in the Pauline letters (Rom. 1:1–4; 10:9; Second Cor. 11:23ff.; 15:3ff.). He detected a common pattern running through these passages and designated it kerygma, a Greek term suggesting a message brought by a herald; its meaning is often expressed by the English terms “preaching” and “proclamation.” Dodd pointed to six elements that commonly appear in these passages:

1. In Jesus messianic prophecy has found fulfillment.

2. Jesus went about doing good and performing miracles.

3. He was crucified in accordance with the divine plan.

4. He was raised and exalted to heaven.

5. He will return to judge.

6. Therefore repent, believe, and be baptized.[22]

These six elements are fundamental, and they underlie all the missionary activity of the early Christians. The kerygma may have been expressed in varying but congruent ways by the early Christian missionaries, such as Peter, John, Andrew, Silas, Apollos, and many others. But in whatever way the kerygma was proclaimed, the Holy Spirit used the gospel message to bring people to faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and in this way also into fellowship both with God and with all who believe in Christ for salvation. They became brothers and sisters in the faith, members of God’s family by adoption. The unity and harmony that ideally should be experienced in families would be shattered by those who foment dissension in the life of the church. Family feeling that did exist among the early believers (Acts 2:42) might serve as a pattern that would assist the Roman Christians in recognizing that dissension and the setting of snares are contradictory to what they had learned and experienced when they first came to faith.

            Paul anticipated that no matter how the Roman Christians had been taught, they would be able to recognize that the message he had been preaching was in harmony with the beliefs they had been holding, and thus they would be ready to support his contemplated missionary endeavors in Spain.

             Dissension in a family is inevitable; failure to deal with it constructively is unhealthy. Paul therefore must give instruction to his readers as to how to deal appropriately with people who cause dissension: Turn away from them (ekklinete ap’ auton). Paul employs a present imperative, which, in connection with tous poiountas, suggests that the problem of people who cause dissension and set snares may occur again and again.[23] History has shown that Paul was correct; this has been an ongoing problem in the church. Paul directs his readers to be alert and, when they recognize such troublemakers to turn away from them or, as this word has often been rendered in this context, avoid them. There is a need for constant watchfulness, and when the situation arises there is only one appropriate course: turn away from them.

             It is valid to inquire what Paul is implying by his use of the verb ekklinein. Is he calling for a breaking off of all relationships, such as the “shunning” practiced by some in the Amish tradition? Or does he simply mean that believers should keep away from people who cause dissension in the church and not get involved in their disruptive activities? Cranfield correctly observes that “one can avoid subjecting oneself to a person’s evil influence without hardening one’s heart against him and refusing him kindly help, should he be in distress. ”[24] Paul’s warning is against involvement in the activities of those who seek to cause dissension in God’s family on earth. The attitude that believers are to take toward those who have become unwittingly involved in dissension will be considered in connection with v. 18.

             In v. 18 Paul offers the reason why believers should turn away from the type of people about whom he is warning: People of such a sort are not serving our Lord Christ but their own belly. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had stated as a principle: “No one can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24); that principle applies here. Such people as those about whom Paul is warning do not serve Christ, who as their Master has the right to demand their service, for he has made them his own at the price of his life. They are to be his slaves who are to carry out his will; their lives should be devoted to his service; instead, they are serving their own belly.

              The term koilia (belly) in its physical sense refers either to the womb or to the stomach as the organ of digestion. If Paul’s warning is directed against specific errorists whom he had previously encountered in the course of his ministry, the reference would be to people who insist upon dietary restrictions, such as Judaizers. But, as has been previously discussed, it is likely that the articles tous, tas, and ta are to be understood as generic; in fact, this way of understanding the function of these articles appears to be much more probable than does regarding them as specific. By interpreting the articles as generic, the warning is against potential creators of dissension in the congregation, no matter who they might be, and who thus are serving their own selfish interests. koilia, then, is used metaphorically.

             It must be granted that the interpretation that regards the significant articles as specific and the prepositional phrase contrary to the teaching you learned as adjectival and thus warns against false teaching, means that the troublemakers are causing dissension by means of false teaching. On this understanding, the troublemakers may well be unbelievers who have infiltrated the church and are doing Satan’s work (cf. v. 20). Or they may be some who at the beginning accepted the good news about Jesus and who later were led astray and now are using their leadership talents in the cause of error. Such people are to be avoided, because for selfish purposes they are causing dissension and setting spiritual snares for the unwary (akakoi).

             On the alternate interpretation, those who are involved in causing dissension for any reason also are to be avoided, for by causing disturbance and division in the church they are employing their leadership ability in a wrong cause. They are destroying the familial unity that should exist in the church. They may well be people who are not well grounded in the faith and who thus place their selfish interests ahead of the cause of the gospel. In this way they are not giving Christ the service that is his due; they are unwittingly undermining their Master’s cause. Involvement in these evil activities must be avoided.

             The interpreter must weigh both possibilities in the light of the evidence that the text itself provides. The difficulties in understanding the articles as specific, as well as the proximity of the phrase para ten didachen en etc. to the substantivized participle poiountas, tilt the decision in favor of the alternative view, which regards Paul’s warning as directed toward the probability that Paul’s readers at some point may have to deal with people whose forte it is to cause disturbance in the congregation and thus undermine the cause of the gospel by the creation of an atmosphere of dissension and distrust.

             The probable tactics that might well be employed by the people against whom Paul warns—and here he may be speaking from experience—are chrestologia and euloyia (fine speaking and flattery). A fourth-century writer, Julius Capitolinus, describes a chrestologos as “an individual who speaks well but acts wickedly.”[25] The term associated with chrestologia here is euloyia, a word that may bear a wide variety of senses, such as “fine speaking,” “praise,” “blessing,” beauty,” or, in a negative sense, “flattery.” The association of the two terms suggests that there is a negative cast to the second term in this context. If the two terms form a hendiadys, as seems likely, the probable meaning is that the people who cause dissension make plausible but specious arguments and with insincere praise flatter people who are simple, unsuspecting, and naive. Such people believe everything they are told. In this way the dissensionists deceive the hearts of the guileless. Such people are easily deceived, gullible.

             The distinction Paul makes between those who seek to cause dissension and those gullible individuals who follow them is significant. Is Paul’s directive, turn away from them, to include both those who cause dissension and those who are misled? Or does Paul aim his warning primarily at those who are active in causing dissension and setting spiritual snares? This point has not received the attention it deserves in the practical application of this passage. Paul clearly is distinguishing between those who create dissension and those who, in their innocence, are unwittingly ensnared into participation in such divisive activity. By distinguishing between those who cause dissensions and the gullible Paul implies that the way in which these two groups are to be dealt with should differ. Those who cause dissensions are to be avoided, while their gullible dupes are to be treated with Christian love and concern which may help to deliver them from their involvement in dissension. Paul’s concern for the “weak” in chapter 14 of this letter suggests that a similar approach should be followed in the case of those who are gullible and guileless.

             Paul now expresses a word of encouragement to the believers in Rome when he writes, your obedience has come to the attention of all. He undoubtedly has heard from various sources about the obedience that the members of the churches in Rome exhibit toward God’s Word and will. He here refers to their obedience in order to encourage them to pay close attention to the warning and directive that he has just issued. His intention is to strengthen the Roman Christians’ resolve to hold fast to the fellowship and family feeling which the gospel has produced among them. Paul’s words here, as Sanday and Headlam suggest, “imply that there were not as yet any dissensions or erroneous teaching in the [Roman] church.”[26]

             Paul then continues: Over you, therefore, I rejoice and want you to be wise in respect to the good and innocent as to the evil. Paul’s words are a recognition of the fact that as a result of their obedience to the gospel message they enjoy the God-given wisdom to have accepted the gospel; and at the same time it is his wish that they be innocent of becoming ensnared in the divisive activities of people who seek to cause dissension in the life of the congregation. Paul’s desire is that they preserve their spiritual integrity over against those who would cause dissension in the life of the church.

             Paul concludes his warning to the believers in Rome with a word of assurance that they will share in the ultimate victory over those who cause dissensions and set snares for the faith of believers. Paul speaks confidently of God’s final victory over Satan. God is the God of peace, not only because he has brought about peace between himself and his people but also because it is his intent that peace and harmony should mark the life of the church. Dissension and strife are impediments to effective evangelism. God will achieve his goal of true peace when he will crush Satan under the believers’ feet in the victory celebration at Christ’s Parousia, which, according to the divine timetable, will come quickly. Paul then concludes this part of his letter with a brief benediction.[27]


             This study has raised a number of concerns about the interpretation and application of Romans 16:17–20, a passage that has proved significant in the life and activity of some portions of Lutheranism in the United States, as well as elsewhere in the world. The passage—in particular v.17—has been crucial for the teaching and practice of some parts of Lutheranism concerning church fellowship. This study has sought to look at the passage in such a way as to give due weight to lexical and grammatical concerns and to give proper consideration to Paul’s words of warning in the light of conditions in the church at the time Paul wrote this letter. In this final section, I draw conclusions from the exegetical study of the passage and then propose appropriate applications to the life of the contemporary church.

             While we have seen that the phrase contrary to the teaching you learned may possibly be adjectival and thus refer to false doctrine, the much greater likelihood is that the phrase is adverbial and the reference is to dissension of any sort. As the study has shown, if the phrase is adjectival there must be a specific referent; but since it is well nigh impossible to make an identification of the dissensionists against whom Paul warns, the probability is that Paul’s words of warning are to be understood as directed against people who either may attempt or make it their practice to sow seeds of dissension in the life of the congregation. On this understanding, the phrase in question is adverbial and the teaching that the Roman believers had learned refers to the familial relationship that exists between themselves and other Christians as a consequence of their relationship with the heavenly Father through their faith in Christ.

             We have reviewed the reasons for the difficulty of making an absolutely certain identification of the errorists or dissensionists against whom Paul warns. The fact is that understanding the phrase contrary to the teaching you learned as adjectival requires the article tous to be specific; but when connected with the difficulty of identifying the troublemakers, the probability that the phrase is adverbial is strengthened. The proximity of the phrase to the substantivized participle points in the same direction. Paul’s warning, then, does not directly point to doctrinal error or errorists; rather, Paul is warning against any and all who seek to stir up dissension in the life of the church and thus are shattering the familial fellowship that should exist between those who call upon God as their Father and worship Jesus as their Lord. To be sure, teaching and advocacy of teachings contrary to the Scriptures are divisive and thus come under Paul’s word of warning, chiefly because of its negative effect upon the church and its witness to the world. It is even possible that Paul’s warning is applicable to a situation in which advocates of pure doctrine can come under its condemnation, because, even in support of a good cause, unevangelical tactics can create disharmony and dissension in a congregation or in the church at large.

             Paul’s warning was originally directed to a congregation. It is in congregations that dissension is most readily recognized. Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2) undoubtedly had sympathizers in their disagreement with one another, and thus there was the potential for the development of cliques and factionalism in the congregation at Philippi. In Corinth, too, there surely were individuals who expressed dissatisfaction with various elements in congregational life, and they gathered supporters around them. They thus became leaders, and various factions developed, causing problems with which Paul had to deal in First Corinthians (cf. 3:19; 8:7–12; 11:17–22). Satan can foment dissatisfaction and dissension (cf. v. 20) and thus place an impediment to the course of the gospel. In his letter to the Romans Paul was writing to a congregation (or to a number of house churches), and in the light of this context it is wisest to seek to apply this warning initially to congregational life. Every pastor should recognize the potential for such developments and be prepared to deal with them in an evangelical manner as soon as they appear.

              The directive turn away from them (or avoid them) is often indiscriminately applied to all who are involved in dissension, even to those who are innocently duped by false teaching. Such an approach does not take seriously the fact that Paul makes a distinction between those causing the problem and the gullible dupes who have innocently been misled (v. 18). Avoidance is the proper way in which to deal with those who are the source of trouble; but in accordance with Paul’s manner of dealing with weak Christians in chapter 14, efforts should be made with love and patience to rescue those who unwittingly have become ensnared in such activity. The distinction between those who cause division and those who are innocently involved should be given due weight, no matter which interpretation is given the prepositional phrase, contrary to the teaching you learned. Paul’s words concerning avoidance should not be taken to mean that Christians should have no dealings with such people, but rather that they should not involve themselves in divisive activities, because of the harm that divisiveness produces in the life and work of the congregation. The proper procedure for dealing with those who in all innocence involve themselves in such activities without taking a leadership role should be governed by an evangelical concern for their spiritual welfare, and every effort should be made to rescue them from the error of their ways.

             The divisiveness that can occur in congregational life can also manifest itself in the life of church bodies. Factions in support of one issue or another can wreak havoc and thus impede the cause of the gospel. In the light of the contemporary situation Paul would assuredly apply his word of warning to such situations. It is important that the church in our day apply Paul’s directive, turn from them, to those who foster factionalism with its negative consequences for the fulfilling of Christ’s Great Commission (Mt. 28:18–20) by the church.


[1] This essay was originally published as “Avoid Them,” in Currents in Theology and Mission 27 (June 2000): 196-208. The essay is published here by permission.

[2] The common LCMS understanding of this passage was also held by those synods that at one time were in fellowship with the LCMS through the former Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America.

[3] Franz (Francis) A. O. Pieper was called to a professorship at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1878, three years after his graduation from that institution. Following the death of Dr. C. F. W. Walther he was called to serve as president of the seminary and remained in that capacity until his death in 1931. He was president of the church body now known as The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod from 1899 until 1911. His Christliche Dogmatik, appearing in three volumes between 1918 and 1924, was published at the request of the synod as it celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding; and again at the request of the synod as it observed the centennial of its organization, this work was translated into English with the title Christian Dogmatics. For the citations of Romans 16:17 in Pieper’s dogmatics, see Walter W. F. Albrecht, Index: Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), 1012.

[4] The Greek text underlying the translation is that which appears in Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th ed., ed. K. Aland et al. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1979)

[5] This suggestion has been offered by C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans in The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979), 2:797.

[6] For a brief presentation of the distinction between the various synonyms for making an appeal, the reader may consult the discussion of synonyms in The New American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ed. William Morris (Boston: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1973), 119 (sub “beg”).

[7] Prisca, Mary, Julia and the sister of Nereus are clearly female.

[8] 1:13; 7:1, 4; 8:12; 10:1; 11:25; 12:1; 15:14, 30; 16:17.

[9] Eduard Schweizer, “huiothesia,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1964-74), 8:399.

[10] A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 879. See also Herbert Weir Smith, Greek Grammar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 1119.

[11] See Robertson, 800, where the conative use of the present stem is discussed.

[12] Though only one participle appears in the Greek text, two separate English verbs are here employed to agree with contemporary English idiom.

[13] Robert G. Hoerber, A Grammatical Study of Romans 16, 17 [sic!] (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, n. d.). He lists the following New Testament examples of this construction: Gal. 1:13; Rom. 16:13; Rom. 16:3, 9; Eph. 2:15; Second Cor. 9:11 [bis]; Col. 1:4; Eph. 3:4, 13; 1:15; Phil. 1:26; 3:9; Col. 1:24; Rom. 6:4; 4:11; 9:3. It should be noted that the above sequence is that which appears in Hoerber’s study.

[14] Hoerber, 12.

[15] Hoerber, 14.

[16] Cranfield, 799, surveys the various identifications that have been proposed.

[17] The factions that  troubled the Corinthian congregation could not have developed without leadership from some source; there must have been individuals who fostered dissensions. Paul’s letters and Luke’s record in the Book of Acts undoubtedly provide only a partial record of Paul’s experiences during his missionary endeavors, and there may well have been many situations of this sort that do not find a place in the biblical record.

[18] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, 3rd ed., revised and augmented by F. W. Gingrich and F. W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), sub para, III.6, 619.

[19] Cranfield, 802.

[20] See above.

[21] Cranfield, 802.

[22] C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936).

[23] If Paul’s reference is to specific individuals or groups, he would appropriately employ an aorist imperative. Cf. Cranfield, 798, who notes that the textual tradition shows variations. The present imperative appears in the Egyptian tradition, while the majority of the textual witness have the aorist. He opts for the present imperative as the more difficult—and therefore more probable—reading.

[24] Cranfield, 799.

[25] Julius Capitolinus, Pertinax, 13.5, as quoted in Cranfield, 802.

[26] William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 8th ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’ Sons, 1903), 430.

[27] Though the terminology that Paul employs does not reflect the wording of the Septuagint of Gen. 3:15, there is an obvious allusion to the first messianic promise.

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