The Word Abused Rom. 16:17-18

By Mike Willis

In his second article of his series on “The Word Abused . . . ,” Leroy Garrett studied Rom. 16:17-18. The passage reads as follows:

Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them: For such men are slaves not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.

This is not the first time that Garrett has written on these verses; he treated the passage in an article entitled “How Men Use The Bible To Justify Their Divisions” in an earlier issue of Restoration Review.(1) Too, Carl Ketcherside(2) and Hoy Ledbetter(3) have both written on the subject. Therefore, we are able to check to see how much or how little diversity in doctrinal belief exists among the “unity-in-diversity” brethren.

First of all, let me relate Garrett’s treatment of Rom. 16:17-18 in Restoration Review. Garrett began with a lengthy discussion that sought to show that some divisions are right. Citing examples of justifiable division from Galileo, Reformation leaders, leaders of the American Revolution, etc., he said,

“But this verse, when superficially applied, is made to mean that division is per se wrong. Nobody can really believe that . . . . Not every division is right, but division is a justifiable principle.”(4)

The statement of this principle is exactly the opposite of what Garrett wrote in Thoughts on Unity. Contrast the statement above with what is cited below:

“I. The most serious abuse of this passage is the view that it is all right to cause dissensions and divisions so long as it is done in keeping with `the doctrine which you have been taught.’ There are those who cause divisions over false doctrine or their own opinions or over things that do not matter, and this is wrong. But if one causes division by standing for the truth, this is all right. So they make the passage read this way. ‘Mark them which cause divisions and offences that are contrary to the doctrine which you have learned.’ In other words the division is warranted if it is caused by standing for the truth, each one of course deciding just what determines truth ….

“I cannot believe that Paul is saying that division and dissension are all right if they are the result of being loyal to doctrine. The man who says, ‘I’ll wreck this church for the sake of truth,’ cannot look to Romans 16:17 for his defense. This is a misunderstanding of the phrase ‘contrary to the doctrine which you have learned:

“Paul is simply saying that the spirit that causes divisions and dissension is contrary to the teaching that I have been giving you. He does not mean that some division is caused by error and some by truth, and that division is all right if it is necessary to preserve truth.”(5)

Obviously, the editor of Restoration Review “superficially applied” this passage for a number of years and even charged that any brethren who disagreed with him was guilty of “abusing the scriptures.” What has caused the recent change by the editor of Restoration Review? Noting that he sanctioned the massive walkout of brethren in Dallas one is lead to believe that Garrett now believes it is right for the “free” brethren of the unity cult to create division. In reference to that walkout, he said,

“And exodus can be a glorious thing to folk who have been held down .and fenced up by partyism, and there is no indication that our partyism is any better than the next church’s.”(6)

Whatever might be the explanation of the change, the above quotations demonstrate that Garrett has changed his position about divisions in general.

Proceeding to the latest article, Garrett charged that Rom. 16:18 was written to correct a behavioral problem instead of a doctrinal one (as if deviation from the doctrine of Christ was not a behavioral problem) and that the primary problem was an evil heart rather than wrong doctrine.(7) He then asserted that to “mark” an individual had no reference to disfellowship.(8) Then, he identified the phrase “contrary to the teaching you learned” as follows:

“The phrase ‘contrary to the teaching you received’ almost certainly refers to the teaching on unity In spite of differences which he had just laid before them in the letter, especially Rom. 14.”(9)

(One wonders why Garrett did not use this verse to persuade those who walked out at Dallas that they were creating divisions “contrary to the teaching you learned”-namely, unity in spite of differences.) Having said that, Garrett concluded:

“There is no way that this passage can be applied to sincere, well-meaning, unity-loving brothers who happen to hold to ideas different from what we believe the scriptures to teach. To apply this to those who support Herald of Truth, divide into classes for study, use a plurality of cups, employ a resident pastor, use a piano or organ, interpret a prophecy in terms of a premillennial reign, or do their missionary and educational work through societies is to abuse the scriptures. In fact the one who so twists the scriptures as to impose this kind of oppression upon his brothers is more guilty of the sin involved than the one he is applying it to, and if anyone needs to be Marked! it is he.(10)

Compare Ketcherside and Ledbetter To Garrets

The “unity-in-diversity” brethren preach that we must have unity-in-diversity but practice unity-in-doctrine. The doctrine which each of them must believe is that doctrinal conformity is not essential to unity. Nevertheless, on the key passages dealing with fellowship on doctrinal matters, these brethren somehow manage to have doctrinal agreement. Ketcherside agreed that the “teaching you learned” in Rom. 16:18 was the doctrine that God’s family should not be divided.(11) He also believes that the “marking” and “avoiding” do not refer to congregational action.(12) Hoy Ledbetter accepted at least one of the major points of the position held by Garrett. He said that the “marking” and “avoiding” of Rom. 16:17-18 is not excommunication.(13) So, you can see that the “unity-in diversity” brethren exhibit no little amount of doctrinal conformity.


Whatever the situation was in Rome, Paul advised the brethren to guard themselves against men who caused “dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned.” ” Dissensions” (dichostasia) “denotes a state of things in which men are divided, in which feuds flourish, and in which unity is destroyed. Dichostasia bears its picture on its face; it literally means ‘a standing apart,’ that is, a state in which all community, all fellowship, and all togetherness are gone.”(14) “Hindrances” (skandalon) is an interesting word; skandalon is properly “the movable stick or tricker (‘trigger’) of a trap, trap-stick; a trap, snare; any impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall.”(15)

The ministry of the disciples of Christ was divisive in nature; Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household” (Mt. 10:34-36). Paul added, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may become evident among you” (1 Cor. 11:19-20). With reference to the word skandalon, one needs to notice that it is applied with reference to the Christ on some occasions. With reference to the Jews, Paul said, “They stumbled over the stumbling-stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock- of offense (skandalon), and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed” (Rom. 9:23-33). (See also 1 Pet. 2:8; 1 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 5:11.) “In N.T. skandalon is always used metaphorically, and ordinarily of anything that arouses prejudice, or becomes a hindrance to others, or causes them to fall by the way. Sometimes the hindrance is in itself good, and those stumbled by it are the wicked.”(16) Where the gospel, correctly presented, produces divisions, as it always will, the divisions are right. We are not responsible for the legitimate effects of the truth.

Inasmuch as the teaching of truth and Jesus Himself can be the source of division, the phrase “contrary to the teaching which you have learned” (para ten didachen hen humeis emathete) becomes all important. Commentators cannot be sure which teaching Paul is referring to in this passage. Ketcherside and Garrett say that the teaching referred to is “almost certainly . . . the teaching on unity in spite of differences which he had just laid before them in the letter, especially Rom. 14.”(17) Most commentators are not so certain as are Garrett and Ketcherside. Actually, most commentators which I have read say that the divisive men mentioned here are Judaizers who tried to bind the Mosaical law on Christians and, therefore, make the “teaching which you learned” the teaching concerning the Jew-Gentile relationship and the proper usage of the Mosaical law (which items are among the major thrusts of the letter), as the following quotations demonstrate:

“Probably he refers here to Jewish teachers, or those who insisted strenuously on the observance of the rites of Moses, and who set up a claim for greater purity and orthodoxy than those possessed who received the Gentile converts as brethren.”(18)

“The warning is against a class of persons whose mischievous activity he had had experience of elsewhere, and attempts by some of whom to disturb the peace of the Roman Church he may possibly have heard of. They may have been Judaists, or others who taught views contrary to the received faith, and so caused divisions and offences ‘in the church.”(19)

“What precisely was the mischief, who precisely were the dangerous teachers, spoken of here so abruptly and so urgently by St. Paul? It is easier to ask the question than to answer it. Some expositors have sought a solution in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters, and have found in an extreme school of theoretical ‘liberty’ these men of ‘pious language and specious pleas. But to us this seems impossible. . . In our view, the case was one of embryo Gnosticism.”(20)

. . the most natural way to understand the reference to those who create dissensions and difficulties is as pointing to the Judaizers.”(21)

Additional comments from others could be cited but these are sufficient to demonstrate that no one can be certain as to precisely which teaching was being distorted. Therefore, the best explanation appears to me to be one which makes a general application of the passage: whoever causes a division over any teaching not revealed in the scriptures is to be marked and avoided!

Even if the contentions of Ketcherside and Garrett were correct and the reference to Rom. 14 is the teaching which Paul had in mind, the case for those who divided the church over instrumental music, benevolent institutions, and the sponsoring church would not be improved. The very best that could be said for the promoters of instrumental music, benevolent institutions, and the sponsoring church is that (they divided the church over an expediency! We were forced either to conform or to get out! According to 1 Tim. 4:1-3, any person who so binds his opinions is “fallen away from the faith.” On the other hand, it must be admitted, if the scriptures allow each of the above items and we have forbidden their usage, we are “fallen away from the faith” for binding our opinions. That is why the whole issue must be drawn at the following point: “Is the (any innovation) ‘contrary to the teaching which you have learned’ from the apostles?” If the innovation is not allowed by the scriptures, then the ones promoting it fall under the censure of this verse. If it is allowed, then the ones dividing the church by prohibiting it fall under the censure of this verse. Whichever of us is not teaching the doctrine of Christ is the one to be marked and avoided!

Garrett says that he cannot understand how this passage ever came to be applied to unity loving brethren who happened to disagree doctrinally; I shall try to tell him. Once upon a time, the Lord’s body was one, big, happy family. Then, brethren began to bring mechanical instruments of music into worship and missionary societies into church budgets; since they could not find scriptures to justify these practices, the church divided. Having partially overcome the effects of one division, the Lord’s people began to rebuild the Temple of Zion. Then, one day, some more brethren began to try to get churches to put the college in the budget. When they saw that this would’ fail, they resorted to orphan homes in the church budget as a strategical ploy to prepare the churches for colleges in the budget. The sponsoring church concept was pushed as well. The effect was that brethren were forced dither to accept these innovations or to get out. Since they could not give biblical authority for them, the Lord’s church divided. Because brethren could not give scripture for what they were doing, they were causing “dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you have learned.” Therefore, Rom. 16:17 was applied to them. Now is that not easy to understand? So long as brethren are guilty of causing divisions contrary to the gospel, Rom. 16:17 can and must be applied to them.

Mark and Avoid

Another important aspect of any discussion of this verse is a discussion of what is meant by “marking” and “avoiding.” As noted earlier, Garrett does not believe that the idea conveyed in this verse pertains to excommunication; he said,

“The word for ‘mark them’ has no reference to disfellowship, excommunication, or even stigmatization. He is not calling for labels or brands, nor even for discourtesy. The idea is that they are to watch out or keep an eye on such people. They are to be on their guard and not be deceived by their cunning.”(22)

Apparently Garrett understands the Bible to mention various kinds of excommunication; these people were to be “marked” and “avoided” but, he said, this is not “excommunication.” Hoy Ledbetter maintained a similar distinction when he said,

“The avoidance enjoined in Rom. 16 is not excommunication, but the sort of turning away (ekklino: ‘bend away from’) that precludes support or encouragement of the corrupting and divisive practices and doctrines the deviationists brought . . . Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum. There is a form of avoidance short of excommunication which we must employ in some situations.”(23)

These brethren allude to a belief in various levels of fellowship concerning which they need to be more specific. Do you brethren adopt the minor, major and anathema levels of excommunication posited by the Roman Catholic Church?(24) If not, please let us know exactly what you believe about levels of disfellowshipping. Of course, we will want you to document those levels of excommunication with scriptural references!

The passage before us commands Christians to “mark” those “causing divisions contrary to the doctrine which you have learned.” Skopeo is defined as follows: “look (out) for, notice, keep one’s eyes on . . .”(25) and “to look at, observe, contemplate . . . to mark . . . to fix one’s eyes upon, direct one’s attention to, anyone.”(26) “The word skopein signifies to observe attentively and diligently, as they do who are placed in a watch-tower to observe the motions of their enemies.”(27) Although skobeb does not carry the idea of withdrawal of fellowship, ekklinti does. Ekklino is defined as follows: “to turn away from, keep aloof from, one’s society; to shun one.”(28) Here are some comments from others about the verse:

“It is worthy of notice, that the apostle desires the faithful to mark them who cause divisions, not for the purpose of disputing with them, and far less for the purpose of apprehending them with fines, imprisonment, torture, and death; but that they might avoid their . company, lest by conversing familarly with such, they might have been infected with their errors and vices.”(29)

“. . . turn away from them; i.e. shun them; have nothing to do with them.”(30)

“Avoid, go out of their way, or eschew them.”(31)

“This turning away amounted to a withdrawal of fellowship; and the withdrawal was to continue, so long as those withdrawn from, continued to produce divisions. It was a separation of true brethren from false; and without a reformation it was final.”(32)

In the article on “Excommunication” in McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia, Rom. 16:17 was cited to support the practice. The plain statement of this verse is that Christians must avoid those who are causing divisions contrary to the doctrine which they had learned. If that is not commanding a withdrawal of fellowship, I cannot understand the meaning of words. A withdrawal of fellowship is ceasing to have anything to do with a person-avoiding him. The unity cult must either reveal their multi-leveled system of withdrawal of fellowship and give it biblical documentation or admit that this is an allusion to the principle of withdrawing fellowship, a principle discussed more fully in other New Testament passages. Which route will you brethren take?

Heart Sin?

Garrett also charged that Rom. 16:17 dealt primarily with a behavioral problem rather than a doctrinal problem. He said,

“It is clear enough that he is dealing with a behavioral problem more than a doctrinal one . . . . It was their evil heart more than their wrong doctrine that concerned the apostle. Their behavior was causing division, for they sought to form cliques and parties around themselves through flattering and deceitful talk. The key description is that they were insincere. They were deceivers and impostors.

Remember that Garrett has already committed himself to the belief that Rom. 16:17 does not command excommunication. He now admits that the men under discussion here are insincere, false teachers. If admittedly false teachers who are insincere men more interested in self than in Christ are not to be disfellowshipped, just who is to be disfellowshipped?

Too, what difference does it make whether the man was sincere or insincere? If one could prove that the pope of Rome was sincere, would he be under obligation to fellowship him? If one could prove that a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness was sincere, would we be under obligation to fellowship him? If I proved that a Baptist, “faith-only,” preacher was sincere, should I therefore fellowship him? If I could prove that a Jew was sincere, should we therefore fellowship him? If not, then why does the issue of sincerity even enter the picture when discussing benevolent institutions, sponsoring churches, missionary societies, and mechanical instruments of music in worship? Any man, .sincere or insincere, who divides the church of our Lord Jesus Christ “contrary to the teaching” of the apostles must be avoided.

I have no intention of judging the heart of a man (or men) who died over 1900 years ago. This verse does not demand that I know a man’s heart; it demands that I know whether or not he has violated the Scriptures! Those who say that one should withdraw from the insincere but not from the sincere are in the unenviable position of passing judgment on men’s hearts.


Let me remind you why a discussion of Rom. 16:17 is so important. Leroy Garrett and Carl Ketcherside are methodically trying to discharge every shot we fire at false teachers. Garrett and Ketcherside do not believe that mechanical instruments of music in worship, missionary societies, benevolent institutions, and sponsoring churches are sinful. Garrett believes that there are Christians in all denominations. Therefore, they are seeking to unite the Christian Churches, liberal churches of Christ, and us by getting all parties to quit calling “sinful” what the others are practicing. The kind of peace they are calling for is one like our government signed in Viet Nam-we quit fighting but they continue their innovations. Since I cannot sit back quietly and allow them to discharge our weapons, I am responding methodically to these articles by Garrett. If Garrett succeeds in accomplishing his goals, the ship of Zion will have no anchor to hold it to the word of God. It will be lose on an uncharted sea without a compass to give it direction.


1. The article is quoted in Thoughts on Unity, Stanley Paregien, editor (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 1970), pp. 104-119.

2. Carl Ketcherside, “Contrary To The Doctrine,” The Twisted Scriptures: Mission Messenger, 1965 (St. Louis: Mission Messenger, 19(15), pp. 33-40.

3. Hoy Ledbetter, “Christian Discipline (2),” Integrity, V, No. 11 (May, 1974), pp. 162-167.

4. Leroy Garrett, “Mark Them Which Cause Divisions,” Restoration Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2 (February, 1975), p. 23.

5. Leroy Garrett, Thoughts on Unity, op. cit., pp. 106-107.

6. Leroy Garrett, “A Massive Walkout in Dallas,” Restoration Review, Vol. XVI, No. 10 (December, 1974), p. 385.

7. Ibid., XVII, No. 2 (February, 1975), p. 24.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 25.

10. Ibid.

11. Carl Ketcherside, op. cit., p, 35.

12. Ibid., pp. 36, 37.

13. Hoy Ledbetter, op. cit., p. 163.

14. William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), pp. 56-57.

15. Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967), p. 577.

16. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell, Co., 1966), Vol. III, p. 129.

17. Leroy Garrett, op. cit., XVII, No. 2, p. 25.

18. Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), p. 336.

19. J. Barmby, The Pulpit Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), p. 456.

20. Handley C. G. Moule, The Expositor’s Bible: Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1943), Vol. V, p. 622.

21. John Knox, The Interpreter’s Bible: Romans (New York: Abingdon, Cokesbury Press, 1954), p. 662.

22. Leroy Garrett, op. cit,, XVII, No. 2, pp. 24-25.

23. Hoy Ledbetter, op, cit., pp. 164, 167.

24. John McClintock and James Strong, “Excommunication,” Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York: Harper and Bros. Publishers, 1891), Vol. III, p. 388.

25. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 764.

26. Thayer, op. cit., p. 579.

27. James Macknight, Macknight on the Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), Vol. I, pp. 504-505.

28. Thayer, op. cit., p. 196.

29. Macknight, op. cit., p. 505.

30. Barmby, op. cit., p. 456.

31. Wm. S. Plumer, Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (New York: Anson B. F. Randolph and Company, 1870), p. 641.

32. Moses E. Lard, Commentary on Romans (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company, 1875), p. 463.

Truth Magazine XIX: 38, pp. 600-603
August 7, 1975