17 Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. 18 For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.” (Romans 16:17–18, NKJV)
The word “doctrine” in verse 17 is translated from a Greek word that means instruction or teaching. If doctrine is not important to one’s relationship with Jesus (as many avow), then why did the apostle say to “note” and “avoid” those whose doctrine causes divisions and offenses? If doctrine is not essential to being united in Christ (which many affirm), then why does teaching contrary to what had been learned (from the apostles) cause division (Gal. 1:6-9)? The answer is that doctrine does matter. False doctrine causes division. False teaching divides people from God and from each other. The apostle Paul lays bare the heart of the false teacher in verse 18. His (or her) motive is to serve and satisfy self, not the Lord Jesus Christ. Such a motive is hidden by “smooth words and flattering speech” that deceive the naïve (simple). But, their doctrine conflicts with revealed truth. We must test every message we are taught against the Scriptures to see if it is from God (1 John 4:1, 6). This will protect us against the deception of error. We must trust the word of God more than the word of any human.
15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:15–17, NKJV)
Christ’s warning against false prophets is centered upon their teachings, not the nature of their motives or the sincerity of their personal character. They are false because the fruit they bear is corrupt (false). No false prophet (or false teacher, 2 Peter 2:1) walks around with a signboard that says, “Beware, I am a false prophet.” We know them by the fruit they bear, that is, we know the false prophet (teacher) by what he teaches – that is his fruit. When we “try the spirits” to see whether a teacher is from God, it is the message that we test, not the heart of the one teaching the message (1 John 4:1, 6). We are fruit-testers, not heart-testers. This is what Jesus said in verse 16 of today’s passage (see also, Matthew 7:20). Test what you hear by the word of God. The true teacher of God teaches the true gospel, but the false teacher proclaims and advances error God’s name (2 Peter 2:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:2-4). The false prophet (false teacher) speaks from his own heart and not from God’s revelation (Deuteronomy 18:20-22; Ezekiel 13:1-3).
For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:17, NKJV)
Religious hucksters who peddle the word of God hinder and harm the spread of God’s truth. The “prosperity gospel” that enriches its preachers while giving false hope to those captured by its promise of material wealth comes to mind. Then there are those who offer miracles and plead for your money so they can continue their curing crusade – all “in the name of Jesus.” (We speak as foolish people!) The apostles of Christ did not play on the covetous desires of their hearers, nor do we. They did not make merchandise of the word of God. Those who do so today deceive many, and help harden hearts against the truth. The apostles’ doctrine is about saving lost souls from sin, not lining the pockets of the peddlers of error (Acts 2:41-42). Paul said, “I do not seek yours, but you” (2 Cor. 12:14). He sought their salvation, not their material goods. Gospel preachers seek souls for Christ; False teachers seek souls for themselves. Beware those who handle the word of God deceitfully and adulterate the purity of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:2). How will you know the genuine gospel from the counterfeit, and the false teacher from the truth teacher? By their fruits you will know them (Matt. 7:15-20). Do they agree with the apostles of Christ? If not, they are not of God (read 1 Jno. 4:1, 6).
11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? (James 4:11–12, NKJV)
James, the “bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”, warns us not to slander our brethren. Backbiting and malicious words must not characterize how we speak of each other. Ironically, some false teachers run to this passage attempting to find shelter against being publicly identified or marked for their divisive error. Paul said to “note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). Paul is not advising us to use evil speech or to misjudge a brother. Neither is Paul contradicted by James, whose prohibition is against evil misrepresentation, not accurate identification. On the one hand, we must carefully identify brethren who teach divisive and false doctrine (so they can be avoided), while at the same time avoiding malicious, evil speech. As James previously noted, such tongue control is a mark of spiritual maturity (Jas. 3:1-12).