Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. For your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evilRomans 16:17-19
The above passage is one of many that deals with the topic of biblical separation. The doctrine of separation is unpopular enough as it is, but the verses of Romans 16:17-19 should be more unpopular still, because they take the doctrine a step further than places like 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, the Bible only applies the doctrine of separation to fellowship, but Romans 16:17-19 extends it to all the way to knowledge, so that we are instructed to be “wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.” In an age driven by information, it may seem foolish and even offensive to suggest that sometimes ignorance really can be bliss, yet this appears to be what the Apostle is saying here. However, the title of this post, “How Much Devil Should You Study?”, is also not completely rhetorical. While Paul is admonishing us to avoid familiarizing ourselves with error to some degree, we will see that this prohibition is not so sweeping that it forbids knowledge of any kind concerning false worldviews. But this concession in no way vindicates those who rush headlong into the other pit; this text indeed rebukes those who make an idol out of learning. To discern the narrow path between the two pits, we will examine this passage in more depth and then compare Scripture with Scripture to uncover the full meaning behind the Apostle’s words.
The most pertinent part of this passage for our purposes is verse 19b, which reads, “I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.” We must discuss this verse in a little depth, because its rendering by several popular translations obscures its meaning. What the KJV, NKJV, Geneva, and others translate as “simple,” many others translate as “innocent.” This doesn’t necessarily change the meaning of the text (which can be thoroughly established by the context in either case) but it makes it somewhat less clear, and opens the door for people to try to interpret it like the NLT’s paraphrase of a “translation” does, which renders 19b as, “I want you to be wise in doing right and to stay innocent of any wrong.” That is not what the text says, which reads identically in the Greek regardless of what underlying Greek text you use. The Greek word in question is “akeraious” (ακεραιους). The “a” in akeraious serves the same function as the “a” in ahistorical or atheist (both words have Greek origins) – i.e., the “a” is a negative prefix, and would be like placing a “not-” before the word. Keraious is believed to be a derivative of kerannymi, which means “mix” or “mingled.” According to its etymology, then, the literal meaning of akeraious would be “not-mixed,” which is indeed its primary definition given by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. In secular works, it was often used to describe things such as pure metals – things that were not mixed with other substances. But beyond this primary meaning, however, it also has a strong moral connotation. The word behaves in precisely the same way as the English words “pure” and “simple” do, both of which – in their literal sense – suggest something that’s “undiluted,” “uncompounded,” or “unmixed.” But, just like akeraious, they have moral connotations that often extend beyond their literal meanings, so that something can be described as “pure” that may in other respects be quite complex.
Given this information, is “innocent” an inaccurate translation of akeraious? Well, it’s not so much inaccurate as it is incomplete, or – at the very least – somewhat presumptuous. There may be contexts where it’s clear that only the moral connotation of the word is in view (Matthew 10:16 would be an example), but that’s not the case in Romans 16:19. On the contrary, the preceding verses are precisely about avoiding evil deceivers (i.e., not mixing with them), and as a consequence we are unmixed concerning evil. No doubt the moral connotation is also there, but it’s there on account of – not at the expense of – the literal, primary meaning. In other words, Paul indeed is saying that he wants the Romans to be innocent concerning evil, but they would be innocent by virtue of being simple concerning evil. Since “simple” already possesses both an analogous literal meaning and an analogous moral connotation to akeraious, it’s a perfect translation of the word in this context. This understanding is further supported by the fact that Paul is clearly juxtaposing akeraious with the word translated as “wise” (sophous [σοφους]) for the purpose of contrasting them and advising a contrary course of action. Rather than having the Romans to be wise concerning the evil (as he would have them be concerning the good), Paul wants them to be the opposite of that, because the opposite of good demands an opposite approach. But “simple” – and not “innocent” – is the opposite of wise, and so the contrast Paul makes would make little sense if we understood akeraious to only mean innocent.
The context might be even more decisive than the meaning of akeraious. In the 21st Century, it may be easy to imagine how we could mark and avoid those who cause divisions, and yet remain well-educated concerning their doctrine. However, in Paul’s immediate context (and the context of the vast majority of Church history for that matter), this would be an impossibility for nearly all of the Church. Most people in Paul’s days were illiterate, and couldn’t exactly Google the arguments of nearby heretics if they avoided them. In those days, to avoid a group of people would be to virtually guarantee that you would never hear their perspective except as reframed by those on your side. With this in mind, it almost doesn’t matter how one tries to bend verse 19, because the logical result of Paul’s instruction to avoid the Church’s enemies is that the people of God would be simple concerning false doctrine.
What he’s NOT saying
Paul is not saying that we should stick our heads in the sand and ignore the evil around us. He is not saying that we should be so intent on avoiding a confrontation with error that we retreat to our own bubbles that never interact with the world we sojourn in. On the contrary, Paul expressly denounces such hermit-like behavior in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, where he says, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.” As far as physical separation goes, Paul only instructs us to practice this when it comes to “any man that is called a brother” who is engaged in the above behavior (v. 11), but he does not encourage us to practice this in regards to those not numbered among us. We would need to leave the world altogether to do that. Accordingly, Romans 16:17-19 is likewise primarily directed at avoiding those who are falsely called brothers as well as their perversions of the Scriptures, even if the admonition to be simple concerning evil doesn’t seem to be entirely limited to that.
Paul is most definitely not advocating a total ignorance of the errors of this world. In regards to the Devil, the Apostle says plainly that “we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11). There are many sections of Scripture that refer broadly to the pagan practices around the people of God, as well as to the workings of the enemy himself. God, in His wisdom, has seen it fit that His people should be aware of these things, so that we might be able to anticipate the operations of the one who opposes us. We are warned expressly about certain heresies which beset the early Church, such as the proto-gnostics that denied Jesus’ humanity (2 John 7, 1 John 4:2, etc.). We also see the Apostle Paul himself quoting a pagan philosopher to prove a point in Acts 17:28. All this would be impossible if we were forbidden to know anything about the systems of unbelief around us. How could we even avoid those like the proto-gnostics if we refuse to investigate them enough to know that they deny Jesus’ humanity? The same could be said of all other groups that deny the central tenets of the Christian faith. We can’t know that they’re in opposition to us without learning something about what they believe.
What he IS saying
He IS saying that we should be “simple concerning evil.” To be simple about something doesn’t mean that you know nothing, but it does mean that you don’t overly familiarize yourself with it. You should have a general sense of what people around you believe, and you should understand where the unbelievers diverge from the Faith and why what they believe is damnable error. You should understand the risk they pose to you, especially if there is any chance that their deceptions might creep into believing circles. But you can do all this and still be simple concerning their errors, because none of this should necessitate a deep dive into their teachings. Concerning the intricacies of their doctrine, you have learned enough when you have learned that they do not preach Christ crucified, and that they deny the simple Gospel that salvation is by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, according to the merits of Christ Alone. You have learned enough when you learn that they deny the central truths about who God is, who Jesus is, and what the biblical way of salvation is. You have learned enough when it becomes clear that people in this group need the Good News of Jesus Christ preached to them, and at that point this is what you should be concerting your efforts to do. If this is your approach, you can very easily learn what the Bible tells us is necessary to learn about systems of unbelief while also following the apostolic admonition to be simple.
The best way to learn what it means to be biblically simple is to look at the examples the Bible gives us to follow. If we confess that Scripture is indeed sufficient, and that it is capable of making us “perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:17), and also confess that apologetics is a good work, then we can expect to find the principles directing us how to engage in it within the Word of God. And find it we do, with confrontations between believers and unbelievers appearing throughout the Scriptures. Yet, in none of these cases do we find evidence of the saints doing intense research into the positions of the children of darkness. When Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal, there is no hint of him studying the details of Baalic worship, their preferred “sacred” texts, or their favorite festival days. On the contrary, he lets the power of God speak for itself (1 Kings 18:36-38). In the New Testament, whenever we see Christians give an answer for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:15), the reason they give is always through the authority of God’s Word and grounded in the reality of the Lord’s Resurrection. The closest we see to familiarity of unbelieving thought is the already alluded to verse of Acts 17:28, but this doesn’t fall into the primary category that Paul is concerned with in Romans 16:19; Paul, in Acts, is referencing a nugget of truth contained in the pagan poet’s writings, and not to the heretical distortions of Scripture that would be made by those he is instructing us to avoid. Chiefly, it is the depths of those Satanic distortions that Paul wants us to be simple of – he is not telling us to be simple concerning anything that just isn’t explicitly Christian.
The biblical precedent is clear; the best defense is a good offense. Rather than exhorting us to study evil, Scripture exhorts us to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). We are told that the way “to stand against the wiles of the devil” is to “Put on the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11), which is composed of the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the preparation of the Gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:14-17). All of these things – which the Bible proclaims are effective against the Devil – are obtained from God through studying, applying, and receiving His truth into our lives. None of them stem from the study of evil.
I anticipate that the greatest source of pushback against this post would stem from practical concerns. Perhaps one might ask, “How can we effectively persuade others to leave their errors without thorough research?” Or else they might say, “Will we not lose intellectual respectability with unbelievers? How will we be taken seriously if we timidly avoid those who disagree with us?” Neither of these objections are well-founded. The first one fails to understand the true means of converting sinners, which is the supernatural, self-authenticating authority of the Word of God, and not an exchange of ideas. To be sure, God often uses other means in the process and some of those means are legitimate. However, not all the means that God may work through in saving sinners are authorized for us to practice. As the saying goes, God is perfectly able to draw a straight line using a crooked stick, and sometimes those crooked sticks include seeker-sensitive worship services, charismatic revivals, and even “Christian” tarot cards in some bizarre cases. None of those are the least bit justifiable from Scripture. If you’re convinced that it “works” to thoroughly study evil when witnessing to the lost, you must show why this conviction legitimizes the practice anymore than Andy Stanley’s conviction would legitimize his unhitching of the Old Testament when he evangelizes, when both approaches are unauthorized. We must preach the Gospel after the pattern given us in the New Testament, which assures us that it is itself the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16).
The second hypothetical objection fails partly by misunderstanding the position advocated here, and also by striving for something the Bible repudiates as sinful. We do not avoid those who disagree with us, nor does the Apostle’s instruction demand that we run and duck for cover anytime we find ourselves in a situation where we begin to hear more about an aberrant view. Far from being timid, this position requires great boldness. It requires us to be confident that any detailed knowledge of the evil we face is unnecessary to overcome it, because our sword – God’s Word – is guaranteed to be more than sufficient to deal with any obstacle in our path. We are to be so confident in our General that there is no need to scout out the land of our enemies, for the battle is already ours. Whatever nuance, novelty, or sophistry the devil throws at us, we know that none of his adherents have an answer to one of the most simple questions: How will you stand before a Thrice-Holy God when you lie dead in your sins? The righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ and His death on the Cross for our sins remains the only means of abiding in the presence of the God who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).
However, the objector would be right in saying that – if you follow this example – you will be looked down on by the world and lose intellectual respectability. But this is guaranteed for any man who simply believes the Gospel, let alone any other biblical doctrines: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). You can never obtain intellectual respectability with the world, and we are never instructed to pursue it. If we were to neglect the commands of the Bible for the sake of appearing intelligent, we would ultimately have to abandon the core truths of Scripture altogether. We should be more concerned with what God thinks of us than what man thinks of us.
Practical Motivations for the Doctrine
Why does the Apostle want us to be simple? As someone who has spent much of my time in the past absorbed in false worldviews, it isn’t difficult for me to understand potential motivations for the doctrine. Ultimately, I believe we shouldn’t fill our heads with too much error for the same reason we shouldn’t fill our heads with too much crass TV; it pollutes the mind. Even when you know the content you’re absorbing is wicked and false, that doesn’t stop it from seeping into your mind and popping up over and over again without your permission. The more you expose yourself to heretical perspectives, the more you ingrain them as permanent “voices” in your head, accompanying you as you read every passage, enter into every argument, and face every trial in your life, hoping to prey on your weaknesses. Sure, all error can be refuted and shown to not be built on the foundation of Truth, but that doesn’t stop it from sticking with you and constantly reasserting itself, even when you’re trying to do nothing else but reflect on the Truth you seek to defend. Little can be so corrosive to personal piety than when you are ceaselessly engaged in combating error at the very moment you are seeking peace and respite – in the regular reading of God’s sacred Word. Yet, this is precisely what the obsession with error can lead to, and it can seriously impede your ability to rest in the peace of Christ on this side of glory.
My purpose in writing this is not to encourage intellectual laziness, but to encourage intellectual rigor in the area that is much more profitable – in the study of the Truth. Who reading this will say that they have mastered the faith and are now ready to move on to mastering unbelief? The Bible is a well without a bottom and its depths can never be sounded out. We find more than enough armory to withstand whatever the devil may throw at us in it, and unlike the evils that beset us, we are always spiritually edified by anything we learn from Scripture. Why not seek to be wise unto the good?