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Mark and Avoid
"Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Romans 16:17).
The object of the apostle's admonition in Romans 16:17 pertained specifically to Judaizing Christians who as Lenski notes were false teachers because they "mixed the law with the gospel." MacKnight, Whiteside and Barnes respectively observe:
The apostle had in his eye the Jewish teachers, who in many churches set up separate assemblies for the worship of God . . . on the pretense of greater orthodoxy and sanctity than others, and who would admit none into their communion but such as joined them in their peculiarities, and who represented all others as erroneous and impious.
Judaizing teachers were the main trouble-makers in the territory of Paul's labors; they were determined to convince all Gentile Christians that they had to be circumcised and keep the law, or they could not be saved.
. . . 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 Christian brethren. The Jews were perpetually thus recalling the Christian converts to the law of Moses; insisting on the observance of those rites; troubling the churches, and producing dissensions and strifes.
In the Romans 16:17 context, the divisions and offenses addressed for which marking and avoiding were to occur resulted directly from false teaching (e.g., taught by Judaizing teachers; doctrine that was contrary to what Paul by inspiration had already taught). First, Romans 16:17 applies to the Jewish false teachers of Paul's day. However, as Lenski correctly remarks:
Paul's injunction is not to keep away only from total rejecters of the gospel--what Christians ever needed such a warning? His injunction is to keep away from believers who are errorists and teach falsely. Not only the exact duplicates of the errorists of Paul's day are to be shunned, as though no new ones could arise, as though new ones do not divide, tear, and set traps, as though all errorists new and old, great and small, are not related, all in the same class . . .
By implication, furthermore, Romans 16:17 applies to all false teachers (e.g., those whose false teaching causes divisions and offenses). Grubbs, Lipscomb and MacKnight acknowledge in their respective commentaries that false teaching was the occasion for divisions and offenses, and the subsequent marking and avoiding.
The divisions that are caused by that which is "contrary to the doctrine" which they learned. There is a division between truth and error.
No greater evil, according to the Scriptures, could befall the churches than the divisions arising from the introduction of teachings and practices not required by God.
Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them who set up separate assemblies for worship, and who occasion the weak to fall by false doctrine, or by enjoining things indifferent as necessary, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned from me in this epistle, and avoid them.
Clarke associates Romans 16:17 with the preceding verse: "Salute one another with an holy kiss. The churches of Christ salute you," and says: ". . . let them have no kiss of charity nor peace, because they strive to make divisions, and thus set the flock of Christ at variance among themselves . . ."
Romans 16:17 declares that faithful Christians have a responsibility regarding false teachers (cf., 1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff; 1 Timothy 4:1ff). Brother Lard, quoted in the McGarvey/Pendleton commentary, addresses the necessity of a response to false teachers:
Where we, by our own errors of teaching or conduct, produce divisions among the children of God, we sin against Christ. Nor is it a less offense to countenance or defend divisions, than it is to cause them. They must be utterly disfavored by the Christian. He is not at liberty even to feel indifferent toward them. He must actively oppose them where they exist, and actively endeavor to prevent them where they do not exist.
It is plausible, Whiteside observes, that a false teacher may even propagate his false doctrine sincerely (cf., Matt. 7:21-23). "The man who causes divisions in the Lord's church by the introduction of things not taught is an enemy of Christ, even though he may not think so." However, genuine ignorance mitigates neither the obligations impressed upon the church by Romans 16:17 nor final, divine judgment.
The first imperative of Romans 16:17 is to "mark" false teachers. The Greek word for "mark" (skopeo), though, is not used in the New Testament exclusively in a negative connotation. Vine records:
to look at, behold, watch, contemplate, (akin to skopos, a mark . . .), is used metaphorically of looking to, and translated "mark" in Romans 16:17, of a warning against those who cause divisions, and in Philippians 3:17, of observing those who walked after the example of the Apostle and his fellow-workers, so as to follow their ways.
MacKnight adds: "mark . . . signifies to observe attentively and diligently, as they do who are placed in a watch-tower to observe the motions of their enemies." Whiteside writes: "'mark them'--eye them closely. Do not shut your eyes to what they are doing, nor make excuses for them . . ." Barnes observes: "Ascertain who are the real causes of the divisions that spring up . . ."
Zondervan's Analytical Greek Lexicon and Thayer respectively record for the word "mark":
sokopos a watcher; also, a distant object on which the eye is kept fixed; a mark, goal, Phi. 3:14 . . . sokopeo to view attentively, watch . . . to see, observe, take care, beware, Lu. 11:35; Gal. 6:1; to regard, have respect to, 2 Co. 4:18; Phi. 2:4, to mark, note, Ro. 16:17; Phi. 3:17.
sokopeo to look at, observe, contemplate. to mark . . . to fix one's eyes upon, direct one's attention to . . . Ro. 16:17; Phil. 3:17.
"Divisions" is the first stated result of the false teaching addressed by the apostle in Romans 16:17. Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament says of this word: "Divisions: (dichostasias) Old word for 'standings apart,' cleavages. In N.T. only here and Gal. 5:20." Barnes pens:
DIVISIONS: Dissensions; parties; factions, 1 Cor. 3:3; Gal. 5:20. The very attempt to form such parties was evil, no matter what the pretence. They who attempt to form parties in the churches are commonly actuated by some evil or ambitious design.
According to Romans 16:17, the second stated result of false teaching was "offenses." Clarke and Barnes both observe that the Greek word "skandala" translated here "offenses" is also the source of our English word "scandals." Further, Barnes said of offenses: ". . . that give occasion for others to fall into sin. . . . denotes such a course of life as would lead others into sin." Interestingly, Lenski renders "offenses" as:
skandala "deathtraps"; see the word in 9:33 and 11:9, and note that it always designates what is fatal. . . . These errorists tear believers out of the unity of the church, and their teachings often act like deathtraps in which souls are fatally caught.
The second imperative of Romans 16:17 is to "avoid" false teachers. The Greek word for "avoid" (ekklino) is also variously applied, as Vine indicates:
to turn away from, to turn aside, lit. to bend out of (ek, out, klino, to bend), is used in Romans 3:12, of the sinful condition of mankind, A.V., "gone out of the way," R.V., "turned aside;" in Romans 16:17, of turning away from those who cause offences and occasions of stumbling (A.V., "avoid"); in I Peter 3:11 of turning away from evil (A.V., "eschew").
Grubbs understands the word "avoid" refers to false teaching and not to encourage false teachers in the same (cf., 2 John 9-11).
How "mark them" and "turn away from them"? We must note those who are such as to cause divisions contrary to the doctrine and must have no "fellowship with their works of darkness." We cannot associate with them in such a way as to endorse their evil practices.
". . . avoid them by refusing to recognize and associate with them as brethren. This requirement is imperative and necessary to preserve the harmony and unity of the churches of Christ."
Clarke puts it this way: ". . . have no religious fellowship with them." Whiteside says: "This means that the brethren should have no fellowship with them." Barnes remarks:
Do not follow them; comp. 1 Tim. 6:3, 4, 5; 2 John 10; Gal. 1:8, 9. That is, avoid them as teachers; do not follow them. It does not mean that they were to be treated harshly; but that they were to be avoided in their instructions.
Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament adds: "Better, as Rev. turn aside . . . keep out of their way . . ." Zondervan's Analytical Greek Lexicon simply notes: "ekklino to deflect, deviate, Ro. 3:12; to decline or turn away from, avoid, Ro. 16:17; 1 Pet 3:11." Likewise, MacKnight writes:
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 . . . but that they might avoid their company, lest by conversing familiarly with such, they might have been infected with their errors and vices.
It is, however, difficult to separate false teachers from the false teaching that they promote. While like God, brethren should desire that sinners repent lest they be eternally lost (2 Peter 3:9), there comes a time beyond which efforts to reclaim false teachers must reluctantly cease in order to assure the protection of the body of Christ. In this regard, Charles A. Pledge states in an article entitled "Countermanding God's Orders" (Seek The Old Paths, Vol. 3, No. 11/12):
There might be a brief period of exchange before one is discovered to be dishonest. A brief period of giving them the benefit of the doubt might be appropriate. But when it is established that their doctrine is false (contradictory to Scripture), and when they refuse to correct their self-contradictions, then action is called for; the action God commands. Mark them and avoid them. Again, we emphasize that this is the action against a dishonest teacher; one who rejects evidence to the contrary.
Accordingly, Thayer does include the word "shun" as one of the renderings for our word "avoid."
ekklino Ro. 16:17 . . . turn aside, deviate (from the right way and course, Mal. 2:8 . . . to turn (one's self) away . . . either from the path or rectitude, Ro. 3:12 . . . or from evil . . . to turn away from, keep aloof from, one's society; to shun one: Ro. 16:17.
In the same vein, Lenski notes:
. . . definitely, decisively, once for all, incline away from them"--"from them," not merely from their teaching, "from them" because of their teaching. "Avoid them" (A.V.) is the sense: have nothing to do with them. "Turn away from them" (R.V.) with finality. . . . the very nature of false doctrine divides.
Faithful brethren have responsibilities toward those of "like precious faith" (2 Peter 1:1) as well as toward brethren overtaken in sin (Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20). Therefore, it is responsible and loving conduct to protect the Lord's church from error (1 Corinthians 5:6ff) and rebuff sinners in order to reclaim them (Ephesians 5:11). Garland M. Robinson observes in an article entitled "Is It Sowing Discord To Expose Error?" (Seek the Old Paths, Vol. 3, No. 7/8 and reprinted in Unity in Truth, Vol. 6, No. 12):
The most loving thing we can do for others is to help them not to fall into error by warning them of it or, if they have embraced it already, to help them see the error of their way. To do otherwise shows that one has no love at all for the truth or the souls of men.
Finally, Romans 16:17 is comparable to other passages that call for a withdrawal of fellowship from ungodly or disorderly brethren (1 Corinthians 5:6-13; Ephesians. 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15) and false teachers (1 Timothy 6:3-5; Titus 3:9-11; 2 John 9-11). Romans 16:17 does not present a unique doctrine, but a principle that is abundantly taught throughout the New Testament. It is true that the Bible is its own best commentary (interpreter), and an analysis of each similar passage on any subject will contribute to a correct understanding of God's Word.