9 But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. 10 Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned (Titus 3:9–11, NKJV).
We need spiritual discernment to successfully identify and avoid foolish disputes, contentions, and strivings (v. 9; 1 Cor. 2:15; Phil. 1:9-10). Not every disagreement is about contending for the faith. Some are only about competing and maintaining one’s pride and position. Such are “unprofitable and useless” and fail to strengthen and stabilize souls. Striving over them causes “the ruin of the hearers” (2 Tim. 2:14; 1 Tim. 1:3-7). The divisive person is factious, choosing to disrupt unity instead of encouraging unity in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-12). Sadly, this person rarely sees himself as “divisive” (Titus 3:10). So, we must have clear eyes to see the damage caused by the factious. They are perverted in faith and condemned by their divisive behavior (v. 11). Factiousness refuses the authority of Christ for self-defined constraints (binding where the Lord does not bind) or unscriptural allowances (loosing where the Lord binds). The factious press their distortions of truth through “selfish ambitions, dissensions, (and) heresies” (Gal. 5:20). Failure to identify and reject the factious person will infect and destroy a congregation. Therefore, if the factious refuse to repent, they must be marked and turned away from, not shielded and coddled in their sin (Rom. 16:17-18). Paul commanded Titus to reject them after a first and second warning (v. 10). We must do the same.
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).
Unfortunately, a significant number of Christians do not like this passage. It seems “too unloving,” “too harsh” to them. Yet, it is exactly the action the Holy Spirit directed us to take when a person is causing “divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine” taught by Christ’s apostles (2 John 9). Failure to do so enables this person to continue deceiving hearts and overthrowing faith (v. 18; 2 Tim. 2:16-18). False teaching and immorality cause divisions and stumbling blocks. Without repentance, spiritual turmoil results. Often, this disruption begins surreptitiously before coming out into the open (Jude 4; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Rev. 2:14-16, 20-23). So, Romans 16:17 commands two things. (1) Note the divisive, offending person. Some versions translate the word (skopeo) as “mark” (KJV) or “keep your eye on” (NASB). First, the person must be identified. He is sinning by his teaching or conduct (Gal. 5:20). A wolf in sheep’s clothing endangers the flock (Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:29). We identify predators in the pasture, even more so among God’s flock (Acts 20:28). (2) Avoid the divisive, offending person. Second, deny him fellowship (2 John 10-11). Thus his unrepentant conduct is exposed as the darkness it is (Eph. 5:11). It is not a pleasant task to mark and avoid the divisive. But it is necessary to protect God’s people from spiritual danger. And by doing so, the erring Christian is warned to repent while there is still time.
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).