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.
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11, NKJV)
Paul’s patient love for Mark compels us to ponder the breadth and depth of our love for brethren. Paul had not always considered Mark useful (good and profitable) for the service of the gospel. About 20 years earlier, John Mark had joined Paul and Barnabas on a preaching journey into Gentile regions, only to leave them and return to Jerusalem shortly after it began (Acts 13:4-5, 13). This failure to continue with them caused Paul to insist Mark would not be on his next preaching trip despite disagreeing with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). We should note that Paul did not “write off” Barnabas or Mark as unworthy Christians who did not love the Lord. The rest of the story makes this apparent. Paul was associated with Mark during his first Roman imprisonment (AD 60-62), sending greetings from him to the Colossian church and instructing them to welcome Mark if he came to them (Col. 4:10). Now, during his final days of life, Paul asked for Mark. The man he had refused to take with him roughly two decades earlier was now useful for the gospel’s service (2 Tim. 4:11). A great lesson of love’s patient endurance is staring us in the face (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Mark’s faith had matured, and Paul respected that. Paul loved Mark. Indeed, “love suffers long and is kind” as it rejoices in the truth. Love keeps on bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring all things, both in our attitudes and treatment of others. Love did not fail Paul and Mark. It will not fail us, either.
3 If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. (Psalm 130:3–4, NKJV)
We rejoice in the truth that God forgives and does not mark (retain) our sins (cf. Psa. 6:1; 38:1). God’s lovingkindness does not free us from accountability for our sin; We are answerable for our sin, its consequences, and punishment. The way of the transgressor is hard, and the wages of sin is death (Prov. 13:15; Rom. 6:23). Today’s psalm praises God’s forgiveness, His mercy, and redemption of Israel “from all our iniquities” (Psa. 130:8). When God’s people cry to Him with repentant supplications, He hears and forgives (Psa. 130:1-2). He does not withhold forgiveness; neither should (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:32-35). God does not vindictively keep an account of evil (1 Cor. 13:5). His forgiveness generates reverential fear for His wonderful pardon (Psa. 130:4). God’s responsive mercy assures our hearts to patiently trust His purposes and hope in His word (Psa. 130:5-6). Christians trust God’s unfailing love, generous mercy, and abundant redemption. He forgives us when we repent and confess our sins (Acts 8:22-24; 1 Jno. 1:9).
24 And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, 25 in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, 26 and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:24–26, NKJV)
We noted in yesterday’s Sword Tips (#1799) that gospel preaching gets personal by making personal applications that convict and convert. This by no means sanctions personal, verbal abuse while doing so. “Defending the truth” is not a cloak behind which envy and strife may hide (1 Cor. 3:3-4). Identifying a false teacher is not a personal attack when it is supported by Scriptural evidence of error being taught, endorsed, and promoted. Publicly identifying opponents of the truth is entirely Scriptural when it is aimed at (1) Saving the lost, and (2) Protecting the saved (see Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 4:14-15; 3 John 9-10). This is very different from being quarrelsome and malicious toward those same people (which today’s passage forbids). Gentleness (not weakness) – when combined with the ability to teach, endurance, and humility – produces a powerful faith that equips the servant of the Lord to correct those who oppose truth (25) so they may repent and escape the devil’s clutches (25-26). The servant of the Lord does this by remembering the “good fight of faith” is not about him, it is about laying hold of eternal life – and about helping others do the same (1 Tim. 6:12).
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).