Guarding the Churches
Robert Wurtz II
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. (Romans 16:17, 18)
Paul employs a familiar verb to solicit action from the Romans when he writes, “I beseech you.” This is the Greek word parakaleo and in this context means to call to ones side to urge them to action. It is a sincere and earnest plea to do what is written next, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. Obviously, the Christians to whom this epistle is addressed, were unified in believing and acting upon the teachings they had received. However, Paul warns them that some people will not accept the form of Christianity he teaches, and will therefore lead people astray with fair speeches that deceive simple-minded folks. These people are not serving Christ, but their “own belly.” That is to say, they are as the sons of Eli in the Old Testament who abused their priestly position in ministry, using it for their own belly — rather than regarding God’s purposes. (See 1 Samuel 2:1ff)
Paul is writing the Romans and urging them in the strongest of terms to avoid a similar situation as to what happened with the House of Eli. These men in 1 Samuel 2 were charged to do the service of the Jehovah (YHWH), but they high-handily abused their position to the point that God warned Eli of coming judgment. Nevertheless, because he honored his sons more than God, he never stopped them and the bad behavior continued. What were they doing? They were walking contrary to the doctrine that they had received. God had given Israel the Law along with specific instructions for the priests. In spite of that, they were fornicators and gluttons. Scripture refers to them as children of the Devil, even though they were functioning as God’s servants.
Paul knew that people who behave badly have to be dealt with in decisive ways. The challenge is found in getting Christians to take Paul’s words seriously and actually do what he is saying. I am convinced that a great amount of trouble that exists in the churches of God today is the consequence of not taking warnings and directives like this one Romans 16:17,18 seriously. There have always been people who creep in unawares to being divisions and offenses contrary to what God’s word teaches. It was in Eli’s House in the Old Testament and later Paul warned the elders at Ephesus of similar patterns. What are we to do?
Serious moral failings such as were found in the House of Eli are to be dealt with by the churches in accordance with Paul’s teachings to the Corinthians. Fornicators and such must be removed from ministry and put out of fellowship if necessary in order to see repentance. In extreme cases the church is to turn the person over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh until they truly repent (emphasis on truly). Otherwise, a fornicator will destroy a church. No doubt many of churches have been split because leaders failed to deal properly with a fornicator. Indeed, the “spirit of Eli” has wrecked many harvest fields. Nevertheless, God is not mocked, and will hold the leaders who have allowed this to happen accountable on judgment day.
In the case presented in Romans 16, we do not have a directive to turn the offenders over to Satan or any such thing. This could be because the offender is being harbored and protected by some church. This makes for quite a dilemma. Sadly, it happens all too often in modern times. Offenders don’t usually stay in the church they divided with their bad behavior, they move someplace else. Some go from church to church wreaking havoc and leaving a trail of stumbled souls all over the place.
What can we do in such situations? Paul told us to mark them and avoid them. Marking them according to A.T. Robertson means “to keep an eye on them so as to avoid them.” Our Greek word for avoid according to Vincent is better translated as “turn aside.” When you see them, go the other direction. Have no fellowship with them whatsoever. Do not bid them godspeed with your presence. In other words, give no one the impression that you are in agreement with them. If you are a minister, don’t share the platform with them. Vincent continues, “Not only keep out of their way, but remove yourself from them if you fall in with them.”
This is Paul’s plea for dealing with those who profess Christ, but cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned. Bad behavior cannot merely be ignored. Sometimes offenders will find refuge with people they have charmed with their good words and fair speeches. Charm is the ability to make a person like you. It is not a spiritual gift, but a potentially dangerous character trait. People who are charmed by bad people often hang around with them — overlooking their behavior until it’s too late. eventually something awful happens and the churches of God are damaged. This is why Paul says, I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. He is concerned more about the safety of the churches than maintaining friendships. He was no Eli and this is no small directive. We do well in this crisis hour to heed Paul’s words and take them as seriously as “thou shalt not murder.” This would position us as God’s people to protect as many of the flock as possible from the destruction divisions and offences cause.