People Who Must Be Avoided
Robert Wurtz II
“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses (stumbling blocks) contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Romans 16:17-18 KJV/ESV)
Paul’s abrupt warning about trouble makers within the church is both swift and stern. Having in the previous verse told the saints to greet one another with a holy kiss of charity, he then states plainly, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses (stumbling blocks) contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” Clearly, the people Paul has in view are enemies of the love and unity that Christ seeks to establish among the saints. The late renowned Greek scholar A.T. Robertson tells us that these people are to be marked, which is the Greek word skopeo and means “to keep an eye on so as to avoid.” These people are agents of division and sources of stumbling, which is the Greek word skandalon. This means a person could actually fall in the faith because of these people’s actions. Those who cause division rather than unity and stumbling rather than helping are to be marked out and avoided. This is the plain reading of the text.
Another late renowned Greek scholar Marvin Vincent tells us that these people are known for causing disturbances within the churches. He adds an explanation of the word “avoid” when he writes, “Avoid is the Greek word ekklinate and is better translated as turn aside. Not only keep out of their way, but remove from them if you fall in with them.” (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament) Sometimes we end up getting mixed up with professing Christians that we don’t realize are truly evil people until God’s removes the blinders from our eyes. Sometimes we feel an inward conviction that we need to remove from these people and can’t figure out why. It can be a very confusing thing when it happens. However, the Holy Spirit knows what they are doing behind the scenes and He is driving us to mark out and turn aside from them.
Only after being away from their influence do we start to see some of the things they have a pattern of doing. For example, they will drop pieces of information about people (usually their rival) that is intended to undermine the person or cause you to lose confidence in them. They will flatter you and then undermine the person they are attacking. These divisionists’ strive to be “in the know” because this is how they get the precious information they use to cause strife and division. They surround themselves with people who “know where all the bodies are buried” (to use a 20th century political expression). These people think they are their friends, but in reality they are accomplices who are just being used for the information they possess or can acquire. Information is an asset to troublemakers in the churches; especially secret information (confidential). They will use it against their rivals or to gain and destroy influence.
I once knew a so-called Christian to boast that he could, “pick up the phone and call ____ and the person he called would never speak to their Christian brother again.” Sound unbelievable? Believe it. Not even Hollywood could make this kind of stuff up. This is the level of evil that some so-called Christians and ministers are moving in. They are actually boasting that they are proficient at sowing discord among brethren — a sin that God considers an abomination on the level with homosexuality (Proverbs 6:19). I have known of a so-called pastor to boast that he could use his influence to destroy other peoples’ influence in ministry and that from the pulpit. What happened? I was naive and could not see the evil that was going on. This was why the Spirit will move us to mark and avoid people in this way. Sometimes we are deluded and can’t see something that should be totally obvious.
If you know a person, no matter what their title (pastor, prophet, preacher, teacher, bishop, clergy, brother, sister, deacon, etc.), who is known to cause disturbances within the churches; who cause division among saints and churches; and who cause the saints to stumble (skandalon) because of their actions, you as a Christian have a God given mandate to mark that person and avoid them. If you are in company with that person(s) you are to remove yourself from them no matter who they are.
The Greek word for divisions (dichostasias) is found in two other verses in the New Testament:
For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? (1 Cor. 3:3)
Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, (Galatians 5:20 KJV)
The church at Corinth (who also abused the gifts of the Holy Spirit), was rife with the effects of people who were causing the very thing Paul warned the Romans about (divisions). They too needed to mark off and avoid these type of people. Keep in mind that the word “divisions” is translated “seditions” in Galatians 5. In other words, they are moving in the realm of the flesh in the name of ministry and are in danger of damnation themselves (Galatians 5:20-21). Do not fall in with them or bid them God-speed lest you partake of their evil deeds. There is no need to pray and ask God if you should hang around. He will not tell you in prayer to disobey His clearly enunciated word.
Paul tells us plainly that such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. This is clear from the fact that they are unconcerned with what Christ is concerned about. They are serving their own “belly.” A.T. Robertson tells us that this can be more literal than figurative (Phil. 3:19). Like the sons of Eli they fleece the people for everything they can get until the very worship of God is despised (1 Samuel 2-14-17). In other words, they are so self-indulgent that people who watch them don’t want to serve God anymore. This is how devastating to the cause of God their self-indulgent ways are. They think the church owes them a lavish living. Whereas, had they been concerned about the kingdom of God they would orient their lives so as to make great sacrifices for God and His kingdom. Rather than always wanting to turn a profit on the ministry, they seek to be profitable for the ministry. Big difference.
Their Method of Operation
They pull off their destruction by smooth talk and flattery (and) they deceive the hearts of the naive. Christians who put the best construction on peoples’ actions are the most susceptible to these characters. People who don’t believe that Christians are capable of such things simply watch them smile and shake hands with people… listen to their smooth talk and flattery… and are like sheep to a slaughter. it’s not until they are an object of their behavior that they say, “I would have never believed they were like that.” They are now the prime victims and were once their biggest fans.
“Smooth-talk” or “good-words” is from the single Greek word Chrestologias. A simple definition is that they use a smooth and plausible address which simulates goodness. Key word is “simulates.” It is false. We all know what a smooth-talker is. In fact, some who have never read these verses can identify these type people as smooth talkers and not trust them. They know a smooth talker when they see one. Others don’t see it.
Notice what the effect is, they deceive the hearts of the naive. Our word translated naive is the Greek akakos and it means unsuspecting and innocent (Vines). These people are not naive in the sense of lacking experience and judgment, they simply have a Christ-like tendency to be guileless. This is how the deceivers gain such a foothold and is why they must be marked and avoided. They are extremely dangerous to the kingdom of God because the kingdom is filled with people trying to do the right thing. These deceivers come in and take full advantage of this Christian characteristic. To mark and avoid these people cuts against the grain of their desire for love and unity. But you cannot befriend such a snake. You have to mark and avoid them no matter how uncomfortable it is.
Paul’s Final Appeal
“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 evil. And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.” (Romans 16:19–20 KJV)
Paul trusts that the Roman’s propensity to obey God will outstrip their propensity to be trusting and welcoming. He adds an encouragement, I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil. Our word simple here refers back to the people being “naive” or “harmless.” He wants them to have that character trait, but it must be tempered with the wisdom necessary to identify and avoid destructive and divisive people when we encounter them.