If asked to catalogue the cardinal doctrines of the New Testament church, few of us would probably think to include the doctrine of separation. Yet if a church is to be faithful to the Word of God, the doctrine of scriptural separation must be taught faithfully and exercised constantly. The modern church has ignored or denied this doctrine to its spiritual detriment, but those who love truth and the God of truth will be steadfast in proclaiming and maintaining scriptural separation. Over the next several weeks, we will briefly examine what the epistles teach concerning this crucial doctrine. We will begin with a glance at Paul’s final exhortation to the church at Rome: “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” (Rom. 16:17, 18).
Mark them. It is the responsibility of every believer to know sound doctrine and to measure all that goes on around him in the light of those truths. The Greek word translated “mark” means “to regard.” And in some contexts can be translated as “to spy.” It suggests an attitude of observation characterized by healthy skepticism. No one should accept religious words carelessly or casually; all should be examined against the standard of the Word of God, which is the sole authority for doctrine and practice.
Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned. The special objects of observation about which Paul warns in this instance are not the blatant sinners in the world, but those who profess to be preachers and teachers of the truth. Many commentators suggest that the phrase “divisions and offences” refers, in the first instance, to false doctrine and in the second to false practices that are inevitably associated with them. Since the Lord Himself warned that wherever good seed was sown Satan would be sowing his harmful tares, it would be dangerously careless to neglect watchfulness in our individual lives and congregations. Error is always more abundant than truth and chokes it out if not thwarted.
Avoid them. Here is the crux of the matter. Scripture demands separation (“avoid,” “shun,” “turn away from”) from those who teach doctrine contrary to Scripture. A brother or sister who is ensnared in error should be ministered to patiently and lovingly from Scripture. But the only remedy for those who persistently “cause divisions and offences” (those whose doctrine and practices contradict Scripture) is to avoid them, to separate from them.
They . . . serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly. In one simple clause, Paul describes the motivation of many modern ministries: their objective is gain—for themselves. That Paul should use the full name of the Lord in this regard underlines the egregious nature of their sin.
By good words and fair speeches [they] deceive the hearts of the simple. The distinction Paul makes here is not material. The point is that their words convince “the simple,” or the unsuspecting, who then believe things contrary to Scripture.
Both churches and individual believers will ignore this warning to their ruin. Believers must separate from those who teach doctrinal error and encourage sin.
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