Mark and Avoid

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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, KJV).

At the close of his letter to Rome, Paul told the brethren to “mark” and “avoid” certain people. In other words, he was urging them to observe these individuals and be aware of who they were so they could not keep company with them.

Why would the apostle tell these brethren to do this? What was this to accomplish? What would this look like in practice? It is important that we understand what Paul was teaching here. We can answer these questions from the word of God.

Reasons Why This Might Be Done

It is important that we realize that we are not free to do this for any reason we choose. The Lord wants His people to have unity (John 17:20-21; Ephesians 4:3), so we need to be sure that we understand the Scriptural reasons why we would need to “mark” and “avoid” certain ones.

  • One is causing division – “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Romans 16:17). Paul described those who caused “dissensions [divisions, KJV]…contrary to the teaching which [they] learned” – the teaching of Christ by which they were to have unity (John 17:20-21). This division is not necessary division (1 Corinthians 11:19), but is unnecessary and condemned (1 Corinthians 1:10). One who would cause such division is to be rejected. Paul wrote elsewhere, “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning” (Titus 3:10). The reason why such a person must be marked is because he will “deceive” those who are “unsuspecting” (Romans 16:18).
  • One has sinned publicly and refuses to repent – “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. […] In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). The fact that this situation was “reported” means that the sin was publicly known. Paul instructed these brethren that they were “not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolator, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11). Those who are “within the church” and refuse to repent of a public sin like this must be removed (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).
  • One has sinned against another and refuses to repent – “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). At first, the sin in this situation is private. Therefore, it must be handled privately at the beginning. However, the offending brother is not always willing to make correction when confronted about his wrong. So if the private meeting is unsuccessful, others would then be made aware of it – one or two others at first, then the church as a whole. Once the church is aware of the sin, admonishes the brother in sin, and that brother refuses to repent, then the action of marking and avoiding is to take place.
  • One refuses to follow apostolic teaching – “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). So far, the reasons we have noticed as to why one might be marked had to do with what he did. This is about what one might fail to do – walking according to the traditions handed down by the apostles. Furthermore, this is more than just struggling with some sin; this is about a willful rejection of what is right (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:10-11). The instructions from the apostles were given “by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:2). Christians are expected to “observe all that [the Lord] commanded” (Matthew 28:20) and “hold fast the pattern” (2 Timothy 1:13, NKJV) found in the New Testament. Those who “walk in darkness [and] do not practice the truth” do not “have fellowship” with God (1 John 1:6). If we want to continue to enjoy fellowship with God, we cannot continue to have fellowship with these individuals (Ephesians 5:11).
  • One is a false teacher – “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 9-11). The Greek word translated “goes too far” means “to go further than is right or proper” (Thayer). In other words, this individual is not remaining within the confines of Scripture. He is not speaking “as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11, KJV) and has failed to “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13). John said that we are not to “receive him” or “[give] him a greeting” (2 John 10). When we do this, we are becoming a “partaker of his evil deeds” (2 John 11, KJV) by supporting his error.

Purpose for Doing This

Because of the desire for unity, many Christians may be hesitant – or refuse altogether – to “mark” and “avoid” others. While we should never be eager to do this, it is sometimes necessary. This is not done to be mean toward the one being marked. The Scriptures are clear that this action serves a good purpose.

  • To keep the church pure – “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). The Lord wants the church to be spotless (Ephesians 5:27). If sin is tolerated, it will act like “leaven” and spread throughout the church. Paul warned, “Do not be deceived, ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
  • To warn others – “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:20). The influence of the one in sin can spread, especially if the issue is not addressed. Paul warned that those who would be deceived would be those who are “unsuspecting” (Romans 16:18). Therefore, warnings are appropriate, just as Paul warned Timothy about several individuals in his letters to him (1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:17-18; 4:14-15).
  • To save the one in sin – “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Some do not “mark” and “avoid” because they believe it is too “harsh” or “mean.” Yet the motive is not to harm the one being marked, it is to help save him. Therefore, this is really an act of love (2 Corinthians 2:8). James wrote, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). The purpose of this action is to get the one who was marked to repent and be right with the Lord so that he might not lose his soul.

Responsibility Toward the One Who Was Marked

When someone is marked in the way we have discussed, what is our responsibility toward that person? This is important to remember because marking someone does not mean we forever put that person out of our minds. There are certain things we must do.

  • Pray for him – It is good to pray for one’s repentance. When Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him, He said, “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Obviously, Jesus was able to know the future in a way that we cannot; but we see that a prayer can be offered for one’s repentance. In the same way, Paul prayed for his fellow-countrymen that they might turn to God and be saved (Romans 10:1-3). When we pray, we are to “let [our] requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). This repentance must certainly be our desire.
  • Admonish him – The sin that necessitated the “marking” would have already been brought to the erring one’s attention by this point (cf. Matthew 18:15-17). Though repentance was refused, we must still try to admonish when possible and appropriate. Paul wrote, “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
  • Keep no company with him – “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). While we may look at this command as simply being a prohibition for us, keeping no company with the one marked is also to try to help him. We are not to cut off all contact; after all, we still must try to “admonish him” (2 Thessalonians 3:15). But normal social interaction is not to continue (1 Corinthians 5:11) because now the relationship is different. This is done “so that he will be put to shame” (2 Thessalonians 3:14) in the hopes that the sorrow produced by this will motivate him to repent (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).

Conclusion

It is “good and…pleasant…for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). It is never pleasant to have to “mark” and “avoid” certain individuals (Romans 16:17). Yet as we have noticed, it is sometimes necessary.

Let us always seek the good of others, even when it requires “tough love.” And let us always remain faithful to the Lord and encourage others to do the same.


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