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. 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.
In the midst of his closing salutations Paul suddenly and dramatically produces stern words for the Roman Christians concerning those who “cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned.” It is as if the Holy Spirit brought these words with power to Paul’s heart causing him to turn his pen to a vital topic, which the Romans needed to hear. In these verses Paul produces the advice of the Holy Ghost concerning those who teach a different doctrine than that which is taught by the Apostles. The message is simple:
mark them…avoid them
Ecclesiastical Separation is a scriptural principle founded on the truth that God is holy and as such he demands holiness from his people in refusing to fellowship with those who uphold false doctrine.
1: The Warning Concerning Ecclesiastical Separation
Paul brought this warning before the Romans because they were facing dangers from false teachers. These teachers would be able to attract a following within the Church causing division to fester among the flock. The offences caused were obstacles whereby they made life difficult for God’s people. This may be a reference to legalism which attempted to force Gentile Christians into strict Jewish regulations. On the other hand the false teachers may have been antinomian, insisting that the law had no moral value for the New Testament Church. What would characterise the false teachers would be their doctrine; they would contradict the ministry of Christ and the Apostles. These false teachers would be persuasive and charismatic having the ability to sway opinions. They would be self seekers who would care only for their own selfish desires as opposed to the glory of Christ.
What are we called to separate from today? Romanism remains the great enemy of the Gospel with its system of idolatry and works. Ecumenism likewise within Protestantism, which treats Rome as a Christian Church is to be resisted. Liberalism is another feature of the major Protestant denominations where the Word of God is interpreted in a manner more suited to the palate of this post modern world.
2: The Watchfulness in Ecclesiastical Separation
The fact that Paul was so clear in his warning teaches us that these false teachers would arise from within the ranks of the Church. This was precisely what he warned the Ephesian elders about (Acts 20:29) and when writing to the Philippians from Rome he stated that this trend had begun within the Church in the Imperial Capital (Philippians 1:15-16). Paul taught that when these false teachers were identified they were to be excluded from all fellowship, avoided. To some this may appear unloving yet this is the only method whereby the Church can be kept pure. Throughout the centuries the Church has practised this principle of separation so that the Gospel can be freely preached without the pollutions of falsehood. The Reformers separated from Roman Catholicism in 16th Century Europe, the Puritans separated from the Anglican Church in 17th Century England, the Covenanters separated from the Church of Scotland in 17th Century Scotland, the Seceders separated from the Presbyterian Church in 18th Century Ireland, the Methodists separated from Anglicanism in 18th Century England, the Free Church of Scotland separated from the Church of Scotland in 19th Century Scotland and the Free Presbyterian Church separated from the Irish Presbyterians in 20th Century Ulster. The lesson is; every denomination and fellowship of believers must be watchful because history warns that within every denomination there arises false teachers and unscriptural doctrines.
3: The Wisdom of Ecclesiastical Separation
Paul closes this passage with a word concerning wisdom. The path of the separatist may not be popular in the eyes of the world and at times it is a way which demands sacrifice, yet by the same token it is the wise path. Paul commends the Romans for their obedience which was well known. By implication he is teaching that if they are to continue in this obedience they must refuse fellowship with false teachers. The path of separation which our founding fathers chose was blessed by God. Are we to plough another furrow rather than remaining with the tried and tested plough? To maintain separation the Romans required discernment in identifying the good and being innocent (simple) regarding that which is evil and false. The only way by which we can endowed with this discernment is through spiritual insights into the Word of God. God giveth wisdom.