Paul establishes a governing principle of New Testament practice:
Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
Consider the following:
“Mark them” is a command.
The command comes with great urgency [“I beseech you”]
The command is to all the saints in Rome, as we are all to contend for the faith (Romans 1:7)
“To mark” is to “take heed” [the same word is used in Luke 11:35]: hence, Paul is teaching that we are to warn the people not to follow after the example of those who cause divisions and offenses within the assembly of the saints
We mark them by pointing to the pattern of sound words [the doctrine and practice of Christ and His apostles]
The focus of the command is upon caring for the sheep: Paul’s motivation is that believers remain faithfully espoused to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3); moreover, many will fall prey to wolves without these warnings (2 Corinthians 11:4)
It includes a command to separate [avoid them], which agrees with the counsel of 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 and Jude 1:17-19: while God is the judge of men’s hearts, we can tell much about a person’s professed faith by how they practice it (Matthew 15:8)
Paul faithfully implements this principle: in 2 Timothy, he lists 8 men who fall in this category (Phygellus 1:15; Hermogenes 1:15; Hymenaeus 2:17; Philetus 2:17; Jannes 3:8; Jambres 3:8; Demas 4:10; Alexander the coppersmith 4:14.
Of course, the most serious offense is any attempt to pervert the gospel of Christ–for this is the doorway through which all men enter the kingdom of God. It is the consistent, Pauline example to publicly rebuke any attempt to corrupt the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9).
Another passage of scripture helps to shed light upon this topic:
And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.
Notice what Paul emphasizes:
We must labor, as we have opportunity–for our time may be drawn short
Those who warn of apostate practice will be innocent of blame
The solution to heresies and apostate practices is the whole counsel of God: God has foreseen these deceptions and provided an answer to them in the scriptural record; moreover, their meaning cannot be twisted, if we teach them in the context in which they are provided
First, we are to guard and set watch over our own hearts; secondly, we are to guard the hearts of others who assemble with us
We are to be zealous in this pursuit, counting the cost, the shed blood of Jesus Christ upon which the church was founded
Wolves will come; therefore, we must watch for them. Moreover, the faith of many will be overthrown, if we do not take our charge seriously
These wolves are grievous, in that they impose ungodly burdens upon the people by affecting a spiritual demeanor and dramatic manner of presentation: moreover, there is no limit to their appetite for deception, abuse, and bondage
Some saints of good and honest report will depart from the faith: and we are forewarned to prepare our hearts for this distress
The principal characteristic of false teachers is that they lead men to themselves, rather than to God
As the danger is real, we must continually contend for the faith by recognizing that we are in a spiritual battle and that souls are at stake
If we cast our hope and reliance upon God and His word, we will keep the faith
In Ezekiel, the Lord describes the natural function of a watchman for any people:
When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman: If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people; then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.
He then makes the spiritual application:
So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.