In the Church, we may occasionally hear that someone has been “disfellowshipped” or “marked,” as the King James Version (KJV) puts it. Thankfully, these are rare events. But, perhaps because of this rarity, these practices are not always well understood. Can a person who is not a member, attendee, or adherent of the Living Church of God be disfellowshipped? No. Can a person who is not affiliated with the Living Church of God be “marked”? Yes. There are differences between the two. Can you explain them? These are two different ecclesiastical practices, each taken from the Bible. Let’s take a closer look to understand them better.
Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Romans 16:17, KJV). What does this word, “mark,” mean to you? In The Scarlet Letter, a novel set in Puritan New England, an adulteress is required to wear a red letter “A” to identify her sin. Is that what Paul meant by “mark”? Even today, some groups have the practice of completely “shunning” members they disapprove of. Was Paul instructing us to do that?
“Mark” My Words
When the word “mark” is used in the King James Version, it is in the sense of “Mark (or note) my words.” The word translated “mark” in the KJV comes from the Greek word skopeo and is rendered differently in most modern translations. A better understanding of the use of this word is helpful. Consider these definitions of skopeo from several lexicons:
- [1:] To look at, observe, contemplate [2:] to mark [3:] to fix one’s eyes upon, direct one’s attention to [anyone] (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).
- To look at, behold, watch, contemplate (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words).
- Consider, take heed, look at (on), mark (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance).
It is interesting to see how the word skopeo is used in the Bible in some other contexts:
“Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness” (Luke 11:35, KJV).
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1, KJV).
“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:4, KJV).
Given the various ways the word can be understood, we can see why modern translations of Romans 16:17 usually render the word skopeo somewhat differently than does the older English of the KJV. For example:
New King James Version: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.”
Revised Standard Version: “I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them.”
New American Standard Bible: “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.”
New International Version: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.”
We might describe it this way: Let’s say that in my neighborhood there lived a big dog that would walk up to people on the street, looking at them expectantly. When someone put out a hand to pet the dog, it would suddenly snap at them savagely. Ever know a dog like that? Imagine you and I were walking down the sidewalk and this dog approached us expectantly. When you reached out to pet it, the dog gave you a vicious bite. Then, as you tried to stop the bleeding, I remarked, “Actually, I knew that dog would bite you. It does that to everyone who tries to pet it.” You would probably be very upset with me, and you might say, “You should have warned me to mark, to note, to keep my eye on, to watch out for that dog, and avoid it!” And you would be right.
Paul was saying that the Church has a similar responsibility. This is why the ministry, after careful consideration, will sometimes announce to a congregation or to the Church as a whole that someone may potentially do harm and needs to be “noted” or “marked.” It’s rare, but it happens, and the individual may or may not be a member. This is done when you need to be warned, and the person taken note of can be anyone who poses a threat of some kind, spiritual or otherwise.
What It Means to Disfellowship
Sadly, it is sometimes necessary for someone to be suspended or even dismissed from the fellowship of the Church—that is, to be disfellowshipped. Disfellowshipping is quite different from the marking or noting described above, in that it always involves someone who is a part of our fellowship, and the local members may or may not be told about the action. Also, a person may be temporarily suspended for some problem without their congregation being told (often called a “suspension”), and then return weeks or months later. Or members may be asked, depending on the circumstances, to avoid social contact with the person for a period, pending repentance. Usually, this restriction does not include business contact. Determining how to handle business contact is the responsibility of the individual member, but seeking counsel from the ministry can help you decide what is most helpful in each individual case.
In 1 Corinthians 5, the Bible presents an example of disfellowshippment involving a man who was committing, on an ongoing basis, a sin that involved having an affair with his stepmother (see Deuteronomy 27:20). Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you…. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person…. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person’” (1 Corinthians 5:2, 11, 13).
However, in the second chapter of 2 Corinthians, we find that being disfellowshipped helped the man. He had repented and was to be accepted again by the Church. Paul wrote, “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things” (2 Corinthians 2:6–9).
How, then, should we feel toward those who have been marked or disfellowshipped? It is very important to remember that the membership should not bear any ill will against the person. These practices have a constructive and protective purpose, and should never be construed to encourage feelings of animosity.
Paul instructed the Church, “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good. And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:13–15). Even when someone is attacking our faith and practice, Jesus said we should love them: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44–45).
The meaning of each of these biblical practices can be summarized very briefly:
- involves only someone in our fellowship.
- may involve a temporary suspension, or it may be permanent.
- generally involves cases of promoting doctrinal error, causing division, personal sin, or some other issue—pending repentance. Its purpose is to help the person spiritually and to protect the Church spiritually from sin or division.
The congregation may not be informed of a disfellowshipping, particularly in the case of a suspension. This is a judgment call made by the minister, who carefully considers what is in the best interests of the individual and of the Church.
- means “taking note of” or “watching out for.”
- can involve someone who is in our fellowship or not in our fellowship.
This practice may be used to protect the Church congregation when people make adversaries of themselves. The “marked” or “noted” people may cause harm, and the brethren are being told: Beware.
Disfellowshipping and marking are two different practices, but both are used for the health and protection of the Church. Neither practice should ever result in animosity against the individual involved.