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Fight Valiantly! Contending not conforming

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 26 Mar 2019

Paul tells Timothy to avoid charlatans in the church, and to keep calm and carry on, in today’s Lenten look at how we counter false teaching. Watch the video podcast of today's post on our YouTube channel.

According to the Apostle Paul, there are some people we should avoid altogether. These people have doubled-down on their errors. So Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

The active phrase here is turn away from such people, deliberately. The key word means “purposely avoid association with someone, shun”, a different idea to that in 2 Timothy 2. These narcissistic charlatans who have an appearance of godliness but none of its reality are “corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith” (verse 8). They are to be shunned and disassociated from, so that they cannot lead others astray.

Such people will try to latch on to the weaknesses and sins of those they target, worming their way into their lives in order to capture and control them. Paul says that “among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6-7). This is not a blanket misogynist comment on all women, of course; Paul is describing a particular situation here, a vicious tactic of the false teachers, who are marked by pastoral cruelty in preying on the vulnerable and tempted. Paul is really highlighting the ethical deficiency in the methods of these abusive false teachers, rather than any moral delinquency in the women described — whose greatest need is to hear the true gospel of forgiveness in Christ just as Paul, the chief of sinners, did (1 Timothy 1:15).

In chapter 4, Paul describes how the false teachers cause people to “turn back from” the truth or “turn aside” from it. Timothy is to avoid those who make people avid for heresy; and turn away from those who turn others on with lies!

Timothy’s reaction and response to this apostasy and failure to listen to the truth is to be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfil his ministry (2 Timothy 4:5). This is an apostolic variant of “Keep calm and carry on” — it means that simply carrying on with your own ministry is itself contending against false teaching:

“For the time is coming,” says Paul, “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:3-5).

The opposite of accumulating teachers to suit one’s own sinful passions is to be not only sober-minded but to endure suffering. One of the passions most of us have is for comfort and ease and success, so teaching which may somehow adversely affect us becomes less attractive. We are naturally drawn to teaching which is more convenient. Since many others will face the same battle, Timothy is warned that to be faithful, he may have to stand out from the crowd.

The repeated phrase “as for you…” (2 Timothy 3:10, 3:14, 4:5, cf. 2:24) indicates that Timothy must contend by not conforming. He is to stand out from the crowd of false teachers by his actions, continuing in what he has learned regardless of whether everybody else does or not. He must also watch out, because opposition to the message of truth can do the messenger himself a great deal of harm (2 Timothy 4:14-15), as Alexander the coppersmith did to Paul.

Questions for Reflection
1. How can we spot a spiritual charlatan if they have “the appearance of godliness”?
2. What weaknesses and passions do you have, which false teachers of some sort could latch onto to make their errors more attractive to you?
3. What does opposition to truth look like in today’s church?

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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