Fight Valiantly! Servants of a Gracious Lord
Posted by Lee Gatiss, 25 Mar 2019
As we continue to explore the New Testament’s teaching on how to deal with heresy, we listen in as Paul tells Timothy to avoid irreverent babble and ignorant controversies. Watch the video podcast episode on our YouTube channel.
In 2 Timothy 2, Paul tells Timothy to avoid irreverent babble if he is to rightly handle the word and serve God well:
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:15-18).
We see here the effect of false teaching, its gangrenous consequences in people’s lives. Rather than swerving from the truth, Timothy is to rightly handle it. That word “rightly handle” means “to cut straight.” So just as an orthodontist is meant to keep your teeth straight, and an orthopaedic surgeon helps straighten a wonky spine, so an orthodox teacher will give right glory to God by giving God’s word to people straight — neither reading into it what is not there, nor leaving out something which people need to hear, nor twisting it to suit their own purposes.
This includes the avoidance of irreverent babble in our teaching and interaction. The word for avoid in verse 16 is related to the word for encircle, so perhaps it has the sense of drawing a line around something, like a fence around a deep hole, to highlight the danger and help you avoid falling into it.
In a context where false teachers “are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:18), Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful to the deposit of apostolic doctrine. He does so by reminding him that, “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19). This is an allusion to the highly relevant incident of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16. Certain leaders rose up against Moses and Aaron, challenging their teaching and oversight of God’s people. So a demonstration was set up, in the presence of God, to show which group had God’s blessing. Moses commanded the people to “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins” (Numbers 16:26). Then, suddenly, Korah and those who continued to associate with him were destroyed, as the earth literally opened up and swallowed them. The Lord knows those who are his: and so did everybody else on that day.
It is not always so blindingly obvious these days to differentiate true leaders from false, but one day, Paul assures Timothy, it will be manifest to all. So stick with it, however powerful the enemies of truth appear to be for now, and don’t get sucked into their ways.
Then later in the chapter, Paul writes:
“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:22-26).
Here, the idea is that the servant of a gracious Lord should refuse to engage harshly in foolish quarrels. Rather, we should flee such silliness along with other youthful passions, by being kind, patient, gentle, and prayerful for the false teacher that we are trying to win round and correct by persuasive teaching. The Lord’s Servant must not be quarrelsome, an argumentative sort of person, aggressive or confrontational, a theological Rottweiler who pounces on every tiny error or debatable point and grinds his opponents down with his rhetorical teeth.
What’s more, Timothy must ensure that his relationship with people is always sufficiently respectful and dignified that he is able to teach them. And, crucially, that they are able to learn. Which means cleansing oneself of the tendency to simply assume you know what the other person is saying. Or the inclination to shout at people one disagrees with, to fly off the handle or go into a rage with fiery or abusive rhetoric against them.
It is important to note that the contending Paul is talking about here is a corporate activity. He writes that Timothy is to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace” not on his own, but “along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” Quarrels are corporate affairs that we indulge in with others, and so is the antidote to quarrelling. We need other people, to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace with us; indeed, it is impossible for us to pursue love and peace on our own, of course, because they are by their very nature relational.
Timothy is not being urged by Paul to be a lone crusader against error and ungodliness, but to deliberately seek out a wider society or fellowship of fellow-believers, and to seek after righteousness and stability of faith together. Rugged individualism in such cases would no doubt be one of the evil desires of youth which Timothy is told to flee. Heretics often present themselves as courageous lonely fighters against insensitive institutional oppression, but Timothy is not to fall for the attractions of this romantic self-image. Rather, he is to deliberately seek out others who call on the Lord from a pure heart and try to work together with them.
So throughout this chapter, the idea is that we must avoid irreverent babble and have nothing to do with ignorant controversies, rather than that we should avoid all contact with the people involved. 2 Timothy 2:24-25 specifically envisages correcting and teaching opponents directly, even as we avoid their faulty manner of engagement. They have been captured by a different Lord with different values (“captured by the devil to do his will”); we must represent our kind and gentle Lord and be useful to him by seeking, in his way, to win people not just arguments.
Ultimately, however, only God can grant repentance which leads others to a knowledge of the truth. Though we must continue to present the truth winsomely and clearly, that alone will never be sufficient to change people’s minds. We must also pray that God would work in them and rescue them from the devil.
Questions for Reflection
1. What can churches do to highlight the dangers of false teaching better?
2. Why can we only fight valiantly for truth alongside other people, rather than as supposedly heroic, lone crusaders?
3. How can we be better at winning people and not just arguments?
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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