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Fight Valiantly! Demonic Deceitful Doctrine Disallowed

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 22 Mar 2019

As our Lent series continues, Lee Gatiss looks at Paul’s first letter to Timothy to see what it can teach us about contending for the faith against false teaching. Watch the video podcast of today's post on our Youtube channel.

The apostle Paul’s first letter to his co-worker Timothy urges him to stay in Ephesus and fight valiantly for the truth there by confronting false teachers. Part of Timothy’s role in Ephesus is to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3). As a bishop charged with oversight of other elders there, Timothy was to prevent some of them from teaching heterodoxy.

In the face of false teaching which Paul describes as “the doctrine of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1), Timothy was to “have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). He was also to “put the false teaching before the brothers” (1 Timothy 4:6) so that they would be trained to recognise what was false and what was true, not just leave them to work out the deficiencies of heresy for themselves.

In this context of spiritually dangerous opposition, Paul tells Timothy to watch himself. He says, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity… Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:12-13). That is what contending looks like when some are promoting demonic and deceitful teaching: stop people if you have authority to do so, and set a good example yourself, in both teaching and lifestyle. Hence, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).

For Timothy, contending for the gospel must also mean appointing the right people with the right gifts as overseers and deacons, because it is their job to teach the truth and refute error. They must also behave in accordance with the gospel, hence, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear… Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:19-22). I think it’s important to recognise that some of what Paul says to Timothy here is connected to his particular ministry as an apostolic delegate or perhaps (arch?)bishop in Ephesus. It is not addressed to him as a private individual or simply as an ordinary elder amongst other elders.

Paul also says, in 1 Timothy 6…

“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:3-5).

The Textus Receptus adds “withdraw from such people”, which seems like a natural conclusion, whether it appeared in the original text or not. 1 Timothy 6:20-21 also has similar advice: “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.”

The idea is that we should have nothing to do with people who teach non-apostolic doctrine. Their bad influence may cause us also to go off the rails, on the principle that “bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Paul also helps us identify such people with this pen portrait of quarrelsome controversialists who have depraved appetites and a divisive effect.

Questions for Reflection

1. How can ministers today prevent people from teaching heresy?
2. How can people be better trained to discern truth from error in your church?
3. How can we avoid what Paul calls “craving for controversy, quarrels about words, constant friction”, while also standing firm against false doctrine?

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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