Studies in 1 Timothy – part 15

To Question or Not to Question? 1 Timothy 6:1-5

He said he was just trying to start a conversation, that’s all his questions were about. Yes, questions can be innocent, a sign of being a Berean kind of Christian (Acts 17) who wants to make sure what he is hearing is true to Scripture. But sometimes questions can be a veiled challenge to sound biblical doctrine. And I could hear in the fellow’s queries an echo from the garden, “Did God really say …?” (Gen 3:1 NIV).

Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish between innocent questions and those meant to create doubt or lead toward wrong doctrine. The elder must be vigilant, constantly protecting the people of God from doctrinal error and watching out for the sinister methods of the enemy of the church.

The specifics may vary from one generation to another, but one thing remains the same—there will always be false teachers, purveying novel doctrines and supposedly new approaches to spiritual truth and life. Paul warned the Ephesian elders about this in Acts 20:29-30.

In 1 Timothy 6, after a brief comment to slaves about how they should relate to their masters, the apostle returns to the subject of false teachers which he touched on in chapter one. Specifically, he writes that there are some whose purpose in teaching is skewed and goes contrary to sound doctrine promoted by the elders. And it is with these that Timothy (and we) should concern himself.

Paul succinctly instructs Timothy, “Teach and preach these principles” (2).The NIV renders this “teach and urge.” He doesn’t say, “Enter into a conversation about these things and help them see the more correct way.” His terseness when it comes to false teachers is emphatic.

False doctrine in our day can subtly slip in by simply “starting a conversation.” There is a movement in North America where long held biblical truths are being “questioned,” in the name of simply “starting a conversation.” Things like the inerrancy of Scripture, the essence of the Gospel, the nature of the church, etc. It was not without reason that Paul earlier admonished the elders of Ephesus (where Timothy currently resided at the time of Paul’s writing) to “Be on guard  for yourselves and for all the flock …” (Acts 20:28).

Now, on the one hand, who can fault a person for simply wanting to start a conversation? But when people of influence with a large audience do this, doubt can creep into the average believer’s mind. It is just this sort of thing that has led some denominations to embrace what they once abhorred.

From the description given in the subsequent verses of Paul’s letter, it is clear that nothing is new under the sun. Our age does not differ much from that of Paul. There are people today advocating a “different doctrine that does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness” (3). Two kinds of “sound words” are identified here: a) The direct words of our Lord while on the earth and b) doctrines that were subsequently revealed through revelation to the apostles and inspired writers of Scripture—which things conform to true godliness.

One writer describes godliness as “complete devotion to God.” This assessment actually became one of the criteria the early church used to separate out the genuinely inspired writings, which became the NT books, from the spurious writings which did not give evidence of conformity to godliness, or “the rule of faith” as they termed it. If a writing did not conform to that standard of faith that was received from the apostles (see Acts 2:42a – “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching …”), it was to be rejected. Paul, in our passage, warns about those whose teaching does not conform to this kind of godliness.

Only one motive can cause such errant teaching—and that is lack of submission of the false teacher to that which has gone before. Or to put it another way, the exaltation of one’s teaching as being better than what the apostles clearly taught or the sound doctrine espoused in the local church – all for the purpose of inflating one’s self. That is why Paul says, “he is conceited” (4a). Actually, the Greek word means “shrouded in smoke, to be in the clouds.” The conceit of false teaching clouds one’s view of knowledge, such that no matter how eloquent or educated he may sound, his teaching is empty. You could say he is blowing smoke and doesn’t know it, yet thinks himself quite original and novel. Harsh judgment for any of us to make, for sure, but that is the assessment of the inspired Scripture writer.

What does this kind of false teaching look like? Paul describes it succinctly:

Obsession with raising questions. Various translations render the idea: morbid interest, obsession, unhealthy interest/desire, craving, infection. The Message Bible puts it this ways, those “who infect the air with germs of envy, controversy …” To be sure, asking questions should be encouraged if they are genuine and innocent of malicious intent. But there is a point after which discontent and a lack of submission is evident, even if cloaked in a false humility, such as  “I’m just asking.” Some people seem to thrive on asking questions without ever accepting sound answers. Others skillfully thrust and parry with well-worded questions designed to challenge the solid doctrinal base of the local church. These breed a constant discontent. Paul calls this “sick.”

Hair splitting. Literally, Paul is referring to the person who has a morbid interest in “strife about words” (4b). This seems to be a person who delights in nitpicking over words and meanings, using words as weapons of battle. Some people are simply good debaters and  are quite forceful. All the more reason for elders to be constantly on guard.

I envision a person who is constantly playing on the nuances of the language to undermine the clear meaning of Scripture. Now, as with all false teaching, this is a subversion of a good thing—it is important to be careful of the words one uses and their meanings. For example, a Roman Catholic would agree that a  person is saved by grace through faith. This sounds like solid doctrine from Scripture, doesn’t it?—that is, until a careful analysis reveals that the RC understanding of grace is different from the biblical perspective. Namely, they would believe grace is something that a person earns through his piety and good works, whereas Scripture teaches that grace is unmerited favor (Eph 2:8-9).

So, we do need to be careful about words and their meanings. However, a false teacher constantly disputes the words of right doctrine, and does so to promote his own conceited controversies.

Pernicious consequences.False teaching has clear results and Paul lists them in a rather brusque fashion: envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, friction(vs. 4b-5). “By their fruit you will know them,” Jesus said. (Matt 7:20). Arguments seem to be their forte, they are good at it. However, winning arguments is not the goal. Rather, truth is. Given free reign, the false teachers are revealed to be “men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth” (5b). What a sad conclusion! “Depraved” means “destroyed utterly, spoiled, corrupt.” It doesn’t get any worse than this! They become completely devoid of all truth.

The irony of the matter is that false teachers “suppose that godliness is a means of gain”(5b).  They believetheir version of godliness is obviously true. The word translated “suppose” in the original language means literally “to hold by custom,” that is, they think it is completely obvious that their teaching about how to be godly will make things better (gain) for people, and that others see it this way as well. And, isn’t it true that most people are interested in what religion can help them gain for themselves. This is pernicious, the idea that godliness should be sought for the gain it brings us. Godliness is a worthy goal in and of itself, simply because God requires it—not because of its beneficial value for oneself!

 

What do we do with all this? Elders need to be aware of the methods of the enemy of our souls, and to be constantly on guard. Satan is subtle, so we need to be vigilant. Error can come in many forms: some is crafty, some is understated, some is sly, some ingenious, devious or shrewd. Many with less experience in the spiritual battlegrounds may not perceive it as error. Some might say, “Why are the elders getting so uptight?” Others, “Why are you judging that person?” or “Can’t we agree to disagree?”  Yes, we need to pick our battles carefully. Be that as it may, there are times when the elders need to stand guard, even when the rank and file of the church doesn’t understand the implication.

May we be like Nehemiah, who refused to give way to Sanballat and Tobiah. They wanted to hinder the work of the Lord by entering into negotiations, but Nehemiah saw through their ruse and retorted, “Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Neh-emiah 6:3).  There is a time for discussion and a time to take a stand and build the walls. Elders need to know when to respond to questions and when to stand firm – so that the work of building the church does not get sidetracked. My prayer is that the Lord would give us both the discernment and the strength to stand well.