Frequently Abused Verses: Does God Condemn Debate? (2 Timothy 2:14)

2 Timothy 2:14

Code: B170412

Almost twenty years ago, during Moody Bible Institute’s Founder’s Week conference, I heard Jim Cymbala make the following plea for unity:

Think of the division right now in the Body of Christ. We have all these names that don’t exist to God: Baptist, Presbyterian, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Charismatic. God doesn’t have any idea what any of them mean, because He only has one Body. . . . He has one Body—the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ. Evangelical—evangelical doesn’t even exist to God. We’re using words that aren’t in the Bible. We’re thumping the Bible and being unbiblical while we’re thumping it. He only has—there’s one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Body. And He doesn’t like us dividing up His Body. [1]

In the moment, it struck me as nonsense. Of course God knows what our denominational titles mean; of course He understands where the doctrinal lines have been drawn in the sand.

But then again, who is going to argue in favor of division?

The church’s current fascination with the soft ecumenism of identifying and celebrating common ground hinges on a false dichotomy—that all division grieves God. They point to a variety of texts—frequently wrenched out of their original context—to make that point.

Cymbala’s text, for example, was Mark 3:20–26—a passage in which Christ answered the allegations that His power came from Satan. The Lord rightly points out it would be illogical to use Satan’s power to cast out demons—that “a house divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” Cymbala turned that statement into a rebuke to a divided church.

Today another text is frequently floated as a mandate for unity: “Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers” (2 Timothy 2:14). Often, that’s taken to mean we should not debate our doctrinal differences—that we shouldn’t let doctrine divide us at all. If we say we’re Christians, we ought to focus on what we agree on, and set aside anything on which we don’t.

Under certain circumstances, that posture might be acceptable. But, as John MacArthur explains, in a world overrun with false gospels and false christs, we cannot afford to simply brush away every doctrinal line in the sand.

Through the centuries, the steady stream of falsehood has become a deeper, wider, and increasingly more destructive sea of ungodliness. False teaching about God, about Christ, about the Bible, and about spiritual reality is pandemic. The father of lies is working relentlessly to pervert and corrupt the saving and sanctifying truth of God’s written Word, the Bible, and of the living Word, His Son, Jesus Christ.

“Christian” cults abound today as never before, as does every type of false religion. Many Protestant denominations that once championed God’s inerrant Word and the saving gospel of Jesus Christ have turned to human philosophy and secular wisdom. In doing so, they have abandoned the central truths of biblical Christianity—including the Trinity, the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, and salvation by grace alone. In rejecting God’s truth, they have come to condone and embrace countless evils—universalism, hedonism, psychology, self-salvation, fornication and adultery, homosexuality, abortion, and a host of other sins. The effects of ungodly teaching have been devastating and damning, not only for the members of those churches but for a countless number of the unsaved who have been confirmed in their ungodliness by false religion. [2]

As he writes in his book, The Truth War, today we need to be all the more fervent in our defense of the truth.

Jude’s command “to contend earnestly for the faith” is not merely being neglected in the contemporary church; it is often greeted with outright scorn. These days anyone who calls for biblical discernment or speaks out plainly against a popular perversion of sound doctrine is as likely as the false teachers themselves to incur the disapproval of other Christians. That may even be an understatement. Saboteurs and truth vandals often seem to have an easier time doing their work than the conscientious believer who sincerely tries to exercise biblical discernment.

Practically anyone today can advocate the most outlandish ideas or innovations and still be invited to join the evangelical conversation. But let someone seriously question whether an idea that is gaining currency in the evangelical mainstream is really biblically sound, and the person raising the concern is likely to be shouted down by others as a “heresy hunter” or dismissed out of hand as a pesky whistle-blower. That kind of backlash has occurred with such predictable regularity that clear voices of true biblical discernment have nearly become extinct. Contemporary evangelicals have almost completely abandoned the noble practice of the Bereans, who were commended for carefully scrutinizing even the apostle Paul’s teaching. They “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

But in our generation it sometimes seems as if the more aggressively something is marketed to Christians as the latest, greatest novelty, the less likely most evangelicals are to examine it critically. After all, who wants to be constantly derided as a gatekeeper for orthodoxy in a postmodern culture? Defending the faith is a role very few seem to want anymore. [3]

Far from the modern twist on 2 Timothy 2:14, much of what Paul wrote to his apprentice had to do with defending the church and holding fast to sound doctrine. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul wrote:

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. . . . This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. (1 Timothy 1:3–4, 18–19)

The same kind of exhortations are littered throughout Paul’s writing. In Acts 20:28–30 he warned the Ephesian church,

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.

He further exhorted the Thessalonians, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Paul was clearly not one to shy away from a doctrinal debate. He was a passionate defender of the gospel, and a tireless guardian of the truth.

So what should we make of his exhortation to Timothy “not to quarrel over words” (2 Timothy 2:14, ESV)? Here’s how John MacArthur explains it.

Paul’s purpose was to motivate and encourage Timothy to keep a firm grasp on that truth himself and to pass it on to others who would do likewise (2 Timothy 2:2). It is only with a thorough knowledge of God’s truth that falsehood and deceit can be recognized, resisted, and opposed. . . .

Logomacheō (wrangle about words) carries the idea of waging a war of words, in this instance with false teachers, who are later described as “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Such deceivers use human wisdom and reason to undermine God’s Word, and believers are not to debate with them, especially within the church. [4]

He goes on to explain why such a warning is particularly timely for the church today.

The barrage of ungodly ideas and verbiage that today is assaulting society in general, and even the evangelical church, is frightening. More frightening than the false ideas themselves, however, is the indifference to them, and often acceptance of them, by those who name the name of Christ and claim to be born again. Abortion, theistic evolution, homosexuality, no fault divorce, feminism, and many other unbiblical concepts and attitudes have invaded the church at an alarming rate and to an alarming degree. One of the most popular and seductive false teachings is the promotion of high self-esteem as a Christian virtue, when, in reality, it is the very foundation of sin. Such destructive notions are inevitable when Christians listen to the world above the Word, and are more persuaded by men’s wisdom than by God’s. Far too few leaders in the church today can say honestly with Paul that their “exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit” (1 Thessalonians 2:3).

As Christians become less and less familiar with Scripture and sound doctrine on a firsthand, regular basis, they become easy prey for jargon that sounds Christian but strongly mitigates against God’s truth. Such unbiblical and arbitrary ideas as being “slain in the Spirit” and “binding Satan” frequently replace or are valued above the clear teaching of and submission to Scripture. [5]

God’s people should not be combative; we must not walk around with doctrinal chips on our shoulders, looking for a fight. But we must also have a high enough view of God’s Word that we’re willing to stand up in its defense. We should not condemn doctrinal debate or disagreement; we should use them for God’s glory and the good of His church.

Available online at: https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B170412
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