Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 9/3/2000
We saw last week Paul's concern in the Pastoral Epistles to lay the foundation for ministry in the post-Apostolic age, and that to do so he stresses two things: right doctrine, and right living seen as flowing from and inseparable from right doctirne. Here in the very first paragraph he deals with both these issues and the connection between them. In exhorting Timothy to deal with false teachers, Paul analyzes the nature of false teaching, the goal of sound teaching, and then the use of the Law as a case study of the contrast. This week we will begin with the negative and look at the false; next week we will examine the true.
Paul gives us an anatomy of false teaching not so much by checking off a list of true doctrines but by describing the mindset that leads to the wrong kind of teaching. For it is not just a matter of content, though of course that is important. One can say all the right things and still be a false teacher who knows not of what Spirit he is. So we have here Four Characteristics of false teaching, four traits to avoid in ourselves (for we are all teachers to someone) and in those under whom we sit.
The first characteristic of false teaching is that IT CONTRADICTS FOUNDATIONAL REVELATION. Timothy is to instruct certain people not to "teach strange doctrines" (v. 3). Well, some of Christian doctrine is very strange indeed! A better translation would be "different doctrine." The word is heterodidaskein, literally "to teach differently." Differently from what? From the "standard of sound words" that Paul keeps coming back to. Greek has two different roots that mean "different." Heteros means competely different, of another kind altogether; allos means just the same except different. You see them in Gal. 1:6-7, where Paul says that the Galations have accepted a heteros (whole different kind of ) Gospel which is not an allos (another of the same kind) Gospel at all. So these false teachers are teaching heteros-differently from the Gospel. Now, the Judaizers in Galatia did not deny the messiahship and deity of Christ, his atoning death, or his resurrection. They just added one little requirement to the Gospel, and this transformed it entirely so that it was no longer a Gospel at all. Grace can suffer no admixture of works and still be Grace. To teach "heteros" doctrine then is to compromise those distinctive elements that make the Christian faith unique and set it apart from all other religious paths. On those issues, like justification by faith, a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump This may be done blatantly or subtly. And we must be on guard against it.
So much for content; this much we expected. But Paul goes on to a second characteristic of false teaching which we might not have guessed: IT IS MARKED BY A PERVERTED INTELLECTUALISM focused on meaningless questions and speculation (v. 4). There is a right use of the intellect: we are to love God with it (Mt. 22:37) and use it for His glory. In this sense, every Believer is called to be an intellectual. We may not have much of a mind, but we are to love God with all we've got. It has nothing to do with how smart we are, nothing to do with ivory towers. But there are two ways of perverting God's gift of the mind. The first is Anti-Intellectualism. Somehow, to some people the mind is the only human faculty that is so inherently evil that Christ cannot redeem it and the Holy Spirit cannot sanctify it. The attitude "Don't ask questions, just believe" is a sure sign that something has gone badly wrong. Flee quickly any teacher who is made insecure by the honest difficulties of his flock. But Paul in this passage is concerned directly with the other way of perverting the mind: Pseudo-Intellectualism. That could be defined as an unhealthy interest in multiplying questions and knowledge (so called) for their own sake, apart from the use of the understanding to serve and glorify God. Surely this is the knowledge that "puffeth up" according to 1 Cor. 8:1. In this case it was probably allegorizations of Old-Testament genealogies to create a kind of secret knowledge--you are lost without the teacher who imparts it. It makes him indispensable, and thus glorifies his intellect rather than God. A sound teacher, by contrast, wants to get you to the place where you can find insight in the Text on your own without his help.
The third characteristic of false teaching is AN INVINCIBLE IGNORANCE. In v. 7, these people want to be teachers when they don't even know what they are talking about. Now, ignorance by itself is no disqualification. I am myself abysmally ignorant, able to help at all only because I stand on the shoulders of giants. But we are talking about a wilful ignorance that does not want to be confused with the facts. You think about certain cults who come to your door. There is no possibility of dialog with them. Even if you interrupt their spiel, they simply take it up again where they left off, without responding to anything you said. There is no possibility of real give and take because they already "know" that they are right and you are wrong. They are ultimately unteachable because of the root of pride from which flows the perverted intellect of point 2. (Oh, yes--Anti-Intellectuals can be just as proud of their lack of intellect as Pseudo-Intellectuals are of their self-referenced intellect. Ironically, both perversions flow from the same root). Therefore we must know enough about the nature, purpose, and content of Scripture to be able to get suspicious when ignorance begins to parade itself as knowledge. And we must focus on attitude: the first qualification of a Christian teacher is that he be humble enough to be teachable himself.
The fourth characteristic, flowing from the others, is AN UNJUSTIFIED DOGMATISM (v. 7, "confidand assertions). Contrast the Lord's attitude in Mat. 23:23. He distinguishes the weightier matters of the law from the mint, anise, and cummin. In other words, we must know when to be dogmatic. When the Bible speaks clearly on the Fundamentals, then we must stand against all opposition, even if they burn us at the stake. But when the Bible is silent, we too must be silent. And when the Bible gives us a principle which has to be applied, we must apply it with charity and not confuse our very fallible application with the infallible teaching of the Word of God. One characteristic of false teachers is that they are not capable of making these distinctions.
If someone seems to obscuring the Gospel of Grace; if he seems to be perverting his God-given mind either by denying its proper use or using it for its own sake and his own glory; if he seems ignorant of basic truths and (unlike Apollos) shows no inclination to learn, even from those less learned than himself; if he seems excessively dogmatic, needing to have the final answer to everything; then we need to be very wary, for he manifests, not just an isolated error, but a syndrome that makes him unprofitable even when he happens to be right. For what is the end result of such teaching? It is fruitless (v. 6). And what is the fruit of sound teaching? Well, that is a matter for next week.
In the meantime, may our teaching and our learning bear abundantly the fruit of the Spirit as we continue these studies together.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams