Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Stay Where You Are – 1 Tim 1:3-4

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God's work — which is by faith. (NIV)

Stay in Ephesus – how many times have you heard someone say that you should stay where you are? Various scenarios run through my mind. There is the person who is frustrated with his church. He became a Christian three years ago and has been active in the Sunday school program teaching sixth graders for the last two years. He joined an adult study group led by an associate pastor that was using a book that claims to be biblical but actually endorses worldly philosophies. So he goes to the leader, asks some questions, has some discussions, but nothing changes. He talks to an elder who reads the book and is astonished that it is being used, he calls it heresy. Nothing changes. Moreover, he feels that the sermons have little biblical content and the conclusions that are drawn align more with Oprah than with Jesus. He feels he is getting more out of the sixth grade class than the sermons. He decides that he should leave the church and look for another place. The head pastor suggests that he stay; continue to teach the sixth graders, lead a small group and minister to individuals.

Should he stay or should he go? Why does the pastor want him to stay? Perhaps the pastor doesn’t want to lose a servant – especially one who is willing to teach sixth graders. Is the pastor more interested in keeping his attendance count up or is he interested in an individual’s growth in Christ? Obviously, there isn’t enough information in my brief scenario for me to offer advice. However, he did go to the individual to discuss the false doctrine. He did go to an elder – who happened to agree with him. It sounds like he tried to follow the command of Jesus. Matt 18:15-17 "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (RSV) It didn’t have the expected outcome that I would have thought was correct. And that is the reality in many of our churches today. Only when the leaders are committed to sound doctrine and obedience to it, will Jesus’ commands be effective.

The situation is also quite different from Timothy’s. Timothy was the head pastor. Unlike the person above, he would have had the authority to examine the doctrines purported in the book and, according to Paul’s instructions, would have commanded the associate pastor to stop using the book. He would also be able to take the associate aside and teach him how to be more discerning.

Another scenario that is probably more common is the one where a person attends a church and finds it lacking in several ways. So, without consulting anyone in the church, he leaves and starts attending another. The same thing happens in the next church. Now, in defense of the person, the churches that he attended are lacking. They may be similar to the first scenario or worse. However, this person finally arrives at a solid, Bible-believing church where doctrine and practice line up as much as possible in a church made up of flawed people. It isn’t perfect but it does preach from the Bible, worship from the heart, and server with hands and feet. He stays with this church much longer than any other. In fact, he stays long enough to make some friends.

But one Sunday, the pastor preaches something that gets under his skin. It could be anything from tithing or serving to a biblical truth that he doesn’t want to accept. The subject isn’t important but what is important is that it points out a sin in his life that he doesn’t want to overcome. He is ready to hop to the next church and when he does, someone misses him. A friend, elder, or maybe even a pastor visits to find out why he hasn’t been to church. How does he answer? “The church doesn’t meet my needs.” That’s church-hopper-speak for, “I need to feel good about myself, not convicted of sin.” In this case, the he should stay so that he can learn and grow in Christ.

In Second Timothy, Paul speaks about this person. 2 Tim 4:3-4 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. (NASB)

Timothy had his work cut out for him as he obeyed Paul and stayed in Ephesus. He had the tough job of actually commanding those who were bringing in false teachings to stop. Perhaps the pastor in the first scenario wanted his associate to stop teaching from the heretical book, but was afraid of conflict. Perhaps he thought it wouldn’t be Christ-like to assert himself. Being Christ-like requires the ability to discern right from wrong and expose it. In Matthew 23, Jesus preaches his “Woe to You” message. In public, He itemizes many of the sins of the scribes and Pharisees. The climax of the sermon is Matt 23:33 "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (NIV) Sometimes it takes some strong language to get someone’s attention. I don’t think Jesus was advocating calling name, but He also had unclouded judgment. He saw them as His Father saw them. He knew their ultimate fate if they didn’t change.

When someone is teaching false doctrine, it is possible to correct him gently. However, if that fails, then firmer discipline is required. Years ago, I was leading a small group at work. A co-worker asked to join and added interesting comments to our discussions; however, they were not biblically based. I invited him to lunch to find out the source of his “wisdom” and found out that he was following a cult that claimed to have a book provided to them early in the 20th century by someone who visited in a flying saucer. He clearly rejected the Gospel as I explained it. He was also unwilling to stop teaching false doctrine. I let him know in no uncertain terms that I would tell the Bible study group where he was wrong and where his ideas originated. This was not easy because he was a co-worker and friend. Interestingly, we remained friends and worked together well, but he stopped coming to the Bible study.

Heb 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. (RSV) There is no doubt that false doctrine is evil. However, unless I have been digesting the whole Bible, I will not be able to recognize it when it is presented. This goes beyond simply reading the Bible. Many people read the Bible but don’t understand the implication of what is written. They don’t know how to apply the truth to their own lives. They can’t read passage “A” then passage “B” and come up with a logical truth based on them. They haven’t had their thinking ability trained by practice. This is a learned activity that takes work. The bad news is that young people today aren’t learning to do this even in the secular world. A recent newspaper article expressed it this way. “An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn't learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.[1] No wonder many are susceptible to false doctrines.

 A really good book that will help train your faculties to study God’s Word is a book I’m reading, Read the Bible for a Change – Understanding and responding to God’s Word by Ray Lubeck. World Vision Press, 2005. As the subtitle suggest, responding to God’s Word is where reading and understanding is tested. If there is not a biblical response, then the reading is fruitless and can lead to false doctrine and myths.

What are some of the myths that Paul warned about? Perhaps it is fortunate that he didn’t list any, otherwise they may have been perpetuated. There are enough Christian myths running around today that stir people up and lead them down rabbit trails that serve no purpose. I love taking rabbit trails from one verse to another, as you can see from what I write. However, those trails must result in edification even when they don’t have some correlation to the study. Myths about angels is an example. Angels serve God but there are stories circulated that make me wonder about the source of the story. They are usually myths that make people feel good about themselves and their relationship with God. When you examine the story, you will see that the glory goes to the angel, not God. The person or story promotes the idea because of what the angel did or said, a you may be saved without ever mentioning Jesus.

How about the “prayers” that are circulated via e-mail? You know the ones, if you forward this on to 20 people and pray for them then something good will happen but bad will happen if you don’t. There are untold numbers of myths about prayer.

If the myth glorifies Jesus as our Lord and Savior, then it is a great story. Maybe even a great work of fiction. There is nothing wrong with that. The Chronicles of Narnia is a good example. However, no one should ever develop doctrinal truth from fiction. You may find doctrinal truth in fiction when it agrees with the Bible. But you can’t use the truth found in it to declare all other ideas in the work of fiction as true.

What about endless genealogies? Some people believe that Western Europeans are the direct descendents of the lost tribes of Israel. So they may try to prove that by searching their geologies. Other cults search out geologies so that they can do a proxy baptism for their dead ancestors. The first believe that their heritage gives them some spiritual advantage over others. The second believe that this proxy baptism will save their ancestors even though they may have been the vilest of villains. In some way, these endless genealogies are meant to provide a way of salvation other than Jesus. Luke 3:8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (NIV) The religious leaders of Jesus’ day even thought genealogy brought salvation and this probably prompted the problems Timothy was instructed to correct.

The bottom line is that doctrines, myths, and genealogical theories that do not promote Jesus as the only way of salvation need to be stopped in our churches.
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[1] Seattle Times, January 18, 2011, By Sara Rimer, The Hechinger Report

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