I’m a Christian and a pastor who loves God’s word and loves God’s people. I want to see Christ’s name exalted. And as a result, I have a constant burden: watching the reputation of Christ suffer by the words and actions of the kind of false teachers Scripture warns about time and time again.
No one wants to see their Lord maligned because of the actions of phony followers; no believer wants to see the gospel message and God’s people slandered because someone gives a false reputation in word and deed.
And yet this is the environment that many of us live in from day to day. The examples are seemingly endless: people who have no apparent fear of misusing Scripture; men who are unquestionably in it for the money; entire “ministries” that have no shame in neglecting and ignoring God’s sheep as long as their empire grows.
To look at it is to nearly lose hope. There’s no way any one man or any group of men can stop all of this. There’s no way to corral the hordes of the deceived and convince them all that Jesus is not being honored by such people, and that they should not be trusted. There’s no way to stop the spread of their soul-crushing and soul-destroying teaching and actions.
It is in situations like these that I am thankful for the words of Paul in the book of 2 Timothy.
Paul was no coward in the face of confrontation when necessary. He spoke out boldly against blaspheming Jews who were hostile to the gospel (Acts 13:45-46). He had “great dissension and debate” with false teachers over the issue of circumcision (Acts 15:1-2). He once even called a mischievous magician the “son of the devil” (Acts 13:8-10; the imitation of which got one of my Christian message board posts deleted many years ago for a TOS violation).
But when it came to the notion of what to do about the growing number of false teachers around him and around Timothy during Paul’s last days, Paul advised a different approach than what I am often inclined to take. Instead, he says: keep your head down. Go about your business. Don’t avoid trouble and confrontation, he says, but you have a job to do.
This is put on display in at least three sections of 2 Timothy.
First, he cites Hymenaeus and Philetus, two believers-turned-false teachers who had an errant eschatology (didn’t they almost all in the NT era?), as examples of those who do damage to those believers Paul and Timothy cared about: “they upset the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:18).
Yet rather than tell him that his job is to chase the false teachers around, he addresses the situation in two ways: first, by encouraging him about the Lord’s knowledge of his true people (2 Tim. 2:19); but second, by telling him how he is to behave himself. He is to cleanse himself spiritually, rejecting the ungodly practices of false teachers and diligently pursuing biblical virtues with others who are of the same mind (2 Timothy 2:20-22).
In other words, his task was not to spend all his time worrying about whatever everyone else was doing. A proper degree of watchfulness is necessary, but an all-consuming obsession will not help Timothy be the kind of shepherd he himself needs to be.
A second instance is found in 2 Timothy 3:13-14. He tells Timothy that in contrast to the godly (teachers) who can expect persecution, the fakes will be taking a different path: progressing “from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” One might take this an opportunity to tell Timothy to make sure he sets apart a good chunk of his weekly schedule to go after these men.
Instead, this is what he says: “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of.” (2 Timothy 3:14). Whatever else he may say about how to directly address these false teachers (and he does, 2 Timothy 2:24-26), he also says that part of the contrast that exists is in the fact that you are to put your head down and work, work, work in the Scriptures and in faithful ministry (2 Timothy 3:14-15).
It may be more appealing to go stop those deceivers, but one must also realize that he has a primary task and therefore stick to it.
The third and final instance is his instruction “to preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2) Even when he does this the focus is on what he does among his hearers – admittedly, wherever he can find them, and whenever he can preach to them – not what he might do in tracking down the ear-tickling preachers.
It’s as if Paul is saying: Don’t worry about them, Timothy – you’ve got a job to do. Warn where it is needed (as Paul does even by name in this letter). But never forgot that the only thing that makes your ministry useful is if you yourself are continuing and growing in the very words of God, in your knowledge and in your practice.
So what does your ministry consist of, dear pastor?
Are you looking around at what everyone else is doing, bemoaning that so many have no interest in biblical ministry and belief?
Or are you keeping your head down, studying and learning and growing as much as you can, increasing your own knowledge of God’s word for the edification of the saints and to make the most of those times when you may have an opportunity to help someone out of the influence of deadly false teaching?