Friday, May 05, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: On the Offensive

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: I’ve got a verse and a half for you, IC, followed by a question. Here’s the scripture:

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.”

Kind, patient, gentle: that’s the standard for the servant of God handling the word of God in the face of opposition.

Here’s my question: How do we reconcile the apostle Paul’s instruction to Timothy with the way he speaks in his letters or at other times and places?

Putting it in Context

Immanuel Can: Now, Tom, if we look at the context, that verse you quote applies specifically to ‘in-house’ controversies in the churches between people who hold to the truth and their actual brethren who have been, as the passage says, temporarily “snared by the devil” into some error or mispractice, does it not?

Do you think it’s a general rule, relevant not only there but for all other situations?

Tom: No, I don’t think it’s a general rule of conduct so much as it is an attitude that drives teaching, exhortation, encouragement AND reproof equally. In other words, I don’t think it’s tactical. Rather, it’s the spiritual basis for a whole spectrum of tactical responses, depending on what the particular situation requires.

Deep Background

IC: Let’s go back. How gentle were the Old Testament prophets? Think of Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, and sarcastically asking them if their “god” was on the toilet? Or how about Jeremiah or Hosea metaphorically comparing their countrymen to prostitutes? How “nice” was John the Baptist, when he called the false teachers and hypocrites of his day a “brood of vipers”?

Tom: The counterargument I can see coming is “Well, they weren’t Christians. Christians are called to a different standard of behavior than, say, Elijah or John the Baptist. They are of another dispensation” (although I guess only dispensationalists can ingenuously make that argument).

IC: Okay, how about Apollos, who “powerfully refuted the Jews in public” and thus “greatly helped” the church? What about Stephen, who made his opponents so angry that they covered their ears and rushed upon him as one man, then dragged him out to stone him? Above all, what about the Lord calling the Pharisees “hypocrites”, “blind guides of the blind”, and “sons of hell”?

We must not forget that we walk in the footsteps of One who so enraged all his enemies with the truth that they nailed him to a piece of wood ...

The Ultimate Role Model

Tom: Right. And the way the Lord Jesus corrected others and spoke about sin became the model for the way his servants do the same in the pages of Acts and the epistles: Direct, clear, no punches pulled.

At times he corrected gently, and we would call his manner “kind”. At other times, not so much. I think of him saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” On the Lord’s list of priorities, Peter’s personal feelings took a backseat to the need to clearly rebuke an inclination that ran directly counter to the purposes of God. It was a mistake almost surely made in good conscience and with the Lord’s best interests (as Peter wrongly understood them) in mind, but he got hammered, and rightly so.

IC: What’s interesting, though, is that modern Christians seem to assume there is only one tone that is ever appropriate to godliness, and that is a sort of passive, indirect, unassuming tone. But in scripture, I see godly men who knew how to fry hypocrisy, wield a heavy metaphor to make a point, call out a false teacher, shrivel pretension with irony, and even throw a verbal thunderbolt or two.

Verbal Thunderbolts

I think of Peter saying to the Jews, “Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus whom you crucified”, or Stephen saying, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.” Or the Lord mocking the Pharisees for having mouths that would fit camels but still choking on gnats. And when the lawyers objected that they were offended too, the Lord just doubled down on them. That kind of speech is very far from diplomatic.

Remember the disciples’ reaction? “Lord, did you know the Pharisees were offended?” Of course he knew. He well knew they ought to be offended.

A Different Playbook

Tom: I’d like to come back to the apostle Paul, because we can only interpret what he said to Timothy by looking at how he personally lived it out. It is not a major chore to find Paul taking a tone we would not call “gentle” at all; one that many of his targets almost surely found offensive. Here’s my quick-and-dirty list:

Of anyone who preached a “different gospel” he twice says, “Let him be accursed.” He calls the Galatian church “foolish” and expresses the (probably rhetorical) wish that the professing believers who unsettled them emasculate themselves. He refers to Cretan believers as “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” by nature. He charges the Corinthians with being “infants”, “worldly” and “arrogant”. Unable to discern their motives, and with nothing but their actions to go by, he questions whether they may even despise the church of God. He calls those in the church who challenge his spiritual authority false apostles, deceitful workmen and servants of Satan. Based on reports, he calls some of the Thessalonians “busybodies”. He calls Hymenaeus and Philetus godless chatterers, and their teaching gangrenous and destructive to faith. He calls out Alexander the coppersmith by name and assures Timothy that Alexander will receive his comeuppance. Of Hymenaeus and Alexander (again), he puts in the public record that they have made shipwreck of their faith. He makes reference to his public rebuke of Peter and calls his conduct and that of other Jews hypocritical.

Apostolic Authority and Little Ol’ Me

IC: Won’t people just point out that Paul was an apostle, so, like the Lord, he could speak with authority; but that’s not us, and maybe we ordinary Christians don’t have a license to do that?

Tom: Oh, they may and they do, but that’s not an adequate comeback. Paul goes on to exhort his fellow workers to do exactly the same sort of things: to Titus, to rebuke the Cretan believers sharply in order to silence their unprofitable talk; to Timothy, to reprove and rebuke. Again, to Timothy, to rebuke even a sinning elder in the presence of all. And to Titus, to exhort and rebuke with all authority, an instruction that appears to apply generally when seeking to establish orthodox doctrine and behavior among the churches.

Are we really prepared to argue these specific instructions were only for these two men or only in a particular set of cultural circumstances, and that any who have attempted to apply them throughout church history have been overstepping? If so, much of three very significant church-related epistles may be dismissed in just the same way. That’s probably not the healthiest way to approach the New Testament.

Reasons to Get Gun-shy

IC: What if they say, well, Paul was prophet, and so we could make mistakes he couldn’t have made?

Tom: Hey, prophecy is not a gift that the prophet turned off and on. The word of the Lord came when it came, and often it did not. So Paul made his share of factual errors too. He called a high priest a “whitewashed wall” to his face (quite the insult if you read Ezekiel) and had to be told that Ananias was a ruler of the people, whereupon he (sort of) walked back his critique. There was no magical discernment button that Paul could push to be sure he got it right. In most cases, he had to make judgments based on his reading of the available information, as we all do.

Yet he calls people out by name and specifies their sins bluntly. He makes accusations on the basis of information from people he trusted without having first-hand knowledge. He characterizes entire groups on the basis of the behavior of a majority. He does it in love and with the best of intentions, despite being regularly misunderstood, and the Holy Spirit has taken up the words he wrote, stamped them with his own imprimatur and given them to us to guide us in interpreting what he taught.

Attitudes vs. Tactics

IC: Okay, maybe so. But I think it’s fair to say we live in an age when most of us feel more doctrinally unclear than the apostles and early Christians did. Might not a tone of humility be better than throwing thunderbolts?

Tom: But that’s my point: it’s not either/or. The apostles threw thunderbolts WITH humility, as have many Christian writers down through the years. This is not a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” We need to recognize that not all a Christian’s dealings with his fellow believers are going to appear gentle to the person being corrected, or maybe even to onlookers, even IF a genuine spirit of meekness (same word) lies behind them. I think that’s probably why Titus and Timothy had to be urged to rebuke with authority: the pushback is never fun.

But the fact that someone is appalled by being rebuked is not evidence the rebuke itself was wrong, or even that it was delivered in a wrong spirit. It may just be a fleshly response to correction, pride, or a desire to save face on the receiving end.

Could You Put That More Strongly, Please?

After all, we find all the other writers of New Testament books doing precisely the same thing Paul did both before and after he wrote. James flatly calls materialistic fellow ‘Christians’ “adulteresses”. Jude refers to “hidden reefs at your love feasts” and “shepherds feeding themselves”, and that’s before he really digs in. Peter mentions “blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you”. Again, professing Christians right there in the church, even teaching. Even loving, lovable John describes what Diotrephes was doing as “talking wicked nonsense”.

IC: Yikes. That’s all strong language. I notice that now we’re talking about fellow (putative) believers, and even people in our own local fellowship group.

Tom: These guys were not all wrong. I’d argue none of them were, for obvious reasons. What do you think might account for the difference in tone? Is it because they were writing rather than interacting face to face? Is it because they didn’t know the erring parties personally? Is it because the sins engaged in were public?

I Say, I’m Not Sure I Like Your Tone, Old Boy

IC: Well, it’s interesting that there’s often an element of dissembling or deception involved. The people who were the brunt of the stronger condemnatory language or withering irony were almost always people who were pretending to be what they were not. For confessed sinners, we find a lot of compassion and gentle language. For sincerely erring sheep, likewise. But for those hiding lust, greed, and desire for prestige or power under a veneer of religious respectability, the language is relentless. Likewise those who perpetuate false doctrine and lead others into sin. These are bad people who get called out in no uncertain terms.

Tom: So once you see through someone, you get to go for the gusto?

IC: Heh. Well, maybe I wouldn’t put it quite that way. I would rather say that different tones are appropriate to different situations. Sometimes a softer touch is warranted; but sometimes thunderbolts are exactly the right language, especially when the truth is being smothered by mealy-mouthed hypocrites, using “niceness” as an excuse for their deviousness, their carnality and their bad doctrine. Then there’s certainly no ban on confrontational speech or speech that hurts feelings.

In the Face of Overwhelming Evidence

Tom: Well, whether or not we know why the apostles spoke the way they did, the evidence is overwhelming that they did indeed speak that way, and did so regularly. Perhaps we can say this to sum up: kindness, gentleness and patience are attitudes, not tactics. One can patiently use strong language if it is the only way to make the point with a certain sort of audience. It’s simply a tool to get a necessary and godly job done.

And apparently, one can kindly call someone “Satan” … I’m not about to accuse the Lord of unkindness. Ever. It may well be that such a scathing comeback was necessary because Peter at times could be as spiritually thick as two planks. It may even be that the Lord would have handled John differently in similar circumstances. But we can’t know that; all we can say with confidence was that the Lord handled Peter’s error correctly, lovingly and in the very best interest of Peter and the other disciples, and that we ought to do likewise.

IC: It really depends what’s at stake. If the stakes are low, and the issue is, say, a personality conflict resolvable quietly, then Christians ought to maintain a gentle, patient, humble tone with each other, and work out the difficulties. And in general, it should be in private, and least at first.

Tom: Right. Initially at least, personal offenses are handled personally.

Wolves and Feather Dusters

IC: On the other hand, if the issue involves the gospel, sound doctrine and faithfulness to Christ, and especially when an errant person has been pulling others into his or her web of lies, then a more deferential manner may well blur the issue and keep people from seeing what’s really at stake. Moreover, privacy allows the wicked person to continue unchecked.

Tom: Yes, there are plenty of cases in the examples we’ve cited where false teaching, public error or inconsistent public behavior (like Peter’s recorded in Galatians 2) get rebuked publicly. That’s really the rule of thumb.

IC: So, when somebody makes an honest mistake or accidentally falls into sin, keep it low-key and personal. But when bad doctrine arises, wolves run among the sheep, and the faith is at stake, speak loudly and firmly, with clarity, confidence and certainty. Speak as one speaking the oracles of God. And let no one disregard you.

Tom: Yes, you don’t go after wolves with a feather duster.


  1. Sorry about the cap-locks - I couldn't format the comment to highlight the relevant parts of the passage...not trying to seem quarrelsome ;)

    "And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who ARE IN OPPOSITION, if God perhaps will GRANT THEM REPENTANCE, so that they may KNOW THE TRUTH, and that they may come to their senses and ESCAPE the SNARE OF THE DEVIL, having been TAKEN CAPTIVE BY HIM to DO HIS WILL".

    Vs. 24 is the start of a new idea so I don't think you can conclude that Paul is referring in verses 25-26 to the same group described in verse 22 - the ones who are calling "on the Lord out of a pure heart". The description are entirely incongruent. The individuals with whom Timothy is to be gentle, patient and humble are "in opposition", they need to know the truth and be granted repentance. They are captives of the devil and do his will.

    A few questions:
    1. Why do you assume that Paul's instructions apply to "in-house" disagreements within the church?
    2. Why do you describe them as those who "hold to the truth" when Paul describes them as people who need to know the truth ("that they may know the truth")
    3. Why do you insert the word "temporarily" in your description of these individuals (you wrote: "as the passage says, temporarily “snared by the devil” into some error or mispractice, does it not?) when that word or concept is nowhere found in 2 Tim 2:26.

    If there remains any doubt as to the interpretation of the passage, consider that in the verse you quote it says "be gentle to ALL".

    1. No prob on the CAPS. In Blogger comments, if you surround the text you want highlighted with an "i" and "/i" combination (enclosed in in angle brackets), you'll get italics. "b" and "/b" will give you bold if you prefer that.

      Thanks for the questions. A few things:

      I have to disagree with you about v24 starting a new idea. I see no reason to think Paul is changing venue in his mind. Paul's thought flow seems to me all of a piece from the beginning to the end of the chapter. I believe he's in the "great house" (the church) in v20 and he's still there by v26.

      I also don't think either IC or I have conflated the group in v22 who call on the Lord out of a pure heart with the group in v25-26. I agree the descriptions are incongruous, but we're not identifying the two groups with one another. They are, in fact, in opposition. For the record, v22 describes the good guys, v25-26 the bad guys. I don't think we wrote otherwise.

      My own answer to #1 would be the "great house" reference in v20. It's literally "in-house", or "in-household", if you prefer.

      As to #2, if you read IC's response carefully, he speaks of controversies between two parties, one of which would be people like Timothy who do, in fact, "hold to the truth". It's the other side of the controversy that do not.

      I'll let IC respond about his use of "temporarily". To me, that would be the best case scenario. You are trying to win this person back to orthodoxy, so you hope his error is temporary.

      Finally, I'm not sure what you're getting at with respect to the last part, but it's worth noting that in scripture "all" is almost always contextual rather than universal. It rarely means "every person in every possible circumstance". Here I believe it means "every person with whom you might disagree in the current context," which is to say the local church.

      To interpret it otherwise makes it difficult to explain the way Paul went about correcting others, as we have pointed out. If his "all" is universal, he didn't follow his own advice.

      But perhaps that's not what you're getting at.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

  2. Clarification: When I say "It's literally ...", I'm not talking about the meaning of any particular Greek word. What I meant to say is that IC's use of "in-house" is right on the nose, as the word "house" is right there in the passage.

  3. I pray I am not merely generating strife, but I think this is so important. Paul is certainly dealing with the behavior of servants within God's big house, but in verses 25 to 26 he is dealing with their behavior with respect to people who are outside of this house. The descriptions given (being captive to do the devil's will for example) are incompatible with what we know to be true of Christians, who may fall and do the works of the devil from time to time but they are not captives.

    After your reply above, I leafed through a number of Bible commentaries (William MacDonald, Asbury, Matthew Henry's) to see where they come down. They are unanimous that this passage applies to Timothy's dealings with unbelievers. I see nothing in the text that would lead me to think that those godly men are mistaken. It seems really clear.

    I'll give Matthew Henry the final word: "Such as oppose themselves are to be instructed in meekness, for our Lord is meek and lowly (Matt. 11:29), and this agrees well with the character of the servant of the Lord (2 Tim. 2:24): He must not strive, but be gentle to all men, apt to teach, patient. This is the way to convey truth in its light and power, and to overcome evil with good, Rom. 12:21. That which ministers must have in their eyes, in instructing those who oppose themselves, must be their recovery."

    Amen. So may it be in my life and so may it be in the life of all true ministers of Christ. Not weak, but meek.

    1. Have to continue to disagree with your reading, Anon.

      For your consideration, at to professing Christians being "snared", see 1 Timothy 3:7. It can even happen to elders. See also 1 Timothy 6:9,10, where the love of riches causes many to wander away from the faith. Getting snared is a common Christian problem. So that language at least is used by the same writer to the same individual about Christians.

      As to captivity, there are not enough NT uses of zōgreō to be 100% sure what Paul has in view here, but the image is of a prisoner of war. I see no theological problem with Paul using the word to describe an individual being used by Satan against his own team.

      As much as I respect William MacDonald, I'm not troubled by a difference in understanding here. I'm actually more troubled by jumping out of the church into the world for no reason other than disliking the idea that Christians could be held captive.

      If this helps, Paul nowhere argues that everyone who might oppose Timothy is a genuine believer, though because they are professing faith and in the church, Timothy would be compelled to treat them as if they were. But the fact that Paul speaks of possible "escape" and "coming to their senses" strongly suggests to me that these are believers whose errors have made them useful to Satan. They are -- hopefully temporarily -- playing for the wrong team.

  4. On "temporarily": Tom's right.

    We have the indication, from the phrase "held captive," that these are not totally unbelieving people, but misled people who at least self-identify as believers. (No one has to take "captives" from among those already theirs.) The "snare" there appears to be false doctrine, or at least "foolish and ignorant speculations," into which they have, for a time, fallen.

    We see something similar in Col. 2:8, in which Paul warns the Colossian Christians to take care that no *man* should take them "captive" (this time, the Greek word is a little different, but the implication is the same: of being taken as "spoils" of war or pillage, literally, i.e. as a captive). If a mere man can do this to Christians, than surely the Father of Lies can do this too, at the very least.

    Moreover, the wish expressed in the verse is that they may "come to their senses and escape." In Colossians, the exhortation is to "beware," or "be on guard." Well, one does not stay "on guard" for that which simply cannot happen, nor can one be told to "come to one's senses" if to do so is ineffective or impossible. The upshot, then, is that Christians can indeed be misled into a mental and spiritual "captivity" through "philosophy, vain deceit and worldly traditions," or through false doctrines, in other words.

    Well, assuming that the people to whom Paul addressed his remarks were not already property of the Enemy in the first place, and noting that we are aiming at their escape, then their "captivity" is indeed temporary; at least, we ought to hope it will be. For our goal should not be to indulge them, but to deliver them.

    I'm sure you'd agree, anon.