Tuesday, June 23, 2020

What Does Your Proof Text Prove (12)

“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”

Growing up in an evangelical community, it was understood that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses were not our fellow believers. These groups were commonly referred to as cults, and considered spiritually dangerous. Pairs of these odd-looking “missionaries” would occasionally make their way through our neighborhood from house to house ringing doorbells and soliciting opportunities to talk to people about the tenets of their belief system. On more than one occasion I heard this verse from 2 John applied as a warning about them: “Do not receive them into your house or give them any greeting.”

As a result, when I was home alone and saw through the peephole of our front door two pasty white guys in matching snappy haircuts, bleached shirts, neatly pressed dress slacks and sensible shoes, I promptly made myself scarce for fear of violating John’s instruction. Hey, the word “Hello” might accidentally slip from my lips and cause me to “take part in their wicked works”.

Is that really the sort of thing John had in mind?

A Broader Confusion

In fact, the confusion around this verse goes beyond the matter of how a Christian should deal with cultic proselytizers knocking at the door of his home. Some folks wonder whether its meaning might extend even further:
“Is John saying here that we shouldn’t even say ‘hi’ to unbelievers?”

“[Does this mean] do not greet those who don’t adhere to Jesus’ teachings?”
Here they are debating the question of whether Christians should really engage with anyone who does not bring “the teaching” John talks about.

Is that really what John meant us to do: cut off friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers who are not believers in the Lord Jesus?

“This Teaching”

One aspect of the problem has to do with confusion about what is meant by “this teaching”. That is not particularly complicated. The immediate context shows us it is the rejection of “the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh”. It is “the teaching of Christ”. In short, failing to bring “this teaching” means propagating the false notion that one can have a relationship with God the Father apart from acknowledging God the Son. It disputes the Bible’s insistence that Christ is the only way to God, that he is the “door”, the “way”, the “truth and the life”, and that “no man comes to the Father except by me”. Mormons, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses do indeed fall into this category, though Jews will not generally be found pounding on your front door. For that matter, many of our Romanist acquaintances don’t hold to the teaching of Christ in this sense either.

If we are being very literal, we could argue that our unchurched friends, neighbors, family members and co-workers also “do not bring this teaching”, but the truth of the matter is that they don’t really bring any “teaching” at all. They may not have ever thought about the question. The belief that access to God can only be had through the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ is a distinctively Christian doctrine.

But is merely neglecting to “bring this teaching” a problem? I would argue it is not, for two major reasons.

1. God Judges Those Outside

First century believers already had decades-earlier teaching from the apostle Paul about the Christian’s relationship to unbelievers — people who “do not bring this teaching” because they do not bring any particular teaching at all — in 1 Corinthians, where he says this:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.”
If even blatant sexual immorality is not reason enough to reject association with mere unbelievers, then surely their failure to adequately comprehend the person of Christ and his role in salvation is no barrier to us entering into friendships with the unsaved in hope that God might one day be glorified in their lives. After all, how does someone who has never heard about Christ learn of his inestimable worth and central role in God’s purposes if Christians are so obsessed with keep a sanitary distance from “bad people” that we do not bother to speak to them about him?

No, it is only in a church context that we have the authority from God to turn such a person away, to not even greet him; whenever that person presents himself as a teacher of the word of God, as “one of us”, and yet rejects the apostolic teaching about Christ.

2. The Context of the Command

More importantly, though, I believe John’s command to “not receive him into your house” is not addressed primarily to individuals in their personal residences (though it would obviously apply there as well) but rather to the church corporately, wherever it gathers (which in those days was often in a home). In addition to the obvious fact that this person is coming with a teaching, which is usually something that is heard in a church gathering rather than chatting on one’s front lawn, there are three further indications John intended his instruction to be read corporately:

Who Are “You”?  In such a short missive, it should be especially evident the “you” in “if anyone comes to you” is probably not intended to be read as addressing the individual Christian. Unlike John’s third letter, which is addressed to a single individual, this letter is addressed to “the elect lady and her children” — an entire household. That household may have been literal, in that the “elect lady” could have been a Christian woman John knew, and the children her own genetic offspring. More likely, it has been thought the “elect lady” is John’s euphemism for a particular local church, and her “children” may refer to other groups of Christians who had sprung up around the mother church as a result of her testimony. John’s reference to “the children of your elect sister” in verse 13 would seem to support this view. (Verse 13 also makes it somewhat difficult to regard the “elect lady” as The Church (universal) in a broader metaphorical sense, since it is not immediately obvious who the “elect sister” and her children would then be meant to represent.) In any case, whether we are speaking of a literal woman and her household, or a group of local churches in a particular area, it is evident the context is corporate, not individual.

Households and Houses.  The Greek word John uses for “house” [oikia] need not mean a physical structure, but may refer to the family or household that lives there. It is used this way in Matthew 10:13, Matthew 12:25, 1 Corinthians 16:15, Philippians 4:22 and elsewhere. I believe this is the sense in which John is using it.

To receive someone as part of your household is quite a different thing — and a much more dangerous one — than having a conversation with him on your front steps or even at the kitchen table over coffee. You might offer a beverage to an unsaved neighbor or tradesperson without publicly identifying yourself with him at all. But to receive someone as part of your own household means that everything he does subsequently reflects on you. To receive a false teacher and rejecter of Christ as a respected member of your local church and teacher of scripture is to risk a huge loss of public testimony.

Public Events and Personal Conversations.  The phrase “come to you” [erchomai pros hymas] occurs many other places in the New Testament. Jesus used it repeatedly:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing...”
“John came to you in the way of righteousness ...”
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ ”
as did his apostles:
“This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you.”
To “come to you” in this sense is a public event, not a personal conversation on the doorstep. False prophets infiltrate groups of believers. John the Baptist came to the nation of Israel with a public declaration to repent. The Lord Jesus “comes to us” twice corporately, first at Pentecost, then at the Rapture. And when Paul went visiting, he used the phrase “come to you” repeatedly to refer to spending an extended period with the church teaching it.

Not once is this phrase used in the New Testament of individual relationships.

In Summary

So no, I do not believe John is talking here about someone from a neo-Christian cult who comes to people privately in hope of persuading some to join his movement (and who is just as likely to look for a convert among the unsaved as among Christians), nor is he is talking about an unsaved individual who simply doesn’t believe Christ is the way to God. The sort of person to whom he refers is not just expressing a personal opinion, he is bringing a teaching to a group of people to whom he wishes to propagate it. He is representing himself as God’s emissary, and while purporting to speak for God, he wants to exclude Christ. So John is talking about someone who comes to your church wanting to infiltrate and corrupt it.

Now, none of this is to suggest that new or immature Christians are wise to spend extended periods under the influence of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, especially in their own homes. It is sensible to grow firm in our faith before we try to take on well-trained, experienced deceivers looking to peel off the stragglers from the flock and steer them down the street to the Kingdom Hall.

But we need not fear we are incurring judgment by simply being friendly to such people on the street, or to anyone. The sort of person John had in mind was not merely coming to the front door of Christian homes looking for proselytes, he was trying to worm his way into local churches with the blessing of their leadership in hopes of contaminating the testimony of the entire congregation and drawing the attention of God’s own people away from Christ, the light of the world, where it rightfully belongs.

That’s a bigger problem, and one for another day.
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Original picture courtesy Wilfredor / CC0

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