Sunday, July 07, 2024

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (31)

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Have you ever played Telephone Tag? (Maybe where you grew up people called it Broken Telephone or Chinese Whispers.) It’s a game played sitting in a circle. It begins when someone outside the circle whispers a sentence to a person selected at random, who then whispers it to the person on his right. The message continues around the circle until it reaches the person sitting to the left of the original starting point, who then declares aloud what he thinks he heard.

If the circle is large enough, you’ll frequently find the product of the exercise bears little resemblance to the original message.

It’s not that none of the original words remain. Usually the more distinctive ones do. But they almost always end up as part of a different message with an entirely different emphasis. Christians generally use the game to illustrate the dangers of spreading rumors and the poor level of attention people pay to what they hear in church.

Keep the illustration in mind as we talk a little about our text for today, which is taken from 2 Corinthians 10. Because passing truth from generation to generation is a little bit like a game of Telephone Tag, as the apostle Paul points out in another context.

Self-Policing Christians

Just out of curiosity, I thought I’d troll the internet to see what people today are getting out of the verse quoted above, which Paul also wrote, in this case around the mid-first century AD. A few examples follow:

Sunshyne Gray says, “We all want a little more control over our thought life, right? Every single person has thoughts that need to be replaced with thoughts that are lovely, delightful and true.” says, “Taking your thoughts captive means choosing what you allow to take root in your mind.”

From the Daily Verse at Knowing Jesus: “Our spiritual safety and strength does not lie in our own knowledge or the wisdom of others but lies in identifying and eliminating those thoughts that have anything to do with putting someone or something in the place of Christ.”

I browsed through another fifteen interpretations or so, and they all said substantially the same thing: that Christians need to have better control over what we think. Honestly, it’s like reading the end result of a game of Telephone Tag played in a room full of deaf people with heavy metal music blaring. All of these are good spiritual advice in their own way. I have no problem with the general conclusions these folks have reached. My concern is they have nothing to do with the original passage. Nobody is looking at Paul’s thought flow, including people who say they are checking the context. The end product has nothing to do with what came before.

Getting Back to the Text

Thankfully, we can go right back to the source and check these subjective impressions of Paul’s intended meaning for faithfulness to apostolic intent. Paul’s original message still exists, and we can study it carefully to see if our personal impressions of what it means bear any resemblance to what Paul was trying to communicate. If we do, we’ll discover that the passage is not an instruction from Paul to the Corinthians to take their own thoughts captive to Christ. It’s a statement about the fact that, as an apostle, it was his God-given job to take their thoughts captive and to silence the false teachers among them. Paul and the other apostles are the ones destroying the arguments and lofty opinions, not the Corinthians themselves.

To make this clear, all we need to do is finish the verse: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”

Who’s going to do the punishing? Paul, etc. Who’s going to receive it? Corinthians who didn’t listen to him. What are they to be in obedience to? Christ, the Head of the Church, as revealed through Paul and his chosen ministers of reconciliation.

Thought Flow in 2 Corinthians

This verse is part of a line of thought that goes from 10:1 through 13:10, but begins much earlier, in chapters 3-7. (Chapters 8-9 are about giving.) The main subject of that line of thought is the nature of apostolic authority: how it trumps divergent personal convictions about truth, whether our own false perceptions or the uncritical recitation of other people’s teachings that fall short of truth.

Paul and his coworkers had established a church in Corinth. Now, false teaching Jews had worked their way into the congregation, proclaiming a different Jesus and a different gospel. In chapter 10, and again in chapter 13, Paul is asserting that it is Christ’s apostles who have the power to rule in the churches. They are on a different level from all other teachers. In 10:8, he says, “Even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed.” Again in chapter 13, he says, “For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.” So then, he makes mention of his unique apostolic authority at the beginning and end of his argument, in both his introduction and his conclusion. Let me say it again: if 2 Corinthians can be said to have a primary theme or subject, it is apostolic authority. This was a hugely important lesson for the Corinthians, and it remains a hugely important lesson today.

So then, the passage is not about Christians learning to manage the accuracy of their own personal opinions; it’s about the church as a whole being subject to apostolic authority.

Paying Attention to Pronouns

If we pay careful attention to the pronouns in 2 Corinthians, this becomes exceedingly clear. In this passage as in many others in the letter, “we” is the apostle Paul and his chosen representatives, Timothy and Silvanus, and “you” is the folks receiving the letter. You and I can only find ourselves represented here very distantly, since we are neither apostles nor Corinthians. We are not in Paul’s unique position to be able to compel the obedience of others ourselves, and, if our thinking is right, we may not need the apostle’s correction in this area either.

When we make “we” in these passages the average Christian engaging with the world in gospel preaching, we are punching way above our own weight, assuming an authority and persuasive power that is literally beyond duplication. Can I “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God”? That absolutely depends on how closely I stick to Paul and the rest of the apostles, how carefully I read them, and how conscious I am of my tendency to read my own biases and preoccupations into the text, effectively making the message about something else. Further, no matter how persuasive and compelling my arguments and how faithful to scripture, if the Holy Spirit does not bring conviction, those opinions will just carry on being lofty. In any case, the primary venue Paul has in mind for this sort of correction is the church, not the world.

So then, Paul is not talking about Christians demolishing bad arguments within our own heads. Still less is he expecting all mature Christians to be excellent apologists, able, like Apollos, to confound those who disagree with orthodoxy.

Making Application

If this passage has an application today, it has application first to those who use the words of the apostles without adulteration and without trying to explain them away in the light of current trends and modern ideas. Good policy. Keep it up. Those words, properly understood, have great power because God himself revealed them. They were not merely the ideas of men. To the extent we believe them and pass them on to others accurately, we are orthodox Christians. To the extent we don’t, we are not.

Secondly, the passage has a very practical application to those who today contend with the orthodox teaching of the apostle Paul, what Jude refers to as “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”. These dissenters, contenders and false teachers are those whose arguments Paul’s words demolish, provided we are paying careful attention to what he wrote. Those who say Paul approved of loving homosexual relationships, or wives exercising authority over their husbands in the home, or women pastors, or the use of so-called tongues, prophecy and healing outside their time and place. People who say these things are talking foolishness, and their arguments are not with us but with the revealed truth of God.

My fear is that these days we are not paying that level of careful attention to Paul. Not at all. Most of us have never even stopped to consider who he means when he uses the word “we”.

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