Hath God Truly Said, 'Avoid Foolish Controversies'?
Recently, I was thinking back on this summer’s sermon series in 1 Timothy and Paul’s concern for both truth and love when I came across this article by Ted Olsen. I need the constant corrective of Scripture to help me major on the majors without quarreling over silly and secondary things. If you find yourself getting sidetracked and sidelined with silly and secondary things, I encourage you to read Olsen’s article with an open heart and mind. - Pastor Jeremy
Hath God Truly Said, ‘Avoid Foolish Controversies’?
It turns out that lustily fighting for the truth isn’t what God asks of us.
“Flee from youthful lusts,” Paul warned Timothy (2 Tim. 2:22, NASB). For Bible-believing Christians eager to live rightly, this has long been a key verse. We know that we can grant such youthful lusts no quarter in our lives. So we put filters on our computers, find accountability partners, read books, set boundaries, warn our children, and guard our own hearts, minds, and bodies.
Except most Bible translations have moved away from that phrasing in this particular verse. “Flee the evil desires of youth,” says the New International Version. The English Standard Version goes with “youthful passions.” Because while Scripture gives overwhelming admonition to flee sexual immorality, Paul seems to be warning Timothy about something else here, another wrongly ordered love—a sin—that destroys.
Paul’s command about youthful lusts comes amid several related injunctions: “Warn [God’s people] before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen” (v. 14). “Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly” (v. 16). “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels” (v. 23). It’s the desire to fight foolish error and join fruitless arguments, not lechery, that Paul is anxious about.
His counsel is clearly not just fatherly advice sent along to one hotheaded young pastor. Paul writes the same to Titus: “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them” (3:9–10).
This commandment is repeated in multiple books of Scripture. So why do we treat arguments and quarrels over secondary issues as the price we pay for nobly “contending for the truth”?
One major reason we find this rule so hard to follow is that it’s difficult to tell when an argument is “foolish and stupid.” One person’s foolish controversy is another person’s challenge to the core of the gospel. Indeed, in the middle of Paul’s warning in 2 Timothy 2, he singles out two church members, Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have “departed from the truth” by teaching that the resurrection of the dead had already happened. In his earlier letter to Timothy, Paul says he handed Hymenaeus “over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme,” so he obviously thinks Hymenaeus was worthy of engagement on a significant level.
Even Paul’s warning against paying too much attention to genealogies isn’t quite so simple. Surely those in earlier generations who attempted to connect Africans to Noah’s son Ham, for example, were engaged in a foolish and stupid argument. But Martin Luther King Jr. and others were not engaged in foolishness when rebuking the claim as “blasphemy … against everything that the Christian religion stands for.”
It’s noteworthy that neither Paul nor King spent much time detailing the ways in which their opponents were wrong. Instead, they shifted quickly to summarizing the biblical truth that reveals the error. (Paul quoted Jesus and Nahum; King quoted Paul.) And then they moved on. After Paul told Titus that divisive people get only three strikes, he continued: “You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (3:11). He told Timothy, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:25–26).
Paul does warn against idle speculation and attempts to make Scripture say more than it does. But Scripture rarely draws a clear line between heresy and silliness, with Christians called to oppose one and not the other. Instead, “foolishness” is simply rejection of God’s wisdom and discipline, with Christians called to “pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).
Quarreling—the youthful lust of indignant grandstanding—can seem righteous in much the same way that sexual lust can disguise itself as love. And fleeing it may also require accountability partners and filters on our computers. It might mean abstinence from social media outlets, TV shows, and websites that lure us into foolish controversies. But for those of us who have forgotten God’s hatred of quarrels, it at least means praying that he will grant us repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and that we will come to our senses and escape from the trap of the devil.
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