As we begin our study of First Timothy, we see Paul instructing Timothy to “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” The false teachers that had come into Ephesus were the primary reason that Paul sent Timothy. Paul and Barnabas, then Silas, Timothy, Luke, Titus and gradually more and more faithful brothers were spreading the GOOD NEWS of SALVATION in Christ Jesus throughout the eastern Mediterranean region, but others followed, teaching “different doctrines.” We see this in so many of the letters of the New Testament that it is impossible to ignore the issue, as it pertained to the first-century church, and as we know it pertains to the twenty-first century church. “False doctrine” is a serious issue.
In Paul’s letter to the church in the region of Galatia, probably among the very first letters which he wrote, Paul wrote against “Judaizers” who quickly followed him, trying to convince the new Gentile believers that they had to become as Jews, being circumcised, following the Mosaic law including the dietary laws, if they would want to be followers of Jesus, the Messiah. Paul’s condemnation of this “different gospel” was shockingly strong (e.g. Galatians 1:6-9):
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Instructions to Timothy as to how he was to deal with the false teachers in Ephesus appear many times in the letter, including here in Chapter 1, but also in Chapters 4 and 6. Paul doesn’t give any detailed descriptions of what was entailed in the false teaching, perhaps because he and Timothy had encountered such twisted teaching many times before, that they had discussed it thoroughly. Rather, Paul concentrates on what attitudes and behaviours arise when people believe and teach these false doctrines. Paul’s encouragements about the attitudes and behaviours that should be reflected more and more in the lives of believers are given in contrast to those of the false teachers. As many theologians have said, “orthropraxy follows from orthrodoxy,” that is to say, God-honouring attitudes and behaviours follow from correct understanding of the truths of the Gospel.
Now there are some who say that we shouldn’t concentrate on “doctrine,” suggesting that focus on doctrine will make the church inaccessible to, or even hostile to, unbelievers. But there is no need, in fact it is dangerous, to abandon “doctrine” or to downplay it, and Paul instructs Timothy to be diligent to deal with the false teaching present in Ephesus. To suggest that to be “missional” one needs to downplay “doctrine” is a “false dichotomy.” One doesn’t need to choose between reaching people with the Gospel and teaching doctrine. If we don’t teach Biblically orthodox (accepted) truths about God and Man and Sin and Salvation in Jesus Christ, we will fail to teach people the truth, we might allow them to continue in untruth, we could leave them open to being deceived, perhaps unsaved because they haven’t believed the truth, but certainly we could allow or even encourage them not to be living lives that are holy and pleasing to the Lord. That is why Paul sent Timothy, that is his number one purpose in sending him: “As I urged you … remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (v.3).
What is “doctrine” anyway? “Doctrine” simply means, “that which is taught.” It is the set of truths that one believes and teachers to others. Doctrine can refer to what is taught by churches, by political movements, by militaries or any other body of people. It is the truth that is accepted within the group, the truth that is expected to be accepted, believed and followed by any who would join the group. When we say that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” we are teaching doctrine. We have “faith” in a set of accepted truths. We “believe” doctrine.
- When we don’t teach doctrine, we imply that there is no accepted truth around which we define ourselves.
- When we don’t consciously teach doctrine, we are actually teaching that “truth” doesn’t matter.
To parallel something that Tim Lane, then Executive Director of the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation, said about counseling when he came to speak at Bethel, we are always teaching doctrine, whether consciously, deliberately and accurately, or we are teaching doctrine unconsciously, haphazardly, poorly, and most likely, inaccurately, and perhaps dangerously so.
In fact, as I think of all of the letters of the New Testament, I find it hard to identify a book that doesn’t deal with correct “doctrine” or the overflow of those truths in our daily lives. There are letters which concentrate on exposition of the truth of the Gospel, like Romans and Hebrews. There are books which concentrate on attitudes and behaviours that should flow from correct understanding of the Gospel, like Second and Third John. And there are letters that begin with “doctrine” which then flow into the “so what,” orthropraxy, like Ephesians.
Perhaps we should recall how Jude opens his letter (Jude 1:3-4):
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Correct “doctrine,” the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” was vitally important to the health and life of the first century church, and it is equally important in the twenty-first century. This is what it means to be “faithful.”
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