“Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some.” (II Timothy 2:14- 18)
Ask the Apostle Paul how we are to regard him and he would answer, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” (I Corinthians 4:1) Then he might add, as in fact he did, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be trustworthy.” He was one entrusted with the gospel message: to receive it, guard it, defend it, and teach it faithfully. Moreover, he was accountable to Christ for his stewardship. It is a calling to which he was completely committed.
In contrast, there quickly emerged within the early church those who received the message but were far less devoted to its content and began to adapt it to their own preference or insight. Among these were Hymenaeus and Philetus who obviously held on to the preaching of a resurrection for the faithful, but now claimed that it had already occurred (perhaps at baptism), thus denying the central promise, affirmation, and hope which Christ himself died and rose to give us. In doing so, Paul understates, they “upset the faith of some”.
I know this is an understatement for I have seen the effects of modern Hymenaeuses and Philetuses, whose distortions of the faith have run the gamut of the clauses of the Creed, on the lives of those who would be faithful and on the teaching of the church itself. They are devastating. Even though many times their alterations were meant for good, they have always necessarily brought evil, for they are not the truth and so misrepresent God and reality.
Part of the problem with these distortions is that, in every age, they are often made to seem not only plausible but preferable because they fit better with the spirit of that age than the truth does. Also, the distortions are often presented with such finesse and cleverness that they sway the mind and heart of the hearers. This is an age old phenomenon which from the time of Plato and his confrontations with the Sophists (“those highly paid and popularly applauded experts in the art of twisting words, who were able to sweet talk something bad into something good and turn white into black” Joseph Pieper) to this day plagues the defense of truth in every field. It is this Paul refers to when he says, ”warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” (v14)
Our defense against these alterations? Of course, it is to point them out and to stand against them no matter how popular they may be. However, more important than that is the clear presentation in its fullness of the gospel as it was given . I have always heard that in the past U. S. Treasury agents were trained to identify counterfeit bills not primarily by studying the counterfeits themselves but by studying the authentic bill so closely they could tell when another deviated. So it is with our faith. Our greatest defense against gospel distortions is to know the real thing so well that the difference is glaring when we see anything else.
It is on this point that Paul is most clear in his instructions to Timothy and to us. He and we are to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” It is the consistent, clear, straightforward presentation of the faith built on the solid foundation of Christ and the teaching of that faith by his apostles which is our strongest weapon and surest defense. And in the presentation of it we look not to please the world but to please Christ.
In doing so we may not please the world but we will certainly serve the world, for we will be sharing the truth and, as our Lord has said, it is the Truth that shall set us free.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.