Ten years ago at a gathering, I spent five minutes with a friend of mine shouting this back and forth.
“It says husbands are the leaders.”
“Nowhere does it say that! It says head!”
“Right, husbands are supposed to lead.”
“No, husbands are the head, not leader.”
We got louder and louder until finally someone got up from the other room and asked us to call a truce. My friend and I had a huge disagreement about what Ephesians 5 teaches about modern marriage. Our argument was useless and neither one of us convinced the other of anything. This post is not about marriage, it is about how to bring about some good in the middle of a disagreement.
In 2 Timothy 2, Paul is instructing Timothy how do deal with a severe disagreement. In verse 18, Paul names Hymenaeus and Philetus as false teachers who were teaching the resurrection had already happened. Perhaps they said that the resurrection was a spiritual event, and were denying a bodily resurrection? Whatever the nuance of their error, Paul was concerned that it would spread like cancer and threaten the health of the church. These were people calling themselves Christian and experts, and they were hurting the faith of other Christians. In the midst of this conflict, Paul says,
Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”2 Timothy 2:19
Trust God. Don’t speculate or worry.
God’s foundation is sealed. What is this foundation? In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul writes that the church is the foundation of God’s truth. In the face of discord among Christians, God assures us that his church is solid and firmly established. We need not worry that his church will crumble and fall, even when the disagreements rage. Why is the church solid? Because it bears God’s own seal.
In the ancient world, a seal was impressed in hot wax or wet plaster to indicate the owner and their authority over the item stamped. It was used on items like amphorae, documents, and buildings. It was a guarantee of authenticity. By alluding to a seal, Paul is saying that God guarantees the words of what is written.
“The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” These two inscriptions reference the story found in Numbers 16. Korah and a group of rebellious council members challenged Moses and Aaron’s authority. Moses responds with humility, not personal defense, and he says that God will show everyone in the morning who belonged to him. In the morning, God warned the people through Moses to separate their tents from Korah’s and the rebels’ and to not touch anything belonging to them. A giant sinkhole opened up beneath Korah’s tents and swallowed them, and fire came from heaven and consumed the rebellious men. Moses did not speculate who was in the right, he trusted that God knew that God would take care of those who were wrong. You might want a sinkhole to appear and fire from heaven to descend on those you disagree with, but leave that destruction to God.
In the midst of controversy, God wants us to trust him to know who belongs to him. It is not our job to speculate who is a Christian, or whether a person is saved or not. And it is not our job to worry that the church will be destroyed by controversy. The church is solid and firm because God knows his own.
You can be useful. Get ready.
As Moses warned people to get away from Korah’s tents, those who claim the name of Christ should turn from doing wrong. First step is to trust God, the second is to look to yourself. In our passage, Paul’s thoughts turn to an illustration to explain why turning from wrong doing is necessary if we want to be useful for God’s work.
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.2 Timothy 2:20-21
In my house, I enjoy making homemade wine. This process takes many types of instruments. For example, a plastic 2 gallon bucket and a wine bottle. If you were to take a guess at the purpose of these two vessels, you might think the bucket is used to hold the waste in the wine-making process and the wine bottle is used to hold the finished wine. But as the wine maker, I know that the bucket is food grade plastic, and I keep it absolutely sterile because it holds the fruit mash and is the vessel in which the fermentation process begins. If there is any amount of bacteria in this bucket, it will spoil all the wine. This bucket has been cleansed, and it is only because it is sterile that it is useful to my purpose of making wine. The wine bottle on the other hand, is not a bottle I use to hold wine because it has been used as a flower vase for many years. There is so much gunk and organic material in there that I don’t think I can ever get it clean enough to hold wine and not spoil it.
This is Paul’s point. It is not the value of vessel that is important, it is what the vessel has been prepared to do. As a Christian, God has cleansed you and has forgiven all your wrongdoing. You are washed and ready. But if you use your vessel for ignoble purpose, like using a wine bottle as a flower vase, you cannot be used for the purpose God wants to use you. Paul says that before we can be useful in times of disagreement, we must first look to ourselves. Times of disagreement should make us turn inward to contemplate what needs to be sterilized in our own lives. Whose “tents” do you need to move away from? You must be dedicated for God’s purposes. It is only then that you can be useful for God’s work.
Handle disagreements “like a pro.”
Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 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 Timothy 2:22-26
Paul calls Timothy “the Lord’s servant.” In ancient days, servants and slaves could be highly educated, of noble birth, and highly skilled in a profession. So, I don’t want you to think of these instructions as something for the lowly, uneducated or unskilled. This is professional behavior in the sense that it is the skilled actions of those whose pursuit is to serve Christ. To disagree without being disagreeable is a useful skill.
- Be mature. I have a certain hot button topic that that makes me feel like a 12-year-old girl. It could be called a trigger that makes me twitch and stop listening. When this controversy arises, I have a strong desire to take everything I hear personally, to overreact with heated words, and frankly, to lash out at my opponent. I have a strong yearning to act like an immature teenager, which usually only makes matters worse. Timothy needed a warning to avoid immature desires, and so I think we all do.
- Understand your responsibility. Paul calls us to focus on our own right behavior. An immature response to disagreements focuses on proving the other person wrong or harming them in some fashion. But, a mature response focuses on our own right behavior, regardless of the trigger. Disagreements should make us mindful of who we claim confidence in and our response should be measured with faith. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, and we should weigh our actions against this high calling. We are responsible for peace. We do not need to agree with someone to be at peace with them.
- Don’t argue. Here might be the hardest skill yet. It is not our job to argue others into our point of view. I am a debater. I absolutely love to win an argument through logic and good reasoning. But, I have learned that there are no good arguments. I have never yet convinced someone who disagrees with me by winning a debate. But, I have lost some friends. A few verses before, Paul says arguments have no value and ruins those involved. It is through relationship that we win people to our point of view, not through arguments.
- Don’t take it personally. These instructions to the Lord’s servant, or one skilled in serving the master, continually point us back to this truth: It is not our fight. When we are in disagreement with others, even in matters that are crucial to the faith, it is not our responsibility to convince others of the truth. That is up to God. If we are to be useful to God in convincing others of the truth, we cannot take the fight personally. Because it is ultimately not about us.
It is only in this gentle manner that we may we share what we believe. This is the only way someone can hear what we are saying. We are not offensive, but we do defend. We overlook personal wrongs. When we don’t take these disagreements personally, there is nothing for others to resent or be offended by. There is no room for personal attacks. We need to understand that we cannot change anyone’s mind, but God can.
And here we finally get to the purpose for which we can be useful. In the midst of disagreements, our hope should be for God to work in hearts. The way God works is not through our eloquent debate points, but through our gentle spirit, our good lives and our willing spirit to be used.
God can use you in the midst of controversy to do his work. Are you ready?