Updated: Jun 18, 2020
“If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.”
It is all too easy to become bogged down in the details of verse-by-verse exposition that we lose sight of the grander picture. As we study our way through this letter we can articulate with great clarity and precision Paul’s argument for a praying and evangelical church (2:1-7). We understand the role of holy men and righteous women (2:8-10). We recognize the unholy error of women asserting themselves over men as unnatural and antithetical to God’s good creation (2:11-15). We can defend Paul’s intention behind the high standards of holy, able, and tested overseers and deacons (3:1-14). We affirm and applaud Paul’s charge to Timothy to focus on preaching and teaching and thus be reckoned a good servant of Jesus Christ (4:6-16). We are grateful for the instructions and repent under the implications given for the total and comprehensive care to be given in the church (5:1-6:2). But have we lost sight of the grander picture?
Is Paul simply giving a shopping list for Timothy to follow? Is this letter nothing more than a “what to do/what to avoid” for the Ephesian church? The common thread running throughout this letter is a defense against false teachers.
“As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” – 1:3.
This entire letter calls for Timothy to do battle with those who are teaching something contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every topic of discussion that Paul has turned to is within the scope of defending the gospel from pollution and the church from contamination. If we have forgotten that, the text before us brings us back to our correct azimuth.
In short, Paul gives two precepts in these verses to identify and thus avoid false teachers. It’s quite simple really. False teachers are easily recognized upon a careful examination of their teaching and a careful examination of the teachers themselves.
Examine Their Teaching (v. 3)
“If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness”
What the NASB translates as advocates a different doctrine is a single Greek verb - ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖ (hetero-didaskalei) or one who teaches differently. To be clear, we’re not speaking about a different style, but a different substance. If the substance or the content is in view, then there must be a standard. What is the standard?
Very simply, Paul makes two requirements here concerning the teaching itself. He asks two very basic questions. First he asks, from where does their teaching come? And secondly he asks, what does their teaching accomplish?
The Source of Teaching
If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ
The first standard that Paul holds up in order to examine the teaching of men is to determine if their words are sound. The Greek literally means healthy (ὑγιαίνουσιν - hugeanousin). It is actually from this Greek word that we get our English term hygiene. Teaching is food for the soul. It is either sound, healthy, and nutritious or it is detrimental or even dangerous. Some just like unhealthy food, some unhealthy choices are worse than others. But even though cotton candy is not necessarily poisonous, it will kill you if it becomes your sole source of nutrition.
Yet Paul is not so brash as to make himself the one who determines what is good and healthy and what is unhelpful fluff. Notice how this term sound words is modified.
Those of our Lord Jesus Christ
There’s a lot that goes into this statement. Healthy teaching is defined by the teaching that comes from God the Son. This is not a red-letter statement (separating the words of Christ from the rest of God-breathed Scripture marked by the red letters in some Bibles). This statement brings the full weight of Scripture by making sure the reader knows the true source behind it all.
Paul calls our savior Lord (κύριος). The term is more than a simple sign of respect. It means master or sovereign. This is the term that overly pious Jews used to refer to the divine name Yhwh in the Old Testament. This term sets Jesus apart from all others as He alone is the sovereign ruler of the world and all that it contains.
Paul calls Him by His human name Jesus. This is an Aramaic version of the Hebrew Joshua, which means Yhwh saves. Matthew states the plain implications of such a name, “For He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He is both Lord and Savior.
Paul then calls Him Christ. The Greek term Χριστός means anointed one and is used to translate the Hebrew term that we know as Messiah. As the angel Gabriel told Mary, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
It is hard to think of a way that Paul could have been more direct. He invokes the second person of the trinity in His full glory as the standard by which teaching is considered sound/good/healthy in a warning against those who might teach otherwise. But what exactly is considered a deviation from Christ’s teaching? How far can one stray before he is teaching differently than Christ? As my mother is fond of saying, “How much poop is acceptable in the brownies?”
It has become quite popular these days to see just how much truth and doctrine we can lay aside in order to give each other ecumenical group hugs. “Unity at the cost of truth” has become the evangelical battle cry. Even among Christian “conservatives” it has become vogue to draw a tight circle around “the gospel” (whatever that means) and see all other matters of doctrine as secondary importance, or even as unimportant.
Dr. Albert Mohler, in his 2005 article A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity argues for this very thing. He presents the idea that it is immature for Christians to draw such strict lines concerning doctrine. Without a shred of biblical evidence (read a full critique of this thinking here), Dr. Mohler takes it upon himself to draw the lines for us. Things like baptism and women in pulpits are of secondary concerns to the church, says he, and should never get in the way of genuine Christian fellowship. In his opinion, to think otherwise is a gross sign of Christian immaturity. Yet Paul does not seem to agree.
Keep the context of this letter in mind for just a moment. What words precedes v. 3? “Teach and preach these principals.” This command to confidently and emphatically instruct and call to obey refers to the entirety of ch. 5 and the care demanded of the members. Would Dr. Mohler consider this a gospel issue or a secondary issue? What about the similar statements in 4:16; 11; 6; 3:14; and 1:8? Paul has commanded Timothy to double down and teach with emphasis, exactness, and unwavering clarity all things in this epistle because everything in here IS A GOSPEL ISSUE. If Dr. Mohler had written Timothy instead of Paul, this would certainly have been a shorter letter. In fact, it’s hard to imagine if Dr. Mohler, or any current evangelical celebrity, would have bothered writing Timothy at all.
Let’s circle back around to the point. Paul defines different teaching as anything and everything that contradicts, undermines, and is not consistent with the totality of the revealed revelation of Almighty God. Paul does not separate healthy words into categories of greatest importance to insignificant. All of Scripture is God-breathed and all of it is good for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Which brings us to the second question: What does this teaching accomplish?
The Effect of the Teaching
And with the doctrine conforming to godliness
One might expect healthy food to have a good and desirable effect. It’s amazing how many ailments can be avoided or reversed with a simple and healthy diet. The same is true of sound, good, healthy teaching. If we can judge a diet upon the quality of its contents and the quality of its effects, then we can use the same matrix to examine teaching.
Godliness has been a theme throughout this letter. Paul uses the desire of the church to lead a quiet life in all godliness and dignity as a factor in his appeal to pray for all men (2:2). As a conclusion to the qualifications for church leadership, he equates godliness to the person and work of Christ Himself (3:16). In 4:7&8 Paul makes sure to draw a line between genuine godliness and physical/outward piety. And here he warns against any teaching that does not promote godliness.
To be a Christian is to be a little Christ. That is what the term means. Those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ are to live transformed lives because we have actually been transformed. So the question is then, does this teaching promote, encourage, and demand transformation? Once again we are at an impasse with modern evangelicalism. It has become popular to mirror the culture rather than the Savior. We are no longer to call for repentance from sin but are actually instructed to embrace and coddle sin. In fact, we are encouraged not use the word sin at all. Yet to follow this course is to become something very different than what Paul is instructing here.
How can teaching be in accordance with godliness if it refuses to point out any and all inconsistencies with God’s nature and character, call for repentance from such living, and promote obedience? Good teaching, sound teaching, healthy teaching is not only orthodox, but is also beneficial in the sense that those who hear and obey will be living as little Christs.
Examine the Teachers (vv. 4-5)
“He is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.”
The word conceited (τυφόω) here can carry a wide range of meaning. It literally means to be besmoked. It paints the picture of a room that is filled with smoke, or hot air. As such, it can indicate a person that is prideful and puffed up. This is the sense in which Paul used it in 3:6 in his warning against a new convert becoming an overseer.
But that word picture has much more to offer. This term can also be used of someone who is blinded or foolish. They cannot see on account of the smoke and thus blunder around the room. That nuance can be carried even further to indicate those who are mentally ill. So blinded are these individuals that they become incapable of thinking properly. This is how Paul is using the term here, for he follows this term up with the statement that they understand nothing. In our vernacular, they’re stupid. Stupid indeed are all who replace the clear teaching of God with the counsel of men.
But he has a morbid interest
This is an interesting phrase that is not fully carried over in our English translations. Paul is actually drawing a contrast between the cravings of these foolish and stupid teachers who know nothing at all and the good and healthy doctrine that brings godliness.
The phrase morbid interest reflects the Greek νοσέω. It means to be sick or ailing. This is what the ESV translates the phrase unhealthy cravings. Just as someone who lives exclusively off of Captain Crunch can be called foolish or even downright stupid, so are these individuals as they crave and pursue what is unhealthy and sick. But look at the list that Paul gives.
But he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction
The unhealthy craving is for two things: controversy and dispute. There’s nothing better than a good old-fashioned argument to stimulate the brain. That’s exactly the idea here. If you hang around self-professed Bible scholars long enough, you’ll notice that there are some who seem to love debate. I’ve heard it time and again from some people that they love to discuss theology.
Beloved, please read carefully. Theology is not up for discussion. It’s to be understood and obeyed. Do I love and enjoy mining the depths of Scripture in an effort to better understand my God, Savior, and King? Absolutely! But to treat the Holy Bible as if it were a theory in philosophy to be discussed and debated is to place man in the driver’s seat and throw God out into the street. There is a world of difference between studying theology and asking questions in order to understand and debating theology. The difference is soon made evident by the fruit it produces.
Out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction
This is exactly the fruit we might expect to arise when worship is replaced with debate. When obedience and reverence to God has been replaced with man’s ability to reason, God is robbed of His glory and man quickly grabs hold. Men of this character are not asking the question, sir we would see Jesus, but are instead filled with envy and bitter infighting when their discussions are not followed and given the credit they deserve. An unhealthy diet soon produces an unhealthy and sickly person. But not just a sickly person, but a person that is dead while breathing. These sort of teachers reveal themselves to be spiritually darkened and dead.
And constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain
This bitter fighting is between men who have depraved minds and have been deprived of the truth. One would do well to compare vv. 4-5 with passages like Romans 1:28-32. In fact Romans 1:29 contains many of these same characteristics.
“And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” – Romans 1:28-32 (bolded terms reflect the same roots as found in 1 Timothy 6:4-5).
Let’s put this in the simplest terms possible. Paul is stating that such individuals (those who teach differently than what Scripture clearly teaches and live in defiance to it) are unregenerate apostates. They claim the name of Christ, yet they teach and live in direct opposition to Christ. Then why do they bother teaching at all?
Who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.
Simply put, they’re in it for the money. There are two sorts of teachers who fall into this category: those in the ministry for a comfortable living and those who create a false gospel in order to enrich themselves. We see this second category all the time. Turn on TBN (which I affectionately refer to as The Blasphemers Network) and you’ll witness a whole lineup of people attempting to deprive you of your money in the name of godliness. These are wolves among sheep and should have their hides tacked up on the nearest barn door.
But there are others who are content to simply draw a salary and live a life of ease. I don’t think that Paul necessarily has these men in mind here, but the implications ring true. When ministry is largely supported by donors, the pastor needs more and generous donors in order to support himself. The best way to gather more people (and thus more money) is to tickle ears with words that ultimately contradict the Bible and lead nowhere near godliness. The first group offers poison. The second group offers candy. Both will kill you. The only difference is the speed with which death comes.
These verses do not appear in a vacuum. The command for slaves to honor their masters in order to avoid blaspheming the name of God and the gospel comes immediately before. If our daily actions are either supporting or denying the truth of the gospel, how much more what we teach? If we’re going to be held accountable for every single word that we utter (Matt. 12:26), how much more those that teach? We cannot have an attitude of I’m ok, you’re ok in the church. There is no room for theological triage in the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, what we need more of, what the bride of Christ desperately needs, is theological precision. Christ’s bride has been malnourished for far too long. She must be fed.
“So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.” – John 21:15-17