How to Handle False Teaching | 1 Timothy 1:1-7
By John Fitzsimmons,
Pastor, Sligo City Church
Paul wrote First Timothy to advise a young pastor in his early to mid thirties concerning issues which were arising at the church in Ephesus. Paul had left Timothy to oversee the work and since he was separated from him he wrote this letter to give instructions about church issues and leadership. He had hoped to return but wrote in the meantime to address the way in which Christians should behave and to teach a young pastor what he should prioritise.
The letter as a whole is bracketed by the discussion of false teaching. The exact nature of the teaching is unclear. It apparently involved speculation about the law... Paul’s reasoning however is very clear: Wrong teaching leads to wrong living while healthy teaching leads to godliness... Paul’s real concern is with the results of false teaching—it promotes speculations, ignorance, arrogance and selfishness. Paul addresses the content of the false teaching only in passing but focuses on the fact that true Christianity is evidenced by a godly lifestyle, not fruitless discussion. 1 Timothy is a clear call for the church to live out gospel empowered godliness. We need to hear this call today more than ever! Throughout the letter Paul grounds Christian behaviour in the truth of the gospel. The primary theme is that the gospel leads to real and visible change in the lives of those who believe it. It’s often thought the theme is church order, this is included but the sections on church order and offices are simply part of the larger idea that the gospel, in contrast to false teaching, always leads to godliness.
V1-2 ESV “Paul an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope, to Timothy, my true child in the faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul opens the letter by reminding us of his apostolic authority which was given to him by “God our Saviour and Christ Jesus our hope.” God’s leaders ought to be confident and secure in their God given calling. By putting “God our Saviour and Christ Jesus our hope” together as the source of his authority he underlines the Deity of Christ. In verse 2 he does the same when he says “grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Who else can offer the grace, mercy and peace we all need but God alone? So in a letter that underlines the importance of healthy doctrine for Christian living, Paul opens by double-underlining one of the most fundamental doctrines of true Christianity – The Deity of Christ!
“Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord...” “Grace” is God’s unmerited and undeserved kindness towards rebels... “Mercy” is his forgiving compassion freeing us from the consequences of our disobedience and rebellion... and “peace” is what floods our souls when we catch a glimpse of the grace and mercy God has lavished on us... The more a person learns about the grace and mercy of God the more the peace of God will fill their hearts. This affectionate greeting Paul gives to Timothy is full of the rich reality of the gospel. Before he instructs him... he reminds him of the wonder of the good news. It’s always good practice to begin and end with the good news just as the whole Bible begins and ends with good news!
Handling False Teachers
V3-4 ESV “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than stewardship from God that is by faith.”
It’s clear from these verses that there were certain people in the church in Ephesus teaching false doctrine, devoting themselves to nothing but myths and speculation - things with no substance... It’s also clear from verse 7 that they were using the law of God wrongly. This is how false teaching generally begins, either by going beyond what is written or by misunderstanding or misrepresenting what is written.
Later on in chapter 4:13 after addressing the same subject in verses 6 and 7 of the chapter Paul tells Timothy to devote himself to “the public reading of scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” That is, to reading a passage of Scripture and then simply preaching and teaching the truth that naturally comes from the text... In verse 15 Paul tells him “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” As Christians we do not devote ourselves to myths or speculations but to Scripture! Therefore the best way to avoid false teaching, and to protect and save others from it, is by devoting ourselves to and immersing ourselves in the truth of Scripture. This is true for us as individuals and as a church, and is especially true for pastors and elders since they have been entrusted with the primary teaching role in the church...
It’s also clear from these verses that false teaching, and false teachers, must be confronted and dealt with directly by church leadership. Paul says; “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” Paul also emphasises this point to Titus in Titus 1:9. Speaking of the role of an overseer he says; “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it.” This is not an easy thing to do in a generation obsessed with political correctness; nevertheless it is needed at times for the ultimate good of people’s souls. Churches are not to be debating societies where everyone’s views are as valid as everyone else’s. Churches exist primarily to proclaim and live in the truth of the gospel revealed in Scripture. In 1 Timothy 3:15 Paul calls the church “a pillar and buttress of truth”, meaning that in the midst of a world full of false teaching the church’s responsibility is to hold up the truth of Scripture for all to see. And no myths or speculations should be allowed to get it the way...
It’s not only important to confront false teachers and hold up the truth, it’s equally important we do it in the right way. With kindness, teaching, patience and gentleness! In 2 Timothy 2:23-26 Paul says;
“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but be kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponent with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured to do his will.”
Our heart should never be to condemn people with our knowledge of the truth, but to save them from the deception of Satan. These verses teach us that false teachers and those who follow their teaching are prisoners of Satan held captive to do his will. Satan is the source of false teaching and our war is against him and his deception... 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 says; “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive.”
At the end of this chapter in verse 18 Paul charges Timothy to “wage the good warfare”. The reason Paul charges Timothy to oppose false teaching is because it robs the gospel of its good news and shipwrecks people’s faith. Only the true gospel can keep people on course in the Christian life, this is Paul’s concern!
V5-7 ESV “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”
Avoiding False Teaching
1. Pursue healthy doctrine
The best way to avoid false teaching is to pursue healthy teaching. Teaching that is firmly rooted in all God has revealed in Scripture. Paul tells Timothy in chapter 4:6-7; “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.” So following healthy doctrine is very important since it is what produces true godliness in us. So important that Paul says in verse 16 of the same chapter; “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
We live in a time when doctrine in large part is neglected and almost despised. By how some Christians talk they almost make it out to be a bad thing. However the Bible is never negative about the importance of sound doctrine and in fact underlines its vital importance over and over again... Why would any Christian feel at liberty to undermine its importance when Scripture clearly underlines its importance? The only alternative we have to healthy doctrine is false doctrine, and if our doctrine is wrong then the whole foundation of our lives and church is wrong. Pursuing healthy doctrine is vitally important.
2. Avoid fruitless discussion
John Stott points out that “speculation raises doubts, while revelation evokes faith.” Our faith in not in things with no bases or substance, our faith is in what God has revealed in his Word. False teaching tends to promote things that cannot be proved or disproved. Colossians 2:18-19 says; “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going into details about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” God wants us to grow up in Christ and discussions based on mere speculation, on genealogies and myths, and that go into details about visions etc do not help that process. In fact Paul makes it clear they can potentially disqualify us from growing up in Christ. Paul brands such vain discussions as useless because they do not help produce the godly life the gospel calls us to.
A good question to hold over every discussion we engage in is: Will this discussion help produce Christ-like fruit in my life and the life of others? We should never encourage silly discussions by engaging in them; they’re a waste of time and distract us from what is truly important...
Think of what the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12 between verses 1-10. After emphasising “there is nothing to be gained by it” he mentions visions and revelations he had of Jesus. He said he “was caught up in the third heaven... up into paradise... and heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” I ask; why are those who claim to see such things today so quick to utter what they see? Out of all Paul seen and heard he only told us one thing about his encounter... He did not go on about angels or visions or extra biblical revelations, things he could never prove or disprove, no he told us one thing that Jesus said to him that is confirmed by the gospel. “He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is make perfect in weakness.”
Knowing God’s grace is sufficient for us and his power in made perfect in our weakness helps us towards maturity, it gives us great confidence to go on; it drives us deeper into the gospel of grace and therefore produces godliness in our lives. But speculating or discussing what Paul, or anybody else for that matter, might or might not have saw... What does that produce? Does it help produce godliness? NO it doesn’t at all. One of the reasons people fall into false teaching at times is because they want to believe they have access to some superior wisdom, some extra revelation others don’t know about, and this deceives them into believing they are a cut above other Christians and so often it all started with speculative discussion which should have been avoided...
The evidence we are growing in maturity as Christians is not in attaining some superior wisdom, or experience, or level of morality which causes us to see ourselves as a cut above other Christians. No, one of the greatest evidences of maturity in the Christian life is an understanding that everything we need is found in the gospel! His grace is sufficient! Therefore, the only way to Christian maturity, to godliness and love... is found in refusing to ever move beyond it and instead diving deeper and deeper into its unsearchable depths. Devoting ourselves to it, immersing ourselves in it, holding firmly to it; this is the language Paul uses.
The gospel is not simply the gate to the Christian life it is the narrow path that leads us to abundant life and godliness. It is the very ground beneath our feet, without it we have nothing to stand upon and no way forward... And the way to move forward is by taking hold of every promise the gospel delivers into our lives. 2 Cor. 1:20 says; “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus].” I’m not saying you’ll receive all the blessings today, but I am saying they’re all in the post, some will arrive today and some tomorrow. With God’s postal service everything arrives in God’s time... Because of the gospel all the curses of sin have been cancelled and all the blessings are in the post... Why would you ever move past the gospel? There is nothing better! Let your heart find its resting place is the great things of the gospel. If your heart is truly in the great things of the gospel you will find nothing better to discuss... and you will not get sidetracked will silly myths and speculation. Such things will bore you when compared to the wonder of the gospel...
Let me finish with this: Right in the middle of this passage Paul says in V5 “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” This is a verse which can help us greatly in discerning between healthy and false teaching. Is it producing this love in our lives and in the lives of those who believe it?True love is what the gospel is all about. Last week Luther was reminding us of the wonderful truth of John 3:16; “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Paul’s aim in confronting false teachers was love – love for God, love for the truth, love for the Church, and love for the world. Paul didn’t want people to perish because of false teaching; he desired them to find eternal life in the gospel. The aim of his charge was love. 1 Corinthians 13:6 teaches that “Love... it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” Love that comes from a pure heart desires to pursue pure Christianity. How can a pure heart rejoice with anything but the truth?
True love also comes from a good conscience. A conscience cleansed by the gospel, a conscience that rejoices in truth, a conscience with no hidden agendas. True love also produces a sincere faith. There is no room for pretence or hypocrisy. There is no need for an actor’s mask to hide reality or insincerity when true love is the motivation. False teaching however is full of hidden agendas and pretence, hypocrisy and masks. The true gospel sets people free to be sincere and honest, false teaching encourages people to lie to themselves and others... Let First Timothy 1:5 examine your heart, it will only do you good...