Honor and Dishonor: Godly Leaders vs. False Teachers

2 Timothy 2:20-26

 

After warning Timothy again about the dangers of false teachers whose shoddy workmanship in studying the Word was being used by Satan to undermine the truth, Paul continues to exhort his disciple to diligence, purity, and faithfulness.

Here, Paul switches metaphors, from workmen to the dishes of a great house, to give another shade to the same message. "Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work" (2:20-21). Paul's choice of word picture does more than simply draw a contrast between honorable and dishonorable men. A dish or vessel, whatever it is made of, is known primarily for what it holds. Vessels of honor are reserved to hold only the most precious of things, whereas vessels of dishonor are used to hold less valuable or even worthless (such as refuse) things.

In the context of challenging Timothy to hold fast to the truth of the Gospel and to beware of false teachers, it seems that the vessels of Paul's image, like the workmen earlier in the chapter, refer to teachers in the church rather than to church members in general. The master of the house, the Lord, delights in using those vessels which are made honorable by holding His Gospel to be poured out for His people. A dishonorable vessel then, is made dishonorable by containing falsehood. Paul tells Timothy that an honorable vessel is cleansed and set apart for the Lord to do His bidding; that is, anyone who wishes to be a teacher of God's people and have a ministry blessed with His presence and power must first purge any teaching that is not in line with the truth of Christ.

Paul then goes on to flesh out for Timothy what that cleansing looks like: "Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and pace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2:22). The verb for "flee" here is the same one Paul used in 1 Timothy 6:11, evoking a sharp break from sin-he does not tell Timothy to tiptoe around the temptations of youth (not just sexual lust, but the general impulsiveness of young men in any area of life) but to run for his life at top speed. Holiness is more than just striving to escape sin, however, and Paul as always offers a positive command in conjunction with the negative ("put off"; "put on"). He tells Timothy to pursue the character of godliness; to run towards righteousness with just as much vigor as he was to run away from sin. Moreover, he is to do his fleeing and pursuing in the company of other sincere believers seeking to honor God together. The battle for holiness and truth is not one we must fight alone; the support and accountability of a church family is critical as we seek to grow in righteousness.

Returning to his warning from verses 14 ("not to wrangle about words") and 16 (“avoid worldly and empty chatter"), Paul again warns Timothy to guard his words carefully: "But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels" (2:23). In 1 Timothy 1:4, he contrasts such "mere speculation" with "furthering the administration of God which is by faith." The false teachers who continued to bedevil the church at Ephesus were not teaching the truth of God, but rather relying on their own ideas and thereby destroying the unity of the body.

Whenever we trust in our own intuition rather than the truth of Scripture to speak to issues in the church, we drift further and further from that solid foundation and threaten to collapse entirely. Once we are standing only on our own opinions, we naturally become at odds with others in the church, creating factionalism and infighting that mar our witness to the watching world. As John Stott put it, "The combination of unbiblical speculations and uncharitable polemics has done great damage to the cause of Christ."

Paul often called himself God's "bondservant", and here applies the same title to Timothy (and by extension, to all who serve the church as leaders and teachers) with an exhortation to live out the complete opposite of the parallel sins of speculation and quarrelling: "The Lord's bondservant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth" (2:24-25). The qualities he lists here spell out the contrast between God-honoring leaders and false teachers. Rather than bickering, a servant leader is to be kind. Rather than preaching from the soapbox of his own opinion, he is to be able to teach the truth. Rather than having a thin skin for criticism, he is to endure opposition with grace and trust in God's judgments. Rather than lashing out at those in the wrong, even from the standpoint of truth, he is to gently show them their errors while working and praying for their repentance and return to God's Word.

Such is the calling of ministry. The fruits of the Spirit should abound in the work and words of the man God puts into service for His Church. Of course, this character comes only by God's grace working in our hearts. Paul's last words in this chapter show a sympathy for those who are following after falsehood. This comes from a right understanding that, were it not for God's work in his own life, he could be just as wrong: "and they may come to their sense and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will" (2:26). There is always a place for bold contention for the Gospel, but the target of such blows is always the willful false teacher, never those sheep whom he has led astray. We must recognize that unbelievers and deceived Christians deserve compassionate pleading rather than attacks; they are in bondage to Satan, the real enemy of God and His Church.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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