By Adam Brown –
The eighth instruction to the church in 1 Timothy is to reject false teaching. We find this instruction in 1 Timothy 4:1-5. This passage can be divided into three sections:
- 4:1-2 = The reality of false teaching.
- 3:3a = An example of false teaching.
- 4:3b-5 = Rebuttal to this false teaching.
The direct context for this passage is the reminder that the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, followed by a creedal expression of the Gospel (1 Timothy 4:15-16). The broader context of 1 Timothy is one of doctrinal vigilance. The letter opens with a charge to rebuke those who teach any different doctrine, to silence those who devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations and vain discussions (1 Timothy 1:3-7). Moreover, the letter ends with yet another reminder that there will be those who teach a different doctrine (1 Timothy 6:3-5). In sum, this instruction to reject false teaching is ubiquitous throughout the letter, and is, thus, central to the mission of the local church.
The Reality of False Teaching (1 Timothy 4:1-2)
In this section, Paul alerts Timothy that the Holy Spirit has expressly said that there will be false teachers in the later times. The later times are the days of the New Covenant. They are often considered to be bookended by Pentecost and the Return of Christ. That the Spirit has indicated in some way to Paul that there will be false teachers in these times is an important admission. With the promise of regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, one might be led to believe that deception is a thing of the past, an Old Covenant problem that does not bear on the Church in the New Covenant. After all, regarding the New Covenant, the Lord promised:
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
And yet, says Paul, there will be false teaching in the later times. The same deceitful spirits and demons that led many astray in the Old Covenant will continue to war against the church of Christ through the agency of false teachers. Thus, the church must be on guard, ready to reject this false teaching.
An Example of False Teaching (1 Timothy 4:3a)
Paul then continues to give an example of false teaching. In chapter one, Paul identified legalism. In chapter six, Paul will identify a form of prosperity gospel. Here, in chapter 4, Paul identifies asceticism. Asceticism is a teaching that encourages deprivation and misery as marks of true spirituality. Asceticism, then, can lead to a form of Gnosticism that separates the material from the immaterial, with a belief that the material realm is evil. In 1 Timothy 4:3a, Paul gives two aspects to this ascetic teaching:
[They] forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods. . .
Both anti-sex and anti-food beliefs are hallmarks of ascetic teaching. We might add any number of other anti-pleasure beliefs to these two examples, as we will see in the next section of the passage.
The problem with asceticism, among other things, is that it offers a false view of spirituality. Following certain ascetic rules encourages a merit-seeking paradigm, which is counter to the Gospel. In this way, asceticism shares much in common with legalism.
Beyond mere legalism, however, asceticism undermines the goodness of God’s Creation. This naturally leads to the belief that Jesus came to give us escape from the material universe, rather than the orthodox position that Jesus came to redeem Creation. Thus, asceticism is a serious, though subtle, false teaching that contradicts the true Gospel at its very core.
Rebuttal to this False Teaching (1 Timothy 4:3b-5)
In rebuttal to ascetic teaching, Paul affirms that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). God did not give us a desire for sex and then say, “Don’t have sex.” God did not give us taste buds and then say, “Don’t taste anything delicious.” No, throughout the days of Creation, God looked at what He had made and said, “It is good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). After He had finished creating, “God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
How, then, can ascetics teach that we must abstain from physical pleasures? God created sex, and it is good. God created food, and it is good. Provided, of course, that we receive these, and other good things, with thanksgiving. Receiving everything with thanksgiving protects us from misusing the things that God has created good. A misuse of God’s Creation is NOT good. Misusing God’s good gifts is sin. This is what makes thanksgiving so critical. We cannot thank God for sin and, therefore, the IF in 1 Timothy 4:4 is critically important. We must reject sin. Sin is a misuse of God’s created order. Therefore, nothing is to be rejected IF it is received with thanksgiving. I can thank God for sexual intimacy with my wife. I cannot give thanks to God for sexual misconduct. I can thank God for food in moderation. I cannot give thanks to God for under-eating or over-eating.
Herein lies the attractiveness of asceticism, and its danger in the church. In an effort to curb our sinful indulgence of the flesh, it is common to over-correct. The right correction to licentiousness (giving myself licence to sin), however, is not asceticism. The right correction to sinful indulgences is thanksgiving.
Paramount in all that we are to be thankful for is that Jesus came to redeem us, not give us escape. The universe belongs to God. We ruined it by our sin. Jesus came to take it back by the blood of His cross. When we put our faith in Him, He promises to raise our bodies from the dead so that we might live in the glorified cosmos forever with Him. And in this new heavens and new earth, we will enjoy the pleasures of God’s creative genius with thanksgiving forever.
There will always be false teaching in the church. All things must be understood in light of the Gospel. And, any false teaching must be rejected.