By Adam Brown –
The thirteenth instruction for the Church is that we are to beware of conceited, ignorant, oppositional, and quarrelsome people in the church. This is about as un-Canadian as it gets. The Canadian mantra is directly opposed to this. We are not naturally wired to be wary of such people. To the contrary, we tend to indulge such people. We indulge them to the point of re-injuring their victims by putting up with their sin and by allowing it to go unaddressed. We often even indulge them to the point of allowing our churches to die a slow and miserable death.
This is what makes this 13th instruction so important, especially for the church in Canada. We must protect the church from these sin-sick people. Tolerance will only encourage the wolves to shear our sheep, and worse.
We learn about what we ought to do in 1 Timothy 6:3-5:
3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
Who to Blame
If the whole idea of being wary of certain problem people is un-Canadian, then the idea that we should blame someone for something feels all the more un-Christian. And yet, Paul clearly lays the blame for sin-sick symptoms in the church at the feet of certain people.
Like a good doctor who must rightly blame and target the cancer cells if the patient has any hope of survival, so we must learn how to rightly diagnose sin-sickness in the church. And, in so doing, we must rightly target the source of this sin-sickness so that it can be treated before the whole church becomes sick, or even dies.
The sin-sick people who risk making the whole church sick do three related things (1 Timothy 6:3):
- They teach any different doctrine;
- They do not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ;
- They do not agree with the teaching that accords with godliness.
What is any different doctrine? It begins with any teaching that is opposed to 1 Timothy. In 1 Timothy, Paul has given clear instructions to the church. Some people will oppose some or all of these instructions. These are the people to blame. They may or may not be recognized teachers in the local church. It is crucial to note that anyone can teach a different doctrine simply by being obstinate to the sound teaching. Every member has a sphere of influence.
By extension, anyone who teaches any doctrine contrary to the Gospel as revealed in the Bible is a sin-sick person. By opposing true doctrine they actually oppose the sound words of Jesus Christ. No one in opposition to Jesus Christ can produce any speck of true godliness, no matter how much pretended godliness is put on display.
Identifying the Problem People
The problem with problem people is that they do not self-identify as doctrinally backward, Jesus-opposing, godless sinners. To the contrary, the problem people often speak an advanced dialect of Christianese and they make much of doctrine. Everything they do, they do in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and they make a great show of their godliness for all to see. Many of these people are self-deceived, unaware that they are the problem, and they usually deceive many others into following them.
How, then, can we identify these people with any kind of confidence? Paul gives us the answer in 1 Timothy 6:4:
4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words. . .
The sin-sick people in the church can be identified in four ways:
- They are puffed up with conceit;
- They understand nothing;
- They have an unhealthy craving for controversy;
- They have an unhealthy craving for quarrels about words.
Puffed Up with Conceit
It is not always easy to see who is puffed up with conceit and who is not. Usually when confronted, a conceited person will quickly volley the rebuke back at the one who brought it to their attention: “I’m not conceited, you are conceited! My proof? You addressed my conceit, which is a very conceited thing to do. Therefore, you are much more conceited than I am.” These conversations devolve in a hurry.
Three things to note. First, a truly humble person will be struck to the core when confronted with an accusation of conceit. He or she will take time to consider the merits of the rebuke before rejecting it out of hand.
Second, a strong defensive impulse when it comes to charges of conceit usually confirms the rebuke while also adding other issues in need of correction, such as un-teachabilty and a lack of self-awareness.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, a conceited person is usually a self-appointed authority over the church and even over the elders. He or she believes that it is his or her responsibility to keep everyone else, including the elders and pastors, in line. However, the position above the elders in the biblical hierarchy of the local church belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ. Anyone who puts himself or herself in that position is clearly puffed up with conceit.
Usually, the sin-sick people don’t seem like ignorant people. They sound intelligent. They have an above average arsenal of biblical knowledge. They have been empowered to teach, sometimes on the rare occasion and sometimes regularly. When Paul says they understand nothing, he does not intend that they are void of all knowledge. Rather, for all their knowledge, they have missed the Gospel.
Often this know-nothingness will be evident in a total lack of balance in their theology. They will be unable to hold the seemingly disparate parts of doctrine together, such as the holiness and the tenderness of God, the kindness and severity of God, law and grace, the Old and New Covenants, love and truth, the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of humanity, and so on. While it is true that we all lean a little more to one side or the other on any given pair of doctrine, the sin-sick will be all of one and none of the other. Thus, they spout irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge (1 Timothy 6:20).
Unhealthy Craving for Controversy
Disagreements between genuine brothers and sisters in Christ are bound to come. Sin-sick people go beyond these expected differences. They are oppositional people. Their default position is, “No.” They resist leadership if for no other reason than they are not the leaders. For sin-sick leaders, they are not content to lead. They want to quash all opposition.
In short, these people refuse to submit to any authority but themselves. They are energized by controversy and love to play “Absalom at the gate,” intercepting disgruntled members before the elders can offer any help or correction (see 2 Samuel 15). As the pretended-Absalom, they will agree with the malcontents, happy to stir up strife for the sake of their own bid for leadership, even if that leadership is only of a faction.
Unhealthy Craving for Quarrels about Words
In addition to being oppositional people, sin-sick people quarrel about small things. They refuse to major on the majors and minor on the minors. They are vulnerable to straining out a gnat only to swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24). They are the kind of person who might attend the sermon with pen and paper with no desire to learn. Rather, these false-Bereans are only interested in listening for a word here or a word there that would not have been their choice. With no effort to contextualize these words or to understand their intended purpose from a broader context, they pride themselves in finding error and supposed heresy. In short, they are constantly missing the forest for the trees.
Symptoms Caused by Sin-sick People
Sin-sick people pose a fatal threat to the church. Unless these people are confronted, the local church will become ill with the following symptoms (1 Timothy 6:4-5a):
- Envy (destructive competition);
- Dissension (insubordination);
- Slander (gossip and false speak);
- Evil suspicions (paranoia);
- Constant friction among people (disunity and disharmony).
If you find these symptoms, there you will find the problem people. You will also find victims of this sin-sickness, people who are vulnerable and at risk to the influence that the problem-people wield. Those at risk are the following (1 Timothy 6:5):
- The depraved in mind (unsaved);
- Those deprived of the truth (unlearned);
- Those who imagine that godliness is a means of gain (works-based and greedy).
In sum, conceited (self-appointed), know-nothing (ignorant), controversial (oppositional), and quarreling (false-Berean) people in the church can lead the depraved (unsaved), deprived (unlearned), and gain-seeking (works based and greedy) masses away from Christ.
Altogether, this group of leaders and followers will suffer from envy (destructive competition), dissension (insubordination), slander (gossip and false-speak), evil suspicians (paranoia), and constant friction (disunity and disharmony) among themselves.
In other words, where you see envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction, there you will also find conceited, ignorant, oppositional, quarreling, depraved, deprived, and greedy people.
The Gospel is the Only Cure
Isn’t it distressing when the church feels exactly like this? To make matters worse, those leading the charge will usually insist that they are safeguarding the Gospel! The problem is this: the Gospel does not produce bad fruit like this. It is bad doctrine that bears this kind of bad fruit. As Jesus said, “A tree will be known by its fruit” (Luke 6:43-44).
Therefore, when the local church feels like this, it means there are some “cancer cells” in the church, and they need to be treated. They must be confronted. The hope is always repentance. Short of this, however, it is necessary to remove them from the church, lest the whole church become terminally sick.
Anyone who rejects the Gospel of Jesus Christ, either blatantly or subtly, must be held to account. The unrepentant, like Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:20) must be handed over to Satan (removed from the local church and guarded from easily attaining membership at another local church down the road) that they may learn not to blaspheme. Such decisive action is loving, both to the local church and to those who may be self-deceived.
This thirteenth instruction is counter-intuitive in Canada today. Nevertheless, it is critical for the health of the local church. May God grant us wisdom and courage in equal measure.