By Adam Brown –
Second Timothy 2:15-21 begins the second half of the book. The first half (2 Timothy 1:3-2:14) focussed on enduring conflict in the local church. The second half (2 Timothy 2:15-4:21) focusses on addressing conflict in the local church.
The most important thing to know when addressing conflict in the local church is that it must be done by the Word of God. Today’s text, 2 Timothy 2:15-21, makes this point abundantly clear.
Like an Able Tradesman Skillfully Uses His Tools, So Skillfully Use the Bible (2 Timothy 2:15)
The first of three metaphorical images in this passage is that of a tradesman. Just as a carpenter “cuts straight” his wood, so Timothy is encouraged to “cut straight” (ESV: “rightly handle”) the Word of God. If he is able to cut straight, then he will be approved by God and have no need to be ashamed.
When conflict arises in the local church, a very real temptation arises to take the path of least resistance. Compromise here. Compromise there. Unity for unity’s sake. Cut crooked if need be, but for heaven’s sake, keep the peace. The short term gain of this approach is eclipsed by God’s disapproval and the subsequent shame for having dodged the Word of God. And, this is not to mention the very real possibility that five years hence a new group will challenge the decisions made for the sake of peace, but for which the leadership has forfeited any biblical basis. Thus, a future storm brews on the horizon of unbiblical resolution.
All church conflict must be addressed by careful and prayerful reflection on the Word of God. When necessary it is best to pay the cost up front in order to bring a church in line with God’s revealed will.
Like a Compassionate Doctor, Amputate Gangrened Limbs (2 Timothy 2:16-19)
The imagery of gangrene in the passage necessarily introduces the related imagery of amputation. The problem with gangrene is that it spreads. The sooner it is treated, the less long-term violence there will be against the body. Sadly, a prolonged refusal to deal with the diseased limbs will take the life of the patient.
Likewise, left alone, “irreverent babblers” in the church will spread their malcontent throughout the church until a faction has developed and threatens the life of the Body. As Paul wrote, these people “upset the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:18). The punch of Paul’s warning is not that some people will be discouraged, but rather that their faith will capsize like a ship out at sea (cf. 1 Timothy 1:19-20).
Thus, like a compassionate doctor who cares for his patients, so also the leadership of the church must “cut off” (ESV: “avoid”) the infectious members. The scalpel for this surgery must be the Word of God. Indeed, all church politics, financial dependencies, emotional investments, personal partiality, cowardice, hubris, and the like, are akin to dull and rusty knives that do more damage than good.
To encourage timid Timothy, Paul reminds him of Moses and Aaron with a double allusion to the Greek translation of Numbers 16 (2 Timothy 2:19). Just as God “cut off” Korah and his rebellion, so too Timothy must protect the church from malignant members.
Like Fine China, Cleanse Yourself so that You Can Be Useful to the Master of the House (2 Timothy 2:20-21)
Having described Timothy’s responsibility to address church conflict by the Word of God, Paul concludes this section with a practical exhortation. Just as the master of a house possesses vessels for honourable use (think fine china) and vessels for dishonourable use (think toilet bowl), so also members of the local church can be used by God for honourable and dishonourable use.
Paul exhorts Timothy to cleanse himself by the Word of God so that he will be useful for honourable use. In other words, unless Timothy applies the Scriptures to himself, he will be unable to use them to address sin and deficiencies in others.
Cutting straight and amputating gangrene is of no use if the one doing the cutting and the amputating is not daily cleansed by the Word of God personally himself.
Instruction 19: Address all Church Conflict by the Word of God
Every church will have to endure conflict. At such times there is a very real pressure to back away from the Bible. However, it is in these times especially that the way forward can only be found in the pages of Scripture. Pay the cost up front if necessary, but align the church to the trustworthy words of Scripture and everything else will run its course.
Sometimes it hurts to live this out. No one wants to lose an arm or a leg to amputation. Fewer still are they who desire to hold the knife to perform the needed surgery. However, the life of the Body depends upon the courage and compassion of the leadership of the church to do just that.