These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
The apostle Paul, in his letters to Timothy, warns him of the dangers of false doctrine. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears.”
That is a warning to us all, we shouldn’t accept doctrine just because it sounds good, or because it sounds easy. We must be on our guard against all forms of false doctrine, particularly those doctrines that seem attractive to us.
Being on your guard is not the same as being conservative. If you are unscripturally liberal then you are wrong, but the same is true if you are unscripturally conservative.
Like the Jews in Berea, we should compare every belief with scripture, the word of God that is able to make us wise unto salvation.
First of all then, I want to look at Paul’s warnings to Timothy. First Timothy chapter 1, verses 3 to 7:
As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.
“Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.”
The warning here is to the teachers, or I should say the would be teachers. If you want to be a teacher then you have to have a knowledge of what you teach. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? The world is full of people who try and give their ill understood knowledge to others. At home I have several distinctly poor computer manuals, written by people who are able to write but apparently unable to read. The books speak with a voice of authority, but their content is wrong. There are plenty of would be teachers who have no real knowledge of what they teach.
That is bad for worldly things – think how much worse it is for spiritual things. “Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.” Paul was warning about people who spoke as if they knew about the law, but in reality they didn’t understand it.
We all have the responsibility to teach those around us about the things of God. In many respects it would be easier if we didn’t have to pay attention to what the Bible said. We wouldn’t have to study, we wouldn’t have to think. We would just have to open our mouths and say whatever we felt like saying.
That is the wrong way to go about it. When you teach you have to teach the truth. You don’t teach your personal opinion of something, or your gut feeling, as being what God thinks, or Christ would have said. Being a teacher of the law means you must understand the law – and you therefore need to read the Bible.
There would be no point in being a teacher, either a teacher who knew what they were talking about, or a teacher who was ignorant, if you didn’t have an audience to listen to you. Paul also warns Timothy about those who would listen to the unsound teachers. Second Timothy 4, verses 3 and 4:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
Wouldn’t it be so easy if we only had to hear what we wanted to hear? If there was a particular doctrine that caused us difficulty, all we would have to do would be ignore it, and find someone who said it didn’t really matter.
Just as being a teacher requires a knowledge of the Bible, being a listener also requires Biblical knowledge. The Jews at Berea “received the word [from Paul] with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
You shouldn’t listen to what your ears want you to hear. You should see whether or not every belief you have is compatible with Biblical teaching. Paul advised the Thessalonians to “prove [or test] everything”. You don’t swallow what you are told without thinking. You compare it to the word of God.
Being on your guard against false doctrine is not the same as taking a conservative attitude to everything. Paul advised the Thessalonians to prove everything, not just the new things. Slavish adherence to traditional ideas has the same potential for wrong teaching as adopting every new idea.
For example, there are many people today who believe in Christ, but do not believe that he will return to earth. I’m never quite sure how they understand the angel’s message in Acts 1 “this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” but I think it is obvious and clear from that verse that Christ will return one day. The people who have rejected the doctrine of Christ’s return have turned their ears away from the truth and listened to fables.
At the other extreme, there are Christadelphians who take an ultra conservative point of view on many issues. I have one book on Revelation at home which states that Eureka was, in part, the product of divine inspiration, and therefore the bulk of it is accurate. In fairness to the author of the book, it does encourage us to study Revelation and Eureka so we can see that the latter is an accurate exposition of the former. Even so, I think it is elevating Dr Thomas to a position – that of ‘partial prophet’ – that he does not deserve, that is a position he did not want to have, and that is unbiblical.
Both extremes are a result of itching ears. Both extremes can be avoided by testing with the scriptures. There is no ‘no brainer’ way of avoiding false doctrine. You can’t take the liberal position. You can’t take the conservative position. The only position you can take is that of a student of the Bible, who accepts that which the Bible teaches, no more and no less. Everything must be proved by scripture. On the off chance anybody thinks I’m disparaging Dr Thomas, I’m going to quote his six rules for Bible study:
First: In any doctrine taught by types or shadows, the anti-type must always correspond with the type, and the shadow with the substance.
Second: In studying the Scriptures, consider that the New Testament is a commentary on the Old.
Third: Never be afraid of results to which you may be driven by your investigations, as this will inevitably bias your mind and disqualify you to arrive at ultimate truth.
Fourth: Investigate everything you believe – if it is the truth it cannot be injured thereby; if error, the sooner it is correct the better.
Fifth: Pursue this course with as much independence as if you were the only one concerned.
Sixth: Rely on no authority less than divine in so momentous an undertaking.
Bible study is a learning process. The Bible is a vast and complex book. There is so much in it, and everybody can learn from it even after a lifetime of study. There will always be some things that we don’t understand. There are many aspects of suffering that I wouldn’t even pretend to understand.
Far from being a bad thing, this is a good thing. If you have an answer for every question then you are either an exceptional person, or you aren’t asking the right questions. The only way to get a full understanding of any non-trivial subject is by asking questions. When you have answers to those questions you ask more. When you search the Bible for answers, then you are not listening to your itching ears, but you are like the more noble Jews of Berea.