We love 2 Timothy 4:3-4 because it is a biblical prophecy we have seen come to fruition in our day and one that allows us to point our fingers at “them” – those outside our circles who have abandoned truth to embrace the spirit of the age.
For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.
We immediately think (and point fingers at) the Joel Osteens and other positive confession preachers who gather large crowds by ignoring sin and hard truths to tell people exactly what they want to hear. This is a completely fair use of this passage. Those who twist the gospel to guarantee health and wealth are certainly false teachers who are scratching the itching ears of their listeners, turning aside from truth to speak myths.
I wonder, though, if there is not an application of this teaching that we as Southern Baptists ought to heed. When we hear the term “doctrine” we tend to think of propositional truth, a systematic presentation of doctrinal truth. The Scripture never allows for “sound doctrine” to be simply propositional or intellectual, divorced from the godly behavior it produces. In Titus 3:8-11, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are inextricably intertwined.
This saying is trustworthy. I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed God might be careful to devote themselves to good works. These are good and profitable for everyone. 9 But avoid foolish debates, genealogies, quarrels, and disputes about the law, because they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 Reject a divisive person after a first and second warning. 11 For you know that such a person has gone astray and is sinning; he is self-condemned.
In 1 Timothy 6, Paul links false teaching with ungodliness, greed, envy, quarreling, and all sorts of practical behavior.
Teach and encourage these things. 3 If anyone teaches false doctrine and does not agree with the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that promotes godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing, but has an unhealthy interest in disputes and arguments over words. From these come envy, quarreling, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant disagreement among people whose minds are depraved and deprived of the truth, who imagine that godliness is a way to material gain.
All of this is to make a point. As the voices of “discernment bloggers” have gotten more strident and divisive, we have tended to go to our corners and become more isolated. Founders have their conferences where those who agree with the Founders get together and tell them they are right and everyone else is wrong. The CBN has their conferences where they gather and listen to speakers who tell them that they are right, the protectors of truth, justice, and the American Way, and everyone else is wrong. Such conferences have grown. G3. T4G. The list goes on and on. We have conference after conference to gather our crowd separately from other crowds to get those who agree with us to affirm that we are right and those who oppose us are wrong.
Granted, I realize that this is an oversimplification, but is it totally unfair? Do these conferences invite those who will provide counterpoint?
Making My Point
I am not accusing any of these groups of false doctrine, so I realize my point is narrow and specific. We are not, perhaps, guilty of the false doctrine aspect of 2 Timothy 4:3-4, but we are in danger of two faults against that verse.
1. Is not our tendency to isolate ourselves from opposing viewpoints within the Christian community a form of “according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear.” Dr. Howard Hendricks told us in class at Dallas Seminary that we needed to read those with whom we disagreed or our reading is only the reinforcing of our biases. He told how he and Dr. Swindoll, when they were students, would choose a theological topic and argue it, then after a time switch sides and argue the other side. Learning to understand and articulate the other side of an argument is not compromise but Christlike.
I witnessed a Twitter discussion between a couple of friends and another SBC pastor. He said he didn’t need to read those who opposed his views because he knew they were wrong and why should he waste his time reading those who promoted false teaching? I am guessing he is there for every conference he can possibly attend that AFFIRMS his views but will not read those who challenge it.
That is a problem.
Is it possible that the “itching ear syndrome” isn’t just those who love the false teaching of those charismatic crazies, but good old Baptists who refuse to listen to anyone but those who say what they agree with and what they want to hear? If someone holds a different view of Donald Trump or the GOP and you want to cancel that person in SBC life, couldn’t that be an “itching ear syndrome” manifestation? If you will only want the SBC to reflect those who hold YOUR views on issues beyond the gospel or defined Baptist distinctives, is it possible that your itching ears are multiplying teachers to hear what they want to hear? Is it possible that itching ear syndrome is more widespread than we want to admit?
2. The second danger here is that of heteropraxy (if that is a term). It is clear that Paul meant for sound doctrine to be more than intellectual. Sound teaching led to Christlike behavior. I am shocked at what Christian people think is acceptable. Disagreement? Fine. Confrontation? In a Christlike spirit, sure. But the insulting and vituperative spirit exhibited by so many is not of Christ. When we live by our “own desires” instead of obeying the word of God, which commands love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, forgiveness, and the pursuit of unity, we are violating 2 Timothy 4:3-4 as much as if we tolerated universalism or the denial of the deity of Christ. We cannot claim the sufficiency of Scripture then ignore what it teaches.
Again, I am not seeking to equate disparate groups in the SBC with those who promulgate false doctrine. THAT IS NOT MY POINT. I am making a secondary application of that verse to our tendency toward isolationism and our tendency to separate doctrinal purity from behavior.
What say you?