Set an Example in Ministry
Open Your Bible
1 Timothy 4:1-16, Proverbs 3:1-8, Jeremiah 1:4-9
1 Timothy 4 is one of those chapters that, if you read through it too quickly, you might miss the minor plot twist tucked into its verses.
In this chapter, Paul continues his counsel to Timothy by warning against false teaching, and exhorting him to preserve the integrity of his ministry. In doing so, Paul prepares Timothy for the reality that some “will depart from the faith,” having been taken in by “the teachings of demons” (1Timothy 4:1), and deceived by the “hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared” (v.2). It’s serious language! Which immediately leads us to wonder what sort of false teachers was Paul referring to in this chapter. Power-hungry preachers? Money-swindling hucksters? Immoral Christians who excused their sin under the banner of cheap grace?
As it turns out, none of the above. In this chapter, Paul is not warning against ethical corruption or sexual lawlessness, but quite the opposite. In verse 3 we discover he is warning against asceticism, an extreme form of self-denial that forbids certain foods and sex.
Historians have all sorts of guesses about where this false teaching originated. It might have been an extreme overreaction to their previously pagan lifestyles, or it might have been an early form of gnosticism, a common philosophy that elevated the spiritual over the material. The truth is, we cannot know for sure, but Paul makes it clear that this false teaching has infiltrated the church and distorted their theology.
What makes this form of false teaching so surprising, is that it is rather different from the other forms of false teaching Paul has warned about elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul rebukes the Christians’ rampant debauchery, and in Galatians he confronts Peter’s religious duplicity, which means “false teaching” and “hypocrisy” can take many, many forms. It can look like sexual immorality or the abuse of power, or it can look like the religious piety of these extreme ascetics, which is why he urges Timothy to be discerning.
We face the same varied forms of false teaching today, and so Paul’s advice to Timothy remains as relevant as ever. Rather than get bogged down in the controversies or “silly myths” of our day, and rather than give all our time and energy to reacting to the latest hot button issue, our task as faithful Christians is a rather simple one: “train yourself in godliness” (v.7). Be a good example “in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity” (v.12). And “persevere in these things” (v.16).
That is not to say we should be silent in the face of false teaching—Paul himself was not—but it means our primary work of resistance is modest, and often hidden. In a loud world of competing opinions and warring convictions, this quiet, humble work might seem pointless and ineffective, but in reality, it will save our witness.