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, 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, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
In the sometimes bewildering world of the Internet we can struggle to discern what is right and true. Anyone can claim to be a Christian or a Christian teacher, with a website, a book, a video or a following seeming to add credibility to that person. So often what we read or see is nothing more than “an unhealthy craving for controversy” that creates “constant friction among people”. The melange can cause great confusion even as various people vie for our attention. So how can we discern rightly in the midst of all the confusion and competition for our attention?
In this passage, Paul gives us four criteria to use for discernment. First, Paul suggests that we should be aware of anyone who teaches a “different doctrine” from the one he taught. Today, the letters he wrote become our guide in this, presenting his Spirit-inspired counsel for many different people and places. Second, Paul indicates that we should not trust anyone who does not “agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Anyone who departs from the clear teachings of Jesus in the Gospels (not what we wish or imagine he should have said but what he actually did say) should cause us concern. Third, Paul cautions us about anyone who teaches anything that does not “accord with godliness”. The word “godliness” indicated to his readers a moral attitude expressed by the way one lived. For Paul, this moral attitude would have reflected his doctrine as well as the words of Jesus. Paul believed that any teaching outside these parameters would produce many problems and conflicts among Christians.
Paul presents a fourth criteria by which to discern in the second half of this passage. Paul suggests that we must beware anyone for whom the “love of money” seems to be an issue. Surely there are those who seem to use “godliness” as a way to promote their own financial gain. Paul does not say that money itself is wrong, nor does he suggest that it would be inappropriate for a ministry or leader to ask for financial support. But he does warn Timothy that those who seemed to focus on money would cause many problems among Christians.
We Christians are blessed with a greater diversity and variety of resources to help us grow in our faith than all the previous generations of Christians combined. This is an amazing advantage for us, but it also contains many traps into which Christians fall almost every day. Following the standards for discernment that Paul set for Timothy might enable us to avoid these traps and receive the greatest benefit from the resources available to us. This will enable us to extend the good news about Jesus into the world around us.
Almighty God, we are so grateful for everything you have provided for us so that we might grow as followers of Jesus. Thank you for equipping us to share your love, grace and mercy with the people around us in the name of Jesus. But we also realize that we need the help of your Holy Spirit to discern rightly that which is beneficial to us and that which might lead us astray. We pray that your Holy Spirit might remind us about Paul’s guidance to Timothy so that we might apply the standards Paul set for Timothy in our own hearts and minds. Please help us use the resources you have given us to grow to maturity in Jesus. And help us encourage our sisters and brothers in Christ as they to seek to discern rightly what is truly from your heart. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
The Rev’d Rodney Woods is the minister of the City Temple in London.