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When it comes to heresy or even misguided enthusiasm in the church, it is fairly obvious that history repeats itself. Early misconceptions about Christ and his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit (was he really human or did he just seem to be? was he simply adopted by God because of his moral purity? was he really divine?), from which heretical movements developed, are still with us today in popular quasi-Christian movements well known for their vigorous proselytizing. The denial of the deity and resurrection of Christ currently fashionable in parts of Christendom also presents parallels. Spiritual elitism/enthusiasm, confusion about the times and subtle systems of interpretation—things that characterized certain Gnostic-Christian communities and troubled earlier New Testament churches—can also be found in certain quarters of the modern church. Justification by works (legalism) is yet another modern delusion (even in some "evangelical" churches) with roots going back well before the time of Pelagius in the fourth century. A close look at our situation will uncover many points of contact with the situation Timothy was to face in Ephesus.
Heresy is to the church what treason or sedition is to the state—a divisive force made treacherous by the fact that it begins within the organization and exploits lines of trust and positions of authority. In the church's experience, false teachers often rose to prominence within the Christian community. Once censured by church leaders, they and their followers could choose either to repent or to depart. Much of what the early church fathers wrote was in response to false teachers who had departed and continued to challenge the faith with their own "enlightened" versions. Strangely, given all the emphasis on interpretation and knowledge, the appeal and staying power of any such cult often owed more to the personality or charisma of the leader(s) than to its distinctive doctrine.
Yet heresy is a term that needs to be carefully defined. As Harold O. J. Brown points out, the term, originally meaning "party" (Acts 5:17), gradually took to itself negative connotations as it was applied to factions that had deviated or split from the apostolic faith (1 Cor 11:9; Brown 1984:2). But the term is used so loosely today (as it has been down through history) that still further definition is necessary. Heresy in reference to a doctrine denotes one "that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence" (Brown 1984:2). Some today (as, again, down through history) would place things like infant baptism or tongues-speaking into this category. Yet to judge from the New Testament and the early fathers of the church, the early church's greatest concern was for deviations in doctrines pertaining to God and Christ and the nature of salvation and justification, because the very substance of the gospel message and the salvation that rests on it lies in these things. Teachings that tend to characterize and distinguish the various Christian denominations (views about baptism, Communion, church government, gifts of the Holy Spirit and the role of women in ministry, among others) may certainly be held to with passion, but the differences here derive mainly from biblical passages capable of more than one reasonable explanation. The term heresy is not appropriate in this latter context.
As Paul saw it, heresy posed a dual threat. It endangered the church and individuals who would be drawn into error, perhaps beyond the reach of salvation. It threatened the church's evangelistic mission in the world, by contaminating the gospel. Thus Paul's charge to Timothy is equally a charge to us.
The logical structure of 1:3-20 recommends that we consider it as a unit.
A The Charge to Timothy to Oppose the False Teachers (vv. 3-5)
B The False Teachers (vv. 6-7)
C The Law: Mishandled by the False Teachers (vv. 8-10)
C' The Authorized Doctrine (vv. 10-11)
B' The Testimony of a Faithful Teacher (vv. 12-17)
A' The Charge to Timothy Repeated (vv. 18-20)
Paul denounces the heresy forcefully at the outset by introducing a contrast between true and false. False teachers are contrasted with Paul. False doctrine and misuse of the law are contrasted with the genuine gospel. And opening and closing charges to Timothy bracket this contrast. This juxtaposing of true and false and instructions to Timothy will carry on through the whole of the letter.