26 May 2015

continue in him 1

There is a lot going on around Ephesus in early Christianity. The NT has numerous writings that are somehow linked to that city – more than many people even realize. Yet we can identify this city as a leading Christian center within the early church, and note that Ephesus was capital of the province of Asia, and the third largest city in the Roman Empire (see Trebilco for more historical data). In a series of blog posts I wish to explore some of what was said to this community and its context.

Certain People

Key to understanding The Pastoral Letters is to recognize the unique concern the author has for the welfare of the believers and the local church community. Many scholars believe that the letters of 1 & 2 Timothy reflect the situation in and around Ephesus, and we can reasonably think of them as being written to the Ephesian community. When facing issues related to the well-being of this community, it is the pastor's voice that speaks, keeping in mind "the goal of this command is love" (1 Tim 1:5).

According to this pastoral voice, there are "certain people" who have risen up in the church community that are deviating from the true message of the gospel (1 Tim 1:3). These are competing leaders, who have certainly been identified by the community as persons of influence. To many in the congregation they are seen as people of good Christian character, with a theological understanding that is worthy of a hearing. In fact, these certain people probably do not think of themselves as corrupting the faith, but of moving it forward. These are voices from within the church community, and such situations always begin to bring about shades of right and wrong.

The pastoral voice of Paul speaks to Timothy and urges him to address this head-on, because what is being taught among these certain people is more fanciful mythology and fantastic conjecture than the true nature of God's work in the gospel. Although they believe they are on the right track (and, who knows that they aren't sincere in their quest), when compared to the gospel of Christ they are clearly in the wrong. Timothy is called to the often-difficult pastoral work of confrontation, made more difficult still because of the growing acceptance being given to these alternative voices. We can imagine that he was met with ready defense as he made his challenge: That's your opinion! or Who made you the judge of such things? or They are growing the church! or, perhaps, What harm are they really doing if they bring people to the church?

We might well imagine such things because church life dynamics don't really change that much over time. Today there are just as many (most likely more) voices that become so concerned with matters that distract from the gospel, that reinterpret the truth of Christ, and which lead the church  away from advancing God's work. What is more is that the difficult pastoral work of confrontation is becoming all-the-more-difficult still, with more voices rising up to challenge those who would hold firm to the truth of the gospel. All of this and we have yet to leave the doors of the church. It is often from those who are regarded as leaders in the church and community that exert this influence; seldom do those with little social status hold this type of sway. But the pastor voice is certain of one thing: these wanna-be teachers actually know nothing about what they talk about, and now must be challenged before the church (1 Tim 1:7).

It is important for us to see that the pastoral voice, the concern for the community and the gospel, the directive given from a seasoned apostle to the younger leader is a head-on collision of truth and corruption. Paul writes as a warning so that this teaching might be stopped dead in its tracks, even if it meant that certain people would be handed over to Satan himself (1 Tim 1:20). The first and most basic principle of dealing with this sort of division and opposition within the community is to remove all of the oxygen from it, that it might suffocate and drown in a sea of truth. The only way that this corruption can spread in the community is if it is allowed to circulate as though it were acceptable to the leadership of the church. If it is called out and compared to the truth of the gospel, then it will not stand in the power of message of Christ.

Perhaps we have become overly conditioned to a cultural context that suggests that everyone who means well does well, that we forget that in all of the love with which we may speak, it must be loving speech about truth. There will be those who are uncomfortable with this, and there is room for pastoral sensitivity to those who are weaker. But to those who corrupt the message – willingly or not – there must be accountability. Those who dare to stand for the gospel will quickly discover the challenges that come with questioning those popular and influential voices, especially when it begins to turn into a popularity contest (which many certain people will be more-than-happy to hide behind). But the church needs men and women who are willing to stand as shepherds, not hesitating to take out the wolves that find themselves in with the sheep – these are those certain people that will not take the correction of the gospel, but will bare their teeth at the sign of any disagreement.

This is why the pastoral voice speaks to Ephesus, and why we must speak to our local churches today. God's people are to continue in him, not being swayed by certain people who are motivated for their own interests than for the gospel.

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