Wrangling about words

The Bible passage I read today said this:

Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk with spread like gangrene.  (2 Tim 2:14-18a, NASB)

What is “wrangling about words”?

I always have a little trouble with these verses. For me, “wrangling about words” is important if you want to get things right. People so often talk past each other when they argue, and taking the time to nail down what people really mean by what they say can bring lots of clarity. That’s one reason I love philosophy – people in that field are so careful to get even the subtleties of their definitions right.

On the other hand, not everyone is like me in this. A friend told me once, “Kevin, if there were a fire, and a river nearby, I’d just grab the biggest bucket I could find and start hauling water. You are the kind of guy who’d spend lots of time trying to find a bucket without any holes in it.” In some situations, and for some people, worrying about details seems useless because it’s impractical. We need to get on with the important stuff and not worry about getting it all exactly right. Whose approach is better? I think it depends on one’s gifts and calling.

However, I don’t think that’s what Paul meant by “wrangling about words”.  I think Paul valued accuracy, and knew that being accurate was an important part of Timothy’s call. That’s why, in the next verse, he balances what he’s just said by telling Timothy to “accurately handl[e] the word of truth”. Paul is saying, “Now, Timothy, don’t misunderstand me. I still want you to be very careful to be accurate in everything you say. That still matters, and it even matters to God Himself.”

Sound doctrine

Perhaps Paul isn’t worried about wrangling about words when it is an attempt to get at the truth, but only when it is heretical. In the verses just after these, he mentions two men who had been spreading a false teaching about the resurrection, which had “upset the faith of some”. Then he emphasizes that God knows who the true Christians are; apparently, the doctrine they were spreading was far enough from the truth that Paul didn’t even count them as fellow believers.

Many other passages emphasize the critical responsibility of a pastor to safeguard the doctrine of the church. It would make sense that this passage is addressing the same need. Paul’s concern is not with chatter per se, but “worldly” chatter that leads to ungodliness. Perhaps, too, he is not concerned with just any old word-wrangling but rather the specific fruitless heretical arguments that were going on in Ephesus at that point. Letting people play around with heresy, Paul says, is going to destroy people’s faith and lives. If left unchecked, it “will spread like gangrene”.

This makes sense, but I have still have questions. Timothy isn’t just told to watch his own speech, but to stop others from saying what they do. Contrast this quote from John Milton, just posted to facebook by a friend:

‎”Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” -John Milton

I sometimes disagree with the official doctrines of the churches I belong to. I don’t want anyone telling me I can’t speak up about it.The bill-of-rights-loving part of me rankles at these verses slightly. Am I wrong in that? I don’t know; maybe I am.

Our pastor makes a strong distinction between what he allows to be taught in the church officially and what people say on their own time. Maybe that’s the meaning here – that Timothy is supposed to prevent heretical teachings from being spread during official church meetings, but what they say privately is not his concern.

The reason I don’t find that answer completely satisfying is verse 16. There Paul says to avoid “worldly and empty chatter”, which doesn’t seem like he is talking about official doctrine. He seems to be as concerned about daily talk as about formal teaching. (On the other hand, Timothy is only told to avoid the chatter, not to stop other people from doing it, so maybe there is something to the distinction after all.)

Still, I don’t think this passage can mean, “stop people from raising any questions about doctrine, before it spreads and shakes people’s faith”. The rest of the Bible doesn’t present church leaders as holding ultimate doctrinal authority. There are lots and lots of examples in Scripture of people who missed what God was saying because they were unthinkingly following the religious traditions of their day. Whatever the meaning here, it must be consistent with the responsibility of individual believers to follow God as they understand him.

Carelessness

I’m inclined to think there is a difference between a believer wrestling to understand and rethink a core doctrine of the faith and someone carelessly “wrangling about words” out of intellectual arrogance. “Wrangling” makes it sound like people were more interested in winning arguments than in finding what was really true. “Empty chatter” implies a careless disregard for the consequences of what one says.

Timothy was told to charge people not to wrangle about words “in the presence of God”, because they needed to see that they were responsible before God for whatever they said. Similarly, he was told to be diligent as a workman in accurately handling the word of truth, so that he would be approved to God. Each bolded phrase drives home the contrast with being sloppy or careless in how we talk about the truths of the gospel.

Fruit

Maybe Paul’s point is even more specifically that we need to measure what we say by its fruit. Is it helpful or harmful to other people’s lives and spiritual growth?  In this passage, Timothy is warned against something that is “useless, and leads to the ruin of the hearers”, that “will lead to further ungodliness”, and that had already “upset the faith of some” (verse 18).

Even if something is true, it doesn’t mean it should come out of my mouth. There are times and places for saying things.  Sometimes if I want to “speak the truth in love” it’ll mean that right at this moment I shouldn’t speak at all. Even if what I wanted to say is technically accurate.

Of course, when the time is right, there’s nothing wrong with confrontation. Timothy was told to be confrontational in this very passage, but in a way that would build believers up instead of tearing them down.

In my case

I’m still not completely sure what this means, but I think I know what it means for me.

I sincerely want God to use what I say to encourage others. I also know, though, that I love to talk. I can all too easily assume that my thinking something gives me the right to say it. What I take from this passage personally is a renewed sense that I am responsible before God for whatever I say, whether in my blog, or as a teacher at a community college, or wherever.

My other devotional readings this week reminded me of the importance of listening to God. Without getting into what it means to for us to say we think God spoke to us (some other blog some other day!) the point stands: if I am too busy talking for God, can I be really listening to Him? Before I posted this, I spent time praying through it, asking God to show me if I was saying things irresponsibly. Could I still have gotten it wrong? Probably, but at least my intentions were good!

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1 thought on “Wrangling about words

  1. I think the essence of this verse IS in the question of motive, the paragraph on carelessness. Does this working through the exactness of the words draw me closer to an understanding of the heart of God and love for others or does it fill up my own self in my own eyes? One is being like the scribes and apostles who were entrusted with the faithful ministry of the Word, the other is being puffed up in arrogance and pride.

    Just my thoughts.

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