In Sunday’s sermon, we looked a little deeper at Timothy’s situation in Ephesus, and specifically at the Ephesian false teachers he had been tasked with shutting down. We discovered the surprising fact that these guys weren’t necessarily heretics. At least some of them were most likely brothers in Christ whose doctrinal foundation may have been spot-on.
The problem was that they were adding to this foundation with made-up stories, an overemphasis on family ancestry, and a confused approach to the law (1 Timothy 1:4, 7). And Paul’s instruction is that they be “commanded” not to teach any different doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3).
I’ve been a part of a number of conversations throughout the years where we’ve been discussing someone who teaches one form or another of “different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3). And it’s been very common to hear someone say, “Well, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. And they mean so well. And didn’t Paul tell the Philippians that even if someone preached Christ in the wrong way, he was ok with it?”
The passage that’s being referenced is Philippians 1:15-18: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
In Philippi, some people were preaching Jesus in order to harm Paul. He was ok with that, as long as Christ was being proclaimed. But there is no indication that these troublemakers in Philippi were false teachers or were corrupting the gospel with “different doctrine.” From everything we can tell, they were preaching the gospel in all of its truth. Their motives were wrong—they were trying to score personal points and hurt Paul—but insofar as he was concerned, Paul rejoiced in the gospel’s advance.
In Ephesus, the situation was totally different. That group of teachers was causing trouble because their teaching itself was wrong. And so even if their motivation was spot-on—even if they were trying to serve God and were doing their best according to what they understood (1 Timothy 1:7)—they still needed to be stopped.
For ourselves, personally, we should obviously strive to speak the truth and do it for the right motives. After all, that’s why Paul wrote Philippians chapter 2. “Selfish ambition” is wrong, even if you are preaching the gospel. But in terms of evaluating others, it’s the content of someone’s teaching we should be most concerned about. Someone can be sincere and godly and still cause a lot of damage to the church through false teaching. And in Timothy’s case, the most loving thing for him to do was to command them to stop.1“As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine… The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:3, 5)