Jesus and Political Discourse (II Timothy 2:23-26)
I. Review: Politics and Faith
Several weeks ago we thought together about Paul's words in I Corinthians 7:29-31. Do you remember? Because the appointed time has grown very short, and the present form of this world is passing away, the Apostle instructed his readers to... [Let] those who deal with the world [live] as though they had no dealings with it.
We went on to talk about how relevant that guidance is in light of our present-day temptations; specifically, temptations related to politics and our political perspective. In a day and age of contentious, political division and incessant political noise, followers of Jesus Christ must guard their hearts and minds from a 'kingdom confusion' that distracts from and distorts the focus to which Jesus called us: to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
As we continued that thinking, we allowed current debates over who should lead politically to point us back to the leadership of the only perfect leader, Jesus Christ. As the “King of kings” and “Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16), Jesus is the only worthy of our undivided allegiance. As I said a couple of weeks ago, “Sinful men and women may receive your vote in November, but Jesus Christ should have your 'vote of confidence' every single day.” That should also lead us to the conviction that what our neighbors and nation need most is Jesus' leadership.
This glorious reality of Jesus as Lord, of Jesus as King, led us to explore his divine policy agenda. As I expressed it last time: “Politicians today will emphasize this or that social benefit or tax break or civil right extending to more and more people. But the number one concern of King Jesus is that grace extends to more and more people. What kind of grace? Gospel grace. Redeeming grace. Transforming grace. The grace of God that saves, is saving, and will save...”
But as we talked about last time, God also wants to use our good works in his agenda to extend grace through the Good News about Jesus. That fact drove us back to the idea that the policy agenda of Jesus will not always, but certainly can, involve political action and social activism. But if we “are ultimately living, laboring, and loving in the name of Jesus in order to advance the gospel”, how should that affect, how should that color, how should that practically shape our political involvement... specifically, the how of our political discourse?
II. The Passage: “Patiently... With Gentleness” (vs. 23-26)
Let's think about that question by turning to a passage about distinctly Christian discourse, and specifically discourse (i.e., dialogue) in a context of opposition, of disagreement. Look with me at II Timothy 2:23-26. Listen to Paul's instructions to his younger co-laborer, Timothy:
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil,  correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,  and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Even though none of us are Timothy (i.e., even though none of us are interim pastors in First Century Ephesus), there are nevertheless a few key principles we also need to hear. Remember, according to I Timothy 4:12, Timothy was to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” That would include what's described in this passage (cf. II-2:14). So what can we learn from Paul's words, from God's inspired word?
Well, first, we need to recognize what is and is not worthy of our words. Paul is crystal clear in verse 23: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies”. Sadly, what Paul is addressing here was not an isolated incident.
Throughout both of his letters to Timothy, Paul warns about these kinds of distracting and ultimately destructive topics (I-1:4, 6; 4:7; 6:4-5, 20; II-2:14, 16; 4:4). In addition to the “foolish, ignorant controversies” mentioned here, we also read about “myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations” (I-4:4), “vain discussions” (I-4:6), “irreverent, silly myths” (I-4:7), “controversy and... quarrels about words” (I-6:4) and “...the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge” (I-6:20).
Brothers and sisters, I think all of us know these kinds of topics and this kind of talk is not just a 'church' thing. “Speculations”, “vain discussions”, “quarrels about words”, “contradictions... falsely called 'knowledge'” are sadly, and too often, also the stuff of today's political discourse. And as we've talked about in this series, as followers of Christ, we need to guard ourselves from any and every distraction; from any and every temptation to major on minors; to exalt speculations, preferences, and opinions; to be dogmatic about peripheral or fringe issues, especially when we tie such things to faith. But we also read in II Timothy 2:23-26 that...
Second, we need to recognize what is and is not healthy dialogue. Notice that Paul is not advising Timothy to remain silent or avoid hard discussions (and sometimes, even to debate). No, he is instructing him to (v. 24) “not be quarrelsome”. What does it mean to be “quarrelsome”? Well, in his previous letter, Paul warned about the “puffed up... conceit[ed]” man who “has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” (I Timothy 6:4). Along those lines, as you can see from the contrast presented in the remainder of 2:24 (and in verse 25), for Paul, being “quarrelsome” is not about debating per se, but about the how of debating; about the heart of the one debating.
As God's servants, our discourse and disagreements should be characterized by kindness, competency, patience, and gentleness. The quarrelsome man or woman does the opposite: They demean, they demonize, they dominate the conversation, they lash out; they are not really interested in teaching, only making sure they are heard. The truth is far less important to such a person. Often, they live simply for the fight. They enjoy being the contrarian.
Why should we be concerned about such people? Why should we be concerned about becoming such people? Because the consequences of this kind of talk and this kind of attitude are far-reaching. Paul describes some of these consequences. Why avoid such talk?
Because it only produces “envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction” (I Timothy 6:5). Because “it will lead people into more and more ungodliness.” (II Timothy 2:16)
Because some “will turn away from listening to the truth” (II Timothy 4:4). Because it “promote[s] speculations” rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (I Tim. 1:4).
Less than ten verses before our main text, in 2:14, Paul instructed Timothy to instruct the church in Ephesus with these words: Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.
Third, we need to recognize what is and is not winning. The quarrelsome person is not only interested in stating his or her opinion, but also in (quote-un-quote) 'winning' the (quote-un-quote) 'debate'. They want to not only make their point, but also 'score points' against anyone who disagrees. But for the follower of Jesus, the goal is teaching and correcting out of love. Why? That (v. 25)... God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,  and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. That's the true 'win', the true victory!
Now clearly, Paul is not speaking about anyone and everyone who disagrees with you on any subject, including politics. No. He's speaking about those ensnared by false teaching; those who have been spiritually misled. But please don't miss the underlying principle here. The heart Paul is prescribing is one guided by what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:44: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.
Brothers and sisters, is that the heart that empowers, that informs, all of your conversations about contentious topics, all of your dialogue with those with whom you disagree, including all of your political discourse? We should not be led astray by the militant language and worldly tone of those who claim they are standing for the truth on this or that issue (even if they are right about this or that issue). Writer Cap Stewart's observations are so important here:
By embracing the culture-war paradigm, many Christians adopt—likely inadvertently—an “all’s fair in love and war” perspective. After all, in a war you don’t turn the other cheek; you strike back as hard, or harder, than your opponent. That’s how wars are won.
We mock those in opposition to us, using the popular rhetoric of sarcastic memes, name-calling, and condescending language—forgetting that we are to communicate “with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15), and to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders” by letting our “speech always be gracious” (Colossians 4:5–6).
Again, the deciding factor is the nature of our engagement. Are we seeking to destroy or to rescue our opponents? When we correct or oppose or reprove, is it with the goal of winning the conversation or winning a neighbor? Do we confront others in the right spirit?
In the words of Jonathan Edwards, do we engage one who opposes us “without angry reflections or contemptuous language . . . [and] as seeking his good rather than his hurt; [and] more to deliver him from the calamity into which has fallen than to be even with him for the injury he has brought”? As these words suggest, we are not at war with our ideological opponents—we are at war for them.
To engage with our culture in a militant and hostile manner is to forsake our role as ambassadors. It’s trading our diplomatic visas for military dog tags.
III. What We Say and How We Say It
So what have we seen this morning? Well, guided by Paul's words to Timothy, we've talked about the kinds of conversations, the kinds of discussions and debates (or arguments) that only end up distracting and hurting the church. These are not always matters of deceptive doctrine. As we've seen in this series, there's a 'kingdom confusion' that wrongly conflates political goals and gospel goals, or that wraps the Bible in the flag, fixating on some notion of a 'Christian' America, or that speaks about sinful human leaders in almost messianic terms, or that wrongly makes social activism the main mission of the church.
Brothers and sisters, friends, we need to reject these notions. But more than that, we need to let God's word shape our political voice. God has not called us to be silent. But He has called us to be wise... and as we learned this morning, he's called us to be kind, competent, patient, and gentle... in order that we might persuade, in order to truly help those listening.
What other ways should these truths affect us practically? Well, they should affect when and how we speak about political issues. If we do engage in a conversation, or share this or that thought, or endorse a candidate, we should do so carefully and prayerfully in light of this biblical guidance. And yet sometimes, it really is better to say nothing. We would never, ever want another person to be confused about Jesus, our always perfect leader, by our often imperfect thinking about faith and politics. Again, that's not a call to silence, but to wisdom.
We also should be extremely careful, extremely thoughtful, about the political commentators, politicians, activists, and leaders whom we allow to shape our political discourse through their political discourse. Why would we turn to those who today embody the very qualities Paul warned Timothy about when he spoke of those false teachers in Ephesus? In clear contrast to this, in the very next book, Paul wrote this way about our speech and our political duty...
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work,  to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1–2) [Why this approach? Well, Paul continues...]
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3–7)
The only thing that should be inspiring and informing both our speech and our political duty, is the humility and devotion sparked and fueled by the gospel of grace. I urge you to make that your prayer. Along those same lines, let me conclude with a quote I shared in a previous message, a quote from author Jonathan Leeman. I think this sums up the heart of this series:
I want to help us be less American so that we might be more patriotic. To put it another way, I want to help you and me identify with Christ more so that we might love our fellow citizens more, no matter the name of our nation... We become better friends to America by loving Christ first.
More in Jesus 2020
September 20, 2020Jesus and Policy Agendas (II Corinthians 4:15)
September 13, 2020Jesus and Perfect Leadership (John 6:66-69)
September 6, 2020Jesus and Political Perspective (I Corinthians 7:29-31)