I should explain to the readers the reason for the length of the previous post on 2 John and the rest of this series on “truth.” In conversations at this site and over at GraceConversation.com, the advocates for the conservative position rely not only on 2 John 9 but several other verses that speak of people being damned for denial of the “truth.”
The traditional interpretation is that “truth” is all Biblical truth, and thus those with the wrong position on instrumental music (etc.) are lost and ought to be disfellowshipped. It’s time to put a final end to those arguments, because they are based on very unsound, careless exegesis, as I’ll show in this and the next 3 posts.
Let’s talk about a central prooftext in the conservative arsenal —
(2 John 1:9) Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.
The argument frequently made is that someone who teaches error on some hot button issue, such as instrumental music, is damned because he “does not continue in the teaching of Christ.” Of course, Jesus said nothing about singing a cappella, and so the apostolic teaching found in the rest of the New Testament is added to “the teaching of Christ.”
You won’t have to look far to find this very argument made at GraceConversation or in comments here at OneInJesus, and many other places. This is a classic conservative argument. And the verse sure seems to say that those who are in error do not have God, which surely means they’re lost. But I have never once in my life accepted that interpretation.
I first ran into this argument while working on my manuscript for The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace. And so I pulled out a couple of commentaries, which I found of very little use. The Greek scholars like to argue whether the phrase means the “teaching that Jesus taught” or “teaching about Jesus.” It’s not a very important question, as Jesus spoke quite a lot about himself. I mean, besides speaking at length about his own purpose and work, Jesus taught about life in the Kingdom, which is, of course, the realm where the will of Jesus prevails — how the church, which is his body, is to act. The moral precepts of the Kingdom are Jesus’ moral precepts. They tell us who he is as well as well as what he taught. It’s all pretty much the same.
And so, as so often happens, we don’t need a masters in Greek to understand the Bible. Rather, we just need to care enough to pay attention.
Now, common sense tells us that an argument that proves too much proves nothing. If, for example, I were to argue that “teaching of Christ” means anything that Jesus or his apostles ever taught, then it must be true that anyone who teaches any error as to what Jesus or his apostles taught is damned. As no one has a perfect understanding of Jesus’ words, everyone is damned. That seems a rather unlikely result.
But, of course, John also says that we must “continue in” the teaching. The KJV translates “abide in,” which is truer to the Greek. Surely that includes living what is taught. And who do you know that lives the Sermon on the Mount perfectly? (Compare 2 John 2, where the same verb is translated “dwelleth” in the KJV and “lives” in the NIV.)
Isn’t it obvious? If you read the verse to see what it says, not just to win your argument, you quickly realize that the “all error” interpretation is impossible. I mean, surely there is some way to narrow the meaning so that we don’t have to treat only those with perfect doctrine (and living) as saved! And so we go looking for the true meaning.
Therefore, the next step is, of course, to check the immediate context for something pointing to a more likely interpretation. We read,
(2 John 1:7-11) Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. 9 Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. 11 Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
Well, we immediately see a doctrine about Jesus that’s under consideration: “Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” — the incarnation. V. 7 warns us against this teaching. V. 8 tells us that this teaching can cause us to “lose what [we] have worked for.” V. 9 tells us that those who reject “the teaching of Christ” do not have God — in parallel with v. 8. He’s simply emphasizing what he’s already said, in typically Johannine fashion. V. 10 warns us to stay away from such people and speaks of “this teaching” as a singular, distinctive teaching, rather than a vast body of teaching. V. 11 emphasizes what he’s already said in v. 10.
And so, without much study at all, we quickly have a working hypothesis: “teaching of Christ” means the incarnation. And with only a moment’s reflection, we recall that this is a theme of chapter 1 of the Gospel of John — “the word became flesh” — and a theme that runs throughout that Gospel. And so it seems to fit with John’s teaching very well.
And surely the reference to the “antichrist” is a distinctive teaching. The cross references takes us immediately to —
(1 John 2:22) Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist — he denies the Father and the Son.
(1 John 4:2-3) This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
Again, John is addressing a very particular doctrine, one that is at the center of the gospel, and the denial of which damns. Again, it fits. And obviously so. Of course, if someone is teaching a doctrine that threatens faith in Jesus, we need to exclude him from our fellowship. We can’t risk allowing such a teaching to bring damnation to his listeners.
The rest of 2 John
Is the case proven at this point? Actually, I think so. But the verse is so often used to damn all who disagree on a hot button issue, it’s important to be very sure of the conclusion. I mean, what if the conservatives are right? And so we need to delve more deeply into 2 John. It’s a short book, so let’s consider the flow of the entire epistle.
(2 John 1:1-4) The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth — and not I only, but also all who know the truth — 2 because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love. 4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us.
The theme of the first four verses is “truth.” Now, it’s easy to blithely assume that “truth” means anything that’s true or any true Biblical teaching, but it’s hard to fit such a definition in the context. Just try —
(2 John 1:1-4) The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth [about instrumental music] — and not I only, but also all who know the truth [about instrumental music]– 2 because of the truth [about instrumental music], which lives in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth [about instrumental music] and love. 4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth [about instrumental music], just as the Father commanded us.
Doesn’t really work, does it? What particular truth might John be speaking of? Well, quite obviously, the likely truth he has in mind is the truth about Jesus.
(2 John 1:1-4) The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth [about Jesus] — and not I only, but also all who know the truth [about Jesus]– 2 because of the truth [about Jesus] , which lives in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth [about Jesus] and love. 4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth [about Jesus], just as the Father commanded us.
Indeed, you could go a step further and take “truth” as a reference to the gospel.
(2 John 1:1-4) The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the [gospel] — and not I only, but also all who know the [gospel] 2 because of the [gospel] , which lives in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in [the gospel] and love. 4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the [gospel], just as the Father commanded us.
And that works, too. This interpretation parallels vv. 7 -11 quite nicely. And we see the same use of “truth” in 1 John —
(1 John 2:20-23) But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist — he denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
V. 20 tells us that “truth” is something that all Christians know. Well, the only thing we can say for sure all Christians know is what they confess before they are baptized. It’s the only question we ask!
V. 22 tells us that the opposite of “truth” is denial of Jesus as Messiah. Obviously, John is not speaking of any and every lie. He is speaking of a particular lie, and thus he is speaking of a particular truth.
(2 John 1:5-6) And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. 6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
John, in typically ironic fashion, explains that Jesus’ “commands” are but one: love one another. “Walk in obedience to his commands” = “walk in love.” We see the same thought, once again, in 1 John,
(1 John 2:7-10) Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. 9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.
Again, the command is singular, it’s to love our brothers, and if we obey the command, we live “in the light” and will not stumble. Walking in the light, thus, is not 5 acts of worship or congregational autonomy. It’s loving our brothers.
John emphasizes his point in clear terms —
(1 John 3:11-20) This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.
14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. 16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
How do we know we haven’t stumbled? How do we set our hearts at rest when our hearts condemn us? How do we know we have passed from death to life? By whether we love our brothers — in action. If we love our brothers, we “belong to the truth.” You see, he says, even if we feel unworthy of God’s salvation, it’s not our judgment that matters, but God’s, and God saves those who love.
(In context, he is, of course, speaking of people of faith in Jesus who love their brothers.)
Now, amazingly enough, with the help of a cross-referencing Bible, or just by taking the time to read 1 John and 2 John at the same sitting, we see that the “teaching of Christ” has little to do with patterns of worship or plurality of elders. It’s about faith in Jesus and love for our brothers — which are major themes of 1 John, 2 John, and by the way, the Gospel of John.
To figure this out is not hard, requires no Greek, no commentaries, and no advanced degrees. You just have to care so much for God’s word that you test the spirits — you actually take the time and trouble to read the verses in context to see whether you’re being told the truth. And when conservatives cite these verses to damn those who disagree with them on instrumental music and such like, well, they’re not being very respectful of God’s word.