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Engaging in Word Battles

March 31, 2009

I had an excellent government teacher in high school.  She did very little lecturing and instead engaged us in lively debates.  She would throw out a topic for discussion that enabled her students to wrestle with a current event while also teaching how our political system operated.  I loved her class.  She was a natural teacher. She usually played the “devil’s advocate” by taking the opposite stance of the majority of the class.  I remember doing a lot of debating with her and other students in her class.  It forced me to really think through many of my positions.  

When discussing scripture and theology, this type of debating can be interesting but if not done appropriately can also be dangerous.  Paul understood this and encouraged Timothy to warn the faithful in Ephesus not to engage in debate just for debate’s sake. 

In 2nd Timothy he said: 

2:14 “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.”

The phrase “wrangle about words” actually comes from the Greek word: Logomacheo. This word comes from two Greek words: Logos (word) and machomai (strive, contend, fight, quarrel, dispute).  Basically this phrase means to have a “word battle” for the sake of arguing and in this context to intentionally undermind the Gospel.  

In William Barclay’s commentary on 2nd Timothy he had this to say about this verse.  

“Two much talk and too much discussion can have two dangerous effects.

1. First, they may give the impression that Christianity is nothing but a collection of questions for discussion and problems for solution.  The discussion circle is a characteristic phenomenon of this age.  As G.K. Chesterton once said: “We have asked all the questions which can be asked. It is time we stopped looking for questions, and started looking for answers.”  In any society the discussion circle must be balanced by the action group.

2. Second, discussion can be invigorating for those whose approach to the Christian faith is intellectual, for those who have a background of knowledge and of culture, for those who have a real knowledge of, or interest in, theology.  But it sometimes happens that a simple-minded person finds himself in a group which is tossing heresies about and propounding unanswerable questions, and his faith, so far from being helped, is upset.  It may we be that that is what Paul means when he says that wordy battles can undo those who listen to them.  The normal word used for building a person up in the Christian faith, for edification, is the same as is used for literally building a house; the word which Paul uses here for ruin (katastrophe) is what might well be used for the demolition of a house.  And it may well happen that clever, subtle, speculation, intellectually reckless discussion may have the effect of demolishing, and not building up, the faith of some simple person who happens to become involved in it .

As in all things, there is a time to discuss and a time to be silent.” 

In his commentary on this portion of scripture, John MacArthur states:

“As Christians become less and less familiar with Scripture and sound doctrine on a firsthand basis, they become easy prey for jargon that sounds Christian but strongly mitigates against God’s truth.”  (2)

Debating in a high school government class may sharpen one’s logic, and discussing scripture after careful study may do the same thing. However, we must be careful that we aren’t engaging in a word battle for the sake of argument and to satisfy our own ego.  As Paul warns this type of debating is useless and may lead to the ruin of those listening. 

(1) The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon; Barclay, William; Westminster Press, 1975

(2) The MacArthur New Testament Commentary; MacArthur, John; Moody Publisher, 1995

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