Proper Use of Text and Context
(The Apostle John and "Doctrine of Christ")
(2 John 9-11)
This part of Watchman has been devoted to a study of difficult passages (Solid Food) recognizing that some passages are said by Peter to be hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). We are emphasizing that difficulty is not impossibility. Just as milk is for babes, meat is for mature adults and this process of growth is analogous to spiritual maturity. We are to desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby (1 Pet. 2:2). At the same time, we are be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive, but, speaking truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head, Christ (Eph. 4:14-15). Growing up in Christ means attaining a measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (v. 13), that of a mature Christian who has gone on to perfection.
Perfection, as used by Paul here is not sinlessness nor omniscience. It is that condition of knowledge (2 Pet. 1:5) that is to be attained as we grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2:20). This perfection or maturity is that advanced stage of growth for which Paul prayed for the Colossians: ...that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may have a work worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (1:9-11). Paul and his fellow-laborers labored fervently that the saints at Colossae might stand perfect and complete in all the will of God (4:12). This level of spiritual maturity is the desired goal of every Christian, attainable as we make progress from milk to meat. As the Hebrew writer phrased it: For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (5:13-14). Please note the contrast between the unskilled who is a babe, and those of full age who by reason of use have their senses exercised. Stunted growth is both a physical and spiritual tragedy. With Gods help, through a dedicated and faithful study of Gods holy word, Christians may become perfect and complete, lacking nothing (Ja. 1:4). Contrast this with those who are ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7). These are those spoken of by Peter who untaught and unstable, misunderstood Pauls writings and twisted [them] to their own destruction as they do also the rest of the scriptures.
Of course, Paul is not alone in teaching things hard to be understood. The need for spiritual maturity attaches itself to every part of the divine revelation. Specifically, our text for consideration as Solid Food is: Whoever transgresses and does abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. There has been a great deal of controversy attached to the phrase doctrine of Christ throughout the years and an improper application has nurtured an illegitimate unity in diversity that has caused many to fellowship false doctrines of every sort and to embrace sectarians of every stripe.
Our interest lies in the proper understanding of the doctrine of Christ. The substance of the controversy can be grasped by a letter to me from one who read material written about Romans 14. He stated:
A friend of his also interjected his comments in the correspondence with the following proposal:
My response included the following excerpts:
I appreciate your comments about the material on Romans 14. I am convinced that the current misinterpretation of Romans 14 is opening the gates of apostasy by a willingness to "receive one another" (v. 1) in every kind of sinful practice. As this erroneous view becomes more popular, compromise will multiply. To date, no one has attempted to show why I am wrong, exegetically, with the material, they just insist on putting doctrinal matters in the text and having fellowship with error.
As to 2 John 9, I am convinced that the context will force us to a broader application of verses 9ff than the Gnostic heresy alone. For example, John rejoiced in the disciples "walking in truth, as we received commandment from the Father" (v. 4). He further states that we should "walk according to His commandments, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it" (v. 6). While Gnosticism is one form of rejection of truth, it is not the only rejection. "Walking in truth," and "walking in the commandments" is equal to the language of John in the first epistle, where he speaks of "walking in the light" (1:7). But notice the context of "walking in the light" in 1 John: the "things written" (v. 4), "the truth," (v. 8), "I write" (2:1), "keep his commandments" (v. 3), "not keep the commandments...a liar" (v. 4), "keep the word" (v. 5), "the word which you have heard from the beginning" (v. 7), "I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because ye know it" (v. 21), "no lie is of the truth" (v. 21), "same anointing teaches you concerning all things" (v. 27), "practice righteousness" (3:10). "keeps his commandments" (24), "many false prophets" (4:1); he who is of God "hears us" (the apostles) (v. 6), "this is the commandment" (v. 21) [please notice that this use of "commandment" applies to loving the brethren, not identifying Gnostics], "keep his commandments" (5:2), "this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments" (v. 3), "witness of God" (v. 9), "testimony" (v. 10, 11), "These things I have written" (v. 13), "the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding that we may know him who is true" (v. 20).
While some of these verses refer to Gnosticism, many are broader and refer to truth in general, commandments, what the apostles have written. Limiting these verses to a refutation of Gnosticism only would be to limit the verses to less than the context.
There is also a parallel expression with 2 John 9, "the doctrine of Christ," located in Acts 2:42, "the apostles' doctrine." If the doctrine of Christ means the "doctrine about Christ," why would not the "apostles' doctrine" mean the "doctrine about the apostles?" In fact, the doctrine of Christ is the doctrine which Christ taught, just as the apostles' doctrine is the doctrine the apostles taught.
Ron Halbrook preached an excellent lesson on the use of "walking in the light" and what it means at Baytown, TX in a series of lectureships a few years ago. This lectureship (which dealt with Romans 14 and fellowship) was audio and video taped and the tapes are free for the asking from the Pruett St. church, Baytown, TX 77520 (ph. 409/422-5926). Ron's study alone is worth listening to the entire set. Brother Halbrook has also authored The Doctrine of Christ and the Unity of the Saints which is available from Truth Bookstore (1-800-428-0121).
Historically, the ones who have limited the use of 2 John 9-11 to Gnosticism alone have been those who wish to broaden fellowship with various unscriptural practices and have taken this approach to 2 John. 9 to isolate it from being used to combat other errors. Notice that I am not accusing you of making this argument, but only to give the historical reference. Some who were willing to fellowship instrumental music, denominational creeds like Calvinism, etc., rejected 2 John 9 as having any relevance due to a supposed limitation to the Gnostic philosophy. However, a careful study of the text and context will show that it has to do with any differences from revealed truth: that which is written by the apostles.
Similar arguments were made toward Galatians 1:6-9, attempting to limit this only to fighting the Judaistic gospel, "which is not the gospel of Christ." However, a careful analysis of the entire letter of Galatians will likewise reveal a broader use of "gospel" than simply a denial of the"law/gospel" of the Judaizing teachers. For example, the word "gospel" as used in chapters 1 and 2 is expanded to include "hearing of faith" (3:2, 5), and "scripture" (v. 8), "covenant" (v. 15ff), "walk in the spirit" (5:16), being "led by the spirit" (v. 18) [would this be equal to "walking in the light?], "live in the spirit, walk in the spirit" (v. 25 - which addresses lusts of the flesh vs. fruit of the spirit, not the Judaizers alone), "law of Christ" (6:2), "taught in the word" (v. 5). "walk according to this rule" (v. 16). Admittedly, some phrases address the Judaizers' error, but the use of "truth" is much broader than that alone.
(Name omitted), I hope this will help to see the proper use of 2 John 9-11 is to apply it to any and every departure of that which our Lord taught through the word of God. While Gnosticism and Judaism were two specific departures of the faith among the first century brethren, the Bible teaches us to fight every departure and to "contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). My question would be, "Which false doctrine can we fellowship?" If we cannot use 2 John 9 or Galatians 1:6-9 to fight error, which verses would you use? If the compromise view of Romans 14 is coupled with the restrictive use of 2 John 9 and Galatians 1, how will Christians ever defend the truth against apostasy? The end result will be a bedding down with sin (which is taking place in many areas) and the inability to keep ourselves pure.
As for your ABC's of interpretation ground rules, I find them inadequate for every situation of Bible study. It is certainly true that our study should be controlled by exegesis as opposed to eisegesis. However, it is extremely difficult to accept your 3 rules as exhaustive of hermeneutical principles. While the Bible can certainly be understood (Eph. 3:4; 5:17, etc), I do not wish to limit myself by rules that do not permit every application of scripture.
For example: A principle of truth, though spoken directly toward a given situation when written, may be a principle that will apply to many different situations in application in future days - even to the end of time. We understand that the New Testament was written to the individuals and churches in the first century, but it was also written for us, "to the end of the ages" (Mt. 28:18-20). While it is true that the ancient words of scripture must retain their meaning in modern language (to have an accurate translation), there were situations in the first century that cannot be duplicated today. Thus, the words (though they mean the same today as when first written) having to do with spiritual gifts cannot apply today. Can one prophesy today? Can one speak in tongues today? Can one work miracles today? While we might agree that this was written for use of spiritual gifts before "the faith" was completely written, the principle of "God is not the author of confusion" would apply today as readily as it did during the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:33). Would I be guilty of taking that out of context if I applied it to a disorderly assembly today? Must things be done "decently and in order" (v. 40) only during the exercise of spiritual gifts? If it is not a misapplication of scripture to apply verses 33 and 40 (and others) to modern assemblies, why is it wrong to apply the principles of 2 John. 9-11 to any theory that goes beyond the doctrine of Christ?
In the study of Romans 14, for example, the cases under consideration (eating meats and observing days), though taken in context, do not adequately extend the application to situations that are applicable today, if we limit the principles to the meats and days of the first century. However, I think both of us would agree that the principles of truth taught in Romans 14 may be applied to similar and parallel situations today. Must I be of Jewish origin to apply the principles of "eating meats" or "not eating meats" to modern problems? If not, why must one be a Gnostic before violating 2 John 9-11?
Thus, if we maintain that Gnosticism and only Gnosticism is the purview of 2 John 9-11 and that these principles cannot apply to any similar and parallel situations, we unduly limit the application of divine scripture. Likewise, if we limit the use of Galatians 1:6-9 to Judaism.
I could go on with much more, but I hope you get the point. If I agreed to abide by your rules, I would be tying my hands regarding proper use of scripture. This would allow you an undue advantage if, indeed, you seek to limit 2 John 9-11 and/or Galatians 1:6-9 to first century error without allowing the principle to apply to error today. The truth of the matter is that the principle of truth that condemns Gnosticism and Judaism also condemns "one who practices lawlessness" (1 Jn. 3:4) today. If yes, why? If no, why not?
Scripture is understandable. But it may also be twisted by those unwilling or unable to divorce themselves from sectarian views and see the truth in its purity. Our attitude toward scripture should be that of Paul who commended the elders of Ephesus to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32).
We should grow in our ability to rightly divide the word as we mature spiritually (2 Tim. 2:15) This will help us to put away childish thoughts (1 Cor. 13:11) and to grow to perfection.
Finally, scripture must be reconciled with Gods character. Any time that I interpret a passage so as to include any kind of fellowship with sin, I have obviously missed the mark. God is light and in Him is no darkness at all (1 Jn. 1:5); no lie is of the truth (2:21). To twist 2 John 9 or any other passage of scripture so as to extend the hand of fellowship to error is to violate both text and context.
e-mail this author at TomRoberts1@compuserve.com
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