Second Timothy 2 and Unbelief

I recently encountered a comment on 2Tim which asserted that this passage precludes “protracted arguments with unbelievers.” The verse cited as proof of this was 2 Timothy 2:14. Unfortunately, there was no argument accompanying this statement. The additional statement was made that “We have zero evidence that Jesus and the apostles spent protracted time dealing with unbelievers.” I’d like to deal with these comments to follow.

Firstly, let’s look at the passage. Obviously, 2 Timothy is written to Timothy, a young pastor at Ephesus, and protege of Paul. The entire middle section of the second chapter concerns practical instructions for Timothy’s ministry. In vs. 2, he exhorts Timothy not to go it alone – but to entrust the message he was taught to others, also able to teach. He riffs in vss. 3-13 about things which he has taught – and in vs. 14, he reiterates his instructions from vs. 2. He says to remind them – this is repetition, not a new teaching. Further, to solemnly charge them not to wrangle about words. Keep in mind that this is 2 Tim 2 – only a short while previously, in 1:13, Paul had told Timothy to retain the standard of sound words. The very next verse, Paul tells Timothy to accurately handle what? The Word of truth. ὑγιαινόντων λόγων – sound words λογομαχεῖν – wrangling about words λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας – word of truth.

So, think this through. If, as the commenter opines, Paul intends to say that we shouldn’t use words for long, how does this fit with the flow of the text? The standard of sound words is, as far as I know, not a quick subject for conversational expression. Accurately handling the word of truth, also as far as I know, is likewise not a subject for hurried expression. The verse under contention is smack dab in the middle of these two parallel discussions of λόγων. So, on the one hand, we have a standard of words; on the other we have accurate handling of the Word. If we engage in a discussion with unbelievers, shouldn’t we be speaking either from the “form of sound words” (such as, speaking of what we believe as doctrinal statements, perhaps), or be “accurately handling” the Word expositionally? Notice, also, that when you look the term in question, it is a compound of λόγος and μάχομαι. The second root of the compound term λογομαχεῖν is, in fact, used in the immediate context of this verse. In vs. 24, it is the term μάχομαι – translated as “quarrelsome.” Okay, so must not be quarrelsome – but must be what? Kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged. Able to teach what? What discussion then follows? With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition. Then follows an extended discourse upon those opponents – and finishes up where? 2 Tim 3:14-17! What is Scripture “profitable” for? Reproof, correction – right? What is being spoken of in vs. 14 seems to have nothing to do with time – but with content. Lexically, it refers to fighting over trivialities. As Gill puts it, “mere words.”[1]

What is meant by “protracted,” then, is my next question? It could, of course, mean “longer than usual” – but what is “usual”? It could mean “lasting for a long time,” as well – but what should we define as “long”? We are not told. I would, however, note that neither hours, days, or even weeks seem to be the time frame in question, at least given Paul’s testimony.

Acts 14:3 – Paul spends “a long time” in Iconium, speaking boldly.[2] Acts 17:2 – He spends three Sabbaths reasoning with them from the Scriptures. Acts 17:17 – He does so every day in Athens. Then tops it off at the Areopagus. In Acts 18:4, at Corinth, again, every Sabbath – then teaches there for a year and 6 months. In Acts 19:8-10 he spends 3 months, beginning in the synagogue, then continuing for two years. However, it isn’t only the time he spent – how quickly do we “reason from the Scriptures”? Is that a quick affair, or do we exegete the text, and bring the full counsel to bear? Acts 20:27 – do not shrink from declaring the whole purpose of God. Acts 20:31 – admonishment, with tears, is a protracted affair. For another thing, the very act of laying out your own worldview – your own beliefs, is surely not a hurried affair – and neither is their explanation of their own. Yes, sometimes time is an issue – but buy the next cup of coffee, and seek to further the discussion. That’s one important reason that we lay our own cards out on the table at the outset – to provide an example for our interlocutor.

It is not the healthy who need a physician. Yes, we are to feed the sheep – but where does this assumption of a “time limit” come from? It simply is not true that neither Christ nor his apostles spent “protracted time dealing with unbelievers.” First, what on earth do you call Judas? Secondly, who were the Pharisees and Sadducees again? Thirdly, I noted the saying of Christ above. Where does that come from? Read Matthew 9. Yes, he is at Matthew’s house. So, tell me this; who else was there? Luke 5 expands on Matthew’s “many” by saying it is a “great crowd” of tax collectors and sinners. Who else does Christ deal with? The Pharisees. The same folks he deals with over and over and over throughout his ministry. Does that count as a “protracted” argument? “Protracted” time with unbelievers? Again, however, where does this “protracted” come from? It doesn’t come from 2 Timothy 2. It doesn’t come from Proverbs 26, either. Both are speaking of the content of the discussion, not the time elapsed in the making of it. This is not to say that some conversations are not a waste of time. This is also not to say that some conversations should not be streamlined, either. It is very easy to get off onto rabbit trails and/or irrelevancies. It is that sort of thing – irrelevancy, foolish speculations, useless quarreling – that is to be avoided. The time waste there is a function of the irrelevancy – but the point being made is not, however, concerning the time itself.

To discuss what you believe, you will inevitably require more time than our typically defective attention spans usually suffer gladly. If I might be blunt here, your time is not more valuable than your ministry. You will have to be a wise steward of your time, to be sure, but a wisely managed conversation can also be managed serially. Van Til’s “the next cup of coffee” refers not only to a single extended conversation where you, as the Christian, show grace and concern by buying that next cup (whether literally or metaphorically) as an immediate demonstration, but also visible commitment to investing your love, your time and your care into buying coffee the next time you meet. There is no arbitrary “time limit” on biblical witness or faithful argument. We must, of course, be wise as serpents, and not be drawn into the world’s snares – but with gentleness and reverence, we are called to be ready to give a Christ-sanctified answer to those who ask – even if it takes a while. After all, expressing, examining, and contrasting two entire life and world views isn’t the work of a few minutes.

  1. [1]that they strive not about words;
    it became them to strive and contend for the form of sound words, for the wholesome words or doctrines of our Lord Jesus, but not about mere words, and especially such as were

    to no profit;
    to no advantage to truth, nor to themselves nor others; were not to edification, to spiritual edification, to godly edifying, which is in faith:

    but to the subverting of the hearers;
    the confounding of their minds, misleading their judgments, and overthrowing their faith; and therefore were not only unprofitable, but hurtful and pernicious, and by all means to be avoided. Gill, Commentary – 2 Tim 2:14

  2. [2]cf. Luke 20:9

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