Vain Discussions


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“As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

What Paul characterizes here in the first chapter of the first letter to Timothy is something that goes on quite a bit in religious circles today. We may not speculate about “myths and endless genealogies” today, but we engage in similar discussions. I don’t think that myths and genealogies are so much the issue, as the time we spend locked into trying to prove and persuade others of particular points and principles that are peripheral and  distract us from “the stewardship of God that is by faith”.

When Paul talks about certain persons teaching a “different doctrine”, I don’t think he is speaking about doctrine in the way we might view the word today. In Paul’s time, there were no systematic theologies. Doctrinal issues focused on the fundamentals – who is Jesus? Did he rise from the dead in bodily form? Must believers be circumcised?

Today, there is no end to the theologies and doctrinal points of view that get so finely debated as to focus on such things as how many angles can dance on the head of a pin without jostling each other. I jest of course; but that is the point. We get into the weeds on issues that may be interesting, but they aren’t central or necessary to the Gospel.

When Paul talks about doctrine, we have to think about Paul’s approach to the Corinthians:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1)

Paul focused on the Gospel message, which is simply that Jesus lived; He died; He was buried; He rose again; and He appeared to His followers.[1] Paul focused on the essentials. The word translated by the phrase, “to teach other doctrine” is heterodidaskaleó.[2] It means “teach different things, that is, different from the true or necessary teaching”.

Paul was concerned about doctrine in the sense of the essential truths of the Gospel, and he didn’t want the church to be distracted away from those essential truths by “vain discussions”. Some people fixate on issues like predestination, or the age of the Earth and similar things today in the same way that people were fixated on myths and genealogies in Paul’s time. What counts, Paul says, is not how well we can hold to our positions and carry on a doctrinal conversation, but “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”. The idea of “vain discussions” is of people who want to prove themselves right and others wrong, rather than to live rightly as a bearer of the Gospel in the image of God.

We see Paul’s great concern about these things in an additional warning Timothy at the end of his first letter about those who have an “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words”[3]. Paul came back to the same theme again in his second letter to Timothy in which he instructed Timothy to urge people “to avoid quarreling over words” because “it is in no way profitable, and leads its listeners to ruin”.[4]

I am reminded that faith without works is dead.[5] Though Paul didn’t coin that phrase, he was continually reminding the churches of the importance of bearing the fruit of the Gospel (to walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel).[6] It was James asked:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Theological discussions may seem spiritual, but they aren’t ultimately productive of the fruit of the Gospel, the fruit of the Spirit[7], if they are fixated on rhetoric and not on the reality of Jesus, and Him crucified. The fruit of the Spirit is the proof of the pudding. It is the test of faith. If we don’t bear the fruit that comes from faith in Christ, we have to question our connection to Him.

I think some of our theological discussion today falls into the category of vain discussions that Paul is talking about. We devote a lot of time to matters that are peripheral to the Gospel. Not that we shouldn’t talk about doctrinal matters, but we shouldn’t talk about these things to the detriment, diminishment or exclusion of the Gospel and the power of the Gospel that produces the fruit of the Spirit in peoples’ lives. We should always bear in mind that our faith should bear fruit.

The Gospel is the central reality. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain. We can take away discussions about free will and predestination or the age of the Earth and still have the reality and power of the Gospel. We cannot take away the death, burial, resurrection and appearance of Jesus and still have the Gospel. I think we need a little bit more Paul’s attitude today, which is to major in the majors and minor in the minors and to focus on cultivating the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and the lives of others.

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[1] 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”)

[2] See Biblehub on the definition of heterodidaskaleó (http://biblehub.com/greek/2085.htm ).

[3] 1 Timothy 6:4

[4] 2 Timothy 2:14

[5] James 2:14-26

[6] Philippians 1:27 (“Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”); Ephesians 1:4 (“Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”); Ephesians 4:1 (“walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have received”); and Colossians 1:10 (“walk in a manner worthy of the Lord”).

[7] Galatians 5:22-23 (“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”)

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3 Comments on “Vain Discussions”


  1. […] I tend to like the Molinist view, but I am always somewhat cautioned in my own thinking not to be overly concerned with doctrinal nuances. I don’t want to die on a Molinist hill other than the Gospel. The Calvinist resurgence in the church today stands in contrast to a more Armenian view of inviolate free will. Many have been the discussions and debates between these two views, and I fear we spend too much time and energy on debating when we should spend more time living out the Gospel. I think Paul might lump these debates in the category of vain discussions. […]

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  2. […] See Vain Discussions . Paul addressed the Colossians about “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col. 2:8) that […]

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  3. […] tangents to the Gospel when we focus too emphatically on peripheral things. Paul calls them “vain discussions“. When we focus on the peripheral things, we diminish the Gospel and even risk falling into […]

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