How to Manage Quarrelers and Heretics: Notes on 2 Timothy 2:22-26

     Theological error and heresy constantly plagued the church during the life of the Apostle Paul, so it is no surprise that his final instructions to Timothy contain essential counsel on the right way to address error and heresy

     2 Timothy 2:22-26 belongs to a larger discourse that runs from 2:14-26. Paul begins by prohibiting foolish quarrels. He suggests that Timothy will need to correct heresies (2:14-19), then says again that Timothy must avoid foolish quarrels. After a call to honorable service in God’s house, Paul begins to return to his theme: “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2:22-23).

     Paul first summons to shun sin and pursue righteousness. The ESV separate the command to “flee” sin and “pursue righteousness, but in the Greek, “flee” and “pursue” stand beside each other, sharpening the contrast. Paul says: "Youthful passion flee; pursue righteousness." Perhaps Timothy will be more credible if he is righteous. It is hard to ignore a man who is manifestly godly. Perhaps he will be more clear-sighted or effective if filled with love and peace.

     Timothy must also avoid youthful passions because misdirected passion fuels quarrels. After all, when Paul tells Timothy to "flee youthful passions" (2:22) the larger passage never mentions greed or lust. The repeated warning about quarrels and controversies imply that the tendency to be argumentative is itself a sinful and dangerous passion. Unbridled quarreling is as deadly as unbridled lust.

     Timothy must refuse foolish controversies because they breed fights and the Lord’s servant must not fight, but be kind, patient, and gentle with opponents. Gentle correction is more likely to lead to repentance.

     The visible church has been plagued by the quarrelsome from A.D. 30 to A.D. 2019. The disputatious love the grinding sound of their critical voice. Craving status and attention, they tear down godly leaders, from Moses to Jesus to Paul. So Paul tells Timothy to shun their controversies: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2:23). The verb translated “have nothing to do” (paraiteo) means to excuse oneself from something or plead for release. There is, therefore a time to walk away in silence. A controversy is “ignorant” if it contradicts apostolic teaching. Some people can only spout “irreverent babble” (2 Tim. 2:16).

     Debates are foolish and vain if they bring no glory to God and no direction to man. Calvin said a doctrinal discussion is useless if it does not edify, for Scripture is profitable. Therefore, leaving "fruitless questions" and "empty speculations," we must "meditate upon those things that make for edification."[1] But some draw distinctions that make no difference.

     Ego is a factor too. John said Diotrephes, his opponent, “likes to put himself first” (3 John 9). The combative care nothing for the havoc they cause, that they only “ruin the hearers” (2:14), that their prattling will “spread like gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:17). So we “have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies” (2:23). Further, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10). In short, warn then shun.      

     Similarly, Solomon said, “Every fool is quick to quarrel” (Prov. 20:3). Still, it can be necessary to engage false teaching, even if it seems foolish. Proverbs 26:4-5 speaks paradoxically: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

     When senseless disputes begin, adults may change the subject, abandon the conversation, or try to redirect the discussion. Still, there is a time to correct errors directly, especially if they propose dangerous errors, even heresy. Faithful leaders guard the faith (2 Tim. 1:14). They ward off “savage wolves” who try to destroy the flock or “draw away the disciples” (Acts 20:28-30).

     Paul’s counsel to Timothy mentions five aspects of effective engagement: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth…”

     First then, good leaders are God’s servants. They defend biblical truth, not their own opinions. Second, their demeanor is kind or gentle. The gentleness that Jesus modeled with Thomas and Peter is the standard (John 20:24-29, 21:1-19). Third, leaders must be capable teachers (didaktikos, cf. 1 Tim. 3:2). They deliver the truth with clarity and conviction.

     Fourth, leaders patiently endure or put up with evil. That may require them to ignore lesser errors, so they can address core issues. They speak without anger, calmly, so others can listen. Matthew 18:15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” The speaker goes (unless Titus 3:10 applies and the error is minor) instead of waiting and corrects instead of complaining. He goes alone. That prevents the shame of public rebuke and permits dialogue. Finally, the goal is to win a brother, not to win an argument.

     Galatians 6:1-2 says the spiritually mature gently bring the correction. They watch themselves, lest they too be tempted, for they know they can stumble, too. A gentle leader might begin “May I share Scripture with you?” or “That’s a popular idea; may I share another perspective?” Of course, bold error may mandate swift, candid correction, although a patient demeanor should be a constant.

     Paul says Timothy must correct or instruct his opponents. These “opponents” include false teachers, but we must remember the people they dupe or snare. Paul is not optimistic about the reception he will receive from heretics (2 Tim. 3:6, 9, 13). But he is theocentric as well as realistic. God grants repentance, which is an outcome that God “may perhaps” grant. Therefore, we speak "the truth in love" and offer God's grace (Eph. 4:15, 29). We cannot persuade anyone to believe, but the Spirit may use our efforts to foster genuine sorrow (Acts 11:18). The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 87, defines true repentance splendidly:

Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.

     True repentance leads to “knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25), that is, saving knowledge of the gospel (1 Tim. 2:4, 4:3). This knowledge lets people “come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil” (2:26). The devil deceives people with false promises that entrap them. This is obvious in the case of drug and alcohol addiction, but quests for power, security, approval, and wealth are “classic” snares (1 Tim, 6:10). Other snares, including hope in social or political reforms, cycle in and out of popularity.  

     People resist release from their self-made prisons for a simple reason: There is something valuable in them. Security and wealth have their benefits. Therefore, anyone who wishes to bring a person “to their senses” will need to be gentle, patient, and a skilled teacher. That said many do feel the trap of sin. Physically, the lure of food, drink, or sensuality can be overwhelming. Fear, anger, envy, and resentment can whirl without control. But we need not be trapped by sin. Indeed, escape from the devil is one way the Bible describes salvation. Jesus gave his life as a ransom (Matt. 20:28). He secured our release from sin and its power. Objectively, he redeems us by his "precious blood” (1 Pet 1:19). Subjectively, the Spirit opens our minds to God’s truth (Matt. 13:11-17). And that should help us avoid quarrels and correct dangerous foes.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1559, 1960), 1:263 (1:14:3).


Dan Doriani