“Always Learning” is not Always Good

12 Apr

While reading through the book of 2 Timothy recently, I was struck with a peculiar phrase. Paul was in the middle of warning Timothy about the deception that would come in the perilous times of the last days (2 Tim 3:1). He was simultaneously warning about the deception, as well as about the kind of people who would spread this deception. He provides a lengthy list of their vices in verses 2-5, and urges Timothy to have nothing to do with them. My interest perked up significantly in verse 6, as he warned, “For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women…”

I haven’t written much about the topic lately, but having done some study on the Bible’s view on women, I was paying particular attention to this. It endeared me to Paul to see that he was repulsed by the ways that these false teachers would prey on women. It also made me curious to learn more about these end-time “gullible women”, and how much relation that might have to what was already happening among the the women in Ephesus (the city where Timothy was currently stationed).

These women would be gullible. They would be loaded down with sins. They would be led astray by various lusts. (This is sounding awfully familiar to the idle widows of 1 Timothy 5…)

What really hit me, though, was verse 7: “…always learning“.

Hang on, what?

“Always learning” seems like it should be a good thing, right? Surely growing in knowledge isn’t bad. Wasn’t Paul himself the one who said “Let a woman learn” in 1 Timothy 2? Wasn’t he the one who gave a useful outlet for if a woman wanted to learn something in 1 Corinthians 14? These women were learning. They were learning a lot. That’s what Paul said to do. So what’s the problem?

The problem is explained by the next phrase: “…never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Suddenly I was no longer thinking of “those women back then,” or even “those women in the end times”. I was thinking about the Western culture today.

The problem Paul is highlighting is not a matter of having a teachable spirit. It is failing to know the truth. So in other words, imagine this scenario: Paul and Timothy worked in Ephesus, preaching Christ and Him crucified. These “gullible women” said, “Okay, cool,” and learned from them.

Now suppose another teacher blew through town, saying, “Oh, that Jesus thing is a good start, but to be really spiritual you need to keep the Kosher laws.”

The women’s reply? “Oh, really? Okay, cool. Throw out the pork.”

Another preacher comes by, preaching the need for communing with universal spiritual powers, and oh, by the way, your body isn’t spiritual, so sexual immorality is totally fine.

The gullible women: “Oh, wow, who knew? Okay, cool. Party at my place!”

Because they are always learning. They have no idea what is true. They only know what the latest, most dazzling self-proclaimed teacher has to say. Their hearts are continual open books, ready to receive input from anybody and everybody who claims to have something spiritual to say to them. Like a sponge indiscriminately soaks up whatever it happens to be sitting in — whether that’s water or poison — these undiscerning believers are ready to absorb whatever new ideas were thrown at them.

This is the same behavior Paul describes elsewhere as being “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). It is an utter lack of grounding in what is true. It easily masquerades as humility (Surely I don’t know everything!), but leaves a believer in a constant state of theological flux, never sure of anything, willing to question everything, and refusing to stand on any given doctrine as truth.

As much as we want to remain teachable, and as much as we know that we don’t have all the answers, there are some issues that can be settled. There are some issues that must be settled.

Now, in our uber-enlightened society, this is an unforgivably simplistic position to take. A surefire way to get laughed out of any perfectly “reasonable,” civil, thoughtful religious discussion is to claim to know the truth about the issue at hand. You can be sure to be instantly be accused of arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and/or stupidity. Pshaw! You, little random dude(tte) who has written no books, has no TV show, and has not debated with Larry King, claim to know the truth about the divinity of Jesus? The way of salvation? That God exists? That you can even know that God exists? You are simply scared of having a real intellectual discussion. You are simply a blind devotee who fears your whole religious system will crumble at the first objective question. I mean, you’re welcome to be into that whole Jesus thing if it works for you, but seriously. You don’t have to be so flipping dogmatic about it.

Such accusations are perhaps easier to recognize as baseless when it’s in an inter-faith setting. But I feel I have been seeing it more and more in professing Christian debates — meaning, they’re professing Christianity, but having “nice”, “open”, “reasonable” discussions about important things of the faith. Things like… well, Jesus’ deity. The way of salvation. The existence of the Trinity. The doctrine of the resurrection.

…Yeah, basically the same things the atheists debate about.

Now, it’s true that we don’t want to become unteachable, so sure of ourselves being right in even the finest points of theological tradition that anyone who disagrees with us must consequentially be a wretched heretic (I actually talked about that briefly in my last post). It’s also true that there’s a place in the body of Christ for Christian apologetics, where people grapple with hard questions of the faith in order to defend Scripture with sound, reasonable arguments. Even beyond that, it is good and healthy to maintain an open mind, willing to receive correction in areas where we may have had unperceived blind spots. We want to be able to do that.

But here’s the thing: We don’t approach core theological discussions as a blank slate. We stopped having the option of a blank slate when we confessed Jesus as Lord.

Being a Christian means there are certain things that we don’t learn anymore. Things like, “Is Jesus really divine?”, “Is there really a God?”, “Is there really such a thing as sin?”, “Is there life after death?”, and “Is there really only one way to God”? Those are real questions — significant questions. They shouldn’t be ignored. But they should, and must, be settled. While struggling with doubt in those issues by no means automatically condemns a person to Hell, there is a big difference between struggling with uncertainty, and being willing to blithely learn from any yahoo who has a platform and something new and exciting to say.

There’s an old, somewhat curmudgeonly saying that goes, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” If we were to state it a bit more accurately to this post, we could say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your salvation falls out.” That sounds funny, but it’s real. The women Paul was talking about would be made “captive” by false teachers who were “men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith” (2Tim 3:6-9). There’s more at stake here than being wrong in an argument. It really can be a matter of spiritual life or death.

The author of Hebrews issued a similar warning to a group of nearly-backslidden believers:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 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. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

The Hebrew Christians were expected to know the first principles. In fact, they were old enough in the faith to be reasonably expected to teach those principles. The problem is they didn’t cling to the knowledge they had. They should have been able to tell the difference between good and evil doctrines, but they had refused to exercise that kind of discernment. The author exhorts them to move on from “the elementary principles of Christ”, and urges them to “go on to perfection” (6:1), without needing to yet again lay the foundation for the basic things (things which, funnily enough, include “eternal judgment”… let the reader understand).

It is very highly valued in this society to never be too sure of anything, to question everything, and to throw one’s lot in with whatever is currently considered progressive. So many people are all too happy to ask along with Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), yet are never willing to hear an answer to it, and will scorn you for saying that you know what the answer is. In a world that is running to and fro, hungering to always learn, though it is a vain chasing of the wind (Dan 12:4, Ecc. 1:17), I want to heed the advice of Paul, a man who had finished the race in a way to receive a great reward:

Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. (2 Tim 1:13-14)

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Posted by on April 12, 2011 in 2 Timothy, Bible, Theology


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