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Biblical Interpretation (4): Foolish Controversies

But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because there are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. – Titus 3:9-11 (New International Version)

This is a passage many “ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). The main distortion is over the use of the word the NIV translates as divisive. The King James Version here has heretick (or heretic). For us to understand this passage properly, we need to ask, “Who is a heretic?”

When we understand the real meaning of this word as Paul used it, we will see that it is far from the practice of the Spanish Inquisition of the 1500’s – or the heresy trials among many of the Protestant groups in the 1600’s. Though this is the same sense in which many still use this word today, it is not what Paul meant by it at all.

Meaning of the Word

Heretic is not an English word. Like baptism, apostle, and presbyter, it is transliterated from the corresponding Greek words. The Greek word for heretic is αἱρετικός (hai-re-ti-kos). Here in Titus is its sole occurrence in the New Testament.

However, other words from the same word family are present. For example, Matthew 12:18 has a form of αἱρετίζω (hai-re-tid-zo) for “my chosen one.” Several passages use αἱρεσις (hai-re-sis) in the sense of a religious sect, party, or group.

The root meaning of the word-family is to take or choose for oneself. In the context of Titus 3:10, Paul is warning against foolish controversies, genealogies, arguments, and quarrels about the law. These gender strife and opinionated bickering that leads to division. Thus, the NIV in Titus 3:10 has a divisive person for heretic. He told Titus to warn such a person once and then again – and after that to have nothing to do with him.

The key thought here is not that he is holding some teaching that is contrary to the generally accepted beliefs of the group, but that he is divisive in insisting on choosing his own way and insisting that others accept his interpretations/opinions as if they were gospel truth. In Titus 1:10, Paul identified one such group (though he does not use any word from the heretic word-family to describe them) as “the circumcision group” (NIV) or “circumcision party” (RSV).

Context of Titus 3:9-11

In the context of Titus 3:9-11, Paul had just stressed what he wanted Titus to focus on in his teaching.

This is a trustworthy saying, And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. – Titus 3:8 (NIV)

The things he speaks of here are those talked about in Titus 2:11 – 3:7, specifically – and more generically, everything in the book of Titus, especially from 2:1 on where he charged him to “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” and followed by describing that doctrine. That description culminated in 2:11 – 3:7 which describe the grace of God and our salvation. (For a discussion of how Paul uses sound doctrine see this series, especially #8 in the series, “Stress These Things,” which is based on Titus 3:8.)

The heretic in Titus 3:10 is not a person who is honestly seeking to do God’s will as a servant of Jesus Christ, but is mistaken on some point. He is a divisive person who arrogantly insists on his own way or no way. Paul describes him in verse 11 as he says, “You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” This insistence does not even have to be over a point of “doctrine;” it could be over how the church is to approach its work in the community.

Paul, throughout the letters to Timothy and Titus, stressed these things.

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work – which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. – 1 Timothy 1:3-7

This sounds very much like what he says to Titus in 3:9-11.

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. – 2 Timothy 2:23-26

In 2 Timothy, Paul points out that the honestly mistaken person may be redeemed when you gently instruct him – especially if you approach him with the spirit of one who realizes that he himself may be wrong.

There are many things I once believed that I no longer hold. Further study and mature reflection have caused me to abandon some rather strong opinions and convictions I once held. There may be more things in which I need to change – and I suspect that the same is true for you as well.

The point we need to take from this is that Paul is not charging Timothy and Titus to become “heretic detectors,” seeking anyone whom they can blast a couple of times (admonishing them twice) before having nothing more to do with them. Rather, he is warning against allowing self-opinionated people to disrupt the peace and harmony of the church.

Peace and harmony should flow from the things described in Titus 2:1 – 3:8. The divisive man of Titus 3:10 must not be allowed to disrupt this peace if we can help it.

NEXT: BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (5) – False Teachers Among You

PREVIOUS: BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (3) – Contrary to the Doctrine


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