The Pattern of Sound Words

We have been told now for some time by those with loud voices that a true understanding of Christianity will result in greater justice in the Church. By “justice” it is meant that distinctions between women and men will be erased. Also, “justice” is alleged to mean that all kinds of ideas about gender and sexuality will be celebrated as another instance of diversity among God’s creatures. As a result, Christian traditions that refuse to go along with such “justice” objectives are deemed to stand against the real spirit of the faith.

It is true that Christians are to discern truth from error by understanding the core values taught through the teachings of the apostles. However, it seems that “justice” as so many understand it today is not among them.

Even in the days of the Apostle Paul, it was already the case that people were experimenting with the belief system of the Christian faith. Rather than being content with the doctrine established by Jesus through his apostles, some who wished to be teachers added not a few of their own notions. The result is “swerv[ing] from the truth” like Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17-18).

Paul’s answer for this was for Timothy, the appointed teacher among the disciples in that place at that time, to “[f]ollow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me,” (2 Tim 1:13). Timothy’s work was not to innovate or freshen up those teachings. Rather his work was to hold fast to them; to consistently remind his own hearers of them.

Notice, too, that Paul does not mention a book or list of correct doctrinal statements. He calls upon Timothy to conform his teaching to Paul’s pattern of teaching. Timothy may need to say things in different ways, depending upon the occasion. Yet, Timothy’s teachings should always bear a familiar shape.

This shape is evident in a number of New Testament passages that summarize the Christian faith. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 and Philippians 2:5-11 are very probably examples of creeds widely circulated throughout the early church. (A “creed” in this sense is just the sort of doctrinal summary of the Christian faith that Paul refers to as a “pattern of sound teaching.”)

Another is 1 Timothy 3:16:
“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

This way of responding to faith crises within the Church has continued ever since. Someone begins teaching what is foreign to the apostolic doctrines. Responsible and faithful teachers rise to the occasion by calling on the brethren at the time to recall the basic confessions of our faith.

Irenaeus was a Christian leader in Lyons (France) in the second century. He is famous for responding to heresies very much like many “New Age” false teachings today. In the AD 180s, Irenaeus encouraged the Christians under his influence with this:

“The church, though scattered throughout the whole world to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and the sea and all things in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for one salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets proclaimed God’s saving dealings with man and the coming, virgin birth, passion, resurrection from the dead and bodily ascension into heaven of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ and his second coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise up all human flesh so that...he should execute just judgment upon all people.”
(Against Heresies, 1.10.1; quoted in Tony Lane, ed., Timeless Witness).

This and similar plain and simple summaries of what every genuine Christian believes came to be known as “the rule of faith.” It was easily remembered, and it equipped everyday Christians to discern truth from error in the many claims being made by those who stood up to teach others.

And so it can do for us still today. Paul urged Timothy to follow Paul’s “pattern of sound words” because Timothy must be able to “rightly handl[e] the word of truth,” (2 Tim 2:15). You and I need to be able to read the Bible in the light of truth. Not just any interpretation is correct. Let the brief summaries by the apostles and by faithful Christians ever since guide our faithfulness as we grow in our knowledge of God’s will.

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