“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (NIV)
– 2 Timothy 4:3
When the Apostle Paul wrote those words to a young pastor named Timothy, I doubt he could’ve imagined where we are today. Our technology gives us an even greater ability to do what Paul warned Timothy people would do. With our remote controls, radio dials, amazon 1-click shopping, and mouse clicks we can surround ourselves with people who say what we want to hear.
I bet we can all think of someone we think does just that. Usually it’s in the realm of religion or politics. The question is, do we do it too? Do you gather around you a great number of teachers to say what your itching ears want to hear? To date, I haven’t had anyone tell me, “Yes, that’s what I do.” Yet, I have a growing suspicion that we all do it more than we care to admit.
2 Timothy 4:3 is about sound doctrine and “those people” that won’t tolerate sound doctrine. But what is sound doctrine and who gets to decide? This is the problem. In the past, when our worlds were smaller, most people were exposed to a limited range of ideas. When it came to religion, that usually meant their home church, the faith of their family, and/or the dominant faith of their community. For example, I grew up in a small, rural town. We had three flavors of Christianity. I never heard of Islam, what I heard about the Jewish faith was all wrong, I never met a Hindu or a Buddhist and I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about the diversity of faiths – even within Christendom.
Fast forward to today and I’m a google search away from information about any faith. But is that any better? In my youth, a great many faiths remained anonymous to me. I simply didn’t know they were out there. Today, that same diversity of faiths is hyper-nonymous. I know they are out there, but there is so much information available that I’m overwhelmed. I can’t possibly take it all in. Just because I can access more information today doesn’t mean that I know that information any better or that the information impacts my life in any meaningful way.
So what do we do? We do what Paul warned Timothy we would do, but it takes a different shape.
In theory there is such a thing as sound doctrine (and we can talk about how we define that, the role of reason, experience, tradition, and so on). In practice, especially within a hyper-individualistic culture like America, individuals often decide what they believe to be sound doctrine. That decision is the beginning of the journey to gather around you a great number of teachers who say what your itching ears want to hear.
Once a person defines sound doctrine the foundation is laid. Future messages are then critiqued on the basis of what they already believe to be sound doctrine. If what is heard doesn’t match what is already believed, it becomes suspect or it is rejected altogether. If a person does this long enough, what is the result? They, de facto, have gathered around themselves a group of teachers (preachers, authors, radio personalities) that preach and teach what they already believe to be sound doctrine. If they are people of good will, it usually ends there. If not, there is another step. Armed with Paul’s description of people who don’t tolerate sound doctrine, they label people with divergent views. Those are the people Paul was talking about who want their itching ears tickled.
The ability to believe particular things, while being open to other understandings, in the spirit of open dialog, is becoming a lost skill. Helped along by slogans like “If you don’t believe something, you’ll fall for anything”, we are often encouraged to shelter ourselves from divergent views and close our ears to divergent voices.
How do we resist such a move? After all, growth requires change and the subject of God requires humility. Well, before Paul warned Timothy about people with itching ears, he gave him a charge. He wrote;
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” (NRSV)
– 2 Timothy 4:1 – 2
How do we resist such a move? Find a pastor who is resisting, too.
You should know that many Pastors today are pressured to tickle ears. In a culture that defines church success by pennies in the plate and people in the pew, preaching can often become about something other than proclaiming the message. What folks (often church leaders) want the pastor to do is tell a few good stories, provide a little personal application, walk around and smile, help people understand the Bible in a way that supports what they already believe, and so on. Just don’t challenge people, and if you must, make sure you challenge them in an area that they think others may need, but not themselves (picking on gay people usually works). OR, even better, challenge them to become better Americans who are living the American dream “Christianly” (I recommend Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University for this one). OR, better yet, just preach American triumphalism and manifest destiny and wealth as God’s reward for how faithful we have been. Whatever you do, Pastor, DON’T take Jesus at his word as if he actually expected his followers to follow him. That can be devestating.
Even when people say they don’t want a pastor to do that, they often do. People don’t want pastors that talk about doing what Jesus actually taught and did. People want pastors to affirm what they already believe Jesus taught and did, even if it looks strangely un-Jesus-like. At the same time, even when Pastors don’t want to do that, they often do. Pastors want stable tenures at successful churches, even if that is defined more by culture than Bible.
Paul was encouraging Timothy to be a substantive pastor. He was warning him not to give in to the direction many people will want to go. He was exhorting him to stand firm and persevere in his calling. AND, by inference, Paul was asking all people of faith to ignore the itching in our own ears and remain open to the teaching and direction of those they have called to pastor them. Paul is calling for substantive followers of Jesus, too.
In order for that relationship to flourish, some other things need to be substantive as well.
Substantive conversion: I’m not suggesting we become the salvation police by interrogating others, but I do think we have become a bit too relaxed (at times) when in comes to conversion. Going from death to life, darkness to light, sin to Jesus, is too important not to treat as important. Are you ready to go all in, as you live out the way of Jesus? Are you turning from sin and self and turning towards Jesus, your Lord and Savior and Lord (in case you forgot the Lord part)? Are you ready to be baptized into the visible church as a testimony to your commitment? Is the church willing to stand with you, thus vouching for your faith? Without substantive conversion, the church becomes a strange mix of folks that are vaguely Christian, whatever that means to them, and not overtly non-Christian.
Substantive transformation: Michael Simpson once wrote (I’m paraphrasing) that if you can’t tell how your life would’ve been different without Jesus, in concrete terms, you probably haven’t experience conversion or substantive transformation. What did Jesus save you from? What were you like before you became a follower of Jesus? Where would you be today if you hadn’t decided to follow Jesus? How are you more like Jesus today than yesterday, or last year or last decade? Without substantive transformation, the church becomes a strange mix of folks that claim great things from a God who can change things, but who don’t experience it in their midst – which is a kind of faith without power. When faith isn’t about conversion and transformation (justification and sanctification or salvation and discipleship) then it becomes about other things. When it becomes about other things – like being successful or bigger or whatever, then the chance of sliding into “ear tickling” gets higher.
Substantive calling: People don’t much talk about calling anymore. It’s rare for people to ask, “Tell me about your calling?” This is true for pastors and folks who aren’t pastors, too. Tell me about your vocation? What has God created you to be and do? What role do you play in advancing God’s kingdom with your time and talents and treasure? This isn’t about how you make a living, but how you spend your life. If the folks in the church don’t have a good grasp on their calling as God’s people and their unique role in building God’s kingdom alongside Jesus under the power of the Spirit, than church will become about other things. Often times it becomes about getting our itching ears tickled to make us feel better about the choices we’ve already made, even if they aren’t remotely related to following Jesus.
Substantive training: Everyone likes to bash Cemeteries, I mean seminaries. And yet, the training they provide is essential to providing good pastors for the church. I admit that there are a great many aspects of being a pastor that overlap with other professions. Things like leadership, administration, management, public speaking, and so on. But there are many things that don’t. Doing theology is not the same as having opinions and beliefs about the Bible. Preaching is not just religious public speaking, it’s a different task. The preacher is responsible to more than just the congregation. They are responsible to the text itself and ultimately to the God who authored the truth they are trying to impart. Being a Bible teacher is the only vocation in scripture that carries with it the weight of heavier judgement. [Think about that when you ask your pastor to preach a Bible passage but only in 20 min. because there is a coffee time before Sunday school and people don’t want to get to lunch late.] A funeral message isn’t just about delivering a nice eulogy that makes a family feel better, it’s important in a healthy grief process. When it comes to pastoring most people are at square one: they don’t even know what they don’t know. It takes training to do the task.
If a congregation isn’t appreciative of the value of training for their pastors, they are especially open to having their itching ears tickled. Why? Because in a consumer culture like America they will gravitate towards what they want to hear, not what they need to hear based upon the assessment, understanding and skill of their pastors.
Tickling ears? It’s not what pastors should do. It’s not what congregations should demand. Let’s keep moving towards substantive conversion, transformation, calling and training.