Do my ears itch? | An exploration of the use of 2 Timothy 4:3

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.

– 2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV)

2 Timothy 4:3 is often pulled out in the church in discussions over contentious social issues.  The charge is often leveled that, “you are just doing what the culture wants instead of standing for sound doctrine.”  No doubt, if you’ve been around churches when things like the inclusion of gay people, or women’s role in ministry, or the age of the earth, you’ve likely heard one side, or the other or, perhaps, both sides say this.

In my experience, the usual direction of this comment is from those who occupy positions of power within the status quo towards those that are suggesting some change, or loosening, of current understandings and practices.   For example, it is more common for a straight Christian who opposes LGBT inclusion or gay marriage to say to those who don’t, “You’re just going with the culture.”  I’m not judging that in any way, just using it as an example from my experience.

It’s meant to be the ultimate insult.  In effect the comment says, “You don’t care about sound doctrine, the Bible, Jesus or God…you can’t possibly have a well reasoned theological basis for your decision…of course you haven’t discerned the Spirit correctly because I doubt you’re even really a Christian…you are just doing what YOU want to do and caving to popular pressures from the world.”

That’s pretty heavy…”judgey”….stuff when you get down to it.

Here’s my question, which springs from an online discussion about a Nashville Evangelical Church (GracePointe Church) that came out as fully inclusive of LGBTQ people. Not too far down in the comments, someone pulled out 2 Timothy 4:3. This person accused the church – of which he’s not a part – of “simply tickling itching ears…”   Having recently, over the past year, spent some time – not a lot, but some – in Nashville, I found this comment odd.  To me, when it comes to Nashville, GracePointe Church is doing the exact opposite. Most of the ears I met in Nashville have no affinity for gay inclusion in the church.  So, who’s ears are being tickled? Where’s the upside to full gay inclusion in Nashville? Seems to me like near universal scorn would be the result in that community.

So it brings me back to the text.  Who are the ones that won’t put up with sound doctrine in the text?  Is it the people outside of the church (i.e. teachers are tempted to play to the world over and against sound doctrine?)  or is it the people inside the church (i.e. teachers are tempted to play to the church over and against sound doctrine?)?  According to the text, it’s the latter. It’s people within the church that no longer suffer sound teaching. They just want to hear what makes them feel good, or “in”, or certain that they are right.  The want teachers who will speak from a position of authority and echo what they already believe to be true. No challenge. No change. No discernment. No deeper exploration. People want to land at a church that reflects back to them what they already believe.  That, my friends, is having your itching ears tickled.

So the question, for me, isn’t “Is church A or church B just teaching what people want to hear?” That is a never ending process of judgment and finger pointing.  A better question is,  “Am I the kind of Jesus-follower that can’t tolerate anything that I don’t already believe to be true?”  If I am, then I’m holding God hostage to my already believed stuff about God.  Then I’m the kind of Jesus-follower that seeks teachers who will itch my ear?

I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to being that kind of a teacher. I don’t want to be that kind of church.

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