Hypocrites, Conspirators, and Old Wives Tales

Scripture Focus: 1 Timothy 4.2-11
2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. 

6 If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. 9 This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. 10 That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. 

11 Command and teach these things.

Reflection: Hypocrites, Conspirators, and Old Wives Tales
By John Tillman

Paul and Timothy addressed rumors that Jesus had returned and the final resurrection had already occurred. These Gnostic, dualistic, conspiracists forbade the continuation of normal life and demanded the end of marriages, work, and other norms. 

We might think anyone would be silly to believe such nonsense until we look around at our own era. Wild rumors, old wives tales, conspiracy theories, and extremism are as rampant now as then.

Some conspiracy theories are political, talking about secret corruption and why you can only trust particular sources. Some are economic, talking about who is profiting, who is losing, and who is really to blame! Some involve justice, talking about statistically rare crime as rampant or statistically frequent crimes as unimportant. Some are religious, talking about who’s secretly a heretic, a Fascist, a Marxist, or a liberal. (Yes, theological conversations are constantly invaded by politicization.) 

Conspiracies conveniently prevent questioning their assertions. “If you question it, you must be part of it! You are one of them!” Empathy is banned. Nuance is forbidden. Outrage is applauded. Extreme action is justified. The commonality to every conspiracy theory is this: Fear all others. Trust only us.

When people we know or admire slide into cultish conspiratorial thought, it’s painful. In a very real way, we lose them. They are consumed, eaten up, by their cultish obsession.

Paul challenges Timothy to continue to point out the truth, even in the face of shameless, unconscionable lies. This is for the sake of the church and for the sake of the brothers and sisters in his community.

We should warn people against and help people escape cultish conspiracies. Even when “flesh and blood” oppose us, our struggle is not with them. (Ephesians 6.12) There are spiritual forces that we can only oppose with the gospel and prayer. 

Godless myths float about looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5.8) Deceiving spirits crouch by our doorways and devices hungering to master us. (Genesis 4.7) Hypocritical liars spin every “fact” to benefit them. (1 Timothy 4.2) They forbid us from good things painted as bad and bid us adopt wicked things painted as good.

“Train yourself to be godly,” Paul says. Without this training, not only can we not help others, we are susceptible. The escape from conspiratorial cults begins with this: Fear no human. Trust in Jesus. Continue pointing to truth, no matter how many point in the other direction.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. — Psalm 31.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Judges 3  (Listen 4:30)
1 Timothy 4 (Listen 2:05)

Read more about Facing Wolves
In hunting for “wolves” we can injure a lot of sheep. People who hunt wolves often become wolf-like themselves.

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Facing Wolves

Scripture Focus: 1 Timothy 4.1-5
1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

Acts 20.29-31a
29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard!…

Reflection: Facing Wolves
By John Tillman

Paul’s warning about false teachers echoes the words of Jesus. (Matthew 24.10-11; Mark 13.22) Paul would give similar warnings to the Ephesian elders in person. (Acts 20.28–31)

These were leaders who loved Paul well enough to travel nearly 50 miles to see him for the last time, as he journeyed to Rome. Yet some of them would become false teachers. Paul described these false teachers as “savage wolves” who “will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20.29)

Passages like this can make us paranoid and conspiratorial. “Anyone could be a false teacher—a demonic influence!” We can become obsessed with rooting out “demonic” false teachers. It can be exciting to think you are fighting demons and hunting wolves. However, in hunting for “wolves” we can injure a lot of sheep. People who hunt wolves often become wolf-like themselves.

What makes a wolf?

“Things taught by demons” sounds spookily supernatural, and it may be, but the lessons are mundane. The demonic teaching Paul is worried about isn’t exotic child sacrifices. It’s rule-following legalism and salvation by works: “Don’t marry,” “Don’t eat certain food.” (1 Timothy 4.3)

Legalism always ends in hypocrisy because legalists, and everyone else, fail to live up to their own standards. Hypocrisy and lies burn away people’s consciences. This is what makes a wolf. 

With consciences burned away, wolves refuse correction and scoff at compassion. A lack of humility or sensitivity makes them brutish, savage, and proud of it. A wolf glories in his teeth. Blood on his lips is a badge of honor. 

Like Timothy, we face “wolves” today. With hypocritical pride and calloused hearts, they are unsparing and brutal. However, Paul doesn’t seem to suggest that Timothy should hunt the wolves. He certainly doesn’t say, “mercilessly troll them on Twitter” or any 1st-century equivalent. I don’t want to minimize the danger of false teaching. We should take Paul’s warning seriously. We can’t ignore wolves or pretend they don’t exist. However, we do not have to worry about “exposing” wolves. They will expose themselves.

Rather than hunting wolves, Paul’s warning, given with tears, is not to become one of these wolves ourselves. (Acts 20.31) Paul tells Timothy to just keep feeding the sheep. (1 Timothy 4.6) Let’s hunt our own wolfish tendencies. Let’s resist legalism and hypocrisy with grace, truth, humility, and compassion.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Morning Psalm
But as for me, this is my prayer to you, at the time you have set, O Lord:
In your great mercy, O God, answer me with your unfailing help.
Save me from the mire; do not let me sink; let me be rescued from those who hate me and out of the deep waters.
Let not the torrent of waters wash over me, neither let the deep swallow me up; do not let the Pit shut its mouth upon me.
Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me. — Psalm 69.14-18

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 32 (Listen 5:30)
1 Timothy 4 (Listen 2:05)

Read more about Praying for Repentance
As we think of these people Paul writes of, who will gather teachers to suit their own desires, we need to think about our desires.

Read more about Learning from the Suffering
Deconstructing people are not wolves to be hunted but fellow sheep—often attacked and wounded sheep.