In 2 Timothy 2, Paul instructs Timothy concerning how to deal with “opponents”:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26 ESV)
What does Paul mean by opponents in this passage? Is Paul instructing Timothy in how to deal with people who disagree with him over any subject matter or any topic? Or, perhaps Paul wants Timothy to deal with gentleness over insignificant matters only? What is the context of this passage?
Just a few sentences previously, Paul wrote the following words:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:15-18 ESV)
According to Paul, Timothy is to demonstrate that he is an approved worker who does not need to be ashamed by “rightly handling the word of truth”. In Scripture, the phrase “word of truth” is almost synonymous with the term “gospel”. So, Timothy is to handle the gospel correctly.
Meanwhile, others are not handling the gospel correctly. Instead, they are taking part in “irreverent babble” – or “worldly empty talk” – that is, not related to the gospel. Paul gives Timothy two examples – Hymenaeus and Philetus – of people who are contradicting the gospel by saying that the resurrection has already occurred. Later, Paul would again warn Timothy to have nothing to do with “foolish, ignorant controversies” that “breed quarreling” (2 Timothy 2:23). Instead of giving in to these types of “youthful passions”, Timothy is to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace instead (2 Timothy 2:22).
It is in this context that Paul instructs Timothy to deal with his “opponents” in a most peculiar way: 1) without being quarrelsome, 2) with kindness, 3) with skillfulness in teaching, 4) with patient endurance, and 5) with gentleness. Why should Timothy deal with “opponents” in this manner? In hopes that God would grant them repentance.
In the context, it seems that Paul is telling Timothy how to deal with people like Hymenaeus and Philetus – those who are contradicting the gospel – as well as with those who are taking part in “worldly empty talk” and “foolish, ignorant controversies”.
I think the church has lost the ability to deal with “opponents” in gentleness, primarily because we have very shallow relationships with one another. We do not know one another, and thus the only way that we can deal with one another is through “skillful teaching” – which usually turns into a shouting match instead of a kindness match.
Are there times when “false teachers” – those who teach contrary to the gospel – should be pointed out and removed from the assembly. Yes, we see this example in Scripture. But, this seems to be the exception, not the rule. We do not begin by condemning people – in fact, we should never condemn people – and we do not begin by “excommunicating” people. Instead, we must begin with kindness, patience, gentleness… teaching with our attitude and our lives as much as with our words.