“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” II Timothy 2:15
The Apostle Paul’s challenge to Timothy rings down the centuries to all who have been in positions of teaching or leadership in the Body of Christ. Not just pastors and elders and deacons, but all those members of us who like to dig into the Word and bring its truths to light. Study to show yourself approved. Be a workman unashamed, who rightly divides the Word of truth.
It’s not the only time Paul talks about someone being “approved”, either. In among the greetings in Romans 16, we read (v10) “Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ”. Probably this Apelles was a preacher, then; someone Paul thought of as a teacher of sound doctrine who could correctly handle the Scriptures.
“Approved” begs the question of “approved by whom?” It seems fairly evident that it’s God who approves, but how do we know that God is doing that? It’s easy to claim the Divine imprimatur on your own teaching, but we know also that there are liars and hypocrites and wolves masquerading as sheep.
In the days when Paul was writing, many of the original Twelve were still around. There were people still living who had heard the Sermon on the Mount and who had been in the Upper Room at Pentecost and some of whom had been sent out by Jesus as part of the Twelve or the Seventy-Two. It was a largely oral culture, yes, but oral cultures have good memories for details and have systems in place for making sure the story stays straight. If you don’t believe me, try telling your young daughter the story of Cinderella with ruby slippers instead of glass ones and watch the outburst of indignation.
The Apostles as a whole could vouch for this or that doctrine or teaching being true or false to what Jesus actually did and taught. Most of the New Testament letters are them doing just that, in fact. Paul went up to Jerusalem and laid out his doctrine before the Apostles, we are told in Galatians 2. A large part of being an Apostle was the responsibility to the Church at large to keep the teachings true to Jesus’ words and actions.
So “approved” might carry the meaning of “approved by the Apostles as being true to what they themselves received”. We don’t have any of the original Twelve still among us, but we have the entire canon of Scripture assembled painstakingly by the early church as constituting the essential body of teaching of the Ecclesia. We have a huge corpus of additional writings showing what the church through history has thought about this canon. So in modern terms, “approved” might be more like “in line with the essential doctrines of historic Christianity.
If you reinterpret passages of Scripture in entirely novel ways, there’s a risk involved. The onus is on you to show that this new reading is true to what the text is actually saying and in keeping with the rest of Scripture.
It’s not that we can never decide that the church has been mistaken about what a passage says, even mistaken for centuries. Just like us, the ancients were humans, products of their culture and sometimes making assumptions that we do not. For example, for centuries it was assumed that women were inherently inferior to men, something that we’re finally managing to get past only in recent years. Re-reading some passages of Scripture without those particular cultural blinders on might lead us in new directions of interpretation that are more true to the text and to the Scripture in general.
Correctly handling the Word of truth so that we do not need to be ashamed is something that all of us who claim the name of Christ should aspire to. I hope I’m getting there, though I’m painfully aware that I have my own blind spots and interpretive tendencies. I believe that what I write in this blog is that sort of sound teaching.
But I’m not the One who gets to be the final Judge of that.