Formations 11.15.2015: Make Mistakes!

2 Timothy 2:14-18, 22-26; 2 Peter 3:15-16

paul at ephesus_sm“Girls can’t be doctors. Girls are nurses, and boys are doctors.”

I was used to my students saying weird and silly things, but this one made me spin around fast. My student, E, was confidently explaining to K why she couldn’t be a doctor when she grew up. K looked very confused, and said, “But my auntie is a doctor.” E, still confident, replied, “No, she’s a nurse, because girls are nurses.” K did not respond.

I probably could have found a better way to ease my students into a critical discussion of where they were getting these ideas, but we were at lunch, and all I could think about was getting back to class on time. When I noticed that K wasn’t going to respond, I quickly said, “That’s not true,” explained why, and then I probably ran away to ask some other students to pick up all the napkins they had knocked over or something.

Later, when I switched out of go-go-go-teacher mode and had time to think about it, the scene prompted a mob of questions that I should have asked.

Where did E acquire this knowledge? Did someone teach him this, or did he make a deduction based on what he noticed in the media or in his life? The only family doctor in E’s town is a woman, so did he go to a doctor in a different town, or did he just assume his doctor was really a nurse? Why was he so quick to ignore K’s evidence?

Why did K not argue more with E’s false platitude? She had already provided evidence that debunked his statement. Her personal experience told her that she knew the truth. What led her to be persuaded by E’s myth? What was she prioritizing over the truth? Was she relying more on E’s authority than her own, or was she worried about damaging their friendship if she disagreed too strongly?

I also should have taken the time to remind them that, if we put in the work, being wrong is not only awesome, but important.

Because here’s the thing. We know that while we have increasingly easy access to new information, we also have a very human tendency to be afraid of being wrong. The frontal cortex of the human brain has to work twice as hard when processing new ideas, so humans seek out familiarity as a survival instinct. Looking out for recognizable patterns isn’t a bad thing at all. But while this instinct can lead us to make beautiful connections in our world, it can also make us uncomfortable with news that might disrupt our ideological habits, or it can make us feel too ashamed about being wrong to wrestle with difficult ideas. We can end up with some pretty dangerous ideas and keep them for a long time, simply because we don’t take the time and effort to ask critical questions about the ideas and information we receive.

This week’s lesson will encourage us to overcome that fear, and challenge us to think about whether we are actually “one who interprets the message of truth correctly” (2 Tim 2:15). We know that, historically, many Biblical scholars have occupied both the right and wrong sides of controversial debates. This is just as true for us today as it was for Paul and Peter when they wrote the words of this week’s Scriptures. God’s word has been used to promote love and forgiveness as well as slavery and war. The rights of women, minorities, and people in poverty have been both taken away and increased by the ideas found in Scripture. If you looked hard enough, you could probably find someone who has misused a piece of Scripture in their blog to support a claim like E’s, that “girls can’t be doctors.” All we need to do is switch on the news to see that people frequently “twist [words of Scripture] to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).

These Scriptures push us into a deeper exploration of how we read, discuss, and apply Scripture to our daily lives, especially when the Scripture is hard to understand. We will be able to reflect on whether we are acting more like E or K when we read God’s word. Both E and K were so quick to revise what was in front of them. Like E, have we avoided or manipulated evidence that might challenge our ideological habits? Or like K, have we sacrificed what we know to be true for the sake of a different priority, like popularity or social status?

And do we understand how to keep learning even when we make mistakes?

Discussion

• Is there anything you used to be confident about as a child, but that you now know is false? What did that realization feel like?
• Have you ever been on the wrong side of a controversial debate?
• What role is Scripture playing in your life as you determine where you stand on the issues being debated today? There is no need to get specific about these issues, but your group members might have specific issues in mind, since we’re in the middle of a (very long) election season.
• What role should Scriptures play in these debates?
• Are you uncomfortable with being wrong? What can you do to make yourself more comfortable with making mistakes and learning from them?
• Are you uncomfortable interacting with someone who you think is wrong? How can you do more to “correct opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:24)?

Reference Shelf

A Charge to Keep

While Paul is Timothy’s mentor, God is the one to whom his ultimate allegiance is due and the one to whom he must ultimately answer for his faithfulness. Timothy must make every effort to be a qualified and competent worker “who has no need to be ashamed.” The shame motif has played a prominent role in Paul’s exhortations to Timothy. As we have already seen, in a shame/honor culture one would do anything necessary to avoid shame. Shame before one’s fellow human beings would be a serious thing, but Paul is concerned about shame in God’s sight. And how is Timothy to avoid this? By “rightly explaining the word of truth.” Here Paul defines both “what Timothy is to teach and “how” he is to teach it. “Rightly explaining” (orthotomounta) translates a participle derived from a verb that appears only here in the New Testament. It literally refers to the act of cutting something in a straight way and carries the connotation of “exactness and precision, without error or flaw.” It had come to be used figuratively to speak of explaining something rightly or teaching something correctly. This is “how” Timothy must teach.

“What” Timothy must teach correctly is “the word of truth.” This succinct characterization of Timothy’s message echoes Paul’s description of his own message in 2 Corinthians 6:7 (cf. 2 Cor 7:14) and Colossians 1:5-6 (where it is contrasted with the philosophy and empty deceit) and his frequent mention of his proclamation as a “word” (1 Cor 14:36; 2 Cor 5:19; Phil 2:16; 1 Thess 1:8; 2:13) of “truth” (Gal 2:5, 14; 5:7; 2 Cor 4:2; 6:7). The “word of truth” stands as shorthand for the gospel Timothy is charged to proclaim faithfully.

Serving in the Household of Faith

As a slave of the master of the household of God, Timothy must be “kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness” (vv. 24-25). “Kindly” (ēpion, only here in the New Testament) has the primary sense of “gentleness” as in not being harsh or cruel. Together with “gentleness in the final phrase of this description, it forms an inclusion that describes how one must deal with correcting opponents. The gentleness that is called for is undergirded by the fact that one is both “an apt teacher,” i.e., a teacher who is well taught himself (particularly with regard to the Scriptures, 3:14-17) and is able to be “patient” (anexikakon). Seemingly a Pauline creation, the word rendered “patient” is a compound word that literally means “beating evil,” suggesting that those who would effectively act to correct opponents must be willing to “take the hits” that will come their way without complaining and then respond in “gentleness correcting the opponents.” The picture of such a leader is one who teaches, forbears evil, and corrects in a spirit of gentleness.

W. Hulitt Gloer, 1 & 2 Timothy – Titus, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 258 and 265.

Michelle Meredith is a graduate of Mercer University, where she was the editor for literary and arts magazine The Dulcimer. She taught third and fourth grade in Mississippi for two years with Teach for America and became even more obsessed with live music and southern food (don’t even get her started on Delta tamales). She loves comedy, board games, roller derby, and hanging out with her dog. She is happy to be back in Macon, Georgia as the associate editor of Formations.

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