How should we “Contend for the Faith”?
“The servant of the Lord must not strive.” When I first began to consider the implications of 2 Tim 2:24 to debate as a mode of teaching, I immediately thought of Jude’s exhortation to his readers:
Jud 1:3 Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.
Doesn’t this exhortation imply that we should boldly confront those who teach error?
Jude 1:3 is the only instance of the Greek word translated “contend” (επαγωνιζομαι) in the Greek Bible. The word does describe a struggle, but Jude does not identify the adversary with whom one struggles.
The simple form of the verb, αγωνιζομαι, does occur frequently in the NT. Elsewhere in Greek literature it often describes a wrestling between two human adversaries, as in an athletic competition (compare 1 Cor 9:25, where Paul compares himself with an athlete). Our Lord uses it in this sense, but only to explain to Pilate that this is not to be the practice of his followers:
Joh 18:36 Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
In other NT references, the verb describes strenuous exertion, without any sense of conflict between people:
- Lk. 13:24 “strive to enter in at the strait gate”
- Col. 1:29 “I also labor, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily”
- Col 4:12 “laboring fervently for you in prayers”
- 1 Tim. 6:12 “fight the good fight of faith”
- 2 Tim. 4:7 “I have fought a good fight”
We are indeed in a conflict, but not with other people, as Paul teaches the Ephesians:
Eph 6:12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
We can expect to exert every bit of our energy in this spiritual combat. Jude is right: we must struggle for the faith. And there is an adversary: we wrestle against the forces of evil. But this does not justify using the world’s methods, or viewing people as our adversaries. In fact, Paul reminds the Corinthians,
2Co 10:3-4 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;
Epaphroditus in Col 4:12 gives us a good example of wielding these weapons, “laboring fervently … in prayers.”
Jude tells us of our attitude and duty toward evil. Paul’s exhortation in 2 Tim 2:24 concerns the people whom we engage. We are to hate evil, but treat people, even those who are ensnared by the devil, in a spirit of humility, patience, and gentleness, not one of combat.