“Have nothing to do with profane myths or old wives tales. Train yourself for godliness.” 1 Timothy 4:7 NRSV.
Historical study of Ephesus has always fascinated me, but I’ve been equally fascinated by the Roman world during the reigns of Nero and Domitian. Now, I am not a 1st century scholar or historian. My area of expertise is the 19th century, as far as church history goes, but as a theologian I have spent copious amounts of time studying the book of 1st Timothy and the church at Ephesus. Enough time that I have been granted opportunities to teach two classes of my own on 1st and 2nd Timothy and their historical contexts. One thing I see as I study the church at Ephesus is the amount of false teaching present, even to the possibility to a syncretism between Christian teaching and the Temple of Artemis. But even within the text of both books, it is clear that one of the things that was happening was that false teachers were empowering, specifically the idle women, in the church to stir up division and begin vain and foolish controversies. This is a better explanation for the elevated language of 2:12-15 than the way the text often gets used. Laid out on a Procrustean bed and stretched to fit into the complementarian worldview (something egalitarians are often guilty of as well). There is also textual evidence that the same group stirring up division in Ephesus was part of the group in Thessalonica who were claiming the resurrection had already occurred (2 Tim 2:18)
The Ephesian Church is an interesting one because unlike the Galatians they are a majority Gentile church. It is also the place Paul spends the greatest amount of time setting the Church in order, and the church which he specifically tells the elders that: “fierce wolves will come among you” (Acts 20:19). The three years spent at Ephesus means he has a special connection with the city and with the members of the Church, like the Philippians. But unlike the Philippians, who just have a self-righteousness problem, it appears there is actual heresy and false doctrine running rampant. Paul’s words proved to be prophetic, through wolves named Hymenaeus, Alexander (1 Tim 1:20) and Phineas (2 Tim 2:17). The issues that these false teachers caused is so pervasive that if I ever write a book on it I want to call it: “A Church in Chaos: What do when False Teachers and Teachings Abound.” Paul sends Timothy to Ephesus to “Put in order what has been torn asunder” (1 Tim 1:3) and to do so in “love that stems from a sincere faith, a good conscious and a pure heart” (1:5). By the time we get to Revelation 2:1-7 it appears Timothy has completed this work, but they have now gone too far the other way, focused too much on doctrine. They need to find a point between two extremes.
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We also need to address the wider problem in the Roman Empire, especially prevalent by the time John writes Revelation 2. That Roman culture was full of what we would call in our modern parlance “conspiracy theories”. The most famous one was that Emperor Nero was going to be reincarnated or even resurrected, and that during his second coming he would be the one to save the poor and downtrodden. Domitian, who exiled John to Patmos, leaned into this conspiracy theory and even claimed to be the very return of Nero that the conspiracy claimed. Domitian’s persecution of the Christians seems to have been incrementally worse than Nero’s, even while he claimed to be a friend to those who would bow to him. This is the explanation that biblical scholar Tim Chester gives for why John wrote Revelation 13-14 in his commentary: “Revelation for you: Seeing history from Heaven’s Perspective.” The first beast, Nero, destroys at will. He rules by brute force, while the second beast is the propagandist who raises the Spector of the first beast. Chester notes that the Empire under Nero is the first beast, the one who rules by brute force and fear, and everyone who follows after is constantly raising the Spector of the first beast to keep the people in line.
In such a culture it is easy to understand how conspiracy theories can exist on both the micro and macro levels. Even though the Nero Conspiracy comes after Paul writes to Timothy, it is not unreasonable to believe based on both sayings of Jesus and other writings by Paul, that conspiracy theories existed before Nero. Jesus himself tells his followers in Matthew 24 that they are not to believe when someone says: “Here is the Christ, no he is here.” because that is not the Christ at all and it is just a vein and foolish myth. When Christ comes, everyone will know. There will not be any doubt. The entire Jewish understanding of Messiah was essentially a myth, though it was rooted not in ignorance but a misreading of the Old Testament texts mixed with a desire to see themselves liberated from the oppression of Rome. So when Messiah did appear they were neither ready, nor accepting of what Jesus actually taught. It is likely that when Paul tells Timothy to avoid foolish controversies and old wives tales (vain myths) that he had conspiracy theories in mind, both large and small.
Conspiracy Theories are still rampant in our world. after World War II it was said that Hitler had actually escaped Germany and was setting up a secret government in Brazil. Many said that Elvis is not dead, but alive and well somewhere living off his music royalties (or in a UFO, if you believe the Ray Steven’s song). Foolish myths also persist, such as Big Foot or crop circles being created by alien landings. They exist on the macro level and on the micro level. But we should not just limit foolish controversies to conspiracy theories, for Paul definitely has a much broader definition in mind. It also includes fighting over words and stirring up division among the people of God. Anything proven false, to Paul, could be a foolish controversy.
The conversation might go like this, had Paul lived through the Neronian Persecution:
Postulant: “Master Paul, do you believe Nero will return as they say.”
Paul: “Child, have nothing to do with this vain myth for we know that only Christ has risen from the dead and we too will arise when He returns. Ignore this foolish teaching, it only distracts from your service to Christ.”
Why would we be warned away from these things by Jesus, Paul, James, Jude and John? Because they are stumbling blocks, and to be involved in them is to be led astray and away from Jesus. Even if they seem benign, if they are distracting from communion with God through the Holy Spirit and life lived in Christ, then they need to be put away for good, never to be brought up again except to be warned against.
Yet, for centuries Christians have been extremely susceptible to conspiracy theories. We have even been manufacturers of them. For example, the modern popular understanding of eschatology (end times) did not even exist until the early 18th century when to a man named John Nelson Darby, who is the father of what we know today as the “Seventh Day Adventists.” It gained speed during the Civil War, which was billed as an apocalyptic religious war by some, and become the dominate view of the revivalists like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. Before this time, very few, if any, believed in a pre-trib “rapture” of the church, a term that originates with Darby. This “end times” theology was then at the center of an evangelicalism marketplace that sold maps and timelines and in some cases made predictions about the time and place that Christ would return. One group in Dallas, Texas believed Christ had already returned and was living in San Francisco. They were actually kidnapping recruits and sending them there to see Christ. The end result of Darby’s theology was that Christians fringe belief that interpreted every event as “the end” was carried forward and then normalized and monetized in the 20th century. Where was Dr. John Walton to tell us to “throw out our maps” as he did on a recent Holy Post interview? Like so many who went before us we have made an art out of doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus has commanded us to do. Instead of not believing people who said “Here is the Christ” or believing the wars and rumors of wars that Jesus says are “not yet the end” and “just the beginning of the birth pangs” (24:6, 8).
Some have argued that belief in the supernatural is what makes Christians susceptible to conspiracy heories such as Q Anon or others mentioned here. I disagree. Once again, the shallowness of American Christianity, the lack of discipleship, the biblical illiteracy and a steady diet of fear fed to them by leadership who are making millions off the people they are scaring has seeded the ground for us to both believe conspiracy theories and participate in foolish controversies. Both Q and the idea that the 2020 Presidential Election was stolen fall into these categories, one is a conspiracy theory and one is a vain controversy based on a lie. Yet, there is a vast number of Evangelicals who have latched onto these things and even demanded that their pastors affirm them from the pulpit rather than preach from the Word that tells them to avoid such foolish controversies and conspiracy theories. Add to that the desire to justify our anger and hatred towards others and you have the perfect storm to be totally and thoroughly led into sin and away from Christ.
It needs to be said that while Jesus told us to: “Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” (Mat 5), we cannot love and pray for those whom we are afraid of or suspicious of. In fact, fear and suspicion become the backbone for the very hate we are to avoid. Jesus deconstructs the kind of eye-for-an-eye culture that we have reverted to here in the United States. He then tells Christians to have nothing to do with such things, but to do the opposite. You cannot reach someone you are afraid of or hate, but you can reach someone you love, even if loving them is hard. That is why, in church discipline scenarios with a group, we are to issue the call to repentance and return to faith in Jesus Christ alone, and do it publicly. The super-heated rhetoric of our culture is something Christians should decline to engage in, even if it costs us our seat at the cultural table. We cannot and should not step outside the bounds of what the Bible tells us is acceptable for Christians to participate in, activities and ideas that lead to freedom and life, not death, or use scripture to justify being involved in things we ought not. We have to take Jesus seriously, and if we do not, we will be guilty of rejecting him, just as Israel was.
The believer then needs to put aside vain and foolish controversies and myths. As we are commanded by Scripture. We are focus on loving our neighbor and doing what God has called good: “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with YHWH” (Micah 6:5). If we continue to reject God, the persecution we think we are staving off, will only be made worse because of the hardness of heart towards God and the things of God and the idolatry we would rather cling to then repent of.
Church, Jesus was serious. Let’s take Him and His word seriously.