Teaching Sound Doctrine and Itching Ears

Posted on Jan 24, 2007 - 06:18 AM

[An ordination sermon for Susan Fritz-Kent preached in Allisonville Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 14, 2001]

2 Timothy 4.1-5

Dear friends and family of Susan, it is a pleasure to be here for her ordination into the ministerial leadership of the church. It has been my delight to have had Susan as a student in several theology and ethics classes at Christian Theological Seminary and even as my teaching assistant in two other courses. I can testify before you that she is an exceptional student and an earnest person of faith. She is well prepared to receive the awesome ordination we the church are intent on conferring today and to assume the responsibilities of leadership which that ordination implies. You folk here at the Allisonville Christian Church have been especially privileged to benefit from her student ministry and to observe with tender and sweet joy the many gifts she has displayed among you. I am sure all of us here today are confident of her promise for ministry, and this is properly a grand occasion not only for her but also for us the church.

But even in our joy and delight, it is well that we understand that this act of ordination is a grave and serious act of the church: an act that reminds us of our fundamental calling as the church of Jesus Christ and an act that is profoundly defiant of the inclinations and ruling powers of our contemporary social world in North America. We are not ordaining her to run for the school board, to serve on the Mayor’s commission, to be pleasing to the ruling powers in this city or in another town or in this nation. We are not asking her to be all things to all people, though she will be tempted by our desires to be what we variously want her to be.

Rather, we are ordaining her to give leadership to the church in a time in which the many churches around us and in our Disciples tradition seem not only to be in numerical decline, but to be dramatically uncertain about their own basic calling in Christian life and witness. We are ordaining her for leadership to help us understand better, day in and day out, just who we are before God and just who that God is and what we are to become. Were she to fudge or burke or shirk in that task of leading us, she will have forfeited the good faith authority of this very ordination.

What then are we to make of her ministerial calling and tasks today? This is indeed a complex and many-sided question. But let us seek the guidance of the Scripture read for today from 2 Timothy 4.1-5. We are led to believe that an elderly Paul is writing to Timothy, foremost among Paul’s protégés in ministry, to give advice about the tasks and temptations of ministerial leadership, of engaging in the diakonia of the church.

Much of what he says in this epistle and in this particular passage, pivots around the conviction that the church has its most basic identity in being called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to witness in word and deed to the living triune God for the benefit of the world. Witnessing to God is the heart of being the church. And this witnessing is in words and deeds, in discourses and practices, and where this witnessing is lacking, there the people of the church are smothering and neglecting their own identity and calling.

Now, if witnessing is essential to the church, then that witnessing must have some distinctive content that keeps it focused, faithful, and true. As Paul says ‘in view of Christ Jesus and his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you to proclaim the message.’ There is a message, a gospel, that is central to the church’s witness, and according to Paul that message is wrapped up in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Take Jesus away or neglect his centrality, and the witness to God goes astray.

The Greek word Paul uses here for ‘message’ is logos, a term so rich in connotations that we are still trying to unpack how the NT writers use it. But clearly it is related to what Paul later in this passage calls ‘sound doctrine’, or if we stumble over the term ‘doctrine’, we can try ‘sound teaching’. The content of Christian witness has some characteristic teachings about God, about Jesus, about human beings, and what they are to become in the light of the Gospel. Hence, if sound teachings are important, it seems clear according to Paul that there can also be unsound teachings or even confusion in the church about what the teachings are.

It is a further implication of Paul’s point about the message that it is not something the people of the world already possess. It is not a knowledge or teaching that they inherently or innately already have. They need to receive the teaching, to learn it, to have their lives shaped by it. Paul does not seem to be asking folk to look within themselves to discover a gospel already hiddenly evident there. To proclaim the Gospel means to give people some knowledge, some understanding, some teaching that they do not already have and that knowledge is focused around the God of Israel and Jesus Christ.

For our purposes today, we need to understand that for Paul there is no distinction between being a teacher of the faith and being a preacher of the faith. Proclaiming the Gospel means teaching the faith. It does not mean captivating people with one’s attractive personality. It does not mean being well-liked by all, though that might be desirable. So let us acknowledge that Paul is saying to us today that teaching the faith—which means making sound doctrine accessible and intelligible and vivid to folk—is central to the sort of leadership to which we are ordaining Susan.

But Paul is also advising Timothy about the situation in the church and in the world of his time. I wonder if that might apply to us today as well. Let us listen to Paul: “the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” These are indeed chilling words. For the sake of Susan’s ordination and her understanding of her calling and for our own sake as the church of Jesus Christ, let us explore what Paul is saying.

Apparently Paul thinks sound doctrine is in for a hard time in which people—and here we must assume he means people both within and beyond the church—will not put up with sound doctrine. ‘Will not put up with’? Other translations have it as ‘will not tolerate’, ‘will not stand’, and ‘will not accept’ sound doctrine or sound teaching. Why might this be the case that people become so intolerant of such Gospel teaching? In pithy and salty metaphoric language, Paul says this happens because people have ‘itching ears’! What does it mean to have itching ears? And why do the ears of some folk itch? What sort of scratching of itching ears leads people astray?

Apparently, if we follow along with Paul, people’s ears become itchy when they hear teachings that do not fit their desires. Surely all of us know about ourselves that we are a veritable cauldron of desires, and Paul thinks that maybe we get itchy ears and do not want to hear the Gospel teachings when our desires are not flattered by what the Gospel commends and commands. Now we understand that to have itchy ears is to want to hear something that suits us and our given and restless desires.

So what are people inclined to do who have itchy ears? They scratch their ears by ‘accumulating teachers’ that will suit them and satisfy their desires. They reject the sound doctrine that is intended to build them up in the faith and nurture them in the truth. And they look endlessly for those teachers that will flatter their already existing desires, passions, and inclinations. Other translators say itchy-eared folk look for those who will ‘tickle their fancy’, or who will teach ‘according to their own tastes’. Would this be a fair way of putting Paul’s point: itchy-eared people are consumers looking desperately for that teacher and those teachings that will give them a gospel on their own terms, on the terms of their own raw desires, their own tastes, their own fancy, their own preferences?

We can pause now and listen to those voices in our minds saying that this sound doctrine idea is too elusive and dangerous. Haven’t there been doctrines in the past of the church that have been harmful to folk and even demonic? Let us forget about doctrines and simply live according to love and justice. So some will say. But are there teachings about what love and justice are and does the whole world agree with those teachings? It is hard to escape teachings of some sort, and it is a real illusion in the church to suppose that we can get along without doctrines and teachings.

Of course, we Disciples are leery of doctrines and definite teachings. They divide people, we say. I have even heard some Disciples say ‘we have no creed but Christ’, and then they whisper that it really does not matter what you believe about Christ. It is like what the beloved Dwight Eisenhower said: “I think everyone should have faith, and I do not care faith in what.” Such language would appear to concede the world to folk with itching ears: believe whatever suits your fancy.

I know it must be a comfort to Susan to realize that she will not have to deal with such itchy-eared people in her ministry as teacher. Who in church and world today is stalked by these itching ears and who flits about in a desperate search to find some teaching that will justify their way of life and assuage their haunting guilt and nervous grasping for self-esteem? Surely itching ears do not want to hear of a Jewish Savior who died on a brutal cross for the sins of the whole world and who gives life free from the clutches of selfishness and self-absorption and who calls folk to live in love at the side of the least of these in the world.

But for the sake of a shorter sermon and for learning some more from Paul, let us imagine that Susan might indeed be cast as a teacher in a situation strikingly similar to what Paul has described. What would it mean for her to be a teacher of the faith?

Having affirmed the overarching task of proclaiming the message, Paul counsels Susan to be persistent. He could also have said ‘be constant and not fickle’ or ‘be not daunted by itching ears’! She is to persist in faithfulness to a Gospel that is wonderful good news for those who have ears to hear, but which does not sanction our desires in their messy randomness and givenness. And, of course, she could not persist in her teaching without constant prayer seeking the guidance and upbuilding of the Holy Spirit. We are ordaining Susan to persist in teaching the faith and being accountable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us herein grant what seems implicit in Paul’s words: discerning sound doctrine is not an easy task. It is indeed arduous work to discern and teach those teachings that are essential to the Gospel. But Susan, and even we, is to persist in the task of discerning the Gospel message and of teaching the Gospel.

As such a teacher of the Gospel, Paul also wants Susan to perform skillfully some recognizable teaching practices: she should try to persuade, to address real questions with convincing responses, even to advance arguments, though perhaps knowing full well that few people will give up their itching ears because of good arguments. In short, Paul wants Susan to know her way around in the teachings of the faith, to know how to articulate those teachings in a faithful and fetching way, to show how the teachings shape life and give hope for the future. She is to help folk understand who God is and what they are to become before God. Susan is to be a practitioner of discerning the true from the false, the sound from the unsound, the authentic from the counterfeit, the permanent from the passing whim.

In the midst of such teaching, Paul does not rule out rebuking and reproof. Paul would be dismayed if Susan never became prophetic and even judgmental, as though she wanted everyone to be content and undisturbed. But Susan is not being asked to reprimand from some general moral consensus in the larger social world, but from the gravity of the judgment in the cross of Jesus Christ. She should know that such rebuke is always for the sake of folk hearing the Gospel and not for the sake of her own angry loathing of what is wrong with the world.

Further, Paul wants Susan to always be encouraging, which elsewhere he calls being upbuilding. Argument, rebuke, and teaching are for the sake of encouraging people to receive new possibilities and a life far beyond their own small imaginings, and for the sake of encouraging folk to trust in God, to have their terrible fear cast out, to have the morrow look like a time of meeting God’s grace and having the power to live on behalf of the neighbor, even on behalf of the enemy. A Christian teacher aims to encourage people in the faith and its passionate life.

All these phases of teaching the faith, according to Paul, will require patience on the part of Susan. Of course, she cannot be patient in the right way if she is not also hopeful that the Spirit of God is there with her in her teaching activities. She will be patient because she knows that God will win hearts by loving persuasion and not by coercion. Patience does not mean making room for and accommodating the false and the random desires and passions of itching ears. But it does mean she will patiently strive to understand those itching ears we have and our proneness to embrace the myths of our contemporary world. Such patience will also alert her to her own penchant for itching ears.

But let us reflect further about desire and passion. Desire and passion as such are not bad or shameful. They are the great engines of human life. But the human problem is that our given desires and passions are often so unruly, destructive, and confusing to us. They pull us this way and that, without constancy of direction. We seem to desire that which cannot confer human fulfillment and peace. Teaching the faith is not a mere intellectual exercise. It involves the patient use of the teachings to reorder and reshape our desires and passions such that we learn how to live more abundantly and graciously and thereby more obediently to the God who created us and who intends to redeem us.

There is much more Paul says about ministry and the church in other places, and much more that we might emphasize, but this is an agenda of calling and tasks that can keep Susan inspired for a lifetime of ministerial leadership. She will not be the only teacher in the congregation; there will be wise and competent others among the laity. But she cannot escape the injunction to teach sound doctrine, to witness to the reality of God’s grace in Jesus Christ for the benefit of the world.

Is Susan ready to be that teacher of the faith? Are we ready to be the church that has that faith and rejoices in it and seeks every way in which to witness to the love of God for the benefit of the world? I will let you answer the church question for yourselves. But if we are not ready to support teachers such as Paul commends, do we really understand what we are doing today in this ordination?

But I can vouch for Susan. She has the intelligence, the skills of language, and the compassion to teach the faith with insight and empowering persuasion. She has the learning in the faith—from the study of Scripture and other books, from disciplined courses, from writing essays and taking exams, from ardent and engaged conversations, from the many ministerial leaders in her life, from the concerned lay persons in family and church who have counseled her, and from her own devout living of the faith. If there are any itching ears around her, she will know how to scratch them graciously with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us rejoice that this young woman from our midst wants to give leadership to the church and to embrace boldly the task of witnessing to the Gospel though teaching the faith and vivifying sound doctrine. In ordaining her today, we must also promise to keep her in our prayers that she be not overwhelmed by the temptations of itching ears.

All this dear friends I have dared to preach in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all. Amen.


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