Issue #84 -------
November 11, 2003
Nothing on earth can stop man from feeling
himself born for liberty. Never, whatever
may happen, can he accept servitude;
for he is a thinking creature.
--- Simone Weil (1909-1943)
Oppression and Liberty (chapter 4)
I am personally convinced that one of the most misused and abused scriptures in the church today is 2 John 9-11. Hardly a week goes by that I don't hear or see some religious combatant drag out this passage in their pursuit of one with whom they differ over some theological perception or practice. Notice the wording of this text (taken from our brother Hugo McCord's New Testament Translation of the Everlasting Gospel):
There are several phrases that must be given special attention if we would truly perceive the authorial intent of this inspired text. What does John mean when he speaks of those who "go beyond" this doctrine? What specifically are the "evil works" of which he speaks? And, most importantly, what constitutes the doctrine of Christ? It is no secret that virtually every faction within the Churches of Christ, and there are scores of them, appeals to this particular passage in support of its separation from and condemnation of their brethren. Brother Cecil Hook, whom I have known for a good many years, referred to it as "a scripture reference that seemed to be adjustable to fit all issues" (Restoration Review, "A 'Monkey Wrench' Scripture," vol. 30, no. 8, October 1988). Cecil goes on to note:
As an illustration of the above, Larry Ray Hafley, a preacher for the Non-Institutional faction of the Churches of Christ, observed (in an article entitled "The Doctrine of Christ"), "If a church observes traditions of men, such as Easter and Christmas, 2 John 9 is a problem for them." In other words, the "doctrine of Christ," according to the aged apostle John, constituted a condemnation of such doctrines as Easter and Christmas. Who knows, John may even have had PA systems, the NIV, and kitchens in the building in mind. He was a "seer," after all. These also have been issues upon which some legalists have sought to bring 2 John 9 to bear! Brethren, let me be blunt here: such thinking is the epitome of folly; it is an abuse of God's holy, inspired Word. In the hands of such men, 2 John 9 becomes "a tool conveniently used to condemn what someone opposes when it cannot be condemned by a responsible handling of Scripture" (Cecil Hook, Restoration Review, vol. 30, no. 8, October 1988).
What has led some disciples to such bizarre conclusions? The problem, in part, has to do with how one chooses to interpret and apply the phrase "doctrine of Christ." The legalists and patternists opt almost unanimously for a particular grammatical understanding of the phrase, and vehemently reject any other possible interpretation. They really have very little contextual, grammatical or theological basis for such dogmatism, however. Identifying the "doctrine of Christ" with their own particular, and at times peculiar, party preferences, perceptions and practices is unwarranted.
Dr. Albert Barnes states the problem very simply -- "Is this the doctrine which Christ taught, or the true doctrine respecting Him? The language is somewhat ambiguous, like the phrase 'the love of Christ,' which may mean either His love to us, or our love to Him. It is difficult to determine here which is the true sense -- whether it means the doctrine or precepts which He taught, or the true doctrine respecting Him" (Barnes' Notes on the New Testament). The issue is this -- is the phrase "doctrine of Christ" a Subjective Genitive or is it an Objective Genitive? Which Greek grammatical construction one chooses will determine one's interpretation of the passage .... and thus one's theology and practice. Scholarship has been divided for centuries over which to choose, since either is correct grammatically!
If the phrase "doctrine of Christ" is a subjective genitive, then it refers to the teaching which Christ Himself taught, either in person or through the apostles or through the inspired writings (Scripture). It is this view that is held exclusively by the legalists and patternists. Thus, the "doctrine of Christ" is said to comprise the entirety of the biblical record. If it is in the Bible, it is thereby the "doctrine/teaching of Christ" (doctrine and teaching are the same Greek word --- didache). Where the proponents of this view have erred in their application, however, is that they have additionally invested their assumptions, deductions and inferences about the Bible with the same air of authority as direct commands from deity. Thus, the "doctrine of Christ" also includes their personal perceptions and party preferences! It is this that has led to the tragic, ever-increasing fragmentation of the One Body of Jesus Christ. Each faction considers ITS brand of orthodoxy to be exclusively the "doctrine of Christ" to which all men must be amenable. Thus, the "doctrine of Christ" constitutes not only the entirety of Christ's teaching as recorded in the Scriptures, but also their particular understanding and application of His teaching, about which their little sect or faction alone is perfectly enlightened (such as One Cup, KJV only, no eating in the building, no supporting orphans out of the treasury, no Sunday School classes, and on and on and on ad infinitum). One can quickly see, therefore, how this has led to countless schisms and divisions in the church.
There is no question but what the Truths revealed in the inspired writings are the "teaching/doctrine of Christ." One simply can NOT make that same assertion about the assumptions of fallible men, however. What Christ Himself taught IS His own teaching/doctrine. What some man or group of men SAY He said, however, is the "doctrine of MEN," not the "doctrine of Christ." To enlist the aid of 2 John 9-11 in one's attempt to impose one's assumptions AS the "doctrine of Christ" is unwarranted and unconscionable! The result of such will always be division.
I believe the subjective genitive has much to commend it as an interpretation of 2 John 9 IF we will allow the context of the passage, and the authorial intent, to define the parameters of His teaching. In other words, what specifically did John have in mind when he spoke of our Lord's teaching? What teaching would that be? I see nothing in either the immediate or remote context that suggests John had the rituals of a "worship service" in view here. I doubt he was concerned with how the church treasury was utilized, what version of the Bible one read, whether church buildings could have a kitchen, or if shaped notes were acceptable additions to a song book. Rather, the doctrine/teaching, "which we have had from the beginning, is that we love one another" (2 John 5). It is this commandment "that you should walk in" (vs. 6). This is certainly the teaching of Christ emphasized in this second epistle (and indeed throughout the writings of John).
The Expositor's Bible Commentary declares that if the genitive is subjective, then it "refers to Jesus' teaching in verse 5 that 'we love one another'" (vol. 12, p. 365). This is also the view of many noted scholars, including Stott and Westcott. Kenneth Grayston, for example, wrote, "The genitive could be subjective (teaching given by Christ), referring to Christ's teaching about love both by His words and His actions" (The Johannine Epistles, p. 154).
Dr. B.F. Westcott paraphrased the first part of this passage this way: "Everyone that advances in bold confidence beyond the limits set to the Christian Faith" (The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text with Notes, p. 230). In other words, those who "go beyond" and do not abide in the "doctrine of Christ" are those who abandon LOVE .... love for the Lord, and love for their fellow disciples. Thus, the subjective genitive interpretation would NOT have anything to do with kitchens, versions, classes, or glasses, but rather with our relationships (both horizontally and vertically).
The reality concerning the text under consideration, however, is that it is grammatically ambiguous. In other words, the phrase "doctrine of Christ" can be either subjective or objective genitive. Dr. Conrad, from the Department of Classics at Washington University, observes that "there is no clue whatsoever in the FORM in which this text is formulated indicating that it MUST be read in ONE of these ways rather than the other." Dr. Daniel B. Wallace points out: "Since the lexico-syntactic features in such instances are identical, appeal must be made to context, authorial usage, and broader exegetical issues" (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, p. 113). Dr. A.T. Robertson wrote, "The subjective genitive can be distinguished from the objective use only by the context. Sometimes the matter is not clear. In itself the genitive is neither subjective nor objective, but lends itself readily to either point of view ... some passages are open to doubt" (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 499).
John's statement concerning the "doctrine/teaching of Christ" is one such passage. There is simply no grammatical justification for choosing one form over the other. It could be either subjective or objective. We have already noted the former. However, if it is the latter, then the meaning would be: "the doctrine or teaching ABOUT Christ," rather than the doctrine or teaching BY Christ. As with the subjective genitive interpretation, there are a great many reputable scholars who believe it is the objective genitive the apostle John had in mind.
Verse 7 of John's second epistle would seem to provide the contextual focus of this teaching ABOUT Christ Jesus. Here we are told that many deceivers were going about proclaiming that Jesus Christ had NOT come in the flesh. This was one of the main tenets of the Gnostic movement, which was gaining in momentum at the time of John's writing (and much of his writings seem to have this group at least partly in mind). William Barclay gives a very thorough analysis of this problem at this time in his work The Letters of John and Jude (pages 3-20). The Gnostics essentially denied the incarnation. They believed physical matter was inherently evil, thus God would NEVER have sent His Son in physical form. Thus, Jesus did not have a flesh and blood body; it was merely an illusion. John says that those who embrace this teaching/doctrine are not to be received (2 John 10), for if Christians support such men they participate in their evil deeds (vs. 11). Sandwiched between these statements is John's declaration that some have gone too far and do not abide in this "doctrine of Christ." Many scholars feel this is a reference to the teaching ABOUT Jesus --- i.e., that He has come in the flesh. This would be the objective genitive. Some who are proponents of the subjective genitive view will still acknowledge that this is most likely the contextual teaching. One such scholar wrote me, "I admit that the immediate contextual reference is pertaining to 'Christ coming in the flesh' (vs. 7)."
Rudolph Bultmann wrote that it was more probable that "'of Christ' is an objective genitive, since the author hangs everything on his Christology, i.e., on the doctrine about Christ, as vs. 7 shows" (A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, p. 113). Dr. Kenneth Wuest, a professor in NT Greek at Moody Bible Institute, regards this phrase as a genitive of reference -- "teaching with reference to Christ. The person therefore, who goes beyond the teaching of the incarnation of the Son in human flesh, thus denying the incarnation, does not possess God in a saving relationship" (Studies in the Greek Text of II John, p. 206). Dr. E.M. Blaiklock observes that "any doctrine which takes away from Christ's full deity is no doctrine at all." Again, this is the view that the phrase in question is an objective genitive. Brother Carl Ketcherside wrote, "The doctrine of Christ, in this case, does not consist of the things Jesus taught, but of the thing taught about Jesus" (Mission Messenger, vol. 27, no. 6, p. 1). Brother Cecil Hook states, "This is clearly referring to teaching about Christ. Such antichristian teaching would indeed separate one from God and Christ, as John warns in verse 9, for the incarnation of our Lord is basic to the Christian faith. There is a vast difference between the gravity of denying that Christ came in the flesh and an opinion about women teaching or Bible classes" (Restoration Review, vol. 30, no. 8, October 1988).
One of the cardinal rules of biblical hermeneutics is that an obscure or ambiguous passage should be interpreted, if possible, in light of one which is clear and unambiguous. I believe we have just such an instructive parallel in 1 John 2:22-23. There is a clear parallel of ideas found between this passage and 2 John 9. In the former we clearly see that it is teaching about Jesus Christ that is in view. John places MUCH emphasis upon the doctrine of Jesus having come in the flesh (see 1 John 1:1-3 for example), and thus the objective genitive should not be lightly dismissed as the probable authorial intent of 2 John 9. One should also not overlook that John clearly referred back to verse 7 in verse 10 where he spoke of "this teaching/doctrine." What teaching or doctrine was that? The teaching or doctrine that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh (vs. 7). Between those statements we find our problem phrase which speaks of "the doctrine/teaching of Christ." The immediate, as well as the remote, context seems to favor an objective genitive interpretation. This is teaching ABOUT Christ. One scholar observed, "Christians should not tear 2 John 9 out of its context, and then employ this passage as a meat cleaver to hack to death all those who disagree with their party cry for orthodoxy, which originates out of their own interpretive community."
One other point of view should be considered. It is entirely possible BOTH the objective and subjective genitives MAY have been in view when John wrote verse 9. This would be the Plenary Genitive, in which "the noun in the genitive is both subjective and objective" (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, p. 119). Dr. Wallace points out that "in most cases, the subjective produces the objective notion. Only if we treat the language of the Bible as in a class by itself can we deny the possibility of a category such as this" (ibid). The Expositor's Bible Commentary opts for this particular view of 2 John 9 --- "It is of little importance, however, which alternative is accepted, because the author holds equally to both positions. For Jesus Christ to be acknowledged as the one come in the flesh is fundamental to the faith, and for us to love one another is equally fundamental. To confess the former requires that we do the latter" (vol. 12, p. 365).
My own personal conviction on this passage, after much research and reflection, is that "doctrine of Christ" is most likely, based on the context and John's overall focus in his writings, an objective genitive. Thus, the text is referring to the teaching ABOUT Jesus Christ; specifically: that He was truly incarnated ... "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14), and they handled that flesh with their own hands (1 John 1:1). This is a foundational Truth of the Christian faith, and if anyone comes to you and does NOT bring this teaching/doctrine, they are to be rejected!
Nevertheless, I am unwilling to be dogmatic about my conviction. The subjective genitive is also a grammatical and contextual possibility. So also is the view that BOTH the objective and subjective aspects of the genitive may have been in the mind of John. However, it is important to note that if the subjective genitive is embraced as the correct interpretation, one should exercise great caution in declaring what constitutes the Lord's teaching or doctrine. The context makes it clear that the teaching immediately in view (and indeed throughout John's epistles) is our love for God and one another!! To force 2 John 9 into duty as the "proof text" for dismembering the One Body over every little personal preference or party practice is an absolute ABUSE of the text. Such a view essentially declares that if anyone disagrees with MY understandings or interpretations, or if anyone has a practice with which I personally differ, then that person is not abiding in the "doctrine of Christ." In other words, MY perceptions and preferences have been elevated to equal footing with God's Holy Word itself. This is the epitome of arrogance, and will result only in the further division of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Brethren, we can do better than this! We can rise above such factionalism. It is my prayer that we will all strive to display more love for one another, and thus demonstrate the reality of our discipleship!! "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). "And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another" (2 John 5). We serve the "Word become flesh" (the objective genitive significance of 2 John 9), and we reflect this by loving one another (the subjective genitive significance of 2 John 9).
From a Reader in New Mexico:
Your Reflections are always very good ... sometimes they are over my head and I have to study and think about them. Spirits in Prison is definitely one of those to ponder. Loved Willie the Watchdog (I think I know him). Take care and thanks for all you do.
From a Reader in (Unknown):
Al, Thanks for your Reflections. I do not always agree with you, but I enjoy them all none the less. Go to Shedd's Systematic Theology and there he gives St. Augustine's argument for the 1 Peter 3:19 passage ("spirits in prison"). He comes to the same conclusion you do.
From a Reader in Nevada:
The past three Reflections have been great. "Joseph Contemplates Divorce" causes so very much reflection upon one's personal past. "Willie the Watchdog" brings back so many memories of my own self-righteous past. Both of these brought me to my knees in prayer for forgiveness of those past attitudes. "Spirits in Prison" is terrific. It reminds me of all the conclusions I have heard preached for so many years, and yet with no real understanding of the subject. Your conclusion in this article is "right on." Thanks, and I look forward to more.
Al, we continue to hear so much about bringing back school prayer, keeping "in God we trust" on our money, the Pledge of Allegiance, and other matters of similar thought. I really would like to see a Reflections on this line of thought. It seems to me that all of those things belong to Caesar and we should not be too concerned about them. I ask to read your thoughts in the future. Thank God and you for these continuing Reflections, even though some of them cause me some discomfort from my own past, as well as discomfort in assimilating them into my present thinking.
From a Reader in Texas:
Dear Al, I very much appreciated your recent Reflections article about watchdogs. I agree with you. But this is written to chide you for disparaging your dog Willie. I have a Dachshund also. He is a registered miniature Dachshund (although he got his genes mixed up somehow, and is almost as big as a "regular" Dachshund, and is quite fat -- because I feed him too much!), and is my faithful watchdog. He watches me with that wide-eyed, intent look that you have noticed with Willie. Always alert to my slightest whim. He also watches the Sparrows, Grackles, Jays, and other birds who try to invade "his" back yard. He watches squirrels, bugs, and other creatures who would invade his space. He does this (I'm convinced) not only out of selfishness, but because he fully believes that my wife and I do not want these critters in our territory. He is a very good companion, and I am sure that he would never like to be compared to (or used as a role model for) those two-legged watchdogs that you so succinctly describe in your article! I love you, brother! This is just to keep things on a lighter note.
From a Reader in (Unknown):
Dear Al, I came across your Reflections article entitled "Willie the Watchdog" on the web site for Grace Centered Magazine --- http://gcm.ibelieve.com/ --- this morning and want to let you know that I believe it was not an accident. It is unbelievable that I got to read this after a sleepless night. I just wanted to tell you that I got on your website after reading this article and read the one on "Restoring the 1st Century Church?" and found this very helpful, since my Mom told me last night that I am "leaving the TRUTH" (her exact words). I know that God led me to read this so early on Sunday morning. I just want to let you know that your articles blessed me and I found comfort. Thanks so much for your website, and I will read a lot of your articles now that I have found them. I am truly being blessed by your site! Also, after years of prayer and trying to become a more God-centered family, my husband is to be baptized today. My husband and I have been married for 28 years, and have 3 children whom I want to become closer to God also.
From a Reader in Alabama:
Dear Brother: Your response to your critic from Missouri was priceless! It inspired a brief verse from me:
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