In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul gives a long, scathing description of a group of people he calls heartless, abusive, brutal, and treacherous (2 Tim. 3:2–4). He then, in no uncertain terms, says, “Avoid such people” (v. 5).
But didn’t Jesus spend time with sinners? Shouldn’t we do the same? Yes and no.
Avoid Such People
Paul isn’t talking about skeptics or people exploring Christianity. We shouldn’t avoid people who don’t identify as Christians. We should welcome them into our homes and invite them to know Jesus. Nor is Paul talking about people struggling with sin, as we all do. He’s talking about professing Christians who embrace their sin. They may have the appearance of godliness, but they’ve denied its power to transform their life (2 Tim. 3:5).
These people go to church and may even consider themselves more spiritual than others because they’re open-minded. Unlike uptight Christians, they’re free from rules. They live a more enlightened, “grace-filled” life. But in reality, they’re fake believers. Their mouths say they love Jesus, but their actions don’t show it. At first glance, they appear to be the genuine article, but they don’t pass muster upon further inspection.
Their mouths say they love Jesus, but their actions don’t show it.
This isn’t a judgment we come to quickly. Paul instructs Timothy to be patient and gentle, praying God might lead them to repentance, just as he did for us (2 Tim. 2:24–26). But there comes a day to “avoid such people.” Likely this refers to excommunication, when the church corporately declares that a person’s profession of faith is no longer credible. When this happens, the relational tenor with the individual must change—as Jonathan Leeman writes, “time together should be used to call him or her toward repentance”
Paul’s command is weighty. But when we recognize what’s at stake when a professing believer remains “in good standing” with her church while in unrepentant sin, the command makes perfect sense.
Here are two big reasons for Christians in local churches to “avoid such people.”
Reason #1: They can lead you astray.
We should avoid unrepentant “believers” because some bring false teaching into the body. Spiritually speaking, they’re sneaking into God’s home and capturing those inside to lead them astray (2 Tim. 3:6, 15).
The congregation is responsible to practice discernment and to take care whose teaching they receive (2 Tim. 4:3–4; cf. Gal. 1:8–9). The problem of false teaching didn’t die in the first century. Under the guise of spirituality, false teachers still encourage unbiblical teaching and ungodly living, deceiving millions. Just because someone calls himself or herself a “pastor” doesn’t mean they’re teaching truth. False teachers are deceptive; they try to convince you they’re simply conveying God’s voice. If you don’t avoid them, you’re in danger of being led astray—always learning but never arriving at a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7).
The world needs pastors faithful to preach the Scriptures—the parts that encourage and the parts that offend. Beware of spiritual leaders who tell you everything is fine and you’re fine just the way you are. Everything is not fine; you aren’t fine just the way you are. We’re filled with sin and we need God’s omnipotent power to change our hearts. Sit under the teaching of those who will tell you that and then point you to Jesus.
Reason #2: They oppose the truth.
The second reason we’re to avoid such people is that “just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8).
According to Jewish tradition, Jannes and Jambres were Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses by imitating his signs before Pharaoh. They tried to disprove the power of Israel’s God and keep the people in bondage (Ex. 7:11, 22). Likewise, false teachers promise freedom but keep people enslaved to sin. Paul wanted Timothy to avoid those who oppose gospel truth. He wants us to do the same today.
They Won’t Get Far
But there’s good news: false teachers’ influence has an expiration date (2 Tim. 3:9). Just like Jannes and Jambres eventually failed to replicate Moses’s miracles (Ex. 7:12; 8:18) and were judged by God (Ex. 9:11), the folly of false teachers will come to light, and truth will win in the end.
False teachers promise freedom but keep people enslaved to sin.
Despite threats and discouragements today, everything will be put right when Jesus returns. Those who had only the appearance of godliness will be exposed; those who truly trusted him will be vindicated. On our own, we all stand guilty before God and deserve his judgment. But those who cling to Christ are declared righteous in him and, through faith in his finished work, are guarded from going astray.
God was faithful to lead his people out of Egypt; he was faithful to preserve his people in the first century; and he will be faithful to hold us fast, now and forevermore.