1 Timothy
False asceticism. 4:1-5

Paul now gives us an insight into the apostasy of those members of the church taken in by the false teachers who were introduced to us in chapter one. He particularly underlines the asceticism promoted by the false teachers, making the point that his readers were forewarned of this apostasy, of the emergence of false teachings and of its satanic origin.

The passage

v1. Paul has been speaking about the qualifications of those who minister in the church and has concluded with a summary of the gospel. He now examines teachings which are contrary to the gospel. In chapter 1, Paul made note of the false teachers operating in the church and he now underlines the consequence of their ministry: believers are being led astray, having been sucked into their false teachings and moved away from faith in Christ. Jesus himself warned that in these last days believers would be deceived and led from a reliance on Christ, cf. Mk.13:22. The satanic origin of the false teachings serves to emphasize how dangerous they are.

v2. The teachings, with their satanic origin, are proclaimed by teachers who have long lost the ability to discern God's truth (they have a "cauterized" conscience). So, they are a source of misinformation and this is evidenced by their failure to practice what they preach (they are marked by "hypocrisy").

v3. Donald Guthrie, in his commentary, captures the sense of this verse when he writes, "what was created for all men must therefore be legitimate for Christians." The extreme piety of the false teachers, reflected in their sexual abstinence and their adherence to the Levitical food laws (or possibly even vegetarianism), was for them a means of progressing their holiness and thus, the full appropriation of divine blessings. Yet, nothing can transcend all that is ours in Christ. The fact is, God's good creation is to be gratefully shared, enjoyed and appreciated. There is simply no value in abstinence for spiritual gain.

v4. Paul now supports his case with a piece of basic theology which serves to legitimize a believer's full participation in life. Drawing on the creation narrative, Paul makes the point that "everything" created by God is "good". It is not right to suggest that some things (eg. sex, eating meat) are in themselves unholy. God's creation is good and is to be enjoyed. Yet, Paul sets out a condition, since he is not advocating hedonism. We must enjoy God's good creation within its design limits, eg. sex within marriage. We are free to participate in all that we can give thanks to God for.

v5. In this verse, Paul restates his teaching, rather than developing it further. A believer may properly participate in life (sex, eating meat, ...). God's creation is fit for us because scripture tells us that it is good, but of course it must be thankfully enjoyed under God, rather than enjoyed without reference to God.

How free is free?

Australians have a word that they use to describe someone who is joyless and judgmental. In Australian mythology, such people tended to be churchies, that is, church members, affectionately described as the women's police. The word used to identify this nit-picking segment of society was "wowser". Interestingly, today wowserism is more a secular pursuit than a religious one. Secular wowsers are the anti this-and-that lobby, the NIMBY's (not in my back yard), representing any number of protest groups dedicated to opposing politically incorrect pastimes - usually anything that puts a smile on your face, eg. driving a speedboat, or sitting in front of a wood fire on cold winter's day, .... all very environmentally unfriendly pastimes!!! So, when having fun, never smile, a wowser will want to ban it. C. J. Dennis defined a wowser as "an ineffably pious person who mistakes the world for a penitentiary and himself as the warder."

It seems that Timothy was having problems with some wowsers in his congregation. They had obviously worked out a strict rule of behavior for the Christian life which involved, among other things, abstinence from sex and meat. There is always the temptation to think that some form of religious duty, some work of supererogation, a piety which exceeds even Biblical ethics, will somehow gain us favor before God, give us greater access to his promised blessings, but in truth, it is likely to do the opposite. A simple faith in Jesus earns God's total approval, along with all his promised blessings.

In dealing with the problem, Paul reminds Timothy of a simple fact: the creation is good and is therefore, something we can rightly enjoy. Yet in confronting the wowsers, Paul doesn't give free reign to hedonism. The creation is to be enjoyed, but only in a way that respects the design limits. We are free to participate in everything that we can give thanks for, under God. Sex is good, but only within marriage, meat is good, but not meat offered to idols.

So, in our passage for study we find guidance for handling the twin curses of legalism and libertarianism. In our own lives, as well as in the life of our church, we have all observed the pendulum swing between both extremes. When it comes to pietism, with its list of do's and don'ts, Paul sees it as little better than the "teachings of demons", serving to undermine the profound truth that all God's blessings are ours by grace through faith and not by works of the law. At the other extreme, libertines are reminded that freedom does not come without some constraints. We are not free to sin. If we can't look the Lord in the face and thank him for what we are about to do then we are best not to do it.


Find a way through the legalism / libertarianism dichotomy.