In October a group of children playing in a park in the outer suburbs of Sydney found a suitcase floating in a pond. Inside was the body of a two year old boy. A few days later the boy’s mother was charged with his murder. Understandably, this very tragic crime provoked an outpouring of grief and anger from the community. The accused murderess was vilified and the child protection authorities were accused of failing in their duty. The media carried disturbing reports of angry people expressing their rage about the crime. It is unlikely, however, that many of these same people had been prepared to reach out and assist what was obviously a dysfunctional family.

The following month the media carried reports of the death from malnutrition of a young girl on the New South Wales Central Coast. Her parents were subsequently arrested and charged with murder. Like the boy from Sydney, this child had been identified by child welfare authorities as being at risk but they were unable to intervene adequately. Again there was an outpouring of anger from the community and the media about the neglect of the parents and the failure of the authorities. There is nothing like the murder of innocent children to generate both extreme anguish and extreme selfrighteousness.

Just two of many

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of these terrible cases is the fact that they are just two of so many. These murders thrust into the open a problem of enormous magnitude that many would prefer to ignore. In 2005–06 there were over 266,000 reports of child abuse in Australia. A case of child abuse is reported to Australian welfare agencies every 30 minutes! That national statistic is consistent with New South Wales data that shows that one in 14 children is officially recognised as at risk. 14% of all families in New South Wales have been investigated in relation to reports of child abuse. While there are some cases of misreporting, all the evidence would suggest there is massive under-reporting of child abuse and that the true figures are much higher. Thousands of social workers and bureaucrats are employed to address the needs of dysfunctional families and individuals; the Child Support Agency (which administers child support payments for children whose parents have separated) employs several thousand staff alone. Yet the problems they seek to manage only seem to be expanding.

As Christadelphians we share the anguish of the wider community when we hear of these kinds of tragedies. We may also believe that they are signs of the last days when Paul said “perilous times shall come” (2 Tim 3:1). When added to the growing problem of substance abuse, rapidly declining moral standards and other evidence of social anarchy we may be inclined to draw some comfort from the fact that the Bible warned us to expect such conditions at the time of the end.

Why?

What are the causes of crimes such as these? No doubt there are many causes. It is true that there have always been heinous acts. Violence is not new; Cain slew his brother in only the fourth chapter of the Bible. Modern media practices ensure these kinds of acts are prominent before our eyes, taking almost a prurient interest in such salacious stories (cp Rom 1:32). But the news media alone is not to blame for the decline. There is clear evidence of growing and very serious social dislocation and turmoil, especially in the western world.

One of the underlying causes of this deterioration in social conditions is decline in respect for the Bible as the Word of God. The rise of humanism has led to man displacing God as the greatest, indeed only source of authority for many people. The cult of self is the dominant philosophical driver in modern society. While humanism of itself would not condone abuse of children, it sows the seeds of a culture which is self-centred and hedonistic. When taken to extremes that can lead men and women to commit vile acts, while also failing to reach out to support others in need.

When contemplating these trends we may bring to mind the terms of 2 Timothy 3: “men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (v2–4). These words are indeed appropriate descriptors of the antisocial behaviour that increasingly blights western society, but is that really the focus of Paul’s words?

Keep yourself unspotted

James warned that pure religion requires us to remain unspotted by the world (Jas 1:27). This is easier said than done. It is inevitable that the society in which we live will have an influence upon us. Some of those influences will be innocuous but some will not. We live in a world that assaults us on every side; we cannot leave our homes without being confronted with images and messages that are contrary to Divine principles. It is even hard to prevent these things intruding into our homes.

Many of these worldly influences are subtle yet extremely pernicious. For instance, brothers and sisters in paid employment will be exposed to expectations of absolute equality in the workplace. This may make perfect sense in the context of a business, but the same concept cannot be perfectly applied in the ecclesia where gender-specific roles are mandated by Scripture and where we are required to accept Biblical prohibitions of certain behaviours and lifestyles that are tolerated in the workplace and community.

If we can be adversely affected by something as relatively benign as equality, we can just as easily become corrupted by more dangerous ideas and practices. That is Paul’s point in 2 Timothy 3. The Apostle is not really warning us about trends we would see evident in the broader community in “the last days”; he is warning us about disturbing trends that will become evident within the ecclesia.

The letters to Timothy were written to assist Timothy in guiding the ecclesia in Ephesus. The focus of the letters is to provide advice as to how we should conduct ourselves in “the house of God, which is the ecclesia of the living God” (1 Tim 3:15). In 2 Timothy 3 Paul warns us that in the last days there would be dramatic rise in selfcentredness as brothers and sisters increasingly adopt the standards and attitudes of a world that knows not God.

It is perhaps staggering to us to think that the catalogue of evils he records could apply to members of the ecclesia but that is clearly his meaning when we consider the context. Chapter 2 concludes with Paul’s advice to reach out meekly to those in the meeting who “oppose themselves” (2 Tim 2:25), while at the same time not being distracted by their “foolish and unlearned questions” (v23). Some of these erring brothers and sisters will be reclaimed (v26), but others will not amend their ways. It is those of whom Paul speaks in chapter 3.

Paul says firstly that they “shall be lovers of their own selves”, highlighting the root cause of the problem. They have been infected with the philosophy that self is number one. Of course they would never express themselves so crassly, but their conduct belies the fact. Sometimes we hear comments like, “I do not attend the lecture (or Bible class) because I get nothing out of it”, which may be a sign that the interests of self have displaced the imperative to support others. Our service in Christ is not about self – in fact it is all about denial of self (Matt 16:24). Love of self, on the other hand, opens the way for so many of the evils Paul goes on to list: covetousness, boasting and pride are all evidence of a misplaced emphasis on self.

Blasphemers

The apostle’s reference to blasphemers in verse 2 might seem extreme, but when we appreciate that the word does not necessarily imply evil-speaking about God, Paul’s meaning is not so hard to grasp. The same word (Grk blaspheemous) is used of “railing accusation” in 2 Peter 2:11. Paul is referring to a tendency on the part of such brothers and sisters to malign those who challenge them. As Paul goes on to say in 2 Timothy 3:3, they are “without natural [ie brotherly] affection” and become “despisers of those that are good”. Such will become “traitors” to the cause and “heady”, or rash, and “highminded” (v4).

A related word (Grk blaspheemia) is used elsewhere in relation to Ephesus to describe “evil speaking” which was to be eliminated from the ecclesia (Eph 4:31). That same word, translated as “railing”, was used when Timothy had been warned that some in the ecclesia would depart from true teaching, the hallmarks of whose influence would be “doting about questions and strifes of words”. The consequences of that behaviour would be “strife, railing, evil surmising” (1 Tim 6:3–4). Using another related word (Grk blaspheemeo), Jude refers to some in the ecclesia who would trouble the brotherhood and “despise dominion [rsv authority], and speak evil of dignities” (v8).

Having a form of godliness

Paul draws his catalogue to a close with the sad commentary that these brothers and sisters have “a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof” (v5). This is further evidence, if it were needed, that Paul is speaking about an influence that should arise in the ecclesia in the last days. These are people who profess to worship God, and indeed may loudly proclaim that they do so more perfectly than those they criticise, yet have failed to yield themselves to the will of God as expressed through the Word of God. It is not the power of God that motivates them, but rather the power of the flesh.

Paul goes on to warn of the modus operandi of these corrupted brethren: “of this sort are they which creep into houses” (v6). Such people often prefer to work privately to promote their views. Rather than openly proclaiming their teachings, they often seek to indoctrinate others through private and surreptitious means. While home study classes are in general a very positive and worthwhile activity it must be recognised that, when conducted by unsound teachers or by those whose objectives are not aligned with sound doctrine, they can be very dangerous. There have been many sowers of discord who have “crept into houses” to mislead the vulnerable.

Paul’s comment makes it clear this was a problem in the first century. Two millennia later this threat has adopted another and more sinister form. The advent of the internet means that such teachers have even greater access to the homes of unsuspecting brothers and sisters. There are a number of websites that peddle dangerous and corrupt teachings. Those who have for any reason become a little disenchanted with ecclesial life and may have withdrawn somewhat from active ecclesial participation are particularly at risk of being captured by this means.

Ever learning

These brethren are said to be “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (v7). Paul again goes to the heart of the issue. These brethren do not depart from sound doctrine because they drift into worldly pursuits. They are often extremely studious, or at least make a show of scholarship, but usually to no end. As Paul goes on to warn Timothy: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim 4:3–4). Their “own lusts” are a key driver in their study – a desire to find justification for that which meets their own self-centred priorities. Thus we have seen the emergence from within the body of websites that promote open fellowship and even homosexuality, and which make a show of seeking to prove their case from Scripture!

In many respects, of course, “ever learning” is an excellent attribute for the saints. We can never exhaust the mine of wisdom available to us in God’s Word. But our constant desire to learn must be in accord with the revealed will of God. Rather than having “itching ears” and always being seduced by “some new thing” (Acts 17:21), we should exercise discretion as we build on sure foundations so that our teaching reflects a balance of “things new and old” (Matt 13:52).

The antidote

In warning us that the last days would see the emergence of such dangerous trends within the ecclesia Paul went on to provide advice as to how we might combat these influences. “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (v13) but we need not despair. They might resist our attempts to reclaim them (2 Tim 2:25), but regardless of whether or not they respond to sound teaching, Paul’s advice is to “continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of” (v14). The Bible, as opposed to vain philosophies we might borrow from a perishing world, is the only means by which we may become wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

As we witness the continuing moral decline of the world in which we live, and as we see evidence of its pernicious influence corrupting even the body of Christ, let us not be complacent. Let us “strengthen the things which remain” as we seek to help each other to prepare for the Kingdom. And as we do so, let us recognise that these developments provide further evidence that our Master is near. “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus!”