RPM, Volume 11, Number 18, May 3 to May 9 2009

1 Timothy 1:18-20

Part Two

By Scott Lindsay

We are picking up again this morning in our study of Paul's first letter to Timothy, focusing (again) on chapter 1, verses 18-20. If you were with us for our previous study, you know that we have already taken one look at theses verses, concentrating our attention on verse 18 and the first half of verse 19. In that study, we explored the reality that faith is a fight, why that is the case and how the fight of faith is to be fought. One of the main things we saw in that study was that fighting the good fight means, among other things, being faithful to what you have received.

Even further, we saw that the reason Paul was emphasizing this particular aspect of fighting the good fight is because all over Ephesus were false teachers who had NOT done that very thing. They had not been faithful to what they had received from Paul, either in content or in application. As a result, they had caused great trouble for themselves, for Timothy and for others. Two of these people were Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom Paul singles out in this letter. Because of their actions, these two came under the discipline of the church, which is the subject of our study this morning as we look at the second half of verses 18-20.

Now, to be sure, the subject of church discipline is perhaps not the most inviting of things to think about. It is, however, a very necessary thing and is something which the Lord Jesus expected his church to be involved in (See Matthew 18). Paul's comments here show that it certainly was a part of what was going on in the church at Ephesus.

Nevertheless, while Paul's words do make it clear that discipline was a part of the church, and even show us a little bit about the form that this particular act of discipline had taken, he does not provide us with a full-blown presentation on the subject of church discipline here. As a result, our study this morning will have to depend not only on the text before us, but also on some other New Testament texts if we are to round out our discussion even a little bit.

Those realities notwithstanding, I need to stress that we will not be making an exhaustive study of this subject but will be focusing instead on only one aspect of church discipline, the reactive aspect of church discipline, which is the response the church makes when people go off the rails. We will not even address the other side of discipline, which is the more positive or pro-active discipline that comes through a person availing himself of the means of grace God has given to His church, most especially prayer as well as the instruction and application of the Word.

So, with those two preliminary qualifications, let's listen to the text and then we'll pray and ask God the Holy Spirit to come and be our teacher:


Paul speaks of two men who have been creating difficulties among the Ephesian Christians: Hymenaeus and Alexander. He describes them as men who have shipwrecked their faith and, most likely, have led others into similar dangers along the way. Now, one of the obvious questions at this point revolves around the word "shipwrecked."

What does Paul mean when he says that these two men have "made shipwreck of their faith?" I can remember driving along the southern coast of Australia along the Great Ocean Road and going along the top of magnificent cliffs that jutted out over the water and seeing miles and miles of jagged coastline, with enormous, menacing rocks everywhere we looked. As I went along the road, every few miles or so I would find an historical marker, some of them describing some horrible shipwreck that had happened there sometime in the past 200 years. There are even a number of places where one can get out, walk down a trail to the beach and venture out among the rocks at low tide. If one does, one will discover that these rocks are often razor sharp and hard as iron. It is not difficult to imagine what they would do to a fully-loaded ship as the waves mercilessly smashed it against them. Shipwrecked ships aren't ships for very long. Very soon they are reduced to splintered wood and scattered debris, with perhaps a small fragment of the shattered hull left behind (for a little while at least) leaving only a suggestion of a ship that once so proudly sailed.

Similarly, when Paul talks about these two men who have "made shipwreck of their faith" he is describing a disaster scene. He is saying their faith has begun to splinter, to fragment and, very soon, unless something changes, they will be completely done in, with only bits and pieces here and there to suggest anything of their former life and conviction.

What does that say about the faith of these two men? Indeed, what does it say about faith in general? Is this passage suggesting that true faith, genuine faith can ultimately be lost? That is a good question and one which we will address, but not just yet. In order to deal with it, we need to think about a few other things first. Let us look back at verse 19 for a moment. There Paul instructs Timothy to "hold on to faith and a good conscience" and then goes on to say that some people, namely Hymenaeus and Alexander, have NOT held on to faith OR a good conscience and have had a bad result. To put it in opposite terms, they have been acting in unbelief and going against conscience. Language like this implies that the problem is not simply that these men have been deluded or mistaken about some things; they were consciously going against things which they had received from Paul as true and right.

This is something we have already seen, right? We have seen how some of these Ephesian teachers wandered off into strange myths and wild speculations and, in the process, had imported all sorts of extraneous ideas into the faith. They were men who looked for and delighted in the obscure and controversial with the sad result that their own faith had been undermined, unraveled and dashed against the rocks.

However, the problem is bigger than just dabbling in the controversial. Paul's description of these men as those who have rejected "a good conscience" is indicative of their behavior and their moral life. It is indicative of the reality that they were not only venturing into the obscure and speculative but that they were actively disobedient. They were playing fast and loose with things which were clearly wrong, and not being concerned about their life before God. They are "blasphemers." While we simply don't have enough information to illuminate exactly what Paul means by all of that, we know that what is at issue here are not merely doctrinal musings but also behavior or matters of conscience.

So, we see a connection between belief and behavior. As John Stott once observed:

...doing is the key to discovering and obedience is the key to assurance. By contrast, it is when people are determined to live in unrighteousness that they suppress the truth ... So, if we disregard the voice of conscience, allowing sin to remain unconfessed and unforsaken, our faith will not long survive....
To put it another way, it is not only true that belief affects behavior, but that behavior also affects belief. What Paul is describing here are two men for whom their persistence in going against conscience, or for whom ignoring or suppressing their conscience, had the effect of reorganizing their thought structure - the way they "saw" the world and the perspectives they held on God, life and everything else. Let me say it again. Persisting in a pattern of behavior, particularly a sinful pattern of behavior, if unchecked, will result in a worldview that warps itself around that pattern until it becomes an enormous blind spot and the conscience becomes seared to the point that it no longer responds to stimuli that ought to send it reeling.

All of which points to the very real necessity of church discipline. These processes of belief and behavior, and the interaction between them, are going on all the time within the Body of Christ; within ME and within YOU. We are, all of us, either in a pattern that, on the whole, is spiraling toward greater conformity to Christ's perfect humanity or away from greater conformity to that humanity. Because this is a reality, and because we are a body, and not a collection of loosely related, autonomous organisms, it is vitally important, indeed mandatory, that we do not leave such things unaddressed among us, for the sake of the individuals and for the sake of the Body as a Whole.

Imagine that a person develops gangrene in his left foot. Further, imagine that as a result, the brain - being the major organ of the body - calls an emergency meeting to consult with the rest of the body's members as to how they should respond. As the meeting begins, the right foot speaks up quickly and says that it is none of their concern and that it can be safely ignored. After all, the left foot has had it coming to him for quite some time now. Then, one by one, the hands, arms and neck, etc, all agree that this is nothing to be alarmed about and that it will all go away if everyone will just leave well enough alone. What an absurdity! The gangrene will not be content to stay in the left foot but, if ignored, will take the rest of the body down with it.

Now, thankfully, this is not at all how the human body functions. After all, God designed it and He, of course, does all things well. So, in reality, when the left foot is in trouble, the whole body goes to "High Alert" status as various systems and sub-systems are brought into play to try and deal with the problem. In various ways, the whole body gets to work trying to restore the troubled left foot.

In a similar fashion, as members of the Body of Christ, as members of "one another," as Paul puts it, we have a shared responsibility and obligation to one another in this regard. As surely, as a parent has a vested interest in dealing with rebellious and harmful behavior in his children, so too, do we in the Body of Christ have a vested interest in looking after one another in this regard, for the sake of the persons involved, for the sake of the Body as a whole, and, ultimately, for the sake of God whose honor and name are at stake.

That is an awesome responsibility. As Dorothy Sayers once said, "God went through three great humiliations in His pursuit of humanity. One was the Incarnation - when Jesus took on human flesh. The second was the Crucifixion, when he suffered a painful and shameful death. And the third great humiliation she said ‘was the CHURCH - when God entrusted his reputation to ordinary people'." Now, I might quibble with Dorothy over one or two things there, but the point she is trying to get across is essentially correct: The honor of God before the nations of the world is somehow bound up with this rag-tag collection of recovering sinners we call the church.

Therefore, church discipline is an awesome and necessary responsibility for the people of God. We see in these verses that Paul has certainly taken that responsibility seriously, speaking here of his disciplinary actions regarding these two false teachers, Hymenaeus and Alexander, "handing them over to Satan." Now, without forgetting our previous question, to which we are still going to return, let's think for a moment about what Paul could possibly mean by this phrase, "handing them over to Satan."

Even without doing much background work, it is obvious simply from the extremely strong language being used that this is a very grave and serious thing to do. The thought of being "handed over to Satan" is something that ought to strike fear in the heart of any believer. However, what do these words mean? Is Paul speaking of a literal handing over of a person to Satan, as if they were actually placed into the hands of a demonic being? Well, for starters, it is highly unlikely that Paul is speaking of a literal handing over of two people into the hands of Satan. The idea of dealing with Satan directly is one, which is simply foreign to Paul and his writings. To be sure, he certainly believes in the reality of Satan and his influence, but to deal with him in any direct, concrete sense such as to engage in some sort of "spiritual transaction" with him would be difficult to defend from Paul's other writings.

However, when we do look elsewhere in Paul's letters we get some clues as to what these words might mean. For example, if we go over to Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5, we read Paul's response and reaction to one of their members who is engaged in an illicit affair, even incest, with his stepmother. What's more, his actions are common knowledge and yet, strange as it may seem, they have come to be accepted by the people in the church! So what does Paul tell these slackers in Corinth to do in this case?

1 Corinthians 5:4-5 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
In those verses you see the same phrase that appears in Timothy, speaking about "handing someone over to Satan." We note from the Corinthian text that it is an action that takes place when the other believers are gathered together at an official meeting of some sort and we note also that the person is dealt with, and the action is reported, in a very public way. Now, look again at the Corinthians text, starting from verse 9:
1 Corinthians 5:9-13 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler - not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."
The actions described here are of separating one professing believer from the rest of the believers, putting him out. The word we use for that today is "excommunication."

And so, in the light of what we see in the Corinthian passage, it would seem that the "handing over to Satan" is a figurative way of speaking of this act of separating (excommunicating) the person from the rest of the church. Now where would Paul get such an idea? Well, he gets it from Jesus. In Chapter 18 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has some helpful things to say about the matter of church discipline:

Matthew 18:15-17 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
In particular, it is those last words which are important for us at the moment. Jesus Himself, in instructing the disciples, tells them that the unrepentant person who refuses to give up his sinful behavior is to be treated as one who is not a child of God but rather, a child of Hell. So, the action of cutting off ties between a person and the church is to, in effect, relegate them to the realm of Satan. It sends them back to the world, precisely because their continued, stubborn rejection of God's truth and God's ways makes it impossible to see the difference between them and any other person who does not know God or claim to know God.

Now that may seem pretty harsh. But considering the possible future consequences for such a person, can we afford to not press upon them in the most forceful way we know the danger that he/she may be in? Would you stand idly by as a person drives his car toward the edge of a cliff? Or would you scream, shout, pound on the doors of the car, tell them his doom is certain - anything to get him to come to his senses before it's too late? The answer, I think, is obvious.

And really, that is the POINT of the whole exercise of church discipline. To take this really radical step, to try and break through to a person for whom every other option has failed, to communicate to them that there seems to be no apparent difference between them and the rest of humanity which denies God. The implication of that truth for them is the same as it is for any other unbeliever. They are in great personal, spiritual peril, if they do not repent and demonstrate, by doing so, that in fact there IS a difference between them and the unbeliever.

To say it another way, the point is to see the person respond, in brokenness, and repentance, and return to their first love. So it is with these two men, Hymenaeus and Alexander. They too have proven be, so far, unrepentant, stubborn men. They are men who have not responded to previous warnings and actions and have brought upon themselves this most severe of judgments: to be handed over to Satan; to be regarded and treated as persons who do not even know God.

Which gets us back to the questions we put on the back burner for a moment; what does this passage say about the faith of these two men in particular and what does it say about faith in general? Is this passage suggesting that faith can be lost? And the best way to answer that question is to ask another one: Can God fail? Can genuine faith be lost? Has God ever failed to complete anything He has started? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO. The Bible makes it quite clear that faith is not something that is generated from somewhere in side of us but is itself a gift of God. None of God's gifts have ever been recalled for product malfunction.

So what does this say about Hymenaeus and Alexander? Well, it simply says that here is the place where the proverbial rubber meets the road. This is the place where the reality (or otherwise) of their faith will be made apparent. Of course, it is already quite apparent to God, but not to his Church and not to the world.

Now the reality is that the Church cannot infallibly know the heart of any person. The Church cannot infallibly know whether the sinful entanglements of its members are simply the outworking of remaining sin in a heart that has been invaded by the Holy Spirit and has bowed the knee to God OR whether what is going on is simply the outworking of a heart that has never "bowed the knee" and for whom the spiritual charade has just about reached its limit. No Church can infallibly know these things. So the question is: what does an admittedly fallible Church do when a person has gone so far that it seems all hope is lost?

I vaguely remember watching a war film in which a man was on the run. I do not remember if he was a good guy or a bad guy, but at one point he was in among a bunch of other persons who were dead and strewn about the place. So he lay down among them and lay perfectly still, as if he too were dead, hoping that his pursuers would not notice and pass him by. Unfortunately for this person, his pursuers were smarter than that and one of them, upon seeing him, knelt down and covered his mouth and pinched his nose shut and he just waited. Eventually, after about 4 minutes, the pursued man could not fake it any more and began thrashing about, trying to get some air.

Well, that is a crude picture I admit, but it illustrates, in some ways, the answer to the previous question. What does an admittedly fallible Church do when a person has gone so far that it seems all hope is lost? What does a church do when one of its own appears to be as spiritually dead as everyone else who does not claim allegiance to Christ? It cuts off the air supply, so to speak, to see if the body will move. If there is life, spiritual life, then there will be a response. The step will bring about the desired result. If there is no life, then what the church does will not make any difference.

Now, as I said, that is an admittedly crude analogy, and it may sound harsh, but really it isn't. The church's actions with regard to Hymenaeus and Alexander may have seemed severe but in reality they were merciful and necessary. As these two men are released by the church to simply continue down their chosen path and simultaneously cut off from the life of the church, the intended result is that the awful consequences of their actions will communicate in a way which nothing else has, as yet, been able to. The fact that this is Paul's hope for Hymenaeus and Alexander is seen in the closing words of verse 20, "I have handed them over ..... that they may learn not to blaspheme..." Paul's hope is that this will be a valuable, though painful, time of learning and hard maturity for two men who, ultimately, will be found faithful.

If we look at some of Paul's other writings, we see this same attitude. In Galatians 6:1 he writes,

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Similarly, in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, he writes,
If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed". Here's the clincher, "Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Now, there are a number of things we can take away from this passage, some of which are already pretty obvious I suspect, but in the interest of clarity, in these last minutes, let me quickly highlight a few things we have seen along the way as well as draw your attention to a couple points of application.

First, church struggle and therefore church discipline, was a reality in the early church not just in Ephesus, but everywhere. Timothy's troubles with Hymenaeus and Alexander are not an isolated case. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, you see that Paul is anticipating trouble there when he warns his readers of what to do about those who do not obey his instructions to the church. In Philippians 4:2, Paul names two women, Euodia and Syntyche, pleading with them to try and get along. In Galatians 1:6, Paul rebukes some of his readers who were abandoning the true Gospel and turning to a false one. And from our Corinthians series, if you have been with us for a while, you will know of the many troubles in that Church, not just the ones in chapter 5.

In short, everywhere you look in the New Testament you find that the church is a mess. Every church in the New Testament has problems, struggles, difficulties and challenges. If we have some idyllic vision of the early church, as if there was some pristine age in which the church was purer and less troubled and more focused on the Gospel, then we simply aren't reading the New Testament very well.

The church has always been a mess and will always be a mess until Jesus comes back. Why? Because the church is people; people who are themselves a mess. As long as the church is a mess, there will always be a need for ongoing, proactive and reactive church discipline. The exercise of discipline IS one of the marks of the true church. Just as a parent that will not discipline his children has abdicated the right to call himself a parent, so it is true that a church that will not discipline its people has abdicated its right to call itself the church.

Second, real faith, genuine faith cannot be lost, not ultimately, because God cannot fail. So, let's not have any doubts on that score. Genuine faith cannot be lost. But before you get too comfortable, let me remind you that while genuine faith cannot BE lost, it can sure look like it sometimes. Look at men like Hymenaeus and Alexander. Look at the man described in 1 Corinthians 5 and you will see people who have wandered far and who, on the outside, seem, at least for a season, to be little different than the world around them. Yet Paul still holds out the possibility that these men might respond and return.

Third, while genuine faith cannot be lost, but it can sure look like it sometimes, the opposite is also true. Spurious faith, that is, the apparent faith of those who for a season (even sometimes for a long season) walk among God's people, such faith is, in the end, not real but it can sure look like it sometimes. This is the clear implication of passages such as the one before us this morning, as well as other passages where Paul warns God's people about those who are enemies of the faith and who will slip in amongst them "like wolves in sheep's clothing".

See also passages such as 2 Timothy 3:4-5, where Paul warns about people who are "...lovers of pleasure, rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power..." Spurious faith is not real, but it can certainly look like it sometimes.

However, and this is the fourth thing to point out, the ultimate test always comes in how the apparently faithful respond to the Father's discipline, as rightly administered through His Church. Genuine faith is, ultimately, faithful faith. When the discipline comes, as for all sinners it must, even when the sin is flagrant and severe, and the church responds appropriately; then genuine faith will respond, even if sometimes it does not right away. At the end of the day it will, because the faith that comes to God's people as a gift is, among other things, also a persevering faith.

Fifth, the goal of all such church discipline, both proactive and reactive, is always the promotion and encouragement of fellowship between God and His people. When His people go off the rails, sometimes WAY off the rails, God wants His church to be prepared to take some difficult stands and harsh measures to restore that fellowship. He wants us to be prepared even and especially when the response is to cut the believer off. Even when we have to step on his spiritual air hose, so to speak, in order to see if there is yet life to be found in the one who is by all appearances spiritually dead, and unresponsive to God.

Sixth, this is a matter that bears great consideration, especially for our very young church. Hopefully, we will be electing elders in this church sometime after the first of next year. That may seem like a long way off, but it will be upon us before we know it. As we pray about that matter, one of the things we ought to be praying for is elders who will understand and be committed to the importance of church discipline. Further, we need to ask God to give us discernment as we consider potential elder candidates, to know whether a given person will have the discernment, maturity and courage to take seriously the responsibility of administering church discipline, both proactively and reactively. Even further than that, we need to pray that God will give us humble and submissive hearts to be willing to work with and uphold and stand alongside our elders once they are elected and not fight against them especially when they have to make some very tough decisions - decisions which in all likelihood will be based on a story that we will not know nearly as well as they do. (And which, I might add, they are not allowed to discuss with the congregation for reasons of confidentiality).

From these verses, we can catch a brief glimpse of the necessity and even something of the process of church discipline, particularly at its extreme end. This is a matter that we need to take seriously. Even though it is a hard thing, the consequences of NOT doing so, are even harder, and far more disastrous. Without discipline, the church is open to just about anything and has no means to guard its doctrine or its practices. Certainly, the church's right in this area can be abused. Church history has examples of times and places where the church did not exercise this right of discipline as it should. Still, a right badly used does not make the right itself obsolete. So it is with church discipline, and so it is that the church ought to continue to exercise discipline. That doesn't guarantee things will be done perfectly. Indeed, I can guarantee us right now that they won't be. But it does mean that the church understands the place and importance of church discipline, and as a church we WANT to do it right, and we WILL engage in it, when it is necessary.

Now, that might sound like a threat, but really it's good news. When we hear a church saying that it believes in church discipline we ought to be glad because it means they love us. It means they are not willing to stand idly by and watch as we dash our ships against the rocks of unbelief and immorality, hazarding our own souls and creating hardship for others and, most importantly, bringing dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ. For all those reasons and more, the church will, and must take these things seriously, even if our actions are misjudged and misunderstood by all those outside the church and even by some INSIDE the church.

May God give us the grace to do hard things well.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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