Paul’s “Itching Ears” Are About the Church, Not Culture

A pastor can sin, not only in being carried along by the whims of culture, but also in saying only what’s popular within their congregation. Other Christians can also fall to the same temptation within our sphere of influence.

Paul and “itching ears” in 2 Timothy

As the Apostle Paul faced his last days on earth, he challenged his young protégé Timothy about the temptation to give in to those who surround themselves with voices who affirm their perspective.

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, exercise self-control in everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

2 Timothy 4:2-5 CSB, emphasis mine

Despite how many use this passage, Paul’s warning is not about pastors who go along with popular culture outside the church. He’s speaking of about “itching ears”1to use the vivid imagery of the King James and other translations within their church.

From the New American Commentary:

It is important to recognize that Paul was speaking these words to believers. In 2 Tim. 3:6–9, 13 Paul had described the actions of false teachers. Now he warned that even professing believers would feel the influence of this wanderlust for unfamiliar ideas and the unbeaten moral path.

New American Commentary Vol. 34: 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, Thomas Lea

Yes, Paul often challenges and confronts leaders who deviate from God’s Word to conform themselves to culture, but that’s not the itch he is worried about here. He’s speaking of issues within the church. Paul is challenging Timothy to preach God’s Word even when it makes people in the (figurative) pews uncomfortable.

In other places, Paul warns about Christians following culture instead of Christ. But here, when giving instructions for to Timothy as a pastor, Paul wants him to make sure he isn’t just saying what the church people want to hear.

Pastors and their congregations

The reality is pastors and church leaders are often more tempted to downplay sin within their own congregation than those in the broader culture. Amens that are often plentiful when you point out how those on the outside fail to live up to God’s standards can go quietly missing when the congregation feels challenged.

Take this recent story in The New York Times from Ruth Graham. Former Arkansas pastor Kevin Thompson says he faced numerous issues within his church because he turned the mirror of Scripture toward them.

If he spoke against abortion from the pulpit, Mr. Thompson noticed, the congregation had no problem with it. The members were overwhelmingly anti-abortion and saw the issue as a matter of biblical truth. But if he spoke about race in ways that made people uncomfortable, that was “politics.” And, Mr. Thompson suspected, it was proof to some church members that Mr. Thompson was not as conservative as they thought.

As a ‘Seismic Shift’ Fractures Evangelicals, an Arkansas Pastor Leaves Home” by Ruth Graham, The New York Times

Undoubtedly, this is an issue that goes beyond conservative churches. We could find similar issues in many churches across the ideological and theological spectrum. Pastors with a more progressive congregation might find approval for affirming the image of God in immigrants and refugees but face icy silence for bringing up the unborn.

Stereotypes may be true in some churches and wildly off the mark in others, but the truth is that each congregation has issues where the dominant viewpoint aligns with easily Scripture while also having areas that need to come more in line. I don’t mind when the Bible steps on someone else’s toes, just don’t come for mine.

Members in Thompson’s former church and in the stereotypical progressive church seemingly have itching ears. They want to multiply leaders who will tell them what they want to hear. The pastor who acquiesces to either one is violating Paul’s instructions.2Of course, there are pastors and leaders who aren’t tempted to scratch any ears but have an issue speaking the truth in love. They can’t lead their congregation anywhere because they’re too busy yelling at their church about how wrong they are about everything. A shepherd can’t despise his sheep. We aren’t being more biblical because we only scratch the right or the left ear.

We aren’t being more biblical because we only scratch the right or the left ear. Click To Tweet

Yet, it’s not only pastors who face this temptation. Every Christian has to choose how consistently we will speak God’s truth.

Christians and our audiences

Everyone of us is tempted to turn away from the truth when it hurts and toward comforting “myths.” We have friends and coworkers that expect us to agree with them, but our biblical convictions may not line up with theirs—even if they are fellow believers.

Social media exacerbates this problem for all of us. We build up a following and a reputation, which often makes us hesitant to call out those issues that will ruffle the feathers of our followers (or at least the feathers of the followers we want to think well of us).

Due to the algorithms, social media platforms reward us for generating passionate emotions in our audience. The easiest way to do this is by going on the attack against “them,” whoever “them” may be to your “us.”

But because of the insidious nature of sin and pride, we can recognize the principle in Paul’s words and still not apply it to ourselves. We can be tempted to use this passage as a way to judge others. We can evaluate the social media feed of “them” and note just how much they don’t live up to this standard. Much of this, however, is a heart issue. We have to ask God to weigh our heart and judge our motivations.

Am I posting this to win the approval of others? Am I not posting something because I’m worried about losing the approval of others? Am I softening God’s Word because it might confront those on “my side”?

The call of every Christian is to faithfully live and proclaim God’s Word. The temptation of every Christian is to soften biblical commands based on the people around us or to purposefully surround ourselves with only those who will affirm our beliefs, even when those beliefs run contrary to Scripture.

The temptation of every Christian is to soften biblical commands based on the people around us or to purposefully surround ourselves with only those who will affirm our beliefs. Click To Tweet

There are many times when the Christian needs to stand firm against the prevailing cultural winds. We are called to be planted and rooted deep in God’s Word. That will inevitably place us at odds with those outside the church.

But Scripture never fails to call us and those in our group into deeper obedience. I need people and pastors in my life to challenge me to be more like Christ and more faithfully apply Scripture to my life. You need those people. Every Christian needs those people. Every pastor needs to be that person.

In some way, we all have itching ears. But are you going to be one who gives in to the temptation to scratch the itch through affirmation or will you allow God’s Word to sooth it through sanctification? And will you be one who serves those around you by calling them to sanctification or will you only seek to use them for your own affirmation?

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