Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. (KJV, 2 Timothy 2:14)
I’ve often heard this text used to discourage detailed debate about the meaning of Scripture passages, or even to devalue highly precise Bible study. Is this what Paul’s warning to Timothy here is about?
First, observe that whatever “striving about words” is, Paul clearly saw it as something that threatened Timothy’s ministry. Timothy is to “charge them before the Lord” not to do this. Second, the activity is doubly discouraged as lacking in value (“no profit”) and also as causing damage of some kind to hearers (“subverting”). Third, the activity apparently involved individuals in at least two roles: the “strivers” and the “hearers.”
So what activity is being forbidden here? What is meant by “strive not about words”?
For the most part, writers do not see Paul’s warning here as broadly rejecting painstaking word-analysis and debating of details. Some come close, though.
John Chrysostom, the fourth century preacher and bishop in Constantinople, had this to say:
But why does he admonish them not to strive about words? He knows that it is a dainty thing, and that the human soul is ever prone to contend and to dispute about words. To guard against this, he has not only charged them “not to strive about words,” but to render his discourse more alarming, he adds, “to the subverting of the hearers.” (“Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Second Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff. Christian Literature Company, 1889. 493)
Matthew Henry has a similar focus.
Those that are disposed to strive commonly strive about matters of very small moment. Strifes of words are very destructive to the things of God. That they strive not about words to no profit. If people did but consider of what little use most of the controversies in religion are, they would not be so zealous in their strifes of words, to the subverting of the hearers, to the drawing of them away from the great things of God, and occasioning unchristian heats and animosities, by which truth is often in danger of being lost. (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Hendrickson, 1994. 2362)
In our own day, the passage is often taken as a warning against “hair-splitting.”
The warning against disputing about mere words, and wasting time in hair-splitting arguments, is repeated in verse 16 where Paul describes it as ‘godless chatter’. He clearly had in mind certain people in Ephesus who liked to play with religious ideas and words in the way that a small boy plays a game of marbles. They speculated about God and wove high-sounding theories about Christianity until they reduced it to some kind of meaningless and vague philosophy.
We still have to contend with a similar kind of thing today; you can meet such people in the church. They spend a lot of time talking and arguing about the Christian faith instead of living it. They are not really soul-searching for the truth, but are toying with the gospel, speculating about marginal issues which do not help themselves or others to grow in faith. (Peter Williams, Opening Up 2 Timothy. Opening Up Commentary, 2007. 55-56)
Many interpreters see the passage as mainly addressing a problem of emphasis, motive, character, or all of these. Williams, above, though he alludes to excessive attention to detail, sees the strivers-about-words as being men with a heart problem. They were not seriously interested in truth, but debated the meaning of texts as a kind of game. Williams also sees a disjunction between arguing and living. The strivers about words were, in his view, substituting analysis for actually following Christ.
Lea and Griffin offer a similar perspective, combining the idea of excessive attention to detail with (quoting Ward) prideful motives.
This wrong emphasis can lead to aimless word splitting. “In the end disputing about words seeks not the victory of truth but the victory of the speaker” [R. W. Ward]. This word splitting involved useless verbal quibbling, but it did not focus on the aims of Christianity. (Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus. The New American Commentary, 1992. 214)
Returning an older tradition, John Calvin has a similar perspective, taking these strivers as men inclined to put on a show.
Solemnly charging them before the Lord, not to dispute about words. Logomachein means to engage earnestly in contentious disputes, which are commonly produced by a foolish desire of being ingenious. Solemn charging before the Lord is intended to strike terror;  and from this severity we learn how dangerous to the Church is that knowledge which leads to debates, that is, which disregards piety, and tends to ostentation. (http://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/2_timothy/2.htm)
John Gill looked at the passage a bit differently. The 18th century Baptist pastor viewed the warning more in terms of a contrast between the right “words” and the wrong ones.
[I]t became them to strive and contend for the form of sound words, for the wholesome words or doctrines of our Lord Jesus, but not about mere words, and especially such as were to no profit to no advantage to truth, nor to themselves nor others; were not to edification, to spiritual edification, to godly edifying, which is in faith. (http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bibl…)
For Gill the warning is not primarily about the degree of attention to detail or the degree of argumentative passion, nor even mainly the motivations or goals of the striver (though that is assumed). Rather, Paul’s intent is to contrast false teachers with true and to call Timothy’s trainees to strive about God’s words rather than merely human words.
Several features of the immediate and larger context encourage us toward this understanding of the passage.
- Paul frequently calls upon Timothy to engage in behavior many would consider to be “contentious” (1 Tim. 6:12, 2 Tim. 4:2, Titus 1:9, Titus 1:13, Titus 2:15).
- Paul repeatedly reminds Timothy of the importance of “words” (1 Tim. 4:6, 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13. Titus 1:9 is also noteworthy).
- Though Paul warns, “strive not about words” in 2 Timothy 2:14, he emphasizes diligence and precision in handling the word in 2:15.
- In the context, Paul is indeed contrasting the work of false teachers with true teachers. The approved worker of 2:15 is in contrast with those who “concerning the truth have erred” in 2:16-18.
- The two statements following “strive not about words” (“to no profit … to the subverting”) express results, but may well be intended to help us understand what kind of striving about words is in view: the kind that does not profit but rather “ruins” (katastrophe) hearers (as Gill interprets, above).
- The fact that there are “hearers” suggests that Paul has some kind of teaching in view, not debating among students regarding the meaning of texts.
- “Strive … about words” translates a single Greek word that appears only in this verse in the NT. It may well mean “to quarrel with [i.e., using] words.” Philip Towner sums it up well.
False teachers are destructive. As this passage shows, this applies to their methods, their doctrine and the results they cause in the church. With regard to method, they are argumentative. Throughout these letters, it is this trait that most typifies the activities of the false teachers (1 Tim 6:4; Tit 3:9). In fact, the translation quarreling about words (v. 14) expresses one side of a single Greek word that can also mean “fighting with words.” The one term sums up their activity as a whole, content and method. (1–2 Timothy & Titus. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, 1994)
Paul’s point in this passage is clearly not “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” The warning does not devalue precision in study, heated debate, or the unpleasantness of confrontation. It is not clear that the “words” of the strivers he has in mind are the words of Scripture at all. Rather, the passage calls us to diligence in rightly understanding words—the ones God has given us.
Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.