“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions …” (2 Timothy 4:3)
An accusation often levelled against preachers is that their teaching doesn’t engage with where their listeners are at. That they’re not really scratching where the congregation is itching. Those of us entrusted with the enormous privilege and responsibility of teaching the Bible to others do need to ensure, of course, that our messages are grounded in reality. But there is a danger. Particularly if we make ‘scratching where people itch’ our main guiding principle in our preparation.
We can’t be sure what time-frame Paul had in mind in warning Timothy of a time coming when people will not endure sound (i.e. healthy, wholesome) teaching. Was he giving this young(ish) preacher a prophetic warning about a particular period that he would face in his ministry in Ephesus? Or was he issuing a more general warning to the wider church throughout the ages, of multiple times when people won’t tolerate healthy doctrine?
I’m inclined to think that the Apostle probably had both time-spans in mind. And I would dare to suggest that in our generation – certainly here in the UK but in many other countries around the world too – we find ourselves in one of those very periods that Paul predicted.
I see evidence of this through my work as the Director of True Freedom Trust, a teaching and pastoral support ministry for Christians who face same-sex temptations. A generation ago, most believers would have accepted without question the wholesome teaching that heterosexual marriage is the only God-given environment for love and attraction to express themselves sexually. But not today. Many professing Christians refuse to tolerate this clearly authentic gospel truth. In fact, more generally, many in our churches refuse to put up with the very concept of a divine being who has a right to govern what any of us get up to in the privacy of our own bedrooms.
The result? People are accumulating a whole host of teachers, authors, leaders and figures from Christian celebrity culture who will tell them exactly what their itching ears want to hear. Things that will “suit their own passions”, rather than challenge and confront those passions and call people to repentance from them.
If you’re a preacher and teacher of God’s word in any context, do pray that God will give you insight and understanding as to where your hearers are at. The temptations they’re facing, the trials they’re enduring, the doubts they’re battling with, the fears and anxieties that engulf them. But don’t be seduced into serving up what their (or your) itching ears might want to hear. God has many things to say in his word that none of us want to hear. Things that are unpalatable, even offensive to our ears. But what our itching ears need to hear is good, wholesome, healthy teaching. Teaching that prepares us for eternity.