The short letter of Second John is address to the “elect lady and her children.” This is likely a reference to a church. Since the Greek word for church is feminine, calling a church a “chosen lady” is a natural metaphor. Jobes points out that neither “chosen” nor “lady” were used as proper names in the first century, nor are there any personal names in this letter (Letters to the Churches, 441). John refers to the members of a congregation as “children” in 1 John several times, so it seems fairly certain that this address is to a congregation of believers.
It may be a generic letter, however, circulated to several churches in a region. 1 John seems to be intended as a circular letter, so it is possible that this short note from “the elder” was passed around to several house churches. Since this letter is written on a single scrap of paper (verse 12), it may have been intended as a personal note from John, carried by a traveling preacher visiting congregations under John’s oversight. Obviously 1 and 2 John are related, but there is no way to know which letter came first or if they were addressed to different congregations.
The theological content of the letter is similar to that of 1 John. The writer warns the congregation about “deceivers” who have gone out into the world and deny that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). In verse 9 John implies that these deceivers have “gone ahead” rather than remained in the truth as it was first taught. Perhaps some teachers had tried to find a way to explain who Jesus was which “went beyond” what the apostles originally taught. These people were not heretics in the traditional sense, but Christians who were seeking to understand what Jesus claimed about himself. While John calls them deceivers, their deception might have been an on honest attempt to develop theology even if it went a different direction that what John himself was teaching.
This is a problem for modern theology. The main issue in Second John is that the false teachers had developed doctrine in a way which was unacceptable. I think they had good intentions – they were genuinely trying to explain a very difficult concept (God became flesh) and they did so in a way which they thought was consistent with their Jewish world view. But from the perspective of John, they have gone too far and need to “remain” in the original teaching he delivered to them.
I think that it is necessary to develop doctrine “beyond the Bible,” since the Bible simply does not specifically address every situation which may arise in a modern context. I am frequently asked what the Bible has to say about birth control or in vitro fertilization. Since it is very hard to “quote a verse” as a proof-text either for or against these practices, Christians have to infer ethical practice from the general teaching of the Bible. The difficult part is knowing when we have “run ahead” and developed a doctrine beyond what the intent of the Bible was in the first place.
Does a little letter like 2 John provide a model for developing doctrine? Or should we read it as a sober warning about going too far?
6 thoughts on “Second John – Developing Doctrine and Practice”
When I read this letter I feel as if the author is reminding me that I need to be true to the word and in everything I do make sure it aligns with the scriptures. I know there are topics that scriptures don’t mention and so it is hard to know how Christians should believe/act on those topics. I do believe that modern theology sometimes tries to make up rules or practices that are just not biblical. You can see some of these practices in cults, and other extreme religions. When I was young our parents were involved in a ministry called “I.B.L.P” or “A.T.I.” This program later just started making rules that came out of nowhere and our family got out of that ministry because it just got weird. Those people weren’t trying to develop a cult or any religious sect other than knowing Jesus better. Over time the extra rules took place of the life of Jesus and what He had done for those that the ministry was trying to reach. I think that this is the kind of group that 2 John was written to… Don’t forget Jesus and His words to us.
I feel as if this letter is more of a reminder to the people of the church to walk in love. I don’t feel that it is either of these things that you have asked but both. When we think about developing doctrine, or what we should think about when we are developing it, is how we are to live out our Christian lives. Which this book talks about walking in Love, as Jesus did. Yet I also feel that is a warning, so as we might not forget to remain in our studies, and our teachings so that we might not turn away from God.
It would be a stretch for me to believe that 2 John shows us a model for developing theology. I would argue that it is a reaction toward bad theology and how to deal with people who have bad theology. Jobes says, “the practical manner in view was hospitality” (442). The problem was bad theology, and perhaps the bigger problem was that they were housing the false teachers and entertaining that teaching. Verse 10 says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting.” To me, this is a slap on the wrist of the church there for even entertaining thoughts that are obviously contrary to the teaching already given to them. I feel as though the false teachers here were not just teaching on something they did not know; it sounds as though they were teaching something that conflicted with the coming of Christ.
So if this was more about not tolerating false teaching, does it still have anything to say about developing theology beyond what we know? I think it can serve as a stern warning that if you do venture outside what we know Biblically, you better be sure that it does not conflict with what you already know.
Josh’s belief that 2 John is not a basis for theology resonates with me as well. What 2 John does stress is living a life of love towards one another (vs 5-6). However, love does not have to accept or “tolerate” as Jobes mentions “any or all claims to truth” (Letters to the Church, 443). Jobes makes the following observation, “It is not loving to see someone… who claims to be a Christian, living with false beliefs or habitual sin, and simply look the other way” (443). Rather than being a theological cornerstone, 2 John is a letter encouraging practical daily application of loving other people, but guarding oneself from ungodly teachings and practices.
I think that you are right in seeing 2 John as a warning to be careful when developing theology outside of the Bible, and maybe even apart from more wise people who could assist you. Developing theology based on the overall ethical theology of the Bible is incredibly dangerous, and often even Christians don’t agree with each other. I can think, specifically, about many disagreements i’ve been a part of over whether the Bible supports, or opposes the Death Penalty (just to give a specific example). It is things like this that Christians need to be careful when saying that something is “absolutely true”. Now, don’t get me wrong there are a great many things that the Bible speaks very clearly about, and Christians ought to be supporting those things. However, on the things that aren’t so clear there needs to be a balance between inferring the ethical teachings of Scripture, and sticking to the teachings of wiser, and more experienced Christians.
Aside from all of this I do agree that 2 John is more than a warning about theology. I agree that the point of the letter is an encouragement to live “in the love of God in accordance with the truth of Jesus Christ” (ESVSB 2439). John is telling them to live in love, and in the love learn to discern between things that “abide in the teaching of Christ” (vs. 9), and the things that “go on ahead” (vs 9). John wants them to understand that going outside the teachings of Jesus is dangerous, and that the only way to avoid the danger is to abide in them, and live a life of love that stays consistent with what Jesus taught.
I think one of the important things to consider is what John (Young) brought up about 2 John focusing in on the love Christians should have for each other. When the author speaks of “continuing in the teaching of Christ” (v. 9), I believe he is referring back to what he said in v. 5 – that “…I am not writing to you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.” This echoes the Gospel of John, which recounts Jesus saying a very similar thing, “…love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). This teaching of Christ was vital for those believers to remember in the midst of division and people leaving the church. And John the Apostle wanted his brothers and sister to notice this, indicated by his statement right after in v. 7, “I say this because…” The deceivers who were causing separation were “running ahead” and forgetting what Christ’s life was all about: love. I agree with John and Josh that it’s a bit of a stretch to see this as an authoritative guide to forming church doctrine.