Developing Doctrine in Second John

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.

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.

WWJDriveI 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. Some years ago there was an attempt to encourage Christians to be environmentally  conscious when choosing a car; the media campaign used “What would Jesus drive?” as a slogan. I really do not think it is relevant to apply Jesus to choosing a gas-guzzling SUV or Prius. There may be good biblical reasons for choosing one over the other, but “what would Jesus drive” is not the way to develop theology.

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.

How do we guard against “going too far” when we try to apply the Bible to contemporary issues?

13 thoughts on “Developing Doctrine in Second John

  1. Hi Phil, I have come across the Greek word “kuria” a few times when reading Christian and Jewish Greek literature, plus the word occurs in hundreds of ancient Greek papyrus letters. I’m as convinced as I can be that the “chosen lady” was a real person, and not a metonym for a church.

    Here is a short article where I mention the occurrences of kuria I have come across.

    I also think it is significant that the writer of 2 John sometimes addresses the “chosen lady” using words in the singular, but at other times includes the “children” (i.e. her disciples) in his remarks and uses plural words. (The author of the Johannine letters typically refers to Christian disciples, or a congregation, as “children”, as you’ve noted.)

    Furthermore, if the chosen lady is a church, and the children are a church, then this group is being greeted twice in 2 John 1:1, which doesn’t make sense.

    • If “kuria” is a person does that mean this could be a woman leading a church? There are a few places of women leading or being big helpers in churches, but the context here would be more of a pastor rather than a helper. I have found the most common answer to this question is that it is the “chosen lady” just as Israel was a “chosen people”. The chosen lady being the church also goes along with the thought of the church being the bride of Christ which explains the feminine choice of words. I would love to have proof of a woman pastor, but is that what is really talked about here?

      • I know the plainest reading isn’t always the correct reading, but the plainest reading of 2 John is indeed that the letter is addressed to a woman, probably a female house church host or leader, and that her children are the members of her house church.

        I know of no ancient document or piece of literature where kuria doesn’t refer to a real woman (or female teenager) of some social standing, and kuria is a common enough word.

        I agree that the context indicates that the chosen lady is more than a helper. Other New Testament women were hosts and leaders of house churches, and more than helpers.

        Nympha was possibly a leader of a house church (Col. 4:15). She is the only person in the house church who is greeted, indicating she is not just the church’s host.

        Priscilla hosted and led a house church with her husband Aquila in Ephesus and later in Rome. They may have instructed Apollos in a house church setting.

        Lydia was a host, and possibly led the first house church in Philippi when Paul and Silas moved on (cf. Acts 16:15, 40). If not Lydia, who?

        Chloe may have been a house church leader (1 Cor. 1:11). Paul took seriously a report delivered by Chloe’s people. Perhaps Chloe’s people even delivered a letter written by her.

        Jezebel of Thyatira was an immoral house church leader (Rev. 2:20-25). She was given time to repent of her immorality but not of the fact that she was a woman teacher.

        Plus, Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Junia (Rom. 16:7), and Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3) were New Testament women with significant Christian ministries which may have included house church leadership (i.e. pastoring).

        Also, while “chosen” is applied to groups in the Bible, it is also applied to individuals (e.g. Rufus in Romans 16:13).

        I just can’t see how “the chosen lady” can be the congregation, and the “children” also be the congregation.

  2. When applying the Bible to contemporary issues we often think of the book as being irrelevant to the issues we see and so it is important to evaluate everything in its right context. The first thing we must do is look to the Scriptures so we don’t take anything out of the rightful context that might cause us to lose our credibility. 1 John seems to be confronting the world of sin with offering us a light to the darkened world for it says to us, “This is the message we have heard (v.1:5). Sometimes it is hard to offer encouragement when we don’t have all the answers ourselves but if we stick with the truthfulness found in Scripture we can still be able to voice our opinions without going too far as your question implies. Jobes claims that the section of 1 John works alongside this aspect of keeping within the truthfulness of the Bible by saying that it focuses on the aspect of truthful reassurance for the troubled Christian (p. 414). If we are to tell somewhere where to look without contradicting ourselves we should always lead them to look in the Bible for finding the answers so that in this way we can become the light that he intends for us all to become.

  3. I think that the modern church has a big issue when it comes to applying the Bible to our contemporary lives. The fact is that we are not the people of the time that the words were written. The things that are said in the Bible can be applied to what we deal with in our lives today, but the original context of the scripture must be held true. We can deal with a lot of things in contemporary Christianity, but we cannot start trying to piece our issues into the story of the Bible hoping that it fits somewhere. The Bible doesn’t specifically mention abortion, but it does mention the value of life and love. This is where digging into the word and making sure that we read the context of the passages we look at to make sure that we are not trying to make the Bible fit to our situation.

    • I would have to agree with what you say here in response to this. I think that the church does run into issues when trying to apply this to contemporary lives of believers. I love what you say about trying to fit our issues into the Bible. We cannot fit our issues into the Bible but we can use what the Bible says and apply them to our own issues of the world. I also like how you say that we cannot hope that it fits in. I see this in churches often trying to fit issues into the Bible instead of using the Bible for issues. I would agree when you say that we need to keep the Bible in its original context and be conscious of that when reading it and using the scriptures for modern issues especially in the church.

  4. “Going too far” happens quite often unchurches all across the globe. As protestant denominations have continued to diversify, and accountability is removed from church structure, I think we will continue to see this happening everywhere. 2 John is a book that is concerned with preserving the truth. He rejoices when he hears of it in this letter: “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us.” (v.1.4) However, with regards to specific moral teaching, if we investigate the letter a bit more, it does give instruction. ” If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them.” (v. 1.10) I have heard pastors use verses like this to explain that people outside of our faith should not be welcomed hospitably. However, when weighed against the cannon of scripture as a whole, we find that strangers should always be welcomed regardless of faith background. (Deut 10:19, Lev 19:34, Matt 25:34, Romans 13:10). If we could take a look at the context of what John is saying, and why he is saying it we would understand that he was combating docetism and other heresies.

  5. The first way to help guard against “going too far” would be in constant study of the Bible and meditation. In order to interpret the Word, one needs to know what the word says. We should look at the intention of the issue at hand. Does the intention bring s to Christ or does it deter us from Christ? With all this information and an open mind pray about it. If there is any thought that it might be “going too far” continue to meditate and pray about it till one comes to a more solid answer. Do not spread an answer to an issue till one is sure about the answer goes “too far”.

  6. “Going too far” is something that the church struggles with today. There is a fine line that the church today likes to mess with. When we try and put the Bible to contemporary issues there seems to be an issue taking the Scriptures out of context. In order to make sure that we align with what the Scriptures are actually saying, we need to make sure that we are looking at the whole context not just the passage. For instance, we like to take different passages out of context and apply them to our lives and situations directly. A major one is Jeremiah 29:11. We must understand the whole passage and not directly just apply that to our lives. In order to guard against “going too far” we need to take the whole context into consideration first and foremost.

  7. While I believe that the Bible is true in any time, place and season, I also believe that the Bible does not explicitly speak about things with which we deal every day – social media being one thing off the top of my head, but it does speak about how to treat other people. I think “going too far” involves going beyond what the scope what the Bible says, not necessarily in the letter, for the letter does not always speak to everything, but when it definitely goes beyond what the spirit of what the Word says. I also believe it is necessary to develop a theology that goes beyond what the Bible may speak to, especially in the modern context. Yet I also believe that any theology that we come up with must first be filtered through the lens of the Bible; true theology must always be in line with the Bible says. This is how we prevent ourselves from going too far in our effort to apply the Bible in a modern context. I think that this is how we honor what 2 John is speaking about.

  8. It’s clear throughout the history of the Bible that many leaders and people have “gone too far” in the handling of situations and in their interpretation of the Bible and God. This also seems to be a common theme in the modern church as well. This is not to point blame at anybody however, because I believe that it’s rather easy to do just that. Because of the cultural clash that is evident within years that have passed since the Bible was written, there are obvious social and cultural issues that the Bible does not speak of that we are experiencing today. But as Christian leaders, we desire to want to appear as if we have all the answers to the questions when we really don’t. This leads us to taking scripture out of context, misinterpreting what God has spoken, and so on and so forth. I do think, however, that the Bible proposes an essential path for ethical choices that we should all partake in. In having this guideline for ethical choices, we can make better decisions about topics such as birth control, alcohol, and other debatable topics. Because there is not a black and white statement issued on many of our current topics in the Bible, it is better to follow this ethical guideline than to “go too far.”

  9. I think it is a very interesting concept to think about Christians having a need to think “develop doctrine ‘beyond the Bible'”. I think modern day Christians sometimes forget we can take concepts, or ideas from the Bible and apply them to the situations that we face today. There are some things today that are going on that the Bible cannot specifically address. For instance, if you try to look up scriptures on how to approach social media in the Bible, you are not going to find any verses discussing it. It is not always necessary to find an exact Bible verse to support how Christians should handle contemporary situations. Using the Bible as a guideline morally we are able to know how to respond as Christians without the need to take it “too far”.

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