A recurring theme in the Pastoral Letters makes an appearance once again in Titus 3:9: “avoid foolish debates, … they are unprofitable and worthless.”
Previously, Paul cautioned Titus about rebellious people who were “full of empty talk and deception” (Titus 1:10). He had warned Timothy about those who “promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan” (1 Tim. 1:4) and who have “an unhealthy interest in disputes and arguments over words” (1 Tim. 6:4). The apostle also urged Timothy to avoid “irreverent and empty speech and contradictions from what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20; see also 2 Tim. 2:16).
Paul didn’t define the exact nature of these empty debates; he didn’t need to. Titus and Timothy surely knew what they were. Here’s the question for us: Are we able to recognize useless arguments and meaningless speculations in the church today? Paul gives clues to help us do so.
1. Empty arguments divide.
Empty arguments are divisive arguments. The context of the discussion about “foolish debates” in Titus 3 is divisiveness. The admonition in verse 9 to avoid “foolish debates [that are] unprofitable and worthless” is followed in verse 10 by the instruction to “reject a divisive person.” Divisive people engage in empty arguments, and empty arguments divide churches.
Make no mistake; there are occasions that call for healthy debate. Certainly, we cannot shy away from debate when the sound teaching of the gospel is at stake. Paul, as an example, took on the Judaizers in Galatia who preached a gospel of legalism (Gal. 1:6-9). The integrity of the gospel was at stake.
The gospel of Jesus Christ unites believers; it does not divide us. However, there will always be those people who are just divisive and who seem to enjoy stirring up conflict for conflict’s sake. Paul said, “reject” them. Don’t allow divisive people to have influence in the church (Titus 3:10).
2. Empty arguments divert.
Paul had urged Timothy to deal with teachers who “promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith” (1 Tim 1:4). “God’s plan, which operates by faith,” is a reference to the gospel.
The “foolish debates” in Titus 3:9 were “unprofitable and worthless” because they did nothing to advance the work of the gospel but diverted attention away from the gospel. When churches and Sunday School classes spend their time debating and arguing over secondary and irrelevant matters, they neglect what matters most. Faith suffers and the witness and work of the church suffers.
3. Empty arguments destroy.
Empty arguments are destructive arguments. Paul previously instructed Titus to silence the “rebellious people, full of empty talk and deception” because they were “ruining entire households” (Titus 1:10-11). Entire families were being impacted by deceptive and self-serving teachers. He told Timothy that fighting about words not only was “useless” but also led to “the ruin of those who listen” (2 Tim. 2:14). Those who engage in empty and irreverent speech will “produce even more godlessness, and their teaching will spread like gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:16-17). Any departure from sound, biblical teaching has the potential to lead to spiritual ruin.
Steer clear of foolish debates, controversies over meaningless trivialities, and of course, any teaching contrary to sound doctrine. They divide, divert, and destroy. Instead, immerse yourself and engage in “sound teaching that conforms to the gospel” (1 Tim. 1:10; see also 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 2:1). This has been a clear and unmistakable theme of the Pastoral Letters.
Mike Livingstone works at Lifeway Christian Resources as content editor for Explore the Bible materials.