An Abused Passage — 2 John 9
Towards the conclusion of his second epistle, the apostle John wrote: "Whoever goes onward, and abides not in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. . . " (v. 9).
In recent years, this passage has become the focus of stormy controversy. The significance of the passage has been distorted seriously — both by those on the liberal “left,” and others on the radical “right.”
A small minority has contended that virtually every disagreement over the meaning of scripture falls within the scope of 2 John 9 (e.g., the Bible version one uses, or whether or not a congregation may have a refrigerator in the church building). A growing, “progressive” segment alleges that the passage is directed to a first-century heresy that opposed the teaching that Jesus came to earth “in the flesh.”
Typical of this latter viewpoint is an essay titled, “2 John 9 And Christian Fellowship,” that appears in the book, The Peaceable Kingdom (pp. 71-92). This volume was authored by Carroll D. Osburn, a Bible professor at Abilene Christian University.
Osburn charges that the traditional manner in which some have appealed to this passage “to eliminate from fellowship anyone with whom one disagrees” has become a “hermeneutical nightmare.” One might be inclined to agree — if the “anyone-with-whom-one-disagrees” charge represented a significant reality. The problem is that Osburn, and those of his “hermeneutic” mentality, disavow that this passage has any applicability to their ambitious agenda of extending full fellowship to various sectarian bodies of “Christendom.”
The professor makes it clear that, in his judgment, the threshold for Christian fellowship is merely the conviction “that Christ is the Son of God” (p. 90). Such matters as observing weekly communion, the use of instrumental music in worship, the dogma of premillennialism, or, for that matter, whether baptism is “for,” or “because of,” the remission of sins, are issues of no serious consequence to him. He would throw wide open the doors of Christian fellowship to those who subscribe to any of these notions. And he is a teacher of our youth!
Let us consider some elements of 2 John 9.
First, the term “whoever” means anyone or everyone (cf. John 3:16; Revelation 22:18).
Second, “goes onward” (proagon) signifies to “take the lead, to move ahead” (Danker 2000, p. 864). The present tense form suggests persistent movement in the wrong direction.
Next, “abides not” (present tense) reflects the negative side of the digression. To go forward, is to not remain, within the prescribed boundary.
The teaching of Christ
Then there is the controversial phrase “the teaching of Christ.” The chief point of contention involves the meaning of tou Christou, “of Christ.” In the Greek Testament, the phrase is in the genitive case, which, generally, is viewed as the case of “possession.”
The matter is more complex, however, in that the genitive is “more elastic” than any other Greek case, covering a wide range of semantic relationships (Wallace, pp. 74-75). Wallace lists no fewer than thirty-three uses of the genitive in the New Testament.
The battle has raged mostly over whether or not the genitive of 2 John 9 is “objective” or “subjective.” If it is construed as objective, the phrase means “the teaching about Christ.” If it is viewed as subjective, the sense is “Christ’s teaching,” i.e., that which comes from him. The fact is, there is a form of the genitive, called the “plenary” genitive, which embraces both the objective and subjective senses. For example, the phrase “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1) is a revelation both from Christ and about the Lord (Wallace, 119-121).
Any serious student of the Greek New Testament knows that this issue is not so much a matter of grammar in this case, as it is a matter of exegesis (see Robertson 1919, p. 499). In other words, context will be the decisive factor in providing direction for the interpretation of the phrase.
In the process of biblical exegesis, the term “context” is employed in two senses. It has to do with the immediate setting of a passage; it also relates to the general teaching of the Scriptures related to the subject.
Osburn concedes that some very respectable Greek scholars are persuaded that the genitive in 2 John 9 is subjective, i.e., the teaching from Christ. He mentions the names of A. T. Robertson, B. F. Wescott and A. E. Brook.
He could have added: J. H. Thayer, G. Abbott-Smith, Edward Robinson, John Stott, R. C. H. Lenski, and a great host of others. The late J. W. Roberts noted:
“Undoubtedly the majority of commentators are on the side of the subjective genitive” (164).
But here is a crucial question. Is there anything — in either scripture or logic — that would lead one to the conclusion that he must believe the “teaching about Christ,” namely, that Jesus once lived on earth “in the flesh,” but that he is free to disregard the “teaching from Christ,” e.g., that which provides direction in worship, the plan of salvation, eschatology, etc.? Does that make any sense at all? And yet Osburn claims that an application of 2 John 9 to such matters reflects a “sectarian” disposition (p. 73).
If the expression “teaching of Christ” in 2 John 9 is exclusively a warning about denying “the doctrine of the incarnation,” i.e., the truth that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (Osburn, pp. 82-83), the following conclusion would appear to follow. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and a wide variety of modernists must not be excluded from Christian fellowship, because all these folks subscribe to the idea that Jesus of Nazareth lived in the flesh. The Watchtower people argue that he was “nothing more than a perfect man,” but they do not repudiate his fleshly nature.
Even modernists believe that a man named “Jesus” lived twenty centuries ago, and that, in “some sense,” he was divine. They repudiate, however, the fact that he was born of the virgin, that he performed miracles, or that he was raised from the dead. Why would it be more serious to deny Christ’s human nature than to repudiate the evidences of his divine essence?
But our brother admits that a rejection of “Jesus as Lord” is included in this warning. How does he arrive at this conclusion? He goes outside of 2 John, and imports material from 1 John (2:22; 4:2,15) to support his argument (p. 88). Very well, comparisons are a legitimate methodology. It is hardly consistent, however, for Osburn to do precisely that, and then criticize others (pp. 74ff) who have called attention to the use of the subjective genitive in connection with the Lord’s “teaching” in John’s Gospel record, and in the book of Revelation (see John 7:17; 18:19; cf. 1 John 1:5; Revelation 2:14-15).
The problem with these brethren is not grammar; it is “heart.” They have abandoned the ideal of restoring primitive Christianity. They covet fraternization with the sects, and want to take the whole brotherhood with them. But many refuse to go. May their numbers increase.
Scripture references: John 9; 2 John 9; John 3:16; Revelation 22:18; Revelation 1:1; John 7:17, 18:19; John 1:5; Revelation 2:14-15
- Danker, F. W., et al. 2000. Greek-English Lexicon. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Osburn, Carroll. 1993. “2 John 9 and Christian Fellowship.” The Peacable Kingdom. Abilene, TX: Restoration Perspectives.
- Roberts, J. W. 1968. The Letters of John. Hurst, TX: Sweet.
- Robertson, A. T. 1919. Historical Grammar. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Wallace, Daniel. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.