“For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (2 Tim. 4.3-4)
I’ve always been fascinated by this passage. Being a two handed sort of guy, on the one hand it comes to mind when I’ve been frustrated by the enthusiasm some have exhibited for chasing after new fads in spirituality, or the teaching of evangelists who have distorted scripture to fit bizarre world views. I have a locker room friend at the Y who is keen on anything claiming the end of time is next Tuesday, secret cabals of global rulers, and any secret conspiracy story connected to church history. He’s the sort of guy who reads Dan Brown books to get the facts. All of it is linked to what he thinks Christianity is about. He’s got itchy ears. Crazy isn’t it?
On the other hand I have stood accused of having itchy ears. As my own Episcopal Church has lurched through the revisions of its Book of Common Prayer, ordained women, and opened its doors to the gay community, I’ve had clergy, parishioners, former parishioners, and strangers lob this passage as a scriptural hand-grenade. It is my Church, and me personally, so they have said, who turned away from listening to truth and wandered away to myths. Good grief, how on earth could they think such a thing? Can’t they see how blind they are to the guiding light of the Holy Spirit? Why can’t they see what I see?
The accusation of itchy ears can demolish good things in the name of scriptural truth. I remember the day and place when our local ministerial association began to fall apart. It had existed for many years as a fellowship of pastors from traditions of every kind. We shared prayer, offered mutual support, and had a good time. One day some newer conservative evangelical pastors invited a speaker to talk on subject of reenergizing the church. He was energetic and certain that the downfall of Christianity was caused by pluralism, the tool of the devil. Pluralism was the work of itchy ears opening Christian worship to foreign gods that took the form of what? Meditation. Gay people. Deviation from the substitutionary doctrine of atonement. Being a Catholic. Being an Episcopalian. There were a few others, but you get the idea. Loud amens from some of those present let the rest of us know who had the itchy ears and wandered away from sound doctrine. Us. It was the end of the fellowship.
What is sound doctrine? In the West, sound doctrine was for centuries whatever the Church said was sound doctrine. Any deviation was heresy punishable by excommunication, exile, or death. Then along came the Reformation with its several menus of sound doctrines, each defended by theological rhetoric and force of arms. You know that can’t be right. Competing sound doctrines make for itchy ears. So what is sound doctrine? How do we choose? I commend to your reading an article by Ben Moushon, a Seventh Day Adventist who has nailed the core of sound doctrine as well as anybody. You can find it at thinkinganddriving.wordpress.com. Look for “Dear Church Leaders, I Don’t Want Your Unity.”
When you get down to it, I guess itchy ears are not necessarily bad things to have. They can be signs of theological curiosity. Not always, but now and then. Maybe the Holy Spirit can’t be heard except in itchy ears. Luther had itchy ears. Tutu has itchy ears. I think the Dali Lama has itchy ears. Maybe the current pope does too. Itchy ears can put received orthodoxy to the test. Itchy ears can hear the Holy Spirit leading on when others can’t. The trick is not to get drawn off chasing after myths, in the common understanding of myths as untruths made up to look like truths, but to keep the core of sound doctrine as the measure of what the itchy ear is hearing. And what is sound doctrine? Read Mr. Moushon’s article. Here’s a hint. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Love others as Christ has loved you.