Wednesday
May062009

Cut Straight

Paul encouraged his protege, Timothy, to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (Second Timothy 2:15, KJV).

Modern translations suggest that the imperative is to be diligent to behave in way that meets with God’s approval, but even if study is not inherent to the original text, it remains integral to effective teaching (see  4:13; James 3:1, First Peter 3:15). The aim of the Christian, especially one who labors in teaching God’s word, is to handle it accurately, fairly and impartially.

Rightly dividing the word – “rightly handling” it in modern versions – conjures up images of carpentry or stewardship. The Greek word, orthotomeo, literally means “cutting straight,” and the context might indicate “a steward who makes a proper distribution to each one under his care of such things as his office and their necessities require” (Barnes).4

The teacher is required to preach the whole counsel of God, but also “to make a proper distribution of that word, adapting his instructions to the circumstances … of his hearers, and giving to each that which will be fitted to nourish the soul for heaven” (Barnes).5 In like manner, Paul explained that, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them … I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (First Corinthians 9:19-22). 

Rather than conceal or obscure texts that might offend the hearer, the teacher is required to expose him even to inconvenient truths that should motivate him to repentance, keeping back nothing that is helpful to that end (see Acts 20:20, Second Timothy 4:1-5). Cutting the word straight requires knowledge of the audience. Where first century Jewish audiences heard lessons built on messianic prophecies, Gentile groups were as likely to hear criticisms of their idolatry (see Acts 4:8-12, 17:16-31). Even today, addressing friends from a Catholic background will require a different approach than working with members of institutional churches of Christ.

My carpentry skills have always been suspect, but never more so than when I was 14 and taking high school shop class. A trip to the band saw was usually a case of measure once, cut twice, bandage repeatedly. My attempt to build a sprightly wooden racer failed spectacularly when I cut the ten-inch car right in two. Mr. Kimble was hardly fooled by the Krazy Glue – I couldn’t cut straight to save my GPA.

Cutting the word straight means admonishing the idle, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak and being patient with all (see First Thessalonians 5:14). “And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23).