What The Bible Means by It
Question: Rose asks, "What is the meaning of ‘idle chatter'? (She later clarified that she was asking about what the NKJV calls "profane and idle babblings," in II Tim. 2:16.)
Answer: There are many references in the Bible to our speech, and the cautions we should take with it (e.g. Jas. 3:1-12). In Matt. 6:7 the Lord Jesus warns His followers not to use mere "vain repetitions" in prayer, "as the heathen do." In Matt. 12:36 we are told that "for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment." And in Eph. 5:4 "foolish talking" and "course jesting" are listed among sins to be avoided. But the text in Second Timothy refers to something else again.
First, a bit of background. There were apparently some false teachers troubling the church at Ephesus, and earlier the Apostle Paul had asked Timothy to stay on there and deal with this problem (I Tim. 1:3). In his second letter to Timothy he mentions sending Tychicus to Ephesus as well–perhaps to deliver his letter, or to assist Timothy. We do not know for certain.
The two letters contain many references to standing for the truth in the face of error (for example, I Tim. 1:3-4, 6; :4:7; 6:3-4, 20-21; II Tim. 1:13; 2:14-16, 23). Paul's underlying point in all of this is that there is no value in arguing endlessly with false teachers. It is one thing to identify false teaching and counter it with the truth. But if individuals are hardened in error, arguing with them is a waste of time. Further, continuing such disputes may give them a platform to spread their errors further.
We get something similar in Titus 3:9-11, and in Second John 1:9-11, where we are told not to invite the teachers of error into our homes. The latter would seem to apply to cultists who come to our door today. They are prepared with clever arguments to confuse and lead astray those who try to debate with them. Discussing spiritual things with people who are determined to reject the truth, and only hope to seduce others into their falsehood, can well be not only unprofitable but dangerous.
Paul gives an example to show what he means by "profane and idle babblings" (ungodly and unprofitable discussions), telling Timothy "Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort...saying that the resurrection is already past" (vs. 17-18). We know nothing more of Philetus, but apparently he was another in a group of heretical teachers plaguing the church, along with Hymenaeus and Alexander (I Tim. 1:20). It would seem possible from the double mention of Hymenaeus that he was the ring leader, and the others were his disciples.
Paul says he "delivered [Hymenaeus and Alexander] to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme." This apparently means he called for them to be put out of the church (to be excommunicated), both for the protection of the church, and for the chastisement of the blasphemers. The fellowship of believers enjoys the special protection of God. To be outside that umbrella of protection exposes the person more directly to the attacks of the devil. The apostle hoped that the misery this would bring upon them would eventually turn them back to the truth.
Note their sin in First Timothy 1:20: they were "blasphemers." The word means to slander and speak abusively of holy things. They were mocking the teaching being given to the congregation, saying it was untrue, and even ridiculous. "Concerning the faith [the body of sound doctrine]" they had "suffered shipwreck" (vs. 19), and were now trying to undermine it in the minds of others in the church. That is a serious offense indeed.
As a side note: "The faith" is not the same as "faith." "The [Christian] faith" refers to sound doctrine, all the teachings of the Word of God in which we put our faith. As believers, we are to "contend earnestly for the faith" (Jude 1:3). Compare Paul, who was able to testify, near death, "I have kept the faith" (II Tim. 4:7; cf. Gal. 1:23).
We learn from Second Timothy 2:17-18 about one of the heresies that Hymenaeus and his followers were promoting: "That the resurrection is already past." Likely, this means a denial altogether of a physical, bodily resurrection up ahead. They may have equated the "resurrection" with some kind spiritual experience, saying that it happened at conversion, or maybe when the person was baptized.
However, the Bible is quite clear that bodily resurrection is a reality. Not only that, but the Christian faith rests upon the historical fact of the bodily resurrection of Christ. The "gospel" is "that Christ died for our sins...and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day" (I Cor. 15:1, 3-4; cf. II Tim. 2:8). And Christ "presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs" (Acts 1:3). Without His resurrection, we can have no hope of salvation (I Cor. 15:12-19). And it is because of the certainty of His resurrection, we can look forward to the same (I Cor. 15:20-23).
There is a place to confront error. Timothy was to "preach the Word!...[and] convince, rebuke, exhort, with all long suffering and teaching" (II Tim. 4:2). Timothy was also to be diligent in his own study of the Scriptures, correctly handling and explaining its message (II Tim. 2:15). But when it seems that an individual is determined to cling to his (or her) errors, and determined to spread them to others in the local congregation, drastic action must be taken. Endlessly arguing over their "profane and idle babblings" only plays into their hands, and gives them more opportunities to turn others astray (cf. II Tim. 2:14). That is why they should be avoided.