"If anybody does not keep within the teaching of Christ but goes beyond it, he cannot have God with him: only those who keep to what he taught can have the Father and the Son with them." (v.9, Jerusalem Bible).
This is a little different to the next verse which speaks of our human response to heretics. Here in verse 4 we are solemnly warned that when we go beyond the teaching of Christ we do not have God with us.
At the heart of all theological debates, including those within the Anglican Communion is the question of the 'doctrine of Christ' (to use a phrase from the constitution of ACANZP). What is it? What goes beyond it? What keeps us within it?
John in this verse challenges us about the big picture of theological debate. The point of debate is to clarify the teaching of Christ. To fail to do this, to end up going beyond the teaching of Christ is to run the worst of all human risks, the risk that we no longer have God the Father and Son with us.
We sometimes joke that If God left the church, Would anyone notice?
In the midst of our debates it is quite possible that we would not notice that God was no longer with us. Debates have that ability to focus our attention on the debate and not on (say) the truth, or on the fact that the debating hall is burning down around us.
What if we debated with eyes open to the possibility that if we get the outcome wrong, if we go beyond the teaching of Christ, then we can no longer presume God is with us.
It is possible to have the form of religion without the content. To be sure we have the content with the form, we need to pay attention to what we teach and to strive to stay within the bounds of Christ's teaching.
Likely I will add to this post as I reflect further on 2 John over the weekend.
What does the author of 2 John understand the content of the doctrine or teaching of Christ to be?
From the content of Jesus' own teaching, the author mentions the 'new commandment' of love, 'let us love one another' (5) and spells out what love is, 'that we walk according to his commandments' (6).
So far so enigmatically Johannine! What are these commandments?
Turning back a few pages to 1 John we find reference there also to 'commandments' plural (3:22) yet then are told that 'this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us' (23).
So, back to 2 John, we remain within the teaching of Jesus when we believe in him and love one another.
Yet the author of 2 John has another concern which moves us outside of the 'teaching of Christ' = teaching taught by Christ, but focuses our minds on 'teaching about Christ':
'Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!' (7)
Since the warning to remain within the teaching of Christ follows this verse we may assume that when the author talks about remaining in the teach of Christ he also means we should remain in the teaching about Christ (that is, the true teaching about the truth of Jesus Christ).
In this case the author is concerned about heretics teaching that Jesus did not come in the flesh, that is, was not a full human being (perhaps because they taught that the flesh of humanity is evil and Jesus, as one from God could not possibly share in it).
Writing in the 20th or 21st century the author might have another, opposite concern about heresy, about those who teach that the all too human Jesus was not really the divine Son of God!
It is not a stretch in either logic or imagination to see that the author means by the 'teaching of Christ', the teaching which tells us the truth about who Jesus is, who the God of Jesus Christ is, what Jesus commanded us, and what Jesus taught us. Writing late in the period in which the New Testament was composed the author is implicitly affirming Scripture (the gospels and the apostolic epistles which have become our New Testament and the writings which we describe as the Old Testament, since they formed part of what Jesus taught).
The risks are high if we either deny Scripture or go beyond it.
We stand to lose God!