An example to those who come to believe (1 Timothy 1; Pentecost 14C)

The first letter to Timothy contains a basic letter framework: a short opening address (1:1–2) and a brief closing exhortation and benediction (6:20–21), but no thanksgiving or personalised greetings. The body of the letter alternates between condemnation of false teachers (1:3–2:15; 4:1–5.2; 6.2b–19) and instructions for good order within the church (3:1–16; 5:3–6:2a).

These instructions relate specifically to leaders who are identified as overseers (3:1–7), servants (3:8–13), widows (5:3–16) and elders (5:17–19); these led to orders of ministry within the later church (bishop—priest—deacon). That threefold structure is not exactly evident in this, or other, New Testament texts; not until the letters of Ignatius of Antioch in the early decades of the second century do we encounter this precise structuring.

(See the letters of Ignatius to the Magnesians 2: “with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ”; and to the Smyrnaeans 8: “wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”.)

So the first letter to Timothy is actually a treatise, addressing two key matters: living a blameless life and believing the right doctrine. The purpose of the letter is to order the community to ensure that this way is followed; the figure of Paul is set forth as the exemplar in these matters (1:16) and Timothy provides a further example (4:12). The offices of overseers (bishops), servants (deacons), elders (presbyters), and widows are in place to ensure that people live a godly life and adhere to the true faith.

The letter has begun with a warning about “certain people” who teach a “different doctrine” that the author characterises as involving “myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith” (1:3–4). Some chapters later, the author sounds a more strident note, with a description of “liars” who follow the teachings of “deceitful spirits” and “demons” (4:1–2), expressed in “profane myths and old wives’ tales” (4:7). To accept such teachings, it is claimed, is to “follow Satan” (5:15).

Paul himself, in his own letters, can demonstrate a caustic tongue and a critical attitude towards those who advocated differently from himself. In writing to the Galatians, for instance, he accuses them of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers (Gal 3:1); he attacks them for biting and devouring one another (5:15); he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah (5:2–4; 6:12–13). In his letter to Philippi, Paul mounts a strenuous invective against “the dogs … the evil workers … those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2), whom he later calls “the enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18–19).

In his second extant letter to the Corinthians, he caricatures the “superapostles” as fools (2 Cor 11:19) who boast beyond their limits (10:12–18), preaching “another Jesus than the one we proclaimed … a different spirit from the one you received … a different gospel from the one you accepted” (11:4). He sees them as “ false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13); they have fostered “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” as well as “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness” amongst the Corinthians (12:20–21). These are not words designed to foster a gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

The same ethos appears in this letter, to Timothy; but the polemic is intensified, the arrows are sharpened, and the affirmations are hardened into strong dogmatic assertions. In contrast to the “different doctrine” of others, the letter writer believes in “the sound words of Jesus” (6:3) and “the words of the faith and of sound teaching” (4:6); he passes them on to Timothy “through the laying on of the hands of the elders” (4:14).

In this letter, the “glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:11) is formalised as “the faith” (1:2, 19; 3:9, 13; 4:1, 6; 5:8; 6:10, 12, 21) or “the truth” (2:4, 7; 3:15; 4:3; 6:5). This faith is summed up in short, succinct sayings which are “sure and worthy of full acceptance” (4:9; we can see examples at 1:15; 2:5–6; 3:1; 3:16; 4:9–10; 6:15–16).

This is a step or three beyond the more fluid and flexible ethos of the authentic letters of Paul, where he is working out his theological commitments in the context of the cut-and-thrust of contextual debate. Here, “the faith” is a complete package, standing in its own right, to be believers, or rejected. The formulaic sayings state the dogmas that mist now be accepted.

These sayings are set within a defensive framework, for as Timothy receives a message of “faith and truth” (1:18; 2:7), he is to “guard” it (6:20) to ensure that he can hand it on to local leaders (4:6, 11), for this how they will be saved (4:16). The church is “the household of God” which acts as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (3:15). The leaders described in chapter 3 must ensure that the communities they serve will reject any differing viewpoints and “hold fast to the mystery of the faith” (3:9).

So we see that the central concern of the letter is to ensure obedience and pass on the essential teachings of the faith, under the leadership of designated office bearers in local churches, in order to refute the false teachings and immoral lifestyle to which they have been exposed.

See also