On godliness, dignity, and purity: the life of faith in 1 Timothy (Epiphany 16C)

This Sunday we are offered an excerpt from the final chapter of the first letter to Timothy (1 Tim 6:6–19). The letter is attributed by tradition to Paul, but more likely, I believe, it was written by a student of Paul some decades after his life. The author draws on the authority of Paul to lend weight to the teachings that he provides in this letter.

We have seen that the central concern of this letter appears to be to ensure obedience and pass on the essential teachings of the faith in order to refute the false teachers. This ideal is very different from the one Paul reflected in 2 Cor 11: the dangers of life, the centrality of suffering. Paul lived in the tension between this world and the next, full of expectation that Jesus will return soon (1 Thess 1:9–10; 1 Cor 7:26–31; Rom 8:18–25).

Here, however, the belief in an imminent return of Jesus has passed (6:14–15); the demands for unqualified and unquestioning adherence to “the truth” are based in obedience to the resplendent figure of Jesus, in the heavenly realm, who “alone has immortality, and dwells in unapproachable light” (6:15–16).

Paul had enthusiastically testified to the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus; but this letter asserts, “no one has ever seen or can see” him (6:16).

This picture of Jesus offers a pointer to how the theology of the early church was developing. The groundwork for disputes over correct doctrine and heresy was here being laid for the debates of the early church councils in subsequent centuries.

Associated with this emphasis on right belief is an intensifying of ethical demands on the believers; what is important is to teach moderation, prudence and order. The instruction to Timothy to “keep yourself pure” (5:22; see also 1:5; 4:12) reflects Paul’s criticism of impurity (Rom 1:24; 6:19; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; 1 Thess 4:7) and advocacy of purity (Phil 1:10; 4:8; 1 Thess 2:10). The offering of prayers “so that we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (2:2) also evokes Paul (compare 1 Thess 4:11).

Yet a number of terms point to significant differences from Paul’s authentic letters: the use of the term “godliness”; the inclusion of numerous moral qualities required of leaders which are either unique to the Pastorals (temperate, sensible, serious, manage, double-tongued) or found only rarely in other Pauline letters (noble, hospitable, above reproach); the emphasis on financial responsibility; the way that “conscience” is used (1 Tim 3:9) and the striking phrase, “fight the good fight” (1:18; 6:12). The letter takes strides beyond the teachings set out in Paul’s authentic letters.

Most controversial of all is the section of this letter instructing women (2:8–15). Almost every element of the passage stands in contradiction to what Paul has stated. The “dress code” (2:9) is not something that would be written by Paul, as is the emphasis on “good works” (2:10). The demand for silence and submission (2:11) is reminiscent of 1 Cor 14:34 (which may well not have been written by Paul) but is counter to the guidelines for women when speaking in worship (1 Cor 11:2–16), as is the directive that women not teach (2:12).

The interpretation of the Genesis narrative (2:13–14) is strikingly different from the way that Paul treats it at 1 Cor 11:8–12 and Rom 5:12–21. The assertion that a woman “will be saved through childbirth” (2:15) is likewise contrary to Paul’s emphasis on faith and grace as the means by which salvation is granted. For more on the difficult passages in letters attributed to Paul where female subjugation appears to be in view, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-2-six-problem-passages/

The passage in 1 Tim 2:8–15 appears to be attacking excesses within the community of faith, but it does so by insisting upon good order, obedience and submission—qualities which are held in high regard throughout this letter.

The author instructs Timothy to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (6:11). The list is slightly evocative of the list of “gifts of the Spirit” that Paul provides at Gal 5:22–23, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, although the list in 1 Tim 6 is not linked in any way with the Spirit. That is typical of this and other letters which came from later in the first century, some decades after Paul himself was writing letters.

In Paul’s authentic letters, the Spirit is an important element. Paul retains from his Jewish upbringing a sense of the Spirit as a manifestation of divine energy; the Spirit is God’s gift to believers (Rom 5:5) and thus the source of life and peace (Rom 7:6; 8:2, 5–6). In Hebrew Scripture, the Spirit is seen to breathe over the waters of chaos as God’s primary agent in creation, to gift the elders appointed by Moses, to anoint the prophets and to inspire their pointed words of warning. In Paul’s understanding, the Spirit gifts believers with a multitude of gifts (1 Cor 12:4–11).

Paul also imbues the Spirit with an eschatological role—first, the Spirit acts by raising Jesus from the dead (Rom 1:4; 8:11) and then by adopting believers as “children of God” (Rom 8:14–23). The Spirit is a marker of life in the kingdom of God (Rom 14:17). The kingdom, for Paul, remains a future promise, to become a reality within the eschatological timetable (1 Cor 15:23-26).

Paul speaks with passion about how the creation groans in the present time of distress (Rom 8:18–23), as believers hold fast to their hope in the renewal of creation (Rom 8:17, 21, 24–25; see also 1 Cor 7:28–31). The role of the Spirit in this period is to strengthen believers by interceding for them (Rom 8:26–27).

Paul reminds the Romans that they are “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9); this is reminiscent of his guidance to the Galatians to live “by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 22–25) and his exposition to the Corinthians of the gifts which are given “through the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:1, 4–11). The understanding of the gifting of believers by the Spirit, articulated in the first letter to the Corinthians, has played a significant role throughout the history of the church over the centuries.

The life of faith, lived “in the Spirit”, is therefore to be characterised by “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Paul immediately explains that this requires believers to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). After making this bold programmatic statement, Paul devotes significant time (in Rom 12–15) to spelling out some of the ways in which this transformation might take place. The Spirit effects transformation, which then governs the behaviour as well as the words of believers. The dynamic, pervasive role,of the Spirit is evident at many places in Paul’s authentic letters.

In the first letter to Timothy, by contrast, the almost total absence of the Spirit is striking. Only two explicit references to the spirit occur. The first is completely formulaic; the claim that Jesus was “vindicated in spirit” sits second in a series of six clauses which set out some key aspects of “the truth” to which Timothy is to be bound: “the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). The Spirit is not an active, energising force in this formula; rather, the spirit is the static realm in which Jesus was “vindicated”.

This formula is followed immediately by the claim that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith” (4:1). Once again, the context and the terminology drives incessantly towards the affirmation of “the truth”; those revealed as renouncing the faith are condemned for “paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron” as well as their teachings that “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (4:1–3). The revelation by the Spirit points away from these doctrines and practices and orients decisively towards “the truth”.

For discussion: What do you make of the discussion above, setting out the differences between the authentic letters of Paul, and the first letter to Timothy? Do you think that there was a different author for this letter?


See also

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