These three letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) are grouped together as ‘pastoral’ epistles because each claims to be written by Paul to a person he has appointed to lead (pastor) one of his churches. Timothy was Paul’s young companion who was left to minister among Christians in Ephesus and Titus, his companion, was left on the island of Crete. These epistles claim to contain pastoral advice from the apostle to his appointed representatives concerning how they should tend their Christian flock.
Each epistle presupposes a slightly different situation, but the overarching issues are the same.
The problems involve (a) false teachers who are creating problems for the congregations and (b) the internal organisation of the communities and their leaders.
Paul urges his representatives to take charge, to run a tight ship, to keep everyone in line and, above all, to silence those who promote ideas that conflict with the teachings that the author himself has endorsed.
This letter shows Paul leaving Timothy in Ephesus with the three tasks of bringing false teachers under control (1:3-11), bringing order to the church (2:1-15), appointing moral and upright leaders to keep things running smoothly (3:1-13). Most of the letter instructs on Christian living and social interaction, on praying, on how to behave to the elderly, widows, and leaders, on avoiding pointlessly ascetical lives, on material wealth and heretics who corrupt the truth.
A somewhat different situation is presupposed; Paul is in prison in Rome (1:16-17), expecting his death (4:6-8) after two ominous court hearings (4:17). He asks Timothy to continue his pastoral ministry of rooting out false teachers and also join him in Rome as soon as possible, bringing some of his personal belongings (4:21, 13). The letter gives some information about Timothy as a third generation Christian (1:5), trained in the scriptures since his childhood (3:15), a collaborator in the Pauline missions in Asia Minor (3:10-11), ordained to ministry by the laying on of hands (1:6; 4:1-5).
This epistle is almost an abbreviated summary of 1 Tm with its list of qualifications for church leaders and its moral instructions for members of the congregation in their relations with others. The situation presented is of Titus left on Crete as apostolic representative to appoint elders in the church of every town (1:4-9), to correct the false teachings of Jewish-Christian believers (complicated mythologies and genealogies and quarrels about the Law confusing the faithful, in 1:10-16 and 3:9). Titus is not to argue with these people, but to warn them twice and then ignore them. Advice is then given to older and younger men and women and slaves (ch.2).
In the wake of the apostle
There are many aspects of the pastoral epistles that make them appear to locate them to after Paul’s time. They are preoccupied with social arrangements in this world and Christian respectability in the eyes of outsiders rather than with living in expectation of the imminent return of the risen Jesus. There is an insistence that the leaders of the church be married rather than single and celibate (Paul’s stance in view of the coming end). Clearly time has passed with Timothy as a third generation Christian, preceded in the faith by his mother and grandmother. There is a concern to silence women who, in the author’s view, have gotten out of hand.
The most compelling reason for thinking these letters were written near the end of the first century is that their vocabulary and concerns reflect what was happening among Christians a generation or two after Paul’s death. These Christians were less concerned with the imminent end than with problems confronting a church here for a long time to come. This was a church that needed to strengthen itself through tighter organisation and to ward off false teachings that grew with the passing of time.
An unknown author within a Pauline church took up a pen some 40 years after the apostle’s death, to do what some Pauline Christians had done before him and what others would do afterwards: compose writings in the name of the apostle to address the crushing problems of his day. It is not surprising that the stances the anonymous author took differed not only from those promoted by Paul in his undisputed letter but also from those advanced by other Pauline Christians. The differences are evident in the author’s attacks on early Gnostic influences, on women’s involvement in the church, and on strictly ascetic lifestyles.
The churches that Paul left behind developed in complex and unpredictable ways. Pauline Christianity was remarkably diverse with many forms of expression, something we can continue to explore in other letters such as Ephesians and Colossians.
The church addressed by the pastorals was establishing itself in a Roman world governed by a strict set of social conventions. This accounts for a number of disturbing compromises in these letters. But as time and circumstances change, what worked for one era is not necessarily the best Christian response in another. The church that many of us grew up in (and one that often tries to re-establish itself today) reflected much of the pastorals.
These letters present a challenge to us to recognise what remains eternally valid and what is time and culturally conditioned, what we must face to be true to the tradition but also true to the people of our time in the 21st century.
Others in this Year of Paul series