15 Nov 2021

Reading First Timothy: Facing Trouble in Ephesus

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Timothy, A Gathered People, Church, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Mission, Prayer, Preaching, Unity
Reading Paul’s letter to a twenty year veteran of ministry

First Timothy

Today we read Paul’s first letter to Timothy for our through the Bible in a year reading.

It is sort of sad that First Timothy has often been reduced to two texts in many Christian circles. The first is a controversial passage about women (2.12) and the second to a list of “qualifications” for elders and deacons (and deaconesses) in 3.1-13.

But though First Timothy is a letter to Timothy it is read publicly to the entire congregation gathered for worship in Ephesus. In this letter we find a minister who is in a troubled, conflict-ridden, church and it seems that Timothy is nearly ready to throw in the towel. So, Paul has several “agendas” as he writes to Timothy. They are, I suggest:

1) Affirm and bolster Timothy’s courage in the face of wearying conflict.

2) Affirm Timothy’s authority in the face of out of control and divisive leaders, this includes elders, deacons and various people who desire to be viewed as Bible teachers.

3) To affirm the message that Timothy is to teach and proclaim.

4) To deal with the pressures in the congregation via public letter to Timothy.

When we read First Timothy we need to mentally make the shift in our mind that Paul is talking to a man who has at minimum twenty years of ministry experience under his belt. We seriously misread Timothy when we imagine he is a young teenager. Rather Timothy is a veteran of numerous assignments from Paul ranging from coauthoring Thessalonians, Philippians, Colossians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon and also working in Corinth and other locations. Timothy is not a padawan. I think that most of the material in First Timothy, including the material about women and elders, falls into one of the four “agendas” of Paul summarized above. Some examples.

Unqualified Teachers Cause Trouble

First. Paul deals with the reality that some desire to be Bible teachers/leaders without doing the necessary work that it takes to correctly understand Scripture. First Timothy 1.3-11 addresses this forthrightly. Doing a little reading between the lines (but I do not think I am reading this INTO the letter) we see that both women teachers and elders come up after 1.3-11. The material about women has to do with teaching and elders are supposed to be “apt to teach” and not “recent converts” (3.1-7). Timothy was himself nourished on the Hebrew Scriptures learning them from his Jewish mother (Eunice) and grandmother (Lois) from the time of his youth (2 Timothy 1.5-6; 3.14-17). No doubt that training was enhanced by Rabbi Paul as well.

Paul says that there are quite a few who “desire to be teachers of the law [=Bible in the first century], but do not know what they are talking about” (1.7). Notice the language that shows up in vv 8-9 seems to be the antithesis of what “bishops” are supposed to be models and, btw, of the harsh behavior of some women.

Paul follows this up (1.12-20) by reminding Timothy of the model of Jesus himself who has “display[ed] the utmost patience” by making an example out of Paul by appointing him to ministry. That mercy has been extended to Timothy through Paul. Everyone will not that not be a fan (so to speak) but his ministry is not a matter of them liking him per se but that God has “appointed” appointed him. Some may disrespect Timothy (and Timothy needs to be ‘worthy’ of respect) just as some may look down on Paul because he was not one of the Twelve or because he was once a blasphemer (1.13). As Paul was “appointed” so Timothy also had received specific prophecies for his kingdom task. It is as if Paul is saying to Timothy, in front of the whole conflicted congregation: Do Not Cave to those who want to be leaders but have not been trained in Scripture.

That Paul affirms Timothy in the face of conflict seems plainly evident when we read the entire book. Even in the present context, Paul confesses that he writes as he does because “certain persons” have “shipwrecked their faith,” then Paul brazenly names at least two of them (1.18-20).

Can you imagine being in the Ephesian gathering on that Lord’s Day? I cannot prove this, but I suspect that Hymenaeus and Alexander (1.20) are in fact elders, or at least deacons, and are an example of what Paul said in 1.3-11 and said would happen in Acts 20.27-30, where Paul warned the Ephesian elders that those who would disturb the faith were from within their own group.

Unqualified Teachers Addressed

Second. In chapters 2 and 3, Paul addresses the very faction (it seems to me) that Timothy is afraid (and I do think Timothy is afraid of them). I have met some pretty abusive teachers in my life. “Teachers” who believe they are nearly infallible. Their harshness and arrogance was in direct proportion to their failure to “know what they are talking about” (1.7, NIV). Sometimes they were preachers, sometimes they were elders and believe it or not sometimes even women. I do not think Paul is being sexist in the slightest, being a jerk is not limited to one gender.

Notice how in chapter 2, Paul continues to address the notion of “conflict.” That is conflict is what is floating in the background of the words on the page being read to the Ephesian church. Paul directly addresses men (males) he says they should pray and “lift their hands without anger or argument” (2.8). Prayer is to be engaged in so that shalom reigns. The Greek word for “quiet and peaceable” (2.2) is the exact same word that most translations render as silence in 2.11. In reality the term has nothing to do with vocal cords. It has to do with attitude, deportment and demeanor. We import the silence of women into this text. Paul is addressing the same tense issue in both male and female troublemakers in the Ephesian congregation.

Basic Misunderstanding

Third. In chapter 4, Paul deals with the apparent fruit of teachers who do not know/understand the Bible (remember 1.7ff). In chapter 4.1-5, it seems to me clear evidence that Paul is addressing former pagans and not former Jews. While the Law of Moses does indeed forbid certain foods as unclean, nevertheless abstaining from food, sex or wine is not now, and was not then, a typical Jewish point of view but a pagan one. This is known as asceticism. There were many pagan ascetics and the lifestyle was popular among various Greek philosophers (especially Stoics).

But the Jewish view, that is Hebrew Bible, celebrates the material world as a gift from God. This includes sexuality (Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as well as Genesis are starkly clear on this). This includes food. Lots of food, feasting in fact, is associated with Israel’s worship whether the Feast of First Fruits (Deut 14.22-29), Passover (Deut 16.1-8) or Weeks (Deut 16.9-12) or Tabernacles (16.13-17). Purim, at the authoritative command of Esther is a time of “feasting and gladness” (Esther 9.22). Feasting is the very image of goodness and blessing in the Prophets (cf. Isaiah 25.6-8; 55.1-8; etc). And while the Hebrew Bible does indicate that a few foods are unclean no such idea is ever associated with wine. Wine but also “strong drink” (or “beer” in some translations) flows (cf. Deut 14.26). Wine is one of the most “potent” symbols of divine blessings in the Hebrew Bible. In the Wisdom literature these three come together as the triad of blessedness from Yahweh.

Go eat your bread/food with enjoyment
and drink your wine with a merry heart;
for God has long ago approved what you do …
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love

(Ecclesiastes 9.7-9; cf. 3.13 and all of Song of Songs which is awash in sexuality, food and wine, cf. 5.1. See my article The Song of Songs and God’s Good Gifts: Wisdom’s Way with Food, Sexuality and Wine).

Deuteronomy sums up the Hebrew Bible’s view, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.” (Deut 8.10). Paul sounds very much like Moses.

There are times of temporary abstinence of food, sex and wine in Jewish thought. But not because those things are evil or even bad but precisely because they are gifts. We abstain from the gift for a moment to focus upon the Giver. Such times are fasting or a Nazarite vow (something Paul himself repeatedly did, Acts 18.18; 21.23-24). So, Paul sets aside all this false teaching by declaring the Hebrew Bible’s doctrine of Creation, “everything is created by God” therefore it is “good” when received in thanksgiving (cf. Psalm 104 where even wine and food is declared to be the gift of God for humanity, Ps 104.14-15). Paul goes so far to call such serious misunderstanding of God’s good gifts as “renounce[ing] the faith” and the “teachings of demons” (4.1). The Hebraic doctrine of creation shall not be compromised in Paul’s teachings. It was a Jew from Nazareth that turned water into wine, he did not turn wine into water.

How Timothy Responds

Paul finally arrives in 4.6-16 with direct words to Timothy about how he is to conduct himself. He is to conduct himself honorably. He is to be the living embodiment of healthy teaching (i.e. sound). What is meant by healthy/sound teaching is not, in First Timothy, a matter a list of qualities for elders and deacons or church organization. That is healthy or sound teaching is not merely or even primarily church structure. Never has been and never will be.

Healthy teaching is the kind of teaching that does not result in the horrific behavior that is on display in the Ephesian church. Healthy teaching does not result in 4.1-5. Healthy teaching does not result in condescension, arrogance, abuse of others, or lack of love. As Paul noted from the beginning “the goal of any teaching is love that comes from a pure heart” (1.5).

How do we overcome the lack of proper understanding of the Bible? How do we learn about men and women being equal in God’s design with no domination of either? How do we over come arrogance and selfishness and such poor understandings of God’s good gifts? Paul’s answer is Timothy should “devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhorting, to teaching” (4.13). Regardless of what others think, teach. It is important to note that in the historical context of Timothy and the Ephesian church, “scripture” here is what people call the “Old Testament” today. Timothy is to baptize the Ephesian congregation in the Hebrew Scriptures (through the Greek translation called the Septuagint). This matches with those who want to be “teachers of the LAW,” but do not know what they are talking about or “confidently affirm” (1.7). Today many preachers rarely preach or teach from the Hebrew Bible but Paul told Timothy to do it.

Paul goes on to tell Timothy how to handle those who are wealthy in the church. He is to “command those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant …” (6.17f) rather they are to be generous. Money and generosity are ubiquitous themes in the law, the prophets, and the wisdom literature that Timothy is commanded to devote himself to reading, and preaching that reading, to the church. But the theme that Paul keeps coming back to is Timothy’s courage in the face of congregational conflict. Some description of conflict shows up over and over again. And it is taking its toll on Timothy. So, Paul even gives Timothy medical advice. In the absence of Tums … dude drink wine (5.23)!

Concluding Thoughts

First Timothy is not just about being a minister. First Timothy is about becoming a healthy (sound) local church. The local church, like a family, has very different individual members. But the members of the family must live in respectful, caring, loving and even sacrificial relationships with one another. We do not inflict wounds upon our own family. That includes dad, mom, brothers and sisters. Or in the church setting that includes, ministers, elders, deacons (male and female), teachers, everyone.

This is why Paul comes back to the heart of the Gospel over and over in 1 Timothy. Christ Jesus has been revealed “in the flesh” to bring reconciliation between God and humanity and between humanity and humanity. The local church is simply not what God dreams for his colonies of new creation when conflict is the norm for congregational life.

Well I am glad that I took the 25 minutes to read through First Timothy today. I hope my reflections are true to the text as a whole. Keep on reading. The Journey is nearly complete.


2 Responses to “Reading First Timothy: Facing Trouble in Ephesus”

  1. Debra Plunket Says:

    Thank you for this. Good timing. I am accustomed to seeing the lessons for family members/individuals but until this, have not seen it specifically addressed to church leadership “Or in the church setting that includes, ministers, elders, deacons (male and female), teachers, everyone.” I know many people who have been hurt by church leadership. Leadership that may have gone off the rails a bit. It is easier to forgive family than it is to forgive church leaders, though that’s wrong. I am praying especially for church leadership tonight, as I witness yet another faith leader injured, it seems, for unjust reasons. May God reach each of our hearts.

  2. Ed Dodds Says:

    Prayer and Fasting were tied to exorcisms (as were harp songs and worship / teaching singing generally), and to alms givings (the funds you didn’t “eat up” were given to the needy). We work (and are compensated and we compensate our employees) so that they have something to give to those in need. (Paul’s 2 Corinthians “Manna Ethic”). Paul’s apostleship stressed individual congregations being aware of the needs of the whole ekklesia network — and his team would often carry gifts (disaster response) from one congregation to another. On reading (scripture) out loud, exhorting, teaching: the Lausanne Movement’s orality network estimates 80% of folks globally are aural learners (illiteracy, preferred biological learning style, etc.). This has probably been the case for most of humanity for most of human history. Western churches usually demand a mastery of a 66 book* library before evangelism begins,

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