1st Timothy: An Inside Look at The Development of the First Christian Churches
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer
1st Timothy 1:3
1st Timothy is one of the three Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament, attributed to the Apostle Paul. The letter was written to Paul’s protégé, Timothy. Tradition states that this letter was written in the mid first century. Most scholars doubt that this is the case and assign it’s writing to the mid second century. As such, most scholars don’t believe Paul wrote this letter. I take a different view; I believe both tradition and the scholars are correct. My view is that it is likely that Paul originally wrote this letter, and that it was later heavily edited up until the mid-second century. My research and reasoning for this position explains the value of the letter. In other words, both points of view are right, and this combining of ideas that spans almost one hundred years, make this letter an extraordinary addition to our Bible.
1st Timothy is about the standards of conduct for the early church. For both those who have oversight and for the attenders. The early church in Ephesus, which Timothy was placed in charge; is used as the example by Paul. Paul originally wrote this letter to his protégé, Timothy, to help him keep the church in Ephesus on track. There are three important themes arise out of the letter; to avoid false doctrine, the qualities needed for those who run the church and godliness for all.
The value for us in the 21st century, is that in this letter we get a first-hand look into the growing pains of the early church and the issues that these pioneers had to deal with in creating the church we know today.
Paul is traveling to Macedonia when he writes this letter and asks Timothy to stay in Ephesus to help the church with its growing pains. One of the issues the church was dealing with was false doctrine. Like any new organization that starts to grow quickly, the new arrivers begin to add their own ideas. Sometimes good and sometimes bad. Paul knew that getting this right at the start was important, both for the church to grow and to stay sustainable.
An example of this false doctrine was how to view the law and specifically the Ten Commandments. When taken very literally the law didn’t leave room for the spirit of the law and Faith. As such, could easily be manipulated. In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is very specific that following the law without a spirit of loving God and your neighbor, the law will be of little value. Some from the Jewish background or newly minted Jewish Christians desired more emphasis on the law. In effect, bringing their comfortable background into the new church, but not really understanding the importance of the spirit of the law and Faith .
This directive is best summed up in 1:4, where Paul states; Not to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.
It isn’t that Paul didn’t believe in the law of Moses, it is the added emphasis of the spirit and faith that Paul sought.
Others from the Gentile world sought to bring previous pagan practices to the church. Keeping the purpose of Christ free from false doctrine, dominated the church for well over four hundred years. This letter provides a look into this struggle.
The letter also gives a strong message of the importance of the leader’s faithfulness. In 3:2 Paul states; Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. Paul’s point here is to assign leadership to people who have the right attitude about how to live a Christian life. For even if leaders have strong organizational skills, without proper Christian conduct, they would weaken the church. Today, many ministers and priests are evaluated on these principles in 1st Timothy.
One of the more interesting aspects of this letter is the use of the word godliness. Godliness only appears in the New Testament eighteen times and not one once is the four Gospels, Acts or any of Paul’s first letters. In 1st Timothy Godliness appears twelve times. The reason I point this out is that Godliness is a critical theme to the book. As well as, it is one of the reasons scholars do not think this letter was written by Paul. For me, its inclusion is part of my support for why I believe the letter underwent heavy editing.
The Godliness concept applies both to the leaders of the new church and to the congregation. In the Bible; Godliness is mainly used to describe a positive way of life influenced by God, and inspired reflection in the tenets of the Christian faith. A person with Godliness was faithful, kind, generous, pious, and committed to Christ. In 1st Timothy, this standard is the aspirational goal for all Christians.
With these three themes in mind, I encourage all to read this book/letter. The total time to read is no more than fifteen minutes. In doing so, you will discover the issues that had to be resolved for the early church to grow. A wonderful gift for that helps us understand the struggles of the early church. A ministry centered on three things; adherence to the true message of Jesus, the right people to have in leadership and a commitment to godliness.
I also strongly believed that the basis of this letter was Paul, as tradition suggests. However, I understand why scholars don’t feel it was Paul. Examples include; the use of the word godliness, and there are another 353 words that Paul never used in his other writings. Also, the literary flow is different than in other of Paul’s writings. I see these discrepancies as the editing from the first and second century’s church leaders to fully capture the struggles of the emerging church and not just the church in Ephesus. But I also strongly believe Paul was the original author
I believe this is part of the beauty of this letter. And the reason it is included as one of the twenty seven books of the New Testament. What was created from this one hundred year process of writing and editing is a capturing of how the early church struggled. The resolution of these issues are so skillfully captured in 1st Timothy, we in the twenty-first century are given a ring side seat to the how the early church grew and emerged. And we also are provided a basis to evaluate ourselves and our own church.
We don’t have to overthink this message; only remember to stick with Jesus’s teachings, strive to be above reproach and focus on our personal Godliness. Three simple messages!
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
Photo by John Cafazza on Unsplash