House rules and cultural accommodation: the Pastoral letters

Icon of St Timothy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Sunday lectionary reads selections from 1 & 2 Timothy through in sequence towards the end of Year C,1 and uses a couple of short excerpts from Titus in the selections for Christmas Day. As I noted in my introduction to Paul’s letters, these three are sufficiently like each other to be grouped together, and sufficiently different from Paul’s other letters for many people to wonder if he wrote them. Although they are usually called, collectively, the Pastoral Letters, I think they might better be thought of as “organisational letters” written for those who have some responsibility for organising the church.

Whether Paul did write them, directly, indirectly or not at all, they are in any case different in form. They are not letters to churches, but letters from a senior to a junior colleague. If Paul (as the letters say) calls Timothy and Titus his “sons” in the faith, we should remember that was not simply a relationship of affection, but one in which the father could lay claim to the obedience of the son, and direct him how to carry out his life and work. That alone would be enough to give them a very particular tone.

In the presumed relationship between Paul and these two “sons”, we also see something of the way in which the church comes to structure itself. The offices of bishop and deacon, which first appear at Philippi (Phil 1:1) now seem to be becoming more widespread as terms for leaders (1 Tim 3:1-13). The family relationships that Paul claims for himself, and Timothy and Titus as his household, also become a model for church leadership, and a means of discerning the calling to it: “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:5).

The place of women in the church seems to be taking a further step backwards even from the situation in Colossians and Ephesians. First Timothy in particular seems to take a very big step away from Paul’s acceptance of women as colleagues. There is unfortunately insufficient context to help us understand if a very particular problem is being addressed, or if this apparent change in the status of women in the church is a good reason for doubting these letters come in any straightforward way from Paul’s pen.2

Bishops and deacons, and the letters still seem to expect women to be counted among the deacons (1 Tim 3:11), seem to exist as groups sharing leadership rather than isolated individual ministers. Elders (Tit 1:5) and bishops (Tit 1:7) seem to be interchangeable titles. The idea of a single bishop in a place doesn’t seem to really arrive until St Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the second century. However, Timothy and Titus do, rather like Paul, operate much more as individual leaders – much more like later monarchical bishops – even if they have collegial groups to work with. Whereas First Timothy and Titus address the role of each as church organiser, Second Timothy concentrates on Timothy’s role as a teacher, continuing Paul’s work of passing on the nascent Christian tradition (2 Tim 2:2; 2:24-25; 3:14-4:5).

If the previous section on the Thessalonian letters showed us a church carried away with enthusiasm for the end of the world, these three letters show it dug in for the long haul. They form an early version of handbooks for managing the pastoral care of the church, and legislating practically for a church that isn’t yet organised by law and custom.

Some of the trajectories which will lead to the more fully developed church of the second century are now plainly visible, and this strange mix of radicalism and conservatism will continue to interact with each other in the history of the church. There is always a tension between passing on the faith and teaching of the gospel, and seeking to adapt the life and understanding of the church appropriately to the world in which it does so.


  1. Propers 19 – 25, 24th – 30th Sundays in Ordinary Time.
  2. The most problematic verses (1 Tim 2:12-15) also bristle with translation problems: does the writer forbid women to have authority over men, or forbid wives from bossing their husbands about? Does he say women’s salvation depends on having children, or that women will be kept safe through childbirth if they live appropriately obedient lives? It is these kinds of questions that help stir the pot about whether Paul could possibly have written such verses. Fortunately, these verses need not trouble readers of the Sunday lectionary, as they are (quite wisely!) not used.

It's the end of the world as we know it: the Thessalonian letters

I take both the letters to the church at Thessalonica together. Between them they have no more lectionary readings than the individual letters we have already looked at, and they cover much the same territory. Their key theme is how to live when you are expecting the end of the world as you know it. While living in expectation of Christ’s appearing remains a significant theme in Paul’s letters, it is at its most intense here. It also seems to be an expectation that is not fully understood by his Gentile converts in Thessalonica, who lack the grounding in Old Testament texts to fully appreciate it. Unsurprisingly, given this emphasis, the majority of readings from these letters comes in the Advent season.

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King of the universe: Colossians

A small number of passages from Colossians crop up several times over the course of the lectionary. Selections from the letter are read through in the earlier summer weeks of post-Easter Ordinary Time, in Year C. The hymnic passage extolling Christ as the centre of both creation and its restoration as new creation (Col 1:15-20) is also read on Christ the King (again Year C). And the opening of chapter 3 is also read on Easter Day (Year A).

The letter as a whole reads a little like a first rehearsal for some of the themes we have seen developed in Ephesians. The story of human redemption is told on the same cosmic scale. In his description of Christ as “the image of the invisible God”, Paul seems to be echoing Wisdom chapter 7, especially verses 23-27. If Jewish thinkers increasingly saw Torah as the repository of divine wisdom, Paul leads the way for Christian thinkers in seeing Christ as wisdom’s true incarnation, a theme that is developed in John’s gospel.

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Colonies of heaven: Christianity as a Roman religion in Philippians

Christianity might have been born in a thoroughly Jewish home, but it quickly got sent to a Roman boarding school. In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we see something of that happening. Philippi, like Corinth was a Roman colony, and Paul draws rather more positively on that heritage to shape his language when he writes to the Philippians, than he does in his more troubled relationship with Corinth. Indeed, it may well have been the Philippian church Paul had in mind when he spoke of the generosity of the Macedonian churches (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), appealing to the competitive spirit at Corinth, and trying to get them to up their game in the generosity stakes.

Paul envisages in Philippians that his death might be a very real possible outcome of his imprisonment. The picture is the traditional site of Paul’s burial in Rome.
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A bold vision of a cosmic church: Ephesians

When we turn from Galatians to Ephesians, the change of tone is startling. This is one of those letters where the tone is rather less argumentative as well as less specific than Paul normally is. For many scholars, that suggests a disciple of Paul summarising some key elements of his master’s teaching. For others, it represents simply a different scribe, and Paul in a more reflective and different mode of teaching. The letter certainly shares Paul’s love of long and convoluted sentences, with Eph 1:3-14 essentially being a single sentence in the original Greek (depending on your view of what a sentence is!).

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Paul's angriest letter: Galatians

Galatians, selections of which are read in the early Sundays of Ordinary Time after Eastertide in Year C, reads like Paul’s hastiest and angriest letter. He addresses the recipients as “foolish Galatians!” (Gal 3.1) And the letter includes one of his rudest comments, carefully left out of the lectionary, “Those agitators [arguing for circumcision] had better go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves!” (Gal 5:12 REB) Paul’s passion and anger revolve around the subjects of circumcision especially, but also sharing a common meal.

A statue of Paul with a sword (symbolising the word of God) seems particularly appropriate for this fiery letter. The statue is in St Paul’s Outside the Walls, Rome.
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Keeping up with the Corinthians: a second letter to Corinth

Paul wrote more than two letters to the Corinthians: it’s the only way of making sense of the letters he mentions in his correspondence with them. It’s just that we don’t have any more than two collected in our scriptures, and don’t know what happened to the other(s). We have no way of knowing exactly how many there were. Some scholars, observing that the letter in the Bible called Second Corinthians seems a bit of a patchwork, suggest that it could have been stitched together from at least two, and perhaps three original letters.

There’s no real evidence to say so. The changes of mood and direction could just as well come down to getting interrupted mid-dictation by some event or news which caused a swerve in the argument. Since no-one has ever found a fragment of manuscript that shows a version of the letter with a different beginning, middle or ending, I think I prefer the simplicity of an interruption causing Paul to alter course. Either way, it’s a reminder that there are simply gaps in our knowledge, and not everything Paul wrote ended up as scripture.

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