Sunday, January 4, 2015

1 Timothy: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

The fist letter of Paul to his friend Timothy is the first of the so-called “Pastoral Letters” because it concerns itself mainly with correct leadership and organization of churches.  Many scholars today doubt that Paul wrote these letters because they differ in theme, tone, and style from the more clearly authentic letters (like 1 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, etc.).  In the authentic letters of Paul, he focuses a lot on the imminent return of Jesus, and is less concerned with long term church organization.  By contrast, the “pastoral letters” acknowledge that Christ’s return may not be so imminent, and instead focus on proper church leadership and organization in this world.  As such, these letters are less radical in tone, and represent a more “domesticated” Christianity which seems to basically support the status quo of society (with a few notable exceptions).

In chapter 2, the author gives a kind of tacit blessing on the socio-political status quo by urging Christians to pray for kings and those in positions of authority: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  Likewise, the author gives his tacit approval of the status quo of slavery: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.”

Slavery was widespread in ancient Rome, as shown in this bas relief sculpture.

The author also gives his blessing on the status quo of gender inequality, and the subordination of women to men.  In one of the most troubling passages of the New Testament, the author writes: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing.”

1 Timothy does not seem to support gender equality.

Next, the author lays out some basic instructions for church leadership, organized as a kind of hierarchy.  At the top are bishops.  Below them are deacons, who perform administrative and teaching roles.  There is also reference to a “council of elders” who make decisions on church issues.  Put into contemporary business lingo, the bishop is the CEO, the deacons are the vice presidents, and the elders are the board of directors.  This organizational structure would develop over the centuries into the baroque hierarchy of the Roman catholic church.


I must admit that, overall, I find 1 Timothy to be a bit depressing.  In contrast to the radical, counter-cultural Jesus of the gospels, this book presents a picture of Christianity that is not only okay with the establishment in its organization, gender roles, and social relations, but actually mirrors the establishment in its organization, gender roles, and social relations.

That being said, there are some lovely moments in 1 Timothy.  The author spends most of chapter 5 describing how it is one of the main functions of the church to care for elderly widows.  There is, throughout the letter, a general attitude of respect for the elderly, which I like.  The author writes: “Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father.”  This is nice.

Caring for elderly widows was an important function of the early church.

I also like how, in chapter 1, the author includes “slave traders” on a list of the “unholy.”  But, right before “slave traders” are “sodomites,” so I’m not sure what to make of that.

I guess my point is that it is problematic to read 1 Timothy out of context and apply it directly to one’s life.  It has some lovely sentiments, but it also represents a kind of hierarchical, patriarchal, iron age ethic that is hard to apply to the 21st century.  I suppose if you are cool with subordination of women, slavery, and a generally male-dominated society, you’ll have no problem with 1 Timothy.  But I’m not cool with these things, so I find this letter to be problematic.

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