Background Analysis of 1 Timothy
James M. Leonard, PhD
A Statement Verse
On any reading of 1 Tim 3:14-15, Paul clearly states his reason for having written this epistle, and so the verse is extremely important for the exegesis of the epistle:
“Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household....”
The passage indicates that Paul’s letter is, in large part, a corrective to the people of the church, although he does give words of personal encouragement to Timothy.
Timothy Sent to Fix the Church at Ephesus
We must remember that the church at Ephesus was practically in full revolt against Paul. Paul had heard of the problems at Ephesus. So, he dispatched his “go to” man Timothy to fix the problems (maybe Paul and Timothy were traveling through Ephesus, discovered the problem, and Paul left Timothy behind). Note how often Timothy is given the most difficult tasks in Paul’s missionary work; he must have been an incredibly dependable man, worthy of Paul’s comment “I have no one else like him” (Phil 2:20).
Timothy’s Initial Failure
After some time in ministry at Ephesus as Paul’s itinerant representative, Timothy had had enough of the church at Ephesus. (He sounds like some of the beleaguered pastors I know!) It seems that Timothy excused himself from Ephesus, and traveled some distance to meet Paul at some location as Paul was journeying on to Macedonia in northern Greece (1 Tim 1:3). In reporting to Paul on his hardships at Ephesus, it seems that Timothy broke down and wept uncontrollably over his inability to get the church headed in the right direction (or at least, we might think this is a likely explanation of Timothy’s tears in 2 Tim 1:4). We infer that the church leaders had refused to submit to Timothy’s leadership and exchanged the gospel for a bunch of meaningless talk, myths, and insipid controversies (1 Tim 1:3-6, etc.).
Not only was Timothy having severe problems with the church’s male leadership, but also with the women as well. Ephesus, in its socio-historical context, specifically with its Artemis cult (KJV: Diana) may well have had a society in which some women wielded and modeled a feminine abuse of power that was unusual for the ancient world. The Artemis cult was a religion dominated by the daughters of influential families, and projected a disdain of marriage. The cult provided midwife priestesses and promised delivery and deliverance of women in childbearing, a practice which perhaps invoked Paul’s sideward and otherwise bizarre comment that “women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim 2:18).
The abuse of power by women in Ephesus seems to have been a practice carried into the church by certain women. Paul points to certain women who were often idle and gossipy, “going from house[church] to house[church] saying things they ought not to” (5:13). They dressed gaudily (2:9) to show their wealth to the false leaders of the church who were themselves motivated by greed (6:3-10). During worship, these women seemed to have constantly wrangled with Timothy, undermining his authority (2:11-12). It seems fairly sure that the false leaders and these domineering women were working in tandem with each other.
I get the impression from Paul’s reference to Timothy’s tears (2 Tim 1:4), that Timothy may have even asked Paul to release him from his ministry in Ephesus. Some of us have been there and can sympathize with Timothy’s situation. I’m sure Paul himself was grieved to have heard all these problems and to see his “true son in the faith” brought to tears. However, he nonetheless returned Timothy back to Ephesus. He writes, “As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus and command certain men not to teach false doctrine...” (1:3).
Timothy Sent Back to Ephesus
Before sending Timothy back to Ephesus, it seems that Paul came up with a plan to help Timothy regain control of the church. First of all, practical things such as prayer between Paul and Timothy and some useful words of wisdom would have been in order. Next, Paul decided that it was necessary to excommunicate Hymenaeus and Alexander (1:18-20). Third, Paul would write a letter to the Ephesians.
Paul Addresses the Church through the Letter to Timothy
This third part of the plan, however, would have to modified somewhat. If Paul wrote the epistle to the church, the church leaders would not even bother reading it, especially when they got to the part about Hymenaeus and Alexander. So Paul sent Timothy back to Ephesus, promising to send a letter shortly. To assure that this letter would actually be read, however, Paul addressed it not to the church, but rather to Timothy. Timothy, of course, would announce that he received a letter from Paul and that he would read it to the church at Ephesus.
Meanwhile, Timothy did indeed excommunicate Hymenaeus and Alexander, under Paul's apostolic authority, and implemented other advice items while he awaited the letter. When the letter did arrive, Timothy read it to the congregation. On the surface, it sounded as if Paul were addressing Timothy directly. Paul’s words, however, would constantly speak beyond Timothy to the members of the church themselves. The transparency would have been quite thin!
Qualifications of Church Leaders as Case Specific
Note how much discussion Paul gives to qualifications of overseers, deacons, and deaconesses. See how some of the qualifications directly reflect the failures of the church leaders at Ephesus. The reason for this lengthy discussion is not so much to give us a set of ministerial qualifications for the 21st century North American scene, but rather because Paul had just excommunicated two of the church leaders, and there were some vacancies that needed to be filled. How often it is that a pulpit committee interviews a pastoral candidate in light of the weaknesses and failures of the last pastor! So, much of 1 Timothy primarily addresses the specific situation at Ephesus, although we must not overlook the general principles which might apply to comparable situations in the modern church.
In the end, we're not sure if Timothy's mission succeeded or failed. Certainly, Timothy was recalled and Titus was sent as his replacement, but this may not imply failure. It is possible that Timothy did as much as was expected, and like an interim minister, may have been recalled so that another specialist might take over the church. In later years, John the Revelator took up residence in Ephesus and wielded great influence there. In his address specifically to the Ephesians in Rev 3, he no longer needs to chide them for false doctrine. Instead they had forsaken their first love. The message seems to have been heeded, for early Christianity is attested in Ephesus well into the following centuries.
Timothy as a Model for Keeping the Faith
Nonetheless, one’s heart goes out to Timothy, who stood alone for God against a wayward, difficult church, despite severe opposition and lack of personal respect (1 Tim 4:12). His stellar example should inspire future generations to keep Paul’s charge:
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. Keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time--God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen” (a collage of texts from 1 and 2 Timothy).