Monday, July 16, 2012

Introducing the Pastoral Epistles – The Ideal Meets the Real

1 Timothy 1:1-2 (ESV)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope,

2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) tell the story of Jesus, his life and ministry, and his central message of the coming Kingdom of God. He taught that the Kingdom had come, was near, was indeed among the people he taught. He spoke of a Great Reversal, where the rich would be humbled, the oppressed set free, the last made first, rulers removed, sinners forgiven, and blind see. He taught people to live the truth and life of the Kingdom now, in this life. He promised that the Great Reversal would permeate the world like a yeast would dough, grow over the empire like weeds through the sidewalk, tearing it's deadness down by the life of Spirit-filled communities of justice.

In his death and resurrection, he planted the life of God in the heart of humanity, by grace offering a free invitation into this new Kingdom to everyone, everywhere, regardless of any background or origin of any kind.

Acts tells the story of the first steps of this living community. They wrestle with how to share their abundant life with the diverse crowds that joined their numbers. In their practice, the ideal of the Kingdom that Jesus taught met the reality of life lived in resistance to empire as it was around them, and the spirit of empire in which they had always lived by habit. In the collision of Jesus' universal, eternal, and highly ideal declaration of Kingdom Come with the temporal, complicated, unusual, and unexpected life lived in diverse community the members of community were changed. In both conflict and cooperation, the Holy Spirit among them used every circumstance to further grow them individually and as a community toward the fulfillment of Jesus' Kingdom promises.

The Kingdom had come. People shared everything they had with reckless generosity. Poor people were fed, taught, and equipped in community to be free. The very economy and power structures of empire and religion were confronted and sometimes dismantled by the influence of the growing communities.

But the Kingdom is also still yet to be. The teachings of Jesus are universal, but the diversity of these early Kingdom communities meant there were differences in understanding and application of these commands. The members of community still had habits and expectations from their previous lives in bondage to the spirit of empire. Selfishness and pride sometimes led to conflict. These communities still lived (and today, still live) in a world where the empires and powers have influence and control. Resistance was (and is) difficult at best. At worst, it leads to persecution by the powers of the world.

As the ideal of the promised Coming Kingdom meets the reality of practical demonstration now, every community had to wrestle with how they each would best demonstrate the gospel in their context. These communities were called churches, which means a gathering. The practice of Kingdom life was called the Way. Members of these communities were called Followers of the way, or Christians, after Christ, which means Messiah, or chosen one. Letters were written between the churches, especially by the apostles (which means sent ones), the people who travelled between the churches and beyond to plant new ones. These letters were called epistles.

The diversity in backgrounds within the churches is matched by a diversity of gifts administered by the Holy Spirit within its members. At its best, every member of the community is enabled to give according to their unique gift and calling. Every member contributes to the whole, each supplying to others the ability to all operate to their full function as parts of a body all contribute to the healthy function of a whole person.

Since every church was unique in its cultural context, membership, and gifting, the epistles (the letters to the churches) each dealt with very specific issues unique to each gathering. While Jesus' teaching were universally true and applicable, not every instruction to every church was necessarily so. What may have been assumed in one church may be a sharp controversy in another. As such, the epistles must be interpreted carefully according to their cultural context and intention.

Among the epistles, Romans and Hebrews both stand out as very broad and thorough in the scope of their messages. Romans, an epistle of Paul,  has a very thorough and complete theology of salvation (called soteriology). Paul wrote this letter to a church he'd never visited, so he started from scratch and grew a well formed story of the gospel for the Romans. Much of the New Testament is seen through the theology of Romans, once called the grand cathedral of Christian doctrine. Hebrews has a well formed Christology, a study of the person of Jesus the Messiah. It also traces the history of Covenant from the beginning of Hebrew scripture until the Kingdom age.

Most of these epistles are addressed to a church or churches of a region. Church members would read the letters to the community, probably in full, and the gatherings would then wrestle in word and deed over how to put the instructions into practice. Letters would be copied and distributed widely, so the best opportunity could be given for a wide audience to benefit. Over time and practice, certain books would be recognized by the churches as especially helpful for teaching doctrine or instructing practical community life. These are the books that remain in the New Testament today.

Along with apostles (sent ones), who taught widely and planted churches, the pastoral gift was also given to equip the church communities to function as Jesus had taught. Pastors in the early church served as community organizers and equippers of the body, seeking the best for all members and helping each member find their place in the whole. Pastors became the servants to all, giving their life to preach for, serve, and love their communities.

The communities were multiplying so quickly that many pastors were still themselves young in the faith. Three of the New Testament epistles are addressed to two specific pastors, both of whom had served with Paul, to whom the letters are attributed. 1 and 2 Timothy are addressed to Timothy, the young Greek man who served with Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 16). Much of both of these letters encourage young Timothy to be bold in his ministry, and not to be timid though he may be young or inexperienced. Timothy pastors in a church in Ephesus, to whom Paul also wrote the highly poetic and beautiful book of Ephesians. Titus is probably more confident in his ministry, as Paul's letter to him is far more direct and to the point, and dispenses with the strong fatherly encouragements of the Timothy letters.

These three letters are commonly called the Pastoral Epistles. In them we find some of the most specific and practical instructions for the organization and administration of church community life of any of the writing of the New Testament. In them, Jesus' broad and universal promises and instructions about the Kingdom of God meet the most immediate, practical, and specific application in the present world. The ideal becomes real.

As we read the instructions of the pastoral letters, we are equipped to also practice the abundance and justice and love of Kingdom life in our communities in their cultural contexts today.


These are the repeated messages emphasized in the pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus:

1 – Preach good doctrine.
Remember what you’ve been taught.
Use the gifts you’ve been given and the tools you’ve been trained in.
Study the Bible and know it.
Preach often.
Preach Jesus.
Preach the gospel.

2 – Practice good doctrine.
Be a good example of a Jesus follower.
Have integrity.
Do not give anyone an excuse to question your teaching.
Teach people proper application of the doctrine they learn.

3 – Do not be caught up in quarrels with false teachers.
Teach the truth humbly, boldly, continuously, and gently.
Correct wrong teaching.
Warn divisive people to stop being divisive.
Do not associate with those who insist on continuing to quarrel and be divisive.

4 – Recognize, train, and help people develop their gifts.
Teach others to be teachers that teach teachers.
Do not minister alone.
Expect integrity from those who teach in church.


The pastoral letters, and all the epistles, should be read as following after the book of Acts, as Acts follows the Gospels. In other words, the Gospel, the Good News of freedom and justice and love and the Kingdom of God are central. This is the most important thing. Paul himself says this many times in his letters to Timothy and Titus. In Acts, the church takes its first steps in applying the message of freedom in community. The pastoral letters give practical instruction to pastors for how to demonstrate the teachings of Jesus and the truth of the gospel in their churches. Therefore, these letters reveal as much or more about the process of discerning that practical application as it gives us practical advice today. Also, our context and culture may make some of the advice irrelevant to us. 1 Timothy 5 is mostly about taking care of widows, of which there are none in our church. So these books also reveal much about the practical concerns that faced the early church.

Our job is to discern and practice the gospel in our context. The pastoral letters teach us to keep the gospel central. The examples of instruction in the letters help us see how we too can practically demonstrate the good news of the Kingdom in our context today. Whether we find the instructions within these pages helpful or irrelevant, the principles point to Jesus, and our mandate remains the same to discover how our churches may best honour Jesus and walk in faith.

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