Chapter 18: The Letters to Timothy and to Titus
The first Christians were too absorbed in the expectation of Jesus’ speedy return to the earth to give much thought to practical detail. They cared nothing about developing a literature, a theology, or an organization. The Lord was at hand. The time was short. Why should people marry or slaves seek to be freed? At any moment the present order might come to an end.
But time wore on and nothing happened. The first leaders passed away, but the churches continued their work. It began to be clear that the end was not to come as speedily as men had thought, and that the churches might have to go on under the existing order for a long time. Christian leaders began to see that the practical side of church life could no longer be neglected. Spiritual enthusiasm and well-meaning devotion were no longer enough. Efficiency must be insured. Church life must be regulated. Church officers must be properly qualified, The several classes of people in the churches must be shown their several spheres and functions and kept to them. Efficiency must come through organization.
Such a state of things, it is true, seems a serious decline from the high, confident, spiritual enthusiasm of the apostolic age. But after the prophet must come the priest, to conserve and codify the other’s work. And this was what the letters to Timothy and to Titus sought to do.
Many churches needed to be shown what officers they ought to have to carry on their work and what kind of men these ought to be. Marriage, it was now evident, ought to be encouraged and sanctioned. The charitable work of the churches must be wisely directed and protected from abuse. The morals of the Christian communities needed definite correction. Christian leaders needed to be reminded that they must set a worthy example of conduct and character. The homely practical lessons which need to be taught so often had to be put before the widest possible circle of churches in compact and telling form.
In these letters Christians are taught to pray for kings and rulers and for all men. Perhaps the empire no longer maintained its hostile attitude to the church. Yet First Peter, written in the midst of persecution, bids Christians honor the emperor. Certainly the Book of Revelation takes a very different attitude toward kings. Prayer is to be offered by men. Women are not to teach, but to occupy a subordinate place in the church life. Each church may have as officers a presiding officer, the bishop or elder, and his assistants, the deacons. These should be men of good repute and blameless character, who have married but once. A recent convert should not be made a bishop, and only men who have proved their faithfulness in the church life should be appointed deacons.
That practical helpfulness which had characterized the churches from the first finds natural expression in providing for the support of destitute widows in the Christian community. This matter needs to be safeguarded against abuse. It is right that children or grandchildren who are able to do so should provide for their widowed mothers or grandmothers. Only widows past middle life and without any kindred able to provide for them are to become the permanent pensioners of the church.
Novel religious speculations remote from practical life are to be discouraged and avoided. Some teachers have declared that the resurrection has already taken place; an idea perhaps due to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching that conversion and baptism usher the believer, risen with Christ, into a new and blessed life. Such innovations are to be sternly condemned.
It was the coming in of these new currents of teaching that most perplexed Christian leaders about the end of the first century. How were they to be met and controlled? They sometimes seemed to threaten the life of the churches. To whom, when the first great leaders of Paul’s generation were gone, could their less gifted successors appeal in matters of conscience and faith? This is one of the questions these epistles to Christian ministers undertake to answer. It is not easy to realize how far early Christian thought, on a great many matters, was from being definite and specific. The words of Jesus all recognized as authoritative, and also the voice of his Spirit in their own hearts. But one Christian might put forth views widely different from another’s and claim for them the authority of the Spirit. Which was right? Who was to decide?
In the midst of this rising confusion of belief and teaching the churches fell back upon the letters of Paul. New teachings that conflicted with his must be false. In addition to Paul’s letters and the memory of his teaching there was also what we call the Old Testament. Jesus had disowned various parts of it, and Paul had denied the religious efficacy of the Law, but Christian leaders felt safer in following them in their endorsement of the Jewish scriptures than in their partial rejection of them, and very definitely added the Old Testament to their new authorities. We have evidence of this tendency in the Gospels of Matthew and John, but it is Second Timothy that first puts it decisively and unequivocally. Every scripture inspired of God, it was now felt, was profitable for teaching, reproof, and instruction. The church had adopted the Old Testament.
With the words of Jesus, a few letters of Paul, and the Jewish scriptures at their backs, the Christians could now feel in a measure prepared to test new religious teachings which original spirits in their own community or Christian visitors from distant churches might set forth in the local meetings. The new teaching had to square with the old apostolic teaching. If it conflicted with that, it could not stand. It must be possible also to harmonize it with the Old Testament. That Paul and Jesus did not always conform to the Old Testament did not at once appear nor greatly matter. What was needed was authorities, and with Jesus, Paul, and the literature of the Old Testament the need was satisfied.
That the letters to Timothy and Titus claim Paul as their author may possibly be due to the fact that short genuine letters of his were made the basis of them by some later follower of Paul who composed them. At any rate, the writer felt justified in claiming Paul’s authority for what he thought a necessary and timely supplement to the letters Paul had left behind, and doubtless thought he was doing just what Paul would have done had he lived to see the conditions the writer saw. But the value of these letters lay in the practical direction they gave the churches of their time, showing them how to readjust their high hopes of Jesus’ return and to set themselves to the task of establishing and perpetuating their work. In these little letters we see the church after the lofty enthusiasm of its first great experience settling down to the common life of the common day and grappling with its age-long task.