Preacher: Dr Baden Teague, Lay Preacher

St Paul’s Encouragements to Timothy

Three of the 27 books that make up the New Testament are now known  as the “Pastoral Epistles”. All three were written by St Paul, not to Christian communities as were most of his letters, but rather these three were written to Christian individuals. These  ‘pastoral epistles’ are St Paul’s personal letters of encouragement to his young fellow-workers, Timothy and Titus. Two letters were to Timothy and one to Titus.

In Chapter 4 of 1st Timothy Paul, the older and experienced Christian leader, gives twelve points of encouragement. They are set out in his letter one after the other, rather like a list of helpful reminders. St Paul, of course, was not only the growth-leader of the early Christian Church; he was also the inspiring theologian of the Church. Paul had “met God” in a spiritual epiphany on the road to Damascus and this had led him for the next several years to go back and study the Scriptures and become articulate about knowing God in Christ. He had become the clearest and most profound teacher of the truth about Jesus, which we now call the ‘good news’, the Gospel.

But who was Timothy? He was a young man on the rise; a Christian who became one of the earliest Bishops. His mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, were Jewish Christians but we do not know anything about his Greek father. He grew up in Lystra, a significant town in the middle of what is now Turkey. Happily this town, Lystra, was early-on in St Paul’s first missionary journey. Paul always remembered when Timothy had then become a Christian; and some years later how the Elders in the Church had laid their hands on Timothy’s head to pray for him and to commission him (as today we still do when consecrating a Bishop.) After Barnabas and Silas and Luke, Timothy became Paul’s fellow missionary traveller in what is now Cyprus and Crete and Turkey and Greece. In Paul’s letters to the various churches written during these travels he includes a greeting to each church from Timothy. These Churches knew that Timothy and later Titus, were in training to be bishops and eventually to succeed St Paul himself in Christian ministry.

This then is the context for St Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Paul had by this time commissioned Timothy to lead the Church in Ephesus, a multicultural seaport on what is now the Turkish coast. Paul knew that the Ephesian Church had a couple of problems and Timothy should deal with these problems. First, there were some false teachers there, and second, there was a group who put Timothy down because of his relative youth. Paul encourages Timothy to overcome these two problems.

“Beware” he wrote, “of those who are subversive and false”. In particular, beware of their false teaching that demanded celibacy. Paul reassured Timothy that marriage is honourable and to be encouraged. The false teachers also required a ban on a whole range of foods, but Paul reassured Timothy that all kinds of food are acceptable and can be eaten. St Paul wrote, “Everything that God created is good.” Thirdly these false teachers were mixed up with what Paul calls “godless myths”. Have nothing to do with these “godless myths”, Paul encouraged Timothy. St Paul urged Timothy to have a “training” mentality, day in and day out, towards his Christian practices: scripture reading, prayer, compassion, teaching, purity, love and faith. Don’t worry, Paul said, about your relative youth but be in day-by-day training to be a confident leader. Paul wrote, be an example to all, by your sound speech and good behaviour.

At this point I need to draw a distinction between what Paul called ‘false’ teaching and what I will call Paul’s ‘convenient’ teaching. False teaching included this notion of compulsory celibacy, this notion of restrictive food laws and this notion of “godless myths”. All these Timothy was to oppose. But Paul’s ‘convenient’ teaching arose not from what was false but rather from Paul too easily accepting the cultural norms of his own day. One of these norms was the widespread inequality of women. The other was the practice of slavery. Paul conveniently instructed Timothy not to allow women to teach in the church: they were not even allowed to speak in the church. Also Paul conveniently instructed Timothy to require Christian slaves to be obedient to their owners. Both of these ancient norms have now been completely challenged. And so it is, now, that despite these convenient views of Paul and Timothy, we now believe and rightly practice the equality of women with men in Christian ministry and the total rejection of slavery.

It is a matter of history that, about 200 years ago in England and France (but only 160 years ago in the United States of America), Christian reformers effectively argued that all national Governments should abolish slavery and free the slaves. This modern Christian reform has become the current norm in almost all countries today. It is also a matter of history that about 25 years ago Christian reformers effectively argued that Church governments should abolish the barriers that had prevented women from being equal contributors to Christian ministry. The inclusion of women in Christian ministry has now been won in about half of the churches worldwide, including most parts of our own Anglican Church. There remains an ongoing, major struggle before the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches join us in this. Also, many of the fundamentalist churches have closed their minds to this reform.

Let us now return to the heart of St Paul’s positive encouragements to Timothy. There are three major encouragements:

First, St Paul encouraged Timothy to place his hope in the “living God who is the Saviour of all.” Paul underlined this by giving Timothy a precise motto in these words:

“With Christ before us we labour and struggle,

because we have set our hope on the living God

who is the Saviour of all people.” (Tim 4:10)

Secondly, St Paul commanded Timothy that, on every occasion when the Christian church met, he should make sure there is both public reading of the Scriptures and a sermon of Christian teaching. (Here in St Peter’s Cathedral we follow these encouragements of St Paul.)

Thirdly, St Paul reminds Timothy to keep fired-up the spiritual gifts that he had received from God. His own life should be spiritually alive, and never merely textbookish or dull. Timothy was encouraged to keep on receiving the gifts of the Spirit of God and to live as an example of the grace of God.

May I conclude by noting that here in our Adelaide Anglican Churches we are in the process of calling a new Archbishop to lead us. As we move towards our decision next December, we need to keep St Paul’s encouragements to Timothy in our minds as we look for our new Bishop.

But there is also a more general application which applies to us all, both clergy and laity. St Paul’s encouragements to Timothy still broadly apply to all Christians. We are all encouraged to avoid the distractions of what is false, to uphold what is soundly taught in the Scriptures and especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, our Lord. We are all encouraged to the discipline of “training” for Christian life and to be examples of love and faithfulness.