‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. 2 Timothy 3:16
The New Testament has four letters attributed to Saint Paul written to individual people: The First and Second Letters to Timothy, the Letter to Titus and the Letter to Philemon.
The first three of these letters are often grouped together as what are called the ‘pastoral epistles’. They are written to people in pastoral roles; we are seeing the beginning of an organised church.
In the early years after the day of Pentecost, there was a constant expectation that Jesus was about to return; people lived every day as though it were the last. So we see in the Acts of the Apostles people selling all they had and giving the money to people who were in need because they would have no need of it for themselves (if people today really believed they were living through the ‘last times’ they would be similarly giving away all they had!). There was no need for the church to be formally organized because it would not be around for long enough to have to worry about such things as leadership structures.
But the years pass, and Jesus has not returned, and there is a realization that the church might need to establish more formal structures, that there might need to be people who were professional leaders. The problem was not just about organization, it was about protecting the faith. The leaders were to be those who ensured the true story of Jesus was passed on, without additions or subtractions, and that the things he taught were upheld in the Christian communities.
True teaching and correct conduct have been the themes of Saint Paul’s letters to the churches and these are the themes that continue in the pastoral epistles. From the outset of the First Letter to Timothy, Paul’s concerns are clear, he writes in Chapter 1 Verses 3-4, that Timothy should ‘command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies’. There grew up in the early church ideas that certain people had special knowledge, an idea that is still with us in the New Age religions, and there was also the enduring idea that coming from a particular group of people was a pathway to salvation. Paul is anxious that Timothy rebuke those who promote myths and genealogies and teach in their place God’s grace as the only way to salvation, ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’, he says in Chapter 1 Verse 15.
True teaching is accompanied by a concern for correct conduct. The departure from the old ways causes Paul to be concerned that people might do whatever they were inclined to do and he feels compelled to write to tell Timothy that worship and the conduct of the people should be very carefully ordered.
In Chapter 3, we see how much a formal church structure has developed. There has been the emergence of an episcopal church, episkopoi, overseers are to be men of particular qualities. If Paul’s instruction had been followed, the medieval church may have developed very differently, in Chapter 3 Verse 2, Paul says the bishop ‘is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money’. Such church leaders became rare as the centuries passed.
Paul warns Timothy about the times, in Chapter 4 Verse 1 he writes, ‘The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons’. Timothy is not to worry that some people have decided to go their own way. Paul’s concern that actions match words, that behaviour be shaped by faith is expressed again in Chapter 5 where he talks about widows and elders and in Chapter 6, where his most misquoted words are written. ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’, writes Paul; it is the love of money that is the problem, not money itself.
In the Second Letter to Timothy, Paul takes up familiar themes. ‘What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus’, he writes in Chapter 1 Verse 14. Paul’s authority is being challenged, the things he has taught are being ignored, sound teaching is absent from some of the churches.
Paul is under no illusion that loyalty to the Gospel comes at a cost, and does not hesitate to point out to Timothy what is required, in Chapter 2 Verse 3, he allows no opportunity for illusions about what is required, ‘Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus’.
Paul’s words in Chapter 3 Verse 16 emphasise the church is about continuity as well as change, ’All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ he writes. Commentators seem often so busy discussing the meaning of Paul’s words that they neglect to ask what was the subject of his comment, the canon of the New Testament is not complete, what writings then had the status of Scripture? Scripture for the early Christians was the words read in the synagogue.
‘Do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry, Paul instructs Timothy in Chapter 4 Verse 5—a professional church is emerging.
The Letter to Titus is written to a man who has been left in Crete to organize the church there. ‘The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you’, says Paul in Chapter 1 Verse 5.
A disciplined organisation is necessary because of the problems that Paul has repeatedly had to address, ‘For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group’, he warns in Chapter 1 Verse 10. These are the problems of those who insists that the new Christians must accept the Jewish Law. Paul’s teaching has been consistent that salvation is through faith and not through the Law, ‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people’, he writes in Chapter 2 Verse 11.
Teaching must be matched by conduct, in Chapter 3 Verse 1-2, Paul urges, ‘Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone’. How far the church went from being ‘gentle’.
The Letter to Philemon is not a pastoral epistle, but a personal letter just 335 words long. Paul writes from prison, but writes joyfully to Philemon who was a wealthy Christian and leader of the church that met in his home in Colossae. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, has run away and Paul is sending him back to Philemon.
Paul does not challenge the institution of slavery itself, but he does treat Onesimus with love and as a person of dignity equivalent to that of others. It was in seeing people as equal that slavery would centuries later be challenged and then abolished. Paul’s attitude would have been thought revolutionary among those who treated slaves with contempt.
In his letters to the churches and his letters to individuals, Paul is responding to situations that have arisen. He writes to apply the truths he has received to the challenges he meets. A church that accepts Paul as a pattern teaching will endeavour to follow Paul’s example, to start from Jesus, and ask what his life and teaching have to say in each situation we face.