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1 Timothy and Titus and the development of church structure

Posted by on Jul 12, 2007 in books, scripture | 2 comments

I have recently finished a study of the “Pastoral Epistles”. I prefer to call them “Paul’s Personal Letters”, since Paul does not indicate that these are addressed to “pastors”. As I studied 1 Timothy and Titus especially, I noticed that most commentators date these two epistles late in Paul’s life (or after Paul’s life, if they do not hold to Pauline authorship). But, I’m not sure that this is a valid date.

In his commentary The Pastoral Epistles, I.H. Marshall offers four theories for the authorship and dating of 1 Timothy and Titus [66-74].

1. The theory of a second imprisonment. According to this theory, Paul wrote 1 Timothy and Titus sometime after the events in the Book of Acts, after being released from his first imprisonment, after another missionary trip through Macedonia, and before a second imprisonment in which he was eventually executed.

2. A setting earlier in Paul’s career. According to this theory, Paul wrote 1 Timothy and Titus sometimes during the events recorded in the book of Acts, after his extended stay in Ephesus (or an unrecorded visit to Crete in the case of Titus), and before his imprisonment in Rome.

3. Theories based on fragmentary hypotheses. According to these various theories, 1 Timothy, Titus, and the other personal letters (besides Philemon) were created from various Pauline fragments, or, as Marshall explains, “[T]he PE (Pastoral Epistles) are artificial compositions incorporating fragments of actual Pauline letters.”

4. The fictitious character of the evidence. According to these various theories, 1 Timothy, Titus, and the other personal letters are pseudepigraphal – unnamed authors (not Paul) wrote the letters to unnamed recipients (not Timothy or Titus) and included fictional historical events to make them appear to be Pauline.

In this post, I only plan to discuss the first two theories. While there may be good reasons to hold to the last two theories, both theories assume that the letters themselves are a sham – either Paul did not write the letters, or he did not write them to the named recipients for the reasons stated in the letters themselves.

Almost every commentary that I’ve read supports theory number one (unless, of course, the commentator supported theory 3 or 4). I appreciate the way the Marshall approached this topic in his commentary. Consider his words here carefully:

Other attempts have been made to fit the PE into Paul’s missionary career as recorded in Acts. Lestapis 1976 argues that Tit and 1 Tim were written while Paul was at Philippi in AD 58 (Acts 20.30)… Van Bruggen 1981 in essence takes the same position. He argues that 1 Tim dates from Paul’s third missionary campaign before the events described in Acts 20… Much the same line was adopted by Reicke and Robinson… Like the theories of a second imprisonment, theories of this kind cannot be refuted by showing that the correlations do not work, since the record in Acts is sufficiently fragmentary to allow for all kinds of reconstructions. They show that the PE as they stand can be fitted into Paul’s lifetime. the great difficulty is rather that these three letters, which differ from the Hauptbriefe (i.e. Paul’s principal writings – Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians) in linguistic and theological style but manifest a close unity among themselves, are interspersed with them over the same period of composition, and we are left wondering how and why the same writer could move so easily from one style to another. [71-72]

Because of the difference in style, and other considerations, Marshall believes that the second imprisonment theory offers “less difficulties” for the person who holds to Pauline authorship. However, the idea of an author writing to an individual in a different style with which he writes to a group does not leave me “wondering”. In fact, I would almost expect it, especially if the individual is a “dear son” as Paul describes Timothy.

But, why does this matter? That is the real question that we need to ask ourselves. Does it really matter when Paul wrote 1 Timothy and Titus? I think it does, and for a very practical reason.

Primarily, Timothy and Titus are unique for the amount of information included about “church order”, that is, elders, deacons, widows, etc. This is sometimes overstated, as Marshall explains, “Although questions of church ‘order’ are important in the PE, they are by no means central. Approximately one sixth of the letters is taken up with church order in the strict sense…” [52] It is a following phrase by Marshall and an assumption by most biblical scholars that prompts this blog post. Marshall says, “Clearly there has been some development in the organisation of the church from the period of Paul’s Hauptbriefe (i.e. Paul’s principal writings – Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians)…”

The argument goes something like this. The church in Acts and in Paul’s earlier letters are still developing. They are not mature churches. We should not model ourselves after the churches in Acts, Romans, and Corinthians because those were early churches, and the structure of the church was still developing. How do we know that the “structure” of the church was still developing? Because Paul spent more time explaining church government in his later letters. Which later letters? Specifically, the Pastoral Epistles of 1 Timothy and Titus. How do we know these are later letters? Because the styles is different and because the church is more organized. Thus, we have circular reasoning.

What if, on the other hand, 1 Timothy and Titus were actually written earlier in Paul’s career – about the same time that he wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians? This leads to a problem, because suddenly church structure and leadership takes on a completely different role. Similarly, the idea of the development of church structure and leadership falls away.

Honestly, I don’t plan to change anyone’s mind about the date that 1 Timothy and Titus were written. However, I do hope that you will think seriously about the idea of the “development” of church structures and leadership. Besides the possibility of 1 Timothy and Titus being written early, also remember that elders (Acts 14, 15), deacons (assuming Acts 6 is describing deacons), widows (Acts 6), and other leadership and structures are mentioned very early in the life of the church. This does not seem to be an idea that developed in the mind of Paul or other New Testament authors.

Thus, while Paul was writing his other letters, he was well aware of the role of elders, deacons, and other leadership in the church. However, for some reason, he never felt it necessary to instruct the leadership differently than other believers. He did not find it important to submit problems to the authority of church leadership. He did not turn sinning brothers and sisters over to church leadership. He did not tell church leadership to handle the meeting of the church. Instead, he constantly and consistently instructed all believers. In the entirety of the New Testament, there are very, very few passages that are directed specifically to church leaders (Acts 20; 1 Peter 5).


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-13-2007

    In your studies, is there any information on what leadership looked like in the synagogues? Since the church has Jewish roots, it may be helpful in the course of this study to know. Was there any equivalent to elders or other church leaders?

  2. 7-13-2007


    I have studied the first century synagogues some, but not as much as I would like. This will be included in my dissertation, as well as information about other religious meetings of the Greco-Roman period.



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