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1 Timothy and Titus and the development of church structure

Posted by on Jan 8, 2010 in books, elders, scripture | 4 comments

New Testament Introduction is primarily that information concerning the New Testament that deals with authorship, date of authorship, recipients, etc. But, while this information may not be primarily about interpretation, the decisions made always impact our interpretation. For example, consider a post that I wrote 2 1/2 years ago called “1 Timothy and Titus and the development of church structure.”


1 Timothy and Titus and the development of church structure

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. 1-8-2010

    Thanks for reposting this, Alan. You know what I think – 1st Timothy was indeed early, but we still have plenty of evidence that Paul’s own ecclesiology developed over time.

    The key distinction centers not upon elders, but apostles. After Galatia & Barnabas, Paul left Luke, Timothy & Silas in the Macedonian churches, and stayed himself for a longer time in Corinth. By Ephesus, Paul had begun recruiting new apostles-in-training. But the move back to elders comes in the aftermath of 2nd Corinthians.

    You and I still agree on the nature of those elders, but you tend to see such benevolent eldership fully established in early Thessalonica, whereas I’m arguing Paul didn’t have it all together quite yet at that point. How could he have?

    The argument that says we shouldn’t be like those earlier churches is only half-wrong. My argument is that we should mimic Paul’s ecclesiology (especially today) in this particular: that it remained in development.

    We have so much left to learn about the HOW of these things.

  2. 1-10-2010

    If we agree with you that Paul doesn’t really address church leaders separate from the rest of the body, where does this leave us in terms of describing what exactly church leaders do? That is, why do you think there was even the category or adjective “elder” or “deacon”? What made them different?

  3. 1-10-2010


    Yes, I think we agree on the nature of elders, and disagree on Paul’s early acceptance of elders.


    “Where does this leave us in terms of describing exactly what church leaders do?” I think it leaves us turning back to Scripture and away from traditional descriptions. What does Scripture say “church leaders do”?

    I think there are very good (scriptural) reasons for churches to recognizes elders and deacons. But, again, we have to start with Scripture to find those. I’ve written about that some… for example see my post “Are pastors good for nothing?


  4. 2-20-2010

    If we translate “elders” as “older men” we’ll find a more consistent paradigm in Paul’s writings. Paul is focused on gifts which are used to serve. “Deacons” are servants. Paul purposefully does not make titles, but clearly chooses words which keep his focus on each person’s calling to use their gifts according to their faith. I would also submit that Paul calls each one to function in the body according to their age and gender. Older men, seeking to find God’s purpose in how they are to serve the community of believers, should look not to an appointment by a committee for a few chosen leaders who are over others, but rather find how God expects them to serve according to their gifts.