Why bother with the Pastoral Epistles?*

Pastoral Epistles

This blog post’s title might come across as a little bit odd – but the asterisk refers to the fact that in some of the church circles I move in, there seems to be an avoidance of some of the hard teaching of the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) apart from a few key ‘proof texts’. I’ve been reading a book edited by the pastor of the church I grew up in, Pure Church, which is based on the mission statement for Titus, as Paul commands:

“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.”

One small group study I found – whilst preparing some small group studies – observed that this is partly a reference to church planting in Crete – a religious place where Titus had been left to finish the work that Paul had started. If we claim to be people who love the Bible, particularly the whole Bible, then we need to have a space for every part of it – even the tricky parts. As someone in a church without a formal eldership, and who believes that women can lead in the church (contra, perhaps, the plain reading of Titus 1 – I probably need to explain why I’ve come to a different position than before), reading Titus has been a great exercise in sharpening and listening to God.

One of the commentaries I’ve found most helpful in preparing some studies in Titus, and in reading and studying the book for myself, is William Hendriksen’s The Epistles to Timothy and Titus, in the Geneva commentary series from Banner of Truth. Pretty much at the beginning, he offers seven reasons for studying the Pastoral Epistles:

A thorough study of the Pastoral Epistles is necessary for the following reasons: 1) Because they shed much needed light on the important problem of church-administration [e.g. how we should organise a church] … 2) Because they stress sound doctrine [because it matters what we believe] … 3) Because they demand consecrated living [because if we claim to have the Holy Spirit living in us, then we should be in the process of becoming holy] … 4) Because they answer the question ‘are creeds of any value?’ [do I need to care about what other Christians, before and around us, think about things?] … 5) Because they tell us about the closing activities in the life of the great apostle Paul [ ] … 6) Because they are a valuable source for the understanding of the history of the church in the third quarter of the first century A. D. [this sounds boring, but is vital. This is our family history!] … 7) Because in these epistles as well as in the others God speaks to us

These seven reasons are particularly important for churches which are growing, engaging with culture, and working on discipling people from a wide range of backgrounds.

  1. It is vital to consider what it means to be a church leader – and how to disciple different people in the life of the church. This is a key theme in the Pastoral Epistles – not least with reference to Eldership.
  2. Hendriksen goes on to unpack what he means by stressing sound doctrine: “Is it true that it makes no difference what a person believes as long as he is sincere in what he believes? Is the Bible “the word of God” as it lies there, or does it merely become the Word of God when it ‘touches’ you? How must one deal with heretics?“. These questions are contemporary, and arguably timeless. The Pastoral Epistles are deeply concerned with the faithful transmission of faith in terms of the Bible.
  3. I think this touches on a number of big challenges to the church today: “Is it possible for a person to be ‘doctrinally sound’ but ‘corrupt in practice’? Must evil men be disciplined?“. Holiness is the call of every follower of Christ – but what does it look like?
  4. This question is particularly important. Whether it is ‘No Creed by Christ’, or ‘Love is Love’, unpacking what biblical, Jesus-following, Spirit-filled Christianity looks like is crucial. And it involves thinking about what Christians ‘not like us’, and those who have gone before, have said about things. The Pastoral Epistles help us think about these things.
  5. Paul is not Jesus. But Paul knew (And knows!) Jesus, and was radically transformed by Him, and wrote significant parts of the New Testament.  The Pastoral Epistles help us fill in the gaps of the life of Paul, and also look at some issues around transition in leadership and the transmission of faith.
  6. It is vital to remember where in history these little letters fit. Jesus has ascended. The early disciples are dead or spread out. The Church is still new, reeling from Pentecost, and full of missionary zeal. The Pastoral Epistles give us an insight into this fascinating time.
  7. God speaks to us through Scripture. This has always been true, and if you ask God to illuminate the Pastoral Epistles, I honestly believe that the Holy Spirit will lead us afresh to deep and beautiful truth.

I’m excited to dig into Titus this term with our small group – alongside reading the book referenced above, and thinking and praying about some of these themes. Maybe more churches should dust off these little letters!

With the above in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Resilient by John Benton, a former pastor of the same church, which is a brilliant reflection on persistence in Christian ministry, mostly rooted in 2 Timothy…

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