Sound Doctrine, Good Morals (1 Timothy 1:8-11)

In order to illustrate what he means by “the disobedient, ungodly, and sinners,” Paul offers a sin-list. For the most part, this list is the standard sort of things that one expects.  Paul has two words for sexual sins.  The first covers a wide range of deviancy from norm, the second refers specifically to homosexuality (ἀρσενοκοίτης).  From BDAG:  “Paul’s strictures against same-sex activity cannot be satisfactorily explained on the basis of alleged temple prostitution. . .or limited to contract with boys for homoerotic service” Remarkably, “enslavers” is on the list (ἀνδραποδιστής). The word only appears here and might be translated as “kidnapper,” although in a first century context a person might be kidnapped in order to make them a slave.

1 Timothy

Remarkably, the final item in Paul’s list is “anything else that is contrary to sound doctrine.” Paul’s description of “sound doctrine” is “healthy” teaching (τῃ ὑγιαινούσῃ διδασκαλίᾳ).  This description of sound doctrine appears here and in 2 Tim 4:3 and Titus 1:9, 2:1; “sound words” in 1 Tim 6:3, 2 Tim 1:13, “sound in faith” in Titus 1:13, 2:2.

The definition of “sound doctrine” in verse 11 is “the gospel which was entrusted to Paul.” This is not unlike the sorts of things we read in other Pauline letters.  Paul frequently refers to being given the gospel as a sacred trust from God, his commission to preach the Gospel among the Gentiles is a calling from God.

To be “entrusted” with the Gospel is a critically important concept in 1 Timothy. Paul was entrusted with the gospel, he has passed that Gospel on to Timothy, and Timothy is now responsible for guarding that deposit of faith in the next generation. “Healthy Doctrine” is the only cure for the “unhealthy doctrine” of Paul’s opponents in Ephesus.  By teaching the truth, Timothy will expose the false in the “other gospel” which is being promoted in Paul’s churches.

I am rightFrequently in both letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus Paul emphasizes holding to the traditions which were already delivered to the church. This body of truth is called “sound doctrine” or “sincere faith” or simply “the truth.”  Timothy’s task included appointing good elders and deacons who will hold to the Gospel which was initially preached in the city and will be excellent examples of living out the Christian life so that outsiders will be attracted to the Gospel.

What is sometimes overlooked is Paul’s solution to the problems in Ephesus.  He does not recommend that more ecclesiastical structure be imposed on the local churches.  He tells Timothy to appoint qualified elders and deacons, but the qualifications are fidelity to Paul’s teaching and high moral commitments.

Unfortunately most Christians define “healthy doctrine” as “what I  believe” and bad doctrine as “what that church across the street believes.”  This is not at all what Paul has in mind here!  He has not created a 39 point doctrinal statement that has to be signed by all members of the church for them to be declared “orthodox.”  For Paul, the core of the Gospel is non-negotiable, but also a set of ethical parameters which work out the gospel in very practical ways.  Rather than declaring the Calvinist or Arminianism “right” or “wrong”, Paul ask if the Gospel is clearly preached, are the members of the  the congregation behaving in a way that brings honor to the Gospel.

I understand the importance of doctrinal statements (I sign several every year myself).  They help define communities of believers around a common set of beliefs.  But it is remarkable that conformity to the Gospel and proper ethical conduct are the two tests Paul set for Timothy when dealing with the opponents in Ephesus.

Do churches (or individuals) err by putting too much emphasis on either “sound doctrine” or “good morals”? If there a place for a “doctrinal statement,” what can be done to keep this statement from becoming more important than Scripture?

2 thoughts on “Sound Doctrine, Good Morals (1 Timothy 1:8-11)

  1. I think churches and individuals do err by putting too much emphasis on sound doctrine and good morals. While I think these things have there place and are important, the extent to which some churches and individuals emphasize these things leads to legalism. When churches are so rigidly set on the idea that their doctrine is the “right” doctrine, so much so that it causes conflict between them and other congregation with other “right” doctrines, this not exemplifying Christ’s, or Paul’s teachings. The body of Christ (regardless of denomination) are to be united in Jesus’ life and teachings. While it is to be expected for believers to interpret passages of Scriptures in different ways, this never should result in the types of severe disagreements it does. In the same way, while it is good to emphasize and encourage the church to live in a moral way, churches and individuals take this too far when their focus is on their actions and not God’s. To keep these things from becoming more important than Scripture, I do not believe it is necessary to “sign into” certain beliefs of a church, as you can attend a church with fellow believers and differ in your beliefs–that’s healthy! Doctrinal statements should be available for those who desire or need it, but should not be a necessity. Likewise, pastors should be continuously encouraging the church to read the Bible for themselves and earnestly seek God’s direction for it. When it comes down to, “Spiritual labor and striving is driven by “hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe” ([1 Tim.]4:10)” (TTP 279). I also think it is important to keep Paul’s comment that “We know the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim. 1:8), in mind when dealing with things like doctrinal statements or “good morals,” in order to avoid legalism.

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