First and Second Timothy and Titus are usually described as “pastoral epistles.” The standard view of these three letters is that Paul is writing to individuals who he has placed in a leadership position overseeing churches. Paul Anton first called these three books as pastoral epistles by in 1726. The description has become so common that nearly every commentator on the books has described the letters as “church manuals” or “advice to young pastors.” This assumption is rarely questioned.
In the traditional view of these letters, young Timothy has taken on additional responsibilities as a superintendent over several churches planted by Paul. First Timothy is therefore letter is personal advice to Timothy on how to organize the church, as well as other ministry related issues.The second letter written to Timothy is to ask him to come to him in Rome, and to bring Mark with him, but the pastoral emphasis is still the main theme. In Titus, the content is very similar to First Timothy, elders are described, and various potential problems are addressed.
Gordon Fee, however, has called the description of these three letters as “Pastoral Epistles” into question. As Fee notes, if these are “church manuals” they are not particularly effective ones. We end up with far more questions about the church after reading them! It seems hard to believe that such a wide variety of church structures and styles would all call upon these letters to validate their own church practice, if in fact Paul intended them to be read as “manuals for doing church.” Furthermore, he states “It is a mistaken notion to view Timothy or Titus as model pastors for a local church. The letters simply have no such intent” (147)
The key, for Fee, is to read seriously what Paul about his reason for writing the letters in 1 Timothy 1:5 and 3:15. In the light of Paul’s speech to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20:17-35, it would appear that the purpose of the letters might very well to be false teachers in the Ephesian community.
1 Timothy 1:3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer
1 Timothy 3:15 …if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
Acts 20:30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
These verses do not concern organizing the churches from scratch, as if Paul has done just a bit of church planting and Timothy is sent in to finish the job, like a modern evangelist with a followup team. There seems to be a serious false teaching that has caused the church at Ephesus serious problems. The problem is internal (Acts 20:30), people from the inside have begun to teach things opposed to Paul’s message. As Fee puts it, “What we learn about church order in 1 Timothy is not so much organizational as reformational” (146).
This observation may help with the most difficult problem of 1 Timothy. If Fee is correct and the problem is straying elders, does this effect the way we look at the list of qualifications for elders? What about the prohibition of woman teaching and exercising authority in 1 Timothy 2:11-12?
Bibliography: Gordon D. Fee, “Reflections On Church Order In The Pastoral Epistles, With Further Reflection On The Hermeneutics Of Ad Hoc Documents.” JETS 28 (1985): 141-151.