What are the Pastoral Epistles?

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 Reverand LovejoyTimothy 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.

21 thoughts on “What are the Pastoral Epistles?

  1. The same question came to my mind when reading 1 Timothy along with Polhill. If Paul was writing to specific problems that the church at Ephesus was facing, is there application for Christians today about female pastors and women in authority? Thinking about it in this way was a new concept to me. From a personal experience with this at my church, we had an influential man take his entire family out of our church because a woman read scripture in front of the church before leading choruses. His reasoning was that by reading scripture, she was over setting her boundaries as being a woman in the church. Is that what Paul was saying? I tend to think it is not so. Because Paul is writing to specific problems, I lean more towards thinking that we should not be so black and white on the issue of women in authority. “In their social context the women would have had little formal education and were scarcely qualified to teach. Paul wanted the women to be educated, so he urged them to sit quietly in the assembly and learn” (Polhill, 410). With the social context in mind, I wonder to what extent Paul would want modern day readers to take his message from 1 Timothy about women exercising authority in the church and apply it to the modern church.

  2. When thinking about this issue of women in the church, I thought of the book The Pastor by Eugene Peterson, He tells a story of his mother being a teacher to the lumberjacks to the community. she was reaching out to these men that needed God and she helped bring these men to faith in Christ. But with this, one of the men in the church said that she was not Biblical and needed to stop what she was doing. I was thinking while reading this Post, What would Paul say about this lady spreading the Gospel to these people? would he say stop because that is not your place? I do not think that this is what Paul is saying at all. If we are to say that, then i think that is contradicting what Christ wants us all to do as his children in spreading the Gospel to all nations. I do think that Paul is addressing a specific issue that this church is dealing with but on the other hand, it is really hard to say that if someone, man or woman, are help further the Gospel and people are now one with Christ, how could we say that God cant use that if it is a woman?

  3. In Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus he was addressing a specific problem in the churches. They are not necessarily supposed to be taken as a manual for the organization of the church. If we look at the letters more like helpful tips or information and less of a manual, then certain issues that Paul addresses are not taken quite so literally. One of these issues is the issue of women leadership in the church. Women leadership is a controversial topic for most churches and sometimes causes divisions and rifts between people in churches. This was not Paul’s intentions when writing to Timothy or Titus. In Titus he even talks about not letting mindless controversy divide the church. Polhill says, “What concerned Paul most was not the actual content of their teaching but their divisiveness. He urged Titus to shun such people who tore up the fellowship” (Polhill, 420).

  4. I would have to agree with Aubree. I feel that many times if we would look at Paul’s letters more as tips or information rather than a manual on how to do things then vs would not taken in Christ a literal text, and may cause so much issue in the churches today. During a missionary conference back home there was a man that stood up during one of the women missionary reports and proceeded to read about the women in the church speaking in front of the church. I don’t feel that women speaking in front of the church is as serious an issue as what some people the church make it to be, and if we would take some of what Paul says in his letters and use them as information or tips instead of manuals this may create less issue and tension in the churches today. Paul says for women to sit quietly so that they will learn, there needs to be a point of application as well.

  5. I have always been told growing up that the Timothy books and that Titus are church manuals. I disagree with fee in saying that the church manuals are not effective. I think that they touch on major issues that happened in the church during that time and that are happening in the church. I think that many of things that Paul wrote about are still issues that go on in the churches today and can be applied so for fee to say that they are not effective manuals is wrong. The letters are what started the church and to run the church the way that Jesus wanted it and intended it to be run so we should follow the letters and apply them into our churches so that it will be more effective. I don’t see that there is a problem with elders straying due to the problem in 1 Timothy.

  6. I know quite a few people that look to the pastoral epistles strictly as church manuals. This can be a dangerous take on the letters, because it makes us take them out of context. Paul was writing specifically to Timothy and Titus, and with writing that specifically, some specific issues and problems came up that they were dealing with. Some of these issues are applicable to what goes on in different churches today, and others may not apply to certain churches. All scripture is God breathed and useful, but we must be careful not to take certain things out of context.

  7. I would have to agree with adomisc that we should look at the letters as more helpful tips than a manual. Back then Paul was addressing more of an issue back then than now. This is a big issue for many churches, was it more that Paul was saying that females shouldn’t have a voice in the church at all? Or was it more that it was an issue back then that Paul had to address. From my experience I have learned more from a female pastor than a male pastor in my life. With that from what Paul writes that females shouldn’t have a voice in the church, should I stop listening to female pastors that I have learned a lot from? No because I believe that Paul was writing on the one issue back then, and that we should look more towards the Pastoral Epistles as more helpful tips rather than having a manual in today’s world.

  8. That’s the big issue isn’t. What in the bible is application for us and what is there to be learned from? The hardest thing is trying to figure out what in this bible old hefty book, applies to use today, and what applied sole to the particular people in the stories written. The prohibition of woman teaching in the Church, has been something that has not bothered me. I believe that women shouldn’t be pastors, and that is because I have taken that verse as a reference verse of application to all churches everywhere every since that was written. Some things in the bible are meant to be taken that way. Take Jesus’ death of the cross for example it is something that applies directly to every human being. Then for example you dietary laws, or the general civil laws that Israel had to follow in the Old Testament (Deut 24:10-11). My ‘go to’ is to make sure the reason I am implementing the teaching of scripture in my life is not because someone told me, but because I have stressed searching the issue out with God and whether or not it matters, and whether or not I need to be seeing it (prohibition of woman) a certain way. Since this came up in a blog post I am going to continue to search and wrestle with God for what the text means.

  9. If we read the passage about women in the end of chapter 2 of 1 Timothy, in the context of today, it seems very demeaning and terrible. This is a passage that is very important to read within the context of the time that it was written. Polhill explains why Paul said that “women should learn in quietness and full submission” and why they should not exercise a position of authority over a man on page 410, “Quite possibly the false teachers were using the women to propagate their own erroneous views… In their social context the women would have had little formal education and were scarcely qualified to teach. Paul wanted the women to be educated…” After reading this, I feel more comfortable with this passage. In the context of today’s culture, I think if a man is straying or not being noble and wise with his knowledge, that if needed, a woman can stand up and say something and teach what is right. I say this because women, at least in America, have plenty of resources and mentors that they can learn from, not to mention the Bible! Most women can read and write and are able to teach effectively. However, I do think the men should be the leaders they are called to be and stand up and teach and guide the way God has called them to, and we as women are to support them and help them and learn along with them.

  10. These three letters were not written by Paul. This fact is almost universally accepted by those who have looked into the question in detail.

    • I would think a guy who argues Timothy and Titus are the same person would be more open to “outside the consensus” ideas.

      I am perfectly happy to see the letters as created by Paul’s larger circle sometime after his death, perhaps based on authentic teaching but that does not really matter (and is probably impossible to prove). The same might be said for Ephesians or Colossians, obviously.

      However, as you say, it is an “almost universal” consensus. There is some evidence the plausible re-construction is possible, 1 Clement 5:6-7, for example.

      It is better to discuss 2 Timothy separately, which I do not do in the post above.

  11. I found this post pretty interesting because although they are called pastoral epistles by tradition how much of it does apply? Which seems heretical to question the authority of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:15-16). However, does God really not want women to teach or lead? Are women disqualified to be a part of the great commission (Matt. 28:16-20). Why would God pick Deborah to be the Judge of Israel? What about Lydia, Mary Magdalene, and Priscilla? They all had God-given roles that had a form of leadership and teaching/preaching the Gospel to others.

    I would be eager to find out how the proposed false teaching Paul is writing to Timothy in Ephesus connects with the validity of how we read Paul’s take on women and their roles. It seems in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 Paul is promoting women and encouraging them to live right and modestly, yet, he says to be quiet and submissive…Paul does not “permit” that women teach over men (1 Tim. 2:11). I think this gives a clue as to how this can apply to readers today. Paul did not permit these things for women in their cultural context. So what is the history of this church? If we find more out about that could we not find the principle that applies to today? As stated before, God seems to not deem women ineffective and only good for childbearing. These women were given leadership roles and taught/preached to others.

    Longenecker states, “Paul charges Timothy, even as he did prior to his departure to Macedonia in northern Greece, to remain in Ephesus to combat the teaching of false doctrines, myths, and endless genealogies…” (TTP 275)

    We know Timothy was having some issues of intimidation (2 Tim. 1:7). So perhaps women in his church at Ephesus were taking the lead and promoting false doctrine?

  12. If Fee is correct, then I don’t necessarily think that it would change how 1 Tim 2:11-12 is perceived. If there is a downfall of elders in the church, then we still can look at 2:11-12 the same way as before. However, when looking at 1 Tim 2:11-12, there are many different views on what exactly Paul is saying in those verses. So, it comes down more to what we believe Paul is saying about women. This does not mean that if the problem is straying elder, it effects how we view and read these verses.

    • Rachel Smith

      “If Fee is correct and the problem is straying elders, does this affect the way we look at the prohibition of woman teaching and exercising authority in 2:11-12?” (P. Long, blog-What are the Pastoral Epistles?) If what we read in first Timothy is indeed reformational, then that does affect the way we look at Paul’s instructions for women. It would therefore seem that Paul’s list of instructions for women is more of a ‘get-back-on-track’ plan, than a straight-up directive. This would make many who don’t like this part of Paul’s teaching happier because it sounds nicer than taking the instructions at face value. We do need to remember, however, that cultural context is important to help us correctly understand this passage of Scripture. According to TTP, this makes a difference: “The instructions given to women in 1 Tim 2:8 – 15 are decidedly contextual” (TTP, 277).

  13. Fee brings up a great point especially to new believers and may arise many questions within them. I think even for believers today it is important to see that there will be elders who are not following correct doctrines and teachings out there, and it teaches us to be more discerning of who gets to be in which position. I think the requirements for elders is still very important to look at. Since they are in leadership in the church, they must be held accountable for higher standards as they help lead the body of Christ.
    As for the issue of women, Longenecker addresses this with three brief observations. He reminds us in one of those that 1 Timothy 2:8-15 are “decidedly contextual” (277). He also unpacks how many of the women in the church in were the ones introducing false teaching and influencing the body in the wrong fashion (277). The author of 1 Timothy had to address this issue, and it seems as if this passage is solely about their situation in Ephesian church.
    But we still do find examples of women leading in the church with great respect and authority. Phoebe is an example of a trustworthy deacon, and looked upon with much respect (Longenecker 278). It is important to note that with both the subject of false teachers and women as leaders, one person can make a bad reputation for the whole team, and not all are necessarily fitting into one category that they are corrupt and not trustworthy.

  14. The Pastoral Epistles are forgeries. It has to be said loud and clear. It is irresponsible of you, Phillip, to write about these letters as if Paul wrote them. It’s shameful, really. It is not as though the arguments are finely balanced. They are not. I have seen nothing more cringe-worthy than Fee’s attempt to justify why he clung to the view that Paul was the author.

    • I am not happy with the word forgery, because of the modern wholly negative connotation of the word. I know it is a popular way to describe the pastorals and makes for a good book sales if you are Bart Ehrman. If they do come from the next generation of the church, they are pseudepigraphic, a disciple writing in the style of their master in order to apply their teacher’s doctrine to the present generation. I reviewed Robert Wall’s Pastoral Epistles Commentary,

      As Wall points out in the introduction to the commentary, the Paul of the Pastorals is not the “historical Paul,” but rather the “canonical Paul.” Even though the evidence against the traditional view that Paul was not the author of the pastorals fails to convince Wall, he considers authorship more or less irrelevant for reading the Pastoral Epistles. The letters were included in the canon based on the practical use of the letters and the intuitive judgments of early Christians. It is not necessary, for example, to worry about the problem of comparing the early letters of Paul, Acts and Paul’s biographical statements in 1 Tim 1:12-13. The description of God’s grace in Paul’s life is the “canonical Paul.” Questions of authenticity are not helpful since these letters are included in the Canon and ought to be read in the light of the rest of the Canon.

      Here is the whole review.

      This might not satisfy you either, but it is less that Fee’s defense of the traditional view and better than Ehrman’s Forged!

  15. In a comment on your recent post on Ephesians you wrote:
    “As it happens, there are no examples of authentic letters with false attributions, pseudonyms are only used in forgeries.”

    But now you write:
    “I am not happy with the word forgery, because of the modern wholly negative connotation of the word. I know it is a popular way to describe the pastorals and makes for a good book sales if you are Bart Ehrman. If they do come from the next generation of the church, they are pseudepigraphic, a disciple writing in the style of their master in order to apply their teacher’s doctrine to the present generation.”

    This seems contradictory. Are you open to the possibility that the author of the Pastorals had intent to deceive, or not? And why do you refer to the author of the Pastorals as “Paul” in the body of your blog posts?

    Wall here seems to take it as axiomatic that the Pastorals should be included in the cannon, but that is the very question at hand. He writes:
    “The letters were included in the canon based on the practical use of the letters and the intuitive judgments of early Christians.”
    The “practical use of the letters” for the early Christians was, in part, to oppress women. When you write to your students as if Paul wrote the Pastorals you are being complicit in their sexist lies, however much you try to reduce the impact of the un-Pauline passages.

    • “When you write to your students as if Paul wrote the Pastorals you are being complicit in their sexist lies”

      Here is the source of our disagreement, whether “historical Paul” wrote them or not, I am treating them as canonical. I can assume Paul wrote them or I can assume he did not write them. In either case I am trying to read them as a part of the Canon therefore I have to deal with their contents as have some authority for Christian practice. You don’t and that is OK.

      I do not think the purpose of 1 Timothy is to oppress women, even if that is the use the later Christians made of them. As I think I am clear on later in this series, (whoever wrote 1 Timothy) I do not think it is mean to silence all women for all time in every sort of sort if situation. Christians who teach that sort of thing are as wrong as Christians who claimed the Bible gave them authority for the crusades or slavery (or to make this more contemporary, Christians who think the Bible teaches the earth is flat or vaccinations are evil). Saying 1 Timothy is canonical requires me to deal with the hard passages, saying it is a forgery allows me to dismiss it as ancient misogyny without any more thought. Similarly, I do not think Philemon was written to perpetuate the evil practice of slavery. It might have done so in some contexts, but that is a gross misunderstanding of slavery in the Roman Empire. I am not complicit to the evils of American slavery or human trafficking in the world today when I refer to Paul as the author of Philemon.

      FWIW, I have written quite a bit on 1 Enoch on this blog. I refer to Enoch as having visions and writing things down, etc. But I am quite aware there is no way Enoch wrote anything and that all of Enochic literature is pseudepigraphic. It is simply convenient to refer to Enoch because the document refers to him. This is the same sort of thing one finds in Luke/Acts, or the Gospel of John. Obviously there is nothing in the document itself that says “Luke wrote Acts,” but it is more convenient to write “Luke claims thus and such” than using the nebulous “the author of Acts.” You can follow Ernest Best in his Ephesians commentary and call the writer AE (author of Ephesians), but the “assumed author” of the Pastorals is is Paul, so I am happy to use that designation.

  16. Here you are simply assuming your own conclusion that it is OK for you to treat the Pastorals as canonical. Your prior decision to treat them as canonical or authoritative is a decision to be complicit in their lies. That is not OK.

    You are still promoting the idea that authoritative scripture rightly silences women, even if you limit the scope of that silencing. Even if your exegesis were convincing to your audiences, you would still be putting the women in Paul’s churches in a negative light. You malign women in the church of Ephesus by saying that they (and not apparently the men) had succumbed to the influence of false teachers (and should keep quiet and presumably have babies). I’m guessing that you explain away Eph 5:22 and Col 3:18 by suggesting that Paul is dealing with specific local problems in those churches. You also write that two women were in conflict in Philippi and needed a man to intervene. This is not the case: see my ZNW article, which you can access from my blog. Your students will get the impression that women in Paul’s churches frequently needed to be corrected, but it is just not true. Your approach simply does not work. For example, your university sports programs are lead by men. Even the women’s programs! And while your university website is down, I was able to learn that all its presidents have been men! And your church’s website has four men at the top.

    Yes, people often refer to the author of Acts as “Luke” for convenience, but that is not the same thing as what you are doing with the Pastorals. Firstly, we have good evidence that Acts was written by Lucius (Rom 16:21) and Luke is just the abbreviated form of Lucius. Secondly, there is much more at steak in the case of the Pastorals since they claim to be written by Paul. Given that the issue of authorship is so important in the case of the Pastorals, your audience will expect you to prioritize clarity over convenience and name the author accordingly. Thirdly, writers who do not think that Luke wrote Acts, but refer to the author as “Luke” will say in their in their introductions that they are using the term “Luke” as a short-hand for “author of Acts”. In your recent round of blog posts you have not even touched on the issue of authorship of the Pastorals. If you are undecided on the author of the Pastorals you need to be clear with your readers on that. Otherwise you are deceiving them. Often blog posts are read in isolation, especially when they are found through google. You should therefore state at the beginning of each blog post on the Pastorals that Paul’s authorship is rejected even by conservative specialists.

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