In my previous post on 1 Timothy, I stated that you cannot really guess who these opponents are based on Paul’s four statements in 1 Tim 4:1-2. He does give us more to go on in verses 3-4. At the very least, we can say that the opponents in Ephesus are teaching some kind of ascetic practice that rejects (at least) two things that are good things created by God to be enjoyed. Since both are embedded in the creation story, it is possible that the opponents rejected the creation story or thought that the created world was somehow corrupt. This is the sort of thing that will eventually develop into Gnosticism, but I do not think that the opponents were Gnostic.
They abstain from some foods. Paul gives little detail here, but we know that what food one ate (or did not eat) was an important topic in the first century. There are many examples of both Jewish and Christian groups which abstained from foods either because of the Law or because that food was sacrificed to idols. The opponents are not simply abstaining from certain foods themselves, but they are teaching others that they also must abstain, perhaps in order to achieve a higher level of spiritual enlightenment.
They forbid marriage. While Paul does see value in celibacy for some in God’s service, he is quite clear in 1 Cor 7 that marriage is good, designed by God and something that ought to be celebrated. It is not clear what the opponents are forbidding, in the following section of the letter Paul advises that younger widows remarry, so it is at least possible that the prohibition is on remarriage after the death of a spouse.
Both food and sexual relationships are difficult topics in the first (and twenty-first) century. It is possible that these opponents are part of what will develop eventually into Gnosticism.
Paul’s argument is that God created both food and marriage and they are therefore good and cannot be rejected. Paul grounds his teaching in the Jewish view that God created food in the Garden to be enjoyed. In the case of food, Gen 9:3 declares that all food is permitted. The Gentile is not under the law (which forbids some foods), so to reject some foods in order to be “more spiritual” is not biblical. It is possible that there are some foods that ought to be rejected on health reasons, but modern ideas of vegetarian or vegan diet are far from what Paul has in mind here. The opponents seem to equate abstaining from some foods as a sign of spirituality.
Likewise, marriage is embedded in the created order and is to be celebrated as something good created by God. There are other elements of this “creation mandate” which may have been rejected, such as the value of work, but these are the two which Paul must prove “good” to Timothy (and the congregations) from scripture.
Both food and marriage are celebrated in the Hebrew Bible. Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 is an example of this: “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” This means that you ought to eat, drink, and be merry! There is nothing in the Wisdom literature which says that God’s people of any age ought to reject good things created by God.
This may be a hint at the theology of the opponents. It is possible they think that material, created things are corrupted by sin. In the Greco-Roman world food and sexual excess were commonly associated. If one is going to be spiritual, one cannot go to the banquets and indulge in gluttony and fornication. In order to guard against these things, the opponents reject enjoyment of food and sex altogether!
For Paul, both food and marriage ought to be enjoyed when they are received with “thanksgiving and prayer.” He stands on the rich tradition of the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible and states that Christians ought to enjoy the good gifts that God has given.