The Pastoral Epistles of Paul

By Charles R Erdman



The New Testament letters which bear the names of Timothy and of Titus have been styled, for at least a century, "The Pastoral Epistles." This title distinguishes them from letters like James and First John, which were written to Christians in general, from others like Philippians and Colossians, which were addressed to certain churches, or from strictly personal communications such as Philemon.

These letters were directed to men who were in charge of Christian congregations; they contain many personal elements, yet they are essentially of an official character and designed to guide pastors in their care of churches. They are, therefore, properly called "The Pastoral Epistles," both because of their content and by way of eminence, for there exist elsewhere no comparable guides in pastoral service. That these letters were written by Paul, in the last years of his life, need not be doubted. It is true that in recent years, for the first time, this authorship has been questioned. One reason assigned has been the difficulty of finding a place for the writing of these letters in the life of the apostle as it. is recorded in The Acts. To find such a place is more than difficult; it is impossible; for the historic and personal references contained in these letters show that they must have been composed in a period subsequent to that treated by Luke. It will be remembered that his narrative closes with mention of an imprisonment of two years' duration suffered by Paul in Rome. The Pastoral Epistles seem to show that the great apostle subsequently was released, as he had expected, and as his Roman judges admitted he deserved; and that he continued his travels and his care of the churches. Any other view is a mere supposition with little, if any, support.

The exact order of events cannot be determined definitely; but it appears that in resuming his missionary journeys Paul realized his expressed purpose of revisiting the churches in Asia Minor, possibly even of journeying westward to Spain; that he went to Crete, where he left Titus to care for the infant church, that on his way to Macedonia he commissioned Timothy to take charge of the Christian community in Ephesus, that on his journey to Nicopolis he wrote the instructions contained in the First Epistle to Timothy and in the Epistle to Titus, that he was subsequently arrested and wrote the Second Epistle to Timothy from his dungeon in Rome, where, soon after, he suffered the martyrdom which this last letter plainly foretold.

As the title and occasion of these Pastoral Epistles clearly indicate, their substance consists chiefly in directions to ministers relative to the organization and doctrine and life of the Christian Church. These three themes are more or less prominent in all of these letters; yet a different subject appears to be emphasized specifically in each of the three epistles, and in this exact order: in First Timothy, Church organization holds the chief place; Second Timothy lays the stress upon sound doctrine; Titus dwells upon the promotion of consistent Christian life. This order is logical; it forms a climax; it bears a message. Church government is not an end in itself; it is of value only as it secures sound doctrine; and doctrine is of value only as it issues in life.

The form of Church government outlined in the Pastoral Epistles is not described in detail; nor does its exact counterpart seem to exist in any modern form of ecclesiastical polity, whether Episcopal or Presbyterian or Congregational. Probably the nearest approach to it is found to-day in certain mission fields where considerable elasticity and liberty are allowed temporarily in adopting an accepted form or organization to the needs of infant churches.

The main features of the system, however, are clearly marked. Evidently the chief place was held by inspired apostles who had been appointed by Christ and who were the official witnesses of his resurrection.

Timothy and Titus appear to have served as delegates of the Apostle Paul, and as commissioned to represent him in the accomplishment of definite and temporary tasks. They were not apostles, but rather pastors and spiritual leaders, and their activities did not seem to interfere with the self-government of the Christians among whom they sojourned.

In each local church the duties of oversight and of teaching devolved upon a group of officers variously designated as "elders" or "presbyters" or "bishops" or "overseers." All of these were on a perfect equality, and the amount of their salary was proportioned to their fidelity and service. As to their choice and ordination, and discipline, special instructions were given by Paul.

There existed also a secondary ministry, namely that of the "deacon," possibly also of the "deaconess"; but the exact functions of these officers are not made clear, although it is commonly supposed that they were entrusted with the care of the poor and with the temporal affairs of the Church.

The high personal qualifications requisite for both these latter offices of "elder" and "deacon" are strongly emphasized by pointing out the grave responsibility of the Christian Church as the appointed guardian of the sacred deposit of revealed truth.

Thus in the Pastoral Epistles the maintenance of sound doctrine is ever regarded as the chief purpose of Church government. This doctrine appears to have been endangered by prevalent forms of false teaching. The exact character of these heresies cannot be determined. Evidently they were Jewish in their origin, and consisted largely in vain speculations upon Old Testament law and history, in fruitless discussions of casuistry, and in Hebrew myths and rabbinical legends.

Many readers believe that these false teachings included certain elements of Oriental philosophy and mysticism which developed into the Gnostic theories of the second century. These theories taught that matter is essentially evil; therefore, the world could not have been created by God but was brought into being by one in a long series of spirits or aeons which emanated from him; a place among these emanations was assigned to Christ, and a reference to the series is supposed to be found in "the endless genealogies" of which Paul speaks in these Epistles. These theories taught further that as matter was evil, there was no wrong in either the abuse or the indulgence of the body.

Now it is true that the errors which Timothy and Titus were to combat do include both false asceticism and lawlessness; it is further true that they may have had heathen elements; yet their essential nature seems to have been largely that of allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament Scriptures and speculation upon the requirements of Jewish law.

Beyond all question the real peril in these teachings lay in their lack of any practical moral purpose and in their definite tendency to result either in bodily austerity or in license. Such teachings Timothy and Titus were to oppose by sound doctrine which would secure sane and holy living.

The supreme interest of the Pastoral Epistles, therefore, is moral, ethical, practical. Their great purpose is to produce purity, godliness, holiness, service, love. The errors they combat recur in every age. There is always danger that religion may degenerate into mere idle speculation, into the vapors of theological and philosophical debate, or on the other hand, into a set of external, arbitrary rules and laws of conduct.

Real religion is a matter of motive, of conviction, of determination, and of belief, and it cannot fail to express itself in kindly words and in worthy deeds. An intelligent acceptance of the great Christian verities will inevitably transform character and mold conduct. True faith in a living Christ will surely issue in a life of worship and service and love.

Herein, then, is the abiding value of the Pastoral Epistles, namely, in their insistence upon consistent Christian living, in their inspiration to holiness, in their guidance toward God.

It is true that they possess unique interest for all who are concerned in the vexed problems of church organization. Aside from the teaching of these little letters, those problems can never be solved. They are the inspired manual for the order of the Christian Church.

It is also true that it is easy to underrate their importance in matters of Christian faith. They contain great classic passages which like precious gems flash forth the radiance of revealed truth.

However, their supreme glory lies in the fact that they continually remind us that truth is in order to godliness, that "the grace of God hath appeared bringing salvation to all men, instructing us, to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly and righteously and godly in this present world; looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works."