by Reta Halteman Finger
You can be grateful your high school English teacher never asked you to outline 1 Timothy 6:3-21, the closing paragraphs of this letter! The topics skip around and mostly relate to what our author has discussed before; but in two non-consecutive paragraphs, he touches on a new topic: economics.
An overview of the passage
First, let me pretend I’m that high school student trying to outline 1 Timothy 6:3-21.
A. 6:3-5a—repeated attacks on the opponents involved in the conflict within the Ephesian church, similar to the author’s criticisms in 1:9-10; 19-20, and 4:1-3. See Lessons 4 and 10.
B. 6:5b-10—a new topic regarding the opponents’ financial attitudes and aspirations. Their desire to be rich (v. 9) is driving them away from the faith. Don’t love money!
C. 6:11-16—final instructions for Timothy and probably for any “man of God” in a leadership capacity in the church. God and Jesus Christ (vv. 14-16) receive honorific titles that the Romans granted to Zeus and their emperor: “Sovereign,” and “King of kings and Lord of lords.” The hymnic language suggests this charge was used in a formal baptism or ordination service. Both Annette Huizenga and Jouette Bassler argue for ordination, since the language implies experienced leadership, not the newly baptized (Huizenga, pp. 91-92; Bassler, pp. 112-114).
D. 6:17-19—cautions about wealth for rich Christians in the church (not the opponents). Be generous benefactors for a future reward!
E. 6:20-21—a final warning to Timothy to “guard what has been entrusted to you.”
Who is the “man of God”?
As our author closes his letter, we find no jarring departures from his previous instructions. I will highlight two issues where he again seems to accept Roman social conventions over against counter-cultural teachings in the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s undisputed letters.
The first, on gender (in)equality, can be inferred from 6:11-16, where a “man of God” (anthrope theu) is charged to “fight the good fight of faith” and live a blameless life (v. 12). Bassler argues that the term “man of God,” used only here and in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, implies church leadership (p. 113). Originating in the Old Testament, it refers to men in special leadership roles, such as Moses, David, Samuel, and other prophets. Including only men is consistent with the author’s assertion in 2:12 permitting “no woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” Despite Chloe’s leadership (1 Cor 1:11), and women praying and prophesying publicly in Paul’s Corinthian churches (11:5), 1 Timothy does not encourage women’s ordination.
The inclusive language NRSV translates the Greek anthrope theu as “man of God,” assuming the author is addressing only men. But anthropos is generic human, meaning “person,” rather than aner (male). This leaves feminists an interpretive wedge to argue for women’s ordination as well!
The use and love of money
The second issue concerns economics and wealth. Here we learn that opponents in the ongoing church fight believe their faith can help them get rich (1 Tim. 6:5,9). However, the author provides no examples. Is he primarily warning others in the church not to fall into such temptation (vv. 9-10)? The fact that the “prosperity gospel” still thrives today indicates the persistence of such twisted theology. We can agree with our author that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” because we see how it pervades our current capitalist, free-market economy. (Note that this love of money is “a root of all evil,” not “the root…” as the KJV mistakenly translated it.)
But would our author also affirm Jesus’s words about the antidote to such love of money? A reading in a recent worship service at my church was Luke 14:25-33. Jesus ends this discourse on economics with the harsh statement: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v. 33; see also Matthew 19:16-30, Luke 19:1-10, and many other Gospel texts.)
It becomes obvious in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 that the author does not share Jesus’s perspective on wealth. Here he addresses certain church members as “those who are rich.” They apparently do not use “godliness as a means of gain” (v. 5) because they are already rich! They are probably the “believing masters” of those enslaved in 6:1-2, and their wives are the women of 2:9 who wear fine clothes and jewelry! But it’s okay to be rich so long as you are not haughty, don’t expect riches to save you, and share generously (vv. 17-18).
How should Christians share wealth?
That advice makes sense to those of us today who are comfortably well off. But verse 19 seems problematic. The goal of being generous is not necessarily for the economic good of the Christian community; it is storing up a good future for oneself! Such logic is reminiscent of Roman patronage (see Lesson 15) where those of high status do favors for persons socially beneath them for the purpose of receiving public praise and thus enhancing their own reputations.
This arrangement is a far cry from Luke’s description in Acts 2-6 of the early Jerusalem church and its practice of a community of goods, so that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34; see Finger pp.220-245). Nor does it sound like the widows’ collective around Tabitha in Acts 9:36-43 or the similar arrangements hinted at in 1 Timothy 5:16 (see Lesson 13). Nor does it sound like Paul’s concern over the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 where he castigates “all who eat and drink without discerning the body” of Christ.
But many Christians in America today would reject the “socialism” described in the above paragraph as impractical—maybe even Communist! Christian churches in the high-income countries of the world have usually preferred the economic instructions of 1 Timothy over the more radical teachings and practices of Jesus and the early church.
The letter ends with final words for Timothy. Keep “the faith” and be suspicious of “what is falsely called knowledge.” Grace be with you.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Do you have a personal theology of wealth? What does your church teach about money?
- What position does your church hold on women’s ordination?
- After studying 1 Timothy, what are your overall impressions? What do you believe about authorship? How different is this letter from Paul’s undisputed letters?
Bassler, Jouette. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Finger, Reta Halteman. Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. See especially Ch. 12, “The Intentional Community: An Exegesis of Acts 2:41-47.” Pp. 220-245.
Huizenga, Annette. 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Wisdom Commentaries. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.