1 Timothy 1:8-20 — How to Describe Opponents

Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus—Lesson 4 (1 Timothy 1:8–20)

by Reta Halteman Finger 

Opposition - falling rain and split road graphic

I have just received an email asking me to tell my representative in Congress to support the For the People Act. This bill “will make voting easier and more accessible, blot out the influence of corporate money in politics, and secure greater ethics and less corruption in our government.” But yesterday an email from another organization told me that the same bill “is a perfect recipe for voter fraud” because it “sabotages state voter ID laws, adds ineligible voters to voter rolls, and allows people to vote outside their precinct.”

Although both groups describing this act are Americans, their viewpoints could hardly be further apart. A similar division seems to be happening in the church to which our Pauline author belongs—although we only hear one side of the story. In the last lesson, we concentrated on the first seven verses of 1 Timothy.  Now we move forward with 1 Timothy 1:8-20.

It is not easy to reconstruct the problem the author has with “certain people” within the church. This letter must have been an “in-house” communication where the recipient(s) knew exactly what the writer was talking about. Not only is a faction of the church accused of teaching unorthodox doctrine (v. 3) and desiring to be “teachers of the law” (v. 7), but the author implies that his opponents are, to quote Jesus, “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:24).  In other words, they not only accuse the “innocent” —those agreeing with the author? — but ignore heinous acts that transgress many of the Ten Commandments as well as Roman law (1 Tim. 1:9-10).

According to Benjamin Fiore, 1 Timothy 1:3-20 comprises a typical Greco-Roman teaching device: first, attack your opponents by accusing them of bad doctrine and bad ethics (vv. 3-11). Then contrast them with the author, “Paul,” who used to be like them but has repented and received mercy to change (vv. 12-17). Last, name and condemn specific opponents who “are rejecting conscience,” and against whom Timothy should “fight the good fight” (vv. 18-20). (Fiore, Sacra Pagina, p. 45.)

Vice Lists in the New Testament

Part of this teaching technique described above includes a “vice list” in verses 9 and 10, a catalog of sins that no one would want to be accused of. Paul Zehr’s commentary identifies about fifteen vice lists in the entire New Testament, six in the undisputed letters of Paul, and four in the Pastoral Epistles (Believers Church Commentary, p. 42). But when Paul quotes a vice list in the undisputed letters, he is usually describing pagan gentiles outside the church—such as in Romans 1:28-32 or Galatians 5:19-21. However, in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 the context assumes that the author’s opponents are part of another faction within the church.

Some of the actions described here sound pretty extreme by both Jewish and Roman law—such as those who kill their own parents! (v. 9). In verse 10 we find “slave-traders,” a term I can find nowhere else in the New Testament. It follows “sodomites,” also used in the 1 Corinthians 6:9 vice list. The Greek word is arsenokoitais, which is a combination of “male” and “bed” and literally means “men who go to bed with males.” In ancient Rome, this always meant a socially superior man bedding down with his social inferior (Johnson, p. 132). This verse is one of the “clobber-texts” used by some Christians to exclude LGBTQ persons from church offices. Arsenokoitais “appears for the first time in all Greek literature in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and then here in 1 Timothy” (Huizenga, Wisdom Commentary, p. 6). According to David Frederickson (p. 221), the post-Pauline usage of this word meant “one who has a boy as an eromenos (pederasty).”

In my blog series on “Hermeneutics” on this CFT website, I examine each of the “clobber-texts.” William Stacy Johnson’s book, A Time to Embrace, brings together the terms “slave-trader” and arsenokoitais in 1 Timothy 1:10. Below, I quote from Lesson 19 in this hermeneutics series:

“Johnson discusses the lucrative and lively trade in boys that existed in Roman culture at that time. In their military campaigns, the Romans took many prisoners. They would often castrate the young male prisoners to keep them looking boyish as long as possible. Those who survived the mutilation were sold at the slave market for the arsenokoitais. Eventually, the Romans banned the practice, but it nevertheless persisted (p. 133). The string of terms in the vice-list [in 1 Timothy 1:10]—fornicators, men-who-have-sex-with-men, slave-traders—make this interpretation very likely.”

The description sounds like the author of 1 Timothy is accusing his opponents within the Ephesian churches of child sexual abuse. He may have exaggerated for polemical effect—but perhaps not. The recent revelations of persistent child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and by male leaders among Southern Baptists clue us in to what may be a long and sordid ecclesial history of shame and suffering by victims of the church.

Back to the “divine oikonomia”

All this must be seen within the scope of “divine training” or “divine oikonomia”—the concept of church order as household management (1 Tim. 1:4), as explained in lesson 3. One charge the author levels against his “lawless” opponents in 1:9 is disobedience (anupotaktos in Greek). It can also be rendered “unruly,” “insubordinate,” or “rebellious.” Huizenga notes that the Greek verb for the opposite of disobedience is upotasso, meaning “I submit to” or “I am subordinate to” (Wisdom Commentary p. 5). We will find this verb in later chapters of both 1 Timothy and Titus.

The metaphor of the church as a Roman household will pervade 1 Timothy. Major questions will be: how closely does this description of church organization conform to Roman ideals of household management? Or, is the hierarchical aspect blunted by the stated aim in 1:5 of “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith”? How should we interpret and apply this message for our churches today?


Questions for discussion or reflection

  1. We hear only one side of this church fight. Do you think the author exaggerates the sins of his opponents for polemical effort, or not?
  1. Issues of lying, perjury, fornication (extra-marital sex), and sex slavery (1 Tim. 1:10) are much in our news today. What attitude should American churches and Christians take toward political and religious leaders who break such moral and judicial laws?


Sources used:

Fiore, Benjamin, S. J. The Pastoral Epistles. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 12. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.

Frederickson, David. “Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27:  Paul and the Philosophic Critique of Eros,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, edited by David L. Balch (Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 197-222).

Huizenga, Annette. 1-2 Timothy Titus. Wisdom Commentary, Vol. 53. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Johnson, William Stacy. A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.

Zehr, Paul M. 1 & 2 Timothy Titus. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010.


Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.