Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 11 (1 Timothy 4:6-16)
by Reta Halteman Finger
Today I am giving blood at our local Red Cross Blood Donation Center. An email sends me pages of instructions and warnings, with voluminous questions to answer before I arrive. The Red Cross wants to make sure my blood will not harm a recipient. Such instruction is necessary but limited to one specific context. Will the instructions in 1 Timothy 4:6-16 be any more relevant or helpful to readers beyond its original context?
An overview of 1 Timothy 4:6-16
Writing in Paul’s name, our author is not writing to me or you. After attacking opponents in Ephesian churches in the previous paragraph (4:1-5; see Lesson 10), he then addresses only his mentee “Timothy” and provides some specific instructions. As the leader of the church in Ephesus, Timothy must keep “the faith” (4:6) and work hard like an athlete preparing for a race (4:8). Despite his youth, Timothy’s speech and conduct should set an example for everyone else in the church (4:12). Timothy has the gift of teaching, so when the church gathers, he should have scripture read and then explained, as in traditional Jewish practice (4:13, 14a). He should “progress” in his leadership of teaching and preaching because he has been ordained to do so “through prophecy with the laying on of hands” (4:14, 15). If he continues doing this, he will save both himself and his hearers (4:16).
I will be referring to the following commentators who both illuminate and challenge these instructions to Timothy: Thomas Long, Jouette Bassler, and Annette Huizenga.
Tradition and training
Timothy has been “nourished” in the faith with sound teaching (4:6). According to Thomas Long, the Greek word for “nourished” means “to be reared by,” which implies a sense of tradition connecting the faith of those gone before and the generations still to come (pp. 128-129).
The athletic metaphor of physical training in verse 7 implies that “godliness” also demands training. In the context of 4:1-5, it means disassociating from the opponents and learning to appreciate the goodness of creation (4:4). But Long also finds current applications. He emphasizes that true godliness, along with “love, faith, and purity” (4:12b), takes practice—especially when we are called to love those who hate and persecute us (p. 131). To illustrate, Long speaks of having seen videos “of civil rights workers in the 1960s receiving training in nonviolence. There they are, sitting patiently at mock lunch counters while the trainers scream curses and insults at them and threaten them physically.” Other videos “show these same workers in real-life situations, sitting in at all-white lunch counters while people spit on them, revile them, and push them to the ground. All the while, they remain true to their training” (Long, p. 131).
What is godliness?
Several scholars comment on the repeated use of the term “godliness” (eusébaia, in Greek, where eu means “good,” and seb suggests devotion and respect, even if directed toward a human being). Godliness is sometimes translated as “religion,” “devotion,” or “piety” and is contrasted in 4:7 and 8 with “profane myths” (see 1:4) and “old wives’ tales”—the ancient stereotype of older women as gossips (Huizenga, p. 48). A positive term in Roman culture, godliness implies a proper respect for the gods. This is shown in rituals such as prayers and sacrifices—Christian or otherwise—as well as correct social behavior toward one’s family (p. 48). Long calls godliness “an enduring set of virtues” (p. 131). Curiously, the noun and its related forms occur 23 times in the Pastorals but never in the rest of the Pauline writings (Huizenga, p. 48). Does this tell us anything?
A youthful Timothy is ordained
On another topic, Jouette Bassler assumes the reference to Timothy’s youthfulness is used to “increase the verisimilitude of the letter,” since the original Timothy was Paul’s younger co-worker (see Acts 16:1-3). The caution about behaving so that others do not “despise” his youth (I Tim: 4:12a) arises because in Roman culture age is privileged over youth (p. 86). (We’ll find more of this in the next lesson on widows in 5:9-11).
By the time the pastoral epistles were written, the gift of ministry is carefully controlled by the rite of “the laying on of hands by the council of elders” (4:14). “In these letters there is no indication of spiritual gifts apart from that of ordained ministry, and those who have not participated in this rite are not divinely acknowledged or gifted for that ministry” (Bassler, p. 89). But this conflicts with 1 Corinthians, where Paul discusses a “variety of gifts” in chapter 12. And in Acts 6:6 and 13:1-3, where the rite of “laying on of hands” is used in a different context, it is not viewed as the imparting of a particular gift, as in 1 Timothy 4:14. Annette Huizenga observes that elements of this ritual “developed into rites of ordination (signifying apostolic succession) in various churches. The restrictive influence of this teaching hierarchy has endured for centuries in the structures and policies of most Christian churches” (Wisdom Commentary, p. 47).
A patriarchal order of teachers
Huizenga also connects 1 Timothy 4:6-16 to previous lessons where the church as “the household of God” has adopted cultural aspects of the highly patriarchal Roman household structure. The more fluid relationship of the original Paul and Timothy is now transformed into the absent Pastor and his “loyal child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2). Timothy is “subordinated to Paul yet elevated over the other believers because of his exceptional relationship to Paul.…and we are to think of him as the privileged original and sole recipient of this letter” (p. 47).
In this way, a patriarchal order of teachers is established. “Paul teaches Timothy who teaches other male leaders who teach the rest.” Women have already been banned from teaching (1 Tim 2:12) and “those males who are not heads-of-households are also effectively disempowered” (Huizenga, p. 47). To emphasize Timothy’s superior role, a ritual including prophecy and laying on of hands by a council of elders is described.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- Can you identify which instructions in 1 Timothy 4:6-16 seem to reflect a date later than Paul’s lifetime?
- Which instructions do you think are still applicable today, and for whom?
- What is the theology and practice of ordination in your church?
Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy 2 Timothy Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Huizenga, Annette Bourland. 1-2 Timothy Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.
Long, Thomas G. A Theological Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.