Persistent Themes and a Striking Omission — 2 Timothy 2:1-3:9

Studies in 1, 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 24

Detail from The Buhl Altarpiece
Unlike in the undisputed letters of Paul, the author of Second Timothy doesn't mention the crucifixion of Jesus. Detail from the The Buhl Altarpiece, photo © Ralph Hammann, used under a Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons

by Reta Halteman Finger

Preparing to discuss this lesson on 2 Timothy 2:1-3:9, I realized how difficult it is to outline this letter, complicated further by its arbitrary chapter divisions. “Paul” moves back and forth from speaking primarily to “Timothy, my beloved child,” to providing advice to contemporary or future church leaders. Following is a partial outline:

  • “Timothy” is directly addressed in 2:1-7.
  • In 2:8-13, “Paul” articulates his own theology to explain why he suffers.
  • From 2:14-26, he provides advice more broadly relevant for other church leaders, such as how to cope with opponents or backsliders in the church at large. In contrast to the damning language against opponents in 1 Timothy 1:3-11, this paragraph is more muted. It cautions church leaders to avoid “stupid and senseless controversies” (2 Tim. 2:23) and emphasizes how teachers should deal gently with opponents and let God do the work of getting them to repent (2:24-25).
  • Next is a declaration that things will get much worse in the “last days” (3:1-9). This prediction is common in testamentary literature—that what will happen is often what is happening in the pseudonymous author’s present time.
  • In 3:10-4:5, we again hear a more personal tone directed to “Timothy.”
  • The letter ends as 2 Timothy 4:6-22 provides the author’s final messages and instructions, mentioning various individuals.

Suffering—but not ashamed!

I also notice two sub-themes that crop up quite often. The first is the repetition of the terms “suffer” or “suffering,” which occur in 1:8, 12; 2:3, 9, 3:11; and 4:5. Paul is represented as one who has suffered much for the sake of the gospel (1:8). His outspoken faith has no doubt challenged the political and religious powers of the empire.

The other theme relates to “shame.” In the first half of this letter, the author stresses that he is not ashamed of this gospel (1:8, 12), nor is the disciple Onesiphorus ashamed of Paul and his chain (1:16), implying that Paul, as a prisoner, is thus an object of shame. In 2:15, “Paul” instructs “Timothy” not to be ashamed of teaching the truth of the gospel.

A surprising omission

In spite of the potential shame attached to followers of Jesus’s gospel, as Jouette Bassler’s commentary notes, the author of 2 Timothy never mentions the most embarrassing and shameful event in Jesus’s life—his crucifixion by the Romans, a punishment meted out only on criminals and runaway slaves. In fact, Jesus’s suffering is not mentioned throughout the letter (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, p. 131). Paul, rather than Jesus, is the example of unashamed suffering in this letter.

In contrast, here is what we read in one of Paul’s undisputed letters, 1 Corinthians 1:22-24: “For Jews demand signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Here, Paul stresses his cruciform theology—that God’s power and wisdom are expressed through the shameful cross of Jesus.

Church leadership only for males?

Our last lesson briefly noted that the author of 2 Timothy assumes a chain of leadership that runs from Paul to Timothy to succeeding generations of only male church leaders. Annette Huizenga, writing in the feminist Wisdom Commentary series, elaborates on what is assumed, but never expressed outright—that apostolic succession means apostolic male succession.

How can we discern this from the text? Reminding readers that women were already forbidden to teach in 1 Timothy 2:11-14, Huizenga notes the larger social location of this letter in a Greco-Roman context. Because the advice “comes from a supposed male author and is given to a subordinate, the concepts of ‘cowardice,’ ‘power,’ ‘self-discipline,’ and ‘shame’ need to be understood in light of ancient conventions about masculinity and femininity” ( p. 101). Greco-Romans believed there was only one gender. A female was a “defective” male, “so that any ‘feminine’ characteristics displayed by a man showed him to be less than an ideal male” (p. 101). According to 1 Timothy 5:11-14, women were gossips and busybodies, lacking in self-discipline and easily giving in to sensual desires. Although women are necessary to care for and raise young children (as in 2 Timothy 1:5), they are not “manly” enough to teach adults. The only other reference to women in 2 Timothy is 3:6, where “silly women [are] overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires.” Women are weak and lack self-control.

In contrast, Huizenga asserts that “Paul” represents a manly man, “confident in his proclamation of the gospel, brave in suffering, and therefore unashamed of his predicament” (p. 102). Various New Testament social science scholars such as Bruce Malina or John Pilch confirm the ancient understanding of the difference between men and women regarding shame. A man should be unashamed, but a woman’s sense of shame is appropriate; she should cover herself and quietly recede into the background.

Second Timothy 2:1-7 provides other clues to how manly men behave. Timothy (and by extension all church leaders) should pattern their behavior after male models of soldier, athlete, and farmer. A good soldier will suffer bravely, not get bogged down with everyday details, and always aim to please his superior (2:3-4). An athlete plays by the rules in order to win the crown (2:5). In the same way, a farmer who works hard to produce a good crop is entitled to the first share (2:6). (No mention is made of women or slaves, who work just as hard in different capacities.)

The next lesson on 2 Timothy will be our last. I want to discuss the meaning of 3:16-17 on biblical inspiration, as well as analyze “Paul’s earthy but confusing “last words” in chapter 4.


Questions for discussion or reflection

  1. How much do you think 2 Timothy has influenced both Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations to assume that only men can be pastors and church leaders? Or do the undisputed letters of Paul assume the same thing?
  1. Since our ancient scriptures regarding gender were written in different social contexts from our own, what interpretive principles should we use?
  1. Why does 2 Timothy omit the suffering of Jesus?


Sources used:

Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

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

Long, Thomas G. A Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch. Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Fortress Press, 2006.

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.