Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 10 (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
by Reta Halteman Finger
After the majestic poem in honor of Jesus at the end of chapter 3, we again descend to the chaos of the church fight first described in chapter 1, The polemic in 1 Timothy 4:1-5 is strong. With consciences “seared with a hot iron,” the opponents in Ephesus make use of lying spirits and demonic teachings (4:1-2). But here for the first time, we get concrete information about these false teachers: “they forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods” (4:3).
Before unpacking such other-worldly ideas, let’s get re-oriented. These lessons are assuming that the author of 1 Timothy is a pastor living some decades after the Apostle Paul but writing in his name and claiming his authority. “Paul” now directs the final three chapters of this letter not to the whole church but to his younger deputy, “Timothy,” explaining “how one ought to behave in the household of God” (3:15). “The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith,” he says in 4:1. What “later times”? Rather than apocalyptically as in “the last days before the end of the age,” the author is likely leaning on Paul’s Spirit-directed authority to have predicted what is now happening in the author’s own time. According to Thomas Long, these “later times” may be a metaphor for the upheaval involved when a church is in conflict within itself (pp. 106-111).
Practical consequences of non-traditional beliefs
So the false teachers “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from [certain] foods”? Is that all the fuss is about? No wild orgies or murderous rampages? Maybe not, but these beliefs have extensive consequences. Theologically, they imply that true Christians will strive for union with a God who is pure spirit. They must leave behind earthy pleasures like sex and ordinary family life, as well as most tasty foods. Our pastor counters this with the doctrine of creation. God created the physical world and called it good. It should be used and enjoyed, so long as it is received with thanksgiving (4:3b-4). What’s not to like about that theology?
Yet the issue of celibate living brings us right back to the question of how much the “household of God” (3:15) resembles the Roman patriarchal household structure discussed in earlier lessons. Jouette Bassler’s Abingdon commentary, for example, cites some of the enormous social consequences of forbidding marriage. “It freed women from the bonds of patriarchal marriage and allowed them to live lives that were more autonomous,” in contrast to women’s limitations in patriarchal marriage as described in 2:12. The author of 1 Timothy would have viewed celibacy “as a threat to family and also to the moral foundation and hierarchical structure of the church” (p. 81). No wonder he went so far as to link women’s salvation to childbearing! (2:15).
To compound matters, the lifestyle of these celibate Christians in the Ephesian churches was also challenging Greco-Roman society and its hierarchical household structure. Persecution could easily ensue. How could believers lead quiet lives below the political radar (2:2, 11) when the organizational structures of the church were shaking from conflict?
Contradictions about marriage
Despite the consequences of the opponents’ forbidding marriage, the author presents no further argument against it, unless the phrase “everything created by God is good” (4:4) hints at the creation account of woman and man in Genesis 2:4b-25. He is restrained likely because there is no evidence that either Paul or his two co-workers, Timothy and Titus, were married! We know Paul is not married (1 Cor 7:7) and he advocates for single people to remain unmarried (1 Cor 7:8; 25-26, 32-34, 38-40). Annette Huizenga finds it “incredibly ironic that ‘Paul’ is pictured here as a dedicated champion of the married state in sharp contrast to those who ‘forbid’ marriage, since in 1 Cor 7 the apostle himself offers powerful opinions about the distinctive value of remaining unmarried” (Wisdom Commentary, p. 44).
Food and communal meals
When it comes to “abstinence from foods” (4:3), the consequences are also huge for the church. It means they cannot eat together, not even the communal meals shaped by the Last Supper liturgy of bread and cup. (I have written a book, Of Widows and Meals, on how meals were the single most unifying factor in the early church, as described in Acts and throughout the New Testament.) Here our author provides more theological support by emphasizing that God created food to be received with thanksgiving and also pronounced the physical world good, as noted above, even though Paul’s undisputed writings do not link food with creation as is done in 1 Timothy 4:4. His undisputed writings, however, do demonstrate his more nuanced view about food than about marriage. See 1 Cor 8:8 and 10:23-31, as well as Romans 14:1-4, where believers are not to judge each other for what they do or do not eat.
Nevertheless, some second-century Christians did go to extremes about food. Huizenga points out that the word for food in 4:3 is brōma, which has the connotation of “solid food,” or even meat. Some second-century believers, like the Syrian Christian Tatian, believed that eating meat linked humans with carnivorous animals rather than connecting them vertically with the Holy Spirit (Peter Brown, as quoted in Huizenga, p. 45). Perhaps for that and similar reasons, Thomas Long remains critical of the pastor’s opponents, believing that their “attitudes toward marriage and food spring from a single source…a basic rejection of the goodness of God’s creation” (p. 117).
Questions to ponder and discuss
- And so we readers must draw out our own conclusions. Probably none of us would reject “the goodness of God’s creation” or forbid marriage or condemn everyone who doesn’t eat vegan. But was the pastor exaggerating the perspectives of those who challenged his hierarchical concept of “the household of God”? Or who wanted more options for women? (See the reference to Thekla in Lesson 8.)
- Do the undisputed letters of Paul give us more thoughtful, even-handed reflection on these topics? Should we read 1 Timothy as post-Pauline and therefore less authoritative? Or should we read it as Paul’s final instructions to the church for all time? Or something in between? What do you think?
Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy 2 Timothy Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. P. 90.
Finger, Reta Halteman. Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.
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.