St. Paul warns bishops: Letters to Timothy and Titus

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 06, 2020 | In Scripture Series

Having given a taste of St. Paul’s warnings to the Catholic communities he served (see Our real pandemic is the loss of Christian identity), it is appropriate now to offer the final commentary on Paul’s letters in my New Testament series. I will take up Paul’s letters to bishops he had put in charge of communities he had established, especially Ephesus (Timothy) and Crete (Titus). I should mention that these men are rightly called “bishops” even though the terminology for ecclesiastical office was still in flux at this early date. The Catholic term “bishop” was borrowed from secular government, where it meant “overseer”.

Note also that many scholars hold that Paul was not the author of these three letters, two to Timothy and one to Titus. However, the arguments against are of the weakest sort, deriving from literary criticism, whereas in fact the subject matter is very similar to themes from Paul’s other letters, and the Church has always regarded them as Pauline. In fact, the differences in these letters may arise simply from the fact that Paul’s other letters (except for Philemon) were written to communities, while the letters to Timothy and Titus were written to instruct and exhort specific bishops whom Paul had commissioned to attend to the needs of the communities they served.

All three letters express concerns similar to the rest of the Pauline corpus. For example, Paul warns against the Judaizers, who were continually arguing over the importance of particular Jewish myths and genealogies which they believed put them in a superior position. In addition to the false emphasis on the works of the Law (as opposed to faith and charity), Paul regarded these arguments as a total waste of time, a distraction from the real meaning of what it means to live in Christ. “Certain persons”, he warns Timothy, “have wandered away into vain discussion…without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions” (1:6-7). And to Titus: “[T]here are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party” (1:10), and so Titus must “[h]ave nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (Tit 2:23).

Right teaching

More broadly, Paul is concerned with two things in these letters: (1) To ensure that Timothy and Titus give priority to sound teaching, and prevent their people from running after vain and foolish ideas; and, (2) To ensure that Timothy and Titus understand what it means to be a good bishop. The first point is closely related to the particular concern about the Judaizers, but is far broader in scope. It is so important to Paul that he closes the first letter to Timothy with a general statement on this score:

O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith. Grace be with you. [1 Tim 6:20-21]

It is hard to imagine a point more applicable to our own age, but Paul has many other statements that ought to disturb the complacency of many bishops today. For example: “This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son…that…you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made a shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim 1:18-19).

And:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain…. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. [1 Tim 6:3-5,9]

Any objective observer of our own trials in the Church today cannot help but realize how the Body of Christ has been betrayed precisely by religious, priests, bishops, teachers and theologians who constantly distort the teachings of Christ in order to seek favor, position and a good name in our secular culture. Truly those who desire to be rich in this worldly sense “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction”.

Many of Paul’s remarks are so perfectly applicable to our own time as to take our breath away. For example, we learn that the Modernists from the late nineteenth century up to our own day were actually anticipated by heretics in the first century! “[A]nd their talk will eat its way like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from truth by holding that the resurrection is past already. They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Tim 2:17-18). What specifically were they teaching? Wait for it: That the resurrection was merely a symbolic rising to a newness of life in baptism, not a true bodily resurrection—which was too much for the surrounding secular world to swallow!

What it means to be a good bishop

Paul touches on a number of practical matters, such as the difference between widows who can be supported by their own families and those who have no means of support, and so deserve the support of the Church, and can even be enrolled, if of mature years, into a way of life in which they devote themselves to prayer and good works. He also comments—as he has before in his other letters—on the relations between masters and slaves, and on the general Christian duty to be “submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy” (3:1-2).

Moreover, he explains why:

For Christians were once “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy…. [cf. 3:3-7]

We also find in these letters the early minimal qualifications for bishops and for deacons (e.g., 1 Tim 3:1-7; 3:8-13; Tit 1:5-10), some of which are specifically conditioned by the times (for example, there was not yet a body of celibate clergy from which to draw bishops). But what interests me most under this heading is Paul’s insistence on the fundamentally sacrificial nature of the episcopal ministry. This is especially noticeable in the second letter to Timothy, where we find a luminescent passage, a statement so striking that one wonders how it can have been so often ignored in every age of the Church, including our own. Every priest and bishop should be required to memorize this exhortation to Timothy:

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything. [2 Tim 2:1-7]

Imagine: Bishops are to take their own share of the suffering of Christ.

Imagine: No bishop becomes entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the Lord who called him.

Imagine: No bishop wins the crown unless he competes according to God’s rules.

Imagine: It is the hard-working bishop who ought to have the first share of the spiritual fruits.

Conclusion: God allows us to depart from him

There may be no better way to round out this discussion of all of Paul’s letters than to parse the verses which immediately follow the preceding quotation. Paul asks Timothy to remember the gospel of Jesus Christ for which Paul is suffering imprisonment. Therefore, Paul says, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory” (2 Tim 2:8-11). This is said as an example to Timothy, and Paul concludes by quoting what was already apparently a common saying among Christians about life in Christ:

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself. [2 Tim 2: 11-13]

Paul assures us that this “saying is true” (v. 11), but a great many people today seem to think the fourth line is an affirmation that God (who remains faithful even if we are faithless) saves everyone. Actually, the meaning is just the opposite, especially for those who have been entrusted with much. This is evident not only in the third line, but in the concluding line, “for he cannot deny himself”. If we do not discharge our Christian responsibilities seriously—if, in effect, we deny Christ—then we must recognize that we will be lost, because God cannot deny himself. He cannot deny the fundamental reality which is the source of all that is.

This ought to make every bishop tremble (and also you and me): For if we are faithless, God will, in spite of our decisions, remain faithful to Himself. He will not force us to endure His presence; He will let us spend all eternity in the darkness we have chosen.


New Testament Series:
Previous: On the art of exhortation: St. Paul’s short letters
Next: Hebrews: Old covenant abolished; new covenant established.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Mar. 16, 2020 5:05 PM ET USA

    "Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you." Titus [2:15]. Bold/courageous St. Paul sounds nothing like our compromising/timid hierarchy. As Monsignor Pope notes the modern Church "seems to fear just about everything except the loss of our faith, which we are too willing to compromise, ignore, or water down in order to keep the lesser things."