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I Dislike the Author of First Timothy

September 23, 2013

A sermon preached by the Reverend Jeffrey Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 22, 2013

 

I Timothy 2: 1-7

I don’t like the author of First Timothy. And I really don’t like the letter he wrote.

In all my years of ministry I have never preached out of First or Second Timothy, or out of the letter to Titus for that matter, which was probably written by the same guy. Together, these three letters are often referred to as the pastoral letters, because they purport to give helpful advice to a new generation of church leaders. But the description of faith, the nature of Christian fellowship, and the role of the church in the world look nothing like those found in the Gospel stories about Jesus or in the anti-imperial, radically egalitarian mission work of the authentic Paul.

Yes, all three letters claim to be written by Paul, but were in fact composed late in the first century, long after Paul’s execution in Rome. And this irritates me too, because I don’t want Paul slandered with the contents of these letters.

Though First Timothy includes the only condemnation of slave traders in the New Testament, it not only condones slavery within the Christian community but urges Christian slaves to unqualifiedly obey their masters. A lot of blood has been spilled, and a lot of justice denied, because of these words. Not only must slaves obey their masters, but, in a similar way, women should obey their husbands. On his own personal authority, the author denies women the ability to teach, this despite the fact that the congregations founded by the actual Paul were often housed by women, funded by women, run by women, and filled with gifted female prophets, teachers and preachers. In contrast, the author of First Timothy says that women should learn in silence and practice submission to men. Whereas Paul believed Adam to be the source of original sin, the author of this letter blames Eve. Do not worry, though: women are saved through childbearing – provided they are modest.

What a load of crap malarkey!

I don’t like the author of First Timothy.

It gets worse.

Faith, which elsewhere in the Bible is a living, dynamic trust in God and is meant to characterize our relationships with one another, becomes in this letter a doctrine (or set of doctrines) that need to be guarded, protected and passed on unchanged.

The church, the ekklesia, the gathering of God’s people, which for Paul was a counter-cultural demonstration of a new way of life in the midst of oppressive imperial reality, becomes in this letter a community of model citizens adopting the social norms of the wider world in order to fit in and ‘not make waves.’ The Apostle Paul who was once accused of “turning the world upside down,” is now portrayed as “upholding and sustaining” the status quo.

And in our passage for today, the church prays not so much for the peace of the world, but to be left alone in peace and quiet.

I don’t like the author of First Timothy.

But the weekly lectionary is giving us several weeks of Timothy, and our older children are studying this letter upstairs right now, so I figure it’s about time I come to terms with it.

But how?

Certainly not by accepting all of what he has to say, just in case you were worried!

Our topic at the Prayer Breakfast yesterday was “How do I love someone I don’t even like?” (And at this point I want to give a shout out to Leslie Mardenborough and all the members of the planning team that put the breakfast together.) It was a wonderful morning. We sang songs of praise, we struggled with difficult relationships, and we prayed to be able to experience God’s love for ourselves and to practice God’s love in all situations.

Can I apply anything from the Prayer Breakfast to the author of First Timothy?

One of the ‘take aways” from our time yesterday was that “love means receiving another person for who they truly are, in their difference from us, and in their difference from who we might wish them to be.” (repeat)

Whoever wrote this supposed letter to Timothy was fellow Christian, a leader in (at least one part of) the early church, and however much I disagree with him, his writing has found a place within our scripture. In fact, it may be that the truly revolutionary (really radical) letters of the actual Paul only got into the Bible because they were assumed to be consistent with these socially and morally accommodating writings. They made Paul safe for a – by then – imperial, creedal and entirely male church hierarchy.

The fact is, the world had changed by the end of the first century, a majority of Christ followers were now Gentile, rather than Jewish, and lived outside of Palestine; and the church wrestled with new questions and conditions not faced by the earlier generations. Perhaps the ‘loving thing’ would be for us to consider how all communities adapt, adopt and resist change in the process of trying to remain faithful to their mentors, their children, and above all to God, and to realize that communities often (always?) make mistakes. Timothy’s church in Ephesus and Titus’s church on the Island of Crete may have been the first Christian communities to settle down, settle in, and even sell themselves out in order to survive. They were not the last.

Perhaps there are lessons here for us as we adapt, adopt and resist change in our own time.

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The author also viewed himself a mentor to young leaders, (right?), and felt a responsibility for passing on what he had received. You know, I used those very words when I told my church council as a high school student that I felt called to ministry – I wanted to pass on and share with others what I had received from my church. The author of First Timothy and I share an interest in passing on the faith. That is something I can relate to. I spent 16 years teaching confirmation class on Long Island. I have been leading youth groups ever since I was in one. I have spent eight years serving on a Presbytery level Committee on Preparation for Ministry, mentoring pastors-to-be. Again, as vehemently as I disagree with the hierarchical, doctrinal, and morally accommodating direction our author is leading the congregations of Timothy and Titus, I know I have made my own mistakes as a teacher, and will likely make mistakes as a parent.

Perhaps there are lessons here for how we relate to one another in the church.

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I have also begun doing genealogical work, digging into my own family’s history. Knowing where we come from is particularly valuable for children. According to researchers the more we know about our family stories, their beginnings and endings, their triumphs and struggles, the more resilient we are in the face of life’s hardships and struggles. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.[1] Timothy – and now I mean not the letter but Timothy himself – Timothy represents the story of the church as a family story – Timothy himself is a third generation Christian in Ephesus. The first generation was represented by Timothy’s grandmother Lois, and the second by Timothy’s mother Eunice. Timothy’s mother was a Jew, but his father was Greek, and so Timothy also comes from mixed parentage with all the difficulties associated with that. He bears the hopes and dreams not only of his mentor (Paul, or the author of the letter, or both) but hopes and expectations of his mother and grandmother, and I’m sure there is no small pressure there. The church which he is called to lead is a multi-generational affair.

Knowing this part of our story can surely help us understand the church today.

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Finally, it is easy to judge the early church from this distance and to see how the overriding concern for church survival and a secure future (at least among the male leaders) kicked the most vulnerable under the bus. Christian women and enslaved believers were asked “to conform unqualifiedly to their roles as low status subordinates.”[2] Thank God they did not all do so, and there are other early church traditions of resistance to learn from. But if we are to learn from the actions of this community in Ephesus, we need to see how capable we are of doing the same thing today.

This week the house of representative voted to drastically cut funding for SNAP (the supplemental nutrition assistance program), essentially voting to deny food to 1.8 million low-income seniors and people in low-income working families, 170,000 veterans, and 210,000 children who would lose school breakfasts and lunches in 2014.

And I hear the words of First Timothy: “Pray for your leaders and those in positions of power.”

Because of the recent boom in natural gas, Colorado is home to some 50,000 oil and gas wells, but the environmental impact was considered local and the environmental concerns negligible. After the unprecedented rain and subsequent flooding last week, oil from ruptured pipes and unknown toxins, produced by Fracking and  stored in unsecured above ground tanks, are flowing down the Platte River in Nebraska, soon to join the Missouri River above Kansas, and then on down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Louisiana, where it will be enter the Gulf  of Mexico. I was swimming in these rivers just a few weeks ago.

And I hear the words of First Timothy: “Pray for your leaders and those in positions of power.

While the need for common sense gun control sits stalled with our lawmakers, on Monday we witnessed a mass shooting at the Naval Yard in Washington D.C., carried out by a gunman who picked up guns as he went. This was followed by the gang shooting of 13 in Chicago, including a 3 year old child, performed by an individual with an assault-style weapon and high capacity magazine. How long will it take for us to prioritize the sanctity of these lives rather than the sanctity of gun ownership?

And I hear the words of First Timothy: “Pray for your leaders and those in positions of power.

And while we hold our breath watching the negotiated turn over of chemical weapons by the Assad government in Syria, we continue to pray for someone to emerge with a more lasting vision of peace for the nations people. (I also said something here about the terror attack in Kenya, a story that was still unfolding).

And I hear the words of First Timothy: “Pray for your leaders and those in positions of power.

And we need to pray for ourselves, to use the power we have to make these changes happen.

Friends, our scripture is a complex book. It is not a moral rulebook, but a window into generations of God’s people attempting to be faithful, and often failing. And it can illuminate our own struggles to be faithful in ever changing circumstances. Above all it is an invitation to find our own place in the continuing story of God’s love for each and every one of us, and God’s faithfulness to God’s people.


[1] Thanks to my colleague Julie Emery for this insight. She first shared it with the members of the Lower Hudson Lectionary Group, and I lifted the previous two sentences from her sermon “Foundations of Faith.”

[2] Clarice Martin, “1-2 Timothy, Titus” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian Blount (Fortress Press, 2007).

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