AT 15: The Pastoral Epistles Speak to Anabaptists Today

by Lloyd Pietersen
Originally published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 15, June 1997


Much scholarly discussion on the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) has focused on the question of their authenticity. Predictably, many conservative scholars argue that Paul wrote them, whereas most non-conservatives would disagree. The general scholarly consensus, in what has become a somewhat sterile debate, is that they were not written by Paul. In addition, it has often been assumed by readers that the purpose of the Pastorals is to provide instruction on church leadership and organisation. The questions of authorship and purpose combine to produce the consensus that the Pastorals were written to promote a particular form of church organisation in the period following the death of Paul when the church was undergoing the transition from charismatic leadership to a much more institutionalised structure.

I hope, in a series of articles, to focus on particular passages in the Pastorals (not least those which appear to marginalise women). For the purpose of this introductory article, however, I want simply to highlight certain themes which I believe are relevant for today.

Comfortable Christianity?

The debates about authenticity and church structure have meant that the Pastoral Epistles are not the books in the New Testament that people would instinctively go to for insight on radical discipleship. Many would agree with Martin Dibelius' famous description of the Pastorals as having as their goal "christliche Bürgerlichkeit" translated either as "good Christian citizenship" or, more pejoratively, as "bourgeois Christianity". For Dibelius, and many scholars following him, the Pastorals reflect a version of post-Pauline Christianity which has settled for a comfortable co-existence with the world. Furthermore, for many the Pastorals also reflect a move away from Paul's vision of egalitarian Christian community to a hierarchical and patriarchal ecclesiastical structure in which women are marginalised. The history of scholarship on the Pastorals does not prove a fruitful hunting ground for anyone who wishes to view them as radical documents!

I beg to differ. Space does not permit me to rehearse all the arguments here (the arguments form the bulk of the content of my current PhD work!). My position, stated briefly, is that the Pastorals address Pauline communities struggling over what it means to stand in genuine continuity with Paul in the period following his death. I believe that the second half of the first century CE witnessed a battle taking place between competing images of Paul in Christian communities that cherished his memory. The Pastorals participate in this struggle and seek, therefore, to promote a particular view of Paul against competing claims.

Unlike Dibelius and others, I do not believe that the Pastorals reflect a settled community at ease with itself and the world. On the contrary, the letters betray signs of intense strife affecting the communities. In Ephesus there are teachers in the community teaching a different doctrine (1 Tim 1:3-7) and advocating an extreme asceticism (1 Tim 4:1-3). As a result of their impact households are being disrupted (1 Tim 5:13-15; 2 Tim 3:1-9), and there is a suggestion that they are out for financial gain (1 Tim 6:5). In Crete too they are disrupting households and teaching for financial gain (Titus 1:10-16). It is not my purpose in this article to dwell on the false teachers; suffice it to say that the author of the Pastorals is profoundly concerned about their impact on households. To counter this he places specific emphasis on the household. The episkopos must be able to manage his own household well (1 Tim 3:4), so too must diakonoii (1 Tim 3:12). Children or grandchildren of widows must first learn their duty to their own household (1 Tim 5:4) and the church itself is described as the household of God (1 Tim 3:15). The author's concern for stable community, which has been rightly noted by the scholars, arises in my view, not out of a desire to conform or compromise with the world, but out of the specific circumstances which the communities addressed find themselves - namely the risk of being torn apart by factions within. Furthermore, the author's concern is that this internal strife affects the communities' witness to the wider world.

Dibelius and Conzelmann rightly point out that eusebeia (godliness/piety), a key word in the Pastorals occurring no less than ten times, elsewhere in the New Testament is found only in Acts and 2 Peter. They note that the word occurs frequently in Greek honorary inscriptions alongside words such as "virtue", "righteousness" and "goodness." It is thus a word which appears "in those schematic catalogues of virtues which were so popular". For them words such as eusebeia and semnotes (dignity) highlight the Pastorals' concern to promote "good Christian citizenship." What they fail to note is that the kind of eusebeia advocated by the Pastorals is eusebeia "in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 3:12) and that the "mystery of godliness" (to tes eusebeias mysterion) points to Christ (1 Tim 3:16). The Pastorals' emphasis on eusebeia, therefore, would be well understood in the Hellenistic culture in which the communities found themselves, but this does not imply that the author of the Pastorals expects the communities simply to conform to the surrounding culture. It is specifically Christ-centred eusebeia that is being advocated-and the author well knows that this kind of eusebeia leads inevitably to persecution (2 Tim 3:12).

2 Tim 3:12 has been widely neglected in scholarship. Either fairly bland comments about Jesus and Paul expecting their followers to face persecution have been made, or the threat of persecution is treated merely as a rhetorical device of the author to encourage faithful living. It deserves far more attention, particularly in an Anabaptist context where early Anabaptist history bears eloquent and painful testimony to the verse's insistence that "all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted". If taken seriously and literally, it calls into question the whole "bourgeois Christianity" line of interpretation.


The Pastorals emphasise tradition. In the context of competing claims about Paul the Pastorals want to state clearly: "we stand in this Pauline tradition—we can do no other". The emphasis is on a standard of sound teaching which has been received from Paul and is to be passed on to future generations (e.g. 1 Tim 4:11-16; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2; Titus 1:9). In the current climate, when there is so much emphasis on the "new thing that God is doing," the Pastorals issue a timely reminder that we are to pay attention to our tradition. One of the great strengths of the Anabaptist Network has been the desire to learn about the Anabaptist heritage and thus to develop a sense of historical perspective. Of course the author of the Pastorals is convinced that he stands in the true Pauline tradition and thus Paul's authority for a new generation is simply assumed. Our task has to be more critical—there are aspects of our Anabaptist heritage that we would not necessarily want to endorse; furthermore, sixteenth century Anabaptist solutions cannot be uncritically transposed into our late-twentieth-century context. Nevertheless, there is still much for today's global church to learn from the early Anabaptists.


I do not subscribe to the scholarly consensus that the Pastorals reflect introspective communities more concerned about their own internal structure and organisation than with engagement with the world. The Pastorals have a massive emphasis on "good works". Sound teaching, as far as the Pastorals are concerned, is not merely for the purpose of right believing but is to promote right living. This is familiar Anabaptist territory! Christian belief is outworked in appropriate conduct. Furthermore, instead of the endless debate as to whether the emphasis on "good works" is a departure from Paul, scholars would do well to pay attention to the fact that this emphasis on good works is "Sermon on the Mount stuff". Good works, according to Mt 5:16, are essentially mission-oriented and I believe the Pastorals need to be seen in this light too. 1 Tim 2:1-2, which for many serves to epitomise the Pastorals as concerned with "bourgeois Christianity", is immediately followed by a statement concerning the saving will of God. Prayer for peaceful conditions is not so that the church can be comfortable but to facilitate mission. The author is acutely aware that outsiders are influenced, either positively or negatively, by the conduct of the Christian communities. This leads to my final point.

Cultural Engagement without Cultural Conformity

This is a massive subject which I can only briefly touch upon here. Let me give just one example. It is generally accepted by Pastorals scholars that the moral exhortations in the letters combine the central concerns of Hellenistic ethical writings with Jewish traditions in a way very similar to that of the first-century Jewish apologist Philo. For example, three of the four Hellenistic cardinal virtues – self-control, justice and piety - are combined in Titus 2:11-12. The ethical concerns of the Pastorals would have been thoroughly understood in a Hellenistic context. Nevertheless, it is significant that the fourth virtue, "courage", is absent from this text, from the Pastorals generally, and indeed from the entire New Testament. This is because classically the virtue of courage was associated with valour in war. Warlike valour is not a Christian virtue. Instead "courage" is replaced by "endurance" as a New Testament virtue.

This highlights a distinctive aspect of the Christian tradition in relation both to Hellenistic and to Jewish traditions. Because Jesus was crucified by his enemies without meeting their violence with counter-violence, the early Christian tradition eschews violent resistance. Like Jesus, however, Christians were sometimes persecuted, and the kind of courage they would need was "endurance".

So, in connection with the cardinal virtues valued by the surrounding culture, the Pastorals engage with those values and yet do not simply embrace them. Courage is transformed into endurance; piety, as we have already seen, is Christ-centred piety; self-control is a mark of the Spirit (2 Tim 1:7); the virtues flow out of lives transformed by the grace of God (Titus 2:11-12). The Pastorals thus seriously engage with the challenge of mission-how relevantly to address contemporary culture without compromising with it. For the author of the Pastorals compromise is not an option; he well knows that the kind of Christian praxis he is advocating is paradoxically both profoundly attractive and yet ultimately threatening to the value systems of this world. At the end of the day this kind of discipleship leads not to an easy life but to suffering and hardship (2 Tim 1:8; 2:3; 3:12; 4:5).

Lloyd Pietersen was, for a number of years, an elder in Bristol Christian Fellowship. He is currently doing doctoral research on the Pastoral Epistles at Sheffield University.


1. M. Dibelius, Die Pastoralbriefe (HNT 13; 2nd edition; Tubingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1931), pp. 24-25; M. Dibelius and H. Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972); referred to hereafter as D-C.

2. The related verb eusebeo (to live piously) occurs once and the adverb eusebos (godly) occurs twice.

3. D-C, p. 39.

4. This verse does not fit well with D-Cs thesis concerning "bourgeois Christianity". All they say about this verse is: "The apostle's experience of suffering is applied to all Christians in the form of a general thesis. Thus the verse expresses the intention of these biographical allusions" p. 119.

5. See Stuart Murray's excellent essay "Introducing the Anabaptists", Anabaptism Today 14 (February 1997), pp. 4-18, especially pp. LS-17. 6. The phrase occurs no less than fourteen times: l Tim 2:10; 3: l; 5:10 (twice), 25; 6:18; 2 Tim 2:21; 3:17; Titus 1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:1, 8, 14.

7. See Mt 5:16 where the same phrase is used. Incidentally, it is my firm conviction that an Anabaptist hermeneutic, in which "the uncomfortable and provocative Jesus of the Gospels" (S. Murray, "Introducing the Anabaptists", p. 16) is made the controlling centre for interpretation, consistently sheds light on the Epistles. Failure o make connections between the Jesus of the Gospels and the teaching of the Epistles leads to a distinctly impoverished understanding of the New Testament.

8. See the important argument, supporting this view of the Pastorals, of Philip H. Towner, The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles (JSNTSup, 34; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989).

9. See S.C. Mott, "Greek Ethics and Christian Conversion: The Philonic Background of Titus 2:10-14 and 3: 3-7", Novum Testamentum 20 (1978), pp. 22-48 (23-26) for the connection between piety (eusebeia) and the Platonic cardinal virtue of wisdom (phronesis).

10. Although Mott notes this fact he fails to see its significance; op.cit. p. 28.

11. See the astute comments of M. Davies, The Pastoral Epistles (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), pp. 20-22.

12. M. Davies, op.cit, p. 21.