The Pastoral Epistles, “An Unwelcome Testimony”

Much of my work has been on the Pastoral Epistles, and I have written in a couple of places on the fact of their neglect in various settings. In the foreword to the recent book, Called to Lead: Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day, by Anthony Robinson and Robert Wall, Walter Brueggemann comments frankly on the fact of and reasons for the neglect of these letters in his own circles:

“The books of 1 and 2 Timothy are not much read, especially among the “main-line, progressive” churches that this book addresses. These books are regarded as later and non-Pauline; the continuing critical paradigm, moreover, reflected in popular thought, is that these books portray “early catholicism” (not of the Roman variety) that transposed a movement into an institution. (It is clear that in more conservative circles, which do not fear authoritative institutions, these books of the Bible do get a better read.) Thus the books reflect growing institutional self-awareness with a fixed body of doctrinal formulation, a fixed canon, as in “all scripture,” and “orders and offices” of ministry that serve the beginning of a hierarchical ordering that seems remote from an earlier church that was propelled by the spirit. As a result, we may, it has been tacitly agreed, safely disregard these Pastoral Epistles, which do not strike many readers as contemporary or imaginative. (x)

In the context it is clear that Brueggemann does not approve of this neglect, though it seems something needs to be done to these letters to render them useful.  Otherwise, “the Epistles, taken alone, turn out to be an unwelcome testimony to which attention need not be paid” (x).

This is a significant comment about how many groups approach these letters. Brueggemann and the books authors are right that the neglect of these letters is unhealthy. But I disagree with the embarrassment about the straightforward meaning of the text. We must be careful about adjusting the text to ourselves rather than ourselves to the text.

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