Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Does Rome teach a correct understanding of 1 Timothy 3:15, Part 2

What is Paul actually saying here? What is Paul’s purpose for writing?

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies [“succession lists”?], which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions ( 1 Tim 1:3-7).

Paul’s whole goal in his instruction to Timothy is to clarify the distinction between those teachers who teach what is true, and those teachers who teach what is false.

What’s false?

·         That which is different from what Paul teaches is false
·         That which is based on myths is false
·         That which is based on “endless genealogies” is false
·         That which promotes speculations is false.

What’s true?  “[T]he stewardship from God that is by faith”. The goal of this instruction is to produce love that:

·         Issues from a pure heart
·         Issues from a good conscience
·         Issues from a sincere faith

All of this is the background for what Paul is talking about when he talks about “how one ought to behave in the household of God”.

The phrase that the ESV translates as “the stewardship from God”, Towner translates as “God’s work”. This is the Greek phrase οἰκονομίαν θεοῦ (oikonomia theou). Philip Towner relies on the work of both I Howard Marshall (with whom he co-authored the standard ICC commentary on the Pastoral Epistles), and L.T. Johnson, whom we’ve discussed in the last post.  Towner continues:

Johnson and Marshall have suggested that the key to interpreting oikonomia here is in the household terminology, which Paul employed elsewhere and which is thematic in 1 Timothy. To begin with, oikonomia refers to the organization and ordering of a household or the responsibility of management that maintains the order. This is how Paul describes his mission to the Gentiles in 1 Cor 9:17; that is, he understands himself to have been entrusted with the management of a household (presumably God’s ; see 1 Cor 4:1). The description of his ministry in Col 1:25 follows the same line: “I have become a minister according to the responsibility to manage God’s house [oikonomia tou theou] that was given to me.” Within 1 Timothy household language links several things together into a complete pattern. Leaving 1:4 aside for the moment, in 3:15 the church is depicted as “God’s house” (oikos theou; cf. 2 Tim 20-21), and by derivation overseers are to understand their task in terms of stewardship (see 3:4-5; in Titus 1:7 the term oikonomos theou [“God’s steward”] is used).

This brings us back to the phrase oikonomia theou in 1:4. Surely it is correct to define the concept within the sphere of household management and duties from which the language emerged (Towner 112-113).

Towner here discusses slight differences in approach between Marshall and Johnson and continues, “it seems best in this case to increase the emphasis on the pattern and order that is to be implemented”

That is, the first thought is not of administration as ministry and responsibility, but of the shape of things and the ordering of life to be achieved to be achieved through the various activities of ministry and service.

The attached comment about faith [stewardship that is τὴν ἐν πίστει, “by faith”] adds a crucial condition to the understanding of the divine pattern. … it says something more about “the way God has organized life.” To be “in faith” is to be in the sphere of authentic faith …, and its attachment to the preceding phrase here will encompass the apprehension of God’s ways and patterns as well as actions taken to implement them. The point Paul makes, however, is polemical. It is genuine faith, namely that faith associated with his gospel, which has access to correct understanding of the will of God. The fundamental condition for understanding the way God has organized life (his oikonomia), and for carrying out the activities in the community and world that bring them into alignment, is adherence to genuine faith. As he is about to say, it is Timothy’s task of teaching what is true and correcting that is false that will give insight into the oikonomia of God.

Myths, “endless genealogies”, and speculations
“To teach what is false” is a very bad thing, according to Paul. Paul’s main concern at this point is “less with the teaching style of methods of the opponents (i.e., “some sort of speculation” and perhaps “argumentation” are not horribly bad). Here Paul is “mainly” concerned with “the substandard content that is being taught” (108-109). Paul deprecates the message of the opponents as “a counterfeit”.

The term “myth” has a long history of use prior to the NT, through which it comes to mean a fable or far-fetched story, often about the gods; most importantly, it can stand as a category meaning essentially falsehood. Here the term is in the plural, as throughout the NT, which contains a negative evaluative assessment in itself (namely, spurious, contradictory, human) in contrast to the divinely imbued singularity and unity of the gospel. Paul employs the plural term to label the teaching emphatically as falsehood. But the history of the term’s use goes another step: Plato, for one, used the term to denounce certain stories not simply as false but as deceptive, in that they are told so as to lend credence to immoral behavior or practices by linking them to ancient stories about the gods. The apparent link between certain extreme ascetic aspects of behavior and the false doctrines in Ephesus (1 Tim 4:1-3; …) suggests that Paul drew on this nuance of the term’s polemical use. Thus rather than identifying the content of the teaching, the term “myths” evaluates it as false and pernicious.

So false teachings are not just neutral, as in the category of “fables or far-fetched” stories, but they are also “pernicious” – false teachings do actual harm.

“Genealogies,” however, with the help of other contextual clues, takes us in the direction of actual content. This term also has a long history of use, describing lists of family names (family trees), and the process of constructing them, that served various purposes. Within Judaism, genealogies played the key role of establishing a person’s bloodline and link to a particular family and tribe: rights by birth determined in this way allowed, for example, entrance into the priesthood. As its use in Philo demonstrates, the term could refer to the accounts of people in the early parts of Genesis. This usage especially opens up the possibility that Paul is identifying the practice among the false teachers of speculating on stories about the early biblical characters as well as actual genealogical lists such as occur there or in other more speculative noncanonical  Jewish writings (e.g., Jubilees). Speculation fitting roughly into this category was known to have been practiced in Jewish communities, and the reference in 1:7 to the opponents aspirations to be “teachers of the law” helps to locate the sources of this practice within the repository of Jewish literature (cf. Titus 1:14 and the reference to “Jewish myths”).

The adjective “endless” attached to “genealogies” might have been a literal reference to long-drawn-out speculations, or may be meant in the sense of “pointless,” “contradictory,” or “inconclusive.” Its force is clearly polemical, meant to discredit the protracted arguments that go nowhere.

While we can’t know the actual content of these false teachings,

… it is clear Paul regarded this teaching as deceptive and dangerous. Quite possibly the extreme practices alluded to in 4:1-3 [through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods…] were grounded in this speculative interpretation of Israel’s early history, all of which was being served up in the guise of authoritative doctrine (1:7).

In the next phrase, Paul supplies an important reason why Timothy is to prohibit this false teaching. It consists of a contrast between the wheel-spinning futility of the deceptive speculation and the direction of God’s mission. The first half of this reason is clear: the obsession with myths and genealogies “promotes controversial speculations.” The verb is neutral and also governs the positive side of the contrast to come. But the term that follows, “controversial [or useless] speculations,” is one of several that belongs to Paul’s polemical repertoire in these three letters to coworkers drawn on to discredit the opposing doctrines and behavior as being everything from foolish nonsense to disputatious and pernicious. It is clearly these latter characteristics and their danger to the church that most concern Paul as he writes (6:3-4, Towner pgs 111-112).

From Paul’s point of view, the difference between teaching that fosters οἰκονομίαν θεοῦ [God’s work, the stewardship from God] and false teaching which is pernicious and damaging couldn’t be more clear. And this difference that Paul sees does not have anything to do with “who” is doing the teaching. It is the content of the teaching itself that makes it true or false, right or wrong. Timothy can and should recognize it.

The goals of this stewardship are to produce love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. That is, the stewards are supposed to foster these characteristics in believers. I’ll get into this next time. 


  1. I read this last night before retiring to sleep. The Lord put something on my heart to encourage with a comment before.

    The comment is "you are on a roll here, John"! Keep it up and roll man, roll!

    I would ask that before you are done you will take this roll and increase it into a war cry and declare war on all that is false in lines with these verses from the Psalms:

    Psa 149:5 Let the godly exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds.
    Psa 149:6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands,
    Psa 149:7 to execute vengeance on the nations and punishments on the peoples,
    Psa 149:8 to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron,
    Psa 149:9 to execute on them the judgment written! This is honor for all his godly ones. Praise the LORD!


  2. Hi thanks Natamllc, really I'm standing on the shoulders of giants.