What Are the Pastoral Epistles?
The Pastoral Epistles refer to a unique group of Paul’s letters addressed to individuals: Titus and Timothy. This group consists of three letters: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. With the exception of Philemon, these letters differ from Paul’s other epistles because he addressed a specific person, not a church body. Some dispute has arisen in recent centuries among scholars who challenge the claim of Pauline authorship expressed by each of these letters. Such contentions arise from nothing more than an unbelieving heart that refuses to acknowledge Scripture as God’s Word. The defense of Pauline authorship has been thoroughly defended and Christians can have the utmost confidence Paul was indeed the author of the Pastoral Epistles, just like the letters say.
Why Are They Called Pastoral Epistles?
The common description of these letters as pastoral didn’t take root until the 18th century, although the pastoral nature of the letters themselves has been long noticed by the church. The description of these letters as pastoral can be somewhat misleading, as it may seem to suggest the content concerns itself primarily with the duties of a pastor. The word pastor is derived from the Latin word for shepherd. The idea here is one that safeguards the well-being of the church. Timothy and Titus were more than pastors, as we understand that role. They were both what we would call church planters. They had the responsibility to oversee (shepherd) the development of an entire church body in a specific region, which included the appointment of elders to the pastoral care of the body (Titus 1:5). Paul expected both Timothy and Titus to build up the church body in such a way so that it could stand on its own.
What Are Major Themes in the Pastoral Epistles?
The overarching theme of the Pastoral Epistles is faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul focused on two primary ways the church is expected to uphold the integrity of the Gospel:
Teaching sound doctrine. This exhortation came in three parts. The first was the confident and authoritative proclamation of the Gospel (2 Timothy 1:8). Paul made it clear to both Timothy and Titus, the message they received from him was the one and only Gospel message from God Himself (1 Timothy 1:11; Titus 1:1-3). They were given the responsibility to ensure the church body was continuously nourished by the teaching and proclamation of the Gospel which alone is able to bring about godly growth (2 Timothy 4:1-2; Titus 3:8).
Second, they were to avoid fruitless discussions. Paul wanted both disciples to keep the church focused on what mattered—the Gospel—and avoid the distractions brought about by pointless conversations (1 Timothy 1:3-4; Titus 3:9). Such distractions could threaten the unity and health of the church body if left to their own vices (2 Timothy 2:16-17).
Lastly, Paul commanded false beliefs and doctrines to be rebuked (1 Timothy 4:1-6; Titus 1:10-11). The leadership must guard the Gospel message and openly address false beliefs in order to protect the faith of the church. Just because God grants salvation to all believers does not mean the congregation cannot be threatened by false doctrine. Unbiblical teaching fosters ungodly faith, which leads one to live in a displeasing manner toward God (1 Timothy 6:3-5). The leadership must rebuke false teachings to ensure God’s sheep are not lead astray.
Conduct consistent with the Gospel. Paul understood the Gospel was not merely some abstract belief or theory. Rather, it was a life-changing truth that had tangible results in the way a person lived (Titus 2:11-12). Even though nothing could ever change the truth of the Gospel itself, Paul knew the church could turn outsiders away if they (church members) didn’t live like Christians. The integrity of the believers was key to convincing others about the integrity of the Gospel. Few things will destroy one’s reputation quicker than hypocrisy. If the church acknowledged Jesus as Lord, Paul knew they had to live like it. Furthermore, godly conduct was emphasized in the leadership roles (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:7-9). A congregation naturally rallies around its leaders. They set the example which others will follow, and it’s often beneficial for people to be shown what to do and not just told. The godly behavior of the leaders would inevitably encourage and demonstrate to others how to live godly lives (2 Timothy 2:21). On the other hand, sinful conduct would encourage sinful behavior, which always kills the spiritual health of the congregation and damages the public perception of the Gospel (1 Timothy 5:20).
Paul also encouraged the godly conduct of the church, by addressing their need to persevere. The church has an obligation to Christ to live godly lives even when facing great opposition. The impact of the Gospel is often amplified through persecution and suffering when believers hold fast to their faith. The Apostle took great care to encourage Timothy to stand firm in the Gospel when facing the hostilities of the world (1 Timothy 1:18-19; 2 Timothy 3:12). All true believers persevere in their faith in spite of the conflict they face from a world that seeks to silence them. They continue to be salt and light, embracing the cost because they consider Christ as worthy to suffer for.
3 Reasons to Start Reading Them
Understand what biblical leadership looks like. There is no shortage of books on leadership. Everyone has an opinion on what a leader should look like and do. God, however, has His own parameters He expects church leaders to follow. It should go without saying, but the biblical conditions of leadership supersede any of our thoughts or opinions on the matter. Just because someone is appointed as a deacon or elder, that does not mean they automatically possess all the answers they need to fulfill their role. All church leaders should consult the Scriptures regularly to either learn or be reminded of what God’s purpose for them is in the church body. It’s normal to get disoriented over time. False impressions and beliefs can easily creep into our hearts and minds as we go about our busy lives. For this reason, we need to let Scripture shine light into our hearts and minds to confront and correct any false impressions or beliefs we may have picked up. This is true for all aspects of our Christian walk, including leadership. Furthermore, leaders need to understand what God expects from them in order to raise up future leaders. The future health of the church body is dependent on pastors and elders teaching younger people to fill their shoes when they’re gone. This is precisely why Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles. He invested teaching time to both Timothy and Titus on how to be godly leaders so they could shepherd God’s sheep.
To protect the integrity of God’s church. Poor leadership can destroy a church body. God places leaders in a position of great responsibility and influence, and it’s very natural for people to look up to their leaders and put their trust in what they do and say. God has high expectations and qualifications for any leadership role in the church because of the large influence they have over the church body. It’s vital for the church to take these standards seriously. One should never think only those in leadership roles need to study what Scripture teaches about leadership. In fact, it’s extremely important for the whole congregation to know what God expects from the church leadership so they can hold their own leaders accountable to biblical standards. A congregation must be aware of what their leadership is doing because ultimately, they are accountable to God, not their leaders. They have as much responsibility to take care of the body as their leaders do. A pastor must be held accountable to God’s Word and not allowed to highjack the congregation to operate under his own purposes. Whenever the leadership begins to live in an ungodly way or take the church body in an unbiblical direction, it’s the congregation’s responsibility to confront the leadership. If the leadership refuses to repent, then it’s the congregation’s duty to reject the leaders. Sadly, there are congregations with unbiblical pastors who are allowed to do whatever they want. Everything they do is considered gold because they’re a pastor. This is nonsense. Just like the church of Laodicea in Revelation, it’s possible for Jesus to get kicked out of the congregation when the people submit themselves to the worldly whims of a wicked pastor or elder. Everyone in the church should know what God expects from their leadership.
Practical application. When it comes to personal conduct, biblical leadership is about setting an example for others to follow, not being an exception. It would be a mistake for someone to gloss over the requirements given for elders and deacons as if those things didn’t apply to them. The qualifications Paul gives are desired of every person in the church body, not just the leaders. However, emphasis is placed on the leaders because they are to set the Christ-like example everyone else aspires to.
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Stephen Baker is a graduate of Mount Union University. He is the writer of a special Scripture study/reflection addendum to Someplace to Be Somebody, authored by his wife, Lisa Loraine Baker (End Game Press Spring 2022).
He attends Faith Fellowship Church in East Rochester, OH where he has given multiple sermons and is discipled by pastor Chet Howes.