The Household Motif in the Letters to Timothy and Titus
In recent years, I’ve wrestled with various questions related to men and women in ministry and other church-related topics. As I’ve done so, I’ve increasingly come to realize that ecclesiology is often where it’s at. That is, as I try to adjudicate a question or help others to do so, I’m usually led to consider the question: What is the biblical teaching on the nature of the church? Not only am I finding that the answer to an application question often presents itself readily once I reflect on how it relates to ecclesiology, I also find that often at the root of a wrong adjudication of a given question, or questionable church practice, is a defective ecclesiology.
The Church as God’s Household
So, what is the nature of the church according to Scripture? As you know, the Gospels only use the term “church” (ekklēsia) twice, both in the Gospel of Matthew (16:18; 18:18), and there it is probably best translated “messianic community.” This suggests that the church, properly conceived, is an entity that came into being only after Jesus’ ascension as recorded in chapter 2 of the book of Acts. Paul often calls the New Testament church a “mystery” (Greek mystērion), in the sense that it was left to him to reveal the true nature of the New Testament church: namely, that in the end times—that is, in the age of the Spirit—God has brought together believing Jews and non-Jews on par with each other in one ecclesiastical body.
As Paul says in Gal 3:28, in the church “there is neither Jew nor Greek” but all are one in Christ. That said, what is Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church? Most of us would probably say “the body of Christ.” And that would for the most part be correct. In several of his letters, such as 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians, Paul teaches that Christ is the head of the church, and the church is his body, and we as believers are members of his body, each with various gifts that contribute to the wellbeing of the body. I would venture to say that not only is this the dominant ecclesiological metaphor in the New Testament, it is also the best-known description of the nature of the church in our churches today, if not the only one.
Now in my study of the so-called “Pastoral Epistles,” Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, I’ve found that there is a second, alternative metaphor that Paul uses very significantly in these letters, namely that of the church as God’s household. What is the underlying idea here? In short, it is that both in the Jewish and the Greco-Roman world of the first century, the church was led by the paterfamilias, the paternal head, who was given charge of a household that was made up of a variety of people and groups of people, including his wife and children, his family, household slaves or servants, and other members of his extended family, such as widows.
Proper Conduct in God’s Household
Probably the most programmatic passage in this regard is 1 Tim 3:14–15 where Paul writes, “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” So, the household metaphor is the primary way in which Paul conceives of the church in this letter.
In keeping with this way of conceiving of the nature of the church, what is central in the qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy 3 is this: An elder, Paul writes, “must manage (or rule) his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” (v. 4). Here we see that there is an integral connection between the family as the natural household and the church as God’s spiritual household. And it is also clear that both are to follow the same pattern, namely be under male leadership and exhibit clear order and lines of authority.
In my commentary, I write, “Timothy and Titus, as Paul’s apostolic delegates, are charged with helping to bring order to the church so that the members of God’s household conduct themselves properly (e.g., 1 Tim 1:5; 3:14–15; 2 Tim 2:4–15; Titus 1:13–14). The reference to Timothy being given instruction also uses stewardship language, seeking to ensure that the household is run properly (1 Tim 1:18). This same idea is present in Paul’s statement to Titus that the elder is “God’s administrator” (θεοῦ οἰκονόμον; Titus 1:7). First Timothy also contains an interesting variation on the common household codes in the New Testament (1 Tim 2:1–6:2).
In this extended section, Paul addresses the proper ordering of God’s household, discussing the church at large (2:1–7), men and women (2:8–15), elders/overseers (3:1–7), deacons (3:8–13), Timothy himself as the servant of Christ Jesus (chap. 4), different age groups (5:1–2), widows (5:3–16), elders (5:17–25), and slaves (6:1–2), with occasional general instructions interspersed. These exhortations have been influenced by the language of traditional Greco-Roman household codes, a form Paul likely chose because of his overriding conception of the church as God’s household. The emphasis on teaching throughout the letters, therefore, doesn’t merely reflect a concern with proper doctrine for its own sake but with being a faithful steward in the household of God, rightly ordering the people of God to carry out the mission of God.”
Let me close with three important observations, then.
- The depiction of the church as God’s household can help us conceive of our role as shepherds and stewards of God in our churches. God has put us in charge to meet the needs of the various members of his spiritual household, the extended family of God. We have delegated authority, but we are to use it to meet the needs of others.
- This need, significantly, includes proper teaching of healthy, sound, life-giving doctrine, and protection from harmful teaching. It also includes caring for various other spiritual and physical needs.
- The household motif in the letters to Timothy and Titus, I believe, also sheds a crucial light on the complementarian-egalitarian debate.
How so? Well, egalitarians argue that Scripture, including Paul’s letters, rightly interpreted, teach egalitarianism. As we’ve seen, however, the church, as God’s spiritual household, is patterned after the pattern for the natural household. And this household, in both the first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman world, was universally conceived as paternal, that is, as led by the father of the household, not by husband and wife jointly as egalitarian leaders who mutually defer to each other, as egalitarians claim.
Of course, as my wife and I discuss in our book God’s Design for Man and Woman, there is a real pattern of male-female partnership in Scripture, but it is tied to an overriding pattern of male leadership, which spans the entirety of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, from God’s creation of Adam as the federal head of humanity to Christ, the second Adam, and all the way to the 24 elders in Revelation representing the leadership of God’s people in both Testaments.
So, it is highly unlikely that egalitarians are correct that Paul taught egalitarianism in a culture that was profoundly paternal (or as the leading Old Testament scholar Daniel Block prefers to put it, patricentric). More likely, both Jesus and Paul affirmed male leadership by choosing twelve men as apostles and by stipulating that elders be faithful husbands, that is, men.
Note: This talk was originally given on Friday, May 27, 2017, as part of a series on Breakfast Theology to a group of local pastors in London, Ontario.