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June 29, 2009

In his earlier writings, St. Paul occasionally states that his oratory is not persuasive on its own. In the three pastoral letters - 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus - Paul is probably at his least convincing.

These are written as personal letters to Timothy and Titus - although at times Paul does seem to be writing past his friends to a larger audience - and so it is probably better to see them as advice rather than persuasion.

Nevertheless, the apostle's moralizing and especially his frequent reproofs to women in the congregation do grate upon many modern ears.

Further, while Paul himself was a dynamic, world-changing leader, the qualifications he sets down for leaders in the Christian community would seem to be calling forth the stolid, but unexceptional members.

If these letters were read in their entirety to the Christian community today, one would guess that they would be greeted with rolled eyes and crossed arms rather than cheers and applause.

Despite all that, there is much of value in the Pastorals. These letters, like most of the others, were likely written in response to local problems and concerns. It would be rash to universalize every piece of advice that Paul hands out. The Church, for example, has disregarded without compunction his call for bishops to have one wife.

The issue for us today in reading these letters is to get beneath the moralizing and find the enduring truth.

A strong theme one finds, especially in Titus and 1 Timothy, is the linking of morally good behaviour with knowledge of the truth. Today, we often emphasize practice of the faith over knowledge of the faith. But Paul believes that unless you have the right beliefs, you won't perform the right actions.

This theme is present in Paul's earlier letters, but is pressed with particular force in the Pastorals.


Why? It would seem that the community entrusted to Timothy was suffering from "the hypocrisy of liars" who preach celibacy combined with abstaining from eating certain foods.

It seems that these "liars" saw little that was good in the world. Not only did they seem to advocate withdrawal from participation in the world, they also saw no inconsistency between immoral behaviour and personal salvation.

Paul would have none of it: "Everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4.4).

In this letter, Paul repeatedly points to the perils of pursuing wealth - "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (6.10) - and this perhaps is why he advises women that they "should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls or expensive clothes" (2.9-10).

He chastises the false teachers because "They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions" (Titus 1.16). Knowing and believing sound doctrine not only leads one to truth, it leads one to live a morally sound life. Further, a well-lived life bears witness to the truth of the Gospel.

If you want to live a good life, you must hold firm to "the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3.15).

Those who preach false doctrines turn out to be "lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive," etc. Their chief sin is that of "holding the form of religion, but denying the power of it" (2 Timothy 3.2-5).

The Holy Spirit is little mentioned in the Pastorals, but there is no doubt that the Spirit is the dynamic force behind the godliness that Paul so praises in these letters.


There is a widespread conviction among scholars that Paul did not write the Pastorals, that they were written by followers of his after his death.

This issue need not detain us - these letters have been accepted by the Church as the inspired word of God.

We might, in any case, see the Pastorals as the encouragement of an elderly Paul, who has finished his evangelizing and most dynamic writing, and now wants to see the flourishing of Christian communities rooted in truth and morality.